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.
Our summer of Tom Cruise's madness and Katie Holmes' creepy path toward zombie bridedom has been a useful reminder of how truly strange Scientology is. By now those interested in the Cruise-Holmes saga may be passingly familiar with the church's creation myth, in which an evil, intergalactic warlord named Xenu kidnaps billions of alien life forms, chains them near Earth's volcanoes, and blows them up with nuclear weapons. Strange as Scientology's pseudo-theology may be, though, it's not as entertaining as the life story of the church's founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
To hear his disciples tell it, Hubbard, who died in 1986, was the subject of "universal acclaim" and one of the greatest men who ever lived. Not only did he devise the church's founding theory of Dianetics, which promises to free mankind of psychological trauma, he was a source of wisdom about everything from jazz music to nuclear physics. The official Web site dedicated to his life features subsites that expound upon his brilliant callings: "The Humanitarian," "The Philosopher," "The Writer," "The Artist," "The Poet/Lyricist," "The Music Maker," "The Yachtsman," and "Adventurer/Explorer: Daring Deeds and Unknown Realms." Visitors can hear an audio recording of Hubbard singing one of his own poems or learn about the soundtrack he composed for his 1,000-page sci-fi epic Battlefield Earth (later brought to Hollywood by Scientologist John Travolta). Hubbard's composition "utilized elements from several genres—from honky-tonk and free-swinging jazz to cutting-edge electronic rock. The result is a wholly new dimension in space opera sound." (Sign me up for a copy!)
There's a deep chasm between the erudite, noble Hubbard of Scientology myth and the true identity of the church's wacky founder. To those not in his thrall, Hubbard might be better described as a pulp science-fiction writer who combined delusions of grandeur with a cynical hucksterism. Yet he turned an oddball theory about human consciousness—which originally appeared in a 25-cent sci-fi magazine—into a far-reaching and powerful multimillion-dollar empire. The church now claims about 8 million members in more than 100 countries. The slow creep of Scientology's anti-drug programs into public schools, the presumably tens of millions of dollars the church keeps with the help of its tax-exempt status, and the accusations that the church has convinced people to hand over their life savings, make Hubbard's bizzarro legacy seem less like tragicomedy and more like a scandal. Comparable crackpots-in-chief like Lyndon LaRouche and Sun Myung Moon have had almost no detectable national influence. But famous Scientologists—Cruise, Travolta, the singer Beck, and even—say it ain't so!—the voice of Bart Simpson, have given Hubbard a veneer of popular credibility and his church a perpetual recruitment ticket.
Hubbard always imagined himself a great man of history. "All men are your slaves," he once wrote in a diary entry unearthed during a 1984 lawsuit. He reportedly once claimed to have written a manuscript that contained such brutal truths that anyone who read it went insane or committed suicide. He fancied himself a nuclear physicist, never mind his lack of training, and posited that fallout from Cold War nuclear tests were interfering with Scientology therapies. (Hubbard even wrote a book titled All About Radiation—a swell read, according to one reviewer on Amazon who says, "I understand radiation better and feel like I could survive an atomic explosion somewhere on the planet, if it wasn't, of course, really close to me.") He reportedly constructed the myth that he was a World War II combat hero, when in fact the Navy reprimanded him after a San Diego-based ship he commanded shelled some nearby Mexican islands for target practice.
Hubbard's version is understandably preferable to the reality, which was a dark farce. Hubbard was born in 1911 in Tilden, Neb. After flunking out of George Washington University, he became a pulp science-fiction and adventure writer. In the mid-1940s, he fell in with John Parsons, a wealthy and brilliant young rocket scientist in California, who also happened to be under the tutelage of the infamous satanist Aleister Crowley (no relation to yours truly, thankfully). According to Russell Miller's damning biography of Hubbard, Bare-Faced Messiah, Parsons was a science-fiction fan who briefly hosted Hubbard at his Pasadena, Calif., mansion, which featured a domed backyard temple and a rotating cast of occultists and eccentrics. Parsons described Hubbard as his "magical partner," and together the men engaged in a rite in which Parsons tried to impregnate with an antichrist child a woman he considered the whore of Babylon, a goal that Crowley had long promoted. With Rachmaninoff's "Isle of the Dead" playing in the background, Hubbard allegedly chanted spells over the copulating couple, according to Miller and others. (Ultimately Hubbard would steal Parsons' girlfriend and allegedly bilk him in a Miami yacht venture.) Years later, when Hubbard had grown famous and realized the antichrist episode didn't comport with his image as a man of culture and wisdom, he would reportedly claim to have been working on an undercover mission for U.S. Naval Intelligence to investigate black magic.
Dabbling in (or investigating) witchcraft didn't pay the bills, and by the late 1940s Hubbard was in debt and despondent. Then in 1950 he published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, which he billed as "a milestone for man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his inventions of the wheel and arch." The theory of Dianetics promised to cure almost any physical and mental ailment—including wrinkles—by cleansing people's memories of traumatic past experiences so they could arrive at a "clear" mental state. Well poised to capitalize on a growing national fascination with psychotherapy, the book was an instant best-seller. Dianetics groups and parties sprung up nationwide.
Hubbard became an icon, and thousands of fans sought him out. In 1954, as the book's success—and his income—began to fade, Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology. His son Ron Jr. claimed in a 1983 interview with Penthouse that money was the motive, sayinghis father "told me and a lot of other people that the way to make a million was to start a religion." Hubbard made his millions quickly and used them to style himself as a sophisticated aristocrat, relocating to an English country home dubbed "Saint Hill Manor."
But Hubbard quickly alienated governments at home and abroad. He and his followers developed a reputation for intimidating critics and church defectors. An official inquiry in Australia concluded that Scientology is "evil" and "a serious threat to the community, medically, morally and socially; and its adherents sadly deluded and often medically ill." In 1963, federal agents, suspicious that Hubbard's therapy might pose a health risk, raided the church's Washington, D.C., branch. The IRS concluded soon after that Hubbard was skimming millions of dollars from church funds and revoked Scientology's tax-exempt status. (The church won back that status in 1993 after a long, fierce campaign; several European countries still don't recognize Scientology as a religion.) In 1967, Hubbard fled to the high seas for most of the next eight years. During this period he dreamed up the "Sea Org," a special branch of Scientology whose members wear sharp blue naval uniforms and sign contracts pledging their service for 1 billion years.
Hubbard finally returned to land in 1975, first to Washington, D.C., and then to the California desert. Lying low, Hubbard was doted on by a special group of teenage "messengers" who pulled on his socks and followed him with ashtrays when he smoked. He developed Howard Hughes-like eccentricities, flying into rages if he smelled detergent in his clothes, which caused the terrified messengers to rinse his laundry in multiple water buckets.
Meanwhile, the church's ongoing paranoia and vindictiveness culminated in a shockingly elaborate operation, which Hubbard dubbed "Snow White," to spy on and burglarize multiple federal offices, including the IRS and the Justice Department, with the aim of stealing and destroying government documents about Scientology. The Scientologists even planted moles in some federal offices. In 1983, 11 church leaders, including Hubbard's wife, were convicted and sentenced to prison for the conspiracy. ThoughHubbard was named as a co-conspirator, he was never indicted.
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.