Scientologists do not look kindly on critics, particularly those who were once devout. Apostasy, which in Scientology means speaking out against the church in any public forum, is considered to be the highest form of treason. This is one of the most serious “suppressive acts,” and those who apostatize are immediately branded as “Suppressive Persons,” or SPs. Scientologists are taught that SPs are evil — Hitler was an SP, says Rinder. Indeed, Hubbard believed that a full 2.5 percent of the population was “suppressive.” As he wrote in the Dianetics and Scientology Technical Dictionary, a suppressive person is someone who “goofs up or vilifies any effort to help anybody and particularly knife with violence anything calculated to make human beings more powerful or more intelligent.”
Given this viewpoint, I wonder why anyone with connections to Scientology would critique them publicly. “Makes them famous,” Rinder says. “They do it for their fifteen minutes.”
Scientology has been extremely effective at attacking its defectors, often destroying their credibility entirely, a policy that observers call “dead agenting.” Some of the church’s highest-profile critics say they have been on the receiving end of this policy. In the past six years, Tory Christman claims, the church has spread lies about her on the Internet, filed suit against her for violating an injunction for picketing on church property and attempted to get her fired from her job. Rinder dismisses Christman as a “wacko” and says her allegations are “absolute bullshit.”
When Christman split from the church, her husband and most of her friends — all of them Scientologists — refused to talk to her again. Apostates are not just discredited from the church; they are also excommunicated, isolated from their loved ones who, under Scientology rules, must sever or “disconnect” from them. Scientology defines those associated with Suppressive People as “Potential Trouble Sources,” or PTS.
Rinder says disconnection is a policy of last resort. “The first step is always to try to handle the situation,” he says. A “handling” generally refers to persuading a wayward member to return to the church in order to maintain contact with his family. The parent of someone who’s apostatized might call his child and ask him to “handle” a problem by essentially recanting. “They’ll ask them to make some amends, show they can be trusted . . . something to make up the damage,” says Davis. Those amends might range from volunteering in a literacy program to taking a public advocacy role — campaigning against psychiatry, for example.
But some people, the officials admit, refuse to be handled. What happens to them? “Then I guess not believing in Scientology means more to them than not seeing their family,” Davis says.
Excommunication is nothing new in organized religion. A number of sects have similar policies to Scientology’s: the Amish, the Mormon Fundamentalists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. All have a rationale. Scientology’s rationale is very simple: “We are protecting the good of the religion and all the parishioners,” says Rinder.
“It’s for the good of the group,” says Davis.
“How are you going to judge what is and isn’t the worst tenets and violations of the Church of Scientology?” Rinder asks. “You aren’t a Scientologist.” Complaints about these policies, he adds, “come from people who aren’t Scientologists [anymore]. What do they give a shit for anymore? They left!”
I spend a lot of time talking about the question of apostasy with Rinder and Davis. Both feel the church has been miscast. “Somewhere there is a concept that we hold strings over all these people and control them,” says Rinder. But provided you don’t denounce Scientology, it’s perfectly fine to leave the church, he says. “Whatever. What’s true for you is true for you.” Nothing will happen to those who lose their faith, he says, unless they “tell bald-faced lies to malign and libel the organization — unless they make it seem like something it isn’t.”
* * * *
Paul James is not this twenty-two-year-old man’s real name. He is the son of established Scientologists, blond and blue-eyed, with the easy smile and chiseled good looks of a young Matt Damon. He has had no contact with the church since he was seventeen. “I honestly don’t know how people can live psychotically happy all the time,” Paul tells me over coffee one afternoon at his small, tidy house outside Los Angeles. “Or thinking that they’re happy,” he adds with a grin. “I’m talking about that fake-happiness thing that people make themselves believe.”
Like Natalie, Paul was educated by Scientology tutors, sent to Scientologist-run private schools and put “on course” at his church. Unlike her, he hated it. “I never found anything in Scientology that had to do with spiritual enlightenment,” he says. “As soon as common sense started hitting me” — around the age of ten — “it creeped me out.”
Though there are a significant number of second-generation Scientologists who, like Natalie, are devoted to the church, there are also kids like Paul. This, says the University of Alberta’s Stephen Kent, is to be expected. One “unanticipated consequence” of the widespread conversions of young people to sects like Scientology in the 1960s and 1970s, Kent says, has been a “wave” of defections of these members’ adult children.
A fundamental element of Scientology is that children are often regarded as small adults — “big thetans in little bodies,” as some parents call them. Paul’s parents worked eighteen-hour days for the church, he says, and generally left him and his older brother to their own devices. “My brother was baby-sitting me by himself when he was eleven years old,” Paul says. When his brother went off with his friends, “I’d get home from school and be wandering around the [apartment] complex.”
Paul’s school was no more structured, he says. Students were encouraged to work at their own pace on subjects of their choosing, and, according to Paul, received little guidance from teachers, who are called “supervisors.” I found this to be true at the Delphi Academy in Lake View Terrace, California, part of a network of elite schools that use Hubbard’s study technology. Maggie Reinhart, Delphi’s director, says that this technique forces a student to take an active role in his education. A number of Scientology kids have thrived in this environment. Others, like Paul, felt lost. “I just kind of roamed from classroom to classroom and nobody cared,” he says. At Delphi, I saw teachers assisting certain students, but there was no generalized “teaching,” no class discussions.
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Discussion, as some academics like Kent note, isn’t encouraged in Scientology, nor in Scientology-oriented schools. It is seen as running counter to the teachings of Scientology, which are absolute. Thus, debate is relegated to those in the world of “Wogs” — what Scientologists call non-Scientologists. Or, as Hubbard described them, “common, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, garden-variety humanoid[s].”
Paul met very few Wogs growing up, and those he did know often didn’t understand him. Scientology has its own unique lexicon. “It’s kind of like being a French Canadian,” Paul explains. “You speak one thing out in the world and another thing at home.”
Many kids who’ve grown up in Scientology describe it as Natalie did: “a bubble” that exists in tandem with the mainstream world. “It’s impossible to understand it unless you’ve lived it,” says Paul.
Even when you’ve lived it, as one young woman notes, it’s hard to fully understand. This twenty-two-year-old, whom we’ll call Sara, left Scientology in high school. After leaving, she and a friend who quit with her sat down with a dictionary. “We looked up all the words we used [because] we didn’t know if we were speaking English or not,” she says.
Hubbard created Scientology’s language to be unique to its members. It includes words that are interpretations, or variations, of standard terms: “isness,” for example, which Scientology’s glossaries say, in essence, means “reality.” But there are also words that are wholly made up, such as “obnosis,” which means “observation of the obvious.”
The chaotic world, as one might call it in the mainstream, is, in Scientology, “enturbulated,” which means “agitated and disturbed.” To correct, or solve, personal or societal problems requires the proper application of “ethics,” which in Scientology refers to one’s moral choices, as well as to a distinct moral system. Those who conduct themselves correctly have their ethics “in.” Those who misbehave are “out-ethics.” A person’s harmful or negative acts are known as “overts.” Covering them up is known as a “withhold.”
All of these terms, and many more, are contained in a number of Scientology dictionaries, all written by Hubbard. Scientologists consider word comprehension and vocabulary skills to be essential parts of their faith.
The Hubbard Study Technology is administered in schools through an organization called “Applied Scholastics”; it emphasizes looking up any unknown or “misunderstood” word in a dictionary, and never skipping past a word you don’t understand. This same study method is used in church, where adults of all ages and levels of advancement spend hours poring over dictionaries and course manuals.
One key word is “gradient,” which is defined in the official Scientology and Dianetics glossary as “a gradual approach to something, taken step by step, level by level, each step or level being, of itself, easily surmountable so that, finally, quite complicated and difficult activities or high states of being can be achieved with relative ease.” This principle, the glossary notes, “is applied to both Scientology processing and training.”
Another key belief is “communication.” One of Scientology’s basic courses is “Success Through Communication,” taught to young people and adults. It involves a series of drills, known as “training routines,” or “TRs.” One drill asks students to close their eyes and simply sit, sometimes for hours. Another asks them to stare at a partner, immobile. A third requires students to mock, joke with or otherwise verbally engage their partner. The partner must passively receive these comments without moving or saying a word.
These drills, Scientologists say, help improve what they call their “confront,” which in Scientology’s lexicon means “the ability to be there comfortably and perceive.” A fourth drill requires students to pose a series of questions to one another, such as “Do fish swim?” Their partner may respond in any way they like, with the question being asked repeatedly until the partner answers correctly. Sara’s favorite drill involved an ashtray: “You tell it to stand up, sit down, and you ‘move’ the ashtray for hours. You’re supposed to be beaming your intention into the ashtray, and the supervisor is going to tell you if you’re intent enough.”
At Delphi, students take a course called “Improving Conditions.” “Conditions” refers to key Hubbard principles. Charted on a scale, they relate to one’s relationship to oneself and to those within one’s organization, school or “group.” A Scientologist’s goal, it’s often noted, is to “improve conditions.”
From highest to lowest, the Conditions are: Power, Power Change, Affluence, Normal, Emergency, Danger, Non-Existence, Liability, Doubt, Enemy, Treason and Confusion. Together, these conditions form the spine of the practical application of Scientology “ethics,” which is, many say, the true heart of the faith. “Ethics,” as a Scientological term, is defined as “rationality toward the greatest good for the greatest number of dynamics,” as well as “reason and the contemplation of optimum survival.”
To survive, Scientology applies its philosophy, or “ethics tech,” across a broad social and societal scale. They do good works — indeed, as Rinder notes, “Scientologists are driven by a real concern for the well-being of others. They see the world around them and want to do something about it.”
But the church’s drug-treatment and literacy programs and anti-psychiatry campaigns do more than just evangelize through charity; in fact, they exist largely to help prepare people to become Scientologists. Once a person is drug-free, psychiatrist-free and literate, he is qualified for auditing. And auditing is the centerpiece of Scientology. “It’s all about going up the Bridge,” says Paul.
Paul began auditing when he was four. Rebellious by nature, he says it did very little for him. By the age of eleven or twelve, he says, “I was so out of control, my parents had no idea what to do with me.”
Scientologists run a number of boarding schools around the country, including the prestigious Delphian School, in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, which counts Earthlink founder Sky Dayton among its graduates. Scientologists’ kids who caused trouble, or otherwise displeased their parents, have been sent to more restrictive private boarding schools. Paul was sent to Mace-Kingsley Ranch, located on 2,000 acres in New Mexico, which was closed in 2002.
Paul arrived at Mace-Kingsley when he was thirteen, and stayed for three and a half years. As he tells it, he underwent what sounds like a typical “boot camp” experience, complete with hard labor, bad food, tough supervision — all with a high price tag, roughly $30,000 per year. The school enforced a rigid Scientology focus that many former students now say served as both a mechanism of control and a form of religious indoctrination.
The process began for all new students with an IQ test and the Purification Rundown, which Paul says was given to kids as young as eight or nine years old. Then they were administered the Oxford Capacity Analysis, created by Scientologists in 1953. The test was designed to find out the student’s “tone,” or emotional state, in preparation for auditing. Students were audited daily at the ranch. By the age of sixteen, Paul says, he’d grown so used to the process, he’d figured out how to “trick” the E-meter: By remaining calm enough for no electrical charge to register, he was often able to hide most of his inner feelings from his auditors and his “case supervisor,” who oversaw his progress.
But not always. “There are things they wanted to know, and they’d just keep asking until you finally told them,” he says. “They’d get me to tell them about lies, or things that were bad, right down to my thoughts — some of which were overts.” So were some of his deeds. Masturbation is an overt — strictly forbidden in Scientology, as Hubbard believed that it can slow one’s process to enlightenment. “It’s not evil, just out-ethics,” says Paul. “They’ll dig it up in session and tell you to stop because it’s slowing you down.”
Another overt is homosexuality, which Hubbard believed was a form of sexual “deviance” best treated by therapy, or institutionalization. This view was espoused by many psychiatrists of Hubbard’s generation. Mainstream psychiatry has changed its view since the 1950s. Scientology as an institution takes no formal position on issues like gay marriage, but homosexuality, sexual promiscuity or any other form of “perversion” ranks low on Scientology’s “tone scale,” a register of human behavior Hubbard described in his 1951 book Science of Survival: Prediction of Human Behavior.
This book, according to Mike Rinder, is perhaps the most important Scientology text after Dianetics. In it, Hubbard denounced virtually every sexual practice that doesn’t directly relate to marriage and children. “Such people should be taken from the society as rapidly as possible . . . for here is the level of the contagion of immortality and the destruction of ethics,” he wrote of homosexuals. “No social order will survive which does not remove these people from its midst.”
In auditing, Scientologists are frequently asked about their sexual thoughts or practices, particularly in the special auditing sessions called “security checks.” This process requires a church member to write down any break with the ethical code. Security checks are administered to every Scientologist on the Bridge, and particularly to all OTs, who must be checked every six months “to make sure they’re using the tech correctly,” as church officials explain. In September, I received, through a source, a faxed copy of the standard security-check sheet for adults. Its questions include “Have you ever been involved in an abortion?” “Have you ever practiced sex with animals?” “Have you ever practiced sodomy?” “Have you ever slept with a member of a race of another color?” as well as “Have you ever had any unkind thoughts about L. Ron Hubbard?”
Paul resisted his security checks — he says he sometimes fell asleep during the sessions. But Sara, who says she went through months of “sec checks” after deciding, at age fifteen, that she didn’t want to be a Scientologist any longer, says she was highly disturbed by the process. At first, she says, counselors at her church tried to “clear” her. She was forced to repeatedly look up words in the dictionary to make sure she misunderstood nothing about Scientology. Then they gave her a security check. “For months I’m going to the church every night after school, and I’m in this fucking basement for four hours a night, on the E-meter,” she says. “They’re asking me questions about sex — every personal question known to man.” If she tried to leave, Sara adds, the auditors would physically block her path and force her back in her chair. Officials say this forced auditing is for the subjects’ own good, as it might be harmful if they were to leave a session before they were ready.
“Scientology has a plausible explanation for everything they do — that’s the genius of it,” says Sara. “But make no mistakes: Scientology is brainwashing.”
* * * *
Jeffrey Aylor was thirteen when he joined the sea Organization. Raised in a Scientology family in Los Angeles, he was at church one day when a Sea Org recruiter approached him. “What are you doing with your life?” he asked the teen.
Jeffrey had no idea what to say. “I’m thirteen, I’m not doing anything with my life,” Jeffrey said. The recruiter asked him if he wanted to “help” people. Jeffrey said, “Sure. What kid doesn’t want to help people?”
Thus began Jeffrey’s immersion into the tightly wound world of the Sea Org, where he would spend the next seven years of his life. In that time, he would see fewer than ten movies, would rarely listen to music and never had sex. Though theoretically reading newspapers and magazines was allowed — USA Today is sold openly on Gold Base — in practice it was discouraged, along with surfing the Internet and watching TV. Indeed, all contact with the world at large was “entheta.” “I never considered myself a Scientologist until I joined the Sea Org,” Jeffrey says.
Jeffrey’s indoctrination began with a boot camp known as the “Estates Project Force,” or EPF. There, he learned to march, salute and perform manual labor. Physical work is a key training technique for new recruits. Jeffrey’s sister, for instance, went through the EPF when she was twelve and was forced to crawl through ducts that were roach- and rat-infested. Like the TRs, this kind of work, Jeffrey explains, is meant to raise a person’s “confront,” enabling them to be more in control of their environment.
After the EPF, Jeffrey was given a blue shirt, blue tie and dark-blue trousers, and sent to work as a receptionist at the American Saint Hill Organization for spiritual training, on Scientology’s expansive Hollywood campus. He was paid fifty dollars per week and worked an average of fifteen hours per day, including an hour or two of auditing and other training. Home was a large barracks-style room in a building where Jeffrey lived with about twenty other boys and men. In seven years, Jeffrey says, he saw his family just a handful of times. His only free time was the few hours he received on Sunday mornings to do his laundry. Hubbard believed strongly in productivity, which he saw as highly ethical behavior. “We reward production and up-statistics and penalize nonproduction and down-statistics,” he wrote in Introduction to Scientology Ethics.
Eventually, Jeffrey found himself on “PTS watch,” monitoring Sea Org members who wanted to leave the order. According to church officials, Sea Org members can leave anytime they want. But in practice, the attitude is “the only reason you’d want to leave is because you’ve done something wrong,” says Jeffrey. This would call for a round of “sec checks,” which would continue throughout the “route out” process, which can take up to a year. During that time, former Sea Org members have asserted, they are subjected to so much pressure they often decide not to leave after all.
To make sure no one would leave before their route-out was complete, Jeffrey would shadow them: “I’ve been assigned to go and sleep outside somebody’s door — all night, for as many nights as it takes — on the floor, against the door, so I could feel if they opened it. If they went to the bathroom, someone would stand right outside. Someone is always there.”
Some wayward members have “disappeared” for long periods of time, sent to special Scientology facilities known as the “Rehabilitation Project Force.” Created by Hubbard in 1974, the RPF is described by the church as a voluntary rehabilitation program offering a “second chance” to Sea Org members who have become unproductive or have strayed from the church’s codes. It involves intensive physical labor (at church facilities) and auditing and study sessions to address the individual’s personal problems. The process is given a positive spin in church writings. “Personnel ‘burnout’ is not new to organizations,” a post on Scientology’s official Web site reads, in relation to the RPF, “but the concept of complete rehabilitation is.”
Former Sea Org members who’ve been through the program charge that it is a form of re-indoctrination, in which hard physical labor and intense ideological study are used to break a subject’s will. Chuck Beatty, a former Sea Org member, spent seven years in the RPF facilities in Southern California, from 1996 to 2003, after expressing a desire to speak out against the church. For this, he was accused of “disloyalty,” a condition calling for rehabilitation. “My idea was to go to the RPF for six or eight months and then route out,” says Beatty. “I thought that was the honorable thing to do.” In the RPF he was given a “twin,” or auditing partner, who was responsible for making sure he didn’t escape. “It’s a prison system,” he says, explaining that all RPFers are watched twenty-four hours per day and prevented from having contact with the outside world. “It’s a mind-bending situation where you feel like you’re betraying the group if you try to leave.”
Quiet and disciplined by nature, Jeffrey never minded the regimentation and order of the Sea Org. “I was wrapped up in work,” he says. “And that’s what I liked doing. And I thought I was helping people.” But when he became ill, his perspective radically changed. For the first six years of his Sea Org service, Jeffrey had kept his asthma and other health issues in check. In the spring of 2004, he began to develop severe chest pains. By the summer, he was unable to work. By fall, he could barely get out of bed.
Scientologists believe that most illnesses are products of a person’s own psychic traumas — they are brought upon themselves. Sea Org members are promised medical care for any illness, but Jeffrey says that he received little medical attention or money with which to seek outside medical care. Instead, he was sent to Ethics counseling. When that didn’t cure him, it was suggested he return to the EPF to repeat his training.
Even while bedridden, “if I wasn’t there pushing somebody to take me to a doctor . . . it didn’t happen,” he says. Lying in bed one night, Jeffrey listened to a taped lecture given by L. Ron Hubbard, in which he made his famous statement “If it isn’t true for you, it isn’t true.” For Jeffrey, this began a questioning process that would eventually lead to his leaving Scientology altogether. “Nobody can force Scientology upon you, but that is exactly what was happening to me,” he says.
And so, one day last February, he asked for some time off to see a doctor. Then he called his mother and asked her to come get him. When she arrived the next morning, Jeffrey left his keys and his Sea Organization ID card behind on his bed. Then, taking only his clothes, he left.
Now twenty-three, Jeffrey lives in a small mountain town more than four hours from Los Angeles. Since his “escape,” as he calls it, from the Sea Org, he has not returned to the church. He has never spoken out about his experiences, which he still insists “weren’t all that bad.” But because he left the Sea Org without permission, he has been declared suppressive. Soon, he believes, his family still in the church will have nothing more to do with him.
The order of disconnection, called a “declare,” is issued on a piece of gold-colored parchment known as a “goldenrod.” This document proclaims the suppressive person’s name, as well as his or her “crime.” According to one friend of Jeffrey’s mother who has read his declare, Jeffrey’s crimes are vague, but every Scientologist who sees it will understand its point.
“This declare is a warning to Jeffrey’s friends in the Sea Org,” this woman, who is still a member of the church, explains. “It’s saying to them, ‘See this kid, he left without permission. This is what happened to him. Don’t you make the same mistake.'”
* * * *
During the time I was researching this piece, I received a number of e-mails from several of the Scientologists I had interviewed. Most were still technically members of the church in good standing; privately they had grown disillusioned and have spoken about their feelings for the first time in this article. All of the young people mentioned in this story, save Natalie, are considered by the church hierarchy to be Potential Trouble Sources. But many have begun to worry they will be declared Suppressive Persons.
Their e-mails expressed their second thoughts and their fears.
“PLEASE, let me know what you will be writing in the story,” wrote one young woman. “I just want to make sure that people won’t be able to read it and figure out who I am. I know my mom will be reading.”
“The church is a big, scary deal,” wrote another. “My [initial] attitude was if this information could save just one person the money, heartache and mind-bending control, then all would be worth it. [But] I’m frightened of what could happen.”
“I’m about two seconds away from losing my whole family, and if that story comes out with my stuff in it, I will,” wrote a third. “I’m terrified. Please, please, please . . . if it’s not too late . . . help me keep my family.”
One particularly frantic e-mail arrived shortly before this story was published. It came from a young Scientologist with whom I had corresponded several times in the course of three or four months. When we first met, she spoke passionately and angrily about the impact of the church on herself and those close to her.
“Please forgive me,” she wrote. “The huge majority of things I told you were lies. Perhaps I don’t like Scientology. True. But what I do know is that I was born with the family I was born with, and I love them. Don’t ask me to tear down the foundation of their lives.” Like almost every young person mentioned in this piece, this woman was given a pseudonym to protect her identity, and her family’s. But it wasn’t enough, she decided. “This is my life . . . Accept what I tell you now for fact: I will not corroborate or back up a single thing I said.
“I’m so sorry,” she concluded. “I hope you understand that everyone I love is terribly important to me, and I am willing to look beyond their beliefs in order to keep them around. I will explain in further detail, perhaps, some other day.”