Monday, November 19, 2012


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.

54 Comments / Post A Comment


these have all been so informative, interesting, and exceptionally well-written. thank you for sharing.


you are my new favourite person@n

the little c

Before I even read this: I saw the fourth post when it accidentally went up and read some of it. I confess! I'm sorry, Hairpin!


@the little c OHHHHH, that's what happened! I was confused because I read it at noon, came back just now and got all excited that there were two in one day. They're all awesome, it doesn't even matter when/how they turn up ;)


@the little c I think you just resolved your "overt." Or something.

Judith Slutler

@the little c Aha! I was so confused.

Edith Zimmerman

@the little c I know, I'm sorry! That was completely my fault (I am an idiot).

the little c

@Edith Zimmerman
Don't feel bad! It was like getting to look into the future!


These are uniformly excellent. I don't know what privacy issues would come into play, but have you thought about writing a book?

Stella Forstner

@Kristen I hadn't thought of it until some lovely commenters like you suggested it! Honestly I think this series says pretty much all I have to say on the subject but the encouragement is wonderful. I'll certainly think about it. Thank you!


This is an absolutely wonderful series. So informative and empathetic. And your mom is a complete and utter boss. The "fair game" tactics, the harassment, the abuse of members of their own organization? Horrifying. More power to her for having the courage and strength to strike out on her own.


@area@twitter I thought that the whole way through this as well: what am amazing lady!

Also, it's so creepy that the church basically stalked your family because they left. What incriminating evidence did they think they'd find in your trash?


@area@twitter yes. thanks for sharing. your mom is totally badass.

Stella Forstner

@area@twitter Thank you! My mom has been reading the comments too and we've both been delighted by all the kind words.

Stella Forstner

@SarahP They would have been looking for either evidence that she was continuing to use church techniques (which may have prompted legal action), or anything salacious they could threaten her with in order to keep her from criticizing the church publicly.


@Stella Forstner Harassment was in response to actual, stated Scientology directives which they call Policies. One states something along the lines of "Whenever attacked, don't defend: find, or manufacture (yep) something on the enemy and attack back. It is deeply engrained in Scientologists that the ONLY reason someone attacks Scientology is that they are destructive, evil people and/or psychiatrists, so they fully expect that they will find all kinds of damning evidence in your trash. Being labeled as an enemy can be for something as simple as just leaving the organization, and telling someone why. Harassment is also an intimidation technique, as many former members don't want the embarassment of going around to all the neighbors and explaining why there is a PI asking about them. Fortunately, my neighbors all liked me, and it really backfired on Scientology, as they thought "those people must be nuts."


Your mom sounds like an amazing woman. And these are great to read - beyond subject matter you are an excellent writer.


I love this series. Could have kept reading for days! And I can only imagine how strangely exciting it was to be legitimately spied on as a child, and how absolutely irritating and terrifying that may have been for a young mother.


@HeyThatsMyBike I thought that detail was great as well--obviously from an adult perspective that is terrible, but as a child I definitely would have reacted that way.


@HeyThatsMyBike it amazes me that the Scientologists have resources to spy on ex-members. The Catholic church, which (prior to the pedophile scandals, at least) I always thought of as insanely wealthy doesn't bother with that crap. At least, I don't think they've ever speid on me.


@themegnapkin spied, not speid, sorry.

Stella Forstner

@themegnapkin They have enormous resources, especially given how small the organization is compared to something like the Catholic church (estimates usually hover around 40,000 active members). I've read credible reports that the church has reserves of more than a billion dollars.


@Stella Forstner thanks, for this and also for your comment down-thread that Scientology members are asked to spy on those who stray. That makes a lot more sense than what I was imagining, i.e., P.I.s in fedoras and trench coats.


This is such a great series!
My dad would never say a word if my mum answered the phone either. Really pissed me off.

Pocket Witch

Your mother sounds awesome. I admire her.


*Foucauldian. Theory junkie and spelling nerd, whattup.


At our house, we play a game of guessing how many pages of thesis it will take for that word to show up!

Miss Maszkerádi



@Countess Maritza Haha, this killed me too!

Stella Forstner

@Countess Maritza Isn't it random? I've always been struck by how Scientology typically uses incredibly harsh terms like "suppressive person" or "degraded being" to describe its enemies but "squirrels" seems totally random. I'll have to see if I can get my mom in on the comments to explain where it comes from.


@Stella Forstner Hubbard was always adamant that his "tech" not be improved, altered, adapted, etc., maintaining that only "standard tech." gets results. This is so contrary to the evolution of scientific knowledge, that it astounds me that we all bought into it as long as we did. But then, most Scientologists weren't exactly trained in scientific inquiry! Anyway, as it turns out, this is also a very effective way to create a cult, as it eventually turns the founder's writings into "religious dogma" that cannot be questioned. "Squirreling" is made up verb to describe messing around with something. In the early days, practitioners of Dianetics would get creative with the techniques, and it would be roundly criticized, as not "Standard Tech." To a degree, this is sensible; When you are teaching something, you want the trainees to really understand and not pull off some goofy move, especially if you are dealing with someone's pysche. But this morphed, over the years, to an absolute refusal to accept any evolution of technique, other than that mandated by Hubbard, and one could not criticize, at all. So those who leave the group, and maintain that some aspects of Scientology are fine, whereas others are absolute idiocy, are "Squirrels."

Stella Forstner

@mammamia Thanks mom! :)


this series continues to be wonderful. :)


The only thing I dislike about this series is that it is not longer. And also that it is not in a book format. Seriously, I could read about this for days.


I'm so impressed by this author. The subject matter interests me well enough, but it's really her writing that keeps me coming back. It's so personal and thorough -- basically, please write a book. About anything. I will read it. And buy it for my friends, probably.


@chnellociraptor Yes, I find Scientology pretty fascinating, but these pieces have been exceptionally well done independent of the inherently interesting subject matter.


I just want to echo these comments. I love the writing in this series and hope to read more from this author, no matter the name attached!

Stella Forstner

@chnellociraptor Thank you so much! I'm trying to finish a dissertation right now but I'll definitely consider writing more here in the future.


@Stella Forstner If you need readers for your dissertation, you know where to look!!

Stella Forstner

@HeyThatsMyBike You're marvelously kind but if you knew what my dissertation was about (you'll get a hint of it in part 5) you might not be so generous...


Who are the spies, other than the professional PIs? Were they people your mother knew personally? When she was active, had she ever been asked to spy like that?


@whateverlolawants Think of the Scientology "spies" as parishoners doing their duty --that's how they see it. They are protecting their "church" by finding out who, amongst the flock, are straying. If someone would have asked me to do that when I was involved, I would have found some way to blow them off, but often staff members and even non-staff members, are too cowed or too enmeshed in the beliefs to question. In the articles, she has touched on the way linguistics (the nomenclature, the specialized way of communicating about things) helps the cult isolate it's members. It is quite powerful, and for someone who isn't really a very independent thinker in the first place, it's easy to slip into the abyss.

Stella Forstner

@whateverlolawants Many of the spies were indeed ordinary Scientologists that my mother knew personally. I don't think she was ever asked to engage in similar actions when she was active, mostly because they knew she wouldn't take part. There are loads of bizarre videos of "squirrel busters" on youtube harassing Marty Rathbun, a recent defector. It may be an extreme case but it gives a sense of the intensity of the attacks.


@Stella Forstner The Scientology spy network reminds me in many ways of Stalinist Russia, with the important distinction that those being spied on were "just" harassed, rather than arrested and sent to the gulag. But it's interesting...and runs counter to much of the more positive, self-actualizing parts of the thinking you described in parts 1 and 2.

(This whole series is terrific, thanks for sharing!)


@Bittersweet Yes, and any other fascist type govt or organization that derives it's power from controlling people's every action,....and thought. When I was thinking of leaving back in 1986, there was a current "auditing" process that was very much in vogue - not sure if it still is. The basic idea was to "clear" bad thoughts. This could be something that is holding a person back, such as thinking "I am stupid." But the process was more often used to locate the genesis of negative thoughts about Scientology. The process went like this: You would make a statement that needed to be "cleared" such as "Scientology costs too much." The auditor would then ask "Where did this idea come from?" and it would get traced back to somebody who "told you." They would never accept "I just thought it," or "I concluded that after seeing someone spend $100,000 in two years." In other words, you cannot have an original thought - someone had to plant it in you. Truly dis-empowering for the individual, and protects the organization from disagreements. Another upside was that they now had names of people spreading what they considered falsehoods about Scientology, and these would be reported to the Ethics branch

White Rabbit

@mammamia Was that perhaps a form of what's called "Sec Checking," or Security Checking? This is currently standard practice for anyone who wants to leave staff. They even make the leaving staff member pay for it, which can be rather expensive, creating yet another barrier to leaving. My understanding is that if you leave WITHOUT completing a Sec Check, you're automatically declared a Suppressive Person - so, basically, it's also a form of extortion.

I had a version of this done to me when I originated, er, (I'm slipping back into Scientolog-ese) told them that I wanted to leave the Sea Org. I was immediately taken to the Ethics Officer, put on an e-meter, and about 6-8 people stood over me and glared at me as the auditor practically barked questions at me (so much for anything resembling Standard Tech, sheesh!!), essentially demanding to know what horrible overt (er, transgression; Stella explained this concept really well) I had committed that made me want to leave. Explaining that working 12+ hours a day, 7 days a week, for about $18/week, with zero privacy, and being yelled at constantly, etc, etc, wasn't what I had signed up for, they flat out refused to accept that and kept demanding that I 'fess up. It was HORRIBLE. I eventually broke down in tears, but they kept yelling and pressing. UGH. The obvious goal was to get me to change my mind and decide to stay, and they were NOT happy that that wasn't happening.

Thankfully I eventually found a way to wiggle out of the Sea Org, but it took several weeks* of similar ethics actions, and I had to accept a huge hit to my pride (for any Scientologist's reading -- I deliberately avoided finishing my Staff Status II, and my incredibly mean supervisor wrote a gnarly Fitness Board declaration stating that I was incompetent).

*Imagine quitting a job - one where you just happen to live on-site - and being held hostage for over six weeks while they apply immense pressure on you to stay. Yeah.


@White Rabbit Wow, kudos to you for persisting and making it out. I was not Sea Org, but literally tiptoed past the Flag Land Base chaplain (back turned to me, typing, thankfully) with my 2 year old son on one hip and my suitcase balanced on the other, called a taxi and did what they call "a blow" leaving without authorization.
I thusly avoided the Sec Check, and I am disappointed to hear that this "style of sec checking" (gang bang sec checking) is still prevalent, many years later.
The process I was referring to was called "False Data Stripping." In some ways it is more insidious than asking for misdeeds, as it is looking for "bad thoughts" and then tracing those back to other persons (who could be your friend, spouse or coworker) who influenced you. Then they can go after them, to "correct their thinking." The overarching assumption being that if you have disagreements, you have false data, and that can be "cleared."

Jens Tingleff

Well, this is turning into a fascinating read (and well written too :) ). So much better in whole than the small snippet repeated elsewhere to which I replied in a confrontational fashion...

So, please, can I have some more ?


@Jens Tingleff There will be more! There's definitely a part 4, and I think there might be 5 and maybe 6? I hope so, because I never really want this series to end.

Stella Forstner

@area@twitter Ah, I'm blushing! There are six parts in total and you'll get them soon. I'm just so glad people like this -- I've been feeling guilty for dominating the pin for the past few weeks!


I am always searching online for articles that can help me. There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also. Keep working, great job! dog fence collar


I deliberately avoided finishing my Staff Status II, and my incredibly mean supervisor wrote a gnarly Fitness Board declaration stating that mountain house

Shahzaib Soomrow@facebook

I have recently started a web site, the info you offer on this web site has helped me greatly. Thanks for all of your time & work.
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