She wrote me after reading Sunday’s column about celebrity Scientologist Tom Cruise and his interview on “Larry King Live.”
“I was raised in Scientology my entire life and was able to get out almost six years ago when I was 19,” she wrote.
Both her father and mother were Scientologists. So were her grandmother, brother and sister.
Today, she, her father and sister are out. The rest of the family is still in.
“They obviously are allowed no contact with us,” she says.
She told me that she was glad to see another negative article about the “cult.”
“I was forced to work there full-time from the age of 14 until I was 19 when I escaped. I was married off two months after my fifteenth birthday. I even attended school and used to work 80-plus hour weeks.”
The same year she signed a contract promising loyalty to the Sea Org, a subgroup within the church that practices a more intense version of Scientology.
The term of the contract was 1 billion years.
“They say you join the Sea Org for a billion years, and every time you die you get a 21-year leave of absence between lifetimes,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001. “It’s ridiculous.”
But with the promise of making $300 a week, instead of the paltry $45 she was used to, she thought it was a good deal.
Astra’s was just one of the many e-mails I got after the Cruise column ran.
I also heard from a guy named Ken Dandar. He’s the attorney from Florida who has been suing the church for more than seven years over its role in the death of Lisa McPherson.
She was the church member who died while in the care of fellow Scientologists in 1996. According to published reports, the 36-year-old McPherson was isolated in her room at the church’s Fort Harrison Hotel (in Clearwater, Fla.,) where members forced medications on her and waited too long to take her to a hospital when she became ill.
Scientologists expressly believe that psychiatry is bunk and mental illness doesn’t exist. And so when McPherson had a psychotic episode after a minor car accident she was allegedly spirited off by fellow church members who took care of her until she died 17 days later. Criminal charges were brought and then dropped after officials allegedly altered her autopsy report.
The autopsy photos, by the way, are not pretty.
“I have been litigating against this UFO cult for seven years over the homicidal death of Lisa McPherson,” Dandar wrote me. “They stop at nothing.”
But I can’t believe that about Bruce Thompson. He sounded so nice. He’s the spokesman for the Philadelphia branch of the church. I called him yesterday.
He told me about all the great things the church does to help people — the drug counseling, the criminal counseling, the life-improvement techniques, etc.
I asked him why he thought so many people had so many negative things to say about his religion.
“I would disagree that there is a lot,” he replied. “It’s really a small handful of people.”
Not so small if you check the Net.
“Anybody can put anything on the Internet,” he pointed out.
But so much of this stuff first appeared in magazines like Time and Newsweek and newspapers like the New York Times.
Bruce doesn’t know much about the Lisa McPherson case (“I wasn’t there,” he says). But he can’t believe she “wasn’t treated properly” because “it’s not consistent with the way the church acts. We very much value and respect human life.”
How does it work? I asked.
“What it does is measure fluctuations in thoughts. Thoughts and such have a mental mass. You can measure that. The E-meter just registers differences in that mass.”
This helps the church’s trained “auditors” figure out what’s making someone unhappy and help them overcome their “spiritual travails.”
Sure it does.
I asked him about the billion-year contract church members sign to become Sea Orgs.
He said that it shouldn’t be taken literally. I asked him if he was a Sea Org. He said no. Sea Orgs have to devote themselves to the church completely.
Doesn’t he do that?
Yes, he said, but he has a job and a life outside the church.
What kind of job? I asked.
“I’m a flight attendant.”
Of course he is. And in more ways than one.
Dec. 3, 2003 Column