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‘Going Clear’: Sara Goldberg on how Scientology turned her own daughter against her

Just three days to go until HBO airs Alex Gibney’s documentary, Going Clear, and we have another screenshot from the film, this time featuring Sara Goldberg, who really adds an emotional wallop to the movie.

The great Joe Childs at the Tampa Bay Times told Sara’s story last year and how she faced a dilemma forced on her by Church of Scientology officials. Because of Scientology’s toxic “disconnection” policy, the church forced Sara to make a terrible choice.

There’s a big backstory to that choice. We’ll try to sum it up quickly. Sara and her husband, Sheldon Goldberg, were loyal OT 8’s, having achieved the highest level of spiritual advancement in Scientology. Sara’s son, Nick Lister, had grown up in Scientology. But he was also friends with a man, Matt Argall, who had befriended and did some business with Mike Rinder, a former Scientology spokesman. In 2009, Rinder cooperated with the St. Petersburg Times in its blockbuster series, “The Truth Rundown.” In the eyes of Scientology leader David Miscavige, that made Rinder one of the biggest enemies of the church, a “suppressive person” or “SP.” Argall, however, hired Rinder to do some work for him, and also hired Nick Lister. Through that job, Lister got to know Rinder.

The church found out about the connection, and confronted Lister — he wasn’t supposed to be having any kind of communication with an “SP,” or he faced being declared a suppressive himself. Lister promised not to have further contact with church enemies. But later, he admitted that he was still talking to Argall. The church came down hard, declaring him suppressive, essentially excommunicating Lister from the church.

That happened in September 2010, Sara tells us. And her son’s “declare” put the entire family at risk. Not only were Sara and her husband OT 8s, but her daughter, Nick’s older sister Ashley, was also a dedicated Scientologist. By church policy, all of them were supposed to cut off all ties with Nick or they, in turn, faced the risk of being declared suppressive. But Nick lived with Sara and Sheldon, and they weren’t about to kick him out. The church allowed them to spend some time trying to “handle” Lister, encouraging him to get back into the good graces in the church. Meanwhile, his sister, Ashley, also didn’t cut off ties, at least for a few months.


Sara tells us that eventually changed. Ashley suddenly announced that she was disconnecting from Nick, her brother — and on Christmas Day, 2010.

“The whole thing has been such a nightmare,” Sara says. But things were only going to get worse.

Lister did try to get back into Scientology’s good graces — doing what is called the “A to E Steps,” a series of tasks to reverse a declare. He met with the church’s then spokesman, Tommy Davis, who threatened Lister that “We are going to squash you like a bug,” but then told him if he followed a strict program of reeducation, he could make things right. But eventually, Lister grew tired of the hoops he was asked to jump through. He gave up on the A to E Steps.

Into 2012, that meant there was growing pressure on Sara and Sheldon Goldberg to either “handle” Nick or cut him out of their lives. And the church kept putting on the pressure, making Sara and Sheldon each go through “amends” programs to make up for their own failings regarding Sara’s son. Nick’s drinking problem was only making things worse, and in June, he threatened to kill himself. Sara assured Mike Ellis, Scientology’s “International Justice Chief” that she had the situation under control, but Ellis was blunt: It was time for Sara to cut her suppressive son out of her life.

Sara wasn’t going to let the church tell her to abandon her own son. So Ellis then ordered Sara and Sheldon to go through a “committee of evidence,” a sort of internal Scientology justice court, in September 2012. This would decide their fates.

We’re going to show you something now we don’t think has been made public before. It’s the letter Sara’s daughter, Ashley, sent in to the committee of evidence in support of her mother and stepfather, explaining in heavy Scientology jargon why her parents had done their best in the awkward family situation, shielding her from her suppressive brother…


27 Sept 2012
Comm Ev Committee Chairman
For Sheldon & Sara Goldberg

Ashley Epstein

Re: Sheldon & Sara Goldberg

Dear Sir,


In the 4+ years since my brother’s cycle began, Sheldon and Sara have done everything they could to keep the cycle and its inherent entheta off my lines while they were trying to handle my brother. It was obvious to almost anyone that something was going on, but they never put anything about on my lines, I never got any entheta from them about Nick, the church or Scientology. I didn’t really know the extent of what was happening until he was declared because it was deliberately kept off my lines.

I was dealing with my own entheta at the time with a very sick child, so not only did they keep my brother’s cycle off my lines, they did everything they could to help me and my family do better in life. Sheldon audited me for several intensives and got a full repair program completed so I could start my Purif. My mother (Sara) got me back on course at Flag on the basics, they frequently help me with my daughter and her therapies, they help me with her if I need to go in session and consistently help whenever else they can.

To my knowledge, since my brother’s declare, has successfully used her admin training to build a very successful company that uses LRH and Scientology tools to help its employees turn their lives around (such as the drug booklets and the Way to Happiness). I also know that Sheldon went to the Ship and some extensive handlings and came back VVGIs and did whatever program they sent him home with. He has done numerous auditing cycles and facilitated auditing for my husband and I over the last few years.

Whenever I have seen Sheldon and Sara recently, they have been very uptone and theta.

This is true,

Ashley Epstein

[Some definitions for those not up on Scientology-speak: my brother’s cycle = the ethics cycle that Nick is on, or the time since he first got into trouble; entheta = enturbulated theta, the opposite of good feeling or good news, it’s bad publicity or bad press for Scientology or bad vibes from a suppressive person, any bad influence that might keep a Scientologist from advancing his or her case; my lines = Ashley’s communication lines, the people she interacts with that affect her sphere in Scientology; intensives = auditing is purchased in blocks of 12.5 hours, known as an “intensive”; Purif = the Purifican Rundown, Scientology’s unscientific “detoxification” program of heavy niacin intake and hours of daily sauna use; Flag = The Flag Land Base, Scientology’s spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Florida, where many courses are delivered; the Basics = L. Ron Hubbard’s essential original books and lectures, edited and redesigned for a 2007 re-release; Admin = Hubbard’s voluminous rules for how to run an organization, used religiously by Scientology businesses; the Ship = Scientology’s private cruise ship, the Freewinds, where OT 8 and other courses are offered; VVGIs = Very very good indicators, signs that a Scientology process has produced desired results; uptone and theta = high on the Tone Scale of human emotion, flowing with life force.]

Even if the language is foreign to you, it should be pretty obvious how much Ashley is in support of her mother here. She knows how hard Sara has been trying to juggle this almost impossible situation.

After their hearing, they had to wait several months for a decision. In the meantime, they were still able to remain intact as a family. Even though Ashley had disconnected from her brother, she could still spend time with Sara, and on Mother’s Day 2013, Ashley took her mom out for breakfast and a pedicure.

On the morning of July 26, Ashley sent an email to her mother, saying that she’d signed up her daughter for a beach activity. “It is Sept 21st in Jacksonville Beach. I sent an email to the owner of the condo we stayed at last time asking if the condo is available that weekend. You want to come with us?”

Later that day, however, Sara received a letter from the Clearwater justice chief, Cara Golashesky. It was the findings of the committee of evidence, and it was a notice that both Sara and her husband had been declared.

“Your Committee of Evidence Findings and Recommendations recommend you be labeled suppressive. There is a declare order issued on you now to that effect,” the letter said.

Sara and Sheldon Goldberg had been expelled from Scientology because they refused to cut off ties from Sara’s own son. And now, all Scientologists would be required to disconnect from them.

When Sara went over to see her daughter, Ashley said the ethics office had been trying to call her and she asked what was happening. And that’s when Sara told her that she and Sheldon had been declared. When Ashley asked if Sara would appeal the decision, Sara admitted that she wasn’t going to disconnect from her own son. She also admitted that she’d begun reading critical information about Scientology on the Internet.

“You’re reading the Internet!” her daughter blurted. Sara tried to calm her down with a walk around the block. But then Ashley informed her mother that she was disconnecting from her. In the film, Sara describes the moment in vivid detail.

But what isn’t in the film are examples of how Sara didn’t give up on her daughter. Three days later, she sent this email to Ashley about her granddaughter that was suddenly out of her life…

She is not going to understand “disconnection.” Not ever seeing her Nana and G-pa could have a detrimental effect…Shel and I would like to see her for just a little time before you leave for Seattle this coming Saturday. Ten or 15 minutes is all I ask. You can let me know how to arrange it…She is an innocent little girl caught in the middle. If you want someone else to reply to this, that is fine too…You know how much she loves us and would not understand never seeing us again. Love, Mom

Sara continued to send emails, still hoping to go on the trip to Jacksonville in September, still hoping that Ashley would attend a wedding in Denver with them. Into August, she kept sending emails and handwritten letters, including this one…

August 10, 2013

Dear Ashley,

I had a realization today. I wondered what I could have done or would have done differently over these last months since our comm ev. I realized all I would have done is love you and [her granddaughter] more and harder. I would have spent even more time with you and been thankful for all of it. It was one thing I never fully confronted and that was losing you and [her granddaughter]. No mother should ever have to go thru this loss of a child and grandchild. I love you more and more and always did and will. Mom.

But then, the next day, on August 11, she finally received a reply from her daughter…


Ashley Epstein has followed Scientology’s policy to the letter, and she has cut her suppressive mother and brother and stepfather out of her life.

As for Ashley’s side of things, she’s spelled that out in detail in a video the Church of Scientology has posted at its Freedom magazine website. The video, which accuses Sara Goldberg of being a “home wrecker,” tries to paint her as heartless for siding with her alcoholic son over her daughter. Ashley’s hyperventilating in the video is tough to watch. And Sara tells us she hasn’t been able to bring herself to see it.

“Now, it’s gone to this other level where I’ve become this enemy who is no longer really her mother, I’m someone to be Fair Gamed and destroyed,” she says, referring to Scientology’s legendary practice of retaliation against critics.

“My daughter and I were so close. It’s amazing to me what they’ve done. That they turned my daughter. That is scary,” she says. “That they could turn a beautiful and intelligent young woman against her mother is hard to believe. But they operate from fear. They want to scare people so that people back off.”

While it’s not really a consolation for how her family has been ripped apart, Sara says that in the year since Joe Childs first wrote her story, she’s heard from many people who tell her that she is the reason they have found the ability to walk away from the Church of Scientology.

“I’ve heard from so many people. They say, you’re the reason that I left.”



We want to add a coda to this story. It was pointed out to us that the spectacularly bad Twitter feed Scientology recently started in order to attack Going Clear, @FreedomEthics, posted a photograph of Sara Goldberg with what appears to be some kind of target on her face…


Take a closer look at the Twitter feed’s logo…


You can see that it shares the same font as Freedom magazine itself…


And here’s something interesting about Freedom. We wrote about the new editor of its Florida edition, John Sugg, when he took over in the summer of 2013. But then we noticed more recently that Freedom had said something about hiring an entire newsroom in Los Angeles.

And sure enough, last week, the first new “International Edition” under the new crew came out. It’s edited by someone named Jennifer Johnson-Lankheim, and it may be the dullest edition of Freedom ever published.

You may remember that just a couple of years ago, Freedom was brashly calling Marty Rathbun “Kingpin Rathbone” and the rest of the church management that was talking to the press his “Posse of Lunatics.” Or there was the issue that put a caricature of Paul Haggis and Lawrence Wright on the cover in a parody of a New Yorker cover, and which was actually handed out by volunteers outside the Conde Nast offices in New York.

Well, for some reason, Scientology leader David Miscavige has come to the conclusion that it makes more sense to hire some non-Scientologists (we think) and have them produce the most anodyne, somnambulant material imaginable. The cover story of Ms. Johnson-Lankheim’s first issue is a story bemoaning the fact that Americans don’t read more books. We’re not making that up.

And here’s how Ms. Johnson-Lankheim describes her first impression of Scientology itself: “One of the biggest surprises I’ve had in this job, and in the peek I get behind the scenes of Scientology, is the remarkable pool of talent in its religious order, and how the Church goes to great pains to train and develop its people. I work alongside them every day, and let me tell you: As an organization, Scientology is profoundly enterprising.”

Gosh, she sounds so reasonable. So we decided, since she included her email address in a press release recently, that we’d see if she was as interested in her new employer as she made it seem. Here’s the message we sent her…


Since the Freedom Ethics twitter feed is using the name of your magazine, I’m wondering how you feel about this tweet (attached), which shows Sara Goldberg with a target on her face?

You seemed very reasonable in your initial editor’s note in this week’s new issue. I’m hoping you can help me understand why Freedom thinks tweets like this are an effective way to win people over.


Tony Ortega
The Underground Bunker

Three days, and still waiting for a response. Well, we can wait some more.


Bonus photos from our tipsters

Speaking of Scientology magazines, one of our tipsters pointed out that the latest issue of Freewinds includes this photo of Her Royal Governess of the Vast Valley Territory, otherwise known as Nancy Cartwright, voice of ‘Bart’ on The Simpsons, holding her OT 8 certificate on the deck of Scientology’s private cruise ship. Yes, Nancy, you have finally achieved goddesshood, just as you told Bryan Seymour you would years ago!


Anyone know why the staff of the new “Ideal Mission” in Belleair, Florida flew to Atlanta today?


I ran around a pole in Tampa and all I got was this T-shirt…


Joy Villa is actually raising money on her Grammys snowfence dress!


Former Miss New York Amanda Mason slips some disguised Scientology into “the Sophomore Class at the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan.”


Scientologists are using social media more than ever. Drop us a line if you spot them posting images to Instagram or Facebook!


Links of note

As you are well aware, every publication on earth is putting out a story about Scientology this week in advance of the Gibney documentary. We haven’t been saying much about them because most of them are going over subjects we’ve already covered at length here, and we have our hands full with our own countdown. But we do want to give a shout out to Sophie Gilbert of the Atlantic, who put together a really good piece about Scientology’s struggles with its image in the era of the Internet. Give it a look.


Posted by Tony Ortega on March 26, 2015 at 07:00

E-mail your tips and story ideas to or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. Here at the Bunker we try to have a post up every morning at 7 AM Eastern (Noon GMT), and on some days we post an afternoon story at around 2 PM. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of LA 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

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
The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ


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