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the life of its founder certainly warrants a close look
Jack Marx
The Age
May 16, 2007


All over the Internet today you'll find the video of a BBC reporter John Sweeney going quite berserk at a member of the Church of Scientology. He looks a complete berk and is rightly embarrassed by it all, but one shouldn't forget about the nature of the beast he's wrestling with. How the Church of Scientology deals with critics - known in the Church as "suppressive persons" - is well documented, and it's not impossible that Sweeney is the victim of a successful "attack the attacker" campaign, a plan of action originally mobilised by the Church of Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard. In the shady corners of the 20th century, they don't come much more interesting than Ron, and millions of words have been written declaring Hubbard a fraud, most notably three books, all available for free on the Internet: A Piece of Blue Sky by Jon Atack, a former member of the Church; L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman by Bent Corydon, a former member of the Church, and L. Ron Hubbard, Jr., a.k.a. Ronald DeWolf (Hubbard's son); and The Bare Faced Messiah by Russell Miller, whose work was based in part on the admissions of former Scientologist, Gerald Armstrong, whose chance discoveries about the man he had once believed to be "the greatest man who ever lived" saw him declared a "suppressive person" by the Church of which he had been a loyal member for more than a decade. It's no wonder the Church of Scientology is touchy about investigation, for the life of its founder certainly warrants a close look.

L. Ron Hubbard was born in Tilden, Nebraska, in 1911, his family moving shortly thereafter to the state of Montana. It was here, according to Hubbard himself and the official Church biography, that the four-year-old boy struck up a "unique and rare relationship" with a local Blackfoot Indian medicine man known as "Old Tom", Ron's inquisitive nature so impressing the whole tribe that, at the age of six, he was "honored with the status of blood brother of the Blackfeet in a ceremony that is still recalled by tribal elders."

Curiously, officials of the Blackfoot Nation, who never practiced the act of blood brotherhood, do not recall anyone called "Old Tom", the name appearing nowhere in the tribal scriptures. By his own account, Ron was a tough kid, breaking in broncos at the age of three and dominating the streets of his town until the "neighborhood was safe for every kid in it." As he recalled in his autobiographical transcript:

"My grandfather taught me lumberjack fighting and I went out on the prowl to find the youngest and smallest O'Connell kid alone. I licked him, then took on the next one and the next one and the next one, and by the time I had worked up four sizes, the rest of them decided that I was an inevitable part of the scenery and left me alone."

Subsequent research of the Helena school records has shown that the five O'Connell kids did indeed exist, the eldest being 16 years old when his nemesis was the tender age of six. In 1986, Russell Miller interviewed Andrew Richardson, a childhood friend of Hubbard's from Helena, whose recollections tend to cast some doubt on Ron's version of events.

"He never protected nobody," Richardson said. "It was all bullshit."

As a young man, Hubbard allegedly developed an early curiosity for life's great mysteries, an inquisitiveness instilled in him during his "extensive" travels throughout the inscrutable orient, his wanderings to the age of 19 meaning he had "travelled over a quarter of a million miles on the surface of Earth". As the 1978 edition of What is Scientology? recalled:

"Deep in the hills of Western China, Ron visited the lamaseries. There he conversed with monks and made friends with them and the people. In the isolation of the high hills of Tibet, even native bandits responded to Ron's honest interest in them and were willing to share with him what understanding of life they had."

In fact, Hubbard never went to Tibet and journeyed the orient on YMCA trips with his parents, the entries in his tourist diaries probably more reliable testaments to the Eastern impact on the young boy's psyche, the Great Wall eliciting a comment about its possible use as a rollercoaster, while China's "problem", according to Ron, was that there were "too many chinks".

Back in the USA, after graduating from High School, Hubbard attended George Washington University, where, according to the Church, he studied "engineering and atomic and molecular physics" in the name of "a personal search for answers to the human dilemma". The Church does not record that Ron was a terrible student (he scored an "F" for "molecular and atomic physics"), placed on probation for "deficiency in scholarship" in his second year, at the end of which he was chucked out with no degree. Nevertheless, Hubbard continued throughout his life to refer to himself as a "nuclear physicist", citing his education at George Washington University and "Princeton", where he was never a student.

Not surprisingly, Hubbard eventually turned his hand to fiction, writing for periodicals like Astounding Science Fiction magazine, gaining a pretty good reputation among fans of sci-fi and pulp. He was a good storyteller. In his book, The Pulp Jungle, fellow writer Frank Gruber recalled an evening with the 23-year-old Hubbard in New York in 1934, when several hours of listening to Ron's tales prompted Gruber to respond:

"'Well, you were in the Marines seven years, you were a civil engineer for six years, you spent four years in Brazil, three in Africa, you barn-stormed with your own flying circus for six years... I've just added up all the years you did this and that and it comes to eighty-four years...' He blew his stack...Most of the other members expected their yarns to be taken with a pinch of salt, but not Ron. It was almost as if he believed his own stories."

With the outbreak of World War II, Ron served in the US navy, emerging, by his own account, as a battle-hardened and highly decorated serviceman, awarded numerous medals for valor and bravery, including the Purple Heart. Unhappily, official naval records tell a significantly different story.

The first signs of the character traits that would dominate Hubbard's later career were identified in 1942 by the Naval Attache in Brisbane, Australia, where Ron, on leave from the SS President Polk, had become "the source of much trouble" for the navy. Explaining why Hubbard was being sent back to the United States, the memo noted:

"This officer is not satisfactory for independent duty assignment. He is garrulous and tries to give impressions of his importance. He also seems to think he has unusual ability in most lines."

Hubbard was no more impressive to superiors at home, his Commandant at the Boston Naval Shipyards requesting he "urgently" be reassigned to a more junior position. But Ron was at least determined, and before war's end he found himself given one more chance at command, this time of a small PC-class submarine destroyer deployed in San Diego, California, presumably far from harm's way. Nevertheless, the most notable moments of Hubbard's command are the two whole days during which he ordered the depth-charging of a Japanese submarine that was never there and his decision to conduct unauthorised gunnery practice while illegally anchored in Mexican waters, the latter finally scoring him relief of his command with an official letter of admonition.

Interestingly, the Scientology version of Hubbard's wartime achievements makes much of the "action" he saw "in both the Atlantic and Pacific", during which he "thoroughly distinguished himself in the eyes of those who served beneath him." How Ron appeared in the eyes of those who served above him is not recorded by the Church.

In later years, Ron would ponder the "2,000 ton Japanese submarines, worth perchance a score of million dollars to the enemy before my depth charges sunk them" and lament his actions that assured "not less than three hundred enemy lives struggled wetly out to Soldier Heaven". However, there is no evidence that L. Ron Hubbard contributed a single moment of distress to any defence force besides the US Navy, and Hubbard's claim to medals and citations appear, for the most part, to be complete fabrications.

In the post-war years, Hubbard turned back to writing, his preferred theme still futuristic invention, though his outlook was now considerably different. "Y'know, we're all wasting our time writing this hack science fiction," he allegedly told SciFi author Theodore Sturgeon. "You wanta make real money, you gotta start a religion!"

The first article on Dianetics appeared, appropriately enough, in a 1950 edition of Astounding Science Fiction. Within a year, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, was on the bookshelves. An unusual collision of Freudian psychology, Asimovian science fiction and P.T. Barnham chutzpah, Dianetics was instantly canned by the American Psychological Association as "a hodge-podge of accepted therapeutic techniques with new names" (the beginning, it seems, of Ron's life-long hatred of the psychiatric sector). Nevertheless, Dianetics was an instant bestseller and the first Dianetic Research Foundation was opened in Elizabeth, New Jersey, with branches opening in five other US cities before the end of 1950.

The cash was rolling in, but, strangely, the Foundation was not benefiting. In her book Dianetics in Limbo, one-time DRF manager, Helen O'Brian, recalled:

"I was an awed outsider with an associate membership during the boom to bust cycle of the first Dianetic Foundation....One man who was an important member of the organizing group told me a few years ago that he still retained copies of the bookkeeping records that made him decide to disassociate himself from the Elizabeth Foundation fast. A month's income of $90,000 is listed, with only $20,000 accounted for. He was one of the first to resign."

Within a year Dianetics was bust, with everyone from creditors to US Marshals hammering on Hubbard's door. Ron's response was quite brilliant: the Hubbard Association of Scientologists became The Church of Scientology, a letter from Hubbard to Helen O'Brian in 1953 stating his reasons quite candidly:

"I am not quite sure what we would call the place - probably not a clinic - but I am sure that it ought to be a company, independent of the HAS but fed by the HAS. We don't want a clinic. We want one in operation but not in name. Perhaps we could call it a Spiritual Guidance Center. Think up its name, will you. And we could put in nice desks and our boys in neat blue with diplomas on the walls and 1. knock psychotherapy into history and 2. make enough money to shine up my operating scope and 3. keep the HAS solvent. It is a problem of practical business."

Thus Scientology became a religion, protected by the United States Constitution, assaults upon it by the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the Government itself seriously handicapped, its critics branded religious "bigots". In the words of Jon Atack:

"To the general public, Scientology was represented as a humanitarian, religious movement, intent upon benefiting all mankind. Its opponents were dangerous enemies of freedom, and were tarred with unfashionable epithets such as communist, homosexual, or drug addict. Opponents were portrayed as members of a deliberate conspiracy to silence Hubbard, and bring down the 'shades of night' over the Earth."

Hubbard was able to do this thanks to a notable shift in doctrine, a historical addendum to the Dianetics story that elevated mere "science" into the untouchable realm of the supernatural.

In a discovery that seemed to owe more to Hubbard's science fiction career than any knowable reality, Ron identified the "thetan", an entity similar to a soul or spirit, whose meddlings inside the human body gave rise to near every ailment or mental condition. Hubbard first spoke of thetans in 1952, but his explanation of where they came from emerged later, during a lecture series about "Advanced" Scientology in 1968.

Briefly, thetans were the regrettable result of the actions of the evil galactic dictator, Xenu, who, approximately 75 million years ago, tricked billions of aliens into travelling to Earth, then known as "Teegeeack", in modified DC8 aircraft, before blowing them up with hydrogen bombs. The wretched souls of the victims, the "thetans", blown into the air by the explosions, were then captured by Xenu and forced into cinemas (located in either Hawaii or the Canary Islands) where they were made to digest a series of motion pictures that depicted all manner of nonsense, including the basic doctrines of Christianity and psychiatry. The thetans then gathered together in groups and infected the bodies of the few who'd survived the bombing, their indoctrination in the movie cinemas cursing humanity to this very day. The only known way one can become "clear" of thetans is through the Church of Scientology...

L. Ron Hubbard died in 1986, Forbes magazine estimating his fortune at some US $200 million. Before his death, Hubbard, in a move he was to regret, gave his permission to Church member Gerald Armstrong to search through his massive stockpile of personal documents with a view to writing a biography.

"I was finding contradiction after contradiction," Armstrong told Russell Miller. "I kept trying to justify them, kept thinking that I would find another document that would explain everything. But I didn't. I slowly came to realize that the guy had consistently lied about himself.

"My approach was, 'OK, now we know he's human and tells lies. What we've got to do is clear up the lies so that all the good he has done for the world will be accepted'. I thought the only way we could exist as an organisation was to let the truth stand. After all, the truth was equally as fascinating as the lies.'"

Armstrong shared his views with his friends in Scientology, in an official report that argued the Church best not "present inaccuracies, hyperbole or downright lies as fact or doesn't matter what slant we give them; if disproved, the man will look, to outsiders at least, like a charlatan." It's a declared opinion for which Armstrong claims to be still paying today.

"The betrayal of trust began with Hubbard's lies about himself," says Armstrong. "His life was a continuing pattern of fraudulent business practices, tax evasion, flight from creditors and hiding from the law. He was a mixture of Adolf Hitler, Charlie Chaplin and Baron Munchausen. In short, he was a con man."

The question that begs asking is how the belief system started by a man so comprehensively revealed as a huckster could possibly still have so many apostles, many of whom are notable, successful human beings with easy access to the known facts. It's true enough that the tenets of Scientology are no more or less ludicrous than those of any other established religion, and if we could access naval memos from Biblical times there'd surely be more than a few discrepancies regarding those who claimed to part certain seas or walk on certain waters.

But what sets Hubbard apart from the others, from Jesus Christ to Joseph Smith, is that Ron did not claim to be the mouthpiece for the Divine, a mere conduit for the Good News. Scientology was a result of Hubbard's own "research", though he steadfastly refused to quantify his own investigative protocols. In short, Scientology begins with Hubbard, and stands or falls on his reliability. That's troublesome news, surely, for Scientologists.

One wonders why today's Church, faced with the overwhelming weight of truth about its founder, might not have chosen to distance itself from Hubbard, to declare that, by some fortunate accident, the simple psychological system devised by a man of questionable character and intent seems to work nonetheless, as it obviously does for some. Instead, the Church of Scientology still reveres L. Ron Hubbard as something like a prophet, its robust defense of the apparently indefensible making it appear more of a garrison than a religion, its energy for doing combat with criticism more suited to a militarist cabal than a church.

It is one invention from the mind of its founder that the Church of Scientology could well dispense with.

In New York in 1947, destitute and near suicidal, L. Ron Hubbard scribbled his thoughts into notebooks that would one day be tendered as evidence in the Los Angeles Superior Court. The miracle of Scientology, and the character of its founder, were yet to be known to the world.

"You can be merciless whenever your will is crossed," he wrote, "and you have the right to be merciless.

"All men are your slaves."


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