Slate's "Assessment" columns dissect the conventional wisdom about real people ( L. Ron Hubbard), fictional characters ( Scooby-Doo), companies ( Whole Foods), body parts ( the prostate), and even weather patterns ( El Nino). This week, Slate is resurrecting a handful of classic Assessments, all collected in a new book, Backstabbers, Crazed Geniuses, and Animals We Hate. The following piece was originally published in Slate on July 15, 2005.
By that time, in any case, he had gone into hiding. On or around Jan. 17, 1986, Hubbard suffered a catastrophic stroke on a secluded ranch near Big Sur, Calif. A week later he was dead. Scientology attorneys arrived to recover his body, which they sought to have cremated immediately. They were blocked by a county coroner, who, according to Scientology critics, did an autopsy that revealed high levels of a psychiatric drug (Vistaril). That would seem like an embarrassment given the church's hostility to such medications (witness Tom Cruise's recent feud with Brooke Shields), but it didn't stop the church from summoning thousands of followers to the Hollywood Palladium days after Hubbard's death. There they were told that Hubbard "willingly discarded the body after it was no longer useful to him," and that this signified "his ultimate success: the conquest of life that he embarked upon half a century ago." Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Hubbard's ultimate success lay in convincing millions of people he was something other than a nut.