The Age, Sat 30 Jan 1988

Hubbard's fantasy cruises on

BARE-FACED MESSIAH, by Russell Miller (Michael Joseph, $34.95)

Alan Morison

A FUTURE VISION: So here we are, through the throng at last and inside the American National Museum of Cults and Kooks. Oh look, isn't that Shirley Maclaine, a lifesize hologram, in the clothes she wore as an Egyptian handmaiden in one of her previous lives? And there's the poisonous Jim Jones, who set up the People's Temple and eventually coerced hundreds of followers into mass suicide at Jonestown in the Guyanan jungle. And straight ahead there, looking like W.C. Fields, is the bust of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. What's that pedestal made of? Why, how appropriate: it's one of those newfangled compounds, a mix of unadulterated chicanery and raw bulldust.

How is it that Americans have so much cult in their culture? Russell Miller does not tackle this question directly in his excellent biography of L. (for Lafayette) Ron Hubbard, yet the answers are provided.

The extraordinarily bizarre career of Hubbard was not built on a single Big Lie, but on a lifetime of deceits that varied from the minute to the massive. There were fibs about his status as the country's youngest Eagle Scout, wild exaggerations about his youthful "adventuring" in Asia, distortions that made a lacklustre World War II naval officer into a hero. Hubbard had the capacity, at least until paranoia finally got the better of him, to turn every disaster to advantage.

What needed no embellishment was his astonishingly imaginative ability as a storyteller, and his obvious charisma. Fame first came to Hubbard as a writer of pulp adventure yarns and science fiction, and an extremely productive one at that. According to Miller, there was one period of six weeks in the 1930s when Hubbard wrote a complete story of between 4500 and 20,000 words every day, sending them off for publication without rereading a word.

In the May 1950 issue of 'Astounding Science Fiction', Hubbard's Dianetics became the first "science" to be launched in a pocketbook magazine. Hubbard "began by drawing an analogy between the brain and a computer with an infinite memory bank and perfect function. Every human brain, he argued, had the potential to operate as this optimum computer, with untold benefits to the individual and to mankind, not least restoring sanity to the insane, curing all manner of illnesses and ending wars."

Soon after in book form (at a much heftier price) came the explanation of how to put Dianetics into practice. Although experts pointed out that his technique was an oversimplified mixture of basic psychology and hypnosis, the book became a bestseller and amateur "auditors" began taking friends and family back to the womb in lounge rooms and kitchens across the country. As Miller writes: "To a nation increasingly inclined to unload its problems on an expensive psychiatrist's couch, the promise of Dianetics was wondrous. It all seemed so eminently logical, pragmatic and alluring, as if human life was about to take on a new sparkle. With the book in one hand, what problems could not be solved?"

With the money rolling in, the Church of Scientology was founded in February 1954. Hubbard offered believers a better life in this world and (surprise, surprise) immortality. While other religions had already made the same undertakings, Hubbard improved the marketing. According to L. Ron, the true self of an individual was an immortal, omniscient and omnipotent entity called a thetan. The thetans "concocted the universe for their own amusement but in the process became so enmeshed in it that they came to believe they were nothing more than the bodies they inhabited".

Thus it was that in 13 AD (after Dianetics, 1963 for ordinary Western human beings) Hubbard was able to issue a bulletin giving details of his two visits to Heaven, the first 43 trillion years previously, the second a trillion years later. Interestingly, Heaven appeared to have been allowed to run down between visits, rather like a fading seaside resort, to the point where even the saints and angels had vanished.

In 1967, Hubbard took his organisation to sea and for 10 years sought to shake off the American Medial Association, the FBI, the CIA, the media and all his other real and imagined enemies. One of the finest of many striking images is of Hubbard instructing the novice crew of his large ship to "stop pretending" to be ignorant of sailing techniques because, as thetans, they all must have had seafaring experience in other lives. The crew felt much better after that.

Ashore again, increasingly besieged, Hubbard grew more paranoid and reclusive, and eventually vanished in 1980. The evidence is that he died six years later.

Scientology, of course, lives on, and it is not surprising that the church tried to stop publication of this book. Throughout, Miller quotes various renegade Scientologists. Almost invariably, they each remained reluctant, despite overwhelming evidence, to admit to themselves that they had been duped. The line that separates faith from fantasy is, it seems, a very fine one indeed.

[Press articles on Scientology]