They made a lovely couple, my parents. Mildred was as gracious as she was elegant and beautiful. Paul was as gallant as he was rugged and handsome. My mom thought she was the luckiest girl in the world. My dad never got it, how a class act like Mildred could fall for a palooka like him.
Around the time that my teenaged mom-to-be was making googly eyes at my dad-to-be, L. Ron Hubbard — like my father — was in his early twenties. While my father was setting up a medical practice on the Jersey Shore, Ron Hubbard was reportedly off tramping through Asia, learning Eastern religions and customs. All of us in Scientology believed this about Ron. He was an explorer, an intrepid researcher into the darkest depths and starry heights of the human soul. He engineered and built the Bridge to Total Freedom.
Lafayette Ronald Hubbard was a rugged guy, just like my dad.
He was born on March 13, 1911, in Tilden, Nebraska. My dad was born just a few months later, on May 19. If you believe the authorized biography, Ron grew up out by a tribe of Blackfoot peoples. By the time he was four, he’d already learned all the Blackfoot lore there was to learn, so tribal elders made him a full-fledged blood brother. What’s more, at thirteen years old, Ron became the youngest Eagle Scout in the history of Scouting. So goes the authorized biography, and as Scientologists, we believed it.
A great deal of that authorized biography has been poked full of holes. There’s evidence that many of the outrageous claims about Hubbard’s life are out-and-out lies — go ahead, give it a Google. As Scientologists, we always figured he stretched the truth a little — to make a good story a little bit better — but we thought most of his reportedly grandiose and holy life was true.
I joined the Church of Scientology in 1970, and by the end of the decade, I was at the top of my game. I was a full Lieutenant. Only fifty people in all of Scientology outranked me. I’d been First Mate of the Flagship; and a few years later, I was working directly with the Commodore [Hubbard], planning public relations strategies for Scientology worldwide. I managed an entire fucking continent for them. Then I crashed and burned on Southern Comfort and Coca-Cola, sex, junk food, and tranny porn. My job performance took a nosedive, and I was summarily removed from my post in middle management and demoted to sales, where, phoenix-like, I rose from my own ashes brighter and stronger than ever.
I was a terrific salesman, a natural. I’d spent my life trying to make people happy with me, and there’s nothing more happy-making than selling someone their dreams-come-true. In Scientology sales, we were taught to find a person’s “ruin” — whatever it was that was making a person’s life miserable and keeping them from achieving their goals. I could find anyone’s ruin in minutes — and in less than an hour, I’d have sold them thousands of dollars worth of Scientology services to handle it. I put together a crack staff, and together the six of us pulled in close to a quarter of a million dollars a week. I was a real man in every aspect of my life — and it all came down to money money money. After all, what are your dreams worth to you? How much money would you spend if that’s all it took to make your dreams come true? You needed what we had, and we needed your money — most, if not all, of it.
It was common knowledge in the Sea Org that the US government and economy could topple at any moment — splat — end of the world as we know it. That’s when we’d march in and take over. We were amassing a war chest for that day, and with that in mind, L. Ron Hubbard took very little money from the Church — only the royalties on his books and a small administrative stipend on top of his room and board. Beyond that, every penny went into Church maintenance, defense, and expansion.
In Scientology, we never used the word sales. People who sell Scientology services have always gone by the more pleasant euphemism registrar, often shortened to reg. In the Sea Org, we softened the euphemism even further: I was first posted in New York City as part of the international sales team called Flag Service Consultants. We were among the most highly skilled sales people in all of Scientology, and we sold only the most expensive services — the topmost levels of Scientology, all of which were delivered solely on Flag by the most highly trained Sea Org members in the world. In the late 1970s, I was transferred to the post of Tours Reg — Europe became my primary beat, and I was pulling in an average of $20,000 a week for Flag. My personal sales figures often topped out at $50,000 to $70,000, which made me one of the Sea Org’s top income makers, which in turn gave me what they call ethics protection. In short, no one was allowed to fuck with me.
In Europe, Scientologists wrote us checks made out to the Religious Research Foundation, a shell company that maintained a Swiss bank account that was in no way linked to the Church of Scientology. Any money we deposited would be used in the service of the Church without having to pass through any country’s tax system — it’s a common business practice used by many international organizations. Of course, L. Ron Hubbard had no connection with that Swiss account because it was vitally important to keep all his personal finances on the up-and-up so that no enemy of the Church could use any inadvertent financial glitch against him. But that was unthinkable — (a) because he was so powerful, and (b) because he had both the Sea Org and the Guardian’s Office to protect him, and we protected him fiercely.
So, life was . . . great. Thanks to my high income, I’d become a Sea Org star. Crew members actually lined up at the doors to send me off on tour, or welcome me home. It all came unraveled on a sunny autumn day in Zurich, 1982. I had just finished making a sizable deposit to the Swiss bank account. I was out on a quickie one-week tour on my own; my second wife, Becky, was back in Clearwater.
This was my first time inside the bank’s home office. What a beautiful old place it was! The reverence for wealth was manifest in the severe architecture, lightly touched here and there with tasteful elegance. I was waiting for the teller to return to his window with my receipts when a clerk appeared at my elbow and asked me to step inside the office of the vice president of the bank. Now, this had never happened to anyone else on my staff in all the time we’d been making deposits at this branch, so my antennae went up. I allowed the clerk to usher me into the huge office of what very well might be a member of some vast international Swiss banking conspiracy. An old man sat behind the huge desk. He rose creakily to his feet, his face broke into a wide smile, and he walked around his desk toward me with his hand extended as if in friendship. Swiss bankers never do that.
“Mr. L. Ron Hubbard,” the old guy said to me, “the bank so appreciates your business all these years, and it’s such a pleasure to finally meet you in person.”
Oops. No, this was much more than an oops — this was a genuine oh fuck! It must have been the work of some SP [Suppressive Person — Scientology’s term for a person who is completely and irredeemably evil. Like me today; I’m an SP.] Well, some SP inside the Swiss banking conspiracy had obviously broken into the files of the Religious Research Foundation and falsely linked them to the Old Man. Fuck, fuck, fuck! I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I was a far superior being to the old man — lying to him came easy.
“I’m so sorry,” I say. “But I am not this Mr. El? Hub Hubbard? of whom you speak.”
By then, we were both visibly pale. My mind was racing with worst-case scenarios — and the old guy realized that by naming me, he’d violated some strict law of Swiss banking privacy. We froze, our eyes locked in a long awkward silence. Then we each forced a laugh at the silly mistake, we said our goodbyes, and I strolled casually out of the bank.
There was no such thing as a cell phone. I walked across the city square to my hotel, where I placed a call from the pay phone in the lobby. I couldn’t trust that the phone in my room wasn’t tapped. I called a secret number and reached a telex operator in Denmark. I spoke to her guardedly, but she got what I was saying and fired a message off to Florida that there was some plot afoot that warranted investigation, and I would stand by for orders. Orders came back swiftly. I flew to England, where I was questioned for three days. Then the all clear came through, and I was ordered to fly home to Clearwater, Florida. I’d done a great job uncovering the plot against the Old Man!
As I stepped off the plane in Tampa, I was met at the gate by seven tall, muscular young guys in Sea Org officer uniforms. Heh. I was still the superstar. But it did strike me as odd that I didn’t recognize any of these officers, and I knew personally every senior officer in the Sea Org. The young men had serious faces — they told me they were members of the newly formed Financial Police. I’d never heard of that.
“What’s going on here . . . sir?”
“You’ll find out, and don’t speak unless you’re spoken to, mister.”
One for one, they outranked me, so there was no questioning their authority. These guys escorted me into a cold, damp hallway in the basement of the Fort Harrison Hotel. Two of the Financial Police sat me down on a metal folding chair, then took up more comfortable chairs for themselves on either side of me. I couldn’t say a word — I still hadn’t been spoken to.
After three hours, the other five officers showed up — showered, freshly shaven. I smelled sour to myself, and I had a five o’clock shadow that rivaled Richard M. Nixon’s. The seven officers escorted me down the hall into a room set up with a table and an e-meter. Non-Scientologists (we called you wogs) believed that at best, the e-meter — short for electropsychometer — was an unsophisticated lie detector. But we believed completely that in the hands of a trained Scientologist, that little meter could detect your deepest, darkest thoughts and deeds — going back millions and millions of years. That’s the basic principle of their therapy, which they call spiritual counseling, or auditing.
Now, mostly when you’re audited, you’re in a small room with one other person, the auditor. There’s never more than the two of you. But now, one member of the Financial Police sits across from me, operating the meter. Two big guys are standing behind him, two more big guys stand behind me, and one more big guy stands at the door. Years later, I’d find out they call it a gang-bang security check. One of them spoke.
“How long have you been an agent for a foreign government?”
“What the fuck?”
“Thank you,” says the big guy across from me.
Now, he didn’t say thank you because I’d told him anything he felt grateful for. He said thank you because in Scientology you’re supposed to verbally acknowledge anything that anyone says to you. You use words that show you’ve heard the other person — Thank you, OK, Good, Very Good, and so on — words that show you’ve heard the other person. It’s actually quite a civilized way to talk with people, letting them know you heard them. So he says Thank you, then a guy behind me says,
“How long have you been a drug addict?”
“What?!” I turned to face the guy.
“Have you ever had unkind thoughts about L. Ron Hubbard?”
“Not a one,” I answered. “Ever.” But why wasn’t he personally pinning a medal on my chest for pulling his ass out of the financial fires? Unless the Swiss account actually did belong to him, in which case . . .
“OK. That read on the meter. I’ll repeat the question: Have you ever had unkind thoughts about L. Ron Hubbard?”
“Not unless you’re telling me that the Religious Research Foundation is a bank account that funnels money into the Old Man’s pockets. Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Good. Have you ever had unkind thoughts about L. Ron Hubbard?”
For two more hours, they quizzed me about all the possible unkind thoughts I could ever have had about L. Ron Hubbard, until the meter convinced them I was OK on that score.
“Thank you. How long have you been a spy for a foreign government?”
And they kept asking me those kinds of questions for a total of six hours, carefully watching the e-meter for any signs that might reveal my evil deeds. Six hours, no evil deeds. Finally, the guy across from me played his ace. He said I’ve got a choice: I can do three years of hard physical labor, sleeping a maximum of six hours a night on a cold cement floor, eating only table scraps, and talking only with other bad people like me who were relegated to the months-old Rehabilitation Project Force. I could either do that, he said, or I could leave and be excommunicated from the Church of Scientology for the remainder of all my lifetimes ahead of me. The young officer told me that he’s going to live into the future as a hero.
“Without Scientology, you are gonna degrade into a mindless slug of a spiritual being. You’re gonna be a body thetan, attached to the toe of some street bum.”
So help me, that’s what he said. I didn’t thank him for saying it. It had been twelve years since I failed to acknowledge something another person said to me. Twelve years.
What was he saying? Sleeping on a cement floor with this neck? And he never answered my question about the Old Man and the Swiss bank account.
It had to be true. Daddy was a liar and a cheat — I could deal with everything else about Scientology but that. My mind shattered like a plate glass window in a Mack Sennett comedy.
“You excommunicate me,” I said, and so they did.
It was January 24, 1986, when a judge handed down her approval of my legal name change from Albert Herman Bornstein to Katherine Vandam Bornstein. It was the very same day L. Ron Hubbard died.
The Commodore was seventy-five years old, living alone in a double-wide out on a Church-owned ranch in the desert of Southern California. It was a luxury trailer, but it was a trailer, and it was the best he could do for a hideout. The Old Man had been named as a co-conspirator by US government prosecutors, but he hadn’t been indicted so he was on the lam. The government had a pretty much iron-clad case against more than twenty Scientologists who’d infiltrated the IRS for years in order, reportedly, to mine personnel files that the Church could leverage into getting itself a nonprofit status. Ron’s wife, Mary Sue, had been tried and found guilty, along with ten other Scientologists — they were all serving time in jail. Mary Sue Hubbard adored Ron as deeply as my mom adored my dad. Both women worshipped their men, fought for their men, and placed their men above themselves. Mary Sue and my mother were women of a generation, and I loved them both. Mary Sue Hubbard was behind bars the day the love of her life died alone out in the desert. That’s just not right.
There’s a photo of L. Ron Hubbard taken just before he died. You can find it online easily enough — it’s the grainy blotchy one. He’s disheveled and unshaven, wearing what looks like a stained nightshirt. His eyes are unfocused and his jaw’s gone all slack. It’s heartbreaking. Yes, yes, yes, he was a mean old man. But so many of us held him in our hearts like we’d hold daddy. He was a bad daddy to be sure, but he was daddy. No one’s come forward online to say they were there when the Old Man was lost, or that they held his hand and cried with him. If I’d been there, I would have.
Adapted excerpt from A Queer and Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein. Copyright © 2012 by Kate Bornstein. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston.