When prospective students tour GW, one of the things they learn is how easy it is to start an organization. Tour guides chirp about the school’s most famous alumni – Colin Powell and Jackie O, of course, and if the tour guide is feeling daring, he might throw Watergate’s “Deep Throat” into the mix. But one name that prospective students do not hear is that of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology.
Perhaps it’s because students are simply unaware of Hubbard’s ties to GW and Washington, D.C. – he only attended GW for two years, from 1930 to 1932. But maybe a more likely reason is that the mere mention of Scientology – religion of the stars – may start a controversy that most would rather avoid.
Some religions have pilgrimages – Muslims flock to Mecca, Catholics travel to the Vatican, and Jews are drawn to Jerusalem. Scientology does not, but D.C. ranks high on the religion’s list of revered places. The religion’s headquarters are in Los Angeles, but the first-ever Church of Scientology is an unassuming townhouse on 19th Street near Dupont Circle. Decades ago, Hubbard held his lectures there, and today it is home to the L. Ron Hubbard Museum.
The museum is just a block away from the current D.C. Church of Scientology, where parishioners receive lessons and Sunday services in a lush mansion, also full of artifacts from Hubbard’s life.
“Ron loved his time at GW,” said the Rev. Susan Taylor, president of the Founding Church of Scientology, sitting in a room in the church with framed pictures of Hubbard looking down on her from all sides. “It’s an honor for us to be near the school.”
Hubbard, whose first name is Lafayette, moved around the West as a boy, spending time in Montana and Washington state before making his first trip to D.C. at age 13. An enlarged photo in his museum shows a skinny, smiling boy standing on the Mall in front of the National Gallery of Art. Hubbard was well-traveled due to his father’s military career, but he returned to the Washington area to complete high school in Manassas, Va., after trips to Asia and earning the honor of being the youngest Eagle Scout ever.
Soon after, Hubbard’s parents urged him to attend GW and get an education at the engineering school. He was a member of Pi Theta Xi, the engineering fraternity, and the founder of the GW Gliders Club, a group for students with an interest in aviation. He sang and played instruments on a local radio station, and helped organize the fraternity’s annual dance. He bought Cokes for five cents at Quigley’s.
As an assistant Hatchet editor, Hubbard was expected to help with reporting the news, but news was not what made Hubbard stand out – rather, it was his fictional works. Hubbard’s first fiction story, “Tah,” was published in The Hatchet and was followed by many more, including the award-winning “The God Smiles.” One of his greatest mentors was a GW professor of rhetoric, Dean William Wilbur. Hubbard also stood out in the field of science.
“He was very concerned about atomic science,” Taylor said. “He took one of the first classes ever offered in the subject. It was then that he became concerned about the long-term effects of science – after all, you can’t undo an A-bomb.”
Another science project of Hubbard’s included experiments with a Koenig photometer, a device used to measure sound vibrations. In an engineering experiment, Hubbard experimented with sound waves by reading poetry in different languages to the photometer. He discovered that the machine would react the same whether he was reading a haiku in Japanese, or an English poem in iambic pentameter.
“Essentially, he discovered the wavelength of beauty,” said Bill Runyon, the president of Friends of L. Ron Hubbard, an organization dedicated to Hubbard’s memory. “He was so independent-minded. He always walked the line between doing his assignments and stretching the envelope. Instead of compromising, he reached for discoveries.”
In 1932, a desire to travel overcame Hubbard, so he placed an ad in The Hatchet that stated, “Seeking restless young men with wanderlust.” Fifty students from the area responded to the ad, and with Hubbard as their leader, they sailed through the Caribbean and took photographs.
Founding of the Church
In the years that followed, Hubbard spent his time traveling, taking photographs, and writing fiction. Many of his works went to The New York Times bestseller list and were adapted into films. The most recent Hubbard-inspired film is “Battlefield Earth” – a flop at the box office – and stars renowned Scientologist John Travolta. But ask any Scientologist, and he’ll tell you that the film is not nearly as good as the book.
“It wasn’t like he woke up one day and heard voices,” the Rev. Taylor said. “He had a firm belief that man was basically good. And you think, ‘whoa what is going on with crime and drugs then?’ But he searched for baggage behind that, which lead to dianetics, which led to the belief that man is a spiritual being.”
According to Hubbard’s teachings, a person is composed of the body, the mind, and the thetan, or the spirit. The word dianetics comes from the Greek words for “through” and “soul,” and thus became Hubbard’s method for understanding the mind and soul. Scientologists believe that because the thetan is not a part of the body, it lives on after death. Practitioners of Scientology work to discover their past lives.
Hubbard also believed that there are eight dynamics, or impulses, in life: self, creativity, group survival, species or mankind, life forms and nature, the physical universe, the spiritual dynamic and infinity. Scientologists try to become an “operating thetan,” or a person that exists across all of these dynamics. Once they have done this, they have obtained the state of “clear.”
Scientologists take classes in the teachings of Hubbard, called “auditing.” These classes are led by Scientology-certified counselors, who use personality tests and an E-meter – a machine with two metal cones for a person to grip, through which a person’s soul is measured – to diagnose personality traits in Scientologists. Scientologists pay for these classes, and the literature, which can often run in the thousands of dollars.
As Scientologist Tom Cruise recently made clear in an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, Scientologists do not believe in psychiatry, or in taking mind-altering drugs.
“I don’t even use aspirin,” Runyon said. “I don’t have to. I haven’t taken an aspirin in 15 years. If you are healthy spiritually and mentally, you won’t have those problems.”
“We don’t feel that anyone has ever been helped by psychiatry,” Taylor explained. “You see a kid with HDDD or whatever it’s called, and he takes Ritalin, and you take a look later and find out that his life has been destroyed.”
To purify themselves from these toxins, Scientologists pay for a process called purification, in which they cleanse themselves of harmful chemicals by taking vitamins, walking on a treadmill and sitting in a sauna for up to five hours a day.
Hubbard explained these concepts to followers throughout his lifetime in his recorded lectures, or congresses. They would often be held in his 19th Street townhouse, but if he drew a large enough crowd, he would move them to the nearby Shoreham Hotel.
“Poor Jesus,” Taylor said. “Christianity was founded so many years ago, and because it’s all verbal, there were no copyrights, and his word was open to interpretation. We do not have that problem – Ron wrote everything down, so we’re very fortunate that the religion has remained pure.”
Today, there are more than 5,100 Scientology churches or groups around the world. In every single one of these churches, there is an office dedicated to L. Ron Hubbard.
“We do not worship Ron,” the Rev. Taylor said. “He was just a man.”
Despite this, the Scientology center is filled with busts and photos of Hubbard and artifacts from his life, as well as several copies of The Hatchet hung along the entryway of the building. In Hubbard’s office, which gives off the aura of a shrine, there are grand bookcases filled with all of Hubbard’s writings, artifacts from his life, and several different prototypes of E-meters.
Gelman Library is full of Hubbard artifacts as well. A search in the University archives reveals an old Cherry Tree yearbook with Hubbard’s fraternity photo in it and old Hatchet issues that contain his earliest writings.
University archivist G. David Anderson has received many inquiries from people looking for details about Hubbard’s life – and not all of them are from Scientologists.
“I just sent some information about him to a student last week,” Anderson said. “I get inquiries on and off throughout the year. It seems like more and more people are catching on that he came here.”
Anderson, who teaches a class on research for the University, is a fan of Hubbard’s works. The University archives has framed original illustrations from Hubbard’s series “Mission Earth” hanging on its office walls.
“I like science fiction and I read it a lot – if I were a collector, I would bid for his works,” Anderson said.
One more way that Hubbard will be commemorated at GW is through a memorial reading room for the creative writing program.
“There has been some conversation about (the Scientologists) making a gift which would make it possible for us to put a room in for creative writing,” said University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, “but we have been very clear that there would be no representation that the University endorsed Scientology since we are totally secular.”
Trachtenberg said his views of the religion are mixed. He is not worried about having the University’s name linked to a controversial figure – “‘Deep Throat’ is an alumnus, and no one is more controversial than that,” Trachtenberg said.
“I’m no expert, but my feeling is that all religions all require a person to make a leap of faith, and if you’re capable of making that leap of faith, you can be a Mormon, a Jew a Catholic, a Muslim, a Buddhist or I suppose a Scientologist,” Trachtenberg said. “I like my religions to be at least 1,000 years old, though.”