Bare-Faced Messiah: The true story of L. Ron Hubbard
390pp. Michael Joseph. £12.95.
L. Ron Hubbard was an enigmatic and complex figure, an American guru in the tradition of Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, Ellen G. White and others less well known. To his followers in the Church of Scientology he was the bearer of a new revelation, a "science of the mind" that would transform the human condition, causing the blind to see, the lame to walk, the ill to recover, the "insane become sane and the sane become saner" - as Hubbard put it in one of his books. To his detractors, which included the FBI, the CIA, the American, British and Australian medical establishments, as well as government, press and media in all three countries, he was either a madman or "one of the most successful and colourful confidence tricksters of the twentieth century", a totalitarian despot who surrounded himself with brainwashed zombies and made millions by exploiting human gullibility and personal distress.
It is both a strength and a limitation of Russell Miller's biography of Hubbard, Bare-Faced Messiah, that he forces no thesis on his readers, allowing them to draw their own conclusion from the facts he uncovers. He contents himself with pointing out the obvious discrepancies between the canonized version of Hubbard's career contained in Church of Scientology publications and those revealed by his own research. Like other preachers and experts in the field of self-promotion, Hubbard lied about his early career or engaged in radical "image enhancement" to impress his auditors. His pre-war explorations and wartime exploits were mostly invented. Far from being a war hero he was sacked from the only command he led in the Navy for sheer incompetence; in one episode he fought a two-day "battle" with a magnetic deposit on the seabed, wasting hundreds of depth charges; in another, he shelled an uninhabited island off the coast of Mexico, almost causing an international incident. He was soon declared unfit for command and relegated to humble desk duties. After the war, however, he would hold his listeners spellbound with tales of heroism "told with perfect aplomb and in complete paragraphs", and claim he had been highly decorated, going to the length of having photographs made of medals he did not possess. In later years when the religion he created had made him a multi-millionaire, he returned to sea as commodore of a private navy consisting mainly of teenage girls, who were trained like robots to relay his expletive-ridden orders using his exact tone of voice.
Con-man or fantasist? Manipulator or victim of delusions of grandeur? The facts presented by Miller be taken either way. But there are clues, in Hubbard's childhood, in his career as a writer of science-fiction and in the increasing Howard Hughes-style reclusiveness in which he spent the final years before his death in 1986, that suggest the second alternative. His is the type, not of fraud, but of imposture. The conflicts of his life developed, not from a perceived difference between truth and falsehood, but (as Fawn Brodie remarked of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church) "between what he really was and what he most desperately wanted to be". The con-man deliberately lies to deceive, deriving money or satisfaction from the gullibility of his victim. The impostor lies, or embellishes the truth in order to sustain his fantasy. For this he must have an audience, preferably one that will reflect and enhance his false self-image, making it real. Hubbard's penchant for science fiction and his prodigious feats of writing (he would type manically all night, never revising or even looking at his scripts before sending them to the pulp magazines which published them) suggest, an exceptional need to escape the mundane realities of ordinary living. His genius lay in embracing his followers in his fantasies of a modern, secularized version of the millenium. In particular, he seems to have had, like Joseph Smith, uncanny powers of suggestion, inducing visions or "out of body experiences" in his subjects, or enabling them to recall the traumas attendant on birth. Miller is to be congratulated for his meticulous research in separating fact from fiction, reality from myth in Hubbard's remarkable and ultimately tragic life. It is a pity, however, that he is so reticent in offering explanations, either of Hubbard's unusual powers or the reasons why so many bright and able young people allowed themselves to be ensnared by the cult he created, with its totalitarian power structure, spiritual junk-food and nonsensical quasi-theology.