kw: book reviews, nonfiction, cults, escapees
I really wish this book were fiction: Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill. I really wish it were fiction, but it is not. Born into a Scientology family, at age six or seven Jenna was separated from her parents so they could—"for the greater good of humanity"—work a grueling schedule on church staff. Her parents were trusted with great responsibility, at least in part because her father is the older brother of David Miscavige, the leader of all of Scientology since the death of L. Ron Hubbard in 1986.
For the first eight years or so, she thought she was living a normal life, though she didn't like it much. She was one of a couple hundred kids who were raised at The Ranch in the California desert. A small contingent of adults managed the older kids, who supervised the younger ones, and all (except the adults) quite literally slaved to clean up the rundown buildings and landscape the grounds. As one of the youngest, Jenna could do little hard physical labor, so she became a kind of medic (with some sort of 3-letter-acronym title) to the rest. She cleaned and bandaged scrapes and cuts, dispensed aspirin and other medicines. While her parents were stationed comparatively nearby in Hemet, California, she saw them one or two times per month. Later, her mother was sent to Florida ("Flag", the headquarters of Sea Org, the training center for the most dedicated staff). Her father was busier and busier, and some years she saw them no more than once, usually at Christmas. The long separation led to marital troubles, and her mother had an affair, which landed her in RPF, the Scientology prison camp for Sea Org sinners. Not long after her parents were reunited, they left Scientology, and were "declared" SP's or Suppressive Persons. Think of Excommunication on steroids. Offered a chance to leave with them, Jenna declined. Jenna was 16. She and they had no contact for at least a couple of years.
Did you ever hear the proverb about the fly living in a vinegar bottle? Never tasted sugar, and doesn't know it exists. Such is the ingrown world of a powerful cult. Although Jenna had begun to realize she didn't have to doubt herself all the time, it took her another 8 years to get to the point that she felt she had to leave. By this time, she was married, and she and her husband tried to go through the church-accepted "exit" procedure because he didn't want them to be "declared" and thus lose contact with his relatives. The process was so grueling and invasive, she eventually refused to continue, and after much sturm und drang, now with her husband's full support, the two of them fled.
Reading the book, I wonder how she retained her sanity. Her experiences were an exercise in systematic production of insanity, from which she gradually, miraculously, recovered. The Scientology mind control system was carefully thought out and finely honed by Hubbard, who by 1950 had already become very rich from writing science fiction. In SF circles, he was a World Builder, capable of imagining a complete and consistent world, and rendering it in a narrative that draws the reader into its imaginary milieu. Dianetics and the books and lectures that followed as he built the "church" of Scientology became Hubbard's tour de force of world building, a consistent all-encompassing system of mind control that, had he known about it, Mao Zedong would have co-opted.
I've observed Scientology, mostly from a distance, for over 45 years. I was in my late teens when I read parts of Dianetics. I didn't read it all, because it was all hype with asserted "proofs" but nothing a fellow could substantiate. I had my first direct contact with Scientology in 1968, when someone at work invited me to a lecture. There was some kind of illustration, with about 8 items arrayed up a ladder, with a Buddha-like figure at the top. After a short introduction, most of the "lecture" consisted of an explanation of each of the 8 points (such as "Group Survival", a couple of steps above a more self-oriented point), then asking in the audience for a show of hands, who "understands" the point. After that, asking for another show of hands, who believed they had "internalized" the point. I don't recall what the last point is, something about wholeness and all of humanity, but I still had my hand up. The moderator directed a quizzical look my way. I said, "I am a Christian. When someone becomes a child of God, that comes as a gift. It is where we start, and we go onward from there." I noted shock, followed by rather murderous looks on a few faces, so I stood and slipped out of there. To my relief, the fellow at work didn't contact me after that.
Unbeknownst to me, a few years later a close relative I'll call Jason became involved with Scientology and began "auditing". I don't know how he paid for it, because auditing is expensive. It is a 1-on-1 process with an auditor and an "E-Meter", a klutzy kind of lie detector (a sensitive resistivity meter attached to a pair of soup cans you hold in your hands). The auditor questions a subject, watching the needle of the meter, and helps them get rid of "engrams" (this is a real psychological term, but isn't closely related to the way Scientologists use the term). The goal is to get rid of all engrams and become "clear". In about 1970 it was reported that getting "clear" cost about $10,000. If auditing costs have risen at the same rate as a loaf of bread, the cost today is about $60,000. Of course, if getting everyone "clear" were the only goal, things would stop there. But there are 8 steps of something called "OT" (for Operating Thetan) after that, at absurdly high cost. People who are having a hard time paying for all this are offered staff positions. Scientology staff members (Jason was one for a number of years) work on projects and get free room and board plus a bit of money (it was $15 per month in the 1970s) in return for free auditing.
Nobody is perfect, so new problems that arise in people's lives need to be cleared with further auditing. Auditing for staff is more arduous, and is actually a kind of brainwashing torture. Someone who gets to their wits' end and acts out beyond some limit can get RPF time. Jason was in RPF for a while, perhaps close to the average "sentence" of 2 years. Later, his father helped him pay some hoked-up debt he had, and got free of Scientology for a while. Today, nearing age 60, he runs a small business, but has on-and-off business relationships with members of Scientology. I suppose he is a "public Scientologist" now, the kind that pays for any auditing and other services he receives. He certainly makes more than $15 a month! We talk from time to time, but nothing about Scientology any more. He is still under their spell of unrelenting positivity about everything to do with Scientology. He may have private dissenting thoughts, but you'd never know it.
Read the book. You'll see for yourself how terrifyingly thorough their brainwashing techniques are. The ideal Scientologist is a perfect psychopath. Able to totally fool a lie detector, because he or she is in total control of all emotions, including familial ones. Family can be discarded (as Jenna was) to further the mission. Everything, but Everything is subservient to the goals of the organization. Power over lesser staff is exercised pitilessly and thoroughly. Jason is the only member of my extended family who has had daily acquaintance with handguns (outside the military)...or needed to. A cadre of Scientology operatives are the only group that ever raided an FBI office (to destroy documents about Scientology) and got away with it. Jenna M. Hill was one of the lucky ones, someone who cannot be manufactured into a psychopath. Someone with a conscience.