Friday, January 7, 2011

On "Bare-Faced Messiah" by Russell Miller *****

This biography of L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer, the author of Dianetics, and the found of the Church of Scientology is an absolutely fascinating read, as fascinating as Hubbard himself was. I've never had a desire to read Hubbard's writings, and I still don't. But growing up, I'd have had hard time not being aware of him. Commercials for Dianetics ran on the television. Bridge Publications, the publishing unit responsible for printing many of Hubbard's books, used to send me information on his book when I worked as a book buyer, and they called me at home, inviting me to lectures. I was young. I knew Hubbard was important somehow, but I didn't know how, and I wasn't at all drawn to attend any sort of lecture or party associated with him. Then there are the bookstores, which one can still find in some big cities, especially in Southern California, where I grew up. And there are the celebrities that are Scientologists.

So why read a book on L. Ron Hubbard? A few years ago, reading Mike Davis's City of Quartz, I became fascinated by an anecdote Davis shared about a personality very important in my hometown of Pasadena that involved Hubbard. At that point, I was like, I need to read that book. The problem: It was out of print. Thankfully, someone opted to make it available online, which is how I've finally been able to read it.

Miller's text essentially compares one man (the legend) with another (the "real"). The legend is of Hubbard's own creation--having grown up among Indians, touring Asia as a teen, the first casualty of World War II and a lone survivor from the attack on Pearl Harbor, a rocket scientist, a nuclear arms expert, and a man of many lives before that, going back trillions of years. Yet the made-up Hubbard, so far-fetched as he is, is actually, to me less interesting than the person that Miller presents us. There are no Indians; the travels in Asia as a teen are brief and not full of heroics; the World War II service is spotty (and actually quite funny).

Hubbard, in Miller's account, is a man with an active imagination who increasingly lives in that fantasy world--and gets others to live in it with him. In World War II, he does desk work. Given a chance finally to oversee a ship, he finds submarines off the coast of Oregon and has the crew fire off all of the ship's depth charges, while other ships in the area see nothing. He writes pulp fiction, and then comes up with the idea of writing a philosophical treatise regarding how to find peace. Somehow, this work, Dianetics, ends up on the best-seller list, and a man who was always in hoc before is richer than one could ever imagine. The "auditing" that Dianetics introduces, becomes a 1950s, and not satisfied with that, Hubbard transforms it into the religion that would become scientology. And then he gets even more bizarre. Fighting persecution, he flees to Britain, then to the ocean--that's right, the ocean. He and his followers buy boats and live on ocean liners for years. Finally, he settles in California, where he "disappears." Higher-ups in the church he founds fight for power.

But Hubbard is more than a person with an incredibly varied life. He is a personality to be reckoned with, at least as Miller draws him. He is a storyteller--and a liar. He is a conman that people love, and a man who cares for no one but himself (marrying one woman while still married to another; getting one wife in trouble and then letting her take the wrap by going to prison; "stealing" a man's mistress--as well as the man's personal fortune). And finally, he is a man whose fantasy life eventually becomes his real life, such that he can no longer distinguish between the con he is perpetrating and the reality that is his own being.

One comes away wondering how anyone could follow such a man in a religion. And yet, Miller is not writing from the official Hubbard script, and that is the difference. A spiritualism that might do wonders for a person can make such a person a believer, and then, under that spell, the person comes to see things as Hubbard and his followers see them, and all others who write against the religion are the deluded ones rather than those who live within its sway. As an outsider, I find Miller's account fascinating, but I know also what it is like to be on the inside of a group that outsiders misread and that too makes this a story with a certain hold over me. Maybe it'll hold you too. You can read it, online, here or download it as a pdf here.

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