March 17, 2011

Happy birthday, Dead Ron: part 2

This past Sunday marked the 100th birthday of the late science-fiction author, cult guru, and all-round con artist, L. Ron Hubbard. (I have already posted the first part of this biography; read it first!). Hubbard had been a penny-a-word pulp fiction author, but it was difficult to make ends meet writing lurid science-fiction stories. When he was hard up, Hubbard was known by his friends to have remarked: "If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way to do it would be to start his own religion."

So he did.

Ron the cult leader

Scientology evolved from Dianetics, the self-help therapy that Hubbard had invented in 1950, and for a couple of years had become a major fad. If Dianetics was supposed to address the human mind, then Scientology was for the human soul. According to its doctrine, we are all spiritual creatures called "Thetans" inhabiting physical bodies. Sadly, after eons of traveling from body to body (Scientology teaches the reality of past lives, and its cosmology goes back trillions of years and even greater orders of magnitude), we have forgotten about our true nature as spiritual beings. Through Scientology, we can regain our awareness of ourselves and become "Operating Thetans," possessing all the extraordinary abilities that we have lost, including talking to other forms of life through telepathy, leaving the body at will ("exteriorizing"), and controlling physical reality with thought. Many of Scientology's advanced "sacred scriptures," which Hubbard developed over time, are exercises that are supposed to develop these powers and re-establish the right relationship between the Thetan and the physical world.

The most infamous bit of Scientology teaching is "Operating Thetan III," which describes the so-called "Incident Two." 75 million years ago, the emperor of a Galactic Federation, a despot named Xenu, solved overpopulation on his planet by freezing its inhabitants and shipping them to Earth in spaceships resembling DC-8 aircraft. He dropped them into volcanoes in Hawaii and detonated them with atomic bombs. This disembodied the Thetans (of course!), and Xenu captured them with some kind of electronic device. The Thetans were then restrained and forced to watch movies, which implanted a sort of racial post-hypnotic suggestion that ultimately manifested itself in the form of 20th-century British culture. (For some reason, Hubbard never explains why Xenu couldn't just have shot his excess population.) Some of the Thetans became confused when they were exploded in the volcanoes (naturally!), and instead of finding a body of their own, attached themselves to someone else's. These "Body Thetans" are spiritually detrimental and need to be audited away in order for the Scientologist's spiritual condition to improve.

In short, then, Scientology teaches that you are a spiritual being with god-like powers that don't work because you trapped in a body, stuck with the psychological problems of millions of reincarnations, and infested with the spirits of murdered space aliens.

Dianetics had been successful, but Scientology was all the more so. Hubbard was soon making a quarter million dollars a year. He purchased a mansion in Saint Hill in England, which became his permanent residence as well as Scientology's international headquarters, where Scientologists could come and take courses. No longer writing pulp fiction, Hubbard turned his pen to promoting Scientology, producing such bizarre books as A History of Man and Have You Lived Before This Life?, books so weird they should be regarded as classics of pseudoscience.

In 1953, the Hubbard Association of Scientologists was converted into a full-blown religion: the Church of Scientology. Its executives began describing themselves as "ministers." Some even took to wearing clerical collars.

Soon, the new "church" began to have run-ins with the authorities. At the height of the Cold War, with nuclear hysteria running high, Hubbard had invented a vitamin supplement he called "Dianazene," which he claimed would "run out radiation" and even cancer. This caught the attention of the Food and Drug Administration, which raided a Scientology property in Washington and seized its supply of Dianazene. In 1963, the FDA again raided the Church of Scientology of Washington, seizing a number of e-meters which it claimed were misleadingly labeled. Eventually they were returned, on the condition that a label be affixed disclaiming any medical or diagnostic function. The IRS began to investigate the tax-exempt status of the Church. A Board of Inquiry in Australia excoriated the doctrines and practices of the Church and effectively banned Scientology: "Scientology is evil; its techniques evil; its practice a serious threat to the community . l. . and its adherents sadly deluded and often mentally ill," read their report. As for Hubbard himself, the Board questioned his sanity.

Because of the perceived "persecution" of his religion, Hubbard became paranoid, seeing a massive conspiracy arrayed against Scientology, including the government and the psychiatric profession, which he had hated ever since they had dismissed Dianetics as quackery. To defend the Church against these attacks, he instituted a system of "ethics," meaning a witch-hunt against anything that might call any word of his into question. Scientologists were interrogated on the e-meter, asked if they had ever had any negative thoughts about Hubbard. Offenders might be declared "suppressive persons," that is, enemies of Scientology, and expelled. Church faithful were instructed to "disconnect" from family or friends who opposed Scientology. The infamous "Fair Game" policy declared that suppressive persons could be dealt with by any means necessary, including dirty tricks, lying, or lawsuits, with no disciplinary measures taken. It became policy to discredit and destroy anyone who opposed the Church publicly - especially in the courts, which Hubbard said could be used very effectively to harass critics. The Church has never shaken this reputation for being a lawsuit-happy organization.

Ron the "Commodore"

In 1967, to get away from the various conspiracies that were out to get him - and the occasional government agency that probably was - Hubbard took to the seas again. The Church had acquired a small fleet of three oceangoing yachts. Hubbard "promoted" himself to the rank of Commodore and set sail in command of his personal toy navy, crewed by a new, elite group of Scientologists known as the Sea Organization. The Sea Org toured the Mediterranean, promoting Scientology and offering courses aboard ship. Hubbard had a group of young girls clad in short shorts, the Commodore's Messenger Org, that catered to his every need. Despite being away from the persecution of land-based bureaucracy, Hubbard's paranoia continued to increase. For example, if he smelled soap on his clean laundry, he would fly into a rage and accuse everyone of trying to kill him. He instituted a new system of discipline, assigning offenders to a condition of "liability." They had to wear a dirty rag around their arm, run everywhere, do menial labour, and live on inferior food and limited sleep. After a storm severely damaged the Royal Scotman, Hubbard's flagship, he assigned the entire boat to liability: not only did the crew have to wear the dirty rags, but a dirty tarpaulin was tied around her funnel as well! Soon, more drastic disciplinary measures were developed: "overboarding," which is exactly what it sounds like. In Corfu, Hubbard and the Scientologists were expelled after the local authorities became convinced they were attempting to take the island over. In Morocco, the Church became entangled in local politics when they began training the secret police to use an e-meter to spot suversives. In France, the Church was indicted for fraud, and there was a real chance that Hubbard might be arrested and extradited. And in Lisbon, rumours circulated that the Royal Scotman (now named the Apollo, one of Hubbard's attempts to ingratiate himself with the Greeks on Corfu) was a CIA spy ship, sparking a riot that damaged or destroyed a good deal of the Scientologists' personal property. Meanwhile, in Great Britain, the government banned Scientology students from entering the United Kingdom and declared Hubbard an undesirable alien.

Ron the unindicted co-conspirator

For a while in 1972-73, Hubbard lay low secretly in New York, having left ship to avoid the threat of extradition. His paranoia began to reach new lows. He believed that a very secret international conspiracy existed to attack him and Scientology. He called this cabal the "Tenyaka Memorial," claiming it was run by a group of former Nazis. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, he knew that the government had a lot of files on Scientology, mostly negative. He concocted a plan, code-named "Operation Snow White," to infiltrate government offices and launder the files, thus foiling the Tenyaka Memorial. The idea was to get Scientologists employed in key positions in various government agencies, where they would have access to Scientology files and be able to steal or destroy anything that painted the Church in a poor light. The scope of this espionage plot was huge, spanning more than 100 government agencies in 30 countries, including the IRS, FBI, American Medical and Psychiatric Associations, and the RCMP. The operation was carried out by the Guardian's Office, a department of the Church tasked with protecting Scientology's interests. Mary Sue Hubbard was in charge of the GO.

The threat of extradition was soon lifted, and Hubbard returned to the Apollo. However, by about 1975, he had apparently had enough of the sea life again. The Church secretly purchased property in Clearwater, Florida, in the name of two fictitious corporations. This real estate was to become the Church's land base. Understandably, the people of Clearwater were less than thrilled that their town was secretly being bought out by a notorious cult. Then mayor Gabriel Cazares, who had pried a little too deeply into the identity of the shadow corporations buying land, was targeted for Fair Game: the church went so far as to attempt to frame Cazares by implicating him in a hit-and-run accident in Washington, D.C. The driver was a Scientologist posing as a reporter, and the "victim" was a key operative in Operation Snow White.

This operative, Michael Meisner, was the one who blew the whistle on Operation Snow White. Meisner had been working in the IRS and nearly caught by the FBI. He had been living in hiding in Los Angeles, but becoming more and more anxious, until finally he contacted the FBI and cooperated with the grand jury that indicted that was investigating Operation Snow White. Eleven high-ranking Scientologists were indicted and convicted, including Mary Sue Hubbard. Ron himself was named an unindicted co-conspirator, but was not tried. While Mary Sue went to jail, Hubbard went into hiding. She never saw him again.

By this time, Hubbard was living anonymously in a trailer in California, his location and identity known only to a select few trusted associates. With little else to do, he returned to writing fiction. His "comeback" was 1981's Battlefield Earth, an 800-plus-page doorstop about an alien invasion of Earth in the year 3000, and the resistance movement led by an Earthling named Johnny Goodboy Tyler to reclaim the planet. The red-haired, musclebound hero on the dust jacket bore a not-too-coincidental resemblance to Hubbard. The story itself contains a thinly veiled attack against Scientology's archenemy, the psychiatric profession. The book became a bestseller under dubious circumstances: it is believed that the Church itself bought huge numbers of copies. Bookstores reported receiving boxes of the book with price tags from other bookstores already affixed.

However, only a few years later, Hubbard outdid even this ponderous potboiler with his final work, the ten-volume "satire" Mission Earth. If Battlefield Earth was a doorstop, then the collected tomes of Mission Earth would derail a train. It is, to be generous, about eight volumes too long. The story is of an alien mission to Earth to save the planet from self-destruction, but which is deliberately set up to fail by an evil agency within the alien government, to further its own agenda to acquire power. Whereas the social criticism of Battlefield Earth was fairly subtle (relatively speaking), the "satire" of Mission Earth was about as subtle as being clobbered with a sack filled with ten cinderblocks. Essentially it is an extended rant against all of Hubbard's and Scientology's perceived enemies, and a veritable apologia for Operation Snow White. The novel was so different from what Hubbard had written previously, that some of his author friends suggested it was not really his own work. However, Robert Vaughn Young, the former Scientologist and close Hubbard associate who had edited the series, said that it was genuinely Hubbard's work. His own contributions consisted primarily of choosing the best breaks between volumes, suggesting the overall narrative device of a computer-translated confession by the story's chief antagonist, and writing the essay on satire that served as the book's preface.

Only the first volume of Mission Earth was published during Hubbard's lifetime. On January 24, 1986, L. Ron Hubbard died following a stroke. Bizarre right to the end, his death was announced to Scientologists by saying he had promoted himself to admiral, dropped his body, and continued his research into the mind from a higher plane of existence.

Ron and me

I became aware of L. Ron Hubbard as a teenager - as an avid science-fiction reader, I had read Battlefield Earth and enjoyed it somewhat, and also all the volumes of Mission Earth as they were published, apart from the first few that were already in print by the time I found them on the library shelves. Meanwhile, I had also become aware of the Church of Scientology through various media stories I had read or heard on the radio. However, I'd never made the connection between Hubbard and Scientology.

That changed with the publication of Bare-faced Messiah, an unauthorized biography of Hubbard by Russell Miller, published in 1987. I read a story in the paper about the Church attempting to stop its publication, and Miller's subsequent vindication in the courts. It turned out that the true story of L. Ron Hubbard was more fascinating than anything he had made up about himself. A few years later, I acquired my own hardcover copy of Bare-faced Messiah. The newspaper clipping is still folded into its front cover.

In honour of Hubbard's 100th birthday, in the coming weeks I will be reading Mission Earth for the first time since my teens. As I go, I will blog reviews and analyses of each volume. This will not, I hope, kill this blog once and for all.

Let the first meeting of the L. Ron Hubbard Literary Appreciation Society come to order!

For more information (and a disclaimer)

Lest anyone mistakenly think that my fascination with Hubbard the man translates somehow into a favourable opinion of the religion he founded: that is emphatically not the case. When I was still in university, I created a Web page about Scientology which, though it hasn't been updated since 2001 and is woefully behind on current events, still accurately reflects my opinion of the Church. My preferred nickname for Scientology is "the criminal cult" - which happens to be literally true in Canada, thanks to the organization's conviction for its involvement in Operation Snow White.

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Many good books have been written about the history of Scientology and Hubbard. A number of these have been put online. The "Big Three" are considered to be:

  • Bare-faced Messiah by Russell Miller, which I consulted extensively while preparing this and my previous post.
  • A Piece of Blue Sky by Jon Atack. Atack, a former Scientologist, concentrates more on Scientology itself than Hubbard personally, and his own experiences within the cult. Like Bare-faced Messiah, the Church challenged this book in court, but was defeated (only a single sentence was required to be expunged from the UK edition).
  • L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman? by Bent Corydon. This book was effectively co-authored by L. Ron Hubbard Jr., Hubbard's estranged son by his first wife, who had since assumed the name Ronald DeWolf. He had been a Scientologist in the early days before their falling out.

Operation Clambake has been a clearinghouse of information about Scientology for 15 years - and, unlike my own site, is still active.