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Texas Book Festival — San Antonio Edition

Interview with Lawrence Wright

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Some of the more fascinating portions of this book are where you profile L. Ron Hubbard – how he was influenced by post-war paranoia, a growing counter-culture movement. How was Hubbard a product of his time?

With Hubbard, there are these two narratives to his life. There's the narrative that he put forward that he was a war hero, and that he was injured during the war. That he was badly crippled and blinded, and that medical science was unable to heal him and so he healed himself using these techniques that he developed into Dianetics. At that time, there were a lot of wounded veterans, and there was an awful lot of trauma that was left over from the war. So when he wrote the book Dianetics that was published in 1950, the scars of the war, both emotional and physical, were still very evident. And this book took off like crazy. It was a nation-wide sensation, an international sensation. It dominated The New York Times best sellers list. It in many ways created the prototype for those self-help books that became so prominent after World War II. In that sense, Hubbard was progenitor of the form.
But he was also very influenced by Freud and also by his experience in the black magic circle of southern California that had sprung out of Aleister Crowley's work. So he was both a product and his time and a formulator of what was going to come later.
The narrative that he put forward about himself is, of course, not substantiated by the facts, but it is the basis of the church's claim that this was all based on the ability of a single human being. That L. Ron Hubbard overcame these physical injuries that he, in fact, didn't actually sustain during the War in the first place.

You write about this strange scene where some Scientology reps came to the New York to fact-check the original New Yorker article on Paul Haggis. What was their response to your reporting that their history of Hubbard was false?

That day when the Scientology spokesman and four of their lawyers came to The New Yorker was one of the most extraordinary days in my whole journalistic career. It was my only chance really to interview the spokesperson for the church. They had originally agreed to let me. Tommy Davis, the church's then-spokesman, invited me come over Memorial Day weekend in 2010 so we'd have enough time for him to take me through Scientology. I got out there and after cooling my heels in the hotel for a couple nights without any word from him, he finally showed up and said he wasn't going to do that.
He did agree to respond to fact-checking queries. I don't know if he had any idea what that meant in The New Yorker terms, but our first volley of queries was 971 questions about the material. And that's what triggered the trip to New York by the Scientology delegation. They brought along 47 binders of material that was supposed to be in response to our fact checking queries. The day was spent going through their responses, which were incomplete in many cases. Tommy pulled out a pie chart showing something like 68 percent of the questions were, as he put it, “false.” That was strange, because they were just questions. But a lot of that day was spent trying to understand how the church had parsed their responses, which were very carefully worded.
When the (New Yorker) article came out, the church published its own magazine – they have this magazine called Freedom. My article in The New Yorker had come out in the anniversary issue on Valentines Day, which, the cover is always this replica in some way of the original cover, with the man in the top hat and monocle which is known as Eustace Tilly. And in the Freedom magazine, they had a cartoon version of Eustace Tilly with me as Eustace. There was a delegation of Scientologists picketing the Condé Nast building in Times Square, passing out copies of Freedom magazine with an attack on me, The New Yorker, and even the fact checkers on the story.
Then, with the book, there were a number of legal threats. And when the book finally did come out, the church attacked it repeatedly. Some of their claims are just quite bizarre. For instance, they said that I only asked 12 fact-checking questions of the Church. Even just the very first letter to the Church had 971. And after the article came out, I hired two fact checkers, one of them devoted mainly to the Church. We asked more than 150 fact-checking questions then. The Church told us they needed seven working days for each question, which would have required something like three years to respond.
When they knew that I was going to be on a television show or something where I'd be talking about Scientology, their lawyers would often contact the show's producers with legal disclaimers they wanted to have read. The strangest one was when I was on Christiane Amanpour. She asked me about Operation Snow White, which was Scientology's infiltration of various agencies in the United States government, such as the Justice Department, the FBI, the IRS, and even the Food and Drug Administration. It was even newspapers like the Washington Post, organizations like the American Mental Health Association, and other governments like Germany. More than 5,000 scientologists were deployed in this spy operation.
Christiane was obliged to read this statement from the Church of Scientology saying this was simply an “information gathering” adventure and no laws were broken. And I responded, “Well, 11 people went to prison, including the wife of L. Ron Hubbard. I would dispute that assertion.” Several times made  allegations or assertions that just have no basis in fact.

Switching to your book The Looming Tower, how did you come to this theme throughout the book, that vision or charisma of a few individuals really shaped the nature of this clash between Islam and the West?

One of the things that I addressed in The Looming Tower was whether al-Qaeda would have arisen had it not been for Osama bin Laden. And the answer is no. In this case, historians often debate whether it's individuals or social trends that shape history. It's certainly true that both of them do. There was a trend of increasing radicalism in Islam that preceded the rise of Osama bin Laden. But without his money and his vision and his idea of attacking the West rather than individual regimes within the Muslim world, al-Qaeda would have never been able to exist. Frankly, it's struggling to exist without him. We would not be dealing with Islamic terrorism to the degree that we've experienced it if it weren't for Osama bin Laden individually.

Texas Book Festival — San Antonio Edition
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