Alec Nevala-Lee | Longreads | October 2018 | 21 minutes (5,739 words)
For most of his life, John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, had trouble remembering his childhood. He had filled his stories with extravagant images, but he had no visual memory, to the point that he was unable to picture the faces of his own wife and children. When L. Ron Hubbard, one of his most prolific writers, approached him with the promise of a new science of the mind, he was understandably intrigued. And he was especially attracted by the possibility that it would allow him to recall events that he had forgotten or repressed.
In the summer of 1949, Campbell was thirty-nine years old and living in New Jersey. For over a decade, he had been the single most influential figure in what would later be known as the golden age of science fiction, and he had worked extensively with Hubbard, who was popular with fans. The two men were personally close, and when Hubbard, who was a year younger, suffered from depression after World War II, Campbell became concerned for his friend’s mental state: “He was a quivering psychoneurotic wreck, practically ready to break down completely.”
Hubbard had sought medical treatment for his psychological problems, which he also tried to address in unconventional ways. While living in Savannah, Georgia, he began to revise Excalibur, an unpublished manuscript on the human mind that he had written years earlier. In a letter to his agent, Hubbard said that the book had information on how to “rape women without their knowing it,” and that he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to use it to abolish the Catholic Church or found one of his own. He concluded, “Don’t know why I suddenly got the nerve to go into this again and let it loose. It’s probably either a great love or an enormous hatred of humanity.”
Years later, Hubbard would incorporate many of these ideas into the teachings of the Church of Scientology, but his first inclination was to pitch the scientific community. On April 13, 1949, he wrote to the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the Gerontological Society in Baltimore, saying that he had treated twenty patients until they could remember events from before birth. He claimed to be working for free with criminals, orphans, and a boy who was failing his classes, and he told the writer Robert A. Heinlein—another important member of Campbell’s circle—that if he ever started charging for his services, “the local psychiatrists, now my passionate pals, would leave me dead in some back alley.”
Hubbard’s attempts to interest professional societies went nowhere, but one last possibility remained. In May, he contacted Campbell about his research, and the editor invited him to come out for a visit. At the end of the month, Hubbard and his wife Sara moved into a house near the offices of Astounding in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Campbell wasn’t impressed by what he saw of Excalibur, calling it “more fiction than anything else,” but he was struck by Hubbard’s appearance: “The sparkle was back, and it was genuine. His conversation was lucid and thoroughly organized. He was thinking again. He told me he had found the secret of the problem of the mind—but more important he had found himself.”
He told me he had found the secret of the problem of the mind—but more important he had found himself.
In its latest incarnation, Hubbard’s theory hinged on the idea that the brain was divided into two halves—the analytic and reactive minds. The former was perfectly rational, but it could be affected by memories, or “impediments,” implanted while a person was unconscious. Such experiences were stored in the reactive mind, which took over in times of stress—a patient who heard a doctor say “He’s better off dead” while under anesthesia would take it as a literal command. Hubbard’s treatment, which didn’t have a name yet, was designed to access these recollections, some of which dated from before birth, and erase any damaging behavior patterns.
Hubbard could hardly have found a more receptive audience. Campbell was fascinated by the idea of refining psychology into an exact science, and he had published countless works of fiction that explored this theme, including the stories by Isaac Asimov that would later be collected under the title I, Robot. After the war, he had frequently editorialized that a better understanding of the mind was necessary to save mankind from a nuclear holocaust, and Hubbard’s therapy seemed like one possible answer—but it soon became clear that it wasn’t working on the one man in the world whose support it desperately needed.
In its earliest form, the treatment amounted to a kind of hypnotism—Hubbard was an accomplished hypnotist who liked to show off at parties—but Campbell turned out to be stubbornly resistant to suggestion. It was a defense mechanism, he claimed, that he had used to deal with his emotionally manipulative mother, leaving him with “a permanent—but useful!—scar.” A few years later, he offered an alternative explanation: “I had known [Hubbard] as a professional, accomplished liar since 1938; nothing he said could be believed without personal conscious cross-checking. That sort of barrier makes hypnosis damn near impossible!”
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They decided to try drugs. Campbell, who didn’t even like to drink at home, agreed to take phenobarbital, a sedative, followed by scopolamine, a notorious truth serum. He hated one course of the latter so much that he refused to try it again—it left him dehydrated, confused, and listless—but he was willing to consider other approaches. Hubbard, in turn, knew that the editor was his best hope of bringing his ideas to a wider audience, and he was equally determined to continue.
By all indications, they had reached a dead end, but Hubbard had one last idea, which he claimed to have based on an apparatus described by the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who had taught hypnosis to Sigmund Freud. Four mirrors were arranged in a truncated pyramid on a record player, with a lit candle placed nearby. When the turntable revolved at its highest speed, the result was a flicker of light that flashed at over three hundred times per minute.
Campbell sat across from the phonograph. They turned it on. Almost immediately, he found himself overwhelmed by a feeling of pure horror, followed by a wave of memories that he had locked away. The editor confessed, “I’d been scared before in my life, but never that scared. I had to have Ron hold my hand—literally—while I spilled some of the fear. He’s a fairly big guy, and fairly rugged, but twice I damned near crushed his hand when some of the really hot ones hit.”
In the end, Campbell spoke like a frightened child for six hours, and his terror was contagious—Hubbard was allegedly so shaken by the technique that they never used it again. The mirrors, Campbell came to believe, had accidentally coincided with his brain’s alpha rhythms, and he compared its effects to electroshock therapy or the use of drugs to induce seizures in psychiatric patients. Yet it would be months before he remembered what he had actually said—Hubbard supposedly erased the experiences themselves, leaving only the memory of the session behind.
In the end, Campbell spoke like a frightened child for six hours, and his terror was contagious—Hubbard was allegedly so shaken by the technique that they never used it again.
Many of the episodes that the editor eventually recovered revolved around his family, including a traumatic memory of his birth. According to Campbell, the doctor at the delivery had barked at his mother in a German accent: “The cord is caught around his neck and it is strangling him. You must stop fighting—you are killing him. Relax! You are killing him with your fighting! You must think your way out of this!” The forceps had slashed open the baby’s cheek, and afterward, a nurse had put drops in his eyes and remarked: “He’s just not interested in people!”
Campbell concluded that these words had shaped his personality, leading to much of his subsequent unhappiness. According to Hubbard, they even verified the account with the editor’s mother: “The recording of her sequence compared word for word with his sequence, detail for detail, name for name.” Other memories were equally disturbing. When he was six weeks old, Campbell’s mother—who had wanted to go to a party—had given him salt water to make him sick, which provided her with an excuse to leave him with his grandmother. He had almost drowned at age three, and a few months later, he had swallowed morphine pills and nearly overdosed.
Or so he thought. In reality, most of these incidents were probably imaginary, either knowingly implanted by Hubbard, or, more plausibly, drawn out of what Campbell honestly believed about himself. But it was enough. Later that summer, after additional treatment, Campbell wrote to Heinlein, with whom he was also good friends: “Do I know things about my family I never knew I knew!….Come visit us, sometime, Bob, and I’ll show you how to get data to blackmail the hell out of parents—blackmail the hell out of them so they back down and behave like human beings instead of the high and mighty and perfect.”
In the meantime, Campbell’s growing fixation on Hubbard’s work had taken a toll on his marriage. Doña, the editor’s wife, was a brilliant woman in her own right, but they had grown apart after the war, and she turned for consolation to a mutual friend, George O. Smith, a writer who lived in Philadelphia. One afternoon, Smith was cleaning up at the house when his doorbell rang. When he answered it, he was stunned to see Doña. She had driven eighty miles from New Jersey, and she didn’t waste time on small talk. “George, build me a good, stiff drink!”
As he listened, Doña poured out her story. Campbell, she said, had become obsessed with Hubbard’s new mental therapy, of which she deeply disapproved: “She took a dim view of anyone without academic schooling in medicine or the mind playing with what she called an ‘offshoot’ of psychiatry.” And while this wasn’t the first point of disagreement between Doña and her husband, it was the one that finally drove her into another man’s arms.
Over the next year, they carried on an affair in plain sight. Every Friday, Smith took the train to New Jersey, picked up Doña, and went back to Indian Queen. On Sunday, they reversed the process. Smith recalled, “John was satisfied so long as the house was clean and there was food…and especially happy when Doña left the place, so he could have his dianetic sessions without someone waving an admonitory forefinger from left to right while her head moved right to left in opposition.”
Campbell would later say that their marriage had been in trouble for a long time, with Doña “having no interest in the future with me these past couple of years.” He blamed his persistent health problems not on overwork, but on “underwife,” while Doña, in turn, described the situation with Hubbard as “only the last straw in a very ungood situation.” But while Hubbard may not have caused the breach, he certainly benefited from Doña’s absence. Campbell was more alone than ever—and Hubbard was ready to take advantage of it.
Campbell and Hubbard decided to involve someone from the medical side, which would allow them to present their research more convincingly. The year before, Astounding had published an article about endocrinology by a doctor in Michigan named Joseph Winter. Campbell had long been fascinated by the subject, which Winter extolled as the interface between the body and the mind: “It’ll be a great world when endocrinology reaches its peak—no dwarfs, no sterile women, no impotent men, no homosexuals, no insanity and no unhappiness. No fooling!”
In July, Campbell wrote to invite Winter to join their new project: “L. Ron Hubbard, who happens to be an author, has been doing some psychological research….He’s basically an engineer. He approached the problem of psychiatry from the heuristic viewpoint—to get results.” Winter was receptive. He was a fan of the Polish philosopher Alfred Korzybski, who had developed a similar discipline known as General Semantics, and he was intrigued by the claim that Hubbard had treated both mental illness and conditions such as asthma and ulcers.
Campbell’s letter was followed by one from Hubbard: “My vanity hopes that you will secure credit to me for eleven years of unpaid research, but my humanity hopes…that this science will be used as intelligently and extensively as possible.” Hubbard described himself as “a trained mathematician,” but in a moment of uncharacteristic modesty, he also said, “The articles you suggest would be more acceptable coming from another pen than mine.”
Back in New Jersey, after their breakthrough with the mirrors, Campbell’s work with Hubbard had grown more intense, with sessions often conducted by telephone. Hubbard allegedly discovered a sentence that could work as an “automatic restimulator” for anyone’s impediments, and when he used it in a call to Campbell, the editor left his house at once: “[I] was barely able to hold myself under control for the seven minutes necessary to reach his place….I arrived with arms and legs quivering uncontrollably, my stomach knotted up in cold fear, palpitations of the heart, heavy cold sweat, and just generally a state of acute nervous collapse.”
He felt that he was benefiting from the treatment—he had lost twenty pounds, and his chronic sinusitis seemed to be gone—and he even used it on his daughters. Leslyn, who had turned four, suffered from itchiness, which Campbell supposedly took away in three minutes. When Peedee, who was nine, fell off her bike and skinned both knees, he saw it as an opportunity for an experiment: “I used the technique on one knee—the worst. It healed completely about three days before the other, and all pain was gone from it within five minutes.” But Doña still refused to be treated.
Campbell began to reach out to others. On September 15, 1949, he wrote excitedly to Heinlein: “I firmly believe this technique can cure cancer….This is, I am certain, the greatest story in the world—far bigger than the atomic bomb, because this is the story of controlling human thought, freeing it for use—and it is human thought that controls atomic energy. It is a story that must be spread, though, and spread fast….But dammit, Bob, right now the key to world sanity is in Ron Hubbard’s head, and there isn’t even an adequate written record!” Heinlein responded cautiously: “You will appreciate that I must approach this with scientific skepticism, albeit an open mind. If he is right, he has a discovery that makes the atom bomb look like peanuts.”
But dammit, Bob, right now the key to world sanity is in Ron Hubbard’s head, and there isn’t even an adequate written record!
In October, Winter arrived in New Jersey, where he watched as Hubbard took Campbell back to a period before his birth. Listening to Campbell’s chest with a stethoscope, Winter became concerned for his health, and he was amazed when the editor seemed to recover as soon as the memory had been discharged. He concluded that the treatment was basically just a form of hypnosis, but he was willing to try it for himself. Moving in with Hubbard and the pregnant Sara, Winter commenced treatment, lying on the couch for up to three hours a day. The process was sometimes agonizing: “I had nightmares of being choked, of having my genitalia cut off.”
The team’s work in the early days was characterized by wild experimentation—at one point, they tried combining scopolamine with heavy doses of phenobarbital or sodium amytal—and they frequently argued over terminology. The term “impediment” was replaced with “norn,” after the fates of Norse mythology, and then with the more clinical “engram.” A “clear” was a person whose engrams had been successfully removed, leaving him with total recall and freedom from psychosomatic disease, while a patient became known as a “preclear.”
Gradually, they refined Hubbard’s methods, which Campbell called “rules of thumb,” into a process known as auditing. A typical encounter began with the patient seated in an armchair in a quiet room. Smoking wasn’t allowed, which must have annoyed Campbell, who was rarely without a cigarette. The auditor ran through the patient’s memories, advancing along a “time track” of incidents, which would be relived as many times as necessary to discharge them of emotion. A special emphasis was placed on prenatal trauma, including attempted abortions, and the ultimate objective was to erase the very first engram, which had been installed shortly after conception.
It was a reasonably effective system of talk therapy, and it had as much in common with Campbell’s editorial style—in which he hammered away at writers and readers, asking them to question their assumptions—as with Hubbard’s hypnotic techniques. Campbell compared it to figuring out a story idea, and it sometimes felt like an attempt to institutionalize his method of raising the intelligence of his subscribers. Hubbard himself was less good at it, and observers later noted that he rarely followed his own procedures: “Although he did a lot of talking, he couldn’t audit….He had to resort to a sort of black magic hypnosis.”
As Campbell’s confidence in the technique increased, he brought in science fiction fans to be treated in his basement, and there were even a few lighter moments. Hubbard owned a calico cat, Countess Motorboat, which the editor would always kick: “So I just simply processed the cat up to the point where the cat, every time John W. Campbell, Jr. would sit down, would go over and tear his shoelaces open.” On another occasion, Campbell’s daughter Leslyn rose from where she had been playing with her toys, walked across the room, and kicked Hubbard in the shins. She remembered: “I guess I didn’t like being ignored.”
Throughout this period, the assumption within the group was that they were preparing a paper for a professional journal, and Campbell hoped to run a piece in Astounding as well. The first hint of an article appeared in the December 1949 issue, in which Campbell wrote, “It is an article on the science of the mind, of human thought. It is not an article on psychology—that isn’t a science. It’s not General Semantics. It is a totally new science, called dianetics, and it does precisely what a science of thought should do….The articles are in preparation.”
This was the first attested use of the word “dianetics,” which was allegedly derived from the Greek for “through the mind.” Campbell, notably, failed to mention Hubbard by name, and he didn’t state specifically that the articles would appear in Astounding, which indicated that authorship and placement were still under discussion. Winter submitted a paper informally to the Journal of the American Medical Association, which turned it down for lack of evidence, saying that it might be a better fit for a psychotherapy journal. It was dutifully revised for the American Journal of Psychiatry, which rejected it on similar grounds.
Astounding was their last remaining option. Campbell evidently feared that printing it there would make it harder for readers to take it seriously—he cautioned a correspondent years later against publishing research in a science fiction magazine, which would stamp it with that label for decades. He decided against presenting himself as a coauthor, a decision that would have important consequences, and asked Hubbard to obtain a rebuttal that could run alongside the article.
In response, Hubbard said that he couldn’t get any doctors to listen to him, so he and Winter composed a fake reply, “A Criticism of Dianetics,” credited to the nonexistent Dr. Irving R. Kutzman, M.D. Hubbard claimed that it consisted of comments from four psychiatrists he had consulted, which he had “played…back very carefully” using his own perfect memory. He also described setting up “a psychiatric demon” to write the article, which referred to the notion that a clear could deliberately create mental delusions for his own amusement.
It was an unexpectedly straightforward piece—Hubbard said that “it is in no sense an effort to be funny and it is not funny”—that anticipated many objections that would later be raised against dianetics, including the charge that it merely repackaged existing concepts. “Kutzman” argued that Hubbard had just thirteen months of data—which was actually a generous estimate—and that there was no evidence that any improvements would be permanent.
The article was never published, and no true rebuttal ever materialized, which indicated the extent to which Hubbard had given up on collaborating with the establishment. Campbell had yet to abandon that hope, and he worked hard to find a reputable publisher. He finally succeeded with Art Ceppos of the medical publishing firm Hermitage House, and a contract was signed around Christmas. They hoped to release the book by April—Hubbard cranked out a draft in a month—but it was delayed by the addition of fifty thousand words of new material.
Anticipation within fan circles was growing, stoked by Campbell’s announcements, and it seeped into the wider culture. On January 31, 1950, the columnist Walter Winchell wrote, “There is something new coming up in April called Dianetics. A new science which works with the invariability of physical science in the field of the human mind. From all indications it will prove to be as revolutionary for humanity as the first caveman’s discovery and utilization of fire.”
There is something new coming up in April called Dianetics. A new science which works with the invariability of physical science in the field of the human mind. From all indications it will prove to be as revolutionary for humanity as the first caveman’s discovery and utilization of fire.
On March 8, Sara—who later claimed that Hubbard had kicked her in the stomach in an attempt to induce an abortion—gave birth to a daughter named Alexis Valerie. Winter was the doctor at the delivery, which was conducted in silence, to avoid implanting any engrams. Hubbard proudly said that the world’s first dianetic baby was unusually alert, and Winter concurred: “There was a greatly accelerated rate of development….This child had a much more even disposition and was less given to startle reactions and temper manifestations than the average child.”
Hubbard had reason to be pleased, but Campbell was less happy. Without attribution, he had written an appendix to the book, “Advice to the Pre-Clear,” in which he laid out the challenges that the patient faced: “Anyone attempting to stop an individual from entering therapy either has a use for the aberrations of that individual—on the ‘push-button’ order—or has something to hide….Wives with children may have a fear that therapy will eventually be applied to the children, in which case much information might come to light which the husband or society ‘should never know.’”
Campbell was speaking from experience. His wife still refused to support dianetics, and she had resisted auditing for herself and their children. In the terms that the Church of Scientology would later use to describe its enemies, Doña Campbell was the original Suppressive Person.
“Terra Incognita: The Mind,” the first article on dianetics, appeared in the Winter/Spring 1950 issue of The Explorers Journal, the official periodical of the Explorers Club. In its most intriguing sentence, Hubbard offered a glimpse into the treatment’s origins: “While dianetics does not consider the brain as an electronic computing machine except for purposes of analogy, it is nevertheless a member of that class of sciences to which belong General Semantics and cybernetics and, as a matter of fact, forms a bridge between the two.”
In reality, neither field had played any significant role in Hubbard’s work before his arrival in New Jersey, and their inclusion betrayed how deeply his ideas had been shaped by his collaborators. General Semantics, the mental therapy developed by Alfred Korzybski, had long been popular among science fiction writers, including Heinlein, of whom Hubbard wrote, “Bob Heinlein sat down one time and talked for ten whole minutes on the subject of Korzybski to me and it was very clever. I know quite a bit about Korzybski’s works.” And Sara later recalled of her husband: “He became a big follower of Korzybski.”
Hubbard, like Campbell, was unable to finish any of Korzybski’s books, and he relied mostly on Winter and Sara for his knowledge of General Semantics, which anticipated dianetics in several ways. Korzybski had written that painful memories could be restimulated by events in the present, and that treatment might consist of reliving such incidents under therapy. Hubbard also alluded to what Korzybski described as the confusion between a mental map and the underlying reality: “The analytical mind computes in differences. The reactive mind computes in identities.”
Even more profound was the influence of cybernetics. The discipline had arisen in the work of the mathematician Norbert Wiener, whom Campbell had known as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While designing anti-aircraft guns during World War II, Wiener found that one prototype would swing wildly while locking on to its target. After one of his colleagues compared it to “purpose tremor,” the involuntary trembling that can occur during fine motor activity, Wiener looked into the phenomenon of feedback, in which the difference between an intention and its result generates information that is fed back into the system.
Wiener began to study servomechanisms, or machines that used negative feedback to correct themselves, such as naval steering systems or thermostats. In 1948, he coined the term “cybernetics,” after the Greek word for navigation, and defined the field in the subtitle of his landmark Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Campbell was familiar with Wiener’s research—as well as in contact with Bell Labs, where the concept of feedback was developed—and he would have eagerly read the book soon after its publication. When Hubbard arrived in Elizabeth, a piece on cybernetics was already in the pipeline at the magazine.
And its impact was felt at once. In the “Affirmations,” an autobiographical document that Hubbard produced after the war, he said of the unpublished Excalibur, “There was one error in that book and you have psychically willed it into nothing. It was the electronic theory of the workings of the human mind. Human, material minds do work this way and you were right. Your own mind does not work this way.” An “electronic theory” was evidently present at an early stage of Hubbard’s work, but it troubled him, and in its intermediate versions, it disappeared entirely. In a letter to Heinlein on March 31, 1949, Hubbard focused instead on what he called the tone scale, an elaborate hierarchy of human emotion, and he wrote proudly of its benefits, “I’m up to eight comes. In an evening, that is.”
What he didn’t mention was any relationship between the brain and a computer. Four months later, when Campbell wrote to Heinlein, this analogy was suddenly at the forefront. After mentioning that he had attended a lecture by Warren McCulloch, one of Wiener’s collaborators, he stated, “Basically, the brain is a relay-computer of the type that the ENIAC is.” In a subsequent letter, he repeated this point—“The human mind is a calculating machine, a binary digital computer, of immense complexity, and absolutely unrealized capability”—and only after discussing it at length did he write, “Now we take off on Ron’s work.”
Campbell’s distinction strongly implied that the computer analogy was his own contribution, even if it was only a return to the “electronic theory” that had been previously discarded. In a letter to Winter, Hubbard named psychoanalysis, hypnosis, and Christian Science as his major influences, while Campbell provided an expanded list to Heinlein: “Christian Science, Catholic miracle shrines, voodoo practices, native witch doctor work, and the witch methods of European tradition, as well as modern psychology’s teachings.” Cybernetics was nowhere to be found.
Less than a year later, it was all over the book. The term “dianetics” itself, which was coined in the fall of 1949, evoked cybernetics, while the word “clear” was an analogy to “clearing” an adding machine. Both theories drew parallels between the brain and a computer—Wiener pictured “anxiety neuroses” as circular processes that drained the mind of its capacity, while dianetics evoked the “demon circuit,” a parasitic memory that depleted the brain of its life force. Yet there is no indication that Hubbard had read Wiener before coming to New Jersey, if he ever read him at all. In “A Criticism of Dianetics,” he referred to him as “Dr. Werner.”
Any cybernetic elements in dianetics emerged, in short, during the period in which Campbell was working with Hubbard to position it for his readers. His primary role was to add a layer of science over what was already there, as he had with so many other writers. He effectively edited the book Dianetics, and his impact on it was just as meaningful as it was for the fiction that he published. Sara later said of Campbell, “He was a marvelous editor.”
If the cybernetic angle came primarily from Campbell, it was motivated largely by his sense of how the therapy could be presented. On May 30, 1950, he wrote to the managing editor of the journal Psychiatry about “a new, logical theory as to why there are two levels of mind in man,” but he didn’t mention Hubbard for nearly three pages. Instead, he summarized an article in Astounding that defined a perfect computer, moving from there to dianetics, which he described as a separate development from “the cybernetic suggestion” that led to “precisely similar conclusions.”
In reality, the relationship was tenuous at best, which didn’t prevent him from claiming otherwise. He either willfully misunderstood cybernetic ideas or saw them as a rhetorical entry point to persuade skeptics, and he persisted in treating dianetics as a kind of practical cybernetics. Campbell even reached out to Wiener himself, writing that his former professor would “be greatly interested” in dianetics “as suggesting a new direction of development of the work from the cybernetics side,” and concluding, “Further study of dianetics will be of immense aid in your projects.”
He also contacted his neighbor, the mathematician Claude Shannon, who had founded the field of information theory at Bell Labs. Shannon encouraged Warren McCulloch to meet Hubbard: “If you read science fiction as avidly as I do you’ll recognize him as one of the best writers in that field….[He] has been doing some very interesting work lately in using a modified hypnotic technique for therapeutic purposes….I am sure you’ll find Ron a very interesting person…whether or not his treatment contains anything of value.” McCulloch was traveling, so he was unable to arrange a meeting, but he wrote to Hubbard, who thanked Shannon for the introduction.
I am sure you’ll find Ron a very interesting person…whether or not his treatment contains anything of value.
Hubbard tolerated Campbell’s contributions, and he eventually appropriated them for himself. Writing to Heinlein on March 28, 1950, he referred to electronic demons: “They are parasitic and use up computer circuits.” Elsewhere, he said that dianetics was a return to “the electronic computer idea” that he had conceived in the thirties, but he also sounded a cautionary note: “The concept of the electronic brain was not vital but only useful to dianetics and it could be swept away as well—dianetics would still stand.” He was right. Cybernetics was less an integral part of the theory than a form of branding, and he would ultimately remove nearly all of it.
Campbell’s hand was visible in the book in other ways. He was responsible for several key sections, including a long footnote in which he used a computer analogy to explain how the analytic mind could be free of error, and he wrote an appendix on the scientific method, signing it “John W. Campbell, Jr., Nuclear Physicist,” and thanking the engineers of Bell Labs. Campbell also composed the appendix “Advice to the Pre-Clear,” of which Hubbard said years later, “You can tear that out….I didn’t write it in the first place. Written by John W. ‘Astounding’ Campbell, Jr., who the older he gets the more astonishing he is.”
The editor even figured anonymously in at least two case studies. One was an account of his birth, while the other was a memory of his grandmother watching him while he was sick. It concluded: “Now with this engram we have a patient with sinusitis and a predisposition to lung infections. It may be that he was luckless enough to marry a counterpart of his mother or his grandmother….And even if the wife thinks that sinusitis and lung infection are repulsive enough to lead to divorce, the reactive mind keeps that engram keyed-in. The more hatred from the wife, the more that engram keys-in. You can kill a man that way.”
It was an unsettling glimpse into Campbell’s state of mind at the time. When this passage was written, his marriage was effectively over. On March 9, 1950, the editor explained the situation in a letter to Heinlein: “Doña sort of blew her top.” His wife had left abruptly for Boston, and when their daughter Peedee learned what had happened, Campbell was afraid that she might have a nervous breakdown—until Hubbard audited her to remove the emotional charge. When Leslyn, their second child, figured it out, her father gave her the same treatment.
In his mind, Doña’s refusal to be treated was inseparable from the end of their marriage, and he believed that she was afraid of what might be revealed if the girls were audited: “I’d like to know just what the living hell she did to Peeds and Leslyn that she feels must never, never, never come out.” Campbell warned Heinlein that if he wrote to Doña, “you’ll also get a long discussion of how I’m playing God, I put pressure on her, dianetics is untried, dangerous, deadly, and drives people crazy.”
It was the first recorded attempt—but far from the last—to cast doubt on a critic of dianetics, and the same letter included a chilling passage: “So it works out that the only way we could get her straightened out would be to use force; i.e., tie her down, put a nitrous oxide mask over her face, knock her out, and work on her in deep trance therapy. In a few hours’ work that way we could break loose the commands that keep her from accepting dianetic therapy. From then on, we’d be able to straighten her out.” Campbell never acted on the threat, but it revealed a side of his personality that was close to Hubbard at his worst.
In any event, his old life was over—the price, perhaps, that he had to pay to save the world, although Doña saw the separation as “the obvious move for a relatively rational person in an intolerable situation.” She went to live with George O. Smith, while Campbell hired a housekeeper to watch his daughters. Every evening, after tucking in Peedee and Leslyn, whom he saw as his compensation for his unhappy marriage, he worked on dianetics until midnight. And he had no way of knowing that the golden age that he had inaugurated was about to come to an end.
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From the forthcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. Copyright © 2018 by Alec Nevala-Lee. To be published on October 23, 2018 by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. Excerpted by permission. Excerpts of letters from John W. Campbell, Jr. reprinted with permission of AC Projects, Inc., 7111 Sweetgum Road, Fairview, TN 37062.
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Alec Nevala-Lee’s novels include The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, and Eternal Empire, all published by Penguin, and his short stories have appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Lightspeed Magazine, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oak Park, Illinois, and he blogs daily at www.nevalalee.com.