“With the oil of Aphrodite, and the dust of the Grand Wazoo
He said you might not believe this, little fella
But it’ll cure your asthma too!”
– Frank Zappa, Cosmik Debris (1974)
The news is hardly ever good for ‘The Church’ of Scientology these days, and with the recent release of a tell-all biography of the current head of the organisation, David Miscavige, by no less a person than his own father, Ron Miscavige, the heat just got a little hotter.
While I personally don’t think Ruthless: Scientology, My Son David Miscavige and Me will give as big a kick as some believe (it has too much the feel of a personal vendetta and remains largely pro-Scientology), it does contain a lot that is of great interest, not least of which is an answer to the question: what turned David Miscavige on to Scientology and set the wheels in motion for him to take over as head of the cult, becoming the alleged megalomaniacal bully of so many accounts?
The answer … is asthma. From The Hollywood Reporter:
“… Ron went back to the beginning of his and David’s story to describe how he introduced 9-year-old David to Scientology … and how the church’s auditing routines helped David with his asthma attacks. Ron described that as the key turning point in David’s life, the moment he decided he would dedicate his life to the church.”
The book has been widely reviewed, with many noting the fantastic asthma claim. Vulture has ten ‘strange stories’ from Ron’s book, including:
“David’s own eureka moment would come when his father took him to see a Scientologist to rid him of his asthma, which was successful.”
Popdust increases the boy’s age and adds allergies into the mix:
“The Miscaviges joined Scientology back in 1971, after the then-11-year-old David underwent a 45-minute Dianetics session which, he claims, miraculously cured his asthma and severe allergies.”
While from Publishers Weekly:
“Ron Miscavige … still appreciates founder L. Ron Hubbard’s philosophy and credits its auditing process – a kind of psychoanalysis, as he describes – with curing David’s boyhood asthma.”
And ‘critical thinker at large’, Chris Shelton, in his review of the book said:
“There’s a story that he relates about David Miscavige and his asthma, as a child, and how Scientology didn’t cure it, but certainly reduced its traumatic effects on him … and almost made it totally go away. And that’s pretty interesting … and I’m not going to sit here and refute it and say it didn’t happen … because it very clearly did.”
“After an auditing session that lasted approximately an hour, the asthma attack Mr. Miscavige was suffering from completely subsided. From that moment Mr. Miscavige knew he had found the answer to both his ailment and what he would make his life’s pursuit.”
Now, we all know Scientology’s a bit weird, you know, with its thetans and e-meters and volcanoes and jumping up and down on Oprah’s sofa … but, maybe, just maybe, there’s something to this. You quite often hear that Scientology hooks you in with some ‘workable’ ‘good’ stuff in its early levels, and something must have happened to David Miscavige for him to become so enamoured with it, right?
Asthma is one of those conditions that almost every ‘alternative medicine’ makes a claim on … “homeopathy should be the treatment of choice for asthma …”, “asthma can be tackled with acupuncture in a variety of ways …”, “reflexology can reduce the severity of asthma, and the frequency of asthma attacks …”, “asthma is one of the conditions most commonly treated using magnetic therapy …”,“chiropractic care can be effective in alleviating the symptoms related to asthma …”, and so on. You could even try swallowing a live fish with the ‘100% cure’ offered by the Bathini Goud clan in India.
Scientology’s claim to be able to treat asthma should be viewed with as much seriousness as with any quack medicine, and by that I mean they should be taken very seriously, because such quack medicine is ineffective and asthma has the potential to kill.
Ron Miscavige himself is convinced that Scientology caused his son’s severe asthma to disappear. In the book (contradicting the ‘Church’s’ statement above – his son was not actually experiencing an attack at the time), the young Miscavige emerged from the 45-minute auditing session and …
“That was the end of David’s asthma. Throughout the rest of his childhood, he never again had a serious attack – some minor ones, yes, but never where he was gasping and couldn’t breathe. It was truly an amazing occurrence, a miracle actually … something had definitely definitely definitely worked.”
Got that? Definitely. Well, sort of.
Asthma was a target for cure by L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, in the embryonic stages of the cult’s formation. In his 1950 book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, he explains how asthma and other ‘psychosomatic illnesses’ are a product of the ‘reactive mind’:
“Discharge the content of this mind’s bank and the arthritis vanishes, myopia gets better, heart illness decreases, asthma disappears … the whole catalogue of ills goes away and stays away.”
For Hubbard and his followers, asthma is an idea that gets planted in the mind through some major or minor trauma; this could be at birth, or – in a development that came after Dianetics – it could even be from a past life. The only way to cure it (“and the word cure is used in its fullest sense”) is to clear that idea, the ‘engram’, through auditing. Erase the engram, cure the ailment.
In the late 1960s Hubbard created the ‘Allergy or Asthma Rundown’, an auditing process that was used to identify certain keywords that would reveal the root cause of the asthma which could then be magically audited away.
Ron and David Miscavige aren’t the only ones who believe Scientology is able to cure asthma …
“… in his twenties, my brother was able to rid himself of 19 years of asthma through Dianetics procedures. My first wife … was diagnosed as totally incapable of bearing children, yet later gave birth to our two beautiful girls as a direct result of Scientology spiritual counselling.”
“… my mom started a Dianetics session with me immediately … after some time I recalled an injury I had received to my chest and opened my eyes to look at my mom and said, “Mom, that’s why I have asthma!” … I carefully took a deep breath, and I realised that my asthma was gone!”
One of the more famous devotees of the idea that Dianetics could cure asthma was John W, Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. In the December 1949 issue he announced the impending arrival of Hubbard’s ‘new science’, claiming:
“… its power is unbelievable; it proves the mind not only can but does rule the body completely … physical ills such as ulcers, asthma and arthritis can be cured …”
The magician and skeptic James Randi met both Campbell and Hubbard, as part of the Trap Door Spiders writers’ group in New York. After recalling “nobody liked [Hubbard]” and that he thought him “an evil man … a wilfully evil man”, he said:
“… Campbell fell for him … he always claimed he was healed in his asthma … and he still went around using his inhaler all the time. Dianetics healed his asthma – right.”
Is this possible? Can someone believe they’ve been cured of an ailment at the same time as they’re experiencing its symptoms? Of course, the set-up and belief involved in an auditing session can produce a temporarily effective placebo response, a calming situation, and give the appearance of a successful treatment for a mild attack for a few hours at least. So it is not devoid of value, despite being pseudoscience.
But other things can play into the mind-game too – mythologising and cherrypicking the narrative over time to fit a belief in which you’re heavily invested, cognitive dissonance leading to the dismissal of any countering evidence, confirmation bias, the natural waning of the condition (either periodic or permanent), bare hope, and good old self-delusion.
There’s a glimpse of this doublethink in Miscavige’s book and in the extract above: in the space of a single sentence he claims the end of his son’s asthma, and then immediately backtracks to admit it wasn’t completely cured. Yet it was “a miracle”.
There’s a story concerning the young David Miscavige that is not told in his father’s largely pro-Scientology book, but does appear in Lawrence Wright’s more critical Going Clear. In the early 1970s the Miscaviges moved to England to train at Saint Hill in East Grinstead (I would have been there at this time myself, albeit as a small child), and for a couple of weeks David was left in the care of another Scientologist, Ervin Scott. Scott – whose wife also suffered from asthma – noted that Miscavige, then aged 12, owned two inhalers, and his parents had warned him that the boy could become violent during asthma attacks.
In fact Scott says he did experience David having some kind of severe attack one night, finding him with his face blue and his eyes rolled back in his head. In another incident he witnessed the young Miscavige storming out of an auditing session with his auditee, a young woman, following him out, clutching her arm in pain and in tears. The claim was that he had struck her. Karen de la Carriere, a fellow intern at the time, says they were told to keep the story quiet and that the incident was blamed on David’s asthma medication.
It doesn’t really matter, in this case, whose side you believe in these stories – both end up confirming that David Miscavige still suffered from severe asthma attacks as a child (the ‘Church’ claim he could not be violent at the same time as having one of his attacks).
From various accounts the asthma has continued into Miscavige’s adulthood. Hubbard’s daughter, Suzette, apparently noticed that David used to try and hide his inhaler when he used it, nicknaming him the Asthmatic Dwarf. At the age of 20, as recounted by his miracle-believing father, he was hospitalised by a serious asthma attack. Upon being released he was said to have stated “power is not granted … it is assumed” – an ominous phrase in the light of his subsequent takeover of the ‘Church’. And in a story from Andrew Morton’s biography of Tom Cruise, ex-Scientologist Jesse Prince recalls the intense stress Miscavige was under while working for Hubbard and how it would lead to asthma attacks:
“Sometimes he would get so upset that his eyes were bulging and he couldn’t breathe … He wouldn’t take medication or inhalers, so I would have to calm him down and then he would sleep for days after an attack.”
Furthermore, he was said to keep an oxygen tank under his bed in case of emergency. Asthma was evidently still very much part of his life – even when fully immersed in Scientology. The stress and his heavy smoking didn’t help.
Still, when you’re led to believe that the cause of illness lies in the mind, and you truly believe in the power of your guru’s snake oil treatment (especially after investing so much time and money in it), the cognitive dissonance is enough for that mind to play some truly wonderful tricks in order to shove the reality of a chronic condition out of the frame. Plus, of course, there’s the Scientology idea that you pull in what you deserve, and if you’re some kind of ‘clear’ super-being, you can’t be having that asthma now, can you? Like so much alternative medicine, if it’s not working then it’s you who’s at fault, not the infallible magic cure.
At the time it was developed and written, Dianetics wasn’t too far from the mainstream view of asthma that the condition was one of several supposed psychosomatic diseases. Thomas French and Franz Alexander posited that the wheeze of the asthmatic was the suppressed wail of an affection-starved child for a mother who would not allow it to cry. Psychoanalysis was often the treatment of choice.
But asthma is not a psychosomatic illness, and the idea that it was almost certainly delayed any real progress in managing the condition, not to mention dumping a heavy weight of guilt on the sufferer for thinking they – or their parents – were somehow to blame for the affliction in the first place. Thankfully, advancing science, unlike dogmatic religion, is able to discard bad ideas and move on.
The total cure claimed by Hubbard is quite plainly complete hokum, and even the mild benefits of a formal counselling session (with or without added Xenu) do not mask the very real dangers of an ineffective treatment for asthma – whether it’s homeopathy, magnets, reiki or Dianetics and Scientology.
Gerald Baxter, a New Zealand-based Scientologist, considered that auditing had helped his asthma. When he started experiencing mild attacks again he was told by his ‘Church’ superiors that he had to handle it and was forbidden to use his inhaler (it’s all in the mind, remember?). After one severe attack, in which he couldn’t find his inhaler, he was congratulated on “doing the right thing”. The next attack he didn’t survive.
Genny Gray, another Antipodean (now ex-) Scientologist, recalls how she was told that auditing would cure her asthma and was ordered to abandon her inhaler. She did so, became ill, and was eventually hospitalised. Thankfully she did survive.
Stories of much-needed medication being taken away once a person is in the clutches of Scientology are sadly not uncommon, and this has also been reported to be the case within the Scientology ‘drug rehabilitation’ front group, Narconon.
A 2013 Oklahoma law suit detailed how a Lake Arrowhead Narconon ‘student’ was left for long periods without his inhaler, including in a room where smoking was permitted, resulting in an alarming increase in the severity of his asthma and no medical doctor present.
Service men and women who participated in the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Project, co-founded by Scientology-Jesus, Tom Cruise, and which, like Narconon, is based on Hubbard’s unproven Purification Rundown, were required by the project to stop using their inhalers and discard medication. One fireman, Robert McGuire, suffered a serious asthma attack while out shopping …
“They wanted me off my meds for 30 days before I started [the detox]. Two weeks into it I was by myself [in a store], my inhaler was in the car and I thought I was going to die. I was taken to the emergency room – it was really scary.”
As stated in my previous article, Narconon is pseudoscience, but it is especially dangerous for anyone who suffers from asthma. The overly-long sauna treatments are singled out as inappropriate for asthmatics, while the large doses of niacin are known to aggravate the condition – both are key aspects of the Purification Rundown.
Scientology might present itself with a glossy veneer of ‘science’, but in the end it’s just another peddler of wishful thinking, pushing flimflam with no actual research or expert knowledge to back it up. It has more in common with its fellow New Thought zealots such as Christian Scientists (who believe illness is an illusion) or Germanic New Medicine (which states that disease is caused by traumatic events which must be resolved in order to heal – sounds familiar!).
As with most pseudoscience, these ‘philosophies’ are not harmless. At best they delay or interfere with real effective treatment, at worst they demonise it and withhold it completely. Asthma can be a difficult condition to live with, and many sufferers are understandably desperate to be free of it. They become prime targets for those vying to make a profit with their exclusive panaceas.
Over a quarter of a million people die from asthma every year – and though the fallacious claim that illness “goes away and stays away” with auditing is by no means the worst aspect of the toxic cult that is Scientology, care should be taken that mythical anecdote does not end up lending credence and promoting the false hope of a cure.