Jon Atack is issuing an unexpurgated version of A Piece of Blue Sky, his seminal work on the movement – a book that was almost strangled at birth in the US courts.
Just as several major new books on Scientology, are being published, the movement is about to be confronted with a ghost from its past. Jon Atack is releasing a new edition of his ground-breaking 1990 work, A Piece of Blue Sky.
|Update: click here to order book|
Blue Sky is the foundation stone for any serious work on Scientology, the measure by which all future books should be measured – and he set the mark high.
Since any serious writer or researcher on Scientology has to acknowledge the significance of his work, he has had no trouble gathering endorsements for his book.
“I appreciate the staggering amount of research material that Mr Atack had to assimilate and present,” writes Professor Stephen Kent, arguably the leading academic authority on Scientology.1
“He demonstrated impeccable judgement concerning his sources, and similarly he showed artistic skill in his ability to present complex … material in graceful and clear prose.
“Had his book been offered by a doctoral candidate … it would far exceed necessary standards … an unrivalled piece of superb scholarship.
“Quickly his book has become one of the classic studies of sectarianism and deviant belief systems. All future scholarship on Scientology will build upon his contribution.”
Pulitzer-prizewinning writer Lawrence Wright, whose own book on Scientology, Going Clear, has just appeared, also acknowledges Atack's contribution.
“One of the very first insider looks at the Church of Scientology – and still invaluable today for its history and insight into the character of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard,” he wrote.
In an interview with Atack just posted online, Steve Hassan, author of the bestselling Combatting Cult Mind Control, describes Blue Sky quite simply as “the single best book I have read on Scientology” and Atack himself “one of the most amazing minds I have encountered.”
The original published version of Blue Sky was formidably well researched and documented. The new, unexpurgated edition will contain 60 passages cut from the original version by his US publishers: compromising quotes from Hubbard's unpublished works.
Atack unchained, as it were.
“Some of the passages in question were used in Janet Reitman's book [Inside Scientology] and I imagine others appear in Wright's book,” he said.
“From Blue Sky (1990) to Reitman (2011) there was no significant text published on Scientology in English,” he added. “Now the publishers have seen that there isn't a significant comeback, they realize there is money to be made.”
However much money Blue Sky made, Atack says he saw very little of it, after the initial advance.
“When the book made the top 100 on Amazon (out of 4.5 million titles), in 1999, not a cent found its way to me,” he said.
Atack has also over the years advised many former members in their legal battles against the movement. But since he was determined that nobody could accuse him of being in it for the money, he did not charge more than a nominal fee for his services.2
According to Atack's reckoning, his clients made more than $14 million in their lawsuits against Scientology, of which he saw only a few thousand dollars.
And Blue Sky itself almost never made it into print.
The battle to publish
Atack's problems with the book began even before publication, thanks in part to “a rather sallow and louche young man” who had been hanging around him for about a year. It was only later that he identified him as a private investigator when the same man helped entrap another former Scientologist turned critic, Cyril Vosper, in a kidnap deprogramming in Germany.
The character in question, said Atack, “...claimed his father had made a fortune from the hotel business in Florida.
“He would appear in a gold Rolls with his initials on a personalised numberplate (from a hire company, later checking discovered) or a Lamborgini, bringing a bottle of Perrier Jouet or vintage port. Over the months he spun the story that he wanted to put his name on the book.
“I had entirely failed to find a publisher after two years, and already given the manuscript to Russell (Miller, author of Bare-Faced Messiah)...”. (Miller paid fulsome tribute to Atack's research in the preface he wrote for Blue Sky a few years later.)3
So when this colourful figure offered him £30,000 “to walk away and allow him to put his name on the book, it seemed like a dream come true – I'd get the money, he'd get the flak – but I still held out for several months, before allowing him to take a copy off the premises.”
And no, he said, he never did see any of that £30,000: “But we did get a free lunch at the Happy Eater.”
It was Russell Miller who put Atack in touch with his future publisher.
Miller was suffering harassment from private investigators and he asked Atack to check with Lyle Stuart to see if the same people were on him. Stuart, as the publisher of Bent Corydon's 1987 book L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman, had his own battle with Scientology.
Stuart was in fact so incensed at their hardball tactics that in January 1988 he took out a full-page advert in the New York Times denouncing the movement. “They sued author Bent Corydon three times in a single week to silence him!” he wrote, pledging, to plough all profits from the book into similar ads.
By the time Stuart met Atack then, he was already spoiling for another fight with their common adversary. “Lyle asked me the question he asked every ex-Scientologist,” Atack recalled. “'Have you written a book?'”
Stuart signed him up for his company Carol Publishing. By January 1989 however, he had signed over his company to new owners, staying on only as a consultant. So when Scientology went after Blue Sky in the US courts, the combative Stuart was no longer calling the shots.4
Scientology's lawyers relied in part on a legal ruling based on a famous case involving the writer J. D. Salinger that had set an alarming legal precedent. It established that a writer in some circumstances could suppress the use of his unpublished material, even if it was already effectively in the public domain.
In the Salinger case, the documents in question were his correspondence: dozens of letters to famous literary figures such as Ernest Hemingway that had ended up in library and university archives. Salinger had sued to stop a biographer using these letters, even from paraphrasing them closely: and he won.5
“As one journalist pointed out at the time, this was the death knell of hostile biography in the US,” said Atack.6
Scientology's New Era Publications used the 1987 Salinger judgment in its bid to block Miller's unauthorised biography of L. Ron Hubbard, Bare Face-Messiah, published the same year.7 Had they been a bit quicker off the mark they might have succeeded.
Scientology won on the principle, both the district court and the appeal court ruling there had been some copyright violation. But the courts dismissed the bid to block publication. New Era had moved too slowly to file its complaint, the book was already in the shops and an injunction halting publication would have been a disproportionate penalty, both courts decided.8
That raised the question: what would have happened if they had been quicker off the mark? It was a worrying precedent.9
The original complaint filed by New Era/Scientology against Atack's book was based on the earlier manuscript that Atack's supposed benefactor had dishonestry obtained from him. That much became obvious when their lawyers cited Hubbard quotations from that version – only to find that Atack had already paraphrased the relevant passages.
“We had already stripped the book of 60 passages before this happened, on legal advice,” said Atack.
In the district court, Judge Louis Stanton nevertheless obliged Carol Publishing to hand over the revised version they were preparing to print. Letting Scientology see the edited manuscript, he decided, "does not invade Carol's editorial process."
Not everyone agreed.
“This is the latest example of copyright law being used to overcome well-established First Amendment principles,” lawyer Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment specialist, told the Wall Street Journal at the time.
“It's deeply disturbing for a court order to require a manuscript of a critical work to be turned over to the party being criticized on the mere suspicion that it may infringe the copyright law.”10
In a judgment handed down on January 30, 1990, Judge Stanton ruled that the use of Hubbard's texts had indeed exceeded fair use.
“The book may not be published in its present form,” he ordered, issuing a permanent injunction against publication. Blue Sky was banned.
“Buy this book before it is banned”
“Prior restraint violates the constitutional right of free speech,” said Atack. “It was applied to Victor Marchetti's book The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence... when he refused to make cuts.”
Marchetti was a former CIA man who in 1974 wrote an exposé of the way the agency operated, which the US government did its best to ban. When it was finally published, it carried blank spaces to mark the passages the government had managed to censor – and highlighted those sections the authorities had failed to suppress.
Now Atack's book, even in its revised form, had been banned: if it was to appear at all, it would have to be gutted of vital source material. At this point, Atack recalls, Carol Publishing was ready to throw in the towel and walk away.
Fortunately for Atack, he had Marchetti's lawyer in his corner.
Mel Wulf was a prominent civil rights lawyer who had already spent 15 years as the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (1962-1977).
He had represented not just Marchetti but another former CIA officer, Philip Agee, against the government's attempts to stifle their books.11 So he had a good track record when it came to defending whistleblowers.
It was only because Wulf insisted on pursuing the matter that his case went to appeal, said Atack.
Speaking from New York, Wulf, now retired, confessed he could not remember the details of the Blue Sky case. Scientology's general style however, he had no trouble recalling.
“The Scientologists were fanatical litigants and they would litigate and threaten to litigate at the drop of a hat,” he told Infinite Complacency. ''They went around suing people as a form of intimidation: that was standard practice.
“Scientology brought an action for copyright infringement because their materials were quoted in Atack's book, ...including some by the great guru L. Ron Hubbard,” he recalled.
“It seemed to me that the action they brought was a frivolous action and that was borne out by the final judgment,” he added.
“The [district court] judge mistakenly ruled that my use of published copyrighted material was excessive, though he applied no test...,” said Atack.
“At appeal it was of course recognised that I had a right to criticism and review, that the quotations were not substantial and that the first judge hadn't the vaguest idea what intellectual property law was...,” he added.
The one thing both courts agreed on was that the copyright in Hubbard's Manual of Justice – a deeply compromising document in which Hubbard gives detailed instructions on how to destroy Scientology's enemies – had expired.
“Anyone can print it,” Atack noted. “Maybe it's time for a Kindle version.”
US copyright law was amended in 1992, precisely because of growing concern over the chilling effect that the Salinger and Miller rulings were having on biographical research. “The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use...,” the amendment read.13
Nevertheless, it could be argued of course that with this fresh edition, Atack is still tempting fate.
For while Scientology may be powerless against the many-headed hydra that is the Internet, it might still be willing to test the limits of fair use of copyrighted materials.
Atack is prepared to take that chance.
“Buy this book before it is banned,” he enjoins.
That might be a joke. Or it might not.
UPDATE: You can now buy "Blue Sky" here.
You can read a new article by Jon Atack, "A Cult by Any Other Name" written for Infinite Complacency, here.
You can read a new article by Jon Atack, "A Cult by Any Other Name" written for Infinite Complacency, here.
2 As I did in my previous piece on Jon Atack, let me declare an interest here: I first came across Atack in the early 1990s, when I was working to get a close friend out of Scientology. His help got me through what at that time was most harrowing experience of my life. He sent me texts on Scientology; at my request drew up a detailed reading list on the subject; and gave me hours of advice and support over the phone. It was months, I think, before he actually asked me for a token payment to cover his expenses – which I was only to happy to give. I have told part of the story of my first brush with Scientology elsewhere at Infinite Complacency, though at the time I kept his name out of it because I knew he had retired from the fray.
3 Blue Sky is called Hubbard Through the Looking Glass in Miller’s bibliography. In the preface to Atack's book, Miller described it as “a dispassionate, thoroughly documented account”.
4 Jon Atack was also named in the original action but the appeal court ruling notes, New Era “did not serve the him with a summons and complaint, and he has never entered an appearance.” New Era Publications Int'l v. Carol Publishing Group 904 F.2d 152 (2d Cir. 1990).
5 When Salinger got sight of a draft copy of a biography on him that writer Ian Hamilton was preparing to publish – he had already refused to cooperate in the project – he went to his lawyer, copyrighted his letters and took the publishers Random House to court to stop Hamilton using the letters. And he won. The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruling in Salinger v Random House (1987). The estates of both Hemingway and Stravinsky followed suit to close down unauthorised biographies.
6 Phoebe Hoban's “The Salinger File” published in New York magazine (June 15 1987, as the case was still going through the courts), is an excellent summary of the dispute. As she points out, the legal action launched by the fiercely private Salinger was in one sense, entirely counter-productive, generating just the kind of attention he was trying to avoid. This lesson of course, Scientology has also insisted on learning the hard way.
7 They had already tried and failed in Australia, England and Canada. See Chris Owen's invaluable timeline of Scientology's campaign to stop Miller's book.
8 In 1988, New Era attacked Miller's US publishers Henry Holt, for the book's use of unpublished, copyrighted materials, namely Hubbard's unpublished correspondence and early diaries (he had obtained them from Atack). New Era was seeking to prevent publication of his book and damages for copyright violations.
Miller's publishers prevailed in the district court ruling to the extent that the judge felt that while there had been some infringement of copyright, for the most part the quoted passages qualified as fair use: crucially, he did not approve Scientology's bid for an injunction against publication.
The appeal court ruling took a harder line with the publishers, holding that the fair use did not extend as far as the district court judge thought it had.
New Era had weakened its position by being slow off the mark: the book had been published in 1987. They got their temporary restraining order, on May 20, 1988. By this time, Holt had already sent out most of the 12,000 copies of its first edition – and a second edition, another 10,000 copies, had been due to be printed the following day.
Both courts therefore ordered damages for copyright infringement but did not approve an injunction against publication.
This is how the majority ruling of the appeal court summed up their position: If New Era promptly had sought an adjudication of its rights, the book might have been changed at minimal cost while there still was an opportunity to do so. At this point, however, it appears that a permanent injunction would result in the total destruction of the work since it is not economically feasible to reprint the book after deletion of the infringing material.
9 The precedent that this ruling set – or rather the way it reinforced the earlier Salinger ruling, seemed to be the main concern behind a separate opinion issued at the appeal court stage by the Chief Judge James L. Oakes. He preferred the district court's more indulgent interpretation of the book's use of the unpublished documents. He warned that the appeal court's judgment effectively “cast in concrete” the more restrictive terms of the earlier Salinger ruling. Oakes argued: “The premise of the First Amendment is that 'the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public.'Associated Press v. United States...(1945). This certainly applies in the case of a biography of a public figure.” New Era Publications v Henry Holt and Company, US Court of Appeals, Second Circuit: April 19, 1989 ruling.
10 “Biographer to view work on Hubbard in copyright battle” by Wade Lambert, Wall Street Journal, July 28, 1989.
11 Philip Agee's 1975 book Inside the Company: CIA Diary exposed the CIA's collusion with Latin America's brutal military dictatorships: he had served as a field officer in the region. Former CIA director and former president George Bush denounced him as a traitor in a 1997 speech for having exposed the names of CIA operatives and undercover operations. For more information you can read this declassified CIA review of his book; and his New York Times obit.
12 The case reference is New Era Publications Int'l v. Carol Publishing Group 904 F.2d 152 (2d Cir. 1990).