We’ve just finished Jenna Miscavige Hill’s memoir, Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, and we can say that it packs a powerful punch in its final pages as the niece of Scientology’s leader considers his behavior and its effect on her life, both in and out of the church.
Along the way, we get one of the most complete and compelling narratives of how someone grows up in, and falls under the spell of, this organization which wields so much power over its members through interrogation, intimidation, and control.
And behind it all is one rather diminutive man, David Miscavige, who comes off as a meddling, tyrannical, but ultimately cowardly man who Jenna and other ex-Scientologists are determined to expose.
“To me, the Church is a dangerous organization whose beliefs allow it to commit crimes against humanity and violate basic human rights. It remains a mystery to me how, in our current society, this can go on unchecked. It is particularly insidious because of its celebrity advocates and affiliated groups, such as Narconon, Applied Scholastics, and the Citizens Commission on Human Rights,” she writes.
“The problem is that Scientology is a system that makes it nearly impossible for you to think for yourself. People like my uncle are enablers who create an environment of fear that discourages independent thought. Get rid of them and you would continue to have a system that, almost by definition, restricts individual freedoms.”
When Lawrence Wright’s lengthy history of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, Going Clear, came out less than three weeks ago, some reviewers complained that he hadn’t quite succeeded in one of his stated goals — to explain why some people are drawn to this group, which seems to have such outlandish beliefs.
Jenna Miscavige Hill’s book answers that questions in more detail than any critic could ask for. Because, while Beyond Belief is ultimately one of the most devastating takedowns of Scientology ever published, Jenna isn’t afraid to talk about the parts of her experience that she enjoyed, the things in the church that inspired her, and ultimately the things that made it hard to reconcile with so much abuse she witnessed.
In fact, it’s that terrible contradiction — how something that had meant so much to her growing up could turn into such a malevolent organization in the end — which gives her story its power.
Jenna Miscavige was a third generation Scientologist. Her grandfather, Ron Miscavige Sr., joined Scientology in the late 1960s and got his entire family in, including his two sons, Ron Jr. and David, who by 1975 were committed Sea Org members. Ronnie dropped out of the SO for a while, but then rejoined after he’d married Elizabeth Blythe — known as “Bitty” — who in 1984 had given birth to Jenna.
Very early on, then, Jenna became accustomed to rarely seeing her parents, who were both working ungodly hours for the Sea Org. In January 1986, L. Ron Hubbard died, and Jenna’s uncle David Miscavige — then only 25 years old — started pushing out a rival for control of the church.
“From this point forward, everyone in the Church referred to him as COB [Chairman of the Board], but to me, he was just Uncle Dave,” Jenna writes.
In an example of what it was like to grow up with parents who were completely dedicated to their work, which paid pennies an hour, Jenna describes catching her leg in a parking gate, which left her with a broken knee. But her parents were expected to report for work, so they left her with only an ACE bandage. She was four.
At five years old, she was moved to a ranch in the California desert where a workforce of other children were set to improving the place. Not everything on the ranch was unpleasant, but Jenna still seems astonished, all these years later, that between hard labor to renovate the facility, school studies, and Scientology coursework, small kids were going to bed after 14-hour days. By seven years old, she was the ranch’s medical liaison, in charge of making sure other kids weren’t ill. Generally, the only thing she could do when they were sick was give them vitamins. During these years, she saw her father only for a few hours a week, and her mother even less.
The Scientology coursework, she realizes now, was all about indoctrination and control.
“In reality, the TRs made me feel like it as wrong to react or express my emotions. In our everyday life, if we started to get upset by something someone said or did, we were told ‘Get your TRs in.’ I was supposed to be in control of my emotions at all times, and the courses helped me to do that, even if that meant burying those emotions inside me,” she writes. “The list of duties and procedures went on endlessly, and the result of all this process, paperwork, and regulation was that there were no children at the Ranch — only little adults. At special events, we were dressed up in cute outfits and paraded in front of our parents and Int crew to make it seem as though Scientology was creating a normal and joyful childhood, when in fact we were all being robbed of it.”
At some point, as she got a little older, it dawned on her that she was being treated differently because she was the niece of the most powerful man in the organization. At holidays, when she spent time with her uncle, she’d notice the adults treading lightly around him.
One result of her family connection, however, was that she was recruited especially young for the Sea Org. She signed its billion-year contract at only seven years old, and was sent to Clearwater to become a member of the Commodore’s Messenger Organization at only 10. It’s there that she begins Scientology in earnest, and nervously anticipated learning about L. Ron Hubbard’s great discoveries. In particular, she was excited to learn something called the Factors.
“People talked about this next step as though it imparted some amazing information on how we had all come to this planet. I was curious, because I had been hearing about it for a while now. When we opened The Factors, we found pretty pictures of clouds and sunrises, leaves and mountains, lightning, and other natural phenomena. On the last page, there was a quote that read, ‘Humbly tendered as a gift to man from L. Ron Hubbard.’ As cryptic and mysterious as the book was, it felt anticlimactic.”
Despite the disappointment of the “tech,” including Jenna’s discovery that Scientology’s vaunted exploration of past lives was pretty much a lot of nonsense, she still found life in the Sea Org challenging and inspiring. Until, that is, she continued to find herself in “ethics trouble.”
Scientology’s oppressive system of ethics — a labyrinth of interrogation and control — was a minefield for Jenna, who was by nature rebellious. As many other ex-Scientologists have described it, Jenna found that once you had found yourself in some kind of trouble with the Sea Org’s interrogators, what you said under their questioning had a way of digging you in even deeper.
Fortunately, for much of the time she stumbled through this period, Jenna could rely on her friendship with her aunt, David Miscavige’s wife Shelly. It’s clear from the book that Shelly was often kind to Jenna, and Jenna knew she could count on her aunt to help out when things got difficult.
Unfortunately, Jenna’s book casts no new light on Shelly Miscavige’s whereabouts or why she hasn’t been seen by other church members since 2007.
After she turned 15, Jenna seemed to be constantly in some kind of trouble, but later she realized that part of the reason for that may have been that her parents had decided to leave the church — and that was a huge deal.
Ronnie and Bitty wanted out, and what did it say that David Miscavige couldn’t keep a member of his own family in the fold? Church officials knew the defection of Miscavige’s brother was a potential PR disaster.
In one of the revelations of the book, Jenna reports that her father told her that David Miscavige had offered his brother $100,000 to stay in the Sea Org and let his wife leave. Ronnie refused.
Meanwhile, Jenna found herself constantly being subjected to humiliating interrogation sessions — called “security checks” — which she realized later was in part a way to try to get information about what her parents might be telling her.
“Between the ages of twelve and fifteen, I had at least eight
eighty security checks,” she says.
If Miscavige was unable to get his brother to dump his wife, Ronnie and Bitty were persuaded to move to Cabo San Lucas, making it less likely that they would get subpoenaed for the litigation going on in Florida over the death of church member Lisa McPherson. Also, there was a church spy in Cabo to keep an eye on them.
But Jenna herself chose the church over her parents, deciding not to join them in Mexico. She was told by top church officials that she would go far.
In 2001, Jenna met Dallas Hill, an aspiring actor who had worked at the Hollywood Celebrity Centre. (There’s a brief, perhaps mandatory, interlude about Scientology’s celebrities, but it feels tacked on. This is not a book about Tom Cruise or John Travolta.)
She fell in love with Hill, and they decide to marry, but their plans were constantly caught up in more Sea Org manipulation. Tired of waiting to get married, and already committed to each other, they slept together, and that caused new, untold levels of Scientology freakout. Pre-marital sex in the Sea Org is “out 2D” — unethical behavior in the second dynamic. She found herself being confronted by the second-highest ranking official in the church, Marty Rathbun, who was the Inspector General of Ethics in the Religious Technology Center (RTC), the most powerful entity in Scientology.
“I was briefly ashamed that the second-most-important person in the Church had to come here to deal with me and my out 2D, but I was over trying to do right by RTC. They fucked up everything in my life. All I wanted was to be allowed to get married, and be assigned a post in the Sea Org for my value, not because of who my uncle was. I was exhausted from always having to be sec-checked because of my family name and the Church’s paranoia-driven PR. Other people in my situation would have either been in or out, cut off from their family or not. I was in a constant in-between, which was a complete mind-fuck,” she writes.
The couple was separated, and Jenna got violent while trying to find where Dallas had been hidden. We figure these are going to be some of the best scenes in a movie, if, hopefully, one is made.
The couple was put through even more isolation and interrogation, and you find yourself wanting to grab them and say, “why don’t you just run for it!”
But Jenna does an excellent job explaining the mindset of a desperate Scientologist — Jenna’s family may have been out (her brothers had also left), but Dallas was in a family that are all in the church, a family he is very close to. If they ran, they would be declared “suppressive persons,” and all church members in good standing — including Dallas’s own parents — would have to disown them completely.
So there’s more interrogation, more mind-fuck, until, gradually, Jenna and Dallas began to see things on the Internet that opened their eyes. A stint in Australia put them under less supervision, and they stumbled upon the website Operation Clambake and they watched the infamous South Park episode that satirizes Scientology’s beliefs.
And after they got back to the U.S., things only seemed to be getting worse, with the constant pressure to get donations from members ramped up to unprecedented levels. Jenna describes a March 13 birthday celebration for Hubbard, when a few thousand Scientologists were lured into an event and then were kept inside until they forked over cash.
“Security guarded the door, making sure we didn’t leave until seven-thirty in the morning. Some people did manage to leave early, like a seventy-year-old woman with emphysema, who left at three in the morning,” she writes.
Finally, in 2005, Jenna decided to leave the Sea Org, but Dallas, who had wanted to go, suddenly had doubts. She eventually found out that Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder had been secretly pulling Dallas aside, trying to poison him against Jenna and her family.
(We messaged Rinder today, who acknowledges that he was tasked by Miscavige to do such a thing, and it was one of the reasons he left Scientology himself just two years later.)
That leads to a maddening situation where Dallas and Jenna tried to route out properly, but are presented with conditions they can’t agree to. They get kicked out, but are told it is as if they had abandoned the church — exactly what they were trying to avoid.
As they left, Jenna writes that a security guard pointed to Dallas’s face and said, “I am going to do everything in my power to make sure you never talk to your family again.”
Jenna and Dallas settled into a new life, but they devoured even more of what information there is about Scientology that they weren’t allowed to know before. Jenna was disgusted by what she read.
In 2008, Andrew Morton published an unauthorized biography of Tom Cruise, which included allegations that in Scientology, families are ripped apart by disconnection. Church spokeswoman Karin Pouw fired back that the church does not engage in disconnection, and Jenna was incredulous. She decided she had to do something.
She wrote a letter to Pouw, pointing out that the family of David Miscavige, the leader of the church, had been ripped apart by the church’s policy of disconnection. And if that wasn’t true, why couldn’t she, Jenna, see her own grandfather, Ron Sr., who was still in the church? (Ron Sr. finally left in 2012, which we reported first and which Jenna confirms in her book.)
Jenna’s letter went public, and the huge response motivated her to join two other women who had grown up in the church to start the website Ex-Scientology Kids in March 1, 2008. Later in the year, she appeared on ABC’s Nightline.
The church struck back, meanwhile, with private investigators who followed Jenna and Dallas and church operatives who tried to get Dallas’s parents to disown them.
By 2008, however, Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun had left Scientology, and Jenna began to get a much different picture about her uncle and the role he had played in the years of misery she had gone through.
“It was telling,” she writes, “that Uncle Dave was always pulling the strings, but never showing his face.”
We can hardly think of a more emasculating indictment.
But Jenna cautions that it’s too easy to blame Scientology’s toxicity on her uncle. There’s more blame to go around.
“L. Ron Hubbard was the ultimate con man, and it’s hard to figure out how much of Scientology was an experiment in brainwashing and controlling people, and how much of it was truly intended to help people.”
Posted by Tony Ortega on February 5, 2013 at 16:45