Serge Gil first reached out to us more than a year ago. It’s taken a lot of time for his story to get to a large audience, but tonight he’s going to be featured on an episode of ABC’s 20/20 that we were also interviewed for.
Gil’s story is wide ranging and very troubling, and we don’t know how deeply 20/20 is going to get into it. But we wanted to provide some basic background on what he went through in order to supplement ABC’s show. And we’ve had help by talking to Claire Headley, Aaron Smith-Levin, Mike Rinder, and Jefferson Hawkins.
We’ll start by pointing out that Serge Gil is an angry man. He’s now 38, but he says that how he was treated when he was a young teen at Scientology’s “Flag Land Base” in Clearwater, Florida has permanently scarred him, and he is looking for payback.
“The world needs to hear what I went through, Tony,” he told us last week in our latest conversation, sounding agitated. Earlier, he had said, “I’m going to be an ambassador for all the children who were being abused.”
Serge was born on November 3, 1978, and he was raised in a Scientology family. His parents were in the church, and so was his grandmother. By the age of 12, he was deeply studying the works of L. Ron Hubbard and he was training as an auditor. And for any ambitious auditor, the place to be was the Flag Land Base.
“I arrived at the base in 1992. I was 13,” he says. The base was a magnet for very young Scientologists who worked for the church. Some, like Serge, had signed the billion-year contract of the “Sea Organization,” promising to dedicate future lifetimes to working long hours for Scientology. Others were staff members from far-flung Scientology facilities known as “orgs.”
“The Flag facility was housing all of the outer-org trainees. So there were a lot of minors,” Serge remembers.
When Serge arrived at the base to begin his Sea Org experience, he was already, at 13, a “Class 4” auditor and he had gone “Clear” on Scientology’s “Bridge to Total Freedom” of courses. In other words, he had already undergone extensive training. But at Flag, the pursuit was to achieve technical perfection — the delivering of courses exactly the way L. Ron Hubbard intended.
Meanwhile, Serge wasn’t allowed to go to school. “Seventh grade was the last grade I finished. If you went to school, they sent you to ethics. And we were only allowed to go to school on Sunday anyway. One reason I joined the Sea Org was that I thought I’d get schooling. But I got ethics instead.”
Serge told us that instead of going to school, he spent hours on a Scientology “metering course” that took the concept of technical perfection to an extreme degree.
“This was a special confidential pilot program,” he says. “It was ‘reach and withdraw’ with the meter.” We asked him what that specifically meant. “You would touch a part of the meter, and you would say ‘thank you.’ And then you would let go of the meter. ‘Thank you.’ And then do it again. For two hours. Five times, for ten hours in a day.”
What was the point? “The point apparently is that you are so familiar with the E-meter that you can use it with your eyes closed. It was extremely mind-numbing.”
Aaron Smith-Levin talked about this pilot program during his appearance this week on Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath. His twin brother Collin, Aaron explained, was also trying to become one of the first technically perfect auditors in a new regime of auditing the leader of Scientology, David Miscavige, had introduced, calling it “The Golden Age of Technology.”
This in itself was hugely controversial in the church. L. Ron Hubbard, who had died in 1986, was still considered “Source,” and Miscavige wasn’t supposed to be making changes to the “technology” Hubbard had left behind. But in the mid-1990s, Miscavige said that training had been faulty and needed to be redone — and young, up and coming experts were being groomed to lead the change.
Claire Headley remembers that Miscavige made a big deal about Serge Gil, and how competent he had become in those new drills.
“He was like Dave’s golden child on the Golden Age of Tech,” she tells us. Claire was living at the time on the other side of the country, at Scientology’s secretive “Int Base” where the highest echelons of international management were housed on a 500-acre compound near Hemet, California. David Miscavige lives and works at “Int” much of the time, but he had made a trip to the Flag Land Base in Florida, and when he returned to Int, he had the entire base turn out for a briefing, Claire remembers.
“He played a video of this kid doing a C/S 53 assessment on a preclear. He played it to the entire base, telling us this young kid has perfect assessment TRs. That’s how I first heard of Serge Gil.”
In a C/S 53, an auditor reads off a long list of items to see if they produce any reactions on the E-meter being held by the subject, called a “preclear” or “PC.” The exercise would be videotaped to see if Serge executed the assessment perfectly. The point of a C/S 53 is to find out what’s gone wrong with a PC during auditing. The auditor reads off the list, notes if the needle on the meter reacts to anything, and then identifies which item on the list got the biggest reaction. That result was then sent to the C/S — the case supervisor — who then decides what steps to take next. The key to what Serge was doing was to be efficient, methodical, observant, and not to miss any details, all things he should have learned while going through Scientology’s many training routines, or “TRs.” And it was that quality of being thorough without making any mistakes that had caught Miscavige’s eye.
“I had to mark down, perfectly, every E-meter reaction to every question. If there was one mistake on the video, the whole thing was a flunk. It was nearly impossible to do,” he says.
And the person who would be deciding if he had passed the test was Shelly Miscavige, wife to the church’s leader and a hard-as-nails church executive in her own right. (This was about a decade before Shelly vanished from Int Base in the summer of 2005.)
“Shelly Miscavige was supposed to be giving you the pass. No one could get the video pass — except for me. I was the only person at the FSO [the Flag Service Organization, which runs the Flag Land Base] who got a pass from Shelly. That’s when they started treating me like a prodigy. I was supposed to be a prodigy of technical perfection.”
Serge might have been a minor, but he was a hot prospect. And so he was assigned to take a high-pressure position where he could use his skills.
He became an interrogator for handling “red tags.”
Aaron Smith-Levin helped us understand what this meant. An outer-org trainee, living at the base, might be getting auditing on a course that he would need in order to take back to the org where he’s from. At the end of an auditing session, he would be handed over to an “examiner” to make sure that the session had been successful. The test for that is what’s called a “floating needle,” a particular set of smooth swings of the E-meter’s needle which Scientologists believe indicate that a session is finished properly. But if a PC doesn’t get a floating needle, there’s trouble, and it’s called a red tag.
“You’d get him back in session, finish, send him to the examiner, and he still wouldn’t get a floating needle. Now it’s a double red tag. So they’d do it again, and if he still doesn’t get it, then you have a triple red tag. And you only had 24 hours to get a floating needle or you lose a statistic. So this was a problem,” Aaron says. (Scientologists are obsessed with their statistics, and each week, they are expected to have higher “stats” than the week before. It’s an impossible pursuit that leads to harsh discipline — even prison-like conditions — if they fail.)
A triple red tag was a very big deal. And when it happened, that’s when Serge was brought in. At this point, Scientologists believe, the subject is holding back some sort of secret that is preventing the floating needle from happening. And it was Serge’s job to figure out what that secret was.
“Serge was known to be a very good auditor. A really easy guy to talk to,” Aaron says.
In a room at the Coachman Building on the base, Serge would sit the preclear with the red tag down and have them grasp the sensors of the E-meter. But this was not an auditing session. It was an interrogation. Serge had to find out what the preclear was hiding, and whether it might actually prove to be something harmful to Scientology itself.
“When we were interrogating these men, we felt that we were keeping outside people from coming in to destroy Scientology,” Serge says. The interrogation would get into the preclear’s most private thoughts, looking for the secret that was being held back. And often, that would include an interrogation about sex.
Serge, in other words, at only 15 or 16 years old, often found himself quizzing men in their 30s and 40s about their most intimate sexual experiences.
“These people had some pretty dark pasts,” he says. “But we were there to protect and inspect. And these interrogations went on for hours. The whole organization was on edge. Everyone knew that someone had a red tag and that we needed a floating needle. I’d have up to six people telling me what to ask a person. And they’d tell me to ask him about sex — they’d tell me to ask him about masturbating.”
We’ve heard from numerous ex-Scientologists that the organization seems to have a particular preoccupation with masturbation, and a real interest in their members’ sex lives in general. If you want to join the Sea Org, you have to fill out detailed documents about every sexual partner you’ve ever done anything with, from kissing to intercourse. And you have to spell out your masturbation habits. Three years ago, we leaked copies of these “life histories” that we’d obtained. They contained questions such as “Have you ever engaged in homosexual activity?” and “Have you ever engaged in perverted sexual activities?”
But it wasn’t just Sea Org workers who were subjected to such questions. A preclear who had a red tag had to be questioned, and the interrogation often went into sex and masturbation.
“I was instructed to use the ‘murder routine,’ to get people to admit to something big,” Serge says.
Claire Headley first told us about the “murder routine” when she explained the most notorious of Scientology’s interrogations, the “Joburg Sec Check.”
“The idea is to ask questions that would most likely be much worse than whatever it is the subject is holding back,” Claire explained. “So you might say to the person, ‘Well, did you murder someone?’ ‘Did you hurt someone?’ ‘Did you do something illegal?’ On and on. Until finally the subject blurts out, ‘No! I didn’t murder anyone. I —’ and then they spill what they’ve been holding back.”
Serge says he applied that routine, but to sexual questions.
“He might admit to masturbation. OK, I’d say, ‘But have you put a rat up your ass?’ And he might say, ‘No, but I put a banana up there.’ So then I had to get every detail of it.”
Serge estimates that he interrogated more than 500 older men about their sex histories while he was a minor.
“Or I had to get them to admit to criminal activities. Financial crimes or other things. The goal on a red tag was that I was supposed to get so much dirt out of someone, they would be disqualified in case they didn’t get a floating needle. I had to get them admitting to something so dark they could get kicked out.”
But the worst, he says, was when he would quiz a man about masturbating, asking what the man had thought about when he jerked off….
“And he’d say, ‘you.’ And then I’d have to get all the details from him, of him masturbating while he was thinking of me.”
As disgusting as it sounds — minor teenagers quizzing men in their 40s about what they thought about while jerking off — numerous former Scientologists we talked to for this story told us that it was actually quite common in the church.
“It is very common. I was doing the same thing at 16 when I was at Int Base,” Claire Headley told us.
One man she was interrogating was in his late 40s, and he brought in a written account of about 50 pages describing his masturbation habits. “I had to give him a meter check to see if there was anything he’d held back. That’s how I learned what masturbation was, reading the O/W write-ups of 40- to 50-year-old men at the base,” Claire says. “All of the sec-checker [interrogation] trainees at RTC were all under 18. I knew two that were 14 years old.”
We had to ask some of the older men we knew who had left Scientology — were they on the other end of these interactions?
“It was creepy. It was very creepy. More than once I had to go in session with a teenage Sea Org girl, maybe 18 or 19 years old, at Flag,” Jefferson Hawkins told us. At one time, Jefferson was Scientology’s powerhouse marketing genius who came up with the “volcano” TV ads in the 1980s that helped grow Scientology to its greatest extent. He left the organization in 2005, and wrote an excellent book about his life in Scientology, Counterfeit Dreams.
“I had to spill my guts to these young women. It felt really creepy. And not only were they young women, they were very innocent. They didn’t know anything that I was talking about. It was a creepy experience.”
But was it common?
“Oh yeah. Well, because, particularly at Int Base, a lot of times the CMO ethics people were young women. And they loved power. They loved lording it over older people in general. And they loved to lord it over veterans who had been around Hubbard. Here they were able to just dominate these people and make them feel like shit. They could be quite cruel,” he says. “But that was one thing they had to do, was take older men into session and quiz them about their sex lives.”
How did that develop?
“Well, they’re auditors. They’re supposed to have their TRs in. They’re not supposed to react to this stuff. And of course in Hubbard’s view, a young person is just as old a thetan as an older person. They’re just old thetans in young bodies. You’ve been here before in past lives, you understand what this is,” he says.
“It was common. And it was very abusive.”
We asked Mike Rinder if he went through the same thing, and he surprised us with his response: “Claire was one of the people who questioned me,” he said. “It’s a standard thing. Whenever you’re in trouble in Scientology you’re getting asked questions like that.”
Serge Gil left the Sea Org in 2004. Four years ago, he came out as a gay man, and decided to stop doing Scientology altogether. Then, a little more than a year ago, he began thinking he needed to say something publicly about what he’d been through at the Flag Land Base. He says he’s been “declared” a “suppressive person” by the church — in other words, declared an enemy. But tonight, he is getting a huge platform to talk about the way minor children are treated in Scientology.
“They declared me. I have no family. I have no friends. I have nothing to lose.”
‘Leah Remini’ finale, and other news
A&E keeps changing its mind about the huge hit it has on its hands. Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath premiered as the strongest opening of a series in two years. Tempering that excitement was the fact that only eight episodes had been planned.
But A&E quickly put together a special additional episode, sponsored by Reddit, that had Leah answering questions from Redditors. The special episode also featured Paulette Cooper, Chris Shelton, Karen de la Carriere, and Jeffrey Augustine.
Next week’s episode, featuring Lois Reisdorf and her son Brandon, as well as some upstart journalists (titled “Enemies of the Church”), is the seventh of the original lineup, and the eighth overall. A&E has chosen to refer to it as the “season finale.”
But we’re told that another special episode featuring questions from Reddit will air on January 17. And the original eighth episode of the series, focused on Leah Remini herself, will air the last week of January.
Got all that? Original episode seven (“Enemies of the Church”) on Tuesday January 10, Special episode nine on Tuesday January 17, and original episode eight (focused on Leah) later in the month.
That’s what we know for now.
And here’s this morning’s Good Morning America segment about tonight’s 20/20 episode…
Go here to start making your plans.
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Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information about the book, and our 2015 book tour, can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.
The Best of the Underground Bunker, 1995-2016 Just starting out here? We’ve picked out the most important stories we’ve covered here at the Undergound Bunker (2012-2016), The Village Voice (2008-2012), New Times Los Angeles (1999-2002) and the Phoenix New Times (1995-1999)
Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…
BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts
Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | Scientology boasts about assistance from Google | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ
Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield