Miscavige Family Values

by Arthur B

Autobiographies about traumatic family lives get really weird when the family in question rules Scientology with an iron grip.
People defecting from Scientology (and its precursor pseudoscience of Dianetics) and writing books critical of L. Ron Hubbard's personal brand of bullshit have existed about as long as Dianetics and Scientology have. Dr Joseph Winter was a member of the first wave of people L. Ron Hubbard duped with his claims of a breakthrough in mental health: he was a founder member of the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation, the first of a great many organisations established by Hubbard over the years (usually to replace previous ones which had collapsed, gone bankrupt, or slipped entirely out of his control), and was one of the first to join its Board of Directors. Hubbard wanted Winter to be prominently involved because, as a medical doctor, Winter gave the new therapy a vital veneer of credibility, and in fact Winter wrote the original introduction to Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (an introduction, naturally, long since excised by the Church of Scientology).

The year after Dianetics was published, Winter - having resigned from the Foundation - brought out A Doctor's Report on Dianetics, in which he expressed doubts about a number of claims made by Dianetics, suggested that he still believed in some of its premises but they could really do with actual research, and slammed Hubbard's authoritarian approach, dangerous willingness to give Dianetic credentials to anyone who wanted to become a practitioner, and complete refusal to do anything resembling proper scientific testing. The pattern Winter set has persisted over the years; although the Church claims a vast membership, the best estimates of those who've studied these things suggest that at any particular time there are only a few thousand practicing Scientologists in the Church, their numbers constantly sapped by people dropping out. A certain proportion of the people dropping out write books, or provide research material to journalists writing books, and bit by bit over the years a sizable genre of Scientology exposes has grown up.

The best one written by a non-Scientologist I've read is Bare-Faced Messiah by Russell Miller, a biography of Hubbard which draws on extensive evidence provided by ex-Scientologists and Miller's own research. The story told is equal parts amusing, terrifying, and enraging - amusing because Hubbard was capable of incredible buffoonery in his time, including ill-fated attempts to take over Rhodesia through sheer bluster, terrifying because it's also clear he was incredibly abusive towards everyone who got close to him, and enraging because at the end he got away with it. The best account of the Hubbard era by an ex-Scientologist is probably Jon Atack's A Piece of Blue Sky; for the main part it's also a biography of Hubbard, because any study of Scientology during the period in question inevitably becomes a Hubbard biography, but Atack does a better job of talking about what was going on in the wider organisation, such as the various outrages perpetrated by the Guardian's Office (Hubbard's personal intelligence agency, operated by his wife Mary Sue Hubbard) and the fascinating internal politics surrounding the succession when it became clear in the early 1980s that Hubbard didn't have long to go before he dropped his present body. (Or "died", as most of us like to call it.)

In particular, A Piece of Blue Sky offered one of the earliest examinations of the actions of David Miscavige and his cronies. Miscavige is the current leader of the Church, having taken aggressive action prior to Hubbard's death to emasculate more or less all the potential opposition. His trademark managerial style seems to involve brutal, unrestrained aggression: Atack recounts how in bringing the various "Mission Holders" (operators of Scientology franchises - yes, Scientology was basically run like Starbuck's at the time) into line, Miscavige created the post of "International Finance Dictator" - no, that's not a typo - at the head of the "International Finance Police", and by all accounts he hasn't gained much subtlety over the years, The FBI has investigated reports of Miscavige running a prison for disgraced Church executives , and several defectors have accused Miscavige of physically attacking Church members who have particularly displeased him. He's also completely shameless in the tactics he uses to squeeze money out of the membership - "corrected" versions of the core Scientology materials have been republished twice under his watch, once in 1991 and once in 2007, both times claiming to be fully corrected editions 100% in-keeping with L. Ron's intentions (one wonders why the great man didn't spot all those errors when he was alive...), and a lot of recent defectors cite the Ideal Orgs scheme - demanding donations from local groups in order to build bright, shiny Scientology buildings which for the most part haven't seen any actual use - as being a major factor in convincing them Miscavige doesn't have their best interests at heart.

The result has been a small boom in recent anti-Scientology exposes. Perhaps emboldened by the success of the Anonymous protests against Scientology - in which it became clear that Scientology criticism had become so widespread that even the notoriously litigious Church couldn't file enough libel suits to keep the lid on things - various researchers and ex-Scientologists have turned their attention to the present-day abuses of the Miscavige era. In the last few months alone we've had John Sweeney turning his Panorama research into a book (Church of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology) and US journalist Lawrence Wright has produced Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief which looks into (amongst other things) the relationship celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta have to the Church. On top of that, there's been the usual burst of autobiographical accounts from ex-Scientologists, including one with a particular potential to seriously annoy David Miscavige: Beyond Belief, the account of his niece Jenna Miscavige-Hill (aided by Lisa Pulitzer, who seems to specialise in helping people write this sort of autobiography).

As Miscavige's niece, Jenna is a third generation Scientologist, the Miscavige family having been brought into the fold by her grandfather Ronald Miscavige in 1971. Jenna was born in 1984, at a time when Miscavige had firmly established his grip over the Church, so she'd have been at most 2 when L. Ron dropped his body - in other words, she doesn't remember a time when Uncle Dave wasn't the boss. You would think this would have set her up for a pretty easy ride in life - after all, there's a lot of money that gets channelled up to the Church leadership, and Scientology is supposed to help people have healthier and happier family lives, right?

Well, if that's the case the Miscavige family is probably doing it wrong. Jenna, after all, has left the Church - and she isn't even the first Miscavige to do this, with her brother and parents all preceding her and her grandfather - the one who got the family mixed up in Scientology in the first place - quitting after she left. However, Jenna is the one who has become the most prominent thorn in Uncle Dave's side. Through her website, Ex-Scientology Kids, she runs a support network to help people who grew up in the Church make their own way in the world after quitting - a crucial service, since as she describes in the book a Scientological upbringing in no way prepares you for independent living as an adult. (Scientological "education", in particular, seems designed to leave you unemployable except as a professional Scientologist.) On top of that, through media interviews, involvement in Anonymous' anti-Scientology protests, and now this book, she's regularly spoken out against the Church.

This represents one of Uncle Dave's biggest fears, if her account is to be believed. According to her, family members who left Scientology were pressured by the group into giving up the Miscavige name, because Uncle Dave hates the idea of someone using the Miscavige name to attack the Church. Some family members, like Jenna's brother, have complied, since they don't want anything to do with Dave in the first place; Jenna herself uses it prominently precisely because of the credibility it gives her; in publishing this book and saying what she is saying, Jenna presents David Miscavige with an enormous catch-22. Whilst the Church has been extremely litigious in the past, and it would certainly be difficult for Jenna to provide proof of a lot of what she is alleging here because she relies a lot on her own personal recollections, suing her for libel would draw even more attention to the Miscavige family feud, which would in itself generate the sort of bad PR that Church members have a religious obligation to avoid. On the other had, precisely because Scientology has been so lawsuit-happy in the past, if they choose not to sue over a book - particularly one as high-profile as this one - that's going to create a perception that what the book discloses is actually true.

That's quite serious, because Jenna's stance with the book goes much further than saying "Scientology was mean to me". In the early chapters of the book, she recounts how after her parents decided to rejoin the Sea Org - the elite staff of the Church - she and her brother were sent to be educated at the Ranch, a cross between a boarding school and a boot camp for kids expected to join the Sea Org when they grow up. Jenna recalls signing the infamous Sea Org "billion year contract" - a concept which doesn't sound so ludicrous if you believe in reincarnation, as Scientologists do - when she was just 7 years old, and the Ranch itself seems to have run on a mixture of negligence and abuse.

On the abuse side of the coin, the children seem to have been used as a handy slave labour force by the Ranch staff. This goes beyond a child's griping about chores - hours and hours of manual labour every day seems to have been the norm, to the point where outside contractors called in to do work the kids and ranch staff couldn't handle themselves raised concerns when they witnessed kids at work (accidentally, since naturally efforts were made to conceal the child labour aspect of the Ranch from visitors). Punishment duties consisted of even harsher levels of hard labour, whilst the children often seem to have been assigned jobs which go well beyond the level of responsibility anyone their age should be taking on. One particularly alarming detail is that Jenna, not even ten yet, was given the task of checking up on all the kids every day for medical complaints and ensuring they got the proper treatment - which often took the form of a Scientological "touch assist" since medical drugs are frowned on in Scientology. Jenna points out that if she had screwed up that job one day by not recognising the signs of a serious illness or injury - very easy to do when you are a small child with no conventional medical training - people could have died.

The hard labour aspect of the Sea Org extends right through to Jenna's adult experiences in the Church. Based on Jenna's account, it seems that there are three tiers in Scientology beneath David Miscavige, and you get treated differently in each one. So-called "public Scientologists" - members of the Church who have not signed up to the Sea Org - are the cash cows, forking out atrocious sums of money for Scientology courses and under constant pressure to either keep coughing up the dough in order to maintain their present level of success and keep working their way along the "Bridge to Freedom" or to join the Sea Org. Since Hubbard penned teachings about more or less every sphere of human activity, public Scientologists are prevailed upon to apply Scientology to every sphere of their life, such as the way they run their businesses - and of course the Church charges a hefty fee for all of these materials.

The big advantage of being in the second tier, the Sea Org, seems to be that you don't have to pay for your courses. (Well, if you quit the Sea Org they present you with a bill for all the courses you took with them, which you have to pay if you don't want to be declared a Suppressive Person - in other words, get put on Scientology's enemies list and lose contact with all of your friends and family still in the Church.) The disadvantage of being in the Sea Org, based on Jenna's account, is everything else. Paid a pittance, living in cramped conditions, and with your personal life ruthlessly policed (dating and marriage is difficult, having kids is banned), Sea Org life is reminiscent of being in a gulag: you're treated as part of a massive labour force, you can expect confinement and hard physical labour if you act out, and "security checks" and interrogations about infractions real and imagined are commonplace.

It doesn't seem like anyone is immune from this, with the possible exception of David Miscavige and his wife (and considering that Mrs Miscavige has disappeared and has not been seen in public for years, maybe she herself isn't immune after all); although Jenna got out of Scientology before the Hole got started, she notes various instances of even senior Sea Org members being viciously punished. Her own mother, though able to partake of various luxuries denied to lower ranks of the Sea Org, was eventually put on a hard labour punishment detail for having an affair. Jenna herself was often accused of having it easy because she was David Miscavige's niece, and whilst she does identify instances where the rules were bent for her she also makes it clear that in some respects she was under more scrutiny precisely because of who she was; in conversations with her parents after she left Scientology, as well as some of her former case handlers after they in turn quit, she's been able to piece together a very disturbing picture of precisely how much Uncle Dave was micromanaging her case, and part of the reason her auditors and handlers were so hard on her was because if they didn't get the desired results from their interactions they could expect to be screamed at and punished in turn by David.

The third variety of Scientologists the book identifies are the celebrity Scientologists, who are essentially like public Scientologists who get handled with kid gloves. John Travolta and Tom Cruise have to shell out for their Scientology courses like anyone else, but they tend not to be subjected to the controlling, pestering behaviour exerted over public Scientologists, if they join the Sea Org they don't get the harsh treatment other Sea Org members can expect, and in general they can enjoy numerous perks (like consistently seeing the same auditor) that ordinary Scientologists don't have. The reason many celebrities are able to give Scientology a clean bill of health is that Scientology never bares its teeth to them, though Jenna has said elsewhere that Tom Cruise is almost certainly aware of how hard Sea Org members have it and is either fine with it or chooses to overlook it.

What makes the book a fascinating read despite the rather bland presentation is Jenna's ability to clearly enunciate the systemic nastiness of Scientology. Jenna is not interested in slamming the beliefs behind Scientology in the book, and indeed many of her early clashes with the Church hierarchy came about because the Church higher-ups were doing things to her which directly contravened the rules as set down by Hubbard. Although Jenna herself now considers Hubbard to be a charlatan, both the book and her website do note the existence of independent Scientologists - ex-Church members who think L. Ron was onto a good thing but that the Church has turned nasty and oppressive in the wake of Uncle Dave's takeover. (I'd say that position is hard to sustain in the face of the facts raised by bloggers like Caliwog, who regularly points out policies and practices which independent Scientologists like to ascribe to David Miscavige but in fact originated with Hubbard himself).

Jenna and her husband Dallas never actually found out about the Xenu stuff until after they had left the Church - and indeed, at that point they still hadn't entirely given up their Scientological beliefs, because their departure was nothing to do with them losing faith in the philosophy and everything to do with them losing their faith in the Church as an institution. Believe it or not, they actually found out about the OT III material (the Scientology grade where you get to find out about Xenu) through the South Park episode on the subject, and going into it they were deeply uncomfortable about watching it because they heard it contained OT III information and they'd been taught that finding it out before completing the preliminary stages would cause massive psychological damage and could even kill you .

Jenna's website makes the point that focusing on Xenu and the wacky space opera stuff isn't actually very helpful when it comes to combating Scientology's abuses, because most Scientologists don't know anything about Xenu and would probably not believe their superiors in the Church teach anything remotely that goofy (though in the book Jenna says that if she'd found out about Xenu at the height of her faith, she'd have probably believed). In fact, Scientologists within the Church would probably go out of their way to avoid reading about OT III stuff, either because they genuinely believe they'll die if they read it too soon or because they're afraid that if they find out about it they'll "blow their case" (render themselves unable to progress in Scientology and maybe even get kicked out of the Church).

The problem with the Xenu doctrine isn't that it's silly - lots of people believe and teach silly things about aliens and manage to do so harmlessly - it's that you have to shell out a ridiculous amount of money to find out about it through official channels, and once you do find out if you don't believe you have to feign belief anyway because if you don't accept the teachings you won't be allowed to see your friends and family in the Church. And the Church makes damn sure you have next-to-no friends and family outside the Church long before you get to play with Xenu; you are expected to "disconnect" from Scientology-hostile individuals and "Suppressive Persons" at a much earlier stage on the Scientology level progression - which, even if you never make it to OT III, more or less guarantees that the Church is going to end up with a massively disproportionate level of power over your life.

(Likewise, the problem with the Church isn't that it's a silly UFO religion at its heart - you're allowed to be a silly UFO religion. The problem is that it's only a religion when it's useful to the Church to be a religion. Scientology presents itself as religious when it wants to get tax breaks and other delicious First Amendment perks, then it turns around and presents its technique as "technology" or a science when it wants to sound authoritative to people taking part in it, and then it claims that its high-level doctrines are trade secrets or protected by copyright in order to hamper the activities of independent Scientologists, and then, having attacked the independents' freedom of religion, they turn around again and claim that their right to freedom of religion is under attack when people say mean things about the Church. Scientology's attempt to have it both ways was transparently insincere and self-serving in Ron's time and hasn't gotten much better today.)

The Church's usual defence against criticism of its disciplinary methods - which it used to great effect in order to squash legal proceedings concerning the Hole - is that these are religious practices consensually entered into, much like the discipline and deprivation that monastic traditions in other religions involve. However, Jenna's account here neatly highlights how the Church's practices - in particular, the way it can order followers to "disconnect from" or shun those the Church deems outcast - are used in order to manufacture consent. With a patchwork education leaving her ill-equipped to deal with life outside of the Church's confines, Jenna along with several of her peers felt that staying in the Church was the only option, especially since it was the only way to keep in touch with many of her loved ones. The therapeutic emphasis of the Church's procedures encourages its members to believe that if they don't toe the line, they may ruin their only chance for genuine happiness.

Similarly, many of the Church's doctrines seem optimised to counteract criticism, or to justify using Church members as sub-minimum wage labour. A recurring concept throughout the book is the idea of "misunderstood words" - this being Hubbard's theory that the only reason anyone ever fails to understand something is because they misunderstood a word, and so if you don't understand any of his course materials you need to work your way back to the word you misunderstood, revise what that word actually needs from a dictionary, then pick the course up again from that point. In the hands of the Church, this is a fantastic tool for deflecting questions; any time someone expresses doubts or raises confusion, their Church superiors ask them to try and find their misunderstood words instead of attempting to properly explore what the issue is. Similarly, the doctrine of "overts and withholds" effectively means that if the Church or an E-meter thinks you are guilty of something, you are guilty, but you might not have admitted that to yourself yet. And some of Hubbard's bizarre choices of subject matter to write on, like the proper procedure for cleaning a room, makes sense when you realise just how much time Sea Org recruits spend working as cleaners for the higher-ups: by writing a holy text on cleaning, Hubbard turned it into a religious devotion.

Another doctrine used for manipulative purposes is the idea of the Eight Dynamics - the eight basic priorities of the Church. Any action taken is assessed against how many of the Dynamics are served by it, and if there's a choice between two actions the ethical and right choice is the one which serves more Dynamics. The first two Dynamics are Self and Family; the other six are all fairly abstract notions. As Jenna points out, this means that the Church has stacked the deck in favour of itself: because the purpose of the Church is to serve all of the Dynamics, any action demanded of its members by the Church can usually be massaged in order to be presented as serving three or more of the Dynamics, if not all of them. All this means that the individual and the family lose out every time because non-Church business is usually held to only serve Dymanics 1 and 2.

The major irony of the book, as Jenna points out, is that Scientology claims to bring families together even as it exerts all its energies into doing the opposite. Members are ordered to disconnect from family members who are even suspected of looking at anti-Scientology material, obstacles are put in the way of Sea Org members who want to marry and have kids (evidently "bringing families together" doesn't include "making new families"), and during her childhood at the Ranch and in the Sea Org Jenna's parents were posted to opposite sides of the country and were barely involved in her life. Jenna seems particularly outraged at the Church punishing her mother for her affair with a colleague, because Jenna believes that by keeping her parents apart the Church created a situation where sooner or later some sort of family crisis was inevitable.

Although Jenna acknowledges that many put the blame for Scientology's abuses squarely on the shoulders of Hubband and/or Uncle Dave, she presents a compelling argument in the book that the Church is abusive on a systemic level - that even if you didn't have someone at the top as the dictatorial overlord of the whole structure, the members would still go around being beastly to each other. Not only is the internal culture of the Church she depicts here deeply paranoid, but as she explains it the Church's teachings and practices both render its members incapable of independent thought (any sign of which is considered an ethical violation) and trains people to respond to unexpected or difficult situations with authoritarian punishments. This being the case, it can be difficult to understand why anyone tolerates this sort of treatment, which I suppose is why books like this are so important in explaining why people stick around in the Church even when they are aware that something is deeply fucked up about it.

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Comments (go to latest)
Alice at 18:35 on 2013-04-27
Hubbard's personal intelligence agency, operated by his wife Mary Sue Hubbard

For a brief moment, I thought that was a joke, but no, his wife really was called Mary Sue. o_O

I'm afraid that's the most coherent sort of comment I can make on anything to do with the inside workings of Scientology, because the rest of my brain just starts running away, screaming.

Theme: "Horror" , indeed.
Arthur B at 00:01 on 2013-04-28
For a brief moment, I thought that was a joke, but no, his wife really was called Mary Sue. o_O

The strange thing is she really was a Hubbard fangirl (read: enthusiastic Dianeticist) who ended up having this meteoric rise to the top of the pyramid after Hubbard took notice of her and ended up being much more loyal to him than any of his other wives (both of whom ended up running away screaming because that's kind of the sensible reaction to LRH) and ended up overseeing all of this James Bond shit. So if this were fiction she really would be accused of being a self-insert.
Guy at 14:19 on 2013-04-28
Does it talk at all about the death of Flo Barnett? I think that's the part that creeps me out most of all...
Arthur B at 14:33 on 2013-04-28
It isn't addressed. I believe Jenna would have been about 1 year old at the time Flo died so she wouldn't have been in a position to remember much of anything about it (setting aside Scientological theories about Dianetics giving you perfect recall for the moment), and the book fairly rigorously sticks to stuff that Jenna personally experienced.

It is not the only case surrounding Scientology involving gunshot wounds to the head which people have expressed doubts about being self-inflicted. In fact, people being shot in the head comes up more in Scientology than is really comfortable.
Arthur B at 10:36 on 2015-04-09
Latest Miscavige family drama: Scientology private detectives have been caught spying on Ron Miscavige, Jenna's grandfather and David Miscavige's father, on behalf of David. One of the PIs had an illegal silencer for an assault rifle and a violent criminal history to boot.
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