Friday, December 26, 2008

A halfway unbiased evaluation of Dianetics

Which I've finished reading today. I had reduced the problems down to three areas and wasn't going to say much more when the last section of the book had to inject some typical cultish recommendations. Dianetics in a nutshell is a technique of therapy where a person is put in what's known as a "Dianetic Reverie", similar to a light hypnotic trance, and is then taken back to various incidents in their past through a combination of free association and careful prodding by the auditor (lay therapist) in an attempt to defuse the power that they have over the person in the present. The incidents are called engrams, or actually engrams are the particular psychological problems generated from an incident. By returning to and attempting to relive the incidents mentally it's thought that the engram becomes less and less powerful and then is completely defused. There are chains of engrams that depend on one another so the auditor has to go back to the start of the chain and try to get the engram underlying all of it, which is called "basic-basic", meaning the basic engram of the basic personality. After basic-basic is located and defused the auditor brings the subject forward and defuses the other engrams until the person is free of big psychological problems.

That, in a nutshell, is how Dianetics is supposed to work. The problem areas that I saw with this have to do with what the sources of engrams are supposed to be: Unconsciousness, Prenatal Experience, Attempted Abortions. They follow each other in a chain.

Unlike psychotherapy, where an event just has to be traumatic to cause problems, Dianetics asserts that a person has to actually have been in a state of literal unconsciousness for an engram to have been produced. Instead of the particular situation of the trauma, like what was said, what people were present, when did it happen, giving its stamp to a problem what happens is that the things that people say when a person is unconscious are supposed to be recorded in the engram. Doctors performing surgery on a person, dentists, people around during an accident when a person is knocked unconscious, these are the people who are supposed to give their stamp to the person's engrams. There are a couple problems here: first is that most people haven't been knocked unconscious enough or have undergone surgery enough for those times to have produced all of their psychological problems. Second, incidents that a person has experienced consciously are remembered as being very traumatic in and of themselves. These two together would suggest that there's something more going on than literal unconsciousness. But in Dianetics there is: prenatal experience.

Prenatal experiences are just that: experiences that a person has while in the womb. If a person could receive lots of engrams before birth it could make up for the lack of engrams produced by unconsciousness after they're born. But the rule of unconsciousness still applies, meaning that prenatal engrams are thought to be generated by the unborn baby being knocked around by something, losing consciousness, and getting imprinted by its environment. Isn't that just the womb though? Not really. The theory is extended so that developing fetuses are thought to be able not only to hear extended conversations between their mothers and their fathers, but understand the words and remember them. Not only that, but according to Dianetics these recordings start happening right after conception, with the book explicitly saying that the fetus doesn't need to have been developed for engrams to be recorded. Still, even giving Dianetics that for the sake of argument, it seems pretty random, this unconsciousness on the part of fetuses. But there are ways around it. Fetuses are thought to be knocked unconscious by the mother bumping herself or falling or doing something before she knows she's pregnant, but also by being hit by their fathers and by having their mothers attempt to abort them.

It appears that the world is experiencing, or has experienced, unknown waves of mothers shoving things into their cervixes in attempts to get rid of their babies, complemented by the mothers screaming that they don't want them, or of fathers shouting something as they hit their wives and knock them down because they refuse to get abortions. Domestic violence plays a big part in generating prenatal engrams, as does things like mothers cheating on their husbands, having their baby be knocked unconscious by their fucking, and receiving engrams from the mother crying about how it's wrong to be having an affair. Hubbard actually paints a picture in one section of a mother going over to her pregnant daughter's house and seeing a collection of bloody wooden dowels in the bathroom, knowing what they've been used for because she used the same technique herself when she was pregnant. Ulcers are caused by fetus' stomachs being poked with coat hangers and dowels. All of it provides lots and lots and lots of engrams that fuck up the person later in their life. Basic-basic, the first engram, the one that the auditor is trying to make contact with and that everything else is based off of, is a prenatal engram.

It's hard what to know to say about an author who includes, oh, maybe fifty pages collectively of hypothetical abortion attempts with domestic violence attached to them. It's less hard to know what to say when they go on to tell people to never, ever, try to confront your parents with the memories that have been dredged up in light hypnotic auditing, because they can't be trusted. Not only that but the auditor himself is told in the book not to be concerned with things making sense or not, except in the case when someone has gone totally, totally, overboard, because value free auditing is more important than chasing a 'plot', which Hubbard says is best left for books.

Without the unconsciousness, the abortions, and the cultishness promoted by Hubbard, which is located in the last pages of Dianetics, and with regular definitions of trauma added, the technique sounds like it could be interesting. Indeed, it's sort of what people do when they're silently meditating on the past and let themselves go but with another person helping out. But with all of it in place I'm sure it leads to manufactured memories implanted by hypnosis like the ones that were placed in children during the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria of the 1980s.

It's hard for me to reconcile all this with John Travolta and Tom Cruise being Scientologists. I'm sure that they're more insightful than to believe in attempted abortions by their mothers.

In any case, Dianetics is a very long and somewhat disturbing read that should really, really, be rewritten to make it get its point across much better, but that as it is isn't totally worth not looking at.

*on edit: in all fairness there are more to engrams than what I indicated. First of all, there's the Reactive Mind and the Analytical Mind, with the Reactive Mind being the one where the Engrams are stored. The Reactive Mind is just that: a mind that operates on survival instinct reactions. Good for animals, who need it. Engrams are originally things in the Reactive Mind that are thought by it to help survival. They come from experiences that are traumatic and are the Reactive Mind's lessons that they take from said experiences. There are overtly contra survival Engrams and there are prosurvival Engrams, the difference being that contrasurvival Engrams are so messed up that they don't contribute to survival at all, even though the Reactive Mind thinks they do, while prosurvival Engrams aren't completely useless. A contrasurvival engram would be something like being afraid of all people with the name of someone who has hurt you. A prosurvival engram would be keeping quiet all the time because someone hurt you when you interrupted them. It may not be bad to be quiet in the same way that being afraid of all people with the same name is bad, but it's still not an optimum behavior. Therapy in Dianetics takes Reactive Mind engrams and brings them to consciousness, whereupon they're integrated into the analytic mind where they can't do harm, thereby giving the analytic mind that much more power over its environment.

*on edit #2: that said, the book Dianetics and the Church of Scientology as it currently is both have cultic aspects to them.

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