Face to face with fanaticism

Ben Hooberman

The Sunday Times, 15 November 1987

BARE-FACED MESSIAH by Russell Miller / Michael Joseph £12.95 pp390


Ron Hubbard's theory of Dianetics was introduced to the public in the United States in a magazine called Astounding Science Fiction in May 1950. The purpose of Dianetics was to gain access to the "engrams" caused in the mind by physical or emotional pain. To relieve the patient from the stress of "engrams" it was necessary to locate the earliest ones which Hubbard claimed were often pre-natal and which sometimes occurred within 24 hours of conception.

Having cleared the "engrams" out of the way, the mind would then function like a computer at full efficiency and the patient's IQ would rise dramatically. He would then be freed of all psychological and psychosomatic illnesses and his memory would improve to the point of total recall. The treatment was given by an "auditor" who interrogated his patient, whose responses were recorded on a device called an E-meter. This was a black metal box with a lighted dial, adjustment knobs and wires connected to tin cans.

In 1952 Dianetics gave way to Scientology, which Hubbard said was a logical extension of Dianetics. The difference between Dianetics and Scientology was alleged to be that while Dianetics addressed the body, Scientology addressed the soul. Both theories were without any scientific foundation whatsoever but a remarkable number of people were beguiled into believing in their efficacy.

In 1953 Hubbard incorporated three Churches in the USA, aware that there was a need among his followers for some religious belief, He was also mindful of the tax benefits which would follow the acceptance of the cult as a religion. In 1959 the cult purchased Saint Hill Manor in East Grinstead for the purpose of establishing the world-wide headquarters of Scientology.

Hundreds of young Americans came to the headquarters to be audited and trained in the theory of Scientology and thereafter to proselytize and enrol other young persons in the extremely expensive training for auditing and self-improvement

The member of parliament for East Grinstead was Geoffrey Johnson-Smith, who was concerned about the complaints he had received from his constituents and others. He appeared on television on July 25, 1968 and repeated much of what was said by the minister of health, Kenneth Robinson, in the House of Commons on that day and on an earlier occasion: "He [the minister of health] says that what they do is direct themselves deliberately towards the weak, the unbalanced, the immature, the rootless and the mentally or emotionally unstable, to promise them remoulded mature personalities and set about fulfilling the promise by means of untrained staff ignorantly practising quasi-psychological techniques including hypnosis. And he thinks that it can be, on occasions, harmful to people."

Geoffrey Johnson Smith was immediately sued for damages for libel by the cult. He defended the proceedings and pleaded that what he had said was true and that it was fair comment on a matter of public interest. The hearing took place in November 1970 and lasted for about two months. A succession of unhappy witnesses told the court of the alienation of their children by the cult, of the impoverishment and punishment of the students at Saint Hill Manor and of the kidnapping of at least one sick student. Mr Johnson Smith succeeded in his defence to the action and the cult had to pay a substantial sum for his costs. Not deterred by this setback, the cult continued its policy of harassing its opponents and using litigation to that end.

Another, half-hearted, intervention by the Government in the affairs of the cult took place in January 1969 when Richard Crossman, the then secretary of state for Social Services, set up an enquiry into its activities. The Foster Report was published in December l971 and one of its recommendations was that the practice of psychotherapy for a reward should be restricted to members of a profession properly qualified in its techniques. I am not aware of any legislation proposing such a sensible safeguard for patients.

Russell Miller has done a service to his readers by surmounting the legal obstacles placed in his way by the Scientologists who attempted to discredit him and to prevent the publication of this book. It is admirably written, well documented and it must have entailed a great deal of painstaking research. The evidence Mr Miller adduces to support the facts in his book has been gathered carefully from witnesses who were once bemused by the cult and who were fearful of giving him the information he required. Unless one has come-face to face with the fanaticism of the cult's adherents, it is easy to dismiss the fears of these informants as imaginary. But it must be borne in mind that although Hubbard disappeared in 1980 and died in 1986, the cult still has sufficient power to entrap the young and the lonely.

Ben Hooberman is a solicitor who acted for Geoffrey Johnson Smith in the libel action brought against him by the Scientologists.