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A battle of cults

07/07/2015

Chelmsford Victims Action Group

I can think of a few nice things to say about Scientology.

As Sydney psychiatrist Dr Harry Bailey conceded in his 1985 suicide note, “the Scientologists and the forces of madness have won”. Their victory was the exposure and end of decades of lethal psychiatric abuse at Chelmsford Private Hospital which had been ignored by the medical profession, authorities and press. I think it’s fair to say that the light Scientology’s anti-psychiatry activists in the Citizens Commission on Human Rights shone into a very dark corner of the NSW health system prevented much suffering and probably saved lives.

Scientology also seems to give meaning and structure to the lives of thousands of people who think they need that sort of thing. OK, if I was going to look for meaning in science fiction I might choose a better writer who doesn’t charge so much, but I guess that’s down to taste.

And Scientology helped me kick the media habit I picked up working at Justice Action.

Even after I left JA and became too sick to work I was still briefing and backgrounding the journos I’d worked with. Most gradually fell away as my contacts dried up but one woman whose writing I admired was still in regular touch to tap my brain for background info on stories related to human rights, criminal justice and mental illness.

This story was particularly tragic. A very disturbed young woman had attacked her family with a knife, killing her father and sister and seriously injuring her mother. Several insensitive and opportunistic psychiatrists had already been in the media blaming the fact the family were Scientologists for their deaths. They’re anti-psychiatry they explained. The woman would have been denied the drugs that could have controlled her psychosis. Anti-psychiatry kills.

I soon learned there were problems with that narrative.

The woman’s family had initially rejected advice to treat her with neuroleptic drugs but as her condition deteriorated they relented. She was briefly hospitalised about eight months before the killings and had been taking chlorpromazine since her release. In custody she was subjected to everything modern medicine could throw at her to try to make her capable of instructing a lawyer or pleading to a charge. After more than a year they gave up. As far as I know she remains sectioned to a locked ward under the Mental Health Act.

It seems psychiatry was no more help than Scientology to the suffering family.

Two senior Scientologists had agreed to be interviewed by my journalist friend about the case so she emailed me for a briefing on their religion. I gave her a short bio of L. Ron Hubbard with probably a bit too much emphasis on his weird behaviour and distant relationship with the truth. I told her about e-meters and auditing, engrams and Operating Thetan levels and going clear. I told her about Xenu and the Galactic Federation and body thetans and nuclear bombs. I told her about Suppressives and divided families, of vast spying operations and heavy-handed methods for silencing critics and dissenters. I told her about Lisa McPherson.

But I also pointed out that while Scientology was indeed anti-psychiatry, that had nothing to do with the tragic circumstances she was reporting on. It was as irrelevant as the fact that Lindy Chamberlain had been a Seventh Day Adventist. I told her that many of Scientology’s criticisms of psychiatry were justified and should be more widely heard.

The interview didn’t go well. Faced with the dirt I’d so helpfully provided the Scientologists became defensive and surly. They made a poor impression and left a fine selection of sinister sounding quotes. Not exactly a PR triumph. My friend wrote a scathing article for the country’s leading national broadsheet about a cult that would be funny were it not so nasty. In it she adopted the ‘official’ narrative that by believing in Scientology a Sydney family had brought catastrophe upon itself. She knew it wasn’t true. I was appalled.

I was in the third year of the depression that would cripple me for nearly a decade. A depression triggered and sustained by irresolvable grief over the deaths of friends and family members. Now I had contributed to the public pillory of a grieving family whose sin was to belong to a fringe religious group. I felt dirty.

That was the day I resolved to never again work with Australian journalists. A decision the mainstream media has vindicated countless times since. You can’t work within dysfunctional systems to improve them. You can only contribute to their dysfunction.

I’ve long assumed psychiatry and Scientology are so mutually hostile because they’re ideological rivals. They have conflicting pseudo-scientific theories of mind and promote incompatible therapies for treating its disturbances. But in recent weeks I’ve read both Going Clear by Lawrence Wright and Madness, Heresy and the Rumor of Angels by Seth Farber and am revising my opinion. They are not only ideological but ecological competitors. They fight over the same vulnerable group of poorly adapted people who are desperate for assistance, structure and meaning. Though they frequently deprive victims of their liberty and inflict physical and psychological damage upon them they specialise in creating dependence, often turning those who have suffered under their ministrations into their staunch proponents. They’re hunting the same prey with similar weapons.

I think I’m glad Scientology and psychiatry are such implacable enemies. They deserve each other. But religious wars can be vicious. And it’s real people who get cut down in the crossfire.

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From → autobiography

3 Comments
  1. For Fox Sake permalink

    They fight over the same vulnerable group of poorly adapted people who are desperate for assistance, structure and meaning. Though they frequently deprive victims of their liberty and inflict physical and psychological damage upon them they specialise in creating dependence, often turning those who have suffered under their ministrations into their staunch proponents.

    Ditto for entities on a quest/mission/thing to stamp out malignant and wayward
    cells.

    If you would like some lighter reading material.
    I can recomment An Irreverent Curiosity by David Farley.

    Like

  2. For Fox Sake permalink

    Cheers for Vonnegut tip!

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    Like

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