To Scientologists, founder L. Ron Hubbard is a larger-than-life figure — a war hero, philosopher and humanitarian.
But the real man was a dissembling, emotional wreck who made up most of his legendary exploits out of whole cloth, writes British journalist Russell Miller.
Miller’s account of Hubbard’s life was so devastating that Scientology tried to have his book banned. “Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard,” finished the year after Hubbard’s 1986 death, was successfully printed everywhere but in the US, where, after two years of litigation, Miller’s American publisher threw in the towel.
The biography was heavily cited by later Scientology books, including Lawrence Wright’s bestselling “Going Clear.” But few Americans have had a chance to read it.
Until now. Twenty-seven years after its original release, “Bare-Faced Messiah” is getting new life with a new publisher, Silvertail Books.
Miller has rewritten some of the introductory material, but otherwise the book is unchanged — and it still holds up. “Bare-Faced Messiah” is a gripping read that tears the fabric of the Hubbard myth into tatters.
Doctor, Physicist, Liar
For example, the legend promoted by Scientology said that L. Ron Hubbard had grown up breaking wild horses as a child on his grandfather’s Montana ranch, which took up fully a fourth of the entire state. Miller showed instead that Ron’s grandfather was “a small-time veterinarian who supplemented his income renting out horses and buggies from a livery barn.” The family actually led an itinerant existence, moving repeatedly after Ron’s Nebraska birth in 1911 until they ended up in the Pacific Northwest.
The legend said Hubbard had made extensive travels to Asia, where the budding teenaged philosopher communed with holy men and mystics who had great respect for the young American’s precocity.
Miller found instead that Hubbard had made two trips to Asia while his father was stationed in Guam and made observations that were pretty typical for a teenager. In Beijing in 1928, Hubbard noted that the Chinese could make millions if they turned the Great Wall into a roller coaster. But ultimately, he was unimpressed with the country, writing in his journal, “The trouble with China is, there are too many chinks here.”
Scientology’s early books made much of the fact that Hubbard had become one of the nation’s earliest nuclear physicists and was a medical doctor. Miller demonstrated that neither was true.
Hubbard’s college records showed that he’d failed the only class he took in nuclear physics and that he’d dropped out of George Washington University after his sophomore year and never took a degree.
But Miller wasn’t only debunking the legend — he was documenting a remarkable life. Hubbard told tall tales about his accomplishments, but he actually did live a pretty crazy existence, getting into and out of trouble with bombast.
If he was too busy to attend his college classes, for example, it was because he was barnstorming the country with a friend in a biplane. Meanwhile, he was increasingly turning his talents for exaggeration into a budding career as a writer for the pulps.
Hubbard also had a wild experience in World War II, if not the distinguished one he wanted people to believe. According to Scientology legend, Hubbard had served in “all five theaters” of the war, had been the first American casualty in the Pacific, had survived being machine-gunned and blinded and had broken various limbs, and had commanded American “corvettes” in both the Atlantic and Pacific.
Actually, after obtaining Hubbard’s complete wartime record, Miller showed that the naval lieutenant oversaw the rehabbing of a trawler in Boston Harbor, but then was relieved of command before it sailed.
In the Pacific, he was given a submarine-chaser to command but then spent two days depth-charging non-existent Japanese subs off the coast of Oregon. Later, he fired on Mexican territory for target practice, setting off an international incident. As for his “injuries,” the record showed that Hubbard suffered from arthritis, conjunctivitis and a stomach ulcer.
But it was shortly after the war that Hubbard had maybe his strangest adventures — ones that didn’t become part of the Scientology legend.
In August 1945, the Navy man encountered Caltech rocket scientist Jack Parsons, whose Pasadena home had become a boarding house for eccentrics. Parsons himself was into occult research, which Hubbard joined in eagerly (along with stealing Jack’s girlfriend).
After Hubbard moved in, the two engaged in bizarre sex “magick” rituals as they tried to follow the teachings of famous British occultist Aleister Crowley. With the assistance of Hubbard, Miller writes, Parsons “intended to try and create a ‘moonchild’ — the magical child ‘mightier than all the kinds of the earth,’ whose birth” Crowley had foretold. (Crowley himself privately complained to a friend about the “idiocy” of Hubbard and Parsons.)
Parson found a woman he deemed to be the right “vessel,” into which he inserted his “wand” upon a white sheet smeared with menstrual blood while the “scribe” — Hubbard — took notes.
The friendship ended badly, as Parsons accused Hubbard of bilking him in a yacht-selling scheme that went awry. Hubbard was broke again, had married for the second time (bigamously) and had his third child on the way when, in 1950, he rescued himself again, this time spectacularly.
‘Try the religious angle’
Hubbard was well known by now for his magazine fiction and had a following at publications like Astounding Science Fiction. That May, he surprised Astounding’s readers with a very different kind of offering — instead of a swashbuckling tale, he claimed to have invented a new “science of the mind” he called Dianetics.
His book of the same name appeared a few weeks later and created a brief craze. It not only sold well, it prompted groups around the country to form Dianetics clubs where they could experiment with Hubbard’s claim that by asking simple questions, they could re-experience what “traumas” they had gone through while in the womb.
That fad died down fast, and Hubbard was soon broke again. But in 1952 he regrouped and re-named his philosophy “Scientology,” and now told his small number of followers that his counseling could actually have them re-experience past lives — some that had occurred millions or billions of years ago.
Miller masterfully describes Hubbard’s varying fortunes through this period in “Bare-Faced Messiah,” the same period that Paul Thomas Anderson fictionalized in his 2012 movie, “The Master.”
I spoke to Miller recently and asked him if Anderson had ever reached out to him, since it seemed obvious that his book had been mined for that material.
“I didn’t know about this until the bloody film was out. Had I known this was in the pipeline, I would have got my agent to ask to see the script. Because I agree with you, I don’t think there’s any question that they must have used my book. I would have A) liked credit and B) I would have liked some acknowledgment in terms of some cash,” Miller said with a laugh.
After Scientology’s difficult early days, Hubbard’s organization steadily grew — and soon ran into trouble with the FDA, which didn’t appreciate Hubbard’s claim that 70% of all human ailments are psychosomatic and that Scientologists could become impervious to illness through the help of an “e-meter” and psychology tests called “auditing.”
In 1953, Hubbard suggested to a follower that there might be an interesting way to avoid government prying — by trying the “religion angle,” he called it.
In December that year, he formed the first “Church of Scientology” in Camden, NJ. Another church in Los Angeles, in February 1954, soon followed.
In the 1960s, Scientology was expanding fast enough that it attracted imitators and breakaway groups. Hubbard reacted by cracking down, installing what he called “ethics” rules and strict interrogations.
By 1967, Hubbard had even created his own private navy and ran Scientology from a small armada of ships that plied the Mediterranean, crewed with young believers who had been bestowed quasi-naval ranks in Hubbard’s “Sea Organization.” They even meted out serious punishment, throwing crew members overboard while they were docked, sometimes for very minor infractions such as making mistakes during their course work.
“The Corfu locals [in Greece] would gather every morning and watch this thing. Henchman would grab people from the parade and chuck them over the edge,” Miller told me, remembering what it was like to interview former Scientologists who had experienced such things. “I would say to these guys, ‘Why did you do that? Why did you put up with that?’ And they would look at me, and they would shake their heads, and they’d say, ‘You know, I just don’t know.’ ”
Miller did recognize Hubbard’s mad genius and his charisma, as has every biographer who has come after him. His contemporaries described Hubbard as an electric speaker and a spellcaster who made people want to believe his tall tales.
Despite Hubbard’s personal magnetism, however, Scientology has never appealed to very many people — even in the 1960s, word was leaking out about its strange beliefs in past lives and alien worlds. (Hubbard, for example, told his followers that after they died, their souls — called “thetans” — are whisked to Mars or Venus, where competing alien armies wipe their memories and then send them back to earth to inhabit new bodies.)
Despite those oddities, Hubbard had great appeal for some young people, especially at a time when the counterculture was exploding. At its height, Scientology attracted about 100,000 adherents, according to top former officials who had access to enrollment documents. (The organization has never had the millions of members it claims. Today, experts estimate that it has dwindled to only about 25,000 active members.)
Scientology has always garnered more attention than its size would suggest, in part because, starting in 1955, Hubbard asked members to target celebrities for recruitment. Actors like Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley — all recruited in the 1970s and 1980s, when the organization was larger — keep it in the news.
Snow White program
Hubbard’s grip on his followers was so total in the 1970s, his most fanatical believers, who made up the church’s spy wing, the “Guardian Office,” engaged in what is to this day the largest infiltration of the US government.
Called the “Snow White Program,” the operation’s aim was to steal documents from federal agencies that contained damaging information about Hubbard. It ended in 1977, when the FBI raided the church. Eventually, 11 top church officials were convicted and went to prison.
Scientology then claimed to have reformed its spying ways, but it merely replaced the Guardian Office with another intelligence outfit it calls the Office of Special Affairs. (In a lawsuit going on in Texas right now, OSA admitted to spending years recently surveilling a former top church official, including setting up cameras to look into his property.)
The Church of Scientology’s Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles.Photo: Startraksphoto.com
I asked Miller if it were true that as he researched the book he’d been followed and harassed by Scientology, which has a legendary reputation for putting private investigators on journalists and defectors.
“Oh sure, yeah,” Miller said. “I was being followed every single day.”
And while he was researching his book, Miller found that Scientology’s chief private eye, Eugene Ingram, was hot on his trail.
“Eugene Ingram was certainly the major figure, because later on they then tracked down virtually everybody I knew in the United States and Europe. I mean, it was amazing to me. They found every single person I knew in the United States, and I knew a lot of people there,” he said.
The private eye also visited Miller’s previous residences in England, questioning the neighbors of one flat where Miller hadn’t lived for a decade. At that point, Miller tracked down Ingram at a London hotel and asked him what he wanted to know.
Ingram told him Scientology planned to pin a murder on him.
In June 1986, American musician Dean Reed had died in Berlin — years earlier he’d defected to East Germany and picked up the nickname “Comrade Rockstar.” Miller had gone to Berlin to interview him for the Sunday Times and happened to be there the day Reed committed suicide. Scientology was trying to prove that Miller was actually working for Britain’s intelligence services and had killed Reed.
“You know the typical paranoia of the church,” he told me. “And so they put these things together. It was all nonsense, but to them it made perfect sense.”
In that regard — Scientology’s reputation for paranoia — the organization is a reflection of Hubbard, who is still regarded as “Source,” and his written words must be followed to the letter by Scientology even today.
Hubbard himself dropped out of the public eye long before his death, going into seclusion in 1980. Except for a small handful of people who stayed with him, no one in Scientology ever saw him again. It helped cement the legend he had already cultivated.
Many longtime, loyal members of Scientology remain attached to Hubbard more than the organization he created. They leave the group while remaining loyal to his ideas.
When I told Miller that some of these departed members, who call themselves “Independent Scientologists,” still denounce his book for harming Hubbard’s reputation, he said it stuns him that anyone ever took Hubbard’s ideas to heart to begin with.
“It’s always been an utter mystery to me, a complete utter mystery to me that anybody could read ‘Bare-Faced Messiah’ and then still take Scientology seriously. I mean, you know, to have a founder with a track record like his doesn’t make any sense to me, but there it is.”
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