Most people who have studied the weirder parts of the twentieth century are aware that L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology fame had a longstanding antagonistic relationship with the Feds. In my research for my new book, I discovered how Hubbard’s Dianetics intersected with a Red Scare flap that sparked federal interest in Hubbard at exactly the wrong time and set off a decades-long hostile relationship. As best I can tell, no one has previously written about the impact of the now-forgotten Reuben L. Revens scandal on the FBI’s eventual interest in Dianetics, so here is the outline of a disturbing story. I compiled it from FBI documents, Ben Bradlee’s memoir, and a year’s worth of reporting in the Washington Evening Star. I’ll caution you here that some of the details about sexual exploitation are upsetting.
In the summer of 1950, one of the first students who paid $500 for an auditing course from L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics Research Foundation, an attorney from Kansas City, Missouri named Lamar W. Dye, grew disgruntled and contacted the FBI to report Hubbard as a potential “subversive” who was teaching communistic propaganda. The FBI filed the report and did nothing, as was common for singular denunciations from members of the public.
In late 1950, Revens began treating a husband who worked for the Veterans Administration and his wife after they confessed to having sexual problems. His treatment plan was horrific. During one session, he grabbed the woman’s head, pushed her onto his dick, and forced her to fellate him while her husband watched. After the session ended, Revens insisted that the experience had been therapeutic, but the husband disagreed and swore out a complaint against Revens, alleging sexual assault.
The resulting investigation led Washington, D.C. police to the local Dianetics club, and a particularly ambitious Sgt. Applebeck of the D.C. police suspected that Dianetics club was a front for communist sex perverts, following accusations made in the United States Senate a few weeks earlier that communists were identical with sexual deviants, particularly homosexuals. Sen. Joseph McCarthy had alleged that being a “flagrant homosexual” was one of the “mental twists” of communism, and sexual perverts of all kinds were both communists and susceptible to communist blackmail. Operating under such a theory, Applebeck reported to the FBI that Dianetics club members were a “cell” of communists and that “members of this cell make contact with perverts in Government employment who are threatened with exposure unless they furnish information.” It wasn’t true, but the FBI didn’t know that.
Revens was indicted in January 1951 on charges of assault and sexual psychopathy, under a harsh new D.C. law against sexual perversion, the toughest in the nation, passed by Congress over the objections of D.C. representatives in Congress’s role as governing authority over the District. He went on trial in March 1951, to much sensation, and after three days of testimony and several days of deliberation, he was found guilty of assault. The D.A. planned a second trial to have him declared a sexual psychopath, but a psychological evaluation found him mentally unsound, which vacated the charge of psychopathy. He was sentenced to 2 to 4 years in prison in September. He told the court that society was to blame. “Society does not want me to be unconventional,” Revens told the court before swearing to give up being a sex therapist and to stop having pervert parties.
The trial was a sensation, with coverage in all the major D.C. newspapers. Ben Bradlee covered it for the Washington Post and recalled later in his memoir that the Post’s editor made him write two stories about the trial every day, an expurgated copy for the paper and an explicit one for his own personal enjoyment. He wanted to follow every explicit detail.
It just so happened that the Revens trial came at precisely the moment that Hubbard decided to contact the FBI to accuse his wife and her lover of being communists, the middle act in a bizarre drama that saw Hubbard have his own affair, kidnap his wife and daughter, and force her to publicly declare him a great man. Hubbard had tried this trick a few times, telephoning the FBI and sending messages to its L.A. field office, to no avail. The FBI ignored him. But this time, because Dianetics had been implicated as a communist front in the investigation of Revens, J. Edgar Hoover took interest in Hubbard’s rants. Hoover sent Hubbard a polite brush-off, reminding him that the FBI could not accept Hubbard’s offer to fingerprint all of his employees and have their anti-communist loyalty oaths put on file, but he ordered his L.A. field office to interview Hubbard. They would see if Dianetics had communist affiliation.
Agent F. J. Baumgardner interviewed Hubbard in early March and quickly discovered that the bloviating paranoiac was full of hot air. Hubbard ranted that dozens of his employees were communists, that communists were trying to steal the secrets of Dianetics, and that Dianetics could “combat” communism by fixing communists’ mental problems. Baumgardner asked how that might work, but Hubbard had no answer. Baumgardner filed a report, and someone scrawled “mental case” on the documentation.
That was as much as the FBI cared about Hubbard, but the experience of being dismissed left Hubbard paranoid that the FBI was plotting against him, and it helped set him on the path of anti-government hostility that culminated in decades of legal battles.
The Revens case had another unforeseen effect. It came just weeks after McCarthy accused the Executive Branch of being filled with communist perverts, and the State Department admitted to firing ninety-one people, mostly homosexuals, on morals charges, leading to a weeks of negative media coverage about perverts in government. Here was incontrovertible proof that there really was a ring of sexual perverts doing all the debauched, cruel, awful things that McCarthy only imagined that the homosexuals were doing in secret. It didn’t matter that these were straight perverts. The consequences were devastating. Hoover announced a new policy called (ungrammatically) “Sexual Deviates” to collect “pervert” files about every deviant sex act committed by a government employee, including the names of the people involved and the place and time of their sex acts. McCarthy’s Red Scare had metastasized into a Lavender Scare as all forms of deviant sex came under the umbrella of “perversion.” Revens proved McCarthy’s insinuations had a factual basis and the persecution of sexual deviance kept going for a decade, even after McCarthy’s Red Scare died out.
It’s strange that the Revens case is all but forgotten, but it was an awful tabloid story that had an outsized influence on history through an accident of timing.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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