Going Clear
Author:Lawrence Wright

IN TRUTH, Hubbard had very poor eyesight. Before the war, both the Naval Academy and the Naval Reserve had rejected him because of his vision, and all during the war he wore glasses. In 1951, when he was being evaluated for a medical disability, his vision tested at 20/200 for each eye, correctable to 20/20 with glasses, much the same as it had been before the war. The examiner noted, “Eyes tire easily, has worn all types of glasses but claims he sees just as well without as with glasses.” Was that even possible? Eyesight does change over the years, but Hubbard’s eyes were astigmatic—meaning they were more football-shaped than round—and not likely to have improved, certainly not dramatically. And yet many of Hubbard’s associates testify to his keen eyesight. Without glasses, Hubbard would have been legally blind; perhaps that’s what he was referring to when he said he had cured himself of blindness after the war. But, clearly his eye examination showed different results.

Hubbard had written in Dianetics that the eyesight of a Clear gradually improves to optimum perception. And yet, he admitted elsewhere that his vision was so bad in the postwar years that he could scarcely see his typewriter to write. He wore glasses and early versions of contact lenses. Through the use of Dianetic processing, he says, his eyes began to change. Many noticed that Hubbard had a habit of squinting, which has the effect of pressing astigmatic eyeballs into a rounder shape, which might momentarily improve his vision. He theorized that “astigmatism, a distortion of image, is only an anxiety to alter the image.” One day, for instance, he was reading an American Medical Association report and couldn’t make it out at all. He thought he might have to resort to using a magnifying glass. Then he realized that the reason he couldn’t read it was that he wasn’t willing to confront what it said. “I threw it aside, picked up a novel and the print was perfect.”

Hubbard would sometimes chastise members of his crew about their dependence on eyeglasses, which he said were an admission of “overts”—transgressions against the group. One night as the fleet was sailing in the Caribbean, he looked at the young woman serving him dinner, Tracy Ekstrand, whose glasses were sliding down her nose in the tropical heat. “You’re doing yourself an aesthetic disservice,” he pronounced. She was mortified and stopped wearing glasses that night. Although she was still able to move from room to room and serve meals, her vision remained quite blurred. Some weeks later, as Hubbard was retiring for the night, he looked at her again. He held up his pack of cigarettes a foot in front of her face and asked if she could read the bold capital letters: “KOOL.” Flustered by the personal attention from the Commodore, Ekstrand mumbled the name of the cigarettes. “There’s been a shift!” he declared triumphantly, then went to bed. Ekstrand was shaken. “I remained outside his door for some minutes, dumbfounded and unsure how to react,” she recalled. “This time there was no question. He was wrong. He was imagining improvement and success with Scientology where there had been none.”

All of Hubbard’s senses were painfully acute. Each day, every room he inhabited had to be dusted to the point that it would pass a white-glove test. He was fanatically clean but also hypersensitive to soap, so that his clothes had to be rinsed up to fifteen times, and even then he would complain that he could smell the detergent. His chef had to switch from cooking on stainless steel to Corningware because Hubbard complained of the taste of metal in his food. These stories were traded among his disciples as more evidence of his superhuman powers of discernment.

ACCORDING TO SEVERAL Sea Org members, while he was in Las Palmas, Hubbard fell in love with another woman—Yvonne Gillham, the ship’s public relations officer. (She would later go on to start the Celebrity Centre in Hollywood.) She had a wide smile, large hazel eyes, and a short pixie haircut, bearing a resemblance to Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Gillham combined a down-to-earth personality with a touch of class that came from growing up in the high society of Queensland, Australia. Inevitably, Hubbard demanded that she accompany him on the high seas. Gillham had three young children at Saint Hill, and she had only joined the Sea Org on Hubbard’s pledge that they could stay with her, but Hubbard’s desire for her had become a prison, one that she was too loyal to escape.

Yvonne Gillham in a head shot she used during her modeling career, circa 1952

Hubbard was fifty-six years old in the fall of 1967, when he set sail with his youthful crew. There was no destination or purpose other than to wander. Hubbard was by now portly, ruddy-faced, and jowly; his swept-back, oncered hair had turned strawberry blond. His eyes, which have been described as blue or green by various observers, were actually gray, like seawater, casting an odd flatness over his aspect. Two strong lines transected his face: a deep furrow between his eyebrows, matching the notch below his nose and the cleft in his chin, and his duckbill lips, which were his most prominent feature. Once aboard, he dressed in various naval uniforms befitting his self-appointed station as Commodore of the fleet, with lots of braid and crossed anchors on his cap.

There were three ships in Hubbard’s navy. In addition to the Avon River, there was a schooner called the Enchanter, and the 3,200-ton flagship, a flat-bottom cattle ferry originally called the Royal Scotsman, which was renamed the Royal Scotman because of a clerical error in the registration. The smokestack was emblazoned with the initials “LRH.”

Hubbard spent most of his time in the air-conditioned captain’s cabin on the promenade deck of the Royal Scotman, surrounded by windows to take in the ocean vistas. He rarely drank on the ship, except perhaps to take the chill off on a cold night on the bridge. Drugs were nowhere in evidence. His days were largely solitary, passed in auditing himself and writing policy papers. His office on the top deck was called the Research Room. It was behind a pair of highly polished wooden doors with brass handles. The floor was a bright red linoleum covered with Oriental rugs; there was a massive mahogany desk and a huge mirror above a fireplace. Crew members passing by on the upper deck could see him writing with his usual rapidity on foolscap, using a green pen for policy bulletins and a red one for the “tech”—that is, his vast corpus of coursework and procedures that comprised Scientology’s spiritual technology. His restless leg would be jiggling as his hand raced across the page, faultlessly, in handsome, legible script. For other writing, he turned back to his typewriter. “I think he was doing automatic writing,” said Jim Dincalci, one of his medical officers. “The pages would be flying. When he came out of it, he would blink his eyes, as if coming awake, and he did this thing with his lips, smacking.”

Hubbard and Mary Sue would dine in his office between eight and ten p.m. Sometime after three in the morning, Dincalci would give Hubbard a massage and he would go to sleep. After that, everyone on the ship had to be quiet until Hubbard awakened, sometime before noon, and remain absolutely mute while he was auditing himself on the E-Meter.

In Hubbard’s opinion, the device operated just below the level of conscious awareness; it somehow knew what you were thinking before you did. It was eerily compelling. Anything that registered on the meter was seen as being significant. The trick was divining what the needle was saying. Sometimes the reaction was so violent that the needle would pound back and forth like a berserk windshield wiper—you could hear it snapping against the pins at either end. Hubbard called this a “rock slam.” Anyone who registered such a reaction was deemed psychotic and certain to have committed crimes against Scientology; if that person was in the Sea Org, he would be punished automatically, the crime to be sorted out later.

After initially resisting the concept of past lives, Hubbard became passionately interested in the subject. “We Come Back” was the motto of the Sea Org. Hubbard began recalling many of his own previous existences, which the E-Meter validated. He claimed to have been a contemporary of Machiavelli’s, and he was still upset that the author of The Prince stole his line “The end justifies the means.” He said he had been a marshal to Joan of Arc and Tamburlaine’s wife. He told stories about driving a race car in the alien Marcab civilization millions of years before. He came to believe that in some of his past lives on this planet, he had buried treasure in various locations, so he launched an expedition to unearth his ancient hoards. He called it the Mission into Time. He selected a small crew to go on the Avon River. Because he wanted to keep the mission secret, he had two long rafts fashioned, which could be rowed ashore under cover of darkness and pulled up on the beach near where he imagined his ancient treasure was buried. When Hana Eltringham saw she wasn’t on the list, she wrote Hubbard, pleading to be included, saying she would be willing to perform any duty. To her surprise, Hubbard appointed her chief officer.

One very dark, overcast night in 1968, the Avon River dropped anchor on the western coast of Sicily, in the bay of Castellammare del Golfo, beside a steep promontory topped by an ancient watchtower. Hubbard gave his “missionaires” a treasure map he had drawn up based on his past-life recollections. The crew set out in one of the rafts toward the rocky shoreline, lugging ropes, shovels, and metal detectors. Giggling and tripping over each other, they scrambled up a ten-foot cliff. It was so dark they couldn’t see more than a foot in front of their faces. Each had a hand on another’s shoulder as they picked their way through stands of cactus along the rocky outcropping. At one point, the leader of the expedition bumped into a cow. The cow started mooing, then a dog barked, and a light went on in a house nearby. Everyone stood dead still until the scene quieted down. Finally, the clouds parted enough for the moon to shine through. The missionaires found some old bricks they thought might have been the ruins of a castle beside the watchtower. The metal detectors found nothing.

Hubbard decided to come along the next day to inspect the site himself. “Yes, yes, this is the place!” he said excitedly. He explained the absence of treasure by saying that it must have been hidden in a portion of the ruined castle that had fallen into the sea.

The expedition moved on to Sardinia, where Hubbard claimed to have had an affair with the priestess in a temple—“liaisons in the moonlight,” he told his enchanted missionaires—when he was a Carthaginian sailor. “We had a lot of good-looking girls in Carthage but they didn’t come up to her.” The Avon River next stopped in Calabria, on the toe of Italy, where Hubbard had buried gold in his days as a tax collector in the Roman Empire. None was found, however.

Near Tunis, where the missionaires hoped to dive on the ruins of an ancient underwater city, Hubbard found fault with the captain of the Avon River, Joe van Staden, and booted him off the ship. Eltringham was sitting at her desk on the ’tween deck when Hubbard called her into his office and told her she was the new captain of the four-hundred-ton trawler, starting in the morning. Eltringham went back to her desk and put her head in her hands. She was twenty-six years old. Everything she knew about sailing she had learned from Hubbard. To his credit, he had been a good teacher. He had taken a dozen members of the original Sea Org crew and taught them the semaphore code, how to navigate using a sextant, and basic laws of the sea. But she knew nothing about running the engine room, or operating the electronics on the bridge, or docking a ship. Half an hour later, Hubbard stuck his head out of his office and beckoned to her. He was holding an E-Meter. Standing in the doorway where everyone could see them, Hubbard handed her the cans. Then he screwed up his eyes and demanded, “Recall a time you were last a captain.” As Eltringham closed her eyes and began to free-associate, Hubbard watched the needle on the E-Meter.

“What’s that?” he asked, when the needle suddenly dropped.

“That was sometime on a ship somewhere and the ship was sinking,” Eltringham responded.

“Okay, go back earlier.” A moment later, he asked her again, “What’s that?”

“That’s just a lot of confusion. I’m in a cabin with a lot of other people. Something urgent is going on.”

Hubbard asked her to talk more about it. Eltringham began to see the incident more clearly. “We were in some kind of spaceship,” she said. “We were under attack and—oh my God!—I can see a planet down there! And the planet’s on fire! And something is shooting at us and—oh my God!—the spaceship exploded!”

Hubbard asked her to tell the story several more times to destimulate the incident. Then he asked Eltringham how she was feeling.

“I’m fine, sir.”

Hubbard screwed up his eyes again. “Do you have any other thoughts about it?” Eltringham realized that he was looking for a floating needle, but she wasn’t able to give it to him.

“Okay, one more question. Are you a loyal officer?”

“I don’t know what you mean by that,” Eltringham said. “I’m loyal to you, and I’m an officer.”

Hubbard said, “All right, that’s as far as we’ll go this time.”

Eltringham walked up on the deck and tried to take in what Hubbard meant. Suddenly it came to her. Hubbard wasn’t talking about the present. He was referring to the time in her visualization. Some catastrophe must have happened. Eltringham realized that it must have been her planet that was being attacked, and she had been trying to save it.

A few minutes later, Hubbard came up on deck and stood beside her. She turned to him and said, “Yep, you’re right, sir. I was a loyal officer. I am.”

Hubbard beamed.