Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Cooke

The Magic People

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As I wrap up work on Astounding, I’m more aware than ever of the book that I didn’t write, and all the great stories that I was forced to leave out of the finished version for reasons of time or space. One figure whom I wasn’t able to mention was John Cooke, an occultist whose fascinating life brought him into contact with many of the players about whom I’ve written here in the past. Cooke, who was born into an affluent family in Hawaii in 1920, developed an interest at an early age in tarot cards and the Ouija board. His first wife, Millen Cooke, wrote for such magazines as Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and Other Worlds Science Stories, and along with many other authors and fans in the early fifties, she was fascinated by dianetics, to the extent that she impulsively flew from California to New York to visit the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation. (This was evidently in 1951, when the foundation relocated from New Jersey to a new headquarters on 55 East 82nd Street in Manhattan to head off potential legal trouble, as early collaborator Don Rogers reveals in the letters that were recently posted on Tony Ortega’s blog.) Cooke was annoyed by her abrupt departure, but after driving across the country, he became equally involved. In the book Acid Dreams, the authors Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain claim that Cooke became “the first ‘clear’ in America,” which seems unlikely—although it speaks to the intensity of his connection to Hubbard’s ideas, as well as the way in which dianetics tended to take root in existing communities where science fiction and the occult intersected.

After his divorce from Millen, Cooke married a woman named Mary Oser, whom he met through their mutual interest in dianetics. In One Nation, Under Gods, Peter Manseau writes of the couple, who settled in England:

While in London, they were known to wear flowing African robes they had acquired throughout their travels, and passed the days often in the company of L. Ron Hubbard himself. During their meetings, they discussed John’s magical abilities and memories of past life experiences, and Hubbard’s “science of the mind” began to take on a cosmic dimension.

From there, they moved to Morocco, where they served, in Manseu’s account, as “missionaries of Hubbard’s increasingly supernatural notions.” What happened next is a matter of dispute. According to an article by Mark Walker, who hopes to write a biography of Cooke in collaboration with the occultist’s son Chamba:

L. Ron Hubbard reportedly tracked down Cooke in Tangier. Hubbard made a trip to London in 1952 to set up a dianetics center, and it may have been on this trip that he met with Cooke. The meeting was not propitious and in the space of a single afternoon, Cooke grew disillusioned with Hubbard and his teachings. According to Michael Bowen, Hubbard came to Cooke with a tale of woe at how the dianetics business had failed, and Cooke advised him to relaunch it as a religion. This was precisely what Hubbard did after moving to Phoenix, Arizona in March 1952.

The notion that Cooke advised Hubbard to convert Scientology into a religion is undoubtedly apocryphal—John W. Campbell, among others, also took credit for the idea, which was really the product of a complex confluence of factors. And there are competing accounts of Cooke’s “disillusionment.” In Tangier, after the alleged meeting with Hubbard took place, Cooke developed a case of polio that cost him the use of his legs, which he claimed was the result of a magical attack. Manseau writes:

When news of the diagnosis—paralytic poliomyelitis—reached London, L. Ron Hubbard likely supposed that an engram must have been the true cause of Cooke’s affliction…The Cookes hoped the top Scientologist himself would materialize in Tangier to tend to his friend, but Hubbard instead dispatched one of his highest-ranking auditors to see what “the process” could do for one of its earliest adherents.

The auditor was an Australian named Jim Skelton, who, according to Chamba Cooke, “was able to push the polio paralysis back down John’s trunk from his heart, but was unable to make it go any further. Skelton told Hubbard that the method Hubbard taught him was not fully effective; Hubbard countered that Skelton was not performing the method correctly. This contributed to Skelton splitting from Hubbard.” Manseau states that this incident was the real reason that Cooke fell out with Hubbard, although he continued to practice certain aspects of dianetics on his own.

So far, this story resembles many other anecdotes from this period, with unusual personalities—like A.E. van Vogt—being drawn into Hubbard’s circle and then becoming disillusioned or worse. Yet it’s the sequel that intrigues me the most. While in Morocco, the Cookes met Brion Gysin, who was running a restaurant in Tangier. In the biography Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted, John Geiger writes of their first meeting:

[John and Mary Cooke] were early adherents of the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard…Cooke had shaved his head and wore a closely cropped beard. His first words to Gysin were “Guess where we came from and guess who we are?” Gysin could not possibly have guessed. The couple had traveled from Algeria, and claimed they were directed to him by their Ouija board. “They just came flooding in giving me the impression that they were really Magic People, and they had all of these things at their fingertips…most particularly money.”

Through Gysin, they met William S. Burroughs, whom the Cookes introduced to Scientology. In Rub Out the Words, a collection of the author’s correspondence, there are several fascinating letters between Burroughs and Cooke, including one in which the latter writes: “It would seem that Hubbard is putting down his third-rate science fiction as the one and only cosmos.” (This is the same letter that reveals that Burroughs was familiar with the OT III material, complete with a reference to “galactic federations and Zmus [sic].”) After Cooke returned to America, he became involved with such countercultural icons as Bowen and Timothy Leary, who referred to him as “the great crippled wizard.” Cooke was one of those indispensable connectors who pass ideas between communities of outsiders, and it may have been through him that aspects of dianetics entered the counterculture—another important story that has yet to be told. As Cooke allegedly once said to Burroughs: “I hope I am there to help [Hubbard] over the hump, even though he failed me when I needed him.”

The creeps of the cosmos

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“Of course Scientology attracts all the creeps of the cosmos,” the novelist William S. Burroughs wrote to the poet Allen Ginsberg on October 30, 1959. “You see it works.” Burroughs had just been introduced to the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard through the mystics John and Mary Cooke, whom he had met through their mutual friend Brion Gysin in Tangiers. Gysin, who is probably best remembered today for his development of the cut-up technique, had recently built the Dream Machine, a flicker gadget made of a light bulb placed on a record turntable. The device, which Gysin assembled with the help of an electronics engineer named Ian Sommerville, was designed to stimulate the brain’s alpha rhythms when viewed with the eyes closed. It was inspired by a discussion of “the flicker effect” in W. Grey Walter’s book The Living Brain, and it hints at the striking extent to which the counterculture was venturing into territory that science fiction had previously colonized. John W. Campbell had utilized a similar setup while working with Hubbard himself to access his buried memories in 1949, and after reading Walter’s book, he built what he called “a panic generator” with a fluorescent bulb in his basement. And the fact that Hubbard’s work was circulating among the Beats at the same time reflects how both communities—which seemed so different on the surface—were looking for new approaches to the mind. (Science fiction, like Scientology or Beat culture, has a way of attracting “all the creeps of cosmos,” and for similar reasons.)

I’m not an expert on Burroughs, so I can’t speak directly about the influence of Scientology on his work, but there’s no question that he remained actively interested in Hubbard’s ideas for the better part of a decade, even as he came to question and finally reject the authoritarian tendencies of the church itself. (This article from io9 is the best discussion I’ve found of the subject online, although it makes one factual misstatement, which I’ll mention in a moment.) In a letter to Ginsberg from a few days before the one that I quoted above, Burroughs wrote: “The method of directed recall is the method of Scientology. You will recall I wrote urging you to contact local chapter and find an auditor. They do the job without hypnosis or drugs, simply run the tape back and forth until the trauma is wiped off. It works. I have used the method—partially responsible for recent changes.” And shortly afterward: “I have a new method of writing and do not want to publish anything that has not been inspected and processed. I cannot explain this method to you until you have necessary training. So once again and most urgently…I tell you: ‘Find a Scientology auditor and have yourself run.’” Burroughs’s letters over the next twelve years, which have been collected in the volume Rub Out the Words, are liberally sprinkled with terms drawn from Hubbard’s writings, and when you read them all in one sitting, as I recently did, you can’t help but be struck by how long Burroughs circled around Scientology, alternately intrigued and repulsed by the man of whom he insightfully wrote: “I would not expect Mr. Hubbard’s system to crack mazes the existence of which it does not allow.”

And Burroughs went remarkably far. In 1968, he underwent a two-month training session at Saint Hill Manor, the headquarters of Scientology in the United Kingdom, and he appears to have achieved the level of at least OT III, or The Wall of Fire, which is when members pay to learn the story of Xenu. In the article from io9 that I mentioned above, the author writes: “Absent from Burroughs’s writing are any references to body thetans, Xenu, the Galactic Confederacy, Douglas DC-8 airliners, volcanic hydrogen bombs, or other beliefs more recently associated with Scientology.” Another recent book on Burroughs and Scientology calls this material “conspicuously absent” from his writings. In fact, it clearly appears at several points in his correspondence. In a letter to John Cooke on October 25, 1971, for instance, Burroughs wrote:

So leaving aside galactic federations and Zmus [sic] there may be some validity in Hubbard’s procedure and I would be interested to make a systematic test on the E-Meter…Exactly how are these body thetans contacted and run? Are they addressed directly and if so in what terms? Do they have names? Do they have dates? Are they run through the alleged shooting freezing and bombing incidents as if you are an auditor running an internal parasite through these incidents?

These are unquestionably references to the Xenu material, as is a letter that Burroughs wrote to Gysin a few days later, in which he casually refers to “Teegeeack”—Hubbard’s word for earth millions of years ago—and “Teegeeack hitchhikers.”

I don’t know how much the Church of Scientology was charging for this information in 1968, but it must have amounted to hundreds or thousands of dollars, and it’s hard to imagine how Burroughs would have avoided paying it in full. And he believed in aspects of it long after he had become aware of Hubbard’s shortcomings. On October 4, 1967, he wrote to his son:

Point about Scientology is that it works. In fact it works so well as to be highly dangerous in the wrong hands. The curious thing about L. Ron Hubbard who devised this system is that he is very uneven as a writer and a thinker. This tends to put people off. You find very profound and original thinking together with very shallow and banal thinking, so you have to read every word very carefully.

Burroughs was expelled in 1968 after publishing articles that were critical of the church, and he later said of its founder: “Hubbard has the satisfied look of a man who has just sold the widow a fraudulent peach orchard, but he is engaged in something much more pernicious than old style con tricks…His real specialty is spiritual theft.” If Burroughs stuck with it for so long, it was for much the same reason that Campbell once gave to Eric Frank Russell: “Why, for God’s sake, do you think I thought dianetics was so important? Hell, man, because I knew it was, because I tried it, and it helped.” Burroughs might have said much the same thing, even as his suspicions of its methods and origins continued to grow. As he wrote to Barry Miles in 1970: “I feel sure that there is an undisclosed source for this material. Probably science fiction.”

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