Bored to distraction

Duncan Campbell

New Statesman, 4 December 1987, p. 32

Bare-Faced Messiah: the True Story of L. Ron Hubbard
Michael Joseph


'THE BODY HE HAD USED to facilitate his existence in this universe had ceased to be useful and in fact had become an impediment to the work he must now do outside its confines,' is how the death of L. Ron Hubbard was announced to his followers in l986. You know the feeling.

But Ron did manage to pack quite a lot into the time when he was still inside that body's confines and Miller's illustrated tome is a diligent investigation into exactly what he did get up to.

To compile it, he got little encouragement from the Church of Scientology, some of whose members made it clear that they felt that perhaps Miller's own body had become a bit of an impediment.

Miller, who made his name as a Sunday Times feature writer at a time when that paper was in its heyday, is clearly fascinated by wealthy American obsessives. His previous books include biographies of Playboy's Hugh Hefner and the Gettys, the latter a hauntingly depressing book. So what does he make of L. Ron?

The most frequent entry in Hubbard's childhood diary in Washington were the words 'Was bored'. Years later he records in his 'Explorer's Journal' in l960, when he acquires the Scientology HQ at Saint Hill Manor in East Grinstead. 'My own life is rather dull these days. I sort of won the Maharajah of Jaipur's luxury Sussex estate in a poker game.' So we see a sort of' Ron Ennui, bored by normal pressures of life, bored by the early successes as a science fiction writer and driven on to more' and more fantastical claims by the realisation that people will believe anything. There is a lot to dislike about him as he becomes increasingly autocratic and dismissive and paranoid: how he threw elderly women off his yacht as part of their 'overboarding' therapy, how he finked on former colleagues during the anti-Communist purges of the '50s

There are also some cheery moments, as when he introduces the world's first 'clear' - a person in that state of grace sought by Scientology members. He tells his audience that she, Sonya Bianca, has perfect recall of every moment of her life. 'What did she have for breakfast on 3 October, 1942?' asks someone in the audience. I recall a similar experience in the mid-705 when a new religion was launched by a part-time security worker called Leo at a. church in Belsize Park. He also introduced a follower who could 'answer any question you can put to him.' I asked him to name the Scottish winning team of 1956. Like Sonya, he was stumped. There's always some smart alec around and one can't really blame Ron for retreating to his maritime HQ for the last ten of his life.

Miller writes very accessibly and his research has clearly been painstaking, but I have a couple of reservations. What he has not really managed to explain is why some perfectly decent, smart people got what they were seeking from Scientology; not all Hubbard's followers were weak, unfulfilled souls seeking an easy answer and a strong God.

Some who have been connected with Scientology - John Travolta, Karen Black, Chick Corea, the Incredible String Band for instance - obviously found something of value. This is never fully explored and is one of the weaknesses of the book.

Second, I have a reservation about the way that we handle new, non-Christian religions in this country. I have no brief for Ron and his daft I notions, nor for the more repulsive Sun Moon and his yet creepier followers, but some of the beliefs of new religions are no crazier 'than some of the beliefs of Christianity. If the Bishop of Durham dares to suggest that, er, perhaps there wasn't a virgin birth and perhaps some of the miracles were not quite what they seem, everyone goes bananas. Yet Ron and his people make fantastical claims and everyone goes bananas again. Funny old world.

I went down to Scientology's London office after reading the book and asked the two young men outside what they thought of it. They said they hadn't heard of it - despite all the court cases mounted to stop its publication - and suggested instead that I buy Ron's blockbuster, Dianetics. I said I'd read it and found it a bit turgid and they turned their attention to the next Tottenham Court Road pedestrian. Ron, presumably by now in a snappy new body, would have approved.

Duncan Campbell is Assistant News Editor at the Guardian.