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medium_burroughsemeterbetterIn January, 1968, William S. Burroughs, the notorious author of Naked Lunch, enrolled in the Hubbard Trained Scientologist Course at Saint Hill Manor, in East Grinstead. That year, the brochure fawned over the building’s impressive setting and history. It is written with Hubbard’s unmistakably trite and self-aggrandizing phrasing, not to mention his fondness for the word “free” and its derivatives:

 

“Throughout the history of Man, one reads of Man’s continual efforts to free himself from bondage, slavery and ignorance… Scientology has found the answers and the Road to Total Freedom.”

 

He goes on to mention England’s clichéd “green fields” and “rolling hills,” and is audacious enough to suggest a warm and sunny climate, thanks to the “Gulf stream [blowing] across the Atlantic from the Caribbean.” He talks about the county’s “10,000 years” of history with “many major events.” However,

 

“These events don’t compare, in any way, to the current historic events or the contribution being made to mankind at Saint Hill now… The ultimate developments of Scientology by L. Ron Hubbard at Saint Hill is an achievement without equal in the annals of history, and is indeed history in the making.”

 

The brochure is illustrated with photos of young men and women (mostly women) in ridiculous poses, smiling and laughing, reminiscent of boxes from old board games. Again, Hubbard’s overblown language comes clearly across in the captions: “laugh gorgeously,” “graceful,” “serene,” and “delightful.” Finally, the brochure concludes by claiming: “Saint Hill is a shining beacon for all to reach for in a world that is dark through ignorance and misery.”

Saint Hill was built in 1792 and purchased by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology, in 1959, as a headquarters for his controversial organization. 1959, coincidently, was the year that Burroughs first encountered Hubbard’s dianetic theory. As with many of his famous obsessions, his interest was spurred by the painter, Brion Gysin, at the Beat Hotel in Paris. Gysin had first learned about Scientology from John Cooke, the man who convinced Hubbard to make the leap from self-help pseudo-science to tax-free religion, and was reputedly the Church’s first “clear.”[1]

Although books about Burroughs suggest that his 1968 enrollment was his first dabbling with Scientology, Burroughs had been a student of the religion for roughly eight years. During that time, he had visited various Scientology centers, read a tremendous amount of their literature, experimented with the auditing process, and had taken the religion and its teachings as inspiration for the plot and narrative of some of his most famous novels. Hubbard’s teachings also informed the creation of the Cut-up Method and Burroughs’ developing view of language as a virus, two of his most significant contributions to literature and culture.Burroughs and Balch Explore Saint Hill - photo by Graham Masterton (used with permission)

By late 1967, however, he had soured somewhat on the religion, and began to view Hubbard and his Church as a money-making cult. He began to plot an expose, and approached his friend, Graham Masterton, then editor of British nudie mag, Mayfair, about publication. In October, Masterton drove Burroughs and the filmmaker, Anthony Balch, to Saint Hill, for an undercover reconnaissance mission. But instead of slipping in under fake names, they were warmly welcomed, and Burroughs soon found himself signed up for yet another Scientology course.

After writing yet another pro-Scientology article for his confused fans (not to mention the men who’d purchased Mayfair for its more obvious attractions), Burroughs signed up for the Hubbard Trained Scientology Course in January, 1968. On his first day, he was subjected to an intense session on the E-Meter, an electrical device that Hubbard denied was just a lie-detector. Although by this stage he was no stranger to the auditing process, the auditor guided him to focus on a memory of a lover who had been killed, and Burroughs blacked out from the intensity of the image. In Hubbard’s dianetic theory, the E-Meter is used to guide an auditor to engrams, which are negative memories implanted during a time of unconsciousness. Unlike other forms of therapy, Scientology auditing seeks only to acknowledge and repeatedly identify these memories, and does not encourage exploring them. During subsequent sessions, Burroughs was baffled by the uncovered engrams, which were often words and phrases from his own work or novels that he read. The word “emerald” repeatedly produced a reaction on the E-Meter, but he never understood why. The auditor suggested it might signal a connection to “suppressive persons.”

As a result of this suggestion, Burroughs was subjected to his first round of S&D – “search and discovery.” During this process, the preclear, who is the person receiving auditing, must simply list words until the E-Meter reacts. This was the first of many encounters with the more invasive and threatening side of Scientology, but Burroughs was still content at this point, and wrote yet another essay for Mayfair, extolling the virtues of auditing. Indeed, in his essay, which sounds rather more like an advertorial, he lists dates and prices, and suggests his readers get themselves to the nearest Scientology center.

From the Hubbard Trained Scientologist Course in January, Burroughs quickly moved on to Auditing to Grade IV Release, Power Processing, and the Solo Audit Course. In all, the courses were intensive and lasted up to eight hours a day, five days a week, and went on for several months. The Solo Audit Course alone took two months of intensive study to complete, and required listening to sixty hours of Hubbard speaking on tape. During this time he lived in a shared house with six or seven other Scientologists, returning to his own apartment only on weekends. His friends at this point were utterly repulsed, convinced that he was wasting his intellect on what they viewed as a cult, and were tired of being forcibly subjected to his auditing.

Although his letters from the time suggest that Burroughs remained absolutely enthusiastic about the Church, he would later write of a disturbing militarism in the organization, and documented an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. He recalled driving along country roads at top speed with a group of young women who viewed Hubbard “like young nuns dreaming of Christ,” desperate to get to Saint Hill on time, because punishments were so strict. If they were late, they had to wear a grey rag tied around their arm, signifying that they were in a Condition of Liability. As if this wasn’t embarrassing enough, they were forbidden from eating lunch, as well as from shaving or washing, during this period of punishment, and to end it they were required to collect signatures to a petition in order to absolve them of their sin.

Despite his years of studying, Burroughs recalled being constantly in fear of failing the E-Meter. He said that “fear stirs in my stomach” whenever he thought of the device. He described his “twin” – the person primarily responsible for auditing him – as “a nice middle-aged woman from California, I would judge she’s buried three husbands $250,000 a coffin.” The supervisors could be particularly harsh, and reduced some of the women to tears. To Burroughs they’d say, “You’re in a condition of danger.” Telling the story years later, Burroughs liked to present the people around him as military types, barking orders, marching preclears about the building, and making them line up.

Indeed, Burroughs was coming to the attention of the authorities. Although his opinions regarding the genius of Hubbard’s ideas were unchanged, his attitude towards being controlled was predictable. He had never been good at obeying rules or doing what he was told, and whilst at Saint Hill he did admirably in fighting his urges to rebel. But he was still subjected to the dreaded Sec[urity] Check – a formidable list of questions designed to weed out potentially disruptive students. He claimed that so many students were being dragged into Sec Checks that he was required to perform his in a broom closet with “some grim old biddy.” The first question was: “Do you feel that St. Hill is a safe environment?” Burroughs claims to have replied: “It’s so safe its overwhelming gee I never felt like this before you know what I mean like belonging to something big,” whilst later adding, “All this time I felt my self respect slipping away from me and finally complete gone as it were officially removed.”[2] All this was recorded on the E-meter, which is basically a lie detector, and other questions included: “Are you here for any other reason than you say you are?” “Do you have any doubts about Scientology?” and “Do you harbor any unkind thoughts about L. Ron Hubbard?”

This last question posed a problem for Burroughs, who was quickly becoming sickened of the cult of personality around Hubbard, but he supposedly managed to fire off a quick reply that satisfied his interrogators: “Well, I just can’t help being jealous of someone who is so perfect.” In a remarkably short time he had grown to hate the man’s “big fat face,” and although he still respected his ideas, he went home to his apartment at the weekend and fired his air gun at photos of Hubbard he stuck on his wall in a crude attempt at a curse. One time the hammer of his gun snapped back and very nearly broke his thumb, and Burroughs felt that that Hubbard had somehow managed to return the curse.

In May Burroughs was asked to take the Joberg – a list of 104 questions “about every criminal activity you could conceive of” – which was of course carried out at his own expense. He claimed that it was because he “rockslammed” a question during a Sec Check – “What would have to happen before Scientology worked on everybody?” The Joberg list of questions included some weird, depraved crimes against laws and morality, including having sex with your own mother, as well as taking drugs, running a baby farm, or hiding a corpse. This was all recorded on the E-Meter and to pass required a flat reading for every single question. When asked, “Have you ever concealed a body?” Burroughs’ answer gave a positive read, and he explained, “I think it’s Whole Track,” referring to past lives. He had a vision of himself in ancient Egypt, and when the question was rephrased to extend only to “this life,” Burroughs said “no” and there was a flat reading. When they asked him if he’d ever forged anything, he said “no” again, having legitimately forgotten about his days forging prescriptions. The E-meter had actually remembered something that he had forgotten, and even in his hatred of the process, he was impressed.

During break time, other Scientologists would try to get the truth from him outside the test room, and Burroughs was disgusted by the attitude of these people, willing to turn stool pigeon in order to advance. They would ask him things like, “What do you think of Ron’s new directives?” and he’d reply, “Oh, I’m sure Ron knows what he’s doing,” and laugh. Later he would descend into routines that had Hubbard being turned in by over-zealous followers and subjected to the test. He even joked that the vending machine could be placed in a condition of “Non-Existence for refusing to work.”[3]

Burroughs reading DianeticsOn May 30th, the Church of Scientology opened a new center in Edinburgh, called Advanced Org, and Burroughs signed up for its Clearing Course. Despite having cleared the Joberg, he was required to take yet another Sec Check before progressing further, and this time he was asked about possible affiliations with the Communist Party, and eventually he admitted that he had attempted a curse against Hubbard. Amazingly, he passed and was admitted onto his final course. He was one of the first students enrolled on the course, and tested clear on June 15th, after eighty hours of auditing. “Quite spectacular results,” he wrote Gysin. He was declared Clear #1163, and had passed through the various levels of Scientology in remarkable time. In their magazine, Advance, his achievement was celebrated by the Church of Scientology, and Burroughs was touted as an “Internationally famous American writer.” The article quotes him as saying, “It feels marvelous! Things you’ve had all your life, things you think nothing can be done about – suddenly they’re not there anymore!”

Although the article suggests Burroughs was intending to continue with his studies, progressing to the level of Operating Thetan, he instead dropped out and began what the Church calls a “squirrel” – one who practices Hubbard’s methods without official endorsement. Burroughs took a great deal of literature and used it to audit his friends and incorporate it into his work. He went on an auditing bender and continued to write about Scientology in a positive light. However, all this drew attention, and the following year he received a letter, placing him in a “Condition of Treason.” He had been officially excommunicated from the Church.

Amazingly, despite everything that he had seen at Saint Hill, and all the newspaper reports that he read and cut out about the dark side of Scientology, it was only after being kicked out that he began to turn his back. He continued to maintain that Hubbard’s ideas were important, and he continued to operate as a squirrel, but publically he began a war that raged across the pages of numerous publications until late 1972, drawing personal responses from high-ranking Church officials and eventually from L. Ron Hubbard, who gave his reply to Mayfair.

Burroughs remained interested in Scientology until his death in 1997. It dominated his life in the sixties, and informed the composition of some of his best and most famous novels, yet it remains oddly absent from books about his life and work. His pro-Scientology articles, of which there are many, are also conspicuously absent from his collections, and finding them requires finding copies of counterculture magazines from long ago. Yet it’s easy enough to find his short story, “Ali’s Smile” collected with essays and letters raging against the Church. Could it be that the man famous for his obsession with fringe science, unashamed to publically endorse orgone accumulators and wishing machines, was so embarrassed about his time as a Scientologist that he spent the rest of his life hiding it from the public?

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Scientologist! coverTo learn more about Burroughs’ near forty year interest in Scientology, pick up a copy of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’.


[1] “Clear” means being free from mental “aberrations” and is a state of being all Scientologists aim to achieve. Being the first is a claim made by and about many other people.

[2] This is nearly a quote from Celine – “All this time I felt my self-respect slipping away from me and finally completely gone. As it were, officially removed.”

[3] Non-Existence – Scientologists belief you can “unmock” things to stop them from existing.

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David S. Wills DAVID WILLS is the managing editor of Beatdom Magazine, and the author of The Dog Farm and Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult'. You can learn more about him on his website.

5 Responses to “William S. Burroughs: Scientologist”

  1. D.R. Haney says:

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond, David; I’ve been sick, and writing even a simple comment has been a test of my powers.

    The name of the E-Meter seems to anticipate the digital age, and that the word “emerald,” when spoken by Burroughs, would produce an E-Meter reaction is somehow eerie, like an obtuse message from the beyond, delivered by a medium during a seance. What do you mean by “emerald,” O spirit? But the spirit, without explanation, only repeats the word “emerald” again.

    I read somewhere that Lucille Ball would have anxiety attacks whenever she saw wallpaper that depicted birds. I was about to offer that as evidence of the oddness of the subconscious, per “emerald,” but I did a Google search which resulted in: “Lucille Ball…is so afraid of birds that she once had a $90 per roll wallpaper removed from her home when she discovered that the print contained shadowy images of small birds.” So her anxiety, apparently, didn’t have to do with wallpaper depicting birds but, rather, with birds, period, which isn’t so odd.

    I knew someone who was approached on the street by a Scientologist and invited to take a personality test, a frequent ploy, which my acquaintance aced, just as he aced subsequent E-Meter sessions. This all happened very quickly, and the Church offered him a paid position of some kind, but he declined. He never took Scientology seriously, and regarded his high scores on the various tests as a quirk, since he knew he wasn’t well adjusted; he was dealing with his father’s suicide at the time, and the last I heard, he was still fucked up over it. But the E-Meter doesn’t seem to have caught any of that. Big surprise, huh?

    Congrats on the publication of the book. I’ll buy a copy when my finances have improved. I recently busted, for the moment anyway, my minuscule book budget on research needed for a book of my own.

  2. You know what’s really creepy about the emerald thing, but which I left out of both this and the book? It’s that Burroughs learned about Scientology from Gysin, and Gysin from John Cooke, and the first thing that Cooke allegedly did after meeting Gysin was to give him a giant emerald. Now all this was wrapped in uncertainty because Burroughs never spoke of it and Gysin always exaggerated or fabricated… but supposedly during that meeting Burroughs was lingering in the corner of the restaurant, at that time not friends with Gysin and having no idea of the Cookes’ identities.

    Or maybe that’s not creepy. It immediately jumped out at me during my research but I didn’t want to sound like I was buying into anything related to Scientology, so I let it slide.

    Speaking of the personality test and approaching people on the street… One of my sources for this book, or at least for a few sentences in the middle, was a guy who’d been walking down the street in an English city when they approached him. The woman was persistent and kept pestering the guy, who was well aware of the Church’s negative attributes. But after she somehow got info from him and learned about his interest in Burroughs, she began sending him stuff that Burroughs had written for the Church – stuff that he never published elsewhere and which really showed how heavily he’d bought into certain elements of it.

    Anyway, I’m sorry to hear that you’re sick. Get better soon, man.

  3. Jim Vermin says:

    Fascinating article! I never knew about the Scientology connection. Wasn’t he also interested in in Reich’s Orgone Accumulator or whatever that device was called?

    • Yes, absolutely he was fascinated by the orgone accumulator. He kept one for many years. His interests larger informed each other, and so Reich and Hubbard sort of fused in his head after a while.

  4. Jamie Sherry says:

    “Hubbard’s teachings also informed the creation of the Cut-up Method and Burroughs’ developing view of language as a virus, two of his most significant contributions to literature and culture.”

    Are there sources for this?

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