After years of silence Jon Atack, who literally wrote the book on Scientology, made a brief but effective television appearance in May – and the good news is, he is working on a new book.
|See here for the new edition|
Atack's television appearance does not signal a return to the front-line against Scientology: it is more of a one-off gig.
But the good news is, he is working on another book – of which more below.
The show Atack appeared in, The Big Question, was trying to answer the question: is there a difference between a religion and a cult?
It featured members of a number of controversial organisations: the Moonies, the Raelians and a survivor of David Koresh's Waco community – though not, so far as I could see, a Scientologist.
Perhaps they did not fancy their chances against Atack.
In a wide-ranging programme packed with speakers from all sides of the debate, Atack didn't get a lot of time: but what he did get, he used effectively.
Presenter Nicky Campbell asked Atack what it had been like to leave Scientology.
“It's a very baffling experience,” he replied: “Particularly – and I think this may be something that defines a cult – because of the attack that you receive from the group, because when you are expelled you are shunned, you are disconnected from.”
That brought an appreciative burst of applause from that section of the audience familiar with the destructive effects of shunning.
Already during the show, a number of true believers had complained of how their movement had been misunderstood and wrongly characterised as a cult: so Atack offered a definition formulated by the American Family Foundation in 1985:
A cult is group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.
That was the edited version for television. The full definition Atack was quoting goes on to add:
Unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control include but are not limited to: isolation from former friends and family, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgement, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.2
Campbell asked him about the large amounts of money Scientologists were expected to pay in order to advance through the movement's different levels.
“I met somebody who had given $2 million to Scientology and ended up in hospital,” Atack replied. Unfortunately, he did not get a chance to elaborate.
And having paid to advance up the levels, said Campbell – moving along to what he really wanted to talk about – Atack had himself got to read the big secret in Scientology.
“What's the secret?” he asked.
“The secret,” said Atack, “is that we're all composed of millions of little beings, we are not individuals, and so our thoughts and our feelings are confused by this, and so the idea is to extract ourselves from these clusters of things.”
“Thetans...,” said Campbell, just to show he'd done his homework.
“Body thetans...,” said Atack.
“...which came from an intergalactic war...” prompted Campbell,
“...75 million years ago in this sector of the galaxy,” Atack continued, in his best portentous Hubbard voice.3
Question the teaching
Supposing for the sake of argument that all this business of thetans is nonsense, said Campbell: “Why do sane, rational, intelligent human beings buy it – literally – and buy into it?”
“Well, it's a secret,” said Jon. “I'd been a member for seven years before this was put to me. So … I'd gone along that road for a long way.
“And in fact the day that I opened the Pack to these materials I said 'This is like Colin Wilson's novel The Mind Parasites' – it didn't make sense to me.
“But I said 'I've been on this road for seven years, I'll check it, I'll see' – and I still never did feel convinced and two years later I left.”
Atack made it clear he had had time to get over his experience: it has been 30 years since he left.
“But I think the problem with people who leave is they often consider the emotional experiences they had rather than questioning the truth of the teaching,” he added, to another scattering of applause.
Campbell prompted him on the gulf between what Hubbard had preached and what he had practised.
“He preached against drugs...,” said Campbell.
“...and yet he himself admitted to having been a barbiturate addict, in a lecture,” said Atack.4
And from there, the discussion moved on to other contributors – though not before Atack got in a sly plug for his book. (Did I mention his book? A Piece of Blue Sky, Lyle Stuart, 1990).
Let me declare an interest here: I have written previously about my experience when a friend got involved in Scientology – and the frantic six months I spent working to get her out. (That experience was what started me down the path that led to this blog.5)
What I did not make clear in that previous article is that it was Atack who played a key role in advising me through that crisis.
He understood my need to know how my friend, an intelligent, open-minded woman, could have been so rapidly transformed into a close-minded zealot, incapable of considering critical material.
He supplied me with the information – and the moral support – I needed to deal with the situation.6
At my request, Atack sent me a reading list not just on Scientology but on cults: a crash course in key issues, including the debate over what constitutes mind control and how one can distinguish a cult from a legitimate religion.
Atack struck a nice balance describing the issues surrounding mind control: he spelt out how it worked and what the dangers were, without presenting it as some kind of all-consuming, irresistible force. And I have to say, not all of the people I turned to for advice took such a measured view.
When you're trying to deal with the shock of losing a loved to a totalist organisation, this is the kind of advice you need: accurate, carefully considered and shorn of the hysteria that sometimes accompanies anti-cult rhetoric.
For my money, Atack's book is still the best place for any serious researcher to start if they want to know about where Scientology came from. It tracks the movement until just a little after the death of founder L. Ron Hubbard and David Miscavige's rise to power.
Tilman Hausherr maintains a fairly comprehensive archive of Atack's other Scientology-related writings – together with information about the campaign to get Blue Sky pulled from Amazon (it was reinstated after a wave of protest).7
Having failed to stop him from publishing his book, Scientology stepped up its harassment of Atack, as he himself detailed in a 1995 talk delivered in Berlin: Scientology: Religion or Intelligence Agency?
At the end of 1992, scientologists started to arrive uninvited on my doorstep. They always came in pairs, a new pair each time. The visits happened about once a week, but not on the same night. The timing of the visits varied, with the latest being after 11 o'clock.
The first couple accused me of "persecuting" their religion. When I asked for details, one of them said that I had told a newspaper that Scientology "brainwashed" its members.
I explained that the journalist had given his own opinion. I tend to avoid the emotive term "brainwashing" and speak instead of "coercive psychology".
Having failed in the particular, they moved on to the general. I was accused of being a liar. Unable to give any example of a lie I had told, one began chanting hysterically "you tell lies".8
Done with “the dreaded clut”
After several years of this kind of harassment Atack eventually fell victim to England's notoriously oppressive libel laws.
A Scientologist sued him, a pre-trial ruling choked his defence at birth – so he never got his day in court – and he was forced into bankruptcy.9
Atack quietly withdrew from the fray and moved on to other interests: his poetry, his other writing and his art – all of which you can see at www.jonatack.com.
By then, it was the mid-1990s: the Internet-based campaign against Scientology's excesses was just getting into gear, so the movement still had plenty on its plate: more than it could handle, as it turned out.
It was good to see Atack back in action, however briefly – if only because a lot of the airspace supposedly being given to critics of Scientology is often going to Scientologists critical of the current regime – but nostalgic for the halycon days of Hubbard.
So far as Atack is concerned however, he is done with Scientology – done with “the dreaded clut”, as he likes to call it.
The show was nevertheless a useful reminder of why he was, for a period in the 1980s and '90s, the most effective critic of Scientology – and Blue Sky remains a landmark of research on the movement.
In a sense, Atack's new work picks up where Blue Sky left off.
Waking Reason: the Science and Art of Persuasion, is not about Scientology. But it takes as its starting point the mechanics of what he encountered there, which he once memorably described as The Total Freedom Trap.
From there, it moves beyond the issue of cults to take a much broader, multi-disciplinary look at unethical influence.
I've been fortunate enough to read a few chapters – and I can tell you, he has not been idle these last few years.
Remember: you read it here first. :-)
---For more information on Jon Atack, see "Atack Unchained" and Steven Hassan's introduction to the new edition of Blue Sky, elsewhere on this site.
3This is as good a thumbnail sketch of Scientology's founding myth as you could ask for: the full version of course is widely available on the Internet, but for a good summary and critique see Dave Touretzky's scathing assessment at the OT III Scholarship page. (A glance at it reveals that Atack misspoke when channelling Hubbard: in fact it was 75 (not 95) million years ago – perhaps he was just channelling Hubbard on barbiturates.)
4Atack provides the source for this claim – The Research and Discovery Series, vol.1, first edition 1980, Scientology Publications Org, p.124 – in his essay “Hubbard and the Occult”, available at this page which is a collection of his Scientology-related writings. I think he is referring to a June 15, 1950 lecture in the collection, “Case Factors: Paralleling the Mind”, in which Hubbard warns his audience off certain drugs as harmful to auditing, (the therapy process he had developed). Telling his audience about the dangers of trying to come off a soporific such as phenobarbital, he says: “I know because I made myself a guinea pig on one of those experiments, and trying to get off the soporific was a tough job.” (My thanks to Caroline Letkeman for helping me to track down the relevant Hubbard lectures.)
Here is how the U.S. National Library of Medicine describes the problems of coming off phenobarbital without the guidance of a doctor: “ If you suddenly stop taking phenobarbital, you may experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, muscle twitching, uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body, weakness, dizziness, changes in vision, nausea, vomiting, seizures, confusion,difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or dizziness or fainting when getting up from a lying position.”
In a June 1983 interview with Penthouse magazine, Hubbard's son, L. Ron Hubbard Jr. (who later changed his name to Ron De Wolfe) described his father's drug addiction. Asked what Hubbard had used, he replied: “At various times, just about everything, because he was quite a hypochondriac. Cocaine, peyote, amphetamines, barbiturates. It would be shorter to list what he didn't take.”
In an August 1994 affidavit, Hubbard's former butler Andre Tabayoyon described how he would “lay out the pills he took from 10 different numbered bottles” for him. This was between 1971 and 1973, the early days of the Sea Org, when they were on board the Apollo.
Virginia Downsborough, who cared for Hubbard in1967 during his time in Las Palmas told Atack she was astonished that he existed almost totally on a diet of drugs: Blue Sky, Part Four, Chapter One: “Scientology at Sea”.
6As I have explained in the article cited above, my friend eventually left after being introduced to a former associate of Hubbard. But I should make clear that Atack played no part in that intervention
9 For details, see the text of the talk cited above.