I first became seriously interested in L. Ron Hubbard while listening to the audiobook of Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, as I compulsively bleached most of the surfaces in my first apartment in the town where I got my MFA. My prior knowledge of Scientology has a similarly compulsive haze around it. Going Clear originated as a New Yorker portrait of Paul Haggis, Celebrity Ex-Scientologist, which I was vaguely aware of but had not read. I had, however, read the extensive reports of the Tampa Bay Times (formally St. Petersburg Times) on various nefarious aspects of Scientology, in compulsive internet-consuming states, 3AM bleachy-lighted squinty laptop gazefests, bad-breathedly inching myself closer and closer toward an imagined hellish faithscape. I read about the Sea Org: And they did what on the boats? Mopped poop-decks for how many hours? 12? 17? The very real and later metaphoric sailor work so aptly seemed to convey a kind of one-mindedness I found very attractive, and totally perplexing.
I’m more suspicious of that fascination, now. There is a tackiness to reading about Scientology, sort of aligned in my mind with reading Wikipedia articles about unsolved kidnappings and murders, particularly those involving mysterious briefcases. I am confused by my desire to come up against the edge of a horror.
Nevertheless, my fascination doubled or tripled while reading the early section of Going Clear detailing the life of LRH (as he is referred to by believers). Hubbard’s story struck me as yet another example of a broken “American dream,” in that he achieved great, strange success, the results of which appear to be not unsubstantial human rights abuses.
But additional details in Wright’s narrative of Hubbard’s life piqued my curiosity even more. I was mesmerized by Wright’s discussion of a text Hubbard created: the Affirmations, a list of statements Hubbard wrote, recorded himself vocalizing, and then played back to himself with the intention of modifying his own thoughts and behavior.
The Affirmations is a 30-page document originally produced in 1984 by the defense in the midst of one of the Church of Scientology’s numerous legal battles. The Church of Scientology’s official position is that the document is a forgery, but the details of the text—intimate references to painful moments in Hubbard’s personal life—are supported by other documents.
In any case, the Affirmations serve as an intimate portrait of a person obsessed both with his self-confidence and libido, as well as his ability to transform himself and the world around him. The text is broken into two parts, the first in first person, the second in second person. The first half is concerned with establishing the positive condition of the writer:
I can write. My mind is still brilliant. That masturbation was no sin or crime…That I believe in my gods and spiritual things. That my magical work is powerful and effective. That the numbers 7, 25, and 16 are not unlucky or evil for me…That these words and commands are like fire and will sear themselves into every corner of my being, making me happy and well and confident forever. (qtd. by Wright, 52)
It is difficult for me to square this kind of language—so desperate to confirm the magic potential of its speaker, as well as to have a magical, transformative result—with the Hubbard to whom the statement “You wanta make real money, you gotta start a religion” is attributed.
The second half of the Affirmations heightens the tone of desperation significantly, as the speaker attempts to use language to change the physical condition of his body:
Your eyes are getting progressively better…You have no reason to keep them bad. Your stomach trouble you used as an excuse to keep the Navy from punishing you. You are free of the Navy…Your foot was an alibi. The injury is no longer needed. (qtd. in Wright, 53)
Interestingly, Hubbard appears to have been inspired by techniques of hypnosis popularized in the scenes of such alt-religious folks as Aleister Crowley, although hypnosis typically relies heavily upon suggestion, rather than command, the supposed reason perhaps being that humans are inherently anti-authoritarian. In the Affirmations, however, Hubbard’s desperate desire to change his own medical history and body lends itself to command, as though the most insistently Hubbard speaks to himself, the more likely he, himself, is to listen.
I have not read any of Hubbard’s fiction. I have read most of Dianetics, though I don’t find it as compelling of a read. I am trying to figure out why Hubbard’s public persona, his public writing, interests me so much less than his bedroom self, than his diary. Certainly the Affirmations contain intense emotion: fear, hatred, lust, awe and dread. Do I yearn for the soap opera: Secret Life of L. Ron Hubbard? Yearn for authenticity? Am I assuming that a person does not lie to herself in her own diary?
Probably, but right now, I’m okay with that assumption. I’m keen to believe that affirmations could change someone, or if not change, then reveal—right now, I want to believe that the words we write or speak can make us who we are. I’m praying, here.
I suppose that’s the essential charm of a diary: no matter how intensely we package or market ourselves, if we believe in the power of language to transform, then our selves will either be revealed, or be created, by what we write in our bedrooms.
Recently, my composition students have been writing about their perceptions of engaged writing versus disengaged writing. The overwhelming consensus seems to be that the most engaged writing anyone is capable of happens in a bedroom, when no one will ever read what is being written, and no one is watching. I, perhaps like you, have always been wary of that attitude and repeat to them ad nauseam: writing, so obviously as to be stupidly, is communication, after all.
But I can’t deny that Hubbard’s Affirmations—the incantatory quality of it, that it was a prayer to himself, him alone—give me chills.