It was a scene that could have been ripped from the yellowing pages of the pulp science fiction that L. Ron Hubbard wrote in the Thirties . . .
A strangely alien group of young people who believe they are immortal set up a secret base in an abandoned health spa in the desert in southern California. Fearful of outsiders, they suspect they have been discovered by the FBI. In a panic, they begin to destroy any documents that might incriminate their leader. It is essential they protect him, for they believe he alone can save the world.
Searching through the top floor of a derelict hotel, one of their number discovers a stack of battered cardboard boxes and begins pulling out faded photographs, dog-eared manuscripts, diaries written in a childish scrawl and school reports. There are twenty-one boxes in all, each stuffed with memorabilia, even baby clothes.
The young man rummaging through the boxes is ecstatic. He is certain he has made a discovery of profound significance, for all the material documents the early life of his leader At last, he thinks, it will be possible to refute all the lies spread by their enemies. At last it will be possible to prove to the world, beyond doubt, that his leader really is a genius and miracle worker . . .
Thus was the stage set for the inexorable unmasking of L. Ron Hubbard, the saviour who never was.
Gerry Armstrong, the man kneeling in the dust on the top floor of the old Del Sol Hotel at Gilman Hot Springs that afternoon in January 1980, had been a dedicated member of the Church of Scientology for more than a decade. He was logging in Canada when a friend introduced him to Scientology in 1969 and he was immediately swept away by its heady promise of superhuman powers and immortality. During his years as a Scientologist, he had twice been sentenced to long periods in the Rehabilitation Project Force, the cult's own Orwellian prison; he had been constantly humiliated and his marriage had been destroyed, yet he remained totally convinced that L. Ron Hubbard was the greatest man who ever lived.
The dauntless loyalty Hubbard inspired among his followers was tantamount to a form of mind control. Scientology flourished in the post-war era of protest and uncertainty when young people were searching for a sense of belonging or meaning to their lives. Hubbard offered both, promised answers and nurtured an inner-group feeling of exclusiveness which separated Scientologists from the real world. Comforted by a sense of esoteric knowledge, of exaltation and self-absorption, they were ready to follow Ron through the very gates of Hell if need be.
At the time Armstrong discovered the treasure trove of memorabilia at Gilman Hot Springs, Hubbard had been in hiding for years. His location was known only as 'X', but Armstrong knew that it was possible to get a message to him and he petitioned for permission to begin researching an official biography, forcefully arguing that it would prepare the ground for 'universal acceptance' of Scientology. He saw it as the forerunner of a major motion picture based on Hubbard's life and the eventual establishment of an archive in an L. Ron Hubbard Museum.
By then Hubbard was nearly seventy years old and bad lived so long in a world of phantasmagoria that he was unable to distinguish between fact and his own fantastic fiction. He believed he was the teenage explorer, swashbuckling hero, sage and philosopher his biographies said he was. It was perhaps too late for him to comprehend that his life, in reality, far outstripped the fabricated version. He made the leap from penniless science-fiction writer to millionaire guru and prophet in a single, effortless bound; he led a private navy across the oceans of the world for nearly a decade; he came close to taking over control of several countries; he was worshipped by thousands of his followers around the world and was detested and feared by most governments. He was a story-spinning maverick whose singular life eclipsed even his own far-fetched stories. Yet he clung tenaciously to the fiction and when Armstrong's petition to research his biography arrived at his hide-out that January in 1980, he unhesitatingly gave his approval.
Armstrong had no experience as an archivist or researcher, but he was intelligent, industrious, honest and enthusiastic. He moved all the relevant documentation from Gilman Hot Springs to the Scientology headquarters in Los Angeles, where it filled six filing cabinets, and began cataloguing and indexing the material, making copies of everything and reverently preserving the originals in plastic envelopes, acutely aware of their historical importance.
Not long after he had started work, posters appeared in Scientology offices announcing the private screening of a 1940 Warner Brothers movie, The Dive Bomber, for which Hubbard had written the screenplay. Every Scientologist knew that Ron had been a successful
Hollywood screenwriter before the war and the screening was to raise funds for the defence of the eleven Scientologists, including Hubbard's wife, who had been indicted in Washington on conspiracy charges. Armstrong decided to help by finding out a little more about Ron's contribution to the film, but at the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles he was puzzled to discover that two other writers had been credited with the screenplay of The Dive Bomber.
Armstrong remonstrated with the librarian, then sent a memo to Ron to tell him about the mistake in the Academy records. Hubbard replied with a cheery note explaining that Warner Brothers had been in such a hurry to distribute the movie that it was already in the can before it was realized that his name had been left off the credits. He was busy at that time, closing up his posh apartment on Riverside Drive in New York and getting ready to go to war, so he just told the studio to mail the cheque to him at the Explorers Club. After the war, he used the money to take a holiday in the Caribbean.
It was an explanation with which Armstrong was perfectly satisfied except for one niggling worry: like all Scientologists, he had been told that Ron was blind and crippled at the end of the war and that he had only been able to make a recovery because of the power of his mind. Clearly, Armstrong mused, he would not have taken the holiday until after his recovery. In an attempt to fit together the chronology of events, Armstrong made an application under the Freedom of Information Act for Hubbard's US Navy records.
Scientologists were enormously proud of the fact that the founder of their church was a much-decorated war hero who had served in all five theaters and was wounded several times; indeed he was the first US casualty of the war in the Pacific. It was then, with a sense of mounting disbelief and dismay, that Armstrong leafed through Hubbard's records after they had arrived from Washington. He went from one document to another, searching in vain for an explanation, still refusing to believe the evidence of his own eyes: the record seemed to indicate that Hubbard, far from being a hero, was an incompetent, malingering coward who had done his best to avoid seeing action.
Armstrong would not believe it. He set the documents aside and resolved to start his research at the beginning, in Montana, where Hubbard had grown up on his grandfather's huge cattle ranch. But he could find no trace of any property owned by the family, except a little house in the middle of Helena. Neither could he discover any documentation covering Hubbard's teenage wanderings through China. In Washington DC, where Hubbard was supposed to have graduated in mathematics and engineering from George Washington University, the record showed he dropped out after two years because
of poor grades. And of Hubbard's fabled expeditions as an explorer there was similarly no sign.
'I was finding contradiction after contradiction,' Armstrong said. 'I kept trying to justify them, kept thinking that I would find another document that would explain everything. But I didn't. I slowly came to realize that the guy had consistently lied about himself.'
By the summer of 1981, Armstrong had assembled more than 250,000 pages of documentation about the founder of the Church of Scientology, but despite the gaping holes appearing in Hubbard's credibility, he remained intensely loyal. 'My approach was, OK, now we know he's human and tells lies. What we've got to do is clear up the lies so that all the good he has done for the world will be accepted. I thought the only way we could exist as an organisation was to let the truth stand. After all, the truth was equally as fascinating as the lies.'
Armstrong's pleas to clear up the lies fell on deaf ears. Since Hubbard had gone into seclusion, the Church of Scientology had been taken over by young militants known as 'messengers'. When Hubbard was the commodore of his own navy, the messengers were little nymphets in hot pants and halter tops who ran errands for him and competed with each other to find ways of pleasing him. Eventually they helped him dress and undress, performed little domestic tasks like washing his hair and smearing rejuvenating cream on his fleshy features, and even followed him around with an ashtray to catch the falling ash from his cigarettes. As the commodore became more and more paranoid, beset by imagined traitors and enemies, the messengers became more and more powerful.
In November 1981 Armstrong presented a written report to the messengers, listing the false claims made about Hubbard and putting forward a powerful argument as to why they should be corrected. 'If we present inaccuracies, hyperbole or downright lies as fact or truth,' he wrote, 'it doesn't matter what slant we give them; if disproved, the man will look, to outsiders at least, like a charlatan . . .'
The messengers' response was to order Armstrong to be 'security checked' - interrogated as a potential traitor. Armstrong refused. In the spring of 1982, Gerald Armstrong was accused of eighteen different 'crimes' and 'high crimes' against the Church of Scientology, including theft, false pretences and promulgating false information about the church and its founder. He was declared to be a 'suppressive person' and 'fair game', which meant he could be 'tricked, cheated, lied to, sued or destroyed' by his former friends in Scientology.
'By then the whole thing for me had crumbled,' he said. 'I realized I had been drawn into Scientology by a web of lies, by Machiavellian mental control techniques and by fear. The betrayal of trust began with Hubbard's lies about himself. His life was a continuing pattern of
fraudulent business practices, tax evasion, flight from creditors and hiding from the law.
'He was a mixture of Adolf Hitler, Charlie Chaplin and Baron Munchausen. In short, he was a con man.'