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?’

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