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Jon Atack: Escaping the trap Scientology sets for the mind

Jon_AtackJon Atack is the author of A Piece of Blue Sky, one of the very best books on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. He has a new edition of the book for sale, and for more than a year on Saturdays he helped us sift through the legends, myths, and contested facts about Scientology that tend to get hashed and rehashed in books, articles, and especially on the Internet. He was kind enough to send us a new post.

Jon, over the past couple of years, you’ve written for us about the struggle Scientologists go through to escape the kind of thinking that comes with deep involvement in the writings of L. Ron Hubbard. But this time you’ve really outdone yourself. We’re looking forward to responses from our readers on this one. Take it away, Jon, and help us pierce Scientology’s veil.

JON: After a tragic love affair, many people close down emotionally. They avoid involvement for fear of suffering those overwhelming emotions again. It happened to me, when I was nineteen, and I ended up in Scientology with the determination to achieve an emotional equanimity so complete that nothing would ever pitch me down into the darkness again. It didn’t work. I still have the full complement of emotions, despite my best efforts and Ron Hubbard’s worst. And I am so grateful!

It took me nine years of involvement to understand that Scientology does not bring about emotional equanimity. I didn’t achieve it, despite five OT levels, the Data Series Evaluator’s course, and a bunch of auditor training courses. Scientology substitutes exactly that emotional shut down experienced by spurned lovers.

One friend told me that after a session of TR-0 bullbait, he was delighted to find that his anxiety had vanished. Soon afterwards, he realized that he simply wasn’t responding emotionally at all, and, whatever he tried, his normal emotional responses were no longer available to him. Almost forty years had passed, when he shared this experience with me, so he had spent most of his adult life in a remote state, unable to fully join in the world of emotion, because of the continuing influence of this powerful and undermining technique. This was made the more painful, because he is a compassionate and considerate man. And without feeling, what meaning does the world have?

Another dear friend told me that after growing up in Scientology and spending five years in the Sea Org, she was not really sure if she had ever felt love. As an infant, if she was hurt, her Scientologist mother would react with silence and “no sympathy.” The normal compassion of a parent had been drilled out, so the normal way for a child to learn compassion — concern and care for those who have been hurt — was no part of my friend’s life. When a close friend died, she felt blank. Another ex-OT told me that he had not a single tear when his beloved mother died. She had “dropped the body.”


I recently read Viktor Frankl’s The Doctor and the Soul. Frankl survived both Dachau and Auschwitz and managed to make something thoroughly positive of these utterly negative experiences. He has this to say of the numbness that overwhelms those who have no control over their lives, and it is similar to the emotional dissociation that I have encountered in some former Sea Org members. After the initial reaction that life is no longer worth living, Frankl observes: “After some weeks or days this stage is usually succeeded by the second phase, a profound apathy. This apathy is a kind of self-defense mechanism of the psyche. Everything that formerly excited or embittered the inmate, that aroused his indignation or drove him to despair, everything he is forced to watch or to take part in, now rebounds from a kind of armor he has put on. What has taken place is psychic adjustment to the strange environment; the events in the environment reach the consciousness only in blurred form. Affective life is tuned down to a lower level….Interests are restricted to the most immediate, most urgent needs. All thinking seems to be concentrated upon a single point: to survive the particular day.”

I’d be grateful if former Sea Org members in particular would reflect on their own experience in the comments section below. I’m still learning about the recovery process as it applies to others, thirty years after my own departure from the cult.

Scientology induces emotional dissociation. While the world at large searches for answers to autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and sociopathy, Scientology actively generates symptoms comparable to these debilitating and dangerous conditions. Autists do not resonate to the emotions in the world around them. They find it extremely difficult to decipher a smile, a sneer, a frown or even terror. Some Scientologists, and especially second generation members, also find it hard to interpret emotions, perhaps because of the blank face TR-0 that masks emotional expression in the majority of Scientologists, or the deliberate emotional pretense taught by Scientology.

Sociopaths have failed to develop empathy. Dr Harold Shipman — who killed upwards of 500 of his patients, in the north of England — complained that he had been misunderstood and that he had only ever helped his victims. At the far end of the crazy spectrum, followers of Aum Shinrikyo set out to kill the whole population of Japan, so that they could all be reborn karmically clean. They had amassed enough sarin gas to kill millions, when their failed attempt to murder everyone in the Tokyo underground was foiled.

Hubbard took the label “anti-social personality” from psychiatry. Particularly, he took it from Hervey Cleckley, whose Mask of Sanity was a best seller in the 1950s. I was delighted when Richard de Mille — who ghosted Science of Survival and How to Live Though an Executive for Hubbard — wrote to congratulate me on Let’s sell these people A Piece of Blue Sky and pointed out how right I was to identify Hubbard as the true and only Suppressive Person. He fit all of the characteristics. Including his frequent “broad generalities” about psychiatrists (like Cleckley) from whom he had taken so many of his ideas. In psychiatric terms, “anti-social personality disorder” is synonymous with “sociopathy.” So when thetanists talk about “SPs” they are actually accusing their critics of being sociopaths.

Hubbard was the archetypal SP. He lived in opulent luxury, while keeping his Sea Org in abject poverty. During the making of the “Tech” films, he decided that the crew were spending too much money, so he cut any allowance for toilet paper. Crew stole directories from public phone booths. Hubbard could never be accused of being compassionate. He dined on foie gras while the crew ate rice and beans. Surely, some part of the $648 million that he left in his will could have gone towards raising the Sea Org out of poverty? It seems that Hubbard had a very low affinity for his own followers, despite the torrent of communication that he poured forth to them.

In his ground-breaking study, Flavil Yeakley found that members of destructive cult groups “clone” the characteristics of their particular leader, creating a dissociative identity. Members of Christian congregations evidence all sixteen personality types set out by Myers and Briggs, but members of any of the three cult groups he surveyed tend towards a single personality type — each unique to its group. Scientology “indoctrination” and “processing” (to use Hubbard’s accurate terms) lead to no sympathy — a lack of compassion — and self-obsession. The cloning tends towards the personality of the leader, so Scientologists show the harmful characteristics displayed on a regular basis by the Founder.

I know of a case where a senior Scientologist abandoned his two infant children — who grew up in abject poverty — to dedicate himself to Scientology. He made a fortune, but did not give a penny to the support of those children. This echoes Hubbard’s own behavior — he stopped paying toward his first two children before they reached the age of ten. He remarried, without first divorcing the abandoned mother of those children, and then abandoned his second wife and their child. Hubbard also alienated his oldest son, L. Ron Jr., or “Nibs,” and another son, Quentin, committed suicide, despite being one of only 24 people who had completed the highest level of Scientology training, the Class XII course. So much for his expertise on the “second dynamic.”

If Hubbard had any shred of conscience, he managed to audit it off, and that is an essential aspect of Scientology. With auditing, it is possible to deny responsibility. One chap boasted to me that with Scientology, he could do whatever he liked and then pay for a “confessional” to relieve himself of any guilt. “Making amends” is considered a “low” emotional tone by Hubbard. Apology is not recommended, let alone any reparation for harm done.

Where true religion seeks to reconcile and offers compassion, Scientology thrives on hatred and enmity (see my Scientology: the Church of Hate, for much more detail).

Hubbard protested persecution on a regular basis. According to him it is the World Bank conspiracy, the Tenyaka Memorial conspiracy, the psychiatric conspiracy, the media conspiracy or whoever he suspected that particular week. And Scientology never takes responsibility for its part, simply and repeatedly saying that those who committed the offenses have been disciplined. They follow the John Wayne dictum, “Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.” True religious sentiment does not allow for enemies, but has compassion for all.

Worst of all, the very “processes” that are supposed to lead to the grand state of “operating thetan” actually reduce compassion and heighten the narcissistic self regard that characterises the sociopathic disorder. Non-members are contemptuously referred to, by Hubbard, as “raw meat, dead in the head wogs.” We are the living dead — zombies — as he pointed out in his ideas about “chronic emotional tone” — all of us “below death” on his emotional tone scale. “Wogs,” because we are “below death,” should not be allowed to vote or have any say in affairs of state. This makes an elite of Scientologists, inducing narcissism, as such self-preening always will.

TRs are the royal road to emotional dissociation. The “upper indoctrination” TRs came about when a class of students were too rowdy for Hubbard. He directed his oldest son, L. Ron Jr., to devise techniques to bring them under control. So, shouting at ashtrays — surely a “confusion” technique, in the terms of hypnosis — and the repetitive behavior of “8-C” (total control) — another trance-inducing technique — were introduced, to the detriment of all who were subjected to them.

Perhaps the most invidious techniques surround the tone scale. Scientologists are taught to mimic different emotional states. With enough drilling, it becomes difficult to know which of your own emotions are real and which are false. Actors frequently speak of the difficulty they have in finding their “real” selves, underneath all of the pretense. Further, once the pretense of emotion has been mastered, the Scientologist will manipulate others, without a moment’s ethical reflection. I was not concerned about bringing people “up tone,” but I balked when asked to bring them down (for instance, in recruiting, the mark is reduced emotionally to find the “ruin” — their greatest difficulty — and then brought down with “fear of worsening”).

Tone scale drilling could be seen in the light of cognitive behavioral therapy, where new behaviors are entrained by repetition. But tone scale drilling induces emotional dissociation. Worse yet, once this dissociation has been induced, the victim will usually lose awareness of the alteration in their behavior. As with the bullbaited friend I mention above, they may even be pleased that certain emotional reactions have been stilled.

In a short order of time, Scientologists are divided from their own emotions. In An Open Letter to Clears, Hubbard blithely explains that “Clears” must pretend to be perfect, in case lesser beings are put off Scientology by more honest behavior on their part (“your first duty is to protect the repute of the state of Clear by exemplary conduct”). While pretending to the world that everything is fantastic, Scientologists are actually forbidden any discussion of their personal problems, save in return for cash to the appropriate representative of the Org. This is the prohibition not to talk about your “case.” Along with the prohibition on discussion of Scientology — “verbal tech” — one of many restrictions upon communication ordered by the man who said, “More communication not less is the answer.”

I interviewed a victim of “overboarding” twice. The first time, he shrugged it off, as if it were playful college hazing. When I asked him again, a few weeks later, his guard was down. He was a bluff businessman, always smiling, always figuring the main chance. This time, my question pierced a lifetime of Scientology armor, his head fell forward, a tear came to his eye, and he admitted, “It was terrifying.” Auditor 41 had photographs of “overboarding”. The photos are credited to “L. Ron Hubbard.”

The after effects of emotional dissociation are very often severe. Here is what my late friend Robert Vaughn Young told Conway and Siegelman, as reported in the second edition of their book Snapping: “In Scientology you have what we called ‘somatic shut off.’ A somatic shutoff is basically where you stop feeling. Your emotions are being subverted but you think they’re coming out. In fact, you think it’s wonderful. It wasn’t until I left the group that I realized what had happened, and then I began to tap into my emotions for real. I found myself almost like a small child. I would feel something and say ‘What is this emotion?’ and then I would just break down. It was like suddenly there were all these raw areas of my life, things that had been bandaged up, hidden away, renamed, and I didn’t know what to do with them. It was like opening a time capsule and all these emotions from twenty years before came flooding to the surface.”

I had the privilege to know Vaughn and to take some part in his return to genuine feeling. Scientologists resemble other victims of abuse, who have been so humiliated and reduced that they create a hidden inner state, a panic room, where they can keep away from any feeling. It has long been known that many abusers were themselves victims of abuse, and in some cases, that secret place is where they formulated their entirely irrational revenge. Elliot Rodger, who ran amok in Santa Barbara, killing six people, exemplifies such behaviour. He felt rejected by girls, so he took revenge. Evidently, he was severely dissociated emotionally. This is the worst case scenario, for those who have been separated from their feelings, but many former Scientologists struggle with depression, chronic fatigue, and uncontrollable rage, because the normal emotional channels have been closed for them. The belief that all of our experience derives from our wishes (or “postulates”) induces guilt and a sense of failure and hides the origin of the upset: Scientology indoctrination and processing, and the humiliation of the staff experience.

Once you have understood that in different moods we experience different parts of our own rich and complex identities, it becomes possible to weed out some of the implanted notions that force inappropriate emotions in former thetanists. Hubbard knew well enough that the “stimulus-response” mind is hypnotic, and he knew how to pack it full of command suggestions (did you ever wonder why auditing has “commands,” and not “questions”?). He also knew that by pushing people into the remembrance of trauma, he could inject suggestions. When recollecting upsetting events, we are more susceptible to suggestion. It is not the content of an engram that directs people, hypnotically, but the content of Hubbard’s own teaching. As he said, “The only way a mind can be controlled is by enforcing upon it ignorance of itself” (Dianetics 55!), and Scientology does precisely that. Most especially by making its adherents almost incapable of understanding the simple, euphoria-inducing techniques so explicitly employed by Hubbard (for “euphoria” read “very good indicators”) and making them phobic of any other understanding of the mind.

In Scientology: A New Slant on Life, Hubbard wrote: “In what can a person become entrapped? Basically and foremost, he can become entrapped in ideas.” A couple of pages later, he adds, “Fixation occurs in the presence of one-way communication.” Scientology is a system of one-way communication, from Hubbard, who denies the ability of anyone to ever contribute to his “technology,” to the entrapped Scientologist, who becomes trapped in the ideas. The simple test of this is to write down a list of your disagreements with Hubbard. If you don’t have any, then you have been successfully cloned!

Vaughn offers hope. He learned to feel again. My friend whose emotions were subverted by TR-0 bullbait reports that he is recovering. The friend who was unsure if she knew how to love, accepted my idea that her feelings for her niece and nephew are definitely love. It can take a lot of grief — which is not a “misemotion” but a proper way to release feelings that in Scientology are dangerously repressed. Rather than papering over our emotions, it is necessary to find proper ways to express them. Grief is a way of digesting experience. It is not negative or reprehensible to care!

Even after decades of “no sympathy,” it is possible to feel compassion, again. Redemption is always a possibility. Even after OT VIII.


Posted by Tony Ortega on August 9, 2014 at 07:00

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Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS (We read Scientology’s founding text) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25

UP THE BRIDGE (Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47

GETTING OUR ETHICS IN (Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING (Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43

PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer


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