Credit for many facts here goes to Inside Scientology, by Janet Reitman. I totally recommend reading that and Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear for peak WTF.
I have previously discussed Lafayette Ronald’s trippy bohemian Thing with a Crowleyite rocket scientist, yacht fraud, and occult wanking to classical music. (I am kidding about exactly none of this.) (Scientology’s official take is that the Navy sent Hubbard in on a secret mission to…wank occultly, I guess. Or encourage-slash-sabotage occult wanking in others. Or make away with valuable yachts.) Dude went on to create Dianetics, get pissed off when psychiatrists pointed out that it was maybe 90% bullshit and 10% ripped-off hypnotherapy, and then go full-tilt wacky and create a whole cult involving Xenu. And yachts.
I cannot explain the yachts.
Hubbard is another guy who gets a lot of credit for being a genius con artist, and, frankly: no. His mistakes weren’t as egregious as Bundy’s, but the bits of Scientology that he didn’t flagrantly rip off of standard therapy (Dianetics) or that aren’t a sci-fi-ish skin over existing occult theory (thetans are basically reincarnation BUT WITH ALIENS) are not smart. Like, I could write a better creation story than the whole Xenu-Teegeyak thing in my sleep, or at least drunk. His grudges were flagrant, his personal mythology was pretty blatantly pathetic, and he died (excuse me, “continued his research on another planet”) a barbituate-addled mess after being on the run in a Winnebego that he shared with a dude named “Pat.”
This is not brilliance.
Dianetics and Scientology technically started in the 1950s, but they also started in Southern California (okay, Dianetics was technically started in Jersey, but Hubbard was just visiting there), where, frankly, the 1960s began at about the turn of the century and is even now going on. SoCal is A Lot, I have some theories about that, and they’ll probably be part of a novel, but suffice it to say that L.A. as early as the 1940s was a place where a government-employed rocket scientist could be openly into weird sex rituals and L.A. in the 21st century is where Gwyneth Paltrow’s “wear these stickers to rebalance your bodily frequencies” company started.
Seriously, I lived in SoCal for a while growing up. I like it now, and there are absolutely different cultures in LA, some of which have as much common sense as those anywhere else, but it is definitely a nurturing environment for those who refuse to eat refined sugar and are really fond of crystals, placentas, or both.
Hubbard also…okay, the guy himself was goddamn ridiculous well beforehand (q.v. the Babalon Project, yacht fraud, his entire Thing with the navy) but that wasn’t as public in the fifties. Not unlike Bundy, he benefited from the pre-Internet age: when you spotted a book by someone back then, you couldn’t just Google their name and discover that they were a giant fuckoff weirdo who once used Mexican islands for unauthorized ship target practice. You had to seriously ask around, or wait for an expose.
Dianetics–which was only popular for a few months, until people started realizing that they could not in fact think their way to 20/20 vision–also downplayed its more bizarre aspects. Sure, there was past-life auditing, but as I previously mentioned, past-life regression was a semi-known thing, whether you believed it or not, and weird inflated claims about attempted abortions were hard to check. Audiences were left with exaggerated promises of personal improvement–something that hit the Charles Atlas/Norman Peele/legacy-of-New-Thought 1950s zeitgeist pretty damn well itself.
Even Scientology didn’t get some of its weirdest bits until the 1960s. Sure, there was some stuff–Hubbsy was talking about Clam Trauma in 1952, going entirely tinfoil hat at the FBI in 55–but the auditing shit started getting laid down between 62 and 64, as did the bizarro word meanings. The Peak Paranoid “Keeping Scientology Working” document came out in 1965. The dorkily-named “Guardian’s Office” was 66. “Operating Thetans” were 68, as was the Wall of Fire and Xenu and volcano planes.
And…it was the sixties.
Disclaimer: I’m sure there were plenty of people with common sense and critical-thinking skills in the 1960s.
But you know the naive “holding hands and singing loudly will lead to World Peace” thing I mentioned re: the 1970s and Bundy, last post? Take that and like double it for the 1960s. This was when we got the Moonies and the Hare Krishnas, not to mention those upstanding pillars of faith, the Manson Family and the Peoples Temple. There were plenty of folks claiming that UFOs had told them the truth of the cosmos, or that crystals would heal breast cancer, and plenty of other people believing them.
Plus, the ones who didn’t believe? Still didn’t want to be too critical about it, because skepticism and criticism was what The Establishment Did, Man. Calling bullshit was for squares. I’ve read the Breendoggle documents (TW: Child sexual abuse, and you will barf yourself inside out even if it isn’t a personal trigger for you) and the number of people saying something to the effect of “…but, like, we can’t judge him, because who are we to judge, that’s what The Man does, right?” is both staggering and nauseating.
Don’t get me wrong: Lafayette R. himself cannot be blamed on the sixties. Dude was a shitbag at least twenty years before Dianetics happened. But I doubt he, or Scientology, would have lasted as long if he’d tried starting his shit then–or twenty years down the road. Thetans and the Bridge to Total Freedom would not have held a lot of water if they’d been new ideas in the 1980s. There were other cults then. (*Cough* Reagan *cough.*)
Did he knowingly exploit the zeitgeist? As I mentioned, I don’t think he deserves that much credit. Reading his letters, I get the impression that dude honestly seems to have bought into his own hype–which, as Robert Mathiesen once mentioned, is the downfall of any good con artist–and none of the accounts of Scientology gives me the impression he was thinking that strategically.
“Oooh, start a religion for tax purposes, good thinking,” makes good press. “Start a self-help movement based on your own rather pathetic attempts at affirmation, turn that into a religion when you fail, then bounce around for a couple years essentially putting together those newspaper-clippings-and-string charts every police drama shows in the killer’s den, then get picked up by a culture ripe for any huckster who promises a mystical experience PLUS ALIENS,” is closer to the truth, though.