The Firebrand

By Ella Rous
January 24, 2024

Haven’t you ever wanted to be God?

January 1, 1938: L. Ron Hubbard reacts badly to anesthetic gas and nearly dies during a standard dental procedure. Dangling at the precipice of his life, he sees them: angels in the operating room – angels everywhere.

Brushing his teeth, angels. Standing in the living room, watching the coffee drip into the cup, angels. White, glowing things, coalescing, becoming – his Guardian Angel – his Empress – the winged lady of scarlet braids and white gowns and on each foot, a golden slipper. A higher power, a seductive force of intelligence, a hand on the shoulder. In his “Affirmations,” Hubbard writes (almost as though trying to convince himself): “The most thrilling thing in your life is your love and consciousness of your Guardian.”

L. Ron was troubled before his brush with death, which happened to him at a mere 27 years old. He’d been put through the Navy wringer, made his career launching sci-fi novels that seemed like thinly-veiled plots of his own to overthrow countries, and once mishandled organizing a school trip to the Caribbean so badly that his classmates burned him in effigy. But feeling death’s hot hands on his neck, by his own report, invigorates him and breathes new life into his embattled soul. “I have high hopes of smashing my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form even if all books are destroyed,” he writes to his first wife.

(But first, magic sex rituals.)

The document called “Affirmations” is dated from the years that L. Ron lives in a millionaire occultist friend’s mansion and starts developing magic sex rituals. Hubbard intended to record and play back his Affirmations while deep in the throes of hypnotic stupor, believing that this could be the quick fix for his many, many wounds, emotional and physical.

They range from desperate arguments for the sinlessness of masturbation to the intention to live for 200 years. Some salience – with difficulty – arises from the text. He claims that “This desire to be loved does not amount to a psychosis,” and that “Snakes are not dangerous to you. There are no snakes in the bottom of your bed,” and that “No one there is now ‘out to get you.’”

Persuasive, no?

In the text of the “Affirmations,” a brittle, fraying psyche emerges. His obsession and shame surrounding sex, women, and masturbation, his predilection towards fictitious Navy stories, and his fears about his importance in the face of an uncaring universe come to the fore. Deep inside his mid-30s body, he is a frightened teenager with disturbingly few inhibitions.

It is this frightened teenager that would go on to write “Dianetics,” found the infamous cult of Scientology, and eventually die in hiding in a luxury motorhome on a ranch in California.


Cults are extremophiles: if not foregrounded in the extreme, the cult flails, whimpers, and dies. They must promise spectacular, dizzying heights of purpose-finding of the kind that going to Easter Mass, posting to Instagram, and traveling to Europe cannot compete with. Similar to the evolution of beasts and bacteria that inhabit environments of heat, acid, and ice, so, too, are the earnest and insane inoculated against the heat, acid, and ice of their psychological ecosystems.

There are many strains of cult: doomsday, sexual repression kneels before God, belief in the eventual relocation to godly alien planets. They can be set in Utah or New York City, the New Zealand countryside or Waco, Texas. Any place that writhes with soul-deep starvation is ripe with opportunity – and every place writhes with soul-deep starvation, the kind that leads one to seek more and more meaning from the world, like an addict whose tolerance continues to build.

Though the breed of person that constitutes the cult-leader archetype is as varied as it gets —  faithful to their own insanity, delusional egomaniacs, sharp-eyed grifters — many people labor under the impression that cult leaders are uniquely brilliant, charismatic, and manipulative. If L. Ron’s story tells us anything, it’s that any pulp fiction writer turned Navy veteran can capture the hearts, minds, and bodies of 40,000 people with a single pamphlet that essentially repackages Freud’s psychoanalytic theory wholesale.

In L. Ron’s “Dianetics,” he lays out the mission: dive into your own subconscious, root out the hidden traumas (“engrams”) that accumulate like so many flakes in a snowbank, and address them head on. Once a person had successfully undergone the process, they would become a Clear.

A Clear is unblemished, completed, final. Sated and satiated, they are finally rid of the clinging dust and grit of being with a body, being with a heart, and being with a soul.

(L. Ron also once said that it paid better to create a religion than to write science fiction.)

The psychology of the cult leader is hotly debated, among experts and true crime fanatics alike. What causes them to be… well, like that? Mental illness – insanity – lead among various interpretations. But what of the effects of shame, toxic masculinity, thirst for power, or masturbatory glee? What of the subtleties of our lives: the anger in traffic, the emptiness in the dead of winter?

Was Scientology the work of an insane, troubled genius? Or was it the work of a scared, guilty man, like anyone’s father, like anyone’s husband, who just wanted to be done?

The dark underbelly of human nature is that we have a remarkable power and capacity for self-invention. Any person a few inhibitions short of a good Samaritan can burn the world to the ground and rise from the ashes a prophet (and a widely-ridiculed bastard – but a prophet, nonetheless).

L. Ron Hubbard looked at the shambles of his life, scattered across the sex-ritual-stained rug in the pale glowing light of his Empress, and thought, I would like to be God now.

His Empress said, And God you will become. ■

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