The Making of L. Ron Hubbard
The Mind Behind the Religion
From a life haunted by emotional and financial troubles, L. Ron Hubbard brought forth Scientology. He achieved godlike status among his followers, and his death has not deterred the church’s efforts to reach deeper into society.
It was a triumph of galactic proportions: Science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard had discarded the body that bound him to the physical universe and was off to the next phase of his spiritual exploration — “on a planet a galaxy away.”
“Hip, hip, hurray!” thousands of Scientologists thundered inside the Hollywood Palladium, where they had just been told of this remarkable feat.
“Hip, hip, hurray! Hip, hip, hurray!” they continued to chant, gazing at a large photograph of Hubbard, creator of their religion and author of the best-selling “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.”
Earlier that day, the Church of Scientology had summoned the faithful throughout Los Angeles to a “big and exciting event” at the Palladium.
They were told nothing more, just to be there.
As evening fell, thousands arrived, most decked out in the spit-and-polish mock Navy uniforms that are symbolic of the organization’s paramilitary structure.
The excited assemblage was about to learn that their beloved leader, a man who dubbed himself “The Commodore,” had died. Yet, death was never mentioned.
Instead, the Scientologists were told that Hubbard had finished his spiritual research on this planet, charting a precise path for man to achieve immortality. And now it was on to bigger challenges somewhere beyond the stars.
His body had “become an impediment to the work he now must do outside of its confines,” the awe-struck crowd was informed. “The fact that he … willingly discarded the body after it was no longer useful to him signifies his ultimate success: the conquest of life that he embarked upon half a century ago.”
The death certificate would show that Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, 74, who had not been seen publicly for nearly six years, died on Jan. 24, 1986, of a stroke on his ranch outside San Luis Obispo.
But to Scientologists, the man they affectionately called “Ron” had ascended.
The glorification of L. Ron Hubbard that brisk January night was not surprising. Over more than three decades he had skillfully transformed himself from a writer of pulp fiction to a writer of “sacred scriptures.”
Along the way, he made a fortune and achieved his dream of fame.
“I have high hopes of smashing my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form, even if all the books are destroyed,”
Hubbard wrote to the first of his three wives in 1938, more than a decade before he created Scientology.
“That goal,” he said, “is the real goal as far as I am concerned.”
From the ground up, Hubbard built an international empire that started as a collection of mental therapy centers and became one of the world’s most controversial and secretive religions.
The intensity, combativeness and salesmanship that distinguish Scientology from other religions can be traced directly to Hubbard. For, even in death, the man and his creation are inseparable.
He wrote millions of words in scores of books instructing his followers on everything from how to market Scientology to how to fend off critics. His prolific and sometimes rambling discourses constitute the gospel of Scientology, its structure and its soul. Deviations are punishable.
Through his writings, Hubbard fortified his clannish organization with a powerful intolerance of criticism and a fierce will to endure and prosper. He wrote a Code of Honor that urged his followers to “never desert a group to which you owe your support” and “never fear to hurt another in a just cause.”
He transmitted to his followers his suspicious view of the world — one populated, he insisted, by madmen bent on Scientology’s destruction.
His flaring temper and searing intensity are deeply branded into the church and reflected in the behavior of his faithful, who shout at adversaries and even at each other. As one former high-ranking member put it: “He made swearing cool.”
Hubbard’s followers say his teachings have helped thousands kick drugs and allowed countless others to lead fuller lives through courses that improve communication skills, build self-confidence and increase an individual’s ability to take control of his or her life.
He was, they say, “the greatest humanitarian in history.”
But there was another side to this imaginative and intelligent man. And to understand Scientology, one must begin with L. Ron Hubbard.
In the late 1940s, Hubbard was broke and in debt. A struggling writer of science fiction and fantasy, he was forced to sell his typewriter for $28.50 to get by.
“I can still see Ron three-steps-at-a-time running up the stairs in around 1949 in order to borrow $30 from me to get out of town because he had a wife after him for alimony,” recalled his former literary agent, Forrest J. Ackerman.
At one point, Hubbard was reduced to begging the Veterans Administration to let him keep a $51 overpayment of benefits. “I am nearly penniless,” wrote Hubbard, a former Navy lieutenant.
Hubbard was mentally troubled, too. In late 1947, he asked the Veterans Administration to help him get psychiatric treatment.
“Toward the end of my (military) service,” Hubbard wrote to the VA, “I avoided out of pride any mental examinations, hoping that time would balance a mind which I had every reason to suppose was seriously affected.
“I cannot account for nor rise above long periods of moroseness and suicidal inclinations, and have newly come to realize that I must first triumph above this before I can hope to rehabilitate myself at all.”
In his most private moments, Hubbard wrote bizarre statements to himself in notebooks that would surface four decades later in Los Angeles Superior Court.
“All men are your slaves,” he wrote in one.
“You can be merciless whenever your will is crossed and you have the right to be merciless,” he wrote in another.
Hubbard was troubled, restless and adrift in those little known years of his life. But he never lost confidence in his ability as a writer. He had made a living with words in the past and he could do it again.
Before the financial and emotional problems that consumed him in the 1940s, Hubbard had achieved moderate success writing for a variety of dime-store pulp magazines. He specialized in shoot’em-up adventures, Westerns, mysteries, war stories and science fiction.
His output, if not the writing itself, was spectacular. Using such pseudonyms as Winchester Remington Colt and Rene LaFayette, he sometimes filled up entire issues virtually by himself. Hubbard’s life then was like a page from one of his adventure stories. He panned for gold in Puerto Rico and charted waterways in Alaska. He was a master sailor and glider pilot, with a reported penchant for eye-catching maneuvers.
Although Hubbard’s health and writing career foundered after the war, he remained a virtual factory of ideas. And his biggest was about to be born.
Hubbard had long been fascinated with mental phenomena and the mysteries of life.
He was an expert in hypnotism. During a 1948 gathering of science fiction buffs in Los Angeles, he hypnotized many of those in attendance, convincing one young man that he was cradling a tiny kangaroo in his hands.
Hubbard sometimes spoke of having visions.
His former literary agent, Ackerman, said Hubbard once told of dying on an operating table. And here, according to Ackerman, is what Hubbard said followed:
“He arose in spirit form and looked at the body he no longer inhabited….
In the distance he saw a great ornate gate…. The gate opened of its own accord and he drifted through. There, spread out, was an intellectual smorgasbord, the answers to everything that ever puzzled the mind of man. He was absorbing all this fantabulous information…. Then he felt like a long umbilical cord pulling him back. And a voice was saying,
‘No, not yet.’ ”
Hubbard, according to Ackerman, said he returned to life and feverishly wrote his recollections. He said Hubbard later tried to sell the manuscript but failed, claiming that “whoever read it
(a) went insane, or
(b) committed suicide.”
Hubbard’s intense curiosity about the mind’s power led him into a friendship in 1946 with rocket fuel scientist John Whiteside Parsons.
Parsons was a protege of British satanist Aleister Crowley and leader of a black magic group modeled after Crowley’s infamous occult lodge in England.
Hubbard also admired Crowley, and in a 1952 lecture described him as “my very good friend.”
Parsons and Hubbard lived in an aging mansion on South Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena. The estate was home to an odd mix of Bohemian artists, writers, scientists and occultists. A small domed temple supported by six stone columns stood in the back yard.
Hubbard met his second wife, Sara Northrup, at the mansion. Although she was Parsons’ lover at the time, Hubbard was undeterred. He married Northrup before divorcing his first wife.
Long before the 1960s counterculture, some residents of the estate smoked marijuana and embraced a philosophy of promiscuous, ritualistic sex.
“The neighbors began protesting when the rituals called for a naked pregnant woman to jump nine times through fire in the yard,” recalled science fiction author L. Sprague de Camp, who knew both Hubbard and Parsons.
Crowley biographers have written that Parsons and Hubbard practiced “sex magic.” As the biographers tell it, a robed Hubbard chanted incantations while Parsons and his wife-to-be, Cameron, engaged in sexual intercourse intended to produce a child with superior intellect and powers. The ceremony was said to span 11 consecutive nights.
Hubbard and Parsons finally had a falling out over a sailboat sales venture that ended in a court dispute between the two.
In later years, Hubbard tried to distance himself from his embarrassing association with Parsons, who was a founder of a government rocket project at California Institute of Technology that later evolved into the famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Parsons died in 1952 when a chemical explosion ripped through his garage lab.
Hubbard insisted that he had been working undercover for Naval Intelligence to break up black magic in America and to investigate links between the occultists and prominent scientists at the Parsons mansion.
Hubbard said the mission was so successful that the house was razed and the black magic group was dispersed.
But Parsons’ widow, Cameron, disputed Hubbard’s account in a brief interview with The Times. She said the two men “liked each other very much” and “felt they were ushering in a force that was going to change things.”
In early 1950, Hubbard published an intriguing article in a 25-cent magazine called Astounding Science Fiction. In it, he said that he had uncovered the source of man’s problems.
The article grew into a book, written in one draft in just 30 days and entitled “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.” It would become the most important book of Hubbard’s life.
The book’s introduction declared that Hubbard had invented a new “mental science,” a feat more important perhaps than “the invention of the wheel, the control of fire, the development of mathematics.”
Hubbard himself said he had uncovered the source of, and the cure for, virtually every ailment known to man. Dianetics, he said, could restore withered limbs, mend broken bones, erase the wrinkles of age and dramatically increase intelligence.
Not surprisingly, the nation’s mental health professionals were unimpressed.
Famed psychoanalyst Rollo May voiced the sentiments of many when he wrote in the New York Times that “books like this do harm by their grandiose promises to troubled persons and by their oversimplification of human psychological problems.”
But “Dianetics” was an instant bestseller when it hit the stands in May, 1950, and made Hubbard an overnight celebrity. Arthur Ceppos, who published the book, said Hubbard spent his first royalties on a luxury Lincoln.
Hubbard had tapped the public’s growing fascination with psychotherapy, then largely accessible only to the affluent. “Dianetics,” in fact, was popularly dubbed “the poor man’s psychotherapy” because it could be practiced among friends for free.
In the book, Hubbard claimed to have discovered the previously unknown “reactive mind,” a depository for emotionally or physically painful events in a person’s life. These traumatic experiences, called “engrams,” cause a variety of psychosomatic illnesses, including migraine headaches, ulcers, allergies, arthritis, poor vision and the common cold, Hubbard said.
The goal of dianetics, Hubbard said, is to purge these painful experiences and create a “clear” individual who is able to realize his or her full potential.
Catapulted from obscurity, Hubbard decided in the summer of 1950 to prove in a big way that his new “science” was for real.
He appeared before a crowd of thousands at the Shrine Auditorium to unveil the “world’s first clear,” a person he said had achieved a perfect memory. Journalists from numerous newspapers and magazines were there to document the event.
He placed on display one Sonya Bianca, a young Boston physics major. But when Hubbard allowed the audience to question her, she performed dismally.
Someone, for example, told Hubbard to turn his back while the girl was asked to describe the color of his tie. There was silence. The world’s first clear drew a blank.
“It was a tremendous embarrassment for Hubbard and his friends at the time,” recalled Arthur Jean Cox, a science fiction buff who attended the presentation.
More problems were on the way for the man whose book promised miracles but whose own life would move from one crisis to the next until his death.
He became embroiled, for instance, in a nasty divorce and child custody battle that raised embarrassing questions about his mental stability.
His wife, Sara Northrup Hubbard, accused him of subjecting her to “scientific torture experiments” and of suffering from “paranoid schizophrenia” — allegations that she would later retract in a signed statement but that would find their way into government files and continue to haunt Hubbard.
She said in her suit that Hubbard had deprived her of sleep, beaten her and suggested that she kill herself, “as divorce would hurt his reputation.”
During the legal proceedings, Sara placed in the court record a letter she had received from Hubbard’s first wife.
“Ron is not normal,” it said. “I had hoped you could straighten him out. Your charges probably sound fantastic to the average person — but I’ve been through it — the beatings, threats on my life, all the sadistic traits which you charge — 12 years of it.”
At one point in the marital dispute with Sara, Hubbard spirited their 1-year-old daughter, Alexis, to Cuba. From there, he wrote to Sara:
“I have been in the Cuban military hospital, and am being transferred to to the United States as a classified scientist immune from interference of all kinds…. My right side is paralyzed and getting more so.
“I hope my heart lasts. I may live a long time and again I may not. But Dianetics will last ten thousand years — for the Army and Navy have it now.”
Hubbard, who had earlier accused his wife of infidelity and said she suffered brain damage, closed his letter by threatening to cut his infant daughter from his will.
“Alexis will get a fortune unless she goes to you, as she then would get nothing,” he wrote.
He also wrote a letter to the FBI at the height of the Red Scare accusing Sara of possibly being a Communist, along with others whom he said had infiltrated his dianetics movement.
The FBI, after interviewing Hubbard, dismissed him as a “mental case.”
In one seven-page missive to the Department of Justice in 1951, he linked Sara to alleged physical assaults on him. He said that on two separate occasions he was punched in his sleep by unidentified intruders.
And then came the third attack.
“I was in my apartment on February 23rd, about two or three o’clock in the morning when the apartment was entered, I was knocked out, had a needle thrust into my heart to give it a jet of air to produce ‘coronary thrombosis’ and was given an electric shock with a 110 volt current. This is all very blurred to me. I had no witnesses. But only one person had another key to that apartment and that was Sara.”
After months of sniping at each other — and a counter divorce suit by Hubbard in which he accused his wife of “gross neglect of duty and extreme cruelty” — the couple ended their stormy marriage, with Sara obtaining custody of the child. In later years, Hubbard would deny fathering the girl and, as threatened, did not leave her a cent.
Not only was Hubbard’s domestic life a shambles in 1951, his once-thriving self-help movement was crumbling as public interest in his theories waned.
The foundations Hubbard had established to teach dianetics were in financial ruin and his book had disappeared from The New York Times bestseller list.
But the resilient self-promoter came up with something new. He called it Scientology, and his metamorphosis from pop therapist to religious leader was under way.
Scientology essentially gave a new twist to the Dianetics notion of painful experiences that lodge in the “reactive mind.” In Scientology, Hubbard held that memories of such experiences also collect in a person’s soul and date back to past lives.
For many of Hubbard’s early followers, Scientology was not believable, and they broke with him. But others would soon take their place, conferring upon Hubbard an almost saintly status.
But as Hubbard’s renown and prosperity grew in the 1960s, so, too, did the questions surrounding his finances and teachings. He was accused by various governments — including the U.S. — of quackery, of brainwashing, of bilking the gullible through high-pressure sales techniques.
In 1967, Hubbard took several hundred of his followers to sea to escape the spreading hostility. But they found only temporary safe harbor from what they believed had become an international conspiracy to persecute them.
Their three ships, led by a converted cattle ferry dubbed the “Apollo,” were bounced from port to port in the Mediterranean and Caribbean by governments that wrongly suspected the American skipper and his secretive, clean-cut crew of being CIA operatives.
While anchored at the Portuguese island of Madeira, they were stoned by townsfolk carrying torches and chanting anti-CIA slogans.
“They (were) throwing Molotov cocktails onto the boat but they weren’t lit,” a crew member recalled. “Fortunately, this was not an experienced mob.”
The years at sea were a watershed for Hubbard and Scientology. He instituted a Navy-style command structure that is evident today in the military dress and snap-to behavior of the organization’s staff members.
Hubbard named himself the “Commodore,” and subordinates followed his orders like Annapolis midshipmen.
As former Scientology ship officer Hana Eltringham Whitfield put it: “Scientologists on the whole thought that Hubbard was like a god, that he could command the waves to do what he wanted, that he was totally in control of his life and consequences of his actions.”
(Sunday, 24 June 1990, page A1:1)Part 1: Chapter One: