Book review: Bare-Faced Messiah

Bare-Faced Messiah.Bare-Faced Messiah by Russell Miller.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

I know, you know how dodgy L. Ron Hubbard was. He’s the progenitor of both Scientology and the cinematic dreadlock abortion that was Battlefield Earth.

But do you really know how shitty he was?

You know, reclusive paranoia shitty?

Telling one of your kids that their father was an exploded occultist rocket scientist and their mother was a Nazi spy shitty? (The same mother you’d stolen from said exploded occultist rocket scientist.)

Frequently telling people that the best way to make a lot of money was to start a cult shitty?

Giving props to the Hitler Youth shitty?

Leaving your wife to take the rap for massive theft of government documents shitty?

Whoo, given a lot of the things which crop up in here, being a congenital fabulist is actually one of the lesser shitty aspects of the guy’s life. And he lies with the enthusiasm and lack of guile of a five-year-old.

(I didn’t really need to picture L. Ron’s insatiable pantsmanship, either, but I guess I’m going to have to live with that image now. I mean LOOK AT HIM.)

Hey baby, wanna go clear?

When I was living in a flat on Finchley Rd in London, I found a collection of Hubbard lectures on VHS, locked away in a cupboard. My flatmates and I checked out some of one of the tapes but couldn’t bear to go further, given how creepy and smarmy the guy appeared. I’d picked up a lot about him by osmosis – being on the internet in the late ’90s means I was well aware of Operation Clambake’s works at shedding light on the unrestrained fuckwittery of LRH-related entities – but I wanted to know more. And this book turned out to be the place to learn.

Bare-Faced Messiah is a thorough biography from the 1980s which leaves no stone unturned. Published despite incredible opposition from the Church of Scientology, it unpicks the tapestry of bullshit surrounding the organisation’s founder and figurehead, Hubbard.

Everything is in here. The incredible fabulism, the embroidering of truth – to the point where the bullshit artist convinces himself that he’s owed medals by the Navy. Or that he’s discovered incredible things in physics. Or that Scientology wasn’t written as a way to ensure that he’d still make money during a dispute with a former backer of Dianetics.

One evening Gruber sat through a long account of Ron’s experiences in the Marine Corps, his exploration of the upper Amazon and his years as a white hunter in Africa. At the end of it he asked with obvious sarcasm: ‘Ron, you’re eighty-four years old aren’t you?’ ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Ron snapped. Gruber waved a notebook in which he had been jotting figures ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you were in the Marines seven years, you were a civil engineer for six years, you spent four years in Brazil, three in Africa, you barnstormed with your own flying circus for six years… I’ve just added up all the years you did this and that and it comes to eighty-four.’ Ron was furious that his escapades should be openly doubted. ‘He blew his tack,’ said Gruber

The personality of the guy comes across particularly well through the stories presented, culled from copious research and interviews with former adherents to the SF writer’s get-rich-quick scheme. Not that he comes across well, but his penchant of zipping between confident bonhomie and paranoiac conspiracy-theorist uncle is communicated ably. It’s the perfect example of a charlatan who, by dint of money and cultural capital at precisely the time everyday schmoes were looking for a panacea to the world – assuming they couldn’t afford psychotherapy or couldn’t be fucked joining a revivalist church – was catapulted to a position of power that eventually rotted his brain.

He ended this part of his journal with a jaunty little postscript addressed to the reader: ‘I will tell you the secret of this strange life I had. Sssh! I was born on Friday the thirteenth.’ It was, unfortunately, not quite true. 13 March 1911 was a Monday.

(Not that he needed much help in that regard: lying that much is bound to stick.)

Covering everything from his childhood through pulp writing years (and association with future SF greats) to the creation of Dianetics, Scientology, the Sea Org and eventual pointless meanderings through the oceans of the world to places where juntas rule the roost, the book covers LRH’s life and death, and cuts off – despite what the Church probably would have you believe – at the point where David Miscavige and co. come into power. To read more about that, you’ll have to check out Going Clear, but as the author of that book has acknowledged,

Russell Miller did the ground-breaking work on Hubbard and the Church of Scientology that every future biographer relies upon.

I had expected this book to be thorough, but I hadn’t expected it to be so delightfully bitchy. Perhaps understandably, Miller – who had been under surveillance by the Church for some time, and likely still is – is keen to put the boot in. It’s not malicious – the facts are almost as incredible as anything you could make up – but the relish with which the author retells the stories of excess and control is moreish.

If you’re interested in the guy, read this. Maybe keep an eye out for strange cars watching your driveway, but read this.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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