What’s the poop on this Dianetics stuff? Is it a religion, a life-view, or another P.T. Barnum scam? L. Ron Hubbard’s ads make it sound like the best thing for humanity since cable TV. However, all these years of reading your column have made us skeptical. Is it worth wasting our time and money on this stuff, or is it just more garbage from money-grubbing con artists?

–Rob and Junior, Los Angeles

Let’s put it this way: Cecil wouldn’t waste his time and money. But what the hell, some people happily pay to get beaten with canes. Maybe you’d get a kick out of Dianetics, more commonly known in its religious incarnation, Scientology. The teachings of the late L. Ron Hubbard (he died in 1986) have been described as “the poor man’s psychoanalysis,” which I take to mean that if you’re not poor when you start, you will be by the time you’re done. It takes thousands of dollars’ worth of training sessions to achieve “clear,” the Scientological equivalent of enlightenment, and there have been repeated claims that the whole thing is a just a hugely profitable scam. At its peak the cult was reportedly taking in $100 million a year, and in 1986 it was said to have assets of $280 million. L. Ron himself told a meeting of authors in 1949, “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”

Nonetheless, the evidence suggests Hubbard was sincere in his beliefs, at least at the outset. Originally a writer of hack science fiction, in 1950 he published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. The book argued that the brain was analogous to a computer with two independent memory banks, the Analytical (conscious) Mind and the Reactive (subconscious) Mind. The latter is full of “engrams” (traumatic memories), which interfere with the operation of the Analytical Mind and cause personality problems and ailments such as asthma and arthritis. During “auditing” (therapy), the “pre-clear” (patient) can “run” (relive) and thus conquer the traumatic experiences. Once “clear,” the patient would have super powers: total recall, high IQ, perfect health, and for all I know X-ray vision. Except for the inflated payoff, the parallels to Freudian analysis are obvious, including the high hourly fees you later had to pay to learn this stuff at Scientology centers.

Dianetics inspired a brief vogue for kitchen-table auditing. But the medical establishment condemned it and many early enthusiasts became disillusioned when they didn’t get results. Undiscouraged, Hubbard repackaged Dianetics a few years later as a religion called Scientology, throwing in some new elements of Eastern mysticism. He now argued that we are all “thetans,” or immortal spirits. Through auditing we can explore previous lives (74 trillion years’ worth), free our inner being, and gain control over the material world. A key element in this is the “E-meter,” a biofeedback device consisting of a galvanometer, some wires, and two soup cans.

By establishing a religion Hubbard was able to set himself up as a font of revelation rather than a scientist and thus control the movement. He also hoped to deflect outside criticism and indeed might have succeeded in doing so had it not been for his own implacable paranoia. He established thought police, conducted purges, and declared his critics “fair game,” who “may be deprived of property or injured [or] tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.” As a result of such threats, Scientology has been frequently investigated and sometimes banned in different countries. The FDA even tried (in vain) to ban the E-meter, claiming it was a quack medical device. Ron’s attempts to fight back made things worse. In 1979, for example, his wife and ten other Scientologists were convicted of burglarizing and wiretapping government offices.

In 1984 several former Scientology officials claimed Hubbard told them to divert $100 million of church funds into foreign bank accounts. The church denied any wrongdoing, but you see the pattern. Whatever may be said for Scientology as a philosophy (and there are those who say it has helped them), its record as an organization is one of unmitigated sleaze. Get mixed up with these guys at your peril.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.