WILLIAM Burroughs, author of the Naked Lunch and influential writer of the “Beat generation” came to Edinburgh to study Scientology, the controversial religion which today boasts members such as Tom Cruise, according to a new biography.
The author, a heroin addict who killed his wife while attempting to shoot an apple off her head, became an early acolyte of the religion which was founded by the science fiction writer, L Ron Hubbard. In the spring of 1968 Burroughs spent a week at the Scottish Scientology Centre in Edinburgh.
According to Barry Miles, the author of William S Burroughs: A Life the Scottish Scientology Centre was run by the Sea Org, the only people allowed to teach “Operating Thetan” levels of Scientology.
As Miles explained: “Burroughs spent £1,500 on the Scientology course… This consisted of a whole batch of very strange convoluted sentences that he had to run himself, keeping a written record, reading the sentences, repeating them until they were flat on the needle.”
Members of Scientology were scrutinised by an e-meter, a primitive form of lie detector and while holding the e-meter Burroughs had to read out loud, until the needle didn’t move, sentences such as: “To have much, to have little, to have much, to have everything.…” and “To stay here, to stay there, to stay out, to stay in.”
The religion that Hubbard invented has as a core belief the idea that a galactic ruler, Xenu, killed billions of Thetans by dropping hydrogen bombs into volcanos and that the particles of these Thetans still cling to people today preventing them from making spiritual and mental progress.
The church offers courses of study which become increasingly expensive but which promise to rid the body of Thetans.
Yet despite completing the course in Edinburgh, Burroughs was eventually to become disillusioned with Scientology and when in April 1969 he was accused of “treason” for his critical writings he left.
He said: “They tried to put me into a condition, and I said: ‘well, I’m not going to put up with this. Gold stars and all this I left back in Kindergarden’.” He later said: “It was a weird episode but interesting, I don’t regret it. I learned a lot. I do know how to work a lie detector.”
Burroughs had visited Edinburgh six years previously in 1962 when he attended the International Writers Festival where he became friends with Alexander Trocchi, a Scottish Beat writer who was also a heroin addict. Burroughs was mocked by Hugh MacDiarmid who took to the stage in his kilt and dismissed the discussions as “all heroin and homosexuality”.
Dr Angela Bartie, a lecturer at Strathclyde University and author of The International Writers Festival Revisited: Edinburgh 1962 said that the author’s experience was crucial to Burroughs. “He became one of the stars of the conference, and on the back of his newfound celebrity, Grove Press ordered extra copies of Naked Lunch and published it in the US for the first time in November 1962.
“Ten years later, Burroughs wrote that the conference had ‘established the books that had grown out of the underground culture as literature and the writers of these books as important literary figures’.
“I think it’s important to remember that, whilst the reputation of Edinburgh as conservative and presbyterian continued throughout the 1960s (and some might argue hangs around still), the annual Festival and Fringe did open the city up to a lot of different influences and ideas from all around the world.”
A spokesman for the Church of Scientology was unavailable for comment yesterday.