Wednesday, March 06, 2013

9. Bare-Faced Messiah by Russell Miller

He looks like the principal from Ferris Bueller's day off.
I knew the Scientology was a cult, but I had never really been clear on how it got from L. Ron Hubbard being a science fiction writer to the place it is today.  I can not even remember how I stumbled onto Bare-Faced Messiah. It was simply a link that I followed on my ipad and because it held my interest, I ended up reading the entire thing online.  I guess that it can be considered my first e-book read, though it was actually a straight-up HTML site with white text on black.  The U.S.'s retarded copyright laws allowed the psychos at the Church of Scientology to block its publication there, but thanks to the internet, it is available online.  You can find it here:

In case you have any doubt about its validity as a biography of L. Ron Hubbard, know that the book was published to favourable reviews in the rest of the world and that it is generally considered to be the definitive work on the man.  Miller is a respected journalist who did other biographies.  He went through incredible harassment and persecution during and after the work on this book. When you read the story of what the church did to try and defame him and prevent the book from coming out, you really have to wonder how they are allowed to exist at all. They are a total cult operating outside the law of the countries they are in.  Germany was right to shut them down.  The U.S. policy towards Scientology is just insane.  Not only are they not prosecuting them for their crimes, but they actually grant them religious tax status, so they pay no taxes.  The IRS was basically blackmailed into this position to avoid further legal and extra-legal harassment from Scientology.  It's astounding.

But I'll let others fight the fight against these losers.  Let's get to the book at hand, which really is a fascinating study of an individual and a look into a time and place when a cult like this could be able to gain such a  powerful foothold.  The first half of the book is a thoroughly documented tracing of L. Ron Hubbard's early years, constantly comparing the reality to the fiction he and the church created around him. He was basically an imaginative, unfocused young man from the Pacific Northwest who got to do a bit of travelling because of his dad's job with the army.  He was also an extraordinary egomaniac who began embellishing his own life story at a very early age.  So a berth on a merchant marine to Guam with his mother to go visit his dad turns into a rollicking adventure where he performs all these outsized deeds.  His interest in gliding and participation in some gliding clubs becomes him being a record-breaking pilot and general daredevil.  His short-lived role as a pilot of a submarine in WWII where he did a few practice runs and was demoted for taking action against something only he saw on the radar becomes a heroic destruction of the only known instance of Japanese u-boats in US water and him being moved to a top-secret intelligence department.

To his credit, he was able to embellish his life story because he himself was a wildly imaginative and highly prolific writer (though nowhere near as prolific as he and the church claim today).  He was a successful contributor to the science fiction magazines of the golden age and a part of that general scene on and off in New York.

The middle part of the book, about him as a young adult, you can see that what was a penchance for exaggeration starts to take a more serious turn.  He demonstrates all the symptoms of a manic-depressive personality, though fortunately for him, he seems to have spent more of his time in a manic state.  His pulpish yarns do not make him enough money and also don't seem to bring him the kind of respect he demands.  So he starts working on longer, more serious works.  This is where the craziness starts.  Fortunately for Hubbard, his kind of craziness, plus his manic drive to succeed combined to make a system of living that seemed to resonate with people at this time.  I'm really cutting things short, but basically he started these teaching centers, first with Dianetics and then with the more "refined" Scientology.  It exploded and he ended up making tons of money and gathering tons of followers.  As Scientology grew, so did his paranoia and megalomania.  By the end, Hubbard was floating around the ocean on a restored cruise ship, surrounded by an elite team of prepubescent blonde girls who communicated his every command in his exact tone of voice and temper while carrying out complex plots of revenge on defectors.  This is some Kim Jong-Il level shit here.  Scientology has been in the media today a lot.  Anything you might think sounds a little crazy to be true is actually true and it started with L. Ron. The Sea Org, which originated with his cruise ship crew and those psychotic little girls is still the source of the inner elite and extreme weirdness (though now it is land-based) and it is where the current leader, David Miscavige, came from.  These people are completely fucking bonkers and everyone who follows them is bonkers themselves or else a victim who was sucked in against their will.  It's a fucking scary cult with billions of dollars.

And this is where the book disappoints. It's a great factual read of Hubbard's life and how Scientology came to be.  But it does not attempt to understand how it possibly could have succeeded so well.We all know that most people are stupid and gullible and want to be led, but it's rare that some new form of organized religion is able to spring into being in the modern era from the mind of one charismatic, manic loony and turn into a worldwide phenomenon so powerful that it can blackmail the IRS and that its leader can make his wife simply disappear without any authorities asking any questions.  I have my own ideas why it worked so well, but I would like to have had more analysis and data to really think it through.  There is none of that in Bare-Faced Messiah.

Nonetheless, a thoroughly enjoyable, fascinating sometimes infuriating read about one of the twentieth century's great cult leaders.  I recommend it.


D.A. Trappert said...

I think Hubbard was perhaps inspired by Joseph Smith's success in inventing Mormonism, another looney modern religion. (As opposed to all the looney ancient religions, e.g, Christianity, Islam, etc.)

OlmanFeelyus said...

Yes, I don't know much about the history of Mormonism, but my understanding is that it was equally created out of whole cloth and I guess historically it is the closest religious scam success story to Scientology. These stories do put into doubt the spiritual veracity of pretty much all the world's religions.