Propheteering business

Martin Gardner

Nature, 14 January 1988, p. 125

Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard. By Russell Miller. Michael Joseph, London: 1987. Pp. 390. £12.95. To be published in the United States by Henry Holt.
L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman? By Bent Corydon and L. Ron Hubbard, Jr. Lyle, Stuart 120 Enterprise Avenue, Secaucus, New Jersey 07094: 1987. Pp. 402. $20.


For 35 years I believed that L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, was no more than a writer of mediocre fiction who, lusting for power and money, became one of the world's most successful mountebanks. Russell Miller's admirable, meticulously documented biography has persuaded me otherwise. Hubbard was a deeply disturbed man -- a pathological liar who steadily deteriorated from a charming rogue into a paranoid egomaniac "unable to distinguish", as Miller puts it, "between fact and his own fantastic fiction".

Almost everything Ron ever said about himself was false. He was never a swashbuckling explorer or distinguished naval officer. Although he claimed to be a physicist, his knowledge of science was negligible. His father, a lieutenant-commander in the US Navy, had hoped his son would pursue a similar career, but near-sightedness kept Ron out of Annapolis. His only education was in the engineering school of George Washington University where he dropped out after two years of dismal grades.

During the ten years preceding the Second World War, Ron became one of the nation's most industrious contributors to western, mystery and adventure pulp fiction. His four years in the wartime Navy are summed up in a fitness report saying he "lacked essential qualities of leadership . . . not considered qualified for command or promotion" The closest he came to combat was while in command of a submarine chaser. On its shakedown cruise Hubbard mistook a magnetic deposit for submarines, and his battle against the non-existent enemy cost him his command. Assigned to a ship on its way to a war zone, he at once applied for and obtained transfer to a school at Princeton. "Far from being a hero", Miller concludes, "Hubbard was a malingering coward who had done his best to avoid seeing action".

Ron's record as husband, father and bigamist was even more deplorable. He deserted his first wife, Polly Grubb, and their two children to marry Sara Northrup. They mey in the 'temple' of Jack Parsons, an addlepated Californian chemical-propulsion expert who secretly practised black magic. A firm believer in witchcraft, Parsons had become a devoted disciple of England's 'Beast 666', the notorious satanist Aleister Crowley. Hubbard, Parsons informed his 'Blessed Father', was a kindred spirit eager to assist in blasphemous rituals. Ron left the temple with Parsons's young mistress Sara. A few years later, Parsons blew himself to Hades by accidentally dropping a phial of nitroglycerin. His mother, hearing the news, killed herself with sleeping pills.

Hubbard's bigamous marriage to Sara, which produced a daughter, lasted five years. Polly of course divorced him. In Sara's later divorce action he was said to be "hopelessly insane". In 1952, aged 41, Hubbard married Mary Sue Whipp, 19, by whom he had four more offspring. When their son Quentin committed suicide Hubbard's only reaction was one of fury.

It was while Ron was hacking out science fiction that he conceived of dianetics. In this hilarious parody of psychoanalysis, ills are said to spring from 'engrams' recorded on an embryo's brain by what it overhears even before it develops ears. After engrams have been erased by 'auditing', one becomes a 'clear', with perfect memory and robust health. The new science was released to the world in a rousing article by Hubbard in Astounding Science Fiction, quickly followed by his book Dianetics. The ludicrous therapy exploded into a national craze.

Hubbard discovered that a crude lie detector he called an E-meter was a valuable auditing tool. With its aid, 'preclears' were soon recalling not only birth traumas but previous lives. Ron saw at once that by combining dianetics with reincarnation he could fabricate an exotic 'religion' capable of raking in millions of tax-free dollars. The Church of Scientology began with recruitment of naive youngsters who really believed Ron had found a 'bridge' to transcendent realities that would transform the world. The bridge grew more baroque as dozens of new books by Ron improved the 'tech' (auditing technology) and elaborated the mythology.

Hubbard began to annoy the FBI with wild reports of Communist persecution. The Bureau considered him psychotic. On the estate of the Maharajah of Jaipur
[LRH peers intently at metered tomato plant]
Sensitive salad -- Hubbard goes to work on a tomato.
in Sussex, which Hubbard had purchased, he conducted plant research to "reform the world's food supply". E-meters convinced him that tomatoes scream when sliced. Mary Sue learned she had once been D. H. Lawrence. Ron revealed he had written The Prince but "that son-of-a-bitch Machiavelli stole it from me". During an incarnation on another planet, Hubbard said, he had managed a factory that made steel humanoids.

Harassed by real and fancied enemies, Hubbard sought escape by buying three ships. From his flagship Apollo, resplendent in officer's uniform, he became the naval commander his father had wanted him to be. Pubescent little girls in mini-skirts and high-heeled boots transmitted the 'Commodore's' orders, lit his cigarettes, washed his hair, dressed and undressed him. Hubbard's temper tantrums, abusive language and dictatorial behaviour grew more perverse. A young woman aboard shot herself to death.

For years Hubbard's Sea Org, as he called his fleet, wandered around the eastern Atlantic, its Commodore convinced that Nazis and Reds were chasing him. Crude slapstick efforts were made to take over Rhodesia and Morocco. A proof that Hubbard -- now fat, flabby-faced and impotent, with hair to his shoulders and rotting teeth -- had come to believe his mythology is that his crew wasted months searching for treasures he recalled having buried in earlier incarnations.

Operation Snow White was Hubbard's secret plan to infiltrate federal offices and steal material related to his church. The plan was carried out by loyal Scientologists firmly convinced they were obeying higher laws. In 1977 FBI agents broke into two of Hubbard's headquarters and carted off 48,149 documents. Mary Sue and eight others were convicted, fined and incarcerated.

Ron escaped punishment because no one could find him. For a while he hid out in a Nevada desert where, with no previous experience, he struggled to make fantasy films. The Church was ordered to allocate "unlimited funds" for a campaign to get their leader a Nobel prize. Mary Sue was released after a year in prison, a pathetic woman who to this day, perhaps out of fear, will not talk about the man who abandoned her.

Hubbard seems to have spent most of his hidden years churning out more science fiction. St Martin's published his 800-page Battlefield Earth. Ten even more worthless novels have since been issued by the Church and lavishly advertised. After promoting himself to Admiral, his red hair now white, Hubbard apparently died in Creston, California, on January 24, 1986. He had been living in a motor home parked on a ranch he had recently bought.

This is only the barest sketch of the sordid details in Miller's incredible account. An even more savaging life of Hubbard, by his oldest son in collaboration with another scientologist who "blew the Org", has just been published in the United States. It is carelessly written, poorly organized and documented, with neither bibliography nor index. It does, however, have a useful glossary of Scientology's major neologisms, and a chilling chapter on the cult's heartless efforts to destroy Paulette Cooper for writing The Scandal of Scientology.

I finished the two books with double amazement. How could a man this crazy have lived to 74 without being committed? How could a science-fiction cult, with such preposterous doctrines and evil morals, continue to flourish? Idiotic religions, I suppose, like old soldiers never die, and centuries can pass before they finally fade.

Martin Gardner, a science writer, is author of Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener and many other books on science, pseudoscience and mathematics.