If Only There Wasn’t Egon: Searching for L. Ron Hubbard’s Charisma in ‘Going Clear’
By Dan Bjork
I’d like to open with a huge thanks to the New York Jets. I planned my Sunday workout for kickoff and they did not disappoint me: by the time I finished, it was halftime and the Jets were down by 17. Making it so very easy to instead spend the second half with Going Clear instead.
The first third of the book chronicles the life of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology and (somewhat) messiah. Maybe soon-to-be messiah is more accurate, if Scientology can last a couple more generations. With Winesburg, Ohio, we talked about a clockwork narrative structure (here and here, mostly), and this feels necessary for any work in biography: you talk to people who knew him, who were also present for such and such, and report back what they remember. And, as a consequence of nothing more significant than thorough investigation, the result is a picture of a person pieced together by tiny fragments from multiple sources. A mosaic of how this person interacted with others. There’s nothing of note about this whatsoever; it feels silly — obvious or mansplaining or worse — except in L. Ron’s case, the only people willing to talk about him are the disaffected. The spurned. The information about him is so controlled that either you get the standard company line (a few generations away from full-blown messiah), or you get the people who’ve ultimately rejected him and/or Scientology.
Now, I’m not interested in this as anything more than as a curious student. Because, as a consequence of this reporting (or the lack of a clockwork narrative that goes 360 degrees, to push the metaphor to the point of bursting), we are constantly told how charismatic this man was, and then shown the complete opposite. He somehow managed to convince dozens of young people to take this adventure cruise around the Caribbean, but look at the all of the distinct ways he bungled it. He kept getting assigned officer posts in the Navy, but look at all the distinct ways he rapidly lost those positions. And on and on. When he appears on page, it’s almost exclusively to fuck up whatever he’s (somehow) pulled off. The following is about as positive of a take as we get on him.
…Hubbard threw a party to report on the Mission into Time. He was loud and affected, in what Eltringham privately called his “full pantomime mode.” Such moments made her cringe. She hid in the back of the crowd. She genuinely revered Hubbard, but when he was strutting in front of his acolytes, he could become comically self-important, a parody of himself. His eyes rolled, his body language was inappropriate and weird, and his hand flew around meaninglessly in odd directions. Sometimes he spoke with a British accent or a Scottish brogue. In her opinion, his performance was ridiculous, but also disturbing. If the man she regarded as a savior was a “nut case,” what did it say about his teachings? What did it say about her, that she idolized him while at the same time harboring these illicit feelings of shame? No one else seemed to share these warring perceptions. She felt very much alone.
There’s no charisma there. There’s her belief in him, in face of him acting like a fool. But that’s it. And it’s pretty standard for when L. Ron appears on the page. And, as thus, it paints an interesting portrait: a man who thrived in life through sheer force of his charisma, as told by those who did not buy it. Or at best, those who had for a brief period, only to ultimately reject it.
So, searching for a why, I found myself drawn to the Scientology pitch itself. There’s a lot of elegance to it, especially if you can across-the-board disregard the science fiction L. Ron felt compelled to write in as fact. By the way, for me, there is no more endearing fact about L. Ron than his need to weave this ridiculous science fiction into Scientology’s Canon. He just couldn’t help himself — and I absolutely love that; it’s so human — science fiction was his safe place, he’d written thousands upon thousands of words of it, and when his abstract, ethereal religion needed an anchor to tether to reality, he went with what he knew.
So, I’m going to spend the next few paragraphs trying to distill his charisma, his understanding of others, from his most famous work, Scientology itself. (Full disclosure: understanding and then playing to the wants/needs of others — how to gauge and then react to the temperature of the room, if you will — is how I just redefined ‘charisma.’ Just in case you find this definition slippery.)
So, you are unhappy. Or maybe, if you’re extremely lucky, this is phrased as “you could be happier.”
This is nothing new. Whatsoever. This is the way these pitches go. Anyone trying to sell you on feeling something begins from this point. Usually the very next step is assigning blame, giving an easily identifiable source for your unhappiness. A simple sentence reason as to why you (or me or all of us really) are unhappy. Which, without fail, devolves into what’s to blame. Or, most of the time, who. And, the lazier the logic, the more easily identifiable the other people who are to blame. This is as old as civilization itself; only in our time, there are television channels solely devoted to telling you who’s to blame for your unhappiness. And here’s Scientology’s moment of grace: no one is to blame. The reasons you are unhappy are inside of you. Which, in my opinion, is the most ingenious maneuver of Scientology — removing the who from culpability. It’s no one’s fault; it’s your own repressed memories that are causing your unhappiness. The reasons you are unhappy are inside of you, and yet, they are not at all your fault. And even better, it is fixable.
This sounds a lot like the impetus behind modern mental health. Especially if we change “fixable” to “treatable” or even “live-with-able,” you get something that most of us — the reading-for-pleasure class — subscribe to. Spending a set amount of time, per week (if we can afford it), talking through our experiences/memories, hoping to work our way to a better understanding of them. Which could, hopefully, allow us to experience less unhappiness.
But once you get in L. Ron’s room, the wonk comes in. Or rather, the science fiction is allowed to take over. There is a glut of new, utterly serious nouns — Thetans and Engrams and e-meters — a device which can “sense when you’re recalling a distressing memory,” (which dictates your sessions during Scientology’s version of therapy), and then, of course, a several-step process which will, if you qualify, render you a real world Jedi (and, real talk, who doesn’t want to be a Jedi).
But along with the wonk (and the apparatus with which the church separates its followers from their money) comes a fellowship. They have each other, all at various points of this process together. This all comes with a support system of peers — granted at various points on their road to being a Jedi, but still, it is in no way just you and the expert. We (again, the reading-for-pleasure class) have the one person (or two, maybe, if our prescriptions comes from someone else) who is also separating us from our money as part of the exchange, usually in a room so antiseptically controlled that even the specific way background noise is cancelled is chosen. But we have no one else. There’s no fellowship inherent in this process. We are still very much on our own as soon as we step out of that room and back into the world where sound occurs naturally.
Not at all that this is what Scientology is — and the last two-thirds of the book are devoted to all the ways Scientology clearly is not this — but it’s all right there, in the pitch. An easily identifiable source for our unhappiness, without hate, without blame, but rather inside of us in a way that is fixable, with work. And along with that, a fellowship of others also going through the same strenuous process. An instant support system. And it’s probably the best way of showing L. Ron had his moments. There’s some serious understanding and then playing to the needs of others in there. A finger on the pulse of human vulnerability. A dangerously potent charisma.