The Weird Cult: How Scientology Shaped the Writing of William S. Burroughs
“Scientology was useful to me until it became a religion, and I have no use for religion. It’s just another one of those control-addict trips and we can all do without those.”
This essay would be a lot easier to write without using the word “Scientology”. The Church of Scientology has given itself such a bad name over recent decades that it has become almost a swearword, or perhaps the name of a cheesy soap opera. You can’t take it seriously, it seems, unless you have something terribly wrong in your head.
It’s hard for us today to separate the Church of Scientology from some of its ideas, or to look back and view it as it could have been viewed in the fifties and sixties, separated from lawsuits, spaceships and ‘Celebrity Centers’.
Yet once upon a time it didn’t look quite so crazy. Before it became such a joke, Scientology must have appealed to many free spirits in the Beat and Hippie realm. Some of the ideas posited by the movement’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, really didn’t seem so ludicrous then. Jim Morrison, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, and Tennessee Williams are all alleged to have dabbled in Scientology back in its early days.
It is unclear where and when exactly William S. Burroughs first came upon Scientology. Some sources claim that it happened in Tangier, at the 1001 Nights Restaurant, owned by Brion Gysin. The story goes that John and Mary Cooke – two oddly dressed, proto-hippy mystics who later came to be the main financial backers of the restaurant, and who were important figures in the founding of the Church of Scientology – came to snare Gysin for the fledgling religion, which Cooke reportedly described as “a billion buck scam”. They may have come on the advice on a Ouija board, or this may be mere conjecture. Gysin is said to have been skeptical of the movement from the get-go, but Burroughs – always infatuated by the weird and wonderful – dove head-first in. He supposedly described this meeting as “portentous”. He said the Cookes were “like holograms”.
However, although this story appears to be pretty widely accepted, it doesn’t seem to sit very well with other accounts. For one thing, Burroughs was living in Paris during most of 1959, at the Beat Hotel. For another, Gysin’s restaurant was shut down by the Cooke’s a year or more before, and Gysin was also living at the Beat Hotel during much of 1959. This would suggest that Gysin and Burroughs had met the Cookes much earlier – perhaps in 1956 or 1957 – however, in his October 1959 letters to Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs is excited about Scientology, suggesting that it was a relatively recent discovery.
One may well hypothesize that Burroughs learned about Scientology from Gysin, who learned about it from the Cookes (as the relationship between Gysin and the Cookes seems fairly well documented), and that Burroughs had seen or met them himself much earlier, thus explaining the “portentous holograms” quote.
Indeed, in the introduction to The Letters of William S. Burroughs Vol 1: 1945-1959, Oliver Harris states, “Burroughs’ letters show that Gysin was responsible not only for the aesthetic means of his new method [the cut-up technique] but also for its therapeutic ends. At its inceptions, the cut-up principle was directly related to L. Ron Hubbard’s ‘science of natural health’ known as Scientology.” So it seems that Harris also believed Burroughs had been introduced to Scientology by Gysin, who, on October 1st, 1959, told Burroughs about his first foray into cut-ups, which he had discovered by accidently slicing up sheets of newspaper.
It may seem odd to suggest that Scientology played a big role in the development of the cut-up technique, but the evidence certainly seems to point that way. For Burroughs, the cut-up technique and Scientology were not so far removed from one another. The Church’s teachings, he believed, could help him to resist social control through the removal of ‘engrams’ – negative feelings stored in the ‘reactive mind’. Burroughs was concerned about the use of language, and in particular the idea of words as a form of virus. In Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader, he explains, “The word itself may be a virus that has achieved a permanent status within the host,” after detailing various forms of viruses. He then moves quickly into an explanation of how this relates to Scientology.
Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, says that certain words and word combinations can produce serious illnesses and mental disturbances… Mr. Hubbard bases the power he attributes to words on his theory of engrams. An engram is defined as a word, sound, image recorded by the subject in a period of pain and unconsciousness… Any part of this recording played back to the subject later will reactivate operation pain, or he may actually develop a headache and feel depressed, anxious, or tense.
Burroughs believed that it was possible for people to manipulate the reactive mind by placing words and images in popular media that would deliberately trigger engrams. He called these “commands” and said that they were often found in advertisements. This form of mind control, he said, aimed to stifle “positive action.”
It’s hardly surprising that Burroughs would be so drawn to the notion of engrams. After all, he had previously been fascinated by the idea of psychotherapy, and a number of other philosophies (including Korzybski’s General Semantics, which informed his preoccupation with the power of words), drugs and theories that aimed to eliminate suffering. Scientology differs from psychoanalysis in that it doesn’t interpret or evaluate, it only acknowledges, and Burroughs found this greatly appealing: “Scientology can do more in ten hours than psychoanalysis can do in ten years.” Burroughs was troubled by at least two major traumatic incidents in his past: something unnamed that happened as a child, which he speculated may have been sexual abuse, and, of course, the death of Joan Vollmer. Of Scientology he once claimed, “It feels marvelous! Things you’ve had all your life, things you think nothing can be done about – suddenly they’re not there anymore.”
Further evidence of the relationship between Scientology and the cut-ups comes in a pair of letters he wrote to Allen Ginsberg in October, 1959. These letters show Burroughs’ excitement at these wild new ideas, their impact upon his life and work, and also lend credence to the theory that Burroughs learned about Scientology when living in Paris, at the Beat Hotel.
The method of directed recall is the method of Scientology. You will recall I wrote urging you to join your local chapter and find an auditor. They do the job without hypnosis or drugs, simply run the tape back and forth until the trauma is wiped off. It works. I have turned the method, partially responsible for recent change in assignment, and policy…As for my visions, we don’t talk about that. They go into the work. General advise on visions: “Cool it or use it.”
I have a new method of writing and do not want to publish anything that has not been inspected and processed. I cannot explain this method to you until you have necessary training. So once again and most urgently (believe me there is not much time) – tell you: “Find a Scientology Auditor and have yourself run.”
The second letter, in particular, shows that Burroughs viewed Scientology as essential to Ginsberg’s understanding of this “new method of writing”. Whilst at the Beat Hotel, Burroughs collaborated with Gysin and Gregory Corso on a cut-up project that became Minutes to Go, published in 1960. In this pamphlet, Burroughs made an odd plea to his readers: “Do it yourself.” Clearly, he viewed the cut-up technique not just as some oddball literary device to amuse and inform his readers, but something to spread throughout humanity to defeat the “word virus” of which he was so afraid.
In 1961, Burroughs and Gysin collaborated with Anthony Balch on the short film, Towers Open Fire. This weird movie aimed to highlight the process of control systems decaying the human mind, and bizarrely featured lines taken from an old Scientology pamphlet. That same year Burroughs wrote The Soft Machine, the primary theme of which was that the human body (a soft machine) is fed by tapes controlled by some kind of authority. The only way to regain control is to battle the machine by cutting up reality. In the Appendix, Burroughs listed Scientology among the arsenal of weapons necessary to resist the controlling machines.
The following year, Burroughs wrote about Scientology in his novel, The Ticket That Exploded, calling the group, ‘The Logos’. Burroughs makes no real effort to alter the realty of the group, and explains one key process, that for Burroughs was Hubbard’s great contribution to mankind:
[They have] a system of therapy they call ‘clearing’. You ‘run’ traumatic material which they call ‘engrams’ until it loses emotional connotation through repetitions and is then refilled as neutral memory’. When all the ‘engrams’ have been run and deactivated the subject becomes a ‘clear.’
This process of becoming ‘Clear’ was important to Burroughs, who eventually became Scientology’s Clear No. 1163. Even in his later years, as a harsh critic of the movement, Burroughs maintained that the process of ‘clearing’ was a tremendous invention that Hubbard had given to mankind. It involved the use of something called ‘the E-Meter.’ Burroughs called it “a sort of sloppy form of electrical brain stimulation… a lie-detector and a mind-reading machine… Not the content, only the reactions.” He believed that it could help evade control systems (such as the mind control he associated with Mayan calendars), and as a “device for deconditioning.” Later, in his review of Robert Kaufman’s expose, Inside Scientology, Burroughs wrote, “The E-meter is, among other things, a reliable lie detector in expert hands. The CIA also uses lie detectors… With this simple device any organization can become a God from whom no thought or action can be hidden.”
In 1964, Burroughs wrote Nova Express, which dealt with Scientology without bothering to change names. It also continued to spread his message of the value of ‘clearing’ the importance of recognizing and dealing with ‘engrams’.
The Scientologists believe sir that words recorded during a period of unconsciousness… store pain and that this pain store can be lugged in with key words represented as an alternate mathematical formulae indicating number of exposures to the key words and reaction index… they call these words recorded during unconsciousness engrams sir… The pain that overwhelms that person is basic basic sir and when basic basic is wiped off the tape… then that person becomes what they call clear sir.
In 1968, Burroughs took his interest in Scientology even further and enrolled in a ‘clearing’ course at Saint Hill Manor in the UK, lasting from January to April. It was during this course that Burroughs was declared a ‘clear’, although he later admitted to repressing negative feelings towards L. Ron Hubbard’s “big fat face”. One account states that when the E-Meter picked up on his nerves, he said, he resented Hubbard’s “perfection”. Here, Burroughs was audited and to\ok part in auditing others, something he claimed was very therapeutic. He obsessively made notes about the process, and even used these notes in his personal cut-up projects. The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection at the New York Public Library has many of Burroughs’ notes and notebooks from this period.
Burroughs lived and worked in London for around six years, from the late sixties until the early seventies, during a difficult time in his life. Many of his friends died during this period, and Burroughs’ mental and physical health deteriorated rapidly. According to Barry Miles, who owned a bookshop that Burroughs often visited, Burroughs was “very much with Scientology” and claimed that his strong beliefs “cut him off from a lot of people.” Evidently, Burroughs would post notes around the bookshop, telling people that he would gladly audit them, even leaving his phone number. During this period, Burroughs was living with Ian Sommerville, who detested his lover’s “Operating Thetan glare”. (Operating Thetan, in Scientology terminology, is a step above Clear.)
By 1970, Burroughs was no longer affiliated with Scientology. He had always had his disagreements (in particular with L. Ron Hubbard and the Church’s “fascist” control policies) but things became ugly when he was declared to be in a “Condition of Treason” by the Church. The exact circumstances surrounding his departure and listing as an enemy of the religion are unclear, although it was likely related to his open disdain for the controversial “Sec Checks” that the Church performed to maintain security.
One of Burroughs’ long-held beliefs was that magic and curses held real power, and that he could use them to improve his life and smite his enemies. Indeed, in Paris he once cursed an old woman who ended up in hospital shortly after. He believed that recording images and sounds was a means to destroying that which was recorded, and so he launched an attack on the Scientology Centre at 37 Fitzroy Street by taking photos and tape recordings. Indeed, the centre closed shortly after, but only so that they could move to a better location that Burroughs unable to “destroy”.
Burroughs published a series of angry letters in Mayfair magazine, culminating in the wonderfully titled, ‘I, William Burroughs, Challenge You, L. Ron Hubbard’. This article was reprinted in the Los Angeles Free Press on March 6th, 1970, and is currently available online. It begins by briefly mentioning his respect for the E-Meter and Scientology’s “precise and efficient” therapy methods, but quickly descends into an attack on the “weird cult” and its refusal to share information, as well as “Mr. Hubbard’s overtly fascist utterances.”
Some of the techniques are highly valuable and warrant further study and experimentation. The E Meter is a useful device … (many variations of this instrument are possible). On the other hand I am in flat disagreement with the organizational policy. No body of knowledge needs an organizational policy.
The following year, Burroughs wrote the short story, ‘Ali’s Smile’, which was published by Unicorn Press as a limited edition of 99 copies. It begins with the protagonist, Clinch Smith, being described by a Scientologist friend as a “suppressive person”. Clinch then goes on an odd and violent killing spree, murdering some members of the religion. The story was reprinted in his collection of short stories, Exterminator!, in 1973. In 1985 it was released as Ali’s Smile: Naked Scientology, along with a number of essays, articles and letters on the subject of Scientology. Included were:
- ‘Burroughs on Scientology’ (the disappointingly retitled version of ‘I, William Burroughs, Challenge You, L. Ron Hubbard’) which had appeared in Mayfair and the LA Free Press.
- ‘Open Letter to Mr. Garden Mustain’ – Originally published in the East Village Other on July 7th, 1970, this is a reply to a letter in the LA Free Press. Burroughs asks what Scientologists think regarding marijuana and the Vietnam War.
- ‘Review of Inside Scientology’ – As detailed below, Burroughs reviews the popular book for Rolling Stone magazine.
- ‘Letter to Rolling Stone’ – This letter was written by R. Sorrell on behalf of the Church of Scientology, and said that “Mr. Burroughs may be a writer but cannot always be trusted to be an accurate one.”
- ‘Answer to R. Sorrell’s Letter’ – On December 5th, 1972, Burroughs replied to R. Sorrell with attacks on various points, including Security Checks and financial misdeeds.
Burroughs’ war against Scientology continued on the pages of Rolling Stone magazine on October 27th, 1972, when he reviewed Robert Kaufman’s expose, Inside Scientology. His language is particularly brutal:
Scientology is model control system, a state in fact with its own courts, police, rewards and penalties. It is based on a tight in-group like the CIA… Inside are the Rights with the Truth. Outside are the Commies… the Suppressives.
Oddly enough, that same year Burroughs and Anthony Balch collaborated once again on a film, Bill and Tony. In the movie, Burroughs’ disembodied head floats around, describing the process of a Scientology auditing session.
Even in his final days, Burroughs dreamed about Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard. In his Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs, he talks of dreams where Hubbard appears to him, and refers to Scientology as – if nothing else – a part of his education; something not to be forgotten. Clearly he learned a lot and valued certain lessons. Perhaps Scientology did truly help him, as it seems to have given him peace and to have acted – at least temporarily – as a coping mechanism in dealing with traumas from his past. Brion Gysin once quipped that Burroughs was probably the only man to ever make more money from Scientology than it made from him. Indeed, as this essay has demonstrated, his experiences with the “weird cult” have made their way into numerous essays, articles, journals, letters, short stories, novels and even his forays into film. Scientology was integral to the development of his most important literary method – the cut-up, and helped him to keep his name in the spotlight long after becoming famous as a “Beatnik”.
Baker, Phil, William S. Burroughs: Critical Lives
Bockris, Victor, With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker
Burroughs, William S., Ali’s Smile: Naked Scientology
Burroughs, William S. The Adding Machine: Selected Essays
Grauerholz, James (ed.), Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs
Grauerholz, James (ed.), Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader
Harris, Oliver (ed.), The Letters of William S. Burroughs Vol. 1 (1945-1959)
Hibbard, Allen (ed.), Conversations with William S. Burroughs
Lardas, John, The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs
Miles, Barry, William Burroughs: el hombre invisible
Urban, Hugh B., The Church of Scientology A History of a New Religion
From Beatdom #10. Buy it at Beatdom Books