Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Today, for a reason I’ll get to presently, is a good day to kick off a new series of posts. What I will seek to do over the next little while is to tell you a story that is truly grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented – yet entirely true. It is the story of the Great Leader, his successor the Dear Leader, and the hermit kingdom founded by the former and ruled as an absolute dictatorship by the latter. No, not North Korea, but the Church of Scientology, a world unto itself that rivals any weirdness coming out of Pyongyang.
Many people pick up bits and pieces about Scientology. You probably know about its Hollywood connections, notably Tom Cruise acting like a lunatic in interviews, and that John Travolta movie we’re not supposed to talk about any more. Perhaps you’ve come across it being satirised by Frank Zappa or South Park. You may have seen the excellent movie The Master, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, which gives a lightly fictionalised take on the cult’s early years. Possibly you’ve heard about the cult’s legendary appetite for money as it guides its adherents up the Bridge to Total Bankruptcy Freedom; you may have heard stories about brainwashing which cause you to give a wide berth to those smiling young people offering you a free stress test.
And yet there’s much more to it than that. One frustrating thing, if you’ve any interest in the subject, is the habit journalists have of referring to Scientology as if it’s deeply mysterious. Actually, no; the cult is deeply secretive, which is not quite the same thing. There really isn’t that much that isn’t known if you’re willing to dig deep enough, and the more you dig the more you realise that this is a hell of a story. It’s a story that seems so far-fetched not even Neil Gaiman could imagine it. And at the heart of it, an organisation that manages to be both ludicrous and terrifying at the same time.
This isn’t just laziness though. There have been whistleblowing accounts since the late Cyril Vosper published his wonderful book The Mind Benders way back in 1971. But a lot of people were afraid to take on Scientology publicly. Journalists were scared of the cult after what happened to Paulette Cooper; defectors took note of what happened to Gerry Armstrong and others. Get on the wrong side of the cult and you would be followed by detectives, be tied up in litigation for years, literally have your trash gone through… So critics were “shuddered into silence”, to use L Ron Hubbard’s telling phrase.
This isn’t so much the case now. There’s been a revival of interest from a small but dedicated band of journalists, exemplified on this side of the Atlantic by John Sweeney’s massively entertaining Panorama documentaries (albeit much more entertaining for the viewer than for Sweeney, one suspects). And there have been a slew of accounts, in books, blogs, videos and all other media, from defectors giving us the picture from inside the hermit kingdom. The community of defectors, enabled by that pesky internet thing that David Miscavige doesn’t like, have done and are doing a great job of exposing injustice. They’re an impressive bunch of people, and you just want to give them a good shake and yell “What the hell were you thinking?!”
So there’s much to be got out of this subject, and your obedient servant will seek to reflect on issues like what causes intelligent, rational people to do crazy things, and why in a relatively free society you find people who will actively seek to build prisons for themselves. It raises questions, in an extreme form, about toxic subcultures and how they become toxic. Potentially, it tells us something about the human condition.
But it’s also a compelling story, so it will be necessary to lay down some verbal tech about the cult’s mercurial founder. Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, whose 103rd birthday it is today, is in my view one of the most extraordinary characters of the last century, well worth looking at in his own right even if it wasn’t for the movement he built in his own image. And it’s doubly timely because Russell Miller’s Bare-Faced Messiah, the classic myth-busting biography of the guru, has just been republished. Go get yourself a copy, and if it piques your interest, get Jon Atack’s A Piece of Blue Sky as well. You won’t regret it. Tony Ortega has an interview with Miller here, and Marty Rathbun, who was heavily involved in the litigation that prevented it being published in the US, has a major cognition here.
Hubbard, of course, was a storyteller, and loved nothing better than telling tall tales about himself. Yet, as Miller points out, Hubbard’s own life was much more bizarre than any of the outrageous lies he told. After all, we are talking here about a redneck from Nebraska who convinced hundreds of thousands of people that he was the Buddha. A poverty-stricken pulp sci-fi writer who transformed himself overnight into the millionaire guru of post-war America’s first self-help craze, then in short order into the messianic founder of one of the weirdest of the New Religious Movements (a field not short of the strange and startling). A man who malingered his way through his Navy service, then became the Commodore of his own private navy. An extroverted showman who ended his days as a recluse on the run from the FBI, and whose followers continue to believe that he never really died and will return one day to lead them.
But it will also be worth trying to get a sense of what happened after Ron discarded his body in January 1986. That would cover the rise to power of David Miscavige, surely living proof of the law of diminishing returns, and how the diminutive dictator has transformed Scientology from the strange cult that Hubbard built into something arguably stranger, a peculiar cross between a North Korean gulag and a real estate company. Miscavige represents, essentially, the rule of Tiberius giving way to the rule of Caligula; so much so that even many Scientologists who remain totally loyal to the memory of Hubbard have decided they can’t take it any more.
Incidentally, it is probably worth giving Scientologists fair warning at the outset that they won’t like some of the things your author will be saying. I assume they won’t like L Ron Hubbard being described as a megalomaniac, or David Miscavige as a sociopath, but for me this is reasonable comment, and if anything restrained. There may also be reference to things you’re not supposed to know about until you get to OT III. So if you’re reading this, you can just assume that this blog is entheta and go on your way.
If, on the other hand, you’re outside the bubble, I hope to be able to provide some entertainment and possibly illumination. We shall return to this subject anon.