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Scientology’s War on Psychiatry

What caused L. Ron Hubbard to turn on a discipline he had once accepted?

Scientology’s War on Psychiatry
Psychiatry Museum on November 27, 2021 in Los Angeles, California, USA. Barry King / Alamy

Anyone driving along Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood has probably noticed a building bearing the sign: “Psychiatry: An Industry of Death.” This boldly named “museum,” run by the Church of Scientology’s Citizens Commission on Human Rights, purports to showcase the atrocities committed by psychiatric medicine on a world-historical scale. Most people know now that Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, despised those who he called “the psychs.” As renowned former-Scientologist Mike Rinder put it recently on Megyn Kelly’s podcast, for Scientology “psychiatry is the devil … the incarnate evil of planet Earth.” What most people probably do not know is why this hatred developed, and what accounts for the intensity of the animosity. Any conventional biography of Hubbard or church history could certainly reveal when it began, but only when this narrative is plotted alongside the history of psychiatry and the development of pharmaceutical treatments for mental illness can the hatred be truly explained.

‎The Megyn Kelly Show: Escaping Scientology, Tom Cruise’s Impact, and a Prison of Belief, with Mike Rinder | EP. 400 on Apple Podcasts
‎Show The Megyn Kelly Show, Ep Escaping Scientology, Tom Cruise’s Impact, and a Prison of Belief, with Mike Rinder | EP. 400 - Sep 28, 2022

Hubbard did not launch his career by disparaging psychiatrists as individuals or psychiatry as a profession. In fact, given his early enthusiasm for Freudian therapy, his extensive borrowings from both psychology and psychoanalytic theory, and his desire to contribute to the sciences of mental health more broadly, the virulence of his campaign against psychiatry in his subsequent books and speeches is striking and surprising. The isolated criticisms of psychiatry that can be found in Hubbard’s early work are by contrast almost models of rhetorical constraint.

In his inaugural work Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, published in 1950, Hubbard focused specifically on just a few psychiatric techniques of the day, including electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), psychosurgery, and the administration of “strong drugs.” These were rejected on account of what Hubbard thought was their potential to generate additional “engrams,” and complicate his particular treatment process. Regarding psychiatric diagnosis, he not-unfairly noted “wide disagreement in classification and continual complaint that classification is very complex and lacking in usefulness.” However, Hubbard still clearly found a need for psychiatrists within the mental health ecosystem:

There are not enough psychiatrists in the country to begin to staff the mental institutions. Surely this generation … will continue to need those institutions and will need psychiatrists: their field is the treatment of the insane, by definition, and that has nothing to do with thee and me. In psychology, Dianetics drops into line without disturbing anything … for psychology is simply the study of the psyche and now that there exists a science of the psyche it can go ahead with a will. Thus Dianetics is the enemy of none.

Even after Dianetics was harshly criticized by the mental-health community, Hubbard still saw psychiatry and medicine in general as merely rival professions well into the 1950s. In February 1951, he publicly offered to compare the results of a week of traditional psychotherapy versus a week of Dianetic processing in two selected patients. Later that year, Hubbard asserted that because of the success of Dianetic practice, in “at least one state all state government treatment of the insane is shortly to be placed under practitioners such as psychiatrists and psychologists who are skilled in this new science.” The following year, Hubbard considered the goal of replacing medicine—not psychiatry—in the next three years. Finally, in 1953, he wrote of plans to establish the “Freudian Foundation of America,” and also proposed the issuing of various degrees including that of “Freudian Psycho-analyst” and “Doctor of Scientology” which was a “very superior degree ranking with or above psychiatric degrees.” It is clear that his relationship with psychiatry was hardly settled at this point. Psychiatry was needed, but also a rival. Conventional medicine and eventually psychiatry needed replacing, but a “Freudian Foundation” would be established.

It was not until Scientology had successfully been inaugurated as a religion that Hubbard’s message about psychiatry became harder and more accusatory. This step likely represented a bitter failure for Hubbard, given his extensive background in science fiction, his educational pursuits in engineering, and his quixotic efforts to market Dianetics as a coldly scientific, rational enterprise. Hubbard’s change of heart was initially expressed in the spring of 1955, using expressions of haughty condescension:

[Psychologists, psychiatrists, and medical doctors] are entirely in error when they express the opinion that Scientologists are against them. Scientology does not consider them sufficiently important to be against. … We have no quarrel with a psychiatrist any more than we should quarrel with a barbarian because he had never heard of nuclear physics.

This contemptuous language is a gateway into the start of a far more destructive process: instead of being seen as a realistic rival, psychiatry was now a pernicious quack science to be diminished, trivialized, and later rejected.

The first evidence of the campaign against psychiatry can be found in the letters Hubbard wrote to the FBI about a variety of issues typical for the early 1950s. In a letter written on July 11th, 1955, however, Hubbard for the first time incorporated psychiatrists into a persecutory belief structure featuring Communists and the Internal Revenue Service, alleging that:

The attack made by psychiatrists using evidently Communist connect personnel on the Elizabeth NJ [Dianetics] Foundation in 1950 and 51 and the attack made on the Wichita Foundation in 1952 all ended on the same note of reports to IRS and much rumour concerning what the IRS would do.

Hubbard’s rant is nicely summed up by the terse, two-word response of the FBI employee who read it, scrawled on the retained file copy of the letter: “Appears mental.”

A summary of Hubbard’s maturing anti-psychiatry ideology is seen in his Professional Auditor’s Bulletin—“Psychiatrists”—published on September 30th, 1955. Here, Hubbard deployed the age-old technique of portraying his enemy as “other” or foreign, calling Scientology “the only Anglo-Saxon development in the field of the mind and spirit,” and thereby suggesting that psychiatry, with its Freudian roots, is a culturally alien or perhaps even “un-American” discipline. To emphasize the point, Hubbard added that an auditor can no more cooperate with a psychiatrist than “do business with Hitler.” A subsequent passage affirmed:

Nearly all the backlash in society against Dianetics and Scientology has a common source—the psychiatrist-psychologist-psychoanalyst clique. … I could tell you about three actual murders. I could tell you about long strings of psychotics run in on the Foundation and the Association, sent in to us by psychiatrists who then, using LSD and pain-drug-hypnosis, spun them and told everyone Dianetics and Scientology drove people insane. … Reversely, the public utterly LOATHES psychiatry. You waste time if you try to defame psychiatry to the public. … Psychiatry stands in the public mind for ineffectiveness, lies and inhuman brutality.

This angry distillation of Hubbard’s thinking about psychiatry marked the point of no return for Scientology. The following year, he began to develop two more specific prongs of attack that have persisted to this day. The first of these was the incorporation of psychiatrists as indigenous and evil forces within Scientology’s bizarre “whole-track” cosmology—a vast, science-fictional set of claims about inter-galactic events that occurred billions of years ago, memories of which can be accessed in more advanced levels of auditing. Regarding an ancient, would-be Scientologist’s face being shoved into a “super-cooled” sheet of glass, Hubbard commented:

Now, that’s pretty good. I mean, that was developed about five billion years ago by a whole-track psychiatrist. … Now, if you wish to play God, as a whole-track psychiatrist did at that time, all you have to say at this time is, of course, “Go to Earth and be president,” or something like that. … And a thetan, being properly brainwashed now, will take off, and that’s that.

Although odd on the surface, the identification of psychiatrists as evil from time immemorial has served Scientology well. Every cult needs an outside enemy to enhance cohesion, and few are better suited to this purpose than one that has wreaked havoc on mankind for billions of years.

The second angle of attack that became clearer in 1956 is more earthly and has remained central to Scientology ever since: the idea of psychiatry as a greedy and immoral money-making enterprise:

Psychiatry, as far as I can understand today, as a society or social organization, is an appropriation racket. It’s a racket by which they worry people about the tremendous number of insane cases, you know? And they get everybody worried enough so that they appropriate billions of dollars, and then this can be spent any which way. It’s a racket.

To understand Scientology’s antipathy towards psychiatry and psychiatrists today, we must make sense of Hubbard’s dramatic shift in attitude over this brief 1955–56 timeframe. It is simply not enough to accept Scientology’s oft-repeated assertion that a “war” was declared on Hubbard and Dianetics on May 9th, 1950. Indeed, we must account for the fact that the scathing reviews of his book came five or six years before Hubbard’s decisive change. When his attitude hardened and psychiatry became an age-old enemy bent on his destruction, Hubbard’s enterprise was already safe behind the cloak of religion, and he was starting to make some big money. So what really happened?

The trigger

Hubbard’s famous leap from “science” to religion in 1954 was almost certainly a disappointment for him in many ways. He had never presented himself as an especially pious man, and there was virtually no spirituality or religion in Dianetics or his immediately subsequent publications. His efforts to describe his personal background and approach to mental healing as entirely rational and steeped in mathematics and engineering were at times almost breathtaking; it is easy to imagine that Hubbard never fully escaped the narcissist’s gnawing doubt beneath the grandiose claims.

Sensitized by his early failure as an engineering student, his subsequent lack of success as a Navy officer, and the painful criticism and demise of Dianetics in the early ’50s, Hubbard was further primed by this major setback of 1953–54. The most compelling trigger for Hubbard’s paranoid, anti-psychiatry rage was, as expected from what has been described as a malignantly narcissistic personality structure, raw and overwhelming envy. Understanding this requires a brief exploration of the history of psychiatry, focusing particularly on the modern revolution of psychopharmacology.

Some of Hubbard’s basic criticisms of institutional psychiatry in the 1940s and early ’50s were not unreasonable. Psychiatry was tasked with the management and treatment of the most fundamentally ill and behaviourally disturbed individuals in society. Acute mania could render a patient unable to sleep for days, literally driven to exhaustion, collapse, and sometimes death. Behaviourally regressed patients could harm themselves or repeatedly attempt suicide. Severe depression could render a patient unable to eat or drink or move, and require intrusive efforts to ensure safety and survival. Overtly psychotic and agitated patients roamed the wards as well, presenting a constant threat of danger to themselves and others.

When Scientology was born, there was no effective treatment for these types of conditions. Patients were institutionalized because they could not be adequately or safely managed in the community. Hydrotherapy, or the application of cold water or ice baths, was thought to calm agitation by lowering the body temperature. Somatic treatments, such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or psychosurgery, were performed in the most severe cases and with frequently destructive results. Medications were almost exclusively sedative in nature, and had little therapeutic effect on patients beyond inducing drowsiness or sleep. Barbiturates were ubiquitous but they were highly addictive and could be lethal—think of Marilyn Monroe—in even a modest overdose. Overall, psychiatric medications were largely reserved for the institutions. There were virtually no effective and safe medications for community patients, and those with “neurosis” (and money) were dealt with by analytically-oriented psychotherapy in a psychiatrist’s private office.

None of this history is contested, and the harm done to people by ineffective and inhumane treatments has long been acknowledged by the psychiatric community. However, despite appearances, Hubbard’s timing for launching a rival to this dubious potpourri of treatments could not have been worse, for between late 1954 and 1956, a pharmaceutical revolution utterly changed the nature of psychiatry. After this revolution, there was no doubt whatsoever about which competitor in the field of mental health took home the prize. Banished to virtual irrelevancy in the wake of this event, Hubbard had just one remaining play: all-out warfare. The pharmaceutical revolution is thus the trigger that brought out the narcissistic rage of L. Ron Hubbard and inaugurated Scientology’s ongoing war against psychiatry.

This revolution did not happen overnight; its roots can be traced to the horrors of World War II, when it became apparent that large numbers of previously healthy young men were manifesting psychological reactions to wartime events. Efforts to better understand and categorize the stress responses of soldiers, and by extension, of others in society, ultimately led to the publication of the American Psychiatric Association’s first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-1) in 1952. But pharmaceutical developments themselves (in the context of a nascent awareness of the biological underpinnings of mental illness and the post-War resurgence in psychiatric teaching and research) were the driving forces behind the revolution.

The institutional component of the pharmaceutical revolution came first from France, where in 1950 an antihistaminic compound called chlorpromazine was synthesized by chemist Paul Charpentier in the quest for a pre-operative sedating agent. After appearing to reduce agitation and psychosis in some patients, the drug was brought to America and the results of a successful open-label trial were published by psychiatrist Willis Bower in the New England Journal of Medicine in October 1954. Chlorpromazine was rapidly approved for psychiatric use and marketed as the anti-psychotic medication Thorazine by Smith, Kline, and French.

Chlorpromazine was the first ever tolerable medication to have a beneficial and specific effect on psychotic symptoms. For this reason, its effects on institutionalized patients—especially those with schizophrenia—were profound. The improvements in patient care were simply unimaginable prior to this breakthrough, and as a result, sales of the new drug exploded. This development was not simply appreciated by a few medical specialists or cloistered researchers; the news spread quickly as families reclaimed members from their disorganized and delusional states.

In this environment, it is impossible that Hubbard was unaware of the treatment revolution, or that he had not seen evidence of its effect on the public’s perception of psychiatry and the explosive new field of psychopharmacology. In June of 1954, Time magazine labelled chlorpromazine a possible “Wonder Drug.” Early the following year, the popular magazine produced a lengthy article titled “Pills for the Mind,” noting that chlorpromazine and its chemical cousin reserpine, were “as important, in their way, as the germ-killing sulphas discovered in the 1930s.” For any self-styled “rival” or alternative to psychiatry keen to taint the profession with charges of ineptitude, lack of progress, and attachment to cruel and antiquated treatments, the widely heralded, public introduction of chlorpromazine was crushing. But for L. Ron Hubbard, 1955 was about to get much worse.

In 1950, a young microbiologist named Frank Berger and a colleague had unintentionally synthesized another calming agent, which was subsequently refined and called “meprobamate.” After several trials, it was licensed and marketed by Wallace Laboratories as “Miltown” (named after a “tranquil” New Jersey hamlet) on May 9th, 1955. For a few months, Miltown’s profile was as quiet as its namesake. However, in August 1955, US sales climbed to $85,000; in September, the take boomed to $218,000; and by Christmas the total sales for the year came to more than $2 million. The revolution had truly begun.

Miltown, unlike chlorpromazine, was a “minor” tranquilizer, and was the first medication tailored to regular men and women with day-to-day anxieties or neuroses. Previously, the only real pharmaceutical option for the stress of daily life was low-dose barbiturates, with all their attendant dangers and side-effects. That a medicine could be taken for “real world” stress, and that it was claimed to be non-addictive and far safer and more tolerable than any alternatives, was revolutionary. That it was affordable, unlike psychoanalysis, meant that meprobamate was the only game in town for Main Street.

In the winter of 1955–56, behind a wave of consumer-driven hysteria, Miltown seduced America like no drug before it. With references to “emotional aspirin” or “peace pills” or “don’t-give-a-damn” pills, the public’s curiosity and excitement was unprecedented, and long lines formed outside of pharmacies everywhere. Cosmopolitan magazine enthusiastically noted that Miltown is “safe and quick,” and “does not deaden or dull the senses” but rather “gives people a renewed ability to enjoy life.” In the four winter months of 1955–56, a single pharmacy, Schwab’s on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, sold 250,000 meprobamate pills. Later that year, Newsweek reported that 1/20 of all Americans took tranquilizers in a given 30-day period, and noted the New York Academy of Sciences affirming that “meprobamate, under proper medical supervision, is truly an ideal tranquilizer.” By 1957, over 36 million prescriptions had been filled in America alone, a billion pills manufactured, and tranquilizers accounted for a full third of all prescriptions written.

This public enthusiasm even extended to how science, particularly psychiatry and psychopharmacology, was embraced. Life magazine noted in 1956 that over “the next ten years, doctors may learn as much about the mind as in the past 2000.” Science News Letter quoted a professor of medical history declaring that “tranquilizers would change medicine as much in the next 10 years as antibiotics had in the previous 15 years.” Economics were also in play, with the president of one pharmaceutical company noting in a 1956 edition of Business Week that “the tranquilizer business is so terrific that retail prescription sales may top $25 million this year and may double in 1957.”

L. Ron Hubbard gained religion and lost his self-styled identity as a mental health “scientist” in the same year that chlorpromazine was declared a wonder-drug and began to empty the asylums. The death-knell for the institutional treatments like hydrotherapy and psychosurgery was sounding loudly, but it was not Hubbard ringing it. His twin creations of Dianetics and Scientology were, above all else, populist, and were to be effective for and available to everyone in America. More than anything, he had pushed for his techniques to replace the elitist and expensive practice of psychoanalysis. By mid-to-late 1955, however, his new Church of Scientology was simply bowled over by the first wave of populist psychopharmacology, capturing the affection, attention, and money of his own intended audience in a way that he could never have imagined. Wherever he looked in 1955–56, all he would have seen were more line-ups at dispensaries, more hype from magazines, and more excitement about the scientific and pharmacological future of mental health.

For Hubbard, so narcissistically prone to relentless, burning envy, the spring of 1955 through the fall of 1956 were likely agonizing. It is not surprising that his statements about psychiatry changed and assumed a paranoid and aggressive character during this precise period; they are consistent with the overwhelming and public narcissistic injury he had just sustained. The historical record shows that the rage triggered by the pharmaceutical revolution would consume Hubbard for the rest of his life.

A final point about this exact timeframe pertains to celebrity and demonstrates just how thoroughly Hubbard’s efforts were usurped by the world’s first psychotropic blockbuster. Consistent with the classical narcissistic need to surround oneself with “specialness,” Hubbard had become extremely interested in bringing celebrities into his new church. In early 1955, coincidentally, just before the public launch of Miltown, Hubbard announced “Project Celebrity” in the in-house Scientology magazine, Ability. The project encouraged readers to select a celebrity “quarry” from a list supplied by Hubbard, and then pursue that celebrity over time with the goal of enticing them into Scientology. Hubbard was hopeful about this, writing that “it is obvious what would happen to Scientology if prime communicators benefitting from it would mention it now and then.” He encouraged his followers by offering “a small plaque as a reward” for netting one of the big fish. Hubbard’s wish-list of over 60 celebrity targets from that era included Orson Welles, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Walt Disney, and Milton Berle.

Just months after Hubbard launched Project Celebrity, these efforts too were blown away by the Miltown juggernaut. As with the general public, the drug’s uptake by entertainment celebrities was unprecedented and another humiliation for Hubbard. Los Angeles was referred to by many as “Miltown-by-the-Sea.” Hollywood stars “gushed about Miltown, gossip reporters wrote treatises on it, and at celebrity galas, illicit Miltown was passed around as casually as canapes.” For the second time, Hubbard’s precise goal for his nascent church had been completely usurped by the psychiatric establishment. In the cheeky words of one of Scientology’s major celebrity targets, Milton Berle: “Miltown worked wonders for me. In fact, I’m thinking about changing my name to Miltown Berle!”


As the 1960s commenced, L. Ron Hubbard managed to expand his organization and grow exceedingly wealthy on a personal level. Soon, however, Scientology found itself embroiled in a growing number of genuine conflicts with governments and other civil authorities across a wide range of countries. Interestingly, none of these conflicts was ever actually with organized psychiatry itself. But as Hubbard’s frustration increased with these legal entanglements and his endless list of perceived slights and rejections, it was psychiatry which remained his favourite scapegoat, the receptacle into which all of his failures and humiliations could be emptied.

In 1969, a very senior Scientologist, presumably Hubbard, wrote a confidential memo to his wife, Mary-Sue, who by that time was running the intelligence and security apparatus for the organization. Headed “The War,” this memo ominously de-emphasized the spiritual work of Scientology in favour of a corresponding total commitment to, and plan for, the destruction of the profession of psychiatry:

Our war has been forced to become “To take over absolutely the field of mental healing on this planet in all forms.” … That was not the original purpose. The original purpose was to clear Earth. The battles suffered developed the data that we had an enemy who would have to be gotten out of the way and this meant we were at war. … By showing him to be brutal, venal and plotting we get him discarded. … Our direct assault will come when they start to arrest his principals and troops for crimes (already begun).

That same year, Hubbard established the Citizens’ Commission on Human Rights with support from the prominent psychiatrist and psychiatry-critic, Thomas Szasz. This development represented a much more sophisticated and pervasive campaign strategy than the episodic outbursts and rants of the previous decade. Instead of raging at his enemy in lectures or memos, Hubbard could now calmly pass himself off as a global activist for “human rights.” Through the CCHR, Hubbard’s goal of destroying an established branch of medicine took on a shiny new veneer, thus allowing for easier acceptance and integration into society at large. It is the CCHR which remains today the public face of Hubbard's “war”—a significant part of which is presenting its own malign perspective about “the history of psychiatry,” along with exaggerated claims regarding the ineffectiveness and danger of psychiatric medications.

With a touch of irony perhaps, the 1960s also ushered in the era of Valium and other benzodiazepines—the pharmacological replacements for meprobamate, which proved less effective, more addictive, and medically riskier than so loudly promised a decade earlier. Today, benzodiazepines are themselves out of favour for the exact same reasons, demonstrating that psychiatry remains imperfect and too often unhelpful, but unlike Scientology has fundamentally remained open to improvement, correction, and justified criticism from within and without.

Scientology’s existential war was triggered by a critical development in the history of psychiatry, and one that specifically featured a revolution in pharmacological treatment for the masses. There is certainly room today to consider whether or not this revolution has played out as hoped for in society. What is beyond debate is that Scientology found itself an eternal enemy, and has used psychiatry to sustain itself with rage and hatred to this day.

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