"I believed in satanism," L. Ron Hubbard's son said when asked what his religion was when he lived with his sci-fi writer father in Port Orchard. "There was no other religion in the house!"
At the time, L. Ron Hubbard mostly made money writing pulp stories about cowboys. But after a 1937 dentist appointment in Bremerton, where he believed he'd died while under the gas and had come back to life with a glimpse of how reincarnation works, Hubbard started to become more spiritual.
According to his son, Hubbard started performing bizarre experiments, including giving the 10-year-old boy bubble gum laced with phenobarbital, a potent anti-seizure drug, just to see what would happen. The adults in Hubbard's orbit were not spared, either. His second wife included "scientific experiments" as one of the reasons she divorced him.
When asked what experiments he had performed on her, she replied only: "It is too disgusting. I have done well keeping away from discussing it for 35 years and I don't want to talk about it now."
His "scientific" experiments convinced him that he knew more about the human mind than the entire psychiatric field. His 1950 Seattle urban fantasy The Masters of Sleep was one of the first novels to attack the psychiatric industry, predating One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by 12 years.
The story in The Masters of Sleep is way too weird to succinctly summarize, but in a nutshell: As a result of evil genies and an inter-dimensional pirate, a Seattle shipping magnate punches out a communist union organizer and gets institutionalized as a result. A bumbling psychiatrist villain tries to remove a chunk of the shipping magnate's brain with a device "like an apple-corer."
This cartoony psychiatrist villain isn't much different from Western State Hospital's own Dr. Walter Freeman, a real-life monster whom the fictional villain is likely based on. Western State Hospital has never exactly been the pride of Washington.
The movie star Frances Farmer described her time committed there in the 1940s like this: "I was raped by orderlies, gnawed on by rats, and poisoned by tainted food. I was chained in padded cells, strapped into straitjackets, and half-drowned in ice baths."
In 1907, Western State had tried to cut back on the massive amount of patient rapes by having female orderlies work alongside males—usually husband and wife teams—but by the 1940s, this hiring practice had been abandoned. Even Farmer admitted that many of the hospital staff tried as hard as they could to provide good treatment, but they didn't have enough resources.
In 1947, three years before Hubbard's The Masters of Sleep was published, the funding to Western State was cut even further, with the business manager stating, "We won't be able even to heat the hospital properly." The same year, a giant headline in the Seattle Times read: "Insanity Increases in Washington, but So Does Population."
The hospital was so overcrowded that many patients had to be stored in buildings from the 19th century, described by the Seattle Times as "mostly wooden with creaking floors," their windows covered with "old-fashioned iron bars, like a jail." The reporter went on to write: "Considering that patients sometimes try to set fire to the place, they are potential firetraps."
Within months of that article being published, the condemned wards did catch fire. The buildings burned to the ground and two trapped patients burned to death, one of whom had been locked up at Western State for 25 years.
A hundred other patients were left homeless. The only other hospital that had room for them? Eastern State. Even under the best of circumstances, Eastern State Hospital is so spooky that it's where the horror director John Carpenter filmed 2010's The Ward. Washington State law makes it almost impossible to film movies here, so the fact that Carpenter wanted it that badly suggests there is probably not a spookier-looking mental hospital in America.
Understaffed, underfunded, and overcrowded, Western State was looking for anything to make their patients more manageable. That's when Dr. Walter Freeman showed up with his new idea: the trans-orbital lobotomy.
This was the same Dr. Freeman who had lobotomized the brain of JFK's sister, Rosemary Kennedy, leaving her partially paralyzed, unable to speak, and incontinent. East Coast hospitals were reluctant to let him practice, but Western State, having more patients than beds, told him he could lobotomize all the brains he wanted. Months after the fire, Dr. Freeman performed 13 lobotomies in one day.
He did it by shoving an ice pick into the patient's eye socket (above the eyeball but below the eyelid) and wiggling it around. The Seattle Times described this procedure as a "delicate brain operation." In Hubbard's novel, when the protagonist breaks free—during the operation to his brain—he throws the doctor into a steam sterilizer. This is one of the few instances of Hubbard depicting somebody like Dr. Freeman as better than they were, as the real Dr. Freeman infamously never sterilized his tools.
The 13 people Dr. Freeman treated that day were part of the first "mass" lobotomy in history. Within a year, 54 lobotomies were performed at Western State. The staff was so disgusted with the conditions there that in 1948 the hospital experienced 100 percent staff turnover.
In Hubbard's novel, the overcrowding of mental hospitals gets solved because "patients were getting scarce since Dianetics." Dianetics is the title of Hubbard's wacko self-help book that is, for Scientologists, equivalent to the Bible. Throughout The Masters of Sleep, he plugs his own cult as a solution to mental-health issues numerous times. It is a book by a terrible person attacking a terrible problem with a terrible solution.
Even under the best of circumstances—when patients actually have money and family support—severe psychiatric problems are not easily "curable." Nobody knows the cause of schizophrenia, much less an easy way to treat it, certainly not Dr. Freeman and probably not L. Ron Hubbard. Seventy years later, most Seattleites have the same options that existed in 1950—the choice between an underfunded, corrupt psychiatric industry epitomized by Dr. Freeman, or the kind of dangerous, pseudoscientific, magic solutions like those offered by Hubbard.
You could say that by inventing the cult of Scientology, Hubbard expanded his experiments on family members to a staggering new level. Now he was experimenting on all of humanity. Scientology is just as wacky and destructive as any of the inter-dimensional pirates or evil genies in Hubbard's other works of fiction. But it has its adherents, especially in Hollywood. The Scientologist and actor Elisabeth Moss recently agreed to play Rosemary Kennedy in a forthcoming movie.