March 13, 2011

Happy birthday, Dead Ron

Today is the 100th birthday of L. Ron Hubbard, pulp-fiction author turned cult leader. At least, it might have been, had he lived this long, instead of turning to a life of fraud and crime, going into hiding, and living out the last few years of his life as an ill-groomed, low-budget Howard Hughes before dying of a stroke on January 26, 1986 with his circulatory system pumped full of psychiatric drugs.

(Coincidentally, January 24 of this year was also the 25th anniversary of his death. While I have always enjoyed celebrating Dead Ron Day with a pint and a reading from Russell Miller's biography Bare-Faced Messiah, the milestone escaped me until it was too far gone to deal with in a timely manner. Stupid math.)

Hubbard the man has fascinated me for years, because the actual details of his life are every bit as oddball as the stuff he made up.

Ron the teenager

Lafayette Ron Hubbard was born March 13, 1911 in Tilden, Nebraska. His official biographies typically exaggerate the details of his youth, as they do most of his life. It is claimed, for example, that he was made a blood-brother of the Blackfoot Indian tribe (for no apparent reason, and in any case the Blackfeet have no such rite) and that his uncle owned a ranch a quarter the size of Montana (he was a veterinarian, not a rancher, and he owned an acre of land and a few farm animals). He claimed to have traveled extensively in the Far East absorbing Oriental wisdom from sages and priests. In fact, his father was a Navy officer, who was stationed in Guam for a time, and Hubbard did have occasion as a teen to see some of China while visiting his parents in 1928. At the time he didn't seem so impressed with Chinese sagacity: his diaries remarked that the Great Wall would have made a decent roller coaster, and that "the trouble with China is, there are too many chinks there."

Ron the dropout

After high school, Hubbard enrolled in the engineering program at George Washington University. After two years, he dropped out because of poor marks, due to his preference for gliding, sailing, and writing tales of adventure about himself over studying. This didn't stop him later from claiming to be an engineer - and a nuclear physicist, based on his taking a single course in atomic and molecular physics, in which he earned an F.

Ron the hack storywriter

However, by this time Hubbard felt he had found his niche: writing stories for the pulp magazines. He was a prolific author in multiple genres: Western, crime, adventure, and of course science fiction. He was one of the most prolific authors of the so-called "Golden Age of Science Fiction," beginning in the late 1930s. (Martin Gardner wrote, in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, that for a time in his career Hubbard increased his productivity by using a modified typewriter with extra keys for common words, and typing onto a continuous roll of paper to avoid having to change sheets.) He was a friend of John W. Campbell Jr., the legendary editor of Astounding magazine and chief architect of the Golden Age. His association with Campbell would become important later in his life.

During this time, Hubbard wrote some works that are now considered classics of the SF and fantasy genre: Fear, Typewriter in the Sky, and The Final Blackout. But despite his genuine accomplishments in his writing career, Hubbard was still not above exaggerating the details, claiming also to have become a Hollywood screenwriting legend who revived the careers of both Karloff and Lugosi. His screenwriting credit comprises a single serial, The Secret of Treasure Island. He wrote a novel, titled Excalibur, that he claimed would revolutionize the world, and that it was so mind-blowing its first few readers went out of their minds. It never found a publisher.

Ron the "war hero"

In 1941, Hubbard was commissioned as a lieutenant junior grade of the U.S. Naval Reserve. When the U.S. entered World War II, he served in both the Atlantic and pacific. He would later claim to have been the first casualty returned to the United States from the Pacific theatre, and to have been a highly decorated war hero. In fact, he was not wounded in action, and never earned a Purple Heart or any other decoration apart from the routine service medals awarded to every serviceman.

After his commission, Hubbard was initially assigned to a post in public relations, where he attempted to sell navy stories to magazines, unsuccessfully, so the Navy assigned him instead to intelligence. After Pearl Harbour, he was sent to the Philippines, but annoyed his senior officers so much that he was sent back to the States before he even arrived. After a short stint censoring cables, he was put in command of the refit of the USS YP-422, a fishing trawler being converted to a harbour-patrol gunboat in Massachusetts. He was relieved of this command before the boat ever left the shipyard, because he got into an altercation with another officer.

Next, Hubbard was transferred to the Pacific, where he was put in command of the USS PC-815, a submarine chaser. On the boat's shakedown cruise, he claimed to have encountered two Japanese submarines lurking off the coast of Oregon, which, with the aid of observation balloons and a few other ships, he engaged over two days, bombarding the supposed subs with dozens of depth charges. The sub never existed; Hubbard and his crew had spent two days fighting a known magnetic deposit.

Only a few days later, Hubbard blundered again. He unintentionally steamed the PC-815 out of San Diego and into Mexican waters, where his crew practiced firing the ship's guns in the direction of the Coronados Islands, provoking an official complaint from the Mexican government, As a result, Hubbard was again relieved of command and assigned a desk job in San Diego.

Rather than try to do actual work, Hubbard immediately complained of a series of fictitious illnesses (and one real one, an ulcer) and spent his time in the hospital. He told his family that he was recovering from war wounds.

In 1944, Hubbard had one more chance to see action at sea, as the navigation officer of an amphibious cargo ship, the USS Algol. Life aboard this ship during its shakedown cruise was completely uneventful, and Hubbard applied (and was accepted) to the School of Military Government at Princeton. It seems that by this time, he was weary of the sea. The day before he left, he reported to the officer on duty that he had found a Molotov cocktail concealed in some cargo on the dock that was to be loaded onto the Algol. Why he was skulking around the cargo, or how the "saboteurs" expected an unlit Molotov cocktail to do any damage, was never investigated. Hubbard would later claim that his time aboard the Algol was the inspiration for the Henry Fonda movie Mister Roberts.

Hubbard finished the war in Princeton, attending Naval Training School, meeting with a group of science-fiction authors in Philadelphia organized by Robert A. Heinlein to brainstorm ways to counter kamikaze attacks, and spending time in hospital with a variety of minor and made-up ailments. He was released from active duty in 1946 as a lieutenant second grade. (The Navy routinely promoted him to lieutenant commander about a year later, and Hubbard resigned his commission in 1950.) According to Hubbard himself, he had spent the war being constantly bombed, blown up, shelled, shot, sunk, crippled, and blinded. Meanwhile, his last ship, the Algol, saw action in the Philippines and Okinawa, earning itself two battle stars. Ron was a pretend war hero, because he had squandered the chance to become a real one.

Ron the Satanist

After the war, Hubbard hit some difficulties. He had been married since 1933, but the marriage was on the rocks. His wife, Polly, refused to move with their two children to accompany him in California. Hubbard, electing to remain in California, moved in August 1945 into the rooming house of Jack Parsons, a rocket scientist and co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Parsons was also a notorious occultist, a follower of Aleister Crowley. Together, Hubbard and Parsons experimented with occult sex magic rituals intended to invoke Babalon, the "Mother of Abominations." Meanwhile, Hubbard also became involved with Parsons' girlfriend, Sara Northrup. This did not stop the three of them from forming a business partnership for selling yachts. Parsons suspected that Hubbard was swindling him, and that he was going to steal his money, his yacht, and Sara, and go on a world cruise. Legal action followed, and the partnership was dissolved. In August 1946, Sara Northrup became Hubbard's second wife. She did not know that he was still legally married to his first. Nor did Polly realize he had married again: she filed for divorce on grounds of desertion in 1947.

Ron the pop psychologist

Hubbard and Sara had little money, so he took up writing again as a means of support, along with attempting to persuade the Navy to increase his disability pension because of yet more invented ailments.

In 1949, after Hubbard's name hadn't been seen on a byline in some time, rumours began to circulate that he had developed a new groundbreaking philosophy, a "science of the mind." Hints were dropped by John W. Campbell about something big. Finally, the May 1950 issue of Astounding included an article by Hubbard titled "Dianetics: An Introduction to a New Science." This was followed up by a full-length book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.

The thesis of Dianetics is that all of man's problems (aberrations) stem from traumatic engrams, or memory imprints. Engrams are recorded in the subconscious "reactive mind" when the victim is unconscious and subjected to pain. Later, part of the engram is cued by a similar experience, and the other parts of the engram are re-enacted as mental or physical problems such as kleptomania or asthma. The cure for engrams is a therapy called auditing, in which the patient, or "preclear," is asked questions that are supposed to help him recall engrams hidden in the reactive mind, and transfer them into the conscious memory bank of the analytical mind, supposedly the part of the brain that does all the thinking and computing. It becomes a normal memory and causes no further harm. (Later, Hubbard invented a device to make auditing easier and more "scientific": the e-meter, a sort of crude lie detector built out of a circuit intended to measure electrical resistance.) The goal of Dianetics auditing is to produce a Clear: someone who is rid of his engrams and no longer troubled by them. Hubbard claimed that Clears were free of mental and physical aberrations and could exhibit such abilities as freedom from sickness, as well as improved vision, memory, and intelligence.

Despite being ignored or savaged by the press and the medical community, Dianetics was an instant bestseller. Science-fiction fans began auditing each other, and notable SF personalities such as Campbell, Theodore Sturgeon, and A. E. van Vogt became disciples. The Hubbard Dianetics Research Foundation opened in New Jersey along with a number of branches.

However, it wasn't long before the cracks started to show. The vaunted benefits of Dianetics failed to show: the supposed first Clear, presented in Los Angeles, couldn't even remember the colour of Hubbard's tie when his back was turned. Leaders in the Dianetics community had personality clashes. By the following summer, the Foundation was closed. However, Dianetics was reprieved when a millionaire named Don Purcell agreed to bankroll a new Foundation in Wichita. Purcell and Hubbard soon had a falling out. Moreover, the Wichita Foundation was held liable for the debts of the original New Jersey one, and went bankrupt in 1952. Hubbard established a "Hubbard College" elsewhere in Wichita to continue to promote Dianetics while he and Purcell fought in court over intellectual property rights.

Meanwhile, Hubbard's second marriage was also failing: Sara filed for divorce in 1951 citing bigamy as well as physical and psychological abuse. She settled with Hubbard and gained custody of their daughter (whose paternity Hubbard would later deny) in return for retracting all the terrible things she had said about him. Following the divorce, Hubbard married for the third time, to a staff member named Mary Sue Whipp. She was 18; he was 39.

With the ongoing dispute over Dianetics in the courts, Hubbard decided to respin the therapy as a spiritual discipline. He rebranded it under a new name: Scientology.

To be continued . . .