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William S. Burroughs and Scientology: Setting the Record Straight

BurroughsWillsCoverWe recently reached out to David Wills, author of a book on William S. Burroughs titled Scientologist!, telling him that we hadn’t noticed when it first hit bookshelves earlier this year, but it sounded like the kind of thing our readers might find fascinating.

He said he was interested in what we thought of the book, and after we read it, we had a conversation, which we’ve included below.

In Scientologist!, Wills is very clear about his mission. Burroughs (1914-1997) is best known for his involvement in Scientology because of his denunciation of it in the early 1970s. By then, he was fed up with L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology’s layers of control. But Wills says that although Burroughs’ disaffection with Scientology is well known, there’s been a real misunderstanding of just how deeply into Hubbard’s ideas Burroughs had become, and how much it was reflected in some of his best-known work.

In order to set that record straight, Wills goes back to the beginning, telling the story of Burroughs’ life with a quick pace and what appears to be a deep understanding of the subject. We really appreciated Wills’ combination of biographical detail and literary commentary.

Wills shows that even before Burroughs encountered Scientology for the first time in 1959, he was a person with a weakness for pseudoscience. From Reich to Castaneda to, of course, Hubbard, Burroughs was susceptible to fantastic claims that explained the world and his troubles in it — even as he called himself a skeptic.

Burroughs was introduced to Scientology by a friend in Paris. And for longer than most of his biographers have previously admitted (or even understood), Burroughs was deeply into Scientology, repeatedly writing to Allen Ginsberg, for example, that he ought to get auditing. Wills shows that Burroughs was not only convinced of the existence of engrams (Hubbard’s concept of stored, traumatic memories), but that they could be removed through auditing — and that notion influenced his writing for many years. Previous biographers and literary critics, Wills points out, have simply ignored how much Scientology meant to Burroughs in the 1960s, and how many allusions there are to Hubbard’s ideas in his books.

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Wills pulled together impressive research to explain Scientology in the 1960s as Burroughs experienced it, including stints at Saint Hill Manor in England — both as a student and then later for an expose. That research showed that Burroughs went through several cycles of interest in the subject. He would express frustration about Scientology to friends, only to later indicate that he was fully engaged in courses. But over time, as he continued to find the ideas behind auditing intriguing, he soured on Scientology’s totalitarian controls, and on Hubbard in particular.

Some of our more experienced fellow Scientology watchers may already be familiar with the harsh denunciations of Scientology that Burroughs wrote in several publications and which were later collected in the book Ali’s Smile: Naked Scientology. But Wills tells us in his book that the best take-down of Scientology Burroughs ever wrote has never been published…

This essay is Burroughs at his absolute best, using his more obscure literary weapons sparingly and for the purpose of mockery, whilst setting his mind to the task of destroying Hubbard’s credibility. It is this sort of brilliance that makes Burroughs’ involvement with Scientology so hard for people to believe. If he was capable of pulling apart the lunacy around the religion, of finding the flaws in Hubbard’s language, and the fundamental gaps in logic in his doctrines, then why was he so enamored for so long? For almost a decade he was taken in by Scientology, and although he had doubts from time to time, they seemed to disappear the more he read. What people forget, though, is that Burroughs was a perfect target for people like the Scientologists. He was broken and hurt, confused and seeking something to fix himself. In Scientology, he found hope. No matter how brilliant his mind, he was blinded to its flaws because of need. He never fully gave up on some of the ideas, but once Burroughs began to see Scientology for what it was, it all started to fall apart. He was no longer blinded, and he realized it was just another system of control.

We found Scientologist! to be an engrossing read. Curious about its reception and about his experience doing his research, we sent some questions to Wills.

THE BUNKER: First, what have you heard from the Burroughs scholarship community? From the way you describe things, we got the sense that it’s a small but tightly-knit group that pores over every scrap of Burroughs news. We would think a group like that might be resistant to your book at the same time they ought to be very excited by it. How has it worked out?

DAVID WILLS: They’ve been very supportive. My intention with the book wasn’t to say, “They got it wrong,” but rather to add that new dimension. They all contributed massively, and this is just another new area of study. I was inspired by The Lost Years of William S. Burroughs by Robert Johnson, which showed me that these really great biographies had sort of skimmed over important areas in his life.

As for the community — the people on RealityStudio and Facebook, running blogs and so forth — they have all been tremendously supportive. I’ve spoken with a lot of Burroughs fans who enjoyed the book, despite their huge surprise at the findings.

THE BUNKER: You gave us the impression that you thought some scholars might resist looking into Burroughs’ Scientology involvement because it might, somehow, diminish their opinion of his work. But you make it pretty clear that Burroughs’ credulity for pseudoscience was just a very characteristic part of him, and a part of his writing. You seemed to have as much respect for his art even after learning about his years as a Scientologist.

DAVID: Yes, it wasn’t an issue for me. I think Burroughs was so fascinating precisely because he looked into those wild and far-out areas in search of answers, and at the very least he ended up with art. As L. Ron Hubbard said, “The world needs their William Burroughses.” For me Scientology is the same as magic, orgone therapy, alien mind control, and for that matter any other religion or set of beliefs. I think that ultimately he “fell for” Scientology because of a great deal of internal pain, which made him unusually susceptible to bullshit, and so it would be unfair to dismiss his work in any way.

THE BUNKER: How much did you know about Scientology when you began this project? What was the learning curve like?

DAVID: Honestly, like most people I didn’t know a damn thing. I might have thought I did, having seen the South Park episode and other references in popular media, but that doesn’t teach you a thing. I don’t believe in Scientology in any sense, but I was interested to learn about it. Religions have always been interesting to me, as an atheist, in the same way you might be interested in the mythology behind, say, Lord of the Rings.

The learning curve, naturally, was very steep. I just jumped right in and tried not to get too badly lost. I tried to read Hubbard’s books in the same order that Burroughs had read them — as far as I could tell — and tried to avoid books about Scientology until later in the project. I really wanted to be honest and to actually relate this purely to Burroughs, rather than attack or describe the Church. I mean, it had to be pretty specific to his experiences. Overall, though, I was amazed by how helpful and open Scientologists and ex-Scientologists were. People were pretty eager to explain the religion and even talk about “the old days.”

(As a side note, I’m pretty ignorant about Scientology today. My research focused entirely on early Church activity and sort of peters off in the seventies.)

THE BUNKER: If the scholarship before your book tended to ignore Burroughs’ involvement in Scientology, what would you say was the biggest misunderstanding that caused for critics?

DAVID: I’m wary of overstating the importance of Scientology in his work because it seems self-serving as the author of the book about it…but I truly do think it is important. Burroughs seemed initially to view the Cut-up Method as inspired by Scientology, and based some of his most important books around it. Of course, Junky and Naked Lunch came out before he’d even heard the word “dianetics” but his work from the sixties and early seventies — including some of his most important texts — is absolutely inspired by Scientology in terms of style and plot. So when scholars approach these books, they are missing some really important elements unless they are previously aware of his experiences in the Church. I never really understood The Soft Machine until I’d read Dianetics, and I don’t think anyone else can.

Additionally, scholarship tends to be a house of cards. You have the first biographies and then later works, and ultimately the most recent books are predicated upon the reliability of the earlier ones. Ted Morgan wrote an amazing book about Burroughs, and Barry Miles followed up with another good one, but both totally missed the Scientology angle, and so they have sent subsequent scholars in the wrong direction. The sixties were important for Burroughs and yet I strongly feel that this period in his life is misunderstood because of this lack of awareness of just how important Scientology was for him between 1959 and 1969.

THE BUNKER: Well, you’ve certainly provided a road map for future scholars, and they’d be fools to ignore it. Thanks for talking to us about your book, David.

 
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Posted by Tony Ortega on October 8, 2013 at 07:00

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