Going Clear
Author:Lawrence Wright

POLLY AND THE TWO CHILDREN had spent the war waiting for Ron on their plot in Port Orchard, but there was no joyous homecoming. “My wife left me while I was in a hospital with ulcers,” Hubbard noted. “It was a terrible blow when she left me for I was ill and without prospects.”

Soon after leaving the hospital, Hubbard towed a house trailer behind an old Packard to Southern California, where so many ambitious and rootless members of his generation were seeking their destiny. There was a proliferation of exotic new religions in America and many other countries, caused by the tumult of war and disruptions of progress that older denominations weren’t prepared to solve. Southern California was filled with migrants who weren’t tied to old creeds and were ready to experiment with new ways of thinking. The region was swarming with Theosophists, Rosicrucians, Zoroastrians, and Vedantists. Swamis, mystics, and gurus of many different faiths pulled acolytes into their orbits.

The most brilliant member of this galaxy of occultists was John Whiteside Parsons, known as Jack, a rocket scientist working at what would later become the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Technical Institute. (Parsons, who has a crater on the Moon named after him, developed solid rocket fuel.) Darkly handsome and brawny, later called by some scholars the “James Dean of the occult,” Parsons was a science-fiction fan and an outspoken advocate of free love. He acquired a three-story Craftsman-style mansion, with a twelve-car garage, at 1003 South Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena—a sedate, palm-lined street known as Millionaires Row. The house had once belonged to Arthur H. Fleming, a logging tycoon and philanthropist, who had hosted former president Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Albert Einstein in its oval dining room. The street had also been home to William Wrigley, of the chewing-gum fortune, and the beer baron Adolph Busch, whose widow still lived next door.

She must have been appalled to watch as Parsons divided the historic home and the coach house behind it into nineteen apartments, then advertised for renters. He sought artists, anarchists, and musicians—the more Bohemian the better. “Must not believe in God,” the ad stated. Among those passing through the “Parsonage” were an aging actress from the silent movie era, an opera singer, several astrologers, an ex-convict, and the chief engineer for the development of the atomic bomb. A number of children from various alliances constantly raced through the house. Parsons threw parties that featured “women in diaphanous gowns,” as one visitor observed, who “would dance around a pot of fire, surrounded by coffins topped with candles.” Parsons turned the mansion into the headquarters of the Agapé Lodge, a branch of the Ordo Templi Orientis, a secret fraternal organization dedicated to witchcraft and sexual “magick,” based on the writings of the notorious British writer and provocateur Aleister Crowley, whose glowering countenance was captured in a portrait hanging in the stairwell.

Despite the bizarre atmosphere that he cultivated, Parsons took his involvement in the OTO seriously, making brazen ethical claims for his movement—claims that would sound familiar when Scientology arose only a few years later. “The breakup of the home and family, the confusion in problems of morals and behavior, the frustration of the individual need for love, self-expression and freedom, and the immanence of the total destruction of western civilization all indicate the need for a basic reexamination and alteration of individual and social values,” Parsons writes in a brief manifesto. “Mature investigation on the part of philosophers and social scientists have [sic] indicated the existence of only one force of sufficient power to solve these problems and effect the necessary changes, and that is the force of a new religion.”

TWENTY-ONE-YEAR-OLD SARA ELIZABETH “BETTY” NORTHRUP, Parsons’s feisty mistress, was the younger sister of his wife, who had run off with another man. Sara was tall, blond, buxom, and wild, often claiming to have lost her virginity at the age of ten. “Her chief interest in life is amusement,” one of the boarders observed. But she was also quick and intelligent and full of joy, delighting everyone around her. She had become involved with Parsons, who was ten years older, when she was fifteen. Her parents tolerated the relationship; in fact, her indulgent father helped bankroll the Parsonage, which Sara purchased jointly with Parsons while she was still a teenager. One evening Robert Heinlein appeared at the house, bringing along his friend L. Ron Hubbard, who was wearing dark glasses and carrying a silver-handled cane. “He was not only a writer but he was a captain of a ship that had been downed in the Pacific and he was weeks on a raft and had been blinded by the sun and his back had been broken,” Sara later recalled. “I believed everything he said.”

A few months later, Hubbard moved in. He made an immediate, vivid impression on the other boarders. “He dominated the scene with his wit and inexhaustible fund of anecdotes,” one of the boarders, Alva Rogers, later recalled. “Unfortunately, Ron’s reputation for spinning tall tales (both off and on the printed page) made for a certain degree of skepticism in the minds of his audience. At any rate, he told one hell of a good story.” Like Hubbard, Rogers had red hair, and he was intrigued by Hubbard’s theory that redheads are the living remnant of the Neanderthals.

Hubbard invited one of his paramours from New York, Vida Jameson, to join him at the Parsonage, with the ostensible task of keeping the books. It’s a testimony to his allure that she came all the way across America to be with him, although soon after she arrived, she discovered that she had been displaced.

The other boarders watched in astonishment as Hubbard worked his charms on the available women in the household, before setting his sights on “the most gorgeous, intelligent, sweet, wonderful girl,” as another envious suitor described Sara Northrup. “There he was, living off Parsons’ largesse and making out with his girlfriend right in front of him. Sometimes when the two of them were sitting at the table together, the hostility was almost tangible.” Enlivened, no doubt, by their rivalry over Sara, Parsons and Hubbard quickly developed a highly competitive relationship. They liked to begin their mornings with a bout of fencing in the living room.

Parsons struggled with his feelings of jealousy, which were at war with his philosophy of free love. He could understand Northrup’s attraction to the new boarder, describing Hubbard in a letter to Crowley in 1946 as “a gentleman, red hair, green eyes, honest and intelligent.… He moved in with me about two months ago.” Then Parsons admits, “Although Betty and I are still friendly, she has transferred her sexual affections to Ron.” He went on to admire Hubbard’s supernatural abilities. “Although he has no formal training in Magick, he has an extraordinary amount of experience and understanding in the field. From some of his experiences I deduced that he is in direct touch with some higher intelligence, possibly his Guardian Angel. He describes his Angel as a beautiful winged woman with red hair whom he calls the Empress and who has guided him through his life and saved him many times.”

The extent to which Scientology was influenced by Hubbard’s involvement with the OTO has long been a matter of angry debate. There is little trace in Hubbard’s life of organized religion or spiritual philosophy. In the Parsonage, he was drawn into an obscure and stigmatized creed, based on the writings and practice of Crowley—the “Great Beast,” as he called himself—who gloried in being one of the most reviled men of his era. The Church of Scientology explicitly rejects any connection between Crowley’s thinking and Hubbard’s emerging philosophy; yet the two men were similar in striking ways. Like Hubbard, Crowley reveled in a life of constant physical, spiritual, and sexual exploration. He was a daring, even reckless mountaineer, and his exploits included several failed attempts to climb the world’s most formidable peaks. He, too, was a prolific writer who authored novels and plays as well as books on magic and mysticism. Boisterous and highly self-regarding, he had been kicked out of an occult society called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn after feuding with some of its most prominent members, including William Butler Yeats, whom Crowley accused of being envious of his talent as a poet. He may have served as a British spy while living in America during World War I, despite the fact that he was constantly publishing anti-British propaganda. Crowley relied on opiates and hallucinogens to enhance his spiritual pursuits. During an excursion to Cairo in 1904, he discovered his Holy Guardian Angel, a disembodied spirit named Aiwass, who claimed to be a messenger from the Egyptian god Horus. Crowley said that over a period of three days, Aiwass dictated to him an entire cosmology titled The Book of the Law, the main principle of which was, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

Nibs—Hubbard’s estranged eldest son and namesake, L. Ron Hubbard, Jr. (he later changed his name to Ronald DeWolf)—claimed that his father had read the book when he was sixteen years old and developed a lifelong allegiance to black magic. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that Scientology is black magic just spread out over a long time period,” he contended. “Black magic is the inner core of Scientology—and it is probably the only part of Scientology that really works.”

One striking parallel between Hubbard and Crowley is the latter’s assertion that “spiritual progress did not depend on religious or moral codes, but was like any other science.” Crowley argued that by advancing through a graded series of rituals and spiritual teachings, the adept could hope to make it across “The Abyss,” which he defined as “the gulf existing between individual and cosmic consciousness.” It is an image that Hubbard would evoke in his Bridge to Total Freedom.

Although Hubbard mentions Crowley only glancingly in a lecture—calling him “my very good friend”—they never actually met. Crowley died in 1947 at the age of seventy-two. “That’s when Dad decided that he would take over the mantle of the Beast and that is the seed and the beginning of Dianetics and Scientology,” Nibs later said. “It was his goal to be the most powerful being in the universe.”

JACK PARSONS EXPERIMENTED with Crowley’s rituals, taking them in his own eccentric direction. His personal brand of witchcraft centered on the adoration of female carnality, an interest Hubbard evidently shared. Parsons recorded in his journal that Hubbard had a vision of “a savage and beautiful woman riding naked on a great cat-like beast.” That became the inspiration for Parsons’s most audacious mystical experiment. He appointed Hubbard to be his “scribe” in a ceremony called the “Babalon Working.” It was based on Crowley’s notion that the supreme goal of the magician’s art was to create a “moonchild”—a creature foretold in one of Crowley’s books who becomes the Antichrist. Night after night, Parsons and Hubbard invoked the spirit world in a quest to summon up a “Scarlet Woman,” the female companion who would play the role of Parsons’s consort. The ceremony, likely aided by narcotics and hallucinogens, required Hubbard to channel the female deity of Babalon as Parsons performed the “invocation of wand with material basis on talisman”—in other words, masturbating on a piece of parchment. He typically invoked twice a night.

Parsons records that during one of these evenings a candle was forcibly knocked out of Hubbard’s hand: “We observed a brownish yellow light about seven feet high in the kitchen. I brandished a magical sword and it disappeared. His right arm was paralyzed for the rest of the night.” On another occasion, he writes, Hubbard saw the astral projection of one of Parsons’s enemies manifest himself in a black robe. “Ron promptly launched an attack and pinned the phantom figure to the door with four throwing knives.”

Evidently, the spirits relented. One day, an attractive young woman named Marjorie Cameron showed up at the Parsonage. Parsons later claimed that a bolt of lightning had struck outside, followed by a knock at the door. A beautiful woman was standing there. She had been in a traffic accident. “I don’t know where I am or where I’ve come from,” she told him. (Cameron’s version is that she had been interested in the stories of the naked women jumping over fires in the garden, and she persuaded a friend who was boarding at the Parsonage to take her for a visit.) “I have my elemental!” Parsons exclaimed in a note to Crowley a few days later. “She has red hair and slant green eyes as specified.… She is an artist, strong minded and determined, with strong masculine characteristics and a fanatical independence.”

The temple was lit with candles, the room suffused with incense, and Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead” was playing in the background. Dressed in a hooded white robe, and carrying a lamp, Hubbard intoned, “Display thyself to Our Lady; dedicate thy organs to Her, dedicate thy heart to Her, dedicate thy mind to Her, dedicate thy soul to Her, for She shall absorb thee, and thou shalt become living flame before She incarnates.” Whereupon Parsons and Cameron responded, “Glory unto the Scarlet Woman, Babalon, the Mother of Abominations, that rideth upon the Beast.” Then, as Hubbard continued the incantation, Parsons and Cameron consummated the ceremony upon the altar. This same ritual went on for three nights in a row. Afterward, Parsons wrote to Crowley, “Instructions were received direct through Ron, the seer.… I am to act as instructor guardian guide for nine months; then it will be loosed on the world.”

Crowley was unimpressed. “Apparently Parsons or Hubbard or somebody is producing a Moonchild,” he complained to another follower. “I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these goats.” Cameron did become pregnant, but got an abortion, with Parsons’s consent, so it’s unclear exactly what this ceremony was designed to produce. (Parsons and Cameron later married and aborted another pregnancy.) Nonetheless, Parsons asserted that the ritual had been a success. “Babalon is incarnate upon the earth today, awaiting the proper hour for her manifestation,” he wrote after the ceremony. “And in that day my work will be accomplished, and I shall be blown away upon the Breath of the father.”

Until that apocalypse occurred, Hubbard and Parsons decided, they would go into business together. The plan was for Hubbard to purchase yachts in Florida, sail them through the Panama Canal to California, and resell them at a profit. Parsons and Sara sold the Parsonage and handed over the money to Hubbard—more than twenty thousand dollars from Parsons alone. Hubbard and Northrup promptly left for Miami.

While in Florida, Hubbard appealed to the Veterans Administration for an increase in his medical disability. He was already receiving compensation for his ulcers, amounting to $11.50 per month. “I cannot tolerate a general diet—results in my having to abandon my old profession as a ship master and explorer, and seriously hampers me as a writer.” He said his eyesight had been affected by “prolonged exposure to tropical sunlight,” incurred while he was in the service, which caused a chronic case of conjunctivitis. He also complained that he was lame from a bone infection, which he theorized must have occurred by the abrupt change in climate when he was shipped to the East Coast. “My earning power, due to injuries, all service connected, has dropped to nothing,” he summed up. Sara Northrup added a handwritten note of support. “I have know [sic] Lafayette Ronald Hubbard for many years,” she claimed. “I see no chance of his condition improving to a point where he can regain his old standards. He is becoming steadily worse, his health impaired again by economic worries.”

Parsons grew to believe that Hubbard and Sara had other plans for his money, and he flew to Miami to confront them. When he learned that they had just sailed away, he performed a “Banishing Ritual,” invoking Bartzabel, a magical figure associated with Mars. According to Parsons, a sudden squall arose, ripping the sails off the ship that Hubbard was captaining, forcing him to limp back to port. Sara’s memory was that she and Ron were on their way to California, when they were caught in a hurricane in the Panama Canal. The ship was too damaged to continue the voyage. Parsons gained a judgment against the couple, but declined to press criminal charges, possibly because his sexual relationship with Sara had begun while she was still below the age of consent, and she threatened to retaliate. Hubbard’s friends were alarmed, both about his business dealings with Parsons and his romance with Sara. “Keep him at arm’s length,” Robert Heinlein warned a mutual friend. His wife, Virginia, regarded Ron as “a very sad case of postwar breakdown,” and Sara as Hubbard’s “latest Man-Eating Tigress.”

Sara repeatedly refused Ron’s entreaties to marry him, but he threatened to kill himself unless she relented. She still saw him as a broken war hero whom she could mend. Finally, she said, “All right, I’ll marry you, if that’s going to save you.” They awakened a minister in Chestertown, Maryland, on August 10, 1946. The minister’s wife and housekeeper served as witnesses to the wedding. The news ricocheted among Hubbard’s science-fiction colleagues. “I suppose Polly was tiresome about not giving him his divorce so he could marry six other gals who were all hot & moist over him,” one of Hubbard’s writer friends, L. Sprague de Camp, wrote to the Heinleins. (In fact, Polly didn’t learn of the marriage till the following year, when she read about it in the newspapers.) “How many girls is a man entitled to in one lifetime, anyway?” de Camp fumed. “Maybe he should be reincarnated as a rabbit.”

The Church of Scientology admits that Hubbard was involved with Parsons and the OTO, characterizing it, however, as a secret mission for naval intelligence. The church claims that the government had been worried about top American scientists—including some from Los Alamos, where the atom bomb was developed—who made a habit of staying with Parsons when they visited California. Hubbard’s mission was to penetrate and subvert the organization.

“Mr. Hubbard accomplished the assignment,” the church maintains. “He engineered a business investment that tied up the money Parsons used to fund the group’s activities, thus making it unavailable to Parsons for his occult pursuits.” Hubbard, the church claims, “broke up black magic in America.”