‘I Was There …’: Harlan Ellison Witnesses the Birth of Scientology

The prolific and iconoclastic writer Harlan Ellison died June 27, 2018, at his home in Sherman Oaks, California, at the age of eighty-four. Preferring the term speculative fiction to science fiction, Ellison wrote more than 1,500 short stories (such as “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”), essays, and reviews. He also wrote film and television scripts, including several Star Trek episodes. He was a natural-born skeptic and participated in a variety of events sponsored by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry over the years, including a luncheon talk at CSICOP’s Fourth World Skeptics Conference in Burbank in 2002 that ranged widely and irreverently over religion, politics, and science. At that same conference, he was awarded CSICOP’s Distinguished Skeptic Award (see SI, “The Inimitable Harlan Ellison,” September/October 2002). He also wrote the lead tribute to science fiction great Arthur C. Clarke (“Arthur ’N’ Me”) in our July/August 2008 issue. Here is a brief reminiscence by James Underdown, executive director of CFI West in Los Angeles.

—Kendrick Frazier, Editor


 

In 2014, I had a long phone conversation with Harlan Ellison during which I took many notes. I had sent Harlan a letter asking if he’d appear in (or at least consult on) a music video my band, The Heathens, was considering shooting. Craig Else and I had written a song about L. Ron Hubbard and thought it would be fun to have Harlan be a part of it somehow.

Harlan was not interested in being a part of the video because he had concerns for himself and his wife that there may be retribution from the Church of Scientology and because he preferred to leave the criticisms of the church and its leadership to others.

During the conversation, however, he set the record straight about the night he personally witnessed a seed being planted that would eventually grow into the Church of Scientology.

The year was 1953 or 1954, and a not-yet-twenty-year-old Harlan Ellison had come to New York City from Ohio to meet Algis Budrys and other members of the Hydra Club, a social organization of science fiction professionals and fans. It was at a gathering of the Hydra Club at L. Jerome Stanton’s apartment where Harlan found himself in the company of some of the elite science fiction writers of the time—of all time, really.

Present were Budrys, Arthur C. Clarke (visiting from England), Lester del Rey, Fletcher Pratt, L. Sprague de Camp, Isaac Asimov, and L. Ron Hubbard. Harlan described Hubbard as “a liar from birth who never told the truth about himself that was not bloviated, exaggerated, over filigreed … .”

It was surprising to me to hear that Harlan also seemed to hold some professional admiration for Hubbard, despite his obvious disdain for him as a person. He mentioned Hubbard’s ability to crank out prodigious amounts of material—not all of which was hack. He called Hubbard’s books Final Blackout and Slaves of Sleep “fucking brilliant.” And he acknowledged Hubbard’s space adventure stories, written under the name René Lafayette, some of which years later would be incorporated into Scientology’s wild backstory.

At some point that night, L. Ron Hubbard, who was making considerably more than the penny-a-word that most of the others were making, got up and said that he couldn’t make a living getting paid those wages. He couldn’t make ends meet. (Harlan agreed that science fiction writers were treated poorly and saw unsavory publishers ripping off writers during his whole career.) So Lester del Rey, a science fiction author who as a child had been a tent-revival minister (and knew how religion could be used to fleece people), said, “Ron, if you want to get rich, what you gotta do is start a religion.”

Harlan made it clear that other writers have told him about similar exchanges occurring at different times and places involving people telling Hubbard he ought to start a religion. This was the time Harlan saw it firsthand.

Hubbard wrote, and made a lot of money from, his book Dianetics before creating Scientology. Some have argued that Hubbard saw franchising Scientology as a better way to control income and content than writing a book that is released everywhere. Nevertheless, Harlan Ellison had to be one of the last living eyewitnesses to see that seed planted into the mind of L. Ron Hubbard, prolific creator of fiction.

I’ll miss his brutal frankness and indomitable spirit. (Harlan’s, I mean.)


The prolific and iconoclastic writer Harlan Ellison died June 27, 2018, at his home in Sherman Oaks, California, at the age of eighty-four. Preferring the term speculative fiction to science fiction, Ellison wrote more than 1,500 short stories (such as “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”), essays, and reviews. He also wrote film …

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