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The Master (2012)
A film by Paul Thomas Anderson

This is a fascinating and disturbing movie. First you have a brilliant writer, Lancaster Dodd, who has convinced himself that he has an effective and sane method to help people with their hang-ups and started a little cult named The Cause. Second, there are those who are convinced that the method has really helped them and are grouped around the founder and The Cause they now belief in. Third, there is a shell-shocked, PTSD'd alcoholic, who wiggled his way into The Cause, only to get temporary relief without a real solution to his problems. And lastly there are some less gullible characters who see through the founder for the charlatan he is. Put them all together in tight spaces like a ship or a house and you'll get some revealing and disturbing interactions.

The main story line is about the psycho-sexually messed up WWII veteran, Freddie, who is lured by false promises into a cult, which leader, instead of really helping the poor guy, puts him through cruel exercises to break his spirit. Freddie becomes a test case and guinea pig to prove that Dodd's techniques are effective. Though there is an element of genuine friendship between the two characters (their relationship being the second important layer of the movie), the attempted brain-washing of Freddie reveals how perverted Dodd actually is. For example, after having to endure a come-on by Dodd's seductive daughter Elizabeth, Freddie has to sit for some grueling sessions with Elizabeth's husband and Dodd, who are trying to condition Freddie into completely dissociating himself from his feelings. The third layer of the movie is The Cause and the skewered psycho-social dynamics between a cult leader, his family and dependent followers, all allegedly modeled on Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Without wanting to give away too much about the story, in the end we see Freddie breaking away from the cult and finding some solace in the bed of a British country girl on whom he uses some of the techniques he had learned from Dodd. He is seemingly applying the techniques in a non-serious playful way, though I can see the possibility that he could be seen as having become a cynical manipulator himself.

After reading about Scientology, the most enlightening information I found was in an Australian report about Scientology, the Anderson Report, especially its section about hypnosis. There the investigators make it clear that the main technique of Scientology, named Training Routines (many of which appear in the movie), are nothing but dangerous hypnotic techniques which are known in the scientific community as command or authoritative hypnosis, which are very different from the hypnotic techniques used in medical settings, named passive hypnosis. As the Anderson Report makes clear:

"In the practice of medicine the type of hypnosis generally used is passive; the patient is allowed to, and helped to, go into hypnosis entirely voluntarily, and the hypnotist plays a completely passive role. This technique is quite the reverse of authoritative or command hypnosis, where the hypnotist assumes positive authoritative control over the patient who, though he may or may not be aware of what techniques the practitioner is practising on him, is nevertheless under the domination of the hypnotist pursuant to positive commands."

Hubbard was well trained in these manipulative techniques, used them in his psycho-therapeutic practice Dianetics, though renamed all its aspects, then denied it was command hypnosis and had the nerve (or good foresight) to warn his followers and everybody else against hypnosis. The crucial difference between medical hypnosis and Hubbard-style hypnosis is in the manner they evaluate the hallucinations which form because of lowered resistance to both subconscious contents and subtle suggestions. Scientology will take these sometimes very disturbing fantasies for real and will ask for more, with the effect that the hallucinations persist in the client/patient as unsettling realities which need to be treated with … more hypnosis. In medical settings the hallucinations are not taken as realities and patients will not be burdened with these as if they were real.

The hallucinations which are important to Scientologists are the ones of out-of-body experiences (OBE), past life memories and instances of physical and sexual abuse. Of course Scientologists and others will make the case that such experiences and memories are rooted in reality and they might only concede that they are maybe tainted with some wishful thinking, though otherwise such memories are crucial to dig up for curative processing. BTW, psycho-analysts will take the fantasies as fantasies, but will interpret them as indications of other possibly real, but suppressed memories. What makes the Scientology mix so disturbing is the morbid fascination of Hubbard with abortion and sexual perversions of which instances are apparently quite numerous throughout his works, both in his fiction and non-fiction. After reading his books such memes will then become suitable seeds to be developed in the Training Routines with the effect of people reporting much more abuses then really occurred, which is now called false memory syndrome, and providing the rationale for more treatment ending in a slavish dependence on the system.

In principle it would be quite hard to refute that some of these experiences could have been genuine and that not all of them were merely hallucinations. I am not siding here with the good old materialist who would argue a priori that all of such experiences have to be false. I would only concede their possibility with the caveats that a) specific claims generated by past life regressions and OBEs will have to be evaluated in the most critical way by demanding the highest standards of proof, and b) point out that what people experience through free association, hypnosis and psycho-active drugs is so close to the logic of fantasy-production in dreams that they should certainly not be taken at face value like Scientology does.

This line of critique of Scientology should therefore not be taken as assuming or concluding that certain occult experiences are impossible, only that a plethora of imagined occult experiences can be induced by psychological techniques and chemical means and that there are quite some charlatans around exploiting this and that there are many more taking it all in as candy. It looks to me that Hubbard came up with his fantastic cosmology through a mixture of self-hypnosis and drugs and then tried to discover (in case he believed his own fantasies) or produce (in case he knew what he was doing) in his followers confirmatory evidence.

Much more can be said, like possible parallels with Blavatsky, but I hope with the above to have provided some clarification for the multiple levels of disturbance the movie can provoke. I'll leave the discussion with a great quote made by someone who investigated the alleged connection between the scientific discipline of General Semantics, about which Hubbard had some knowledge, and Scientology:

"The lure of the pseudoscientific vocabulary and promises of dianetics cannot but condemn thousands who are beginning to emerge from scientific illiteracy to a continuation of their susceptibility to word-magic and semantic hash."

- S. I. Hayakawa, "Dianetics: From Science-fiction to Fiction-science."

P.S.: Wiki has a good entry on how much The Master is modeled on Scientology.

Another key passage from the Anderson Report:

"It is the firm conclusion of this Board that most scientology and dianetic techniques are those of authoritative hypnosis and as such are dangerous. Hubbard and his adherents strongly protest that his techniques are neither hypnotic nor dangerous. However, the scientific evidence which the Board heard from several expert witnesses of the highest repute and possessed of the highest qualifications in their professions of medicine, psychology, and other sciences - and which was virtually unchallenged - leads to the inescapable conclusion that it is only in name that there is any difference between authoritative hypnosis and most of the techniques of scientology. Many scientology techniques are in fact hypnotic techniques, and Hubbard has not changed their nature by changing their names."

Govert Schuller
Naperville, November 2012



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