Tom Shippey

  • Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard by Russell Miller
    Joseph, 390 pp, £12.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 7181 2764 1
  • Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard
    New Era, 605 pp, £3.50, February 1988, ISBN 1 870451 18 X
  • Mission Earth. Vol. V: Fortune of Fear by L. Ron Hubbard
    New Era, 365 pp, £10.75, July 1987, ISBN 1 870451 01 5
  • Mission Earth. Vol. VI: Death Quest by L. Ron Hubbard
    New Era, 351 pp, £10.95, October 1987, ISBN 1 870451 02 3

As its title so obviously shows, the main thesis of Russell Miller’s book is that L. Ron Hubbard, inventor of Dianetics and founder of Scientology, was all his life an incorrigible liar. That being the case, it is a pity that the book starts off with a statement which sounds hypocritical at best. ‘I would like to be able to thank the officials of the Church of Scientology for their help in compiling this biography.’ Miller says in an Author’s Note, ‘but I am unable to do so because the price of their co-operation was effective control of the manuscript and it was a price I was unwilling to pay.’ I can believe that the Church of Scientology wouldn’t co-operate with Miller, and I can certainly believe that Miller had worked out that he didn’t need to co-operate with them. But it is hard to imagine that Miller ever had any rational expectation of official help, or any desire for it. This book is a hatchet job, aimed at one of the nastier aspects of American culture, just like Miller’s last two (on Playboy Hefner and on the ‘House of Getty’); and hatchet jobs aren’t meant to be balanced and judicious. Also, as all the world now knows, they can be marketed much more successfully if there is some official body around foolish enough to take offence. In his first paragraph, Miller is just striking a pose.

Nor does he show high regard for accuracy elsewhere. Still very early on in the book, he alleges that ‘the true story of L. Ron Hubbard is much more bizarre, much more improbable, than any or the lies,’ and sums up Hubbard’s life in this sentence: ‘He made the leap from penniless Science Fiction writer to millionaire guru and prophet in a single, effortless bound; he led a private navy across the oceans of the world for nearly a decade; he came close to taking over control of several countries; he was worshipped by thousands of his followers around the world and was detested and feared by most governments.’ Come off it (one cries). ‘Private navy across the oceans of the world’? Hubbard had an old cattle ferry, a beat-up trawler, and a forty-ton schooner in which he and his followers mostly pottered round the Mediterranean. ‘Close to taking over control of several countries’? The Scientologists couldn’t even take over East Grinstead. It was a big moment in Hubbard’s life when he was interviewed by Alan Whicker while trying to prove that plants feel pain, and – he writes of it with pride – he got a good write-up not only in the East Grinstead local paper but even in Garden News! As for ‘detested and feared by most governments’, it is clear that the FBI thought Hubbard a pain in the neck, especially when he kept on writing to them with accusations about his ex-wife. The British Government, for its part, reacted with characteristic clumsiness and pomposity to the case of a mentally-disordered young woman who got worse under Scientological treatments. But ‘feared’? The best comment on the official British attitude to Hubbard was made by an MP who in 1969 asked: ‘Why is it that first Scientology is characterised as a fraud, and then we set up an inquiry into it? Would it not have been rather better the other way round?’

Miller’s tack is to build Hubbard up into a titanic figure, and then try to make a ‘human interest’ story out of him. This may or may not be credible, but I do not think it is very interesting. Was anything about Hubbard interesting, apart from his habit of staffing his ship with nymphets and having people who displeased him thrown into the harbour, neither of which activity would cause more than a raised eyebrow during a busy week on the Riviera? If there was, it has to be something to do with literature and control.

Why, for instance, was Hubbard such an appalling liar, appalling not only in that he did so much of it, but in that he did it so badly? Catching him out is about as hard as harpooning an airbed in a bathtub. Two minutes with Mission into Time – a Scientology Church publication consisting of a ramble round his past lives by Hubbard and a little biography by someone unnamed (L. Ron again, no doubt) – throws up statements like these: ‘about thirty-three trillion trillion years ago, there was a society that was not too different from about 1920.’ or ‘I know with certainty where I was and who I was in the last 80 trillion years.’ Did Hubbard have any idea what a trillion was? Or try this – the biography now, recording Hubbard’s career in the US Navy: ‘He survived the war in the South Pacific and was relieved by 15 officers of rank and was rushed home to take part in the 1942 battle against German submarines.’ How can you be ‘relieved by 15 officers of rank’? Do they all squeeze into the same uniform? What does ‘of rank’ mean anyway? And having been officially graded the equivalent of 15 admirals or post-captains or whatever, why (same sentence) was the returning hero only given a ‘corvette’? It is no good asking for rational answers; and Miller’s demonstration that Hubbard was relieved of his command for a depth-charging magnetic fields and b. accidentally shelling Mexico, arouses only mild wonder that the bit about the corvette was true – and that some very foolish admiral actually let him have a few shells and depth-charges to play with.

He was already cracked. The pathetic thing about Miller’s story is that it is so clear what Hubbard really wanted to be. He wanted to have a rich grandfather; he wanted to have been a cowboy, and a sergeant in the US Marines, and a childhood specialist in ‘lumberjack fighting’; later on, he wanted to be a new Freud, a nuclear physicist, a daredevil pilot, a rocket scientist, a film producer, a Nobel laureate. He had a mind like a very, very bad vermouth advertisement. And he coped with all these wants by telling everyone he was, or had been, what he wanted to seem – if not in this life, then in previous ones. It is still in some way sad to read what he wrote in his Introduction to Battlefield Earth: ‘For a while, before and after World War Two, I was in rather steady association with the new era of scientists, the boys who built the bomb.’ Note the careful, pseudo-modest ‘rather steady association’.

‘Were you on the Manhattan Project, Ron?’
‘No, no, not officially ... but I suppose I gave
them a few hints at our Friday-night poker sessions.’

Note ‘the boys who built the bomb’.

‘Was it right to drop these bombs, Ron?’
‘Well, it wasn’t my decision, but of course we
were all just kids back then.’

And all this from an unemployable lieutenant who flunked out of engineering college! What can have so distorted a human being? The answer has to be: pulp fiction.

Hubbard was first an avid reader of, and then a copious writer for, all the cheap paper pulps that spilled out of Depression America, Air War, Sportsman Pilot, Thrilling Adventures, Popular Detective and the rest. (Nowadays he would no doubt go for Soldier of Fortune, ‘the Journal for Professional Adventurers’, sold in bushels all over America.) It was these which gave him the inexhaustible flow of tawdry images which he projected onto himself, into his fiction, and over the ‘thousands of followers’ he taught to tell stories about their former lives. The centrally interesting thing about Hubbard is not the nymphets and the conceit, nor even the ships and the millions of dollars: it is the appalling intellectual emptiness in which he lived, an emptiness in which a cap at a rakish angle or an Explorers’ Club flag were the acme of desirability, and in which the most elementary falsehoods – ‘trillions of years’, ‘officers of rank’ – simply could not be checked or recognised as implausible because Hubbard had nothing to check them against. He isn’t (or wasn’t) the only one. The really alarming probability is that a fair proportion of citizens drift through modern democracies with their heads full of stuff like Hubbard’s fictions and absolutely nothing to compete with it. Miller does not face up to the fact that Hubbard and Scientology didn’t (often) have to rape anyone intellectually: they had queues of willing victims, who kept on being willing no matter how they were treated. Miller cites the case of John McMaster, at one time ‘first Pope of the Church of Scientology’, who later fell into disfavour. McMaster, he says, now speaks of Hubbard with enormous bitterness, always calling him ‘Fatty’. When Hubbard had him thrown overboard one day (only in Corfu harbour), McMaster told himself: ‘I’m going to get off this floating insanity even if I have to swim to Yugoslavia.’ He left the ship, says Miller, trying to rub the disenchantment home, several months later. But why on earth did he stay on for several months? A destitute British subject in Corfu complaining about Hubbard would have been received with open arms. Obviously, Hubbard was giving his followers something that official culture wasn’t even in sight of. ‘It was high adventure,’ another shipmate recalls. ‘It didn’t matter to me if it was true or not.’

Maybe extending the literary canon has more dangers in it than have been perceived. But even more potent among the charms of Scientology is its religious element – or perhaps better, its decayed religious element. Scientology is registered as a Church (which has obvious tax advantages). Its publications have large crosses on them. Hubbard, however, denied that there was any element of faith or belief in what he taught, insisting that what he had was a technology, whose proof was that it worked – although, of course, it usually didn’t work. If one can believe Miller’s sources, Hubbard’s production in Los Angeles in 1950 of the world’s first ‘Clear’ (i.e. person with perfect psychic co-ordination and total recall) foundered on hard questions like ‘what colour is Mr Hubbard’s necktie?’ The theory at least is non-religious, even anti-religious. Christ was only a shade over a Clear, said Hubbard. If we traced back our ‘genetic entities’ properly, we would at last ‘vindicate the theory of evolution proposed by Darwin’. It’s true we aren’t just ‘genetic entities’ (or bodies), but the other part of us isn’t really a soul: instead it’s a ‘thetan’ – a kind of alien mind-thing which goes into bodies and then, alas, gets stuck (till restored to true consciousness by L. Ron Hubbard). What all this seems to show is that the intellectual vacuum which was all that was left of Christianity in Hubbard’s world in the Far West was filled neither by humanism, nor by science, but by bad pulp Science Fiction.

It would even be possible – if anyone had the patience – to identify which stories contributed to Hubbard’s mythology. There is some Kipling in there, a very long way back: see ‘The Finest Story in the World’, about a reincarnated galley-slave. More prominent are ‘Doc’ Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs and A.E. van Vogt, but with them no doubt a horde of forgotten pygmies from Astounding and Amazing and Thrilling Wonder. However bad these writers were, they provided something. Nor is it as clear as Miller makes out that Hubbard’s involvement in all this was cynical and exploitative. He does not seem to have been very interested in money, losing it as fast as he got it till the flood became unspendable. Miller leans very hard on a statement ascribed to Hubbard in 1949, before Dianetics and Scientology got started. ‘Writing for a penny a word,’ he is supposed to have said, ‘is ridiculous. If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way to do it would be to start his own religion.’ But the source given for this statement is the Los Angeles Times of 1978. If that is the only source – Miller’s references are at times confused – it looks just the kind of thing people make up about famous acquaintances thirty years later, so they can say: ‘I knew it all along.’

There is also the strange case of John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding, who gave Hubbard his big break by letting him write a ‘fact article’ on Dianetics. Campbell, for all his faults, was sceptical well past the point of iconoclasm: in 1960, for instance, he himself wrote an editorial on the unthinkable, ‘How America Could Lose a War’ (by fighting it, Campbell said, on the Asian mainland to impose democracy on people who’d be better off communist). If Hubbard in 1950 was a deliberate phony, Campbell might well have detected it. More likely, Hubbard believed his half-baked theory. After all, he knew no better.

So the world got Dianetics: make yourself a ‘Clear’ by remembering your own ‘engrams’ (Hubbardese for ‘traumatic events’), and casting aside your inhibitions. Then it got Scientology: it’s not just the ‘engrams’ of this life that are blocking you, it’s the ‘engrams’ of all your previous lives holding you back from gnosis and from becoming an ‘Operating Thetan’. The wish for serenity and eternal life can be sympathised with. The mythology flattering those wishes can only be viewed with horror – not moral horror, literary horror. The odd and again pathetic thing is that in his last years, in paranoid seclusion in Creston, California (pop.270), Hubbard went straight back to Science Fiction, writing a million and a half words of what really and truly is ‘The Biggest Science Fiction Dekalogy Ever Written’. It has scenes where mannish ladies chain men to beds, clamp rat-traps on their fingers, and then make passionate love to their lesbian partners next door:

Through the pink mist of agony from my right hand. I could hear urgent beggings in the next room. Then little moans. Then groans of ecstasy. Minutes. And then a gasping shriek!

What was going on in there?

More minutes.

A low muttering.

The door opened.

This looks like penny-a-word, spin-it-out stuff: but Hubbard by then was taking in a million dollars a week! He wasn’t writing for money, but for love. He also set up a posthumous fund, and a very generous one too, to help new Science Fiction writers get started, and he can only have done that for love as well.

Some people still believe, Miller says at the very end of his book, that Hubbard ‘made a significant contribution to helping man’ – more fools them, strongly implied. Other sadder and wiser souls believe that they were ‘unwitting victims of one of the most successful and colourful confidence tricksters of the 20th century’. But neither of these formulations is very convincing. Hubbard was not aware enough to be a confidence trickster; and while he did a lot of harm, he also provided purpose, or entertainment, to many wretchedly empty lives. I think what he did was to spread a kind of intellectual herpes among a lot of people who enjoyed catching it and had no resistance to it. Nor did he incubate it all by himself; somebody, or somebodies, gave it to him. He was the Typhoid Mary of an LTD: a Literarily Transmitted Disease. If you look at the magazine racks, it could well be that there is more and worse in store.