Daily Notifications
Sign up for free emails to receive the feature story every morning in your inbox at


Claire Headley on growing up in Scientology, and other HowdyCon highlights

Our second annual meetup is in the books, and we won’t soon forget it. Kim O’Brien found a charming space for our private party, the Limerick Room at the Irish Rover in Denver, where 75 people gathered last night for HowdyCon 2017.

We had chosen Denver in part because it happens to be where a large number of familiar former Church of Scientology members happen to live. In particular, we looked forward to the participation of Marc and Claire Headley, and they did not disappoint.

“I was honored to have been invited,” Marc told us after the event. “Since my wife and I escaped from Scientology in 2005 we have received nothing but support from people hearing our story, and this is one of things that helped us along over the years. When you’re on your own and trying to make it in the world and having to start from scratch, you would not believe the power a few hundred people can have when they are pledging their support and cheering you on. I was happy to meet many of these people over the past few days and have conversations with them. I know that there were many people that could not make it this year and I hope that we will meet and get to talk in the coming years! Long live HowdyCon!”

Marc started things off for us last night with a side-splitting account of his involvement in Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie. And to illustrate his talk, he brought along a collection of photographs he took while Theroux and director John Dower were filming. Marc shared his slideshow with us…



The clip at the end is video Marc shot of what he says was originally intended to be the final scene in the film — a long shot of David Miscavige and Tom Cruise (played by actors), doing some skeet shooting at Scientology’s Int Base. At the beginning of the clip you can hear Dower saying, “If this ends up on bloody Ortega’s site, Headley, you’re banned.”

We were equally as thrilled to have Claire Headley also give a presentation, and it packed a wallop.

“It was truly amazing to meet so many wonderful people over the last few days, and to be able to present tonight was amazing too,” she told us. “This is a special community of people, a wide mix of exes, never-ins, etc. and yet such a great sense of camaraderie and support, that I am truly grateful to have been able to participate in. Special thanks to the awesome Kim O’Brien for organizing! And thank you again for having us Tony.”

Claire had told us that she wanted to do a spoken-word performance about growing up in Scientology. It was a powerful presentation, and she’s given us permission to publish it here at the Bunker.

Several months ago I heard there were TEDx auditions taking place in Denver. I came up with the idea of presenting a talk on growing up in Scientology and submitted an application. I was called for an audition! But with work and family commitments, I decided to opt out. This is the speech I’d prepared for that audition.

My name is Claire Headley.

Today I’d like to talk about being born into Scientology, being raised in Scientology, and the 30 years it took me to escape. I’d also like to talk about life after Scientology, and the freedom and liberation I found in breaking away from the cult I was raised in.

I think it’s safe to say we all know cults are dangerous.

But that’s a broad, sweeping statement, one which most people will agree with and then think that it has nothing more to do with them on a personal level. Of course, they’re not involved in a cult.

So I think a good starting point is: What defines a cult?

From my experiences and my life in a cult, the following points best define a cult:


1. Unquestioning commitment to a domineering leader.
2. Dissent and discussion discouraged.
3. Alteration of personality.
4. Polarization of members.

I’m sure everyone here understands these points, so I will not expand on those. Howeverm let me translate for you how these points characterized themselves to me as a child:

1. Do as you are told or risk losing your family immediately.
2. Don’t ever question Scientology. Ever. Under any circumstances.
3. Never say anything bad about Scientology. Ever. Under any circumstances.
4. Never think anything bad about Scientology.
5. Anyone not in Scientology should not be trusted, family or otherwise.
6. The world outside Scientology is a very dangerous place.

Have you stopped to consider this: If you were born into a cult how would you get out? If you were indoctrinated as a child to believe the only reason anyone ever left was because they were bad, how would you break free?

As a child, would you turn your back on all those you love, your friends, your family members, anyone you’d ever known inside that world? How would you do that with no contacts to the outside world? How would you survive? How would you get a job? With no education, no high school diploma, no college degree, no friends or family to help you, how would you succeed?

Here’s another question to consider: What impact does it have on a child to never know unconditional love? To know that love from one’s parent or parents, is entirely dependent on cooperation and continuation in their cult following? I know that’s a tough question to consider. But I think it’s an important one if you want to understand the lasting trauma of growing up in Scientology.


I’ve studied several books on trauma and abuse, as well as involvement in a cult. One has a pre-cult personality, but in the case of a young child, the cult personality is dominant from earliest memories, which makes it much harder to wake up from. There is simply very little “normal” life frame of reference to fall back on.

I was born into Scientology. Scientology was never my choice. In fact, as a child growing up in Scientology, I often wished for, longed for, a normal life.

Because of Scientology, I never knew my father. My mother disconnected from him when he left Scientology, when I was 2 years old. In fact, one of my earliest memories was that of my father leaving, and thinking that I must have done something wrong to cause that.

My mother joined the highest inner circle of Scientology, the Sea Organization, shortly after my 4th birthday. What does that mean? It means that as a single mother of a four-year-old, she committed herself to a billion years of service to the upper management levels of Scientology.

What did that commitment mean to me at 4 years old? It meant I lost my mother fully and completely to Scientology. Immediately on arrival to the Sea Org at Scientology’s headquarters in England, I was submersed into a world that had absolutely nothing to do with a normal and healthy childhood.

Very few stories have been shared in depth of what it means to grow up in Scientology. Personally, I think the reason for that is the experience is deeply traumatic on many levels. I think it is especially hard to understand the depths of the trauma, personally and for others.

When you ask most people about their childhood and to think of a memorable moment, they’ll think of a family vacation, perhaps a fun Christmas, childhood friends, perhaps time with their family.

Ask me what’s my most memorable childhood moment? I have a few.

From the age of 4 I lived in a girl’s dormitory, with other Sea org children. This is where I first met Valeska and Melissa Paris. Stonelands was the miserable and derelict old mansion we called home, which was a 20 minute drive from where our parents worked.

My most memorable Christmas moment came when I was 6 years old. My mother came to see me in tears. She explained she was being sent on mission to Europe for several months, and would not be able to spend Christmas with me. I was stunned into silence. I was assigned to a family whose task it became to monitor me. There was one adult responsible for the 20-40 children in the cadet org in the years I was there. We had no parents. So instead we were raised by checklists and statistics. I was responsible for eight children who were all around my age. I had to make sure they followed their checklists – made their beds, showered, brushed teeth, ate meals, went to school, did the manual labor tasks we were assigned, studied Scientology. We were assigned statistics driven by how much of the checklist we completed.

There was the time when I was 7 when my mother was sent to the RPF, Rehabilitation Project Force, for having sex with her boyfriend at the time. Why was this memorable? Because I was informed that this assignment meant I was not allowed to talk to her, and I was assigned to a “foster” family who would “keep an eye” on me for the duration of her time on the program.

Several months into the program, my mother was severely injured on a construction site and was rushed to the hospital. She had been hit in the head with a brick.

This incident was a happy one for me. I know that might sound truly bizarre. However because she was injured and needed special care on release from the hospital, I was assigned to take care of her, including delivering “Touch assists” to her, and while I was upset that she was hurt, I was overjoyed that I could once more see and speak to her, despite the scary-to- me circumstances.

Several months later, I fell out of my bunk bed in the dormitory where I lived. I landed on several planks of wood that had been left lying there. The impact broke my collar bone and cut open my head and knocked me unconscious. Somehow the night watch security guard must have heard something and he carried me to my mother’s room. The next day, broken arm and all, I went to school anyway. School was the only normal, and thus most enjoyable part of my life. I craved that normality, and I was not willing to miss out on it for any reason at all.


Needless to say, the teacher noticed my injuries and I found myself with the headmistress within an hour of that, being questioned as to what happened. It did not strike me until many years later that she thought I had been abused. As I was trained to do, even then, I kept my mouth shut and said not one bad thing about Scientology or my living circumstances.

My experiences were by no means extreme. Physical and verbal abuse, sexual abuse, molestation and extreme neglect were very common experiences for cadets. I’ve often found it difficult to share my
experiences, because I resent the idea of being considered a science project.

At age 7, an older male staff member tried to lure my friend and I to his office to molest us. I refused to go with him and urged my friend not to go with him. My friend chose to go with he molested her. This was never reported to the police.

At age 9, my mother escaped the Sea Org in the dead of night and left me behind. She fled to my grandmother’s house. She was pregnant by my step father, and had been under interrogation and on heavy manual labor as part of her process of routing out of the Sea Org. She snapped under those circumstances.

My step father left to recover her and bring her back. So for several days, I was alone in that world, no parents. Lost and confused.

Most of my childhood I remember as a battle – trying to get my mother back. I came to realize it was simply a lost cause.

For example, most Saturdays I would spend 2 hours with my mother during her CSP time – the time she was expected to clean her room and do her laundry.

Afterwards, I would try to go in to work with her. I had to get special and written approval to do so, so I would write a CSW – Completed Staff Work. A CSW is a presentation for approval as to why you want to do something other than what you are supposed to be doing. Situation – I want to spend time with my mother. Data – Please let me go to work with her. Solution – Approve that I go to work with my mother.

My CSWs were always disapproved. One time I sneaked into the van and went to work anyway. For that I was assigned to the DPF, Deck Project Force, a child equivalent to the RPF. I was assigned the nastiest tasks they could dream up, and I was assigned lower conditions.

And even though my mother eventually did leave the Sea Org when I was 10, I was never able to integrate into the real world. My family moved to the US when I was 13, after which I never went back to school. They could not afford Scieentology school so instead I did a quasi “home school” program. My mother had 3 children by my step dad and I raised those children until I rejoined the Sea Org at age 16. I had signed a billion year contract at age 7, and I came to think scientology was the only path open to me.

To this day, I can recite for you KSW #1 points 1 to 10, the 3 barriers to study, the precepts of The Way to Happiness. Why? Because I was learning those from age 5. Even if I wanted to, I doubt I could erase those from my mind. I wish I could. For now, they stay with me as a reminder of the dangers of involving children in cults.

While other kids were learning multiplication tables and manners, I was learning Hubbard precepts. It took me 30 years to break free of Scientology.

When I finally did break free, I am truly grateful that I was able to go on to create a successful business. My husband and I are celebrating 25 years of marriage this year. We have three children. We are proud of what we have accomplished in the 12 years since we escaped from Scientology.

It has not been easy, it has taken hard work, willingness to learn and a commitment to build a life from scratch. Despite my experiences, it is my firm belief that our past doesn’t define us. What we do now defines us.

If there is one thing I would love to contribute to accomplishing in my life, it would be to make it illegal to involve children in cults.

— Claire Headley

If the Headleys were local, we also had some people who traveled a long way to get to HowdyCon. Australian journalist Steve Cannane, who actually lives in London, shared with us some great things he learned while researching his 2016 book, Fair Game.

We also heard from Phil and Willie Jones, who had come a long way by car — from their place in Las Vegas. Here’s what Phil sent to us after last night’s event…

On the drive out to Denver for HowdyCon 2017, Willie and I talked about what we might expect when we got there. We missed last year, so this was a new experience for us. Up to now the Bunker has been an oasis of friends who have softened the landing for us as we exited Scientology and we were looking forward to meeting some of them in person.

Except for a few that we’ve met in person, the majority of the new friends we’ve made through the Bunker are only through online communication. So now we got the opportunity to meet many of our new friends in person for the first time. It was a wonderful experience. And the amazing thing is that those friendships we made through the Bunker carried on as smoothly as a river rounding a bend into new and exciting territory. And for all of those who were unable to make it this year I now know that those friendships we share online are every bit as real as those we’ve shared in person with others.

The first night after we arrived there was a fun meet and greet in a nice restaurant. Name tags were most appreciated as it seemed that most people had 2 names. There was their real name and their online identity. Now I have trouble remembering name, so that’s when a name tag sure is welcome. If many people thought I was nodding in agreement during our conversation it very well might have been me glancing down at their name tag every so often.

On the second night Diana (dibythesea) held a little cocktail party for everyone on the large outdoor balcony at the hotel. There was a fire pit in the center which, as the night cooled, was very comforting. We relaxed and got to know each other better and had some fun with the Jimmy3 trivia game.

The kicker was HowdyCon night, last night. We crowded the venue with more people than probably any Org on the planet has on course at any time. There were probably more people there than Denver has Scientologists.

I was enthralled by Steve Cannane’s talk on Scientology’s history in Australia and how it affected Scientology worldwide for years to come. I could have listened to him talk all night long. Facinating stuff.

Marc Headley provided some incredible back story and photos on Louis Theroux’s movie as well as a few Marty bits. His book was one of the first I’d read when coming out of Scientology and it was literally one of the best personal accounts of abuse in the Sea Org. His talk was every bit as engrossing.

Claire also spoke. Wow! This one was tough. She spoke about growing up in Scientology and it really hit home how this might be a reflection of what our own kids went through. I have to admit I may have choked up a bit during her talk.

We also heard from Bernie Headley [Marc’s father]. I got to speak to him earlier. He is one of the most kind and caring people you ever want to meet. If we all had ‘dads’ like this the world would be a better place for sure.

Chris Shelton always brings it home. He spoke well, as usual, and thanked the never-ins and exes for their support.

Aaron Smith-Levin has one of the most touching stories I’ve heard. Losing someone is difficult but losing a twin, well, I can’t even imagine. Yet here he is fighting the fight in exposing the abuses of Scientology. He said he isn’t comfortable public speaking but he comes across so real and genuine and it was great to hear from him as well.

Tony did bring up our billboards. There are many to thank for making them happen. For starters it would absolutely not have happened without Tony’s help. And Artoo! His artwork was Madison Avenue quality. It was the clarity of his message that gave it viral power. And then there was the support of all the Bunkerites and those who donated to allow us to put the billboard up. In the end we were able to put up three billboards. Two in LA and one in Clearwater. These billboards locally got millions of views, but it didn’t stop there. We also got international press. This message of disconnection we put out with the CallMe billboard was seen worldwide.

And Cathy Schenkelberg! Holy Smokes! She is a fireball. She performed part of her show and dazzled us all. We are going to do whatever we need to in order to see the full show as soon as possible.

And finally we also got to spend some time just sightseeing around Denver with a bunch of our good friends from the Bunker. We visited the Denver Arsenal wildlife preserve and also toured the Botanical Gardens. As nice as it was to see these beautiful attractions, a good bit of the enjoyment was spending time with our ‘mates.’

I hope we get to meet more of you at next year’s HowdyCon.

Love to you all,

Phil & Willie

What a night. Thank you to all who came out, and to those who checked in here at the website.

UPDATE: Derek Bloch on his Denver experience…

Howdycon means love, companionship, genuine human connection. It represents the best of what people can be. Strangers coming together in support of people who have been damaged in an unfair world. People who recognize the support they’ve received from total strangers and sometimes more support than even their own parents would give them.

Howdycon means memorializing the good in people in the name of one of the most caring individuals who was part of the founding of this group. It means being able to share a meal and drinks with great friends in the spirit of someone who genuinely touched so many people’s lives.

Howdycon means hope for those of us who find ourselves suddenly alone and lost. It started as an online gathering place for wayward souls and those who would foster them. It has become tangible and taken on a life of its own.

Howdycon means that if you have been treated unjustly and ignored even by the fundamental services intended to protect our human rights, there will still be good people out there who care enough about you to help you along.

Kim O’Brien weighs in…

Tony asked me to write something about what this weekend has meant to me. I am not really sure how to do that. I usually rage about how wrong I think Scientology is …or flip out when children have been left or kicked out of their homes. Scientology has taken so much from so many.

What HowdyCon means to me is just maybe giving a little bit of that something back. This is a community that comes together, to give people something back.

It should also be mandatory — because you don’t ever want to miss it.



Scientology disconnection, a reminder

Bernie Headley has not seen his daughter Stephanie in 4,792 days.
Jamie Sorrentini Lugli has not seen her father Irving in 2,549 days.
Quailynn McDaniel has not seen her brother Sean in 1,895 days.
Claudio and Renata Lugli have not seen their son Flavio in 2,389 days.
Sara Goldberg has not seen her daughter Ashley in 1,429 days.
Lori Hodgson has not seen her son Jeremy in 1,141 days.
Marie Bilheimer has not seen her mother June in 667 days.
Joe Reaiche has not seen his daughter Alanna Masterson in 4,756 days
Derek Bloch has not seen his father Darren in 1,896 days.
Cindy Plahuta has not seen her daughter Kara in 2,216 days.
Claire Headley has not seen her mother Gen in 2,191 days.
Ramana Dienes-Browning has not seen her mother Jancis in 547 days.
Mike Rinder has not seen his son Benjamin in 4,849 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his daughter Spring in 956 days.
Skip Young has not seen his daughters Megan and Alexis for 1,358 days.
Mary Kahn has not seen her son Sammy in 1,231 days.
Lois Reisdorf has not seen her son Craig in 812 days.
Phil and Willie Jones have not seen their son Mike in 1,317 days.
Mary Jane Sterne has not seen her daughter Samantha in 1,561 days.
Kate Bornstein has not seen her daughter Jessica in 12,670 days.


3D-UnbreakablePosted by Tony Ortega on June 25, 2017 at 07:00

E-mail tips and story ideas to tonyo94 AT gmail DOT com or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

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


Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email