Up: Martin Poulter > Scientology Criticism > UK Media Archive

A Mind-bending Experience

The Guardian, January 4, 1997

By Joe Boyd

What are the secrets of Scientology? Is its central doctrine - that you should purge yourself of all emotional baggage - helpful? Joe Boyd was curious. The band he managed had enrolled with ambiguous results.

Back in 1971, I 'infiltrated' the Church of Scientology. Inspired by curiosity, my adventure took me through more than 60 hours of 'auditing', the central 'sacrament' of this so-called religion which is supposed to unburden you of your past and lead you to certain success in life. It culminated in a confrontation with aspects of the organisation that I found sinister, flawed and even potentially dangerous. Last August, I was reminded of my experiences by a Guardian article that raised many questions about Scientology. The answers to some of them were what I set out to discover all those years ago.

It all began in the early Sixties with a former dope dealer and harmonica player named David Simons. I'd known him in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he went under various imaginative aliases, such as Hugh Biali and Rex Rakish. Then he disappeared into the underworld of hippy drug culture (or so I thought), while I moved to London and was producing records and managing various groups, including some of the leading characters in this story, the Incredible String Band.

The Incredible String Band were Sixties icons with one of the highest fame-to- obscurity ratios it is possible to imagine. At the height of their success between 1967-70, they filled the Royal Albert Hall over and over again, as they did the Fillmore West in San Francisco and the Lincoln Centre in New York. They were the first world-music group, combining Blakean mysticism with exotic instruments and rich, inventive harmonies. They were, first and foremost, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, who were subsequently joined by their girlfriends 'Licorice' McKechnie and Rose Simpson.

The psychedelic Sixties have again become fashionable in the Nineties. But the Incredible String Band has remained in the un-hip twilight of musical history - partly because of their folksy image, but not entirely. Perhaps the lack of recognition has more to do with their precipitous decline following their 'conversion' to Scientology in 1968. When I met Mike and Robin in 1965, they had long served as advance scouts into the territories of drugs, Orientalism and mysticism, but they were far from mindless flower children. They were, still are, highly intelligent and thoughtful people, besides being inventive and original musicians.

One evening in the autumn of 1968, following a sell-out concert in New York, I took the band to a vegetarian restaurant on East 5th Street, off Second Avenue. To my amazement, the manager of the restaurant was David Simons. He found us a good corner table, where he and I reminisced about long-lost acquaintances from the Cambridge underground.

After he had taken our order and disappeared into the kitchen, I took the fateful step of telling the band everything I knew about him. I said I was stunned by the transformation in him: when I'd last seen him, he had been a mumbling, stoned, shambolic figure, witty and sardonic, but seemingly determined to jettison any positive course open to him - in music, for example - in favour of a darker and more chaotic path. Now he had metamorphosed into a friendly, efficient and energetic restaurant manager. Then I made my second mistake of the evening: I left the band in the restaurant, as I was going on a short business trip to California early the next morning.

The first inkling I had of the events that followed came when the band's US agent telephoned me at my LA hotel. He wanted my approval to give the group all the cash that was due to them from the mini -tour of the east coast which we were just one concert away from completing. The request puzzled me. After all, I'd already given them what they had asked for as spending money, the hotel bill was taken care of, and we had agreed that the balance would be sent to the group's UK bank account. I called the Chelsea Hotel, where the band was staying, but could not find them.

The day before I was due to return to New York, I finally got through to Licorice. She told me they wanted the money to pay for some 'courses' at the Scientology headquarters. I had barely heard of the cult at that time, but what I had heard was not positive. I suggested a meeting for when I returned the next day.

The band had always been fractious - Robin and Mike had no great fondness for each other, while the girls had a barely-concealed mutual contempt - but at the Chelsea Hotel that day I was confronted with a strangely unified foursome. They wanted all the money and they wanted to give it to the Church of Scientology. Then they told me why.

After I had left the restaurant, Simons had joined them at the table. They'd been intrigued by what I had said about him and his transformation which, it emerged, was due to the Church of Scientology. Simons had invited them along to the church's New York celebrity centre. By that same evening, Robin and Licorice were convinced.

In the face of my reluctance to write the cheque and my insistence that they think it over, Mike and Rose agreed to wait until we'd got back to London before making their final decision. But within days of their return, the die had been cast.

I understood little then of what was involved in becoming a Scientologist. The band spent weeks in London being 'audited'. They told me about 'going clear', when the auditing process reaches its first plateau of accomplishment. I hated the jargon, but I began to notice positive changes in their personalities. All of them had always avoided any discussion of money; now, though, they eagerly convened meetings about the group's finances. It had always been hard to get answers from them about future touring schedules and recording plans; now, such matters were sorted out quickly and efficiently. They even took the time to thank me for the job I was doing for them -previously unheard of. And among themselves, their simmering quarrels and jealousies seemed to evaporate overnight.

They stopped taking drugs or alcohol. They became charming company. They never tried to push me into joining.

I was torn. Everything I'd read or heard about Scientology seemed horribly obscure, self-important and dubious. But the results were there to see: a happier, saner group of people who had become a pleasure to deal with. The first recording sessions after their 'conversions' went very well. There were some great new songs. We finished the double album Wee Tam And The Big Huge, and it was released to critical and commercial enthusiasm. Everything was going smoothly.

I was intrigued by what I took to be the sexual evolution of the group. Mike and Rose remained close friends and shared a cottage in the Row, a group of eight cottages on the Tennant estate in Scotland that the band rented. But they seemed to sail effortlessly through various other entanglements - Rose with David Crosby during a visit to San Francisco, Mike with various other girls who Rose just laughed about, even a brief affair between Rose and myself, and finally, a more serious relationship between Mike and Suzie, the woman I had hired to take care of the band's day-to-day management. But I was confused. I retained my hostile scepticism about Scientology, particularly as I watched thousands of pounds flow from the ISB's account into 'church' funds.

Another thing that worried me was the music. Slowly, over the two years following their encounter with Simons, ISB's output lost its inventiveness, its charm and the wild beauty of its melodies. They were more efficient in the studio, but there were fewer moments of surprise and inspiration. Songs began to sound much the same. Was this a natural decline after years of tremendously original output? Or was it Scientology? Soon after, other things changed too. Together with the other residents of the Row, the group organised a pageant called U. They wanted to take their new creation on tour, but I was unsure: with a cast of ten dancers and musicians, plus sets and costumes, it was going to be an expensive show to take on the road. Many of the songs had meanings even more obscure than those of their opaque masterpieces in the past.

Promoters who had earlier been happy to book the ISB were dubious about U. Guarantees were reduced, the group was financially at risk everywhere, and audiences began to level off. Poor reviews and responses to U's first few performances made me beg them to call off the rest of the tour and rebuild ISB. They would hear none of it. Their confidence was impossible to dent - they were sure U would work. It didn't, and we lost a great deal of money.

The saga of U helped me decide what to do next: I sold my production company and moved away from London. I left Suzie - who by this time was living with Mike and had become a Scientologist herself - in charge of the band. They continued to live at the Row, to tour, and to record, but U had slowed their momentum.

I headed to Los Angeles to take up a job with Warner Brothers, supervising film scores. My first new friend at WB was the late Don Simpson (who went on to produce Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, Flashdance, among others, and who added a whole new chapter to Hollywood's saga of sexual, chemical and financial excess before his death last January).

From our first meeting, Don and I got on famously. We talked about anything and everything - sports, music, books - and met up most mornings for breakfast and again for late-night dinners after watching movies. Back in 1971, California was notoriously the centre of 'self-improvement' -much as it is today, in fact. Meditation, re-birth therapy, Buddhism, yoga, encounter groups, Esalen - the list was endless. Don was fascinated by them all, and very cynical about them. He brought up the subject of Scientology one day, and I told him of my experience with the Incredible String Band. We were unsure about Scientology's motives, but were nevertheless intrigued enough to take it further.

I had already met the head of the Scientologists in LA - the LA Org, as it is known - backstage at an ISB concert, so I rang her up and made an appointment for Don and me to go and see her. She and her staff were very eager and friendly - L Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology, in Los Angeles in 1954, had always emphasised the importance of media. Being the former manager of one of their prime catches, namely ISB (jazz musician Chick Corea was the only other prominent Scientologist at the time), who now held down a big job in the film industry, I was to be treated with special care.

Great, we thought. We could make all sorts of demands. We'd heard how people who'd had 'personality tests' were often subsequently bombarded with mail shots and phone calls, so we made it a condition that we would receive no mail and no phone calls. The Scientologists agreed. Usually, beginners take the 'communications course', but we hated it, and walked out almost immediately. They said no problem, and let us go straight on to the auditing - the communications course was just for 'wogs' (their term for non-Scientologists), anyway. We were different.

We paid for the auditing courses - it cost about the same as a good shrink, around $ 30 per hour - and I went down to the celebrity centre in downtown Los Angeles one or two evenings a week, where I sat for several hours with my auditor. I held a pair of tin cans which were wired to an 'E-meter' (a device which measures electrical impulses and so, apparently, indicates your mental state). Thus hooked up, the auditor would then give me a series of commands: 'Recall a time when you had fun,' or 'Recall a time when you gave something to someone.' Then there would be a more resonant command: 'Recall a time when you lost something you loved.' The purpose of these commands was to trigger 'engrams'. These, I was told, were 'cellular records of moments involving pain, loss or a real or imagined threat to survival'.

Scientologists hold psychiatry in contempt, and for valid reasons: they say that a shrink and a patient can go around in circles, endlessly following the analyst's theories and the patient's idealised stories about himself, which is true enough, I suppose. The E-meter, on the other hand, like a lie-detector, does not permit such indulgences, they claim. It goes straight to the heart of your inability to live 'in the moment'. Each of the auditor's commands is designed to trigger a response of some kind, so that when an image of an incident comes into your head, the E-meter responds. If the image is engram-free, the meter just 'floats', but if there is 'charge' attached, the meter reacts strongly. Then, instead of moving on to another command, the auditor instructs you to recall the incident in every detail: the sights, sounds, smells, emotions, thoughts, fears, pains etc. Once you've done that - internally, to yourself, not out loud to the auditor - you are requested to do the same thing again. Eventually, as the incident is gone over again and again, without judgement or blame attached, it ceases to trigger the E-meter. The same incident can be called up a day later and provoke no reaction. Then you get a new command: 'Recall an earlier similar incident.' You keep going in this direction until you can recall no 'earlier similars'. It is astonishing how much you can remember that you'd previously thought had gone forever.

There is much merit in the theory behind this approach. After all, it seems logical to assume that if, at the age of two, you were dropped on your head in a room with pale blue walls, while chicken soup was on the stove and Haydn was playing on the stereo, your mood might well decline - at the very least - should you enter a room 30 years later where some of those same sounds, smells and sights were present.

A 'clear' defines someone who has completed the first course of auditing and is deemed ready to graduate to higher 'OT' (that is, Operating Thetan, Scientology -speak for free spirit) levels on the 'Bridge to Total Freedom', a 'classification, gradation and awareness chart of levels and certificates'. Once you've been branded clear, and as you continue to neutralise the debilitating engrams, you become - in theory, at least - able to respond to the present moment in real time and spontaneously, unfettered by the charged memories which previously weighed you down. You should become lighter, happier, more effective. And I have to admit that, following my auditing sessions, I certainly had moments when I felt elated and lightened. Don Simpson had similar experiences.

We found out about an experiment, conducted at the Stanford University Research Laboratory, in which powerful psychics were asked to try to bend the path of the accelerated electron in the Stanford cyclotron. The most successful psychic tested was Ingo Swann, a Scientologist, and of the seven successful 'benders', four were Scientologists.

Don even witnessed such powers first hand. One evening, he was dining late at night with a group of auditors from the celebrity centre, along with a visiting high-ranking official from the Mexico City Org. According to Don, at one point in the meal the visitor asked for the salt and no one heard him. He became impatient, and started staring at the salt-cellar. After a few moments, the salt-cellar started moving, unaided, down the table and into his waiting hand. Don was very impressed.

We soon discovered that there was more to Scientology than just auditing. Hubbard, who was known affectionately as LRH, had written many texts, and there were rules for almost everything. So great is Hubbard's influence that even today, more than ten years after his death, each 'church' has a corporate-style office set aside for him, a plaque on the desk bearing his name. If clears follow LRH's rules, the organisation must, by definition, produce 'up stats' - Scientology -speak for success.

Mischieviously, I asked if there were any cases when the rules were followed, but the 'stats' were not 'up'. It was then that I found out about the dubious core notion of the 'suppressive personality' and the Scientologists' obsession with past lives. LRH's teachings reveal that a suppressive personality is a thetan (spirit) who has suffered such a painful death in a previous lifetime that nothing will deter them from an agenda of revenge in the current one. All the auditing in the world will not alter their negative aims. But how do you know when there is a suppressive personality about, I asked. Simple, according to LRH: when an organisation that is run according to the thoughts of Chairman Ron does not have 'up stats', there must be a suppressive personality at work within it. And a trained Scientologist can discover who the culprit is, isolate and then expel them.

This explanation set the alarm bells ringing. This self-justifying definition was a classic scapegoating exercise, obviously designed to insulate Hubbard from any criticism that his methods might not be perfect or that clears might not be as all-powerful as they seemed. To me, it explained much about the overweening confidence that I'd noticed with the Incredible String Band. I became increasingly aware of an atmosphere of paranoia. The past-lives business and the jargon began to sound like a chapter from one of Hubbard's badly-written sci-fi novels. The clears who would speak about how their 'earlier similars' took them into past lives seemed always to have been Egyptians, or princes, or something colourful and romantic. The clears had an unsettling lack of doubt: they had plans - often for show -business careers - and there was no question about them not succeeding.

One Sunday afternoon, I hurt my neck body-surfing at Malibu. I reported for my Tuesday evening auditing session and was asked, as always, if I had consumed any alcohol or drugs in the past few days or if I was suffering any pain or discomfort. Auditing could not take place if the answer to any of these questions was yes, but the the pain in my neck had not gone away, so I owned up to it. The audit for that day was cancelled and I was sent instead for a session of 'touch assists', which involved an auditor directing my attention to the light pressure of a finger on my body at a point 'past' the location of the discomfort. In my experience, this sometimes works, because it steers your thoughts away from the pain. The experience of pain is primarily the experience of the resistance to pain, and the touch -assist process can loosen that resistance and evaporate the pain. This time, however, it didn't work.

I was sent to a Scientologist chiropractor in the San Fernando Valley. The waiting room was full of literature from the far-right John Birch Society. After waiting a while, I decided the people and the place were too unpleasant and left without treatment. I got a call from the celebrity centre insisting that I go back. When I refused, I was summoned to the Guardian's Office to explain myself to the area leader. I was asked about my injury and was told that it was interfering with my progress in auditing. When I insisted that I would let it heal by itself, I was asked if I had been associating with 'persons hostile to Scientology' , which, I was told, could impede healing and prevent progress in auditing. I responded that most people I knew who were aware of the Church of Scientology were hostile to it and that I had no intention of cutting myself off from my friends. Robot-like, the guardian repeated phrases from Hubbard's texts to the effect that I could not progress with auditing while in contact with hostile persons. I got up, shook his hand and left the celebrity centre. I never returned.

Soon after, Don had a similar run-in and also left the centre. We took stock. It had certainly been interesting, and auditing seemed to have some value as a therapy. But the context in which it took place was that of a paranoid cult. Any questioning of Hubbard's teachings meant the whole edifice fell apart. There was no middle ground, no respect for auditing as a valuable process in the context of a normal life.

Don and I were relatively well-off, and were welcomed with open arms, but what of the average new Scientologist who was not earning a nice big Hollywood salary? Many people I met at the centre had been granted only a few hours of auditing and were desperate for more. It was like some pyramid-selling scheme - by volunteering and dragging people in off the street for personality tests, you earned auditing hours. Many inductees I met had been working long hours in their spare time for more than a year and had been granted less than 20 hours of auditing; in my cavalier fashion, I'd just gone out and bought 60 hours to indulge my curiosity. Obviously, the more time and effort people invested in Scientology, the less receptive they were to questioning or doubts.

My own doubts, however, continued to grow. I read Bare-faced Messiah, the unauthorised biography of Hubbard, which exposes his numerous lies about his military service and other aspects of his life. It also recounts his 1948 address to the Science Fiction Writers' Convention in which he advises that if they really wanted to make money they wouldn't bother with sci-fi novels, they would 'start a religion'.

Four years after Don and I left the LA Org, I had dinner with Mike and Suzie. After a few drinks (Scientologists aren't teetotal - they just don't drink 48 hours before auditing), Mike told me that during the 1974 Portuguese coup the previous year, Scientologists had gained control of one of the most powerful radio stations in Lisbon with the intention of taking control of the government. He was convinced that the 'church' would definitely have control of a country somewhere by the end of the decade.

Soon after, first the Incredible String Band, and then Mike and Suzie, broke up. Mike and Robin have both now left the Church of Scientology. Rose left LRH's cohorts behind years ago and, in her present capacity as mayoress of Aberystwyth, revealed in a recent interview how Scientology had narrowed the band's view of the world and how damaging that had been for their music. Licorice has disappeared completely.

Suzie worked for a while as an executive for a major record company. She told me that she was sad that she and Mike had not had children, and said that she was finding it hard to meet people who could understand her experiences. Then she was offered two jobs simultaneously. One was a promotion at the record company, the other was a post at the Sea Org - Hubbard's Florida headquarters. We had lunch and talked about the options, after which I wrote her an impassioned letter urging her to stay in London and take the record company job. She dropped me a line soon afterwards to say goodbye: she was off to Sea Org. I haven't seen her since.

In a funny way, my experience with Scientology made it clear to me that I had a 'soul'. I could see that the clears, despite all the engram-cleansing, retained all their old traits, positive and negative, but with the added disadvantage of being convinced that they had been transformed. Scrubbing engrams off my mind didn't seem to alter some essence of myself that remained unchanged. I was cured of the desire to transform myself into some super-efficient creature with no painful memories.

Back in 1971, ISB and Chick Corea were the biggest names Scientologists could lay claim to. Now they've entered a different league, where some of the biggest names in Hollywood, from John Travolta and Tom Cruise to Sharon Stone and Demi Moore, are eager disciples of LRH's word. Its influence has grown enormously: the organisation now claims 8 million members world- wide and an annual income of pounds 200 million.

Perhaps Scientology has changed since 1971, but I doubt it. Its sense of self seemed, at the time, to depend on the immutable genius of the writings of L Ron Hubbard. Despite the glossy packaging, it seems much the same today. I still see Hubbard's seminal work, Dianetics, widely advertised and even, occasionally, being read.

From this distance, those evenings at the celebrity centre in LA seem like a surreal dream, but every day that dream is just beginning for many new recruits. It is hard to say if it turns into a nightmare for all of them, but I'm sure it would have for me had I continued.

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