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Images of a Lifetime

Comment by Chris Owen

L. Ron Hubbard has severe problems with his image. Those outside Scientology tend to dwell on his well-documented mendacity, and this causes a good deal of embarrassment and inconvenience to the Church of Scientology itself: the CoS has invested a great deal of capital in Hubbard's reputation, over the years. Even now the prospective new recruit is told encouraging stories about how Ron was "blinded and crippled" at the end of World War 2, and how his knowledge of the power of the mind enabled him to triumph over this affliction. The implication is, of course, "if he can do it, so can you". He is still held up as one of the greatest human beings ever to live. The inside cover of the new photo-biography Images of a Lifetime makes this point well:

"Here are his hair-raising voyages, his record-breaking aerial feats and his rise to the pinnacle of popular literature. Then, too, here is the photographic trail of his extraordinary research towards the founding of Dianetics and Scientology, and all else that has finally defined him as the century's most influential author and philosopher."

Being placed above such giants as H.G. Wells or Sartre doesn't allow for much compromise, does it?

That's why the CoS was so badly damaged (and continues to be damaged) by the 1984 case Church of Scientology of California vs Gerald Armstrong - the evidence presented in that case showed a man who, in the words of the judge, was a "pathological liar". It's easy to forget just how recent this image of Hubbard really is. Prior to 1979, virtually all biographical data came from the man himself - he claimed that it was now impossible to verify his past because "the Russians had stolen all my records". This wasn't true. An Oregonian called Michael Linn Shannon between 1975-79 did a great deal of research on Hubbard's life, establishing many of the basic facts which were verified and expanded upon in the Armstrong case - for instance, about Ron's dismal career in the US Navy.

In 1980, Gerald Armstrong, a Sea Org veteran of 10 years, discovered a large archive of Hubbard papers - some going back 60 years - in an old building which he was helping to renovate. He was appointed "LRH Biographer" by Hubbard himself and, gathering LRH papers from around the world, created an enormous archive. In 1981, he fell foul of two things: the first was his innate honesty, as he found that a great deal of Hubbard's claims simply were not true, and the second was the internal schism in the CoS following the takeover of the Church by David Miscavige and the Religious Technology Center (RTC) faction of the Sea Org. His insistence that Ron's biography should be cleaned up lest damage be done to his and the Church's credibility was ignored and he was declared a Suppressive Person for his temerity in suggesting that Ron could possibly have lied about anything.

The same thing happened a few years later to his successor, Robert Vaugn Young.

Now the CoS is on the verge (finally!) of launching the long-awaited official L. Ron Hubbard biography. It will probably be accompanied by a media blitz to persuade the world that everyone's been getting it wrong about Ron for the last decade. It's quite likely that it will be launched on or around Ron's birthday - March 11th - though no date has officially been given so far.

An article in the most recent issue of Source magazine (no. 102) is rather revealing. Entitled "The Grand View of L. Ron Hubbard's Biography", it describes a recent briefing on the subject given to Scientologists by the new LRH Biographer, Dan Sherman. Mr Sherman is, naturally, a Scientologist and is described as a long-time OT with numerous published works to his credit. (Can anyone confirm this?) The direction of the biography has clearly been decided by senior management; David Miscavige is quoted as having said (or "confided") that Sherman

"had his own personal experience concerning not only LRH and the Church's fight for survival - but also the powers that be in the camp that oppose what LRH and the Chuch stand for."

(It's rather ironic that, given Hubbard's repeated denunciations of dialectical materialism, "the prevailing idea at this time", Miscavige seems to have ordered the biographer to concentrate on the idea of LRH's heroic struggle against adversity!)

Sherman is quoted as posing an interesting question:

"If one was to add up all the several million pages of documents within LRH Archives, including:
Deeply personal letters to friends and family,
Unpublished essays like 'My Only Defense for Having Lived,'
Unpublished manuscripts like Excalibur,
Previously unseen notebooks, memos, photographs, poems and the veritable wall of recently declassified federal documents ...
What, then, would you say to the world regarding L. Ron Hubbard?"

What indeed? I have many of those papers, and they make interesting reading; you'll be seeing them on the Web very shortly.

Some biograpical work has already been published - the 12-volume "Ron" series praises his achievements in a number of fields. The titles give a flavour: "Ron the Administrator", "Ron the Humanitarian", "Ron the Musician", and so on. However, these are evidently regarded as "sidebars" to illustrate specific areas of Ron's life. Sherman states,

"if we may define the LRH Biography as a story of a man who, against all odds, brought forth the only major religion to be founded in the twentieth century, then that story has its own natural thrust. It has its own inherent pace from page one to page one-thousand, and that pace is inviolate."

One of the exciting things promised regarding the biography is new evidence on a number of events in his life.

"By way of example, Mr. Sherman pointed to the never-before-revealed facts behind the theft of early LRH manuscripts, and his efforts to safeguard his discoveries from Russian secret agents.

Also discussed, and likewise never before-revealed, were the details behind an LRH confrontation with a United States Navy attempting to appropriate Ron's discoveries on behalf of Nazi psychiatrists. Mr. Sherman further provided a fascinating glimpse of the documentation acquired through the course of his research, and the particulars of LRH's battles with key psychiatrists from the miltary-intelligence community, many of whom Mr. Sherman actually named.

"Make no mistake," Mr. Sherman explained, "when we're talking about what LRH confronted to bring Dianetics and Scientology to this world, we are speaking of an absolutely monumenental struggle." "

The biography is evidently of great importance to Scientologists, who want to "purge the world of entheta about Ron". With the publication of the "Ron" series and the forthcoming LRH Biography, the CoS aims to present

"a truly definitive view of the man who brought forth the most important philosophic statement of this century, or any other. And what that statement means, not just to Scientologists but to all thinking people, is the difference between life and death ... we will soon bring the life of L. Ron Hubbard to this world, and I sincerely believe the world will never be the same again."

What is going to be in the Biography? We do have some clues, provided by the new (and very glossy) book "Images of a Lifetime". This contains many hundreds of photographs of Ron's life from boyhood through to seclusion in San Luis Obispo, and also contains a number of biographical sketches penned by Dan Sherman, the LRH Biographer. They make very interesting reading, and show quite clearly the line which is going to be taken in the Biography.

In my own researches into Hubbard's life, I've found that there's one constant theme: he does not very often tell complete untruths about his life, but instead exaggerates things out of all proportion. A classic example is that of his claimed visits to China, the western hills of Manchuria, India and Tibet, where he claimed to have "broken bread with bandits" and learned from "Siberian shamans". He certainly did visit China on two occasions in the 1920s, en route to his father's US Navy post in Guam, but does not appear to have spent more than a couple of weeks in the country in his entire life. His visit to the western hills of Manchuria was actually a day trip from Peking to the Great Wall of China, organised by the Peking YMCA. His one visit to India was a flight change at Calcutta Airport in 1959. His visit to "Tibetan lamaseries" conveniently ignores the fact, revealed by his contemporary journal, that the lamasseries in question were actually in Peking, not Tibet.

Gerald Armstrong proposed telling the unvarnished truth about Hubbard and acknowledging that the man had lied, but that did not go down at all well. Dan Shannon has taken a subtler and in some respects cleverer approach. He has changed the official CoS view of Hubbard's life in ways calculated to make it fit better with the readily-available evidence, whilst continuing to make false claims about those things which (so the CoS believes) cannot be checked so readily.

I'll give an example. The clearest is that of his early boyhood in Montana. One of Ron's earliest and most egregious biographies, based almost entirely on his own personal statements, is that in "Mission Into Time" (1973), which states:

"As his father's career kept the family on the move, his parents decided to send their son to his maternal grandfather's cattle ranch in Montana. It was here that he spent his childhood years.

L. Ron Hubbard found the life of a young rancher very enjoyable. Long days were spent riding, breaking broncos, hunting coyote and taking his first steps as an explorer.

For it was in Montana that he had his first encounter with another culture - the Blackfoot (Pikuni) Indians. He became a blood brother of the Pikuni and was later to write about them in his first published novel, Buckskin Brigades.

When he was 10 years old, in 1921, he rejoined his family."

In fact, as Russell Miller and others have shown, Ron's father, Harry Ross, was not in the US Navy at the time but was a struggling white-collar clerk; Ron was not separated from his family; his grandfather Lafe did not own a cattle ranch (said to be a quarter the size of Montana - 21 million acres!) and was a veterinarian, not a cattle rancher; Ron did not "rejoin his family". The famous claim about being a blood brother of the Pikuni has been denied by the tribe, which has a strong tradition of oral history, but is essentially unprovable.

This is reflected in the new version from "Images of a Lifetime":

"Upon the return of Harry Ross, the Hubbard/Waterbury clan pulled up stakes for Kalispell, Montana - where Lafe acquired another several dozen acres for the breeding of blooded mustangs and Harry accepted a position with a local newspaper (having previously served as press officer for the Great White Fleet). Among the notable images, then, comes a three-and-a-half-year-old Ron astride a range bronc named Nancy Hanks, and a first encounter with Biackfeet braves. It was also at Kalispell that a remarkably young Ron learned to read, rope, shoot, and ride that Nancy Hanks like the wind "with a single snaffle bit, no quirt, no spurs and a cut down McClellan cavalry saddle, the skirts of which had to be amputated so as to get the doghouse stirrups high enough for me to reach them."

When later speaking of his first real home, however, Ron would invariably cite a more civilized property known as "Old Brick." It stood at the corner of Fifth Street and Beatty in the Montana State capital of Helena, and periodically served the entire extended clan, including maternal grandparents, their son and six daughters, Harry Ross and a feisty bull terrier named Liberty Bill. Otherwise, or at least through the warmer months, young Ron and his parents established themselves on a rough tract of land described as the "Old Homestead." Situated six miles beyond Helena's limits, it lay amidst thirty-five varieties of grass and a stone's throw from dwindling Blackfoot encampments where, as those familiar with Ron's life will recall, he befriended a solitary medicine man by the name of Old Tom and received that very rare status of Blood Brother.

Quite a difference - what a Scientologist would describe as "alter-is", no doubt, and a clear example of how the Sacred Word of Ron is being completely altered to fit the new climate. The CoS swears that this is the true version and that "inaccuracies" had entered previous accounts. But if that was the case, why did those inaccuracies originate with Hubbard himself and why did he let them stand for so long even though he knew they were inaccurate?

The new biographical approach is welcome, as it corresponds rather more with the documented realities. CoS officials have privately told me that previous CoS accounts of Ron's life were indeed inaccurate, blaming this on the lack of evidence available prior to the launch in 1980 of the LRH Biographical Project (but carefully skirting around Ron's responsibility, naturally). It is much harder to fault for the simple reason that - until now, at any rate - where it is inaccurate, it is much harder for Joe Public to prove. A good example is the claim made in "Images of a Lifetime" that Ron's friendship with lamas and his obvious interest in spiritual affairs made him

"one of the first Occidentals since Marco Polo to gain entrance into forbidden Tibetan lamaseries and otherwise drank deep from what he aptly termed 'the airy spirals and dread mysteries."

In fact, as his journal makes clear, this is patent rubbish. The following is, publicly reproduced for the first time ever, page 44 of his journal, which sums up his contemporary impressions:

"[The rubberneck stations] of the tourists are: 1. The llama temple; very odd and heathenish followers of Buddah. The temples no 16 wooden buildings, all very much on the same plan. One contains a "God" 15 feet high and carved out of one solitary cypress tree (ascaseia). It is fearfully hideous and grotesque. The temple of passions is a terrible piece of carving but more or less revolting. The people worshipping have voices like bull-frogs and beat on drums and play a bass drum to accompany their singing (?). The entire place was miserably cold and very shabby. (This temple closed by order natl govt. on Nov 9, 1928) The western hills are filled with these very same temples."

But because very few people have access to these documents, who is to gainsay Dan Shannon's version?

I await the launch of the LRH Biography with keen interest. A large number of source documents relating to Hubbard will be appearing on the Web over the next few months; I would challenge the CoS to do the same for its claims.

- Chris Owen