Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The dianetics epidemic

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Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health

In his bestselling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell devotes several pages to a discussion of the breakout success of the novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. After its initial release in 1996, it sold reasonably well in hardcover, receiving “a smattering of reviews,” but it became an explosive phenomenon in paperback, thanks primarily to what Gladwell calls “the critical role that groups play in social epidemics.” He writes:

The first bestseller list on which Ya-Ya Sisterhood appeared was the Northern California Independent Bookseller’s list. Northern California…was where seven hundred and eight hundred people first began showing up at [Rebecca Wells’s] readings. It was where the Ya-Ya epidemic began. Why? Because…the San Francisco area is home to one of the country’s strongest book club cultures, and from the beginning Ya-Ya was what publishers refer to as a “book club book.” It was the kind of emotionally sophisticated, character-driven, multilayered novel that invites reflection and discussion, and book groups were flocking to it. The groups of women who were coming to Wells’s readings were members of reading groups, and they were buying extra copies not just for family and friends but for other members of the group. And because Ya-Ya was being talked about and read in groups, the book itself became that much stickier. It’s easier to remember and appreciate something, after all, if you discuss it for two hours with your best friends. It becomes a social experience, an object of conversation. Ya-Ya’s roots in book group culture tipped it into a larger word-of-mouth epidemic.

You could say much the same thing about a very different book that became popular in California nearly five decades earlier. Scientology has exhibited an unexpected degree of staying power among a relatively small number of followers, but Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the work that that made L. Ron Hubbard famous, was a textbook case of a viral phenomenon. Just three months elapsed between the book’s publication on May 9, 1950 and Hubbard’s climactic rally at the Shrine Auditorium on August 10, and its greatest impact on the wider culture occurred over a period of less than a year. And its dramatic spread and decline had all the hallmarks of virality. In the definitive Hubbard biography Bare-Faced Messiah, Russell Miller writes:

For the first few days after publication of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, it appeared as if the publisher’s caution about the book’s prospects had been entirely justified. Early indications were that it had aroused little interest; certainly it was ignored by most reviewers. But suddenly, towards the end of May, the line on the sales graph at the New York offices of Hermitage House took a steep upturn.

By midsummer, it was selling a thousand copies a day, and by late fall, over seven hundred dianetics clubs had been established across the country. As Miller writes: “Dianetics became, virtually overnight, a national ‘craze’ somewhat akin to the canasta marathons and pyramid clubs that had briefly flourished in the hysteria of postwar America.”

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

The result was a quintessential social epidemic, and I’m a little surprised that Gladwell, who is so hungry for case studies, has never mentioned it. The book itself was “sticky,” with its promise of a new science of mental health that could be used by anyone and that got results every time. Like Ya-Ya, it took root in an existing group—in this case, the science fiction community, which was the natural audience for its debut in the pages of Astounding. Just as the ideal book club selection is one that inspires conversations, dianetics was a shared experience: in order to be audited, you needed to involve at least one other person. Auditing, as the therapy was originally presented, seemed so easy that anyone could try it, and many saw it as a kind of parlor game. (In his biography of Robert A. Heinlein, William H. Patterson shrewdly compares it to the “Freuding parties” that became popular in Greenwich Village in the twenties.) Even if you didn’t want to be audited yourself, dianetics became such a topic of discussion among fans that summer that you had to read the book to be a part of it. It also benefited from the presence of what Gladwell calls mavens, connectors, and salesmen. John W. Campbell was the ultimate maven, an information broker who, as one of Gladwell’s sources puts it, “wants to solve other people’s problems, generally by solving his own.” The connectors included prominent members of the fan community, notably A.E. van Vogt, who ended up running the Los Angeles foundation, and Forrest Ackerman, Hubbard’s agent and “the number one fan.” And the salesman was Hubbard himself, who threw himself into the book’s promotion on the West Coast. As Campbell wrote admiringly to Heinlein: “When Ron wants to, he can put on a personality that would be a confidence man’s delight—persuasive, gentle, intimately friendly. The perfect bedside manner, actually.”

In all epidemics, geography plays a crucial role, and in the case of dianetics, it had profound consequences on individual careers. One of Campbell’s priorities was to sell the therapy to his top writers, much as the Church of Scientology later reached out to movie stars, and the single greatest predictor of how an author would respond was his proximity to the centers of fan culture. Two of the most important converts were van Vogt, who was in Los Angeles, and Theodore Sturgeon, who lived in New York, where he was audited by Campbell himself. Isaac Asimov, by contrast, had moved from Manhattan to Boston just the year before, and Heinlein, fascinatingly, had left Hollywood, where he had been working on the film Destination Moon, in February of 1950. Heinlein was intrigued by dianetics, but because he was in Colorado Springs with his wife Ginny, who refused to have anything to do with it, he was unable to find an auditing partner. And it’s worth wondering what might have ensued if he had remained in Southern California for another six months. (Such accidents of place and time can have significant aftereffects. Van Vogt had moved from the Ottawa area to Los Angeles in 1944, and his involvement with dianetics took him out of writing for the better part of a decade, at the very moment when science fiction was breaking into the culture as a whole. His absence during this critical period, which made celebrities out of Heinlein and Asimov, feels like a big part of the reason why van Vogt has mostly disappeared from the popular consciousness. And it might never have happened if he had stayed in Canada.) The following year, dianetics as a movement fizzled out, due largely to Hubbard’s own behavior—although he might also have sensed that it wouldn’t last. But it soon mutated into another form. And before long, Hubbard would begin to spread a few divine secrets of his own.

6 Responses

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  1. I read this paragraph from your Longreads “Xenu’s Paradox”:

    “The story itself, which has become more familiar than Hubbard or any of his disciples ever intended, revolves around the figure of Xenu, the tyrannical dictator of the Galactic Confederation. Millions of years ago, Xenu, faced with an overpopulation crisis, threw hordes of his own people into volcanoes on the planet Earth—then known as Teegeeack—and blew them up with atomic bombs. Their spirits, called thetans, survive to the present day, clinging to unsuspecting humans, and they can only be removed through dianetic auditing, a form of talk therapy that clears the subject of its unwanted passengers.”

    And instantly I thought of Heinlein’s 1951 novel The Puppet Masters, with aliens clinging to human spinal cords.

    With his life-long interest in past lives (he even claimed to have remembered his own past lives, when he was a child), Heinlein might have been a powerful and useful convert to Dianetics and Scientology. Campbell certainly tried. How SF would have been different had Hubbard and Campbell succeeded! Perhaps SF owes Ginny and their time in Colorado Springs more than we realized.


    March 2, 2017 at 4:06 pm

  2. @marieguthrie: Absolutely—and Campbell knew it, too. Here’s what he wrote to Heinlein on December 20, 1950:

    “Part of the trouble has been that Ron’s personality is, and has been, flamboyant and cocky; if it hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have charged into the heart of the problem with the ‘Damn the torpedoes!’ attitude he did. But while that was a personality factor absolutely essential to discovering dianetics—it is not the best personality pattern for presenting dianetics. You, for instance, could do a far, far better job of presenting dianetics. But because of your rather cautious, let’s-look-at-both-sides, and acute sense of personal responsibility, you did not discover dianetics—and would not have done so. Precisely the same factors applied and apply to me.”

    Italics mine, obviously. There’s a very interesting alternate history to be written here. Maybe I’ll write it one day!


    March 2, 2017 at 5:33 pm

  3. I followed you. please follow back to me. thanks


    March 2, 2017 at 11:10 pm

  4. Hubbard is one of those figures that I would like the world to forget except then lessons might not get learned. Having said that, his reputation precedes him and I’ve not read a word he wrote. Longreads article is a very handy overview. The book is looking interesting.


    March 3, 2017 at 12:07 am

  5. By which i mean yours, not his.


    March 3, 2017 at 12:54 am

  6. @Darren: For better or worse, there’s a lot to be learned from Hubbard.


    March 3, 2017 at 9:50 pm

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