“We are faced with the Government threat of total obliteration on the grounds of pressure from psychiatric front groups, whose ambitions and crimes are notorious, who cure nothing, who seize and kill and to whose monstrous violations of human rights the Government remains knowingly and wilfully blind. We are being forced to fight back, to defend ourselves from complete obliteration. We do not want to do so.”
Freedom Scientology, International Edition No.1 – cited by Rolph, C.H. (1973). Believe What You Like: What happened between the Scientologists and the National Association for Mental Health. Andre Deutsch Limited. p 44.
The ‘psychiatric front group’ described above is the National Association for Mental Health – NAMH – now known as Mind, the best-known mental health charity in the UK and the largest independent mental health NGO in the world (according to Wikipedia).
This statement was one of many pot-shots that preceded a far bigger battle in the High Court in the late 60s-early 70s – a battle that could’ve obliterated Mind, years before it had even adopted that name.
And, oddly enough, the head of the anti-NAMH army in this strange-but-true story is the father of one of the most cherished British fantasy novelists of the modern era.
The following is a very short version of the story told by C.H. Rolph in ‘Believe What You Like’, and quotes liberally from the book.
Since basing himself in sleepy Sussex, L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology movement had been confronting the UK mental health establishment for about a decade when the face-off with NAMH began in 1969.
They co-opted arguments against psychiatry, the ‘myth of mental illness’ and the ‘medical model’ of mental health, they raged against ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) and all forms of brutality in the system.
Of course, a lot of this was right – at this time ECT was over-prescribed and given without anaesthetic*, and there are still valid debates about the extent to which mental health problems are treated too biologically, atomistically, or with casual over-reliance on drugs.
In the sixties no-one, least of all NAMH, were arguing that all was rosy in the world of mental health treatment. However, Scientologists’ good points were mixed very liberally with the most extreme of accusations and views. The following are from the in-house magazine Freedom Scientology (as quoted in BWYL):
“A psychiatrist kills a young girl for sexual kicks, murders a dozen patients with an ice pick, castrates a hundred men. And they give him another million appropriation. One can only conclude that psychiatric terrorism is not limited to the families of mental patients. It must extend all the way to the top. Extortion, kidnapping, murder — these are crimes. Yet where are the Security Forces? Thousands of miles away tending to other people’s business.
[…] There are no insane. There are only the physically ill. ‘Insanity’ is a non-existent malady invented to mystify and horrify the public. Any person who looks or acts irrational is either: (a) physically ill and in suppressed pain and agony or (b) is in terror at being declared ‘insane’. There is no illness one could call ‘insanity’. To ‘treat’ it by electric shocks or brain operations is only to brutalize a person suffering from easily recognizable medical symptoms or to confirm his terrors.”
Trying to separate the reasonable from the bizarre in this literature is a bewlidering experience. As Winston Churchill said of Stanley Baldwin, “he occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened”.
In fact the picture of NAMH that emerges from the late sixties is a bit bewildering itself. It was winning a lot of praise – an August 1969 article in Hospital World declared that since being formed by the merger of three bodies in 1946 (the year the National Health Service Act was passed), NAMH:
“… has developed from a polite, re-assuring body, uttering words of comfort to all those involved with mental health, to an organisation which is now firmly on the side of the patient and not at all scared of speaking its mind when the need arises”
However a modern reader of Believe What You Like is bound to be shocked by the language used by the Association (my emphasis):
“The Association’s declared aims are: To foster a wider understanding throughout the community of the importance of mental health in all relationships of everyday life, and to encourage and promote the establishment of treatment and training facilities for adults and children suffering from mental and nervous disorder, or who are mentally subnormal, or who have behaviour problems.”
It seems throughout the book that ‘mentally subnormal’ generally follows ‘mentally ill’ in the list of whom NAMH exist to support. And Rolph’s proud boast that “in 1950 it established a home for mentally confused old ladies” is so quaint as to seem like something from an old Ealing comedy.
So, in the late sixties NAMH were a vicious ‘front group’ in Scientological eyes, all the while using language unpalatable to us in the 21st century – and they had enemies in the contemporary medical fraternity too. Not least when they placed ads in the national news to rail against the Ely scandal (about a hospital whose staff was found to have been abusing patients and stealing):
“…one angry hospital doctor telephoned the NAMH to say that, but for these unfortunate press advertisements, the public might soon and decently have forgotten the whole Ely affair.”
With shushing doctors on one side and Scientology on the other, it seems NAMH could hardly win. But the worst was yet to come.
The head of the anti-NAMH Scientologists wasn’t really L. Ron – he was the leader of the movement of course, but isn’t the active figure in contemporary reports about this battle. Instead, the UK Press Relations Officer, David Gaiman, seems to be the ‘General’ leading the charge. (Incidentally, one of David’s children, who was about nine years old at this time, is Neil Gaiman, the tremendously accomplished fantasy writer.)
David Gaiman was used to making statements to the press about the Scientology movement in the UK. At this time the Home Office was scrutinising the movement for signs of ‘cultism’ and sometimes took action – for example banning over 800 overseas Scientologists from visiting a UK conference (which was in Croydon, so arguably doing them a favour). For every real or perceived slight, David Gaiman would retaliate in the press. In 1968 he told The Daily Telegraph that “their British membership was then 150,000” and:
“In England alone we take £64,000 a week, excluding the sale of books. Our world-wide turnover runs into millions. Unless we are blocked by the Government we plan to open three offices in the Midlands, one in Southampton and another in the West Country. Our London offices have had to be extended. Either we go into hiding or we push ahead. We have chosen to fight.”
Even with Home Office resistance, you can do a lot with 150,000 members and a ton of cash. Such as overwhelm the membership of another organisation like NAMH…
“There was a sudden increase in the numbers of people joining the NAMH, and many of their two-guinea postal orders bore the date stamp of the post office either at East Grinstead or at Store Street, Tottenham Court Road (where the scientologists had a bookshop and a recruiting centre). For some years the average rate of applications for membership had been between ten and fifteen a month. On 7 October 1969, the figure suddenly shot up to 227 […] there also began to arrive some formal nominations of people not then known to be scientologists for high office in the NAMH, including that of Mr David Gaiman (who was known) for the Chairmanship. The Association promptly took legal advice and called upon 302 recently admitted members to resign their membership.”
It was NAMH’s decision to force the resignation of all that October ’69 influx – which, it turned out, included some ‘legitimate’ applications as well as hundreds of Scientologists – that led to a perilous battle in the High Court.
It might be worth stopping to reflect now on what Mind would be like now, if it had been overwhelmed by Scientologists in the late sixties. It seems possible that the existing membership would’ve left en masse and formed a new group. At least we know those close to the organisation would not have taken it lying down. In response to a letter to members from David Gaiman:
“‘Will you please note’, wrote one lady from Cornwall on 9 November, ‘that I for one will immediately withdraw my membership of NAMH, and cancel Christmas card orders, advising others to do the same, if the scientologists in any way at all gain control or one of their members is elected Chairman.’ ‘It seems to me’, wrote a member in Bradford, ‘that basically your letter is ingenuous and naive. I am well aware of current conditions in mental hospitals and criticisms that are currently made.’ And he went on: It is true that much change is still needed. If NAMH is not aware of these matters then I as a member shall use my small influence to make my own criticisms. To suggest that some sort of ‘take-over bid’ to assert one’s own point of view can be the answer is to suggest a course that is unlikely to do other than destroy a voluntary body of some influence and prestige.”
The Court proceedings are not exactly Grisham-esque for tension, but feature an amusingly stereotypical ‘baffled and patronising Judge gets the wrong ends of several sticks’. Mr Justice Megarry became fixated on the fact that NAMH hadn’t returned the membership fees of those excluded, not realising that this was exactly the matter in contention and that the Scientologists didn’t want their money back, they wanted the Court to ensure it was kept as part of their membership.
‘We don’t want the subscriptions back, my Lord’ [said Mr Peter Pain QC for the Scientologists] ‘we want membership. And this was no “take-over bid” […] At the end of September the NAMH had 1,776 members, plus or minus fifty. If 150 or so scientologists join a body with 1,750 members, they are outnumbered twelve to one.’ ‘But a hundred London scientologists’, said the Judge, ‘will be more eloquent than 1,000 country members.’ [my emphasis]
Ah, those country members, bless them! In the end, even Justice Megarry saw the lack of merit in the Scientologists’ case and ruled against the ‘new members’. All was back to normal. Well, nearly… For their part, David Gaiman and others continued to try and wind-up the mental health charity. For example, in the 1971 NAMH conference, the Scientologists played a tape from a secretly placed (and apparently very high tech, for the times) unit in a light fitting, in order to disrupt proceedings.
David Gaiman was ‘delighted’ with this. Quite possibly NAMH were too – that at least these lavish pranks were easier to ignore than being invaded and then sued by a completely inimical group with millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of UK supporters, at its disposal.
The year after that 1971 conference, NAMH became MIND, and then lower-case Mind – and I work for them so I’m biased, but I think it’s a fairly good thing we weren’t destroyed by Scientologists.
We’re Mind, and we won’t give up until everyone experiencing a mental health problem gets both support and respect pic.twitter.com/dPLYpVbFxf
— Mind (@MindCharity) November 12, 2014
* - Some people are surprised that ECT is still performed today, but it is currently seen as a 'last resort' for people with chronic and debilitating depression, it is administered with anaesthetic, and some have said that doing it has saved their life.