“What happened to your second wife?” an interviewer once asked Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
He was referring to Sara Northrup, the woman who’d been at Hubbard’s side while he developed Dianetics and who later divorced him in a messy, public scandal. The whole world had watched their divorce fill the headlines of every paper. But still, when the question came, Hubbard just smirked and told the interviewer: “I’d never had a second wife.”
It’s an incredibly brazen lie—and a sign of just how much damage Sara Northrup could do to him. Her life is a story that the Church of Scientology is still trying to cover up because the amount of suffering she endured at Hubbard’s hands is nothing short of heartbreaking.
Sara Northrup’s life was difficult from the start. When she met Hubbard, she was living at the home of physicist and occultist Jack Parsons. Both she and Hubbard were members of Aleister Crowley’s sex magick cult.
Northrup’s life was already filled with sexual abuse. She’d been molested by her father from a young age, a trauma that likely explains why she was already sleeping with Jack Parsons by age 13. However, he wasn’t just twice her age, he was her sister’s husband.
When Hubbard showed up, he must have seemed like a savior. Granted, he was every bit as strange as Parsons was. In fact, the two worked together to summon a Babylonian goddess, believing they could bring her to life by chanting, dabbing runes with animal blood, and masturbating on magical tablets.
But Hubbard was a war hero, injured in battle, or so he claimed. He won Northrup over by spinning stories about his heroism that most of the cult members wrote off as “tall tales.” But the young Northrup bought into them completely.
“I believed everything he said,” Northrup later said. “It just never occurred to me he was a liar.”
Jack Parsons believed in free love. Bound by his own principles, he couldn’t do a thing but watch as his new friend, L. Ron Hubbard, started sleeping with his girlfriend, Sara Northrup. Parsons had to pretend to be okay with every bit of it.
Other lodgers at his house, though, could tell just how angry it made him. “There [Hubbard] was, living off Parsons’s largesse and making out with his girlfriend right in front of him,” one would later recall. “The hostility was almost tangible.”
Still, when Hubbard proposed that the two start a business together, Jack Parsons readily agreed to give him $20,000 to get things off the ground. Perhaps he just wanted to keep up appearances and pretend like it didn’t bother him. Either way, he was the only one who was surprised when Hubbard and Northrup took off to Florida with the $20,000 and a brand-new yacht, bought with Parsons’s money.
“He has given away both his girl and his money,” Karl Germer, one of Parsons’s friends, reported in a letter to Aleister Crowley. “It is the ordinary confidence trick.”
Parsons tried to sue them but quickly dropped the case. He accepted a few dollars of payment and, in exchange, let Hubbard and Northrup keep the yacht. It was a bad deal for Parsons, but he didn’t have much choice. If he didn’t comply, he was warned, Hubbard and Northrup would let the world know that Parsons had had sex with Northrup when she was 13.
Sara Northrup married L. Ron Hubbard because he threatened to kill himself. He’d asked her multiple times already, but she had refused every time until he made it clear: If she said no, his death would be on her conscience forever.
What Hubbard hadn’t told her, though, was that he was already married. Thirteen years earlier in 1933, he’d married Polly Grubb. She was the mother of his two children, and in exchange, Hubbard had taken off to New York to cheat on her with other women.
At this point, the two were so estranged that they hadn’t seen each other in about two years. But they were still married at Hubbard’s insistence. Polly had repeatedly asked for a divorce, but he kept turning her down.
Hubbard only agreed to a divorce after he’d been married to Sara for a good year and a half. But he still kept his marriage to Polly a secret. Instead, he took Sara with him to Polly’s house without explaining a thing, which forced her to try to figure out why these people were so hostile toward her.
It was his son, L. Ron Jr., who told her. Sara was devastated. She rushed out of the house crying and tried to get onto the next ferry that would take her as far away from Hubbard as possible.
In the end, she didn’t leave. Her new husband begged and pleaded until she stayed.
L. Ron Hubbard started beating his wife during summer 1946. It began when Sara’s father died. Despite her complicated feelings toward the man, Sara was overwhelmed with grief and sadness.
To Hubbard, her sadness was nothing more than an annoyance. When she cried, he would beat and strangle her into silence, complaining that she’d distracted him from his work.
Hubbard was losing his mind. He wrote a letter to Veteran Affairs (VA), begging them to help him pay for psychiatric treatment. But the VA never responded, and Hubbard got increasingly worse.
One morning, he woke up his wife by pistol-whipping her across the face. She’d been smiling in her sleep, he told her, and he was sure it was because she was thinking of someone else. Northrup fled into the night, nearly escaping her abusive husband again. But once more, she came back.
She felt sorry for him because she knew he was losing his mind. She later said, “I kept thinking that he must be suffering or he wouldn’t act that way.”
Staying only made it worse. By the time Northrup really did file for divorce, she’d gone through what the divorce proceedings described as “repeated” and “systematic torture.” He strangled her regularly. He threw her out of a moving car. He once kept her awake for four days straight and then tried to force her to overdose on sleeping pills.
Some of those scars would never heal. On Christmas 1950, Hubbard broke into such a rage that he deliberately ruptured her left eardrum. Her hearing would be impaired for the rest of her life.
None of those beatings, though, could compare to what he tried to do to her when she got pregnant.
One night, after Hubbard had gone into one his mad rages, he threw his pregnant wife onto the ground. They would not bring a child into this world, he had decided, and he would make sure of it. L. Ron Hubbard tried to make his wife miscarry by repeatedly stomping on her stomach.
By some strange miracle, the child survived. But this was hardly the first time that Hubbard had tried to beat an unborn baby to death.
His eldest son, L. Ron Hubbard Jr., claims that, as a child, he had caught his father standing over his mother with a coat hanger in his hand. And Hubbard Jr. says that his own birth, nearly three months premature, was the result of a failed late-term abortion:
“I wasn’t born. This is what came out as a result of their attempt to abort me.”
Hubbard admitted to some of the abortions himself. In his private memoir, he wrote that he and Polly’s marriage had resulted in “five abortions and two children.”
As Dianetics started to take off and Hubbard became worth a small fortune, his eye started to wander. As he’d done with his first wife, Hubbard started to cheat on Sara with a young woman: Barbara Klowden, his 20-year-old PR assistant.
Sara didn’t take it lying down. After Hubbard forced her to go on a double date with Klowden, Sara started a revenge affair with one of his employees, Miles Hollister.
But nobody could bite back as hard as L. Ron Hubbard. He wrote the FBI a letter reporting his wife and her lover as “active and dangerous” Communists, calling Hollister “outspokenly disloyal to the US.”
J. Edgar Hoover actually answered Hubbard’s letter and invited him to meet with an FBI agent—which Hubbard did. He told them that Hollister had brainwashed his wife and driven her insane. Then Hubbard went into a mad rant about how Dianetics could bring an end to communism and how people said he was crazy but he definitely wasn’t.
The agent nodded politely, quietly making a little note in his book that just read: “Mental case.”
They never tried to bring in Northrup or Hollister. Perhaps, in part, it was because this was hardly the first time that Hubbard had tried to turn someone in. The FBI’s dossiers were full of letters from L. Ron Hubbard, reporting every German person he saw as an undercover Nazi and a “menace to the state.”
In their own ways, Hubbard and Northrup tried to make the marriage work. Northrup went to a psychiatrist and tried to convince Hubbard to get treatment for the paranoid schizophrenia that was destroying his life. But he wouldn’t listen.
Hubbard told her that she was in league with devils. Then he put two of his men, Richard de Mille and Dave Williams, to work at brainwashing her. As John Sanborne, one of Hubbard’s former confidants, recalls:
“He made this stupid attempt to get Northrup brainwashed so she’d do what he said. He kept her sitting up in a chair, denying her sleep, trying to use Black Dianetic principles on her, repeating over and over again whatever he wanted her to do. Things like, ‘Be his wife, have a family that looks good, not have a divorce.’ ”
It didn’t work. Northrup still wanted a divorce. In the end, Hubbard told her that he didn’t want to be with her, either. He was just worried about his reputation. There was only way out.
“If you really love me,” Hubbard told her, “you should kill yourself.”
In November 1950, Sara Northrup tried to do just that. While L. Ron Hubbard was out, she downed a bottle of sleeping pills and lay down, hoping never to wake up again.
It didn’t work. She woke up alive in a hospital bed, registered under a fake name.
It was 1:00 AM on February 24, 1951, when L. Ron Hubbard and two of his friends dragged Sara Northrup out of her bed, still dressed in her nightgown. Hubbard had taken her baby. “We have Alexis,” Hubbard told her, “and you’ll never see her alive unless you come with us.”
They threw Sara into the back of a car and drove her to Yuma, Arizona. Not long after, Hubbard had a change of heart. He kicked her out, forced her to go back home, and kept the baby with him.
She tried begging Hubbard to give her back the baby, but Hubbard refused time and time again. Then, out of the blue, he called her and told her the worst thing imaginable: Alexis was dead, and he had killed her.
“He had cut her into little pieces,” Sara says he told her, “and dropped the pieces in a river and that he had seen little arms and legs floating down the river and it was my fault. I’d done it because I’d left him.”
Hubbard was lying. But Sara must have felt unimaginable pain when he said it. A little while later, he sent her a letter. He admitted that Alexis was alive and tried to blackmail Sara into giving him full custody.
“My will is all changed. Alexis will get a fortune,” he wrote, “unless she goes to you as she would then get nothing.”
He signed his blackmail note: “Goodbye. I love you. Ron.”
Sara publicized everything on the advice of a lawyer, who told her that she couldn’t keep all of this a secret any longer. “Tell the truth,” he told her, “for the truth will bring back [your] baby, if alive.”
She filed for divorce, and the papers became filled with horror stories about the man who had tortured her and taken her baby. Yes, she’d put it off too long. But now, it was clear that there was no other way to ever see her child again.
Polly Hubbard, Ron’s first wife, contacted Sara for the first time after reading about the divorce. Every word written by Sara was terrifyingly familiar to Hubbard’s first wife. Polly wrote Sara a letter of complete support:
“If I can help in any way, I’d like to. You must get Alexis in your custody. Ron is not normal. I had hoped that you could straighten him out. Your charges sound fantastic to the average person. But I’ve been through it—the beatings, threats on my life, all the sadistic traits you charge—twelve years of it.”
“Please do believe,” she wrote. “I do so want to help you get Alexis.”
In June 1951, Sara Northrup got to see her baby again. For months, Hubbard had been hiding their child in Cuba, but now they were back in Wichita. Ron was willing to talk.
He’d completely given into his paranoid delusions. There was no sense of reality for him. Sara had no choice but to play along. In her words:
“He told me that I was under the influence of this communist cell. And that they were dictating to me what to do, and that I was in a state of complete madness. I told him, ‘Yep, I think you’re right. The only thing I can do is to work through it and do whatever they say.’ ”
He made her sign a paper absolving him of all blame. It was the only way that he would give her back her child.
“The things I have said about L. Ron Hubbard in courts and the public prints have been grossly exaggerated or entirely false,” the paper said. “L. Ron Hubbard is a fine and brilliant man.” That was what he cared about—not his child and not his wife, just his reputation.
But all Sara cared about was getting her child back. She signed the papers, and in exchange, he drove her and Alexis to the airport.
Hubbard stopped the car a few feet away from the airfield. He’d had a last-second change of heart. Shaking his head, he told her: “I’m not going to let you go.”
Sara clutched her child, got out of the car, and ran. She left her suitcase and all her things behind. Alexis’s shoe fell off, but Sara didn’t stop. She just kept running toward the airplane, toward freedom, with her child in her arms for the first time in four months.
“It was the 19th of June,” Sara later said, “and it was the happiest day of my life.”