Truth is a relative concept when discussing the life of Lafayette Ronald Hubbard. He was born in 1911, and, according to his legend, lived a life of heroic acts and great scientific and spiritual accomplishment until his death, in 1986. Photos of Hubbard in robust middle age — often wearing an ascot — hang in every Scientology center.
You can read Hubbard's official biography on the Scientology Web site, which portrays the man Scientologists call the "Founder" as a great thinker, teacher, scientist, adventurer, ethnographer, photographer, sailor and war hero.
The reality of Hubbard's life is less exhilarating but in many ways more interesting. The son of a U.S. naval officer, he was by all accounts an unremarkable youth from Tilden, Nebraska, who flunked out of George Washington University after his sophomore year and later found moderate success as a penny-a-word writer of pulp fiction, publishing hundreds of stories in fantasy magazines like Astounding Science Fiction. As a lieutenant in the Navy, Hubbard served, briefly, in World War II, but never saw combat and was relieved of his command. He spent the last months of the war as an outpatient at a naval hospital in Oakland, California, where he received treatment for ulcers. Years later, Hubbard would claim to have been "crippled and blinded" in battle, and that, over a year or so of intense "scientific research," he'd cured himself using techniques that would later become part of Dianetics.
After the war, Hubbard made his way to Pasadena, California, a scientific boomtown of the 1940s, where he met John Whiteside Parsons, a society figure and a founder of CalTech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A sci-fi buff, Parsons was also a follower of the English occultist Aleister Crowley. Parsons befriended Hubbard and invited him to move onto his estate. In one of the stranger chapters in Hubbard's life, recorded in detail by several biographers, the soon-to-be founder of Dianetics became Parsons' assistant — helping him with a variety of black-magic and sex rituals, including one in which Parsons attempted to conjure a literal "whore of Babalon [sic]," with Hubbard serving as apprentice.
Charming and charismatic, Hubbard succeeded in wooing away Parsons' mistress, Sara Northrup, whom he would later marry. Soon afterward, he fell out with Parsons over a business venture. But having absorbed lessons learned at Parsons'"lodge," Hubbard set out to figure his next step. In his 1983 autobiography, Over My Shoulder: Reflections on a Science Fiction Era, the sci-fi writer Lloyd Eshbach describes meeting Hubbard in the late 1940s. "I'd like to start a religion," Eshbach recalls Hubbard saying. "That's where the money is."
Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health was published in May 1950, and it soon became a runaway hit. Written as sort of a practical pop-psychology book, Dianetics promised that by practicing certain techniques, some of which seemed almost hypnotic, one could be free of sickness, anxiety, aggression and anti-social tendencies, and develop perfect memory and astounding intelligence. Hailed by the newspaper columnist Walter Winchell as a "new science" that "from all indications will prove to be as revolutionary for humanity as the first caveman's discovery and utilization of fire," Dianetics remained on the New York Times best-seller list for twenty-eight consecutive weeks.
But a number of factors, including condemnation from the American Psychological Association, hurt book sales. Public support for Dianetics took a downturn, and by the end of 1952, Hubbard was facing financial ruin.
Rather than admit defeat, Hubbard "improved" Dianetics and unveiled what he claimed was an even more sophisticated path to enlightenment: Scientology. This new technique was designed to restore, or enhance, the abilities of the individual, as opposed to simply getting rid of the reactive mind. In 1954, the first Church of Scientology was born, in Los Angeles. L. Ron Hubbard was now the founder of his own religion.
From there, Hubbard set about spreading Scientology around the world, opening churches in England, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. In 1955, a policy known as "Project Celebrity" was launched with the aim of recruiting stars in the arts, sports, business and government — those dubbed "Prime Communicators" — who could help disseminate the message. As incentive, these celebrities were given free courses; those who did outstanding work could be "awarded" an OT level, in honor of their service to the organization. Special churches — known as "celebrity centres" — were set up, allowing its members to practice Scientology away from the public eye. The most lavish of these is the neo-Gothic Celebrity Centre International, which is housed in a former chateau on Franklin Avenue, at the foot of the Hollywood Hills.
Among the high-profile types who dabbled in Scientology was the writer William S. Burroughs, who would later attack the organizational structure as suppressive of independent thought. But other artists were less critical. John Travolta became a Scientologist in 1975 after reading Dianetics. "My career immediately took off," he states in a personal "success story" published in the book What Is Scientology? "I landed a leading role on the TV show Welcome Back, Kotter and had a string of successful films." Indeed, Travolta says, "Scientology put me into the big time."
In addition to Travolta, Scientology attracted musicians Chick Corea and lsaac Hayes, actresses Mimi Rogers and Kirstie Alley, and the influential acting coach Milton Katselas, who brought in a number of others, including actresses Anne Archer and Kelly Preston, who later became Travolta's wife. And those celebrities begat others, including Tom Cruise, who was introduced by his then-wife, Rogers, and Jenna Elfman, introduced by her husband, actor Bodhi Elfman. Others, such as Juliette Lewis, Erika Christensen and Beck, were born into Scientology.
But as Scientology raised its profile, so too did it find itself under increased scrutiny by the U.S. government, which raided Scientology's offices a number of times in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1963, the Food and Drug Administration confiscated hundreds of E-meters from Scientology's Washington, D.C., offices (the FDA accused the church of making false claims about its healing powers). Soon afterward, Hubbard moved his base of operation from the U.S. to England, but continued to face condemnation from a variety of Western governments. To avoid such scrutiny, Hubbard purchased a small fleet of ships in 1967, and, dubbing himself "Commodore," headed for the high seas, which would serve as Scientology's official home and, some maintain, tax shelter until the mid-1970s.
Serving Hubbard at sea were a small group of devoted followers who comprised a private navy of sorts. They were known, collectively, as the "Sea Organization," and dressed in full naval uniforms. Mike Rinder, who joined the Sea Org when he was eighteen, served on Hubbard's lead ship, the Apollo, as a deckhand. He arrived in 1973, having endured years of discrimination in his native Australia (southeastern Australia banned Scientology from 1965 to 1982). "You couldn't own Scientology books," he says. "If you did, you had to hide them because if the police came and found them, they'd take them away."
On the Apollo, Rinder found Hubbard, a reputed recluse, to be totally accessible. He hosted weekly movie nights and often strolled across the ship talking with the crew. "What was most incredible about being with him was that he made you feel that you were important," Rinder recalls. "He didn't in any way promote himself or his own self-importance. He was very, very loving and had the widest range of knowledge and experience that you could possibly imagine — he'd studied everything," Rinder marvels at Hubbard's abilities: He knew how to cultivate plants, fix cars, shoot movies, mix music, fly an airplane, sail ships.
At sea, Hubbard, who had officially resigned his post as the head of the Church of Scientology (leaving the day-to-day management of the church to lesser officials), worked on his writings and "discoveries." Hubbard also began to obsess over the forces he saw opposing him, including journalists, whom Hubbard long distrusted and even banned from ever becoming Scientologists. Worse still were psychiatrists, a group that, coupled with the pharmaceutical-drug industry — in Hubbard's words, a "front group" — operated "straight out of the terrorist textbooks," as he wrote in a 1969 essay titled "Today's Terrorism." He accused psychiatrists of kidnapping, torturing and murdering with impunity. "A psychiatrist," he wrote, "kills a young girl for sexual kicks, murders a dozen patients with an ice pick, castrates a hundred men."
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