I made my third and final escape from Scientology’s gated, guarded International Management headquarters near Los Angeles in 1998. The doors to my world of Scientology friends and loved ones promptly slammed shut. I experienced firsthand Scientology’s cruel policy of disconnection when Peter Schless, my husband of 21 years, disconnected from me over my choice to leave the Sea Org and Scientology.
There are many ways a person who gets involved in Scientology can fall down a rabbit hole without seeing it coming, like we did. Reflecting on my twenty-something state of mind when Peter Schless and I took a detour from building our lives together with careers in the Hollywood entertainment industry to journey into Scientology, is a perplexing experience for the woman I am now.
Since I became a critic of Scientology, I’ve had experiences that shouldn’t happen in America, though many other critics’ experiences have been far worse than mine. In 2000, I attempted to tell my story in my first book, Chasing After the Wind (Broadman & Holman, Nashville), and my second, Escaping Scientology, in 2006 (New Hope Publishers, Birmingham). Both times, Scientology officials used threats and lies to overwhelm my publishers to cancel the book releases (see Chapter, Leverage). In those days, the Church of Scientology International was infamous for being a highly litigious organization with a bottomless money pit used to squash opponents. Unwilling to engage in the bloodsport of legal battles with Scientology, my publishers apologized to me and shelved my books. Had they asked, Why did Scientology not want my story to be told, or What would I reveal that could affect the organization’s reputation, they could have potentially helped a lot of people from getting involved in this cult, or could have helped many families to get their loved ones out, had they released those books.
My tango with Scientology officials who squashed my first book publication motivated me to get busy living. While finishing two college degrees, I also did media interviews on NBC Dateline, CBS, CNN and other cable shows, and spoke at more than 100 social organizations, churches, youth groups and universities about my Scientology experiences. My thinking during that period reflected a mindset still transitioning out of Scientology concepts, and just beginning to reflect any critical thinking that I had developed outside of the organization’s control. Now I’m glad my earlier books hadn’t come out, because I am now able to analyze and unleash the facts and my reflections far more freely.
I’ve written this memoir to share my personal experiences, in hopes that this helps others to learn from my journey with the cult of greed, power and celebrity spirituality.While this is my personal story, I also believe that many of my experiences in Scientology typify what people before and after me have experienced. I’ve written it from the state of mind I had at the time of the story, but I do add critiques and reflections from the perspectives I hold now. I hope this is not confusing as you move through the journal format of the book. If so, please write to me and I will answer your questions.
Nineteen years later, I have long since purged all things Scientology from myself, from language to beliefs and behaviors. It took more than a decade to recover from the uneasy balance of my Scientology life, having walked that tight rope for sixteen years. I don’t enjoy rehashing the constant dissonance of that lifestyle, but writing has helped me to heal from it—That mindset with twisted ideas about what was true or real. That ongoing questioning of beliefs, what was right, wrong, wise, foolish, normal, extreme. That alluring addiction of Scientology’s Celebrity Centre and its glorification of celebrities and artists. My intrigue with, as well as doubts about, acquiring ultimate control over life, matter, energy, space and time through the Scientology system. My dislike for much of L. Ron Hubbard’s bizarre behavior and beliefs that I couldn’t express and tried to ignore. The horrors of physical, spiritual and psychological abuse in the elite Sea Organization at the Int Base. The responsibility I felt to help make this a better world and save the planet through Scientology while having ongoing regret about being separated from my family. The ambition I had for myself outside of Scientology as a fashion designer who wanted to leave. Dissonance in my life with a gifted husband and award-winning musician-composer who wanted to stay. That constant struggle with what was the greatest good for my life and for the planet. Constant dissonance.
Our journey had escalated within the bubble of celebrity spirituality at Scientology’s temple of the gods—the Celebrity Centre, or CC as we called it. CC’s purpose is to help artists achieve greatness, to command influence and change world conditions. We found CC to be a fortress of safety in the competitive Hollywood environment, where artists are protected, understood, gratified, and revered simply for showing up. In the early 1980s, fewer seats were taken by A-list celebrities in Scientology’s course rooms and counseling chairs than by artists like Peter and me. We were not household names, but we had achieved some success in our careers. As a designer, I had a few celebrity clients and was actively building my portfolio. Our greatest achievements in music publishing at that time were our hit song, “On the Wings of Love” composed by Peter Schless, with lyrics and recording by Jeffery Osborne; and “Peace in Our Life,” the theme song to “Rambo: First Blood Part II.”
It was easy for us, and I believe for some of our friends, to become drunk with self-importance from CC’s signature cocktail: A mix of ego-boosting words from Hubbard that elevate the artist, described as a special breed of human, the most valuable in earth’s social strata, the dreamer of dreams who alone can elevate the tone of a society above all others. Add the luxury Celebrity Centre oasis with an array of celebrity followers, garnished with the attitudes, values, beliefs and lofty promises embedded in its spiritual pursuit system, and we have intoxication from daily engagement in celebrity spirituality.
Peter and I felt like we were at the top of our game as Scientologists, recruiting artists and celebrities for Scientology, before I signed my billion year contract and became Commanding Officer of the CC Network, circa 1987-1988. Being surrounded by Scientology artists and celebrities whose life’s purpose and common goal was to help salvage this sector of the universe, appealed to the good we wanted to do in the world. Nothing was more important than to ascend the bridge to total freedom, and to help others secure their keys to eternity. Those keys came at a high price, adding up to an expensive addiction that emptied our wallets and cost us decades of our lives.
Our inevitable intersection with David Miscavige, L. Ron Hubbard’s successor, happened through a fall down another rabbit hole to Golden Era Productions, the front name for the Church of Scientology’s International Management base. At its highest level of leadership, I expected to find the ultimate Operating Thetans, the most superior and able beings demonstrating the highest tone levels as they worked to achieve the aims of Scientology: a world without war, insanity and criminality. I did find a beautifully groomed estate—albeit behind chain-link fences topped with barbed wire—with certain luxurious interiors, but they belied the Int base’s dystopian world, where cruelty and callous attitudes and behavior were normalized within a totalist system.
The Int base culture confused power with truth, and abuse was cloaked as ecclesiastical discipline. Int base rules normalized the desecration of family life, contrary to anything you can find in LRH books and policies that espouse familial love, health and importance (which isn’t much). From the day I arrived, our marriage was under attack, not surprising in a place where divorces were popular to prove loyalty to Miscavige. Parents lived separate from their children who were considered distractions to production. Children were either shunted to the camp at Castille Canyon Ranch/Happy Valley, or kept in Los Angeles with Sea Org personnel. Getting pregnant was a treasonous act, so abortions were rampant.
Realizing we had relinquished power over our own autonomy to the organization, Peter and I had become captives in a gilded cage, but Peter wouldn’t see the cage. Apart from my first two failed attempts to escape in 1990 and 1993, we morphed into radicalized members of Scientology’s extremist group, the Int base Sea Organization, that was unlike any other Sea Org unit. Here, leaders lacked a moral compass, thereby creating a culture where juniors followed suit to parrot the leader. I didn’t often observe the basic elements of healthy communication between seniors and juniors, such as reason, logic or empathy. Others, like David Miscavige, seemed to derive satisfaction from creating chaos, while blaming everyone around him for the chaos. It was common for execs to parrot and bark Hubbard’s policies and purposes, with the intent to get their product no matter what they had to do. These Sea Org execs and members appeared to be blissfully unaware of the negativity they spread through their inhumane tactics, such as cold arrogance and attitudes of entitlement from rank or post title, ordering people around with disregard to their humanity; dishing criticism that lacked affinity, indifferent to other’s feelings; use of threats, fear and invalidation to drive up statistics; use of extremist tactics such as interrogations, overboarding, sleep deprivation, public humiliation; standing by dispassionately while others were subjected to abuse; and on.
This culture of madness skewered my life with unthinkable acts and attitudes that I explained away through the eyes of a fanatical insider. I felt like I was living someone else’s life for nine years. I wanted it to be a movie that I wasn’t real and I didn’t have a role in. I survived by maintaining my secret self that kept me from being totally smothered by the cult personality that seemed to cloak so many of us.
For years after, I plagued myself with questions like, was I so gullible and naive or just plain stupid to fall for this? I knew nothing about undue influence before I got involved, unaware of being induced to do anything outside of my own free will. Disguised as religious teachings, this Orwellian double-speak Scientology world of control over our freedom of thought, speech and mobility taught us what to do, what to think, and even what to say; yet in the classrooms and spiritual counseling sessions, we believed we were learning total spiritual freedom and how to become in full control over all aspects of our lives.
In the mid-2000s, the Scientology-critic world shifted. A steady flow of Sea Org members from Miscavige-land and other Scientology bases began the exodus that hasn’t stopped since. An onslaught of books and magazine articles, documentaries, news reporting, video testimonies, legal affidavits, blogs, and live TV interviews with former Sea Org members revealed alleged abuse, forced abortions, and human trafficking previously unknown to the public.
The online message boards and Facebook groups that formed communities of like-minded people who left the Sea Org and Scientology, have been especially helpful toward my post-Scientology healing. There are many people to thank, but I especially thank Karen de la Carriere, Leah Remini, Tony Ortega, Mike Rinder, and Chuck Beatty for every word you’ve ever posted or every kind gesture you have extended that has helped expose the dangers of the organization, or that has helped me and others to heal. These groups gather together the exes—the recovered, accomplished, opinionated people to do the radical—to exercise our right of free speech and in doing so, defy Scientology’s rules: Rules of speaking in public against the organization. Of the joys and challenges of recovering our lives after the cult, and owning our lives outside Scientology’s control. Of reconnecting with people we had disconnected from or who disconnected from us. Of getting to know families and friends again. Of sustaining our lives with new jobs and careers after working for the organization for so long and having no marketable resume. Of seeking out roles in society with careers that illuminate our skills and talents. I’ve seen, and have expressed, varying degrees of hurt, anger and defiance on these boards that is met with compassion, understanding as well as challenging ideas. All of us are living proof that we can survive and thrive outside of Scientology, despite the stigma the organization tried to implant that anyone who leaves it is a degraded, suppressive being. And we keep communicating.
I contributed to Andrew Morton’s Unauthorized Biography of Tom Cruise (2005) and Janet Reitman’s book, Inside Scientology (2011). Numerous ex-members who left about five years after me contributed to the Tampa Bay Times’ “Inside Scientology” and “Truth Rundown” series by Joe Childs and Thomas Tobin that exposed the worsened culture at the Int base, with violent behavior and human rights violations committed by Miscavige and his minions. Two bad-ass executives I used to fear—ex-Int base Sea Org members Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun—became the major go-to’s for media and exposed inside stories never previously revealed to major media outlets. Lawrence Wright’s “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief” (2013) and Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary of the same title broke new ground exposing Scientology’s dangerous and destructive policies and effects on members and staff. All these interviews and publications had a tremendous healing effect on me. They corroborated so much of what I had experienced, and helped to bring closure on many details I wondered about. I could also say to myself, it wasn’t just me who felt this way.
In late 2016, Hurricane Leah touched ground: The A&E Channel aired eight episodes of Leah Remini: Scientology and The Aftermath. This groundbreaking reality-documentary had a seismic effect on me and on public insight into the organization. It provides true stories told by former members, executive produced by Leah and moderated with her fiery commentary. Leah partnered with Mike Rinder, former Scientology spokesperson, as a consultant for the show. Rinder draws from a deep well of experiences as a second generation Scientologist. He adds keen insight and laser-focused communication skills to help Leah expose the organization.
Aftermath has served as a call to action, causing a major upheaval in Scientology’s previously untouchable empire. The testimonies about forced abortions, physical abuse of staff, and family disconnections opened the floodgates for me and for more ex-members to feel safer to tell our stories. Many have already filed eye-witness reports with authorities about trafficking, child and adult labor violations, sexual misconduct, and physical and mental abuse, in hopes for justice, and also with hopes to spare more people from abuse at the hands of Scientology leaders, policies and practices. A growing network of people “never in” joined with ex-Scientologists online to form a new voice outside of Scientology that can speak up for those remaining trapped inside.
I deeply appreciate Leah Remini for her public statements that people who are trapped in Scientology, or who finally break free of it, should not be ridiculed for their involvement, since they joined Scientology believing it was a way to help mankind. I share her views, and add that there is a big difference between harmful and healthy belief systems (religions, cults, whatever) and not all people who have religious beliefs are trapped or are being psychologically or physically harmed, as are people involved in Scientology. There are various syndromes that come close to identifying some of this harm, such as Religious Trauma Syndrome or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Scientology causes trauma in some people because it is highly controlling and prevents people from thinking for themselves and from trusting their own feelings. Leaders and policies demand obedience and conformity, and this produces fear and dependence, not love, growth, or freedom. The Scientology system requires constant self-judgment and judgment of others, with systems in place to enforce that (such as snitching by writing knowledge reports).
Scientology didn’t work for me and many people who left. On Aftermath, Tom DeVocht simply and emphatically stated, “Scientology doesn’t work.” I concur. It’s not easy to discover that our inability to heal issues through Scientology’s mechanisms is not a function of our own deficiency, but deficiencies in Scientology itself. That’s the biggest WTF to overcome. Then there’s the challenge of re-acclimating to a society that you haven’t been part of for years. Exes are limited in our ability to reach out and trust new information, read books, listen to teachers and thought leaders. For me, trusting other people’s educational materials, or anyone in a teaching or leadership capacity was, at times, psychological torture. But at least that process builds critical thinking skills.
After my last book was shut down in 2006, I withdrew as an activist. I had stopped believing that my story would still be relevant or matter to anyone. I rarely visited message boards and did not encourage relationships to many people who reached out to me. I apologize to anyone I offended. I was just really trying to keep anything to do with Scientology out of my life. But Leah and Mike’s courageous efforts, along with the many contributors who shared their stories in Aftermath, inspired me to re-engage as an activist and get my book into your hands.
I share Leah’s convictions about not being able to let Scientology’s harmful practices damage people’s lives and do nothing about it. I also agree with her that every story matters, no matter when it happened. Every true story is another significant thread to be woven in the tapestry of testimonies, hanging in the gallery of the public eye. If my story can help just one person break free of Scientology or any other cult, or help one family get back together after being destroyed by Scientology’s disconnection practices, then the efforts to publish this book were worth it.
This book has achieved its purpose if you understand that escaping Scientology is more than just a one-time event of leaving (like a prison break-out), but is a process, like peeling layers of an onion, or forging through layers of entanglements before, during and after the physical escape. If you know someone in Scientology or in any cult, I encourage you to be supportive and understanding as they move through their escape process. Please give them a copy of this book. I hope it helps.