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Scientology and Me, Part Three: Leaving the Church

Previously: Parts One and Two.

It’s not something I put on my CV but it’s true: I have a top-notch Scientology pedigree. My paternal grandparents got into Dianetics in the early ’50s; I’ve read notes from meetings they hosted in their affluent Midwestern suburb to discuss the “new mental science” and audit one another. They were early adopters, to be sure, but from the notes their meetings sound more like a book club gatherings than outposts of a burgeoning cult. My grandfather discovered Dianetics via articles in Astounding Science Fiction, a magazine whose editor was friendly with L. Ron Hubbard and for a time a strong proponent of his ideas.

Introduced to Dianetics precepts as a young boy, my father returned to the Church of Scientology as a young man, well after his parents had lost interest. Scarred and shaken by the excesses of the 1960s but still a believer in the ideas about human potential that he’d taken from that era, my father found a guiding life philosophy in the church. When he met my mother at a Scientology event, she was 17 and escaping a terrible home life. Both had their own demons to conquer, and the church, which offered scientific techniques for unlocking the power of the mind, appealed to them, as did the idea that the principles of Dianetics could make the world a better place.

Married young, my parents divorced in 1979, two years after I was born. My mother rose rapidly through the ranks of Scientology, reaching OT 7 and becoming a high-level auditor, training at the Flag Land Base in Clearwater Florida when I was a toddler. In a series of pictures taken at Disney World in 1980 or so, I’m being strolled in tandem with one of L. Ron Hubbard’s grandchildren, a pink-cheeked, red-headed girl who kept her bonnet on much longer than I did that day.

Born and raised in the Midwest, my mother then packed up and drove across the country with me for a job at a growing mission in Seattle. While she found the work of helping people rewarding, over the years her concerns about the organization grew, in part because changes in the church’s franchise system pushed recruitment and stats and made the atmosphere of the mission oppressive. My mother, unlike my father, was never a true believer, never a doctrinal purist. While she was on course at Flag she was also part of a group of friends who, playfully mocking Hubbard’s maxim that 95% of people are basically good, called themselves the “basically evil club.” My mother was innately suspicious of anyone so serious about things that they couldn’t take a joke, and she could get away with being a little irreverent because she was such an effective auditor, someone who could get results even on the toughest cases.

But she was never invulnerable, particularly not at that specific time in the church’s history. In 1982, according to Janet Reitman’s excellent book Inside Scientology, a young David Miscavige (the church’s current leader), announced that independent missions like the one where my mother worked would come under the control of a new entity, the Religious Technology Center. This undermined the missions’ power and earning potential; they could still offer courses and auditing, but they were now also required to send a quota of their clientele to the local org. The mission where my mother worked was taken over by a new head who put enormous pressure on employees to maintain and increase ‘stats’ — numbers of people who came into the church — who signed up for courses or auditing, and who experienced ‘wins’ (identifying and eliminating engrams, as I discussed in part two) in their sessions. There was even pressure on the poorly paid staff to keep Dianetics on best-seller lists: When new editions were released, employees were expected to buy multiple copies. When stats were down, or not growing at the rate the center had set, someone had to take the blame, and someone always did — which is what my mother referred to as “head-on-a-pike syndrome.” 

To understand how this played out, you must first understand Scientologist notions of ‘ethics,’ in both the traditional sense of conduct and moral principles, and the Foulcauldian sense of institutional surveillance (shout-out to all you theory junkies). Scientologists believe that if you err in something, whether by acting against a moral code through stealing or cheating, or simply showing up late for work, it is the result of an ‘overt’: a failure to be honest. If you have overts against individuals or (ahem) organizations and admit to them, typically by writing them up and submitting them to the church, you are taking responsibility for your mistake, and any problems will cease (you will show up on time and stop stealing). But if you do not confess, you will instead find fault in the person or thing you have harmed to justify your bad behavior, and such behavior will continue. These beliefs create perverse incentives — if something is wrong, you should look at everyone around that thing, but not necessarily the thing itself. In the case of my mother’s experience, the source of the ‘problem’ of insufficient stats was found not in too-high goals or increasing public suspicion of Scientology, but in individuals who were assumed to be ‘out-of-ethics.’

This is where it gets really perverse: That idea — that blame must be located within someone — justified an invasive surveillance regime, adopted by both church leaders and staff members, who were encouraged to keep tabs on one another and report any questionable behavior. If you wanted to avoid being the ‘head-on-a-pike,’ you did your best to find someone else to put up on that pike. Scientology missions and orgs maintain huge quantities of ‘ethics files’ on all members, consisting of the member’s own detailed overts and ‘knowledge reports’ written by other Scientologists who believed they’d witnessed out-of-ethics behavior (meaning they basically have your diary AND reports on you by everyone you know). The atmosphere of paranoia and mutual distrust that this system fostered made the mission an increasingly unpleasant place to work, and by the time of Hubbard’s death in 1986 my mother was thinking about leaving. I have dim but deeply etched memories of driving home at night with her, pleased to be in the front seat and to be a confidant in a thoroughly adult matter, listening to her explain some of the complicated institutional politics and psychological dynamics at play in the mission and telling me what it might mean to leave.

According to Reitman’s book, Miscavige’s overhaul of the church franchise system was the impetus for thousands of departures in the mid-’80s, and a few of those were from our mission. It was convenient in a way, because whenever anyone left, they were the new head-on-a-pike for a time, and no one else needed to suffer. Anyone who left the church was typically ‘declared’ a ‘suppressive person’ or ‘SP’ (an enemy of the church and one of the 5% of humans not ‘basically good’) shortly thereafter, and all church members were required to cease contact with them immediately, or suffer the consequences. [A note: ‘Severe’ ethics violations were punished in severe ways within the church, from requirements to take costly ethics courses to being forced to endure physical labor or abuse. Plentiful evidence of these punishments has been detailed in Reitman’s book and elsewhere.] My mother, however, refused to respect these restrictions to the letter. She did not believe that her personal growth or effectiveness as an auditor were compromised by maintaining friendships with ex-Scientologists, called ‘squirrels,’ and secretly stayed in touch with friends who had been ‘declared’ while still in the church.

I don’t specifically remember hearing my mother talk at the time about what she now describes as the straw that broke the camel’s back: the knowledge report written about how I had been seen frolicking at a playground with the son of a recent defector from the church. My mother was angry about herself being subjected to accusation of ethics violations, but she was furious that anyone would attack her child, and she knew that it was time to go. I remember knowing we were going to leave and knowing that my mother was writing ‘the letter’ to church officials that stated she was leaving and gave her reasons for doing so. For a time we waited on whether there would be an official declaration of her status as an SP, which I remember wanting, perversely, as some kind of prize, but also feared as I understood it could make things very complicated with my father.

The church doesn’t take departures well, especially of those who have attained higher levels, and the harassment began before we officially left. We were invited one afternoon to a barbecue at the home of my mother’s friend Jody, the ex-Scientologist whose son Jason had been the source of my playground-based ethics violation. Although she was planning our departure, by that point it wasn’t yet official, and my mother wasn’t publicizing her connection to squirrels. But someone had been tipped off, and before we left for the party Jody called our house to tell my mother that two church members were parked in front of her house in a sedan, waiting to see if we showed up so they could report back. This only encouraged my mother, who parked a block behind the house, where a ladder had been placed on one side of the fence so we could climb up and over to the cheers of the assembled guests. My friend Jason and I were delighted that spies were involved in our lives in any capacity, and immediately began our own espionage, observing them first cautiously from the living room window and later posting ourselves on opposite sides of the house, using Jason’s walkie-talkies to relay such vital messages as “they have some food — I think it’s from Burger King.”

Once we made an official break, the harassment geared up and did not stop for nearly eight years. Professional private investigators visited our neighbors to ask questions about us, went through our trash, and left accusatory or threatening messages on our answering machine. While I knew it upset and embarrassed my mother, I also felt strangely proud that we were so important (and dangerous!) that we had PIs on our tail. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how stressful and difficult this must have been for her, when she was simply trying to rebuild her life. The worst part was the very real threat of litigation. These days, Scientology is openly discussed and criticized in the media and on hundreds of websites and blogs, but 25 years ago only the bravest individuals and media outlets dared speak out against it, for fear of the aggressive ‘fair game’ tactics of the church.

An example: A few years after we left, my mother started volunteering with an organization called Cult Awareness Network (CAN), which supplied information and referred deprogrammers to people concerned their loved ones had fallen into the hands of religious cults. With her background in Scientology counseling and experience both being in and leaving Scientology, my mother made an ideal deprogrammer, able to present alternative views to a person who had closed themselves off to such views. But some of these people didn’t appreciate her experience, and when a Pentecostalist named Jason Scott sued CAN for violation of his civil rights, the Church of Scientology — which had nothing to do with the case but saw CAN as an enemy — encouraged the suit and footed the bill for litigation. The church, in a bit of magisterial irony, purchased CAN assets from bankruptcy court and to this day continues to own and operate the Cult Awareness Network.

When my mother left Scientology, she was in her early 30s, with two children and little work experience. Although she was a skilled counselor, she had no official training outside of the church — and yet after she left, many of her former clients wanted to continue seeing her. Somehow the church got word of this and for months after her departure our phone was deluged with calls from the church threatening to sue her for using church technology and practicing therapy without a license. She had good reason to believe these threats weren’t made idly and knew she would have to start fresh with something new. Eventually she went back to school to finish the degree she’d started 15 years earlier, and went on to build her own business and achieve great professional success — on brains, courage, and little else.

I know my mother was concerned that her leaving the church would affect my relationship with my father, and that she knew it wouldn’t help her already difficult relationship with him. At a certain point, particularly after he married another ardent Scientologist, my father refused to speak to her at all; if he called and my mother answered, he would be silent on the line until, after angrily telling him to grow the hell up, she would call me in to take the phone. There were plenty of tensions in my relationship with my father, but like so many other children and parents, we mostly avoided the minefields and found different ways to relate. I thought we could keep up this dance indefinitely, but it was not to be.

NEXT: Disconnection.

Stella Forstner is a pseudonym for a Hairpin reader who wishes to protect her family’s anonymity.

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