For Scientologists who grew up in the movement walking away from it and adjusting to the outside world can be a traumatic experience. John Peeler tells his story.
John Peeler, now 37, did not actually choose to be a Scientologist: he grew up in the movement.
His mother was Scientologist and they sent him to a Scientology-approved school where the teachers used the techniques set down by the movement’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard. “There was even an Ethics Officer,” he recalled – a kind of moral policeman who ensured they followed Scientology policies to the letter.
The children were encouraged to write Knowledge Reports on each other: to denounce their classmates if they thought they had broken Scientology’s rules. And if someone did report you, you could end up having to explain yourself to the ethics officer, he recalled. All this was as set down in Hubbard's writings.
Looking back, Peeler can scarcely believe it. “These are children being taught at a very young age to write knowledge reports on other students and keep a ‘watchful’ eye on others. Kids would even be heard saying, ‘Ohhhh, you’re going to Ethics!’.”
Peeler recalled how the founders of one such school were suddenly declared ‘suppressive’ by the movement’s leadership: enemies of Scientology. His mother and other Scientologists at the school immediately withdrew their children from the establishment.
Suppressive persons, knowledge reports and ethics officers: these key elements of the movement’s thinking were all part of Peeler’s early environment. “Scientology conditioning started at a very young age back in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” he said.
And this is still going on today. At one point Peeler’s job was to sign up new members of Scientology’s Sea Organization and he considered the schools he had attended a perfect recruitment pool.
As a young adult, he decided to take a break from Scientology life. “I decided just to live a normal life, go to normal schools, have ‘wog’ friends,” he said.
“Wog” is a Scientology term for non-Scientologists that was coined by Hubbard. One Scientology dictionary defines a wog as “a common ordinary run-of-the-mill garden-variety humanoid.” Another official definition is: “A wog is someone who isn’t even trying.”
Peeler got a regular job and his own place and for a while he led an ordinary life. “This is where I got some semblance of what people in the real world do and I liked it.
“But I also still believed that the planet needed to be ‘cleared’ (converted to Scientology's principles) and that we were in big trouble if we didn’t do it soon. Scientology being the ‘only answer’ was always stuck in the back of my mind.”
Scientologists believe Hubbard developed an unparalleled range of therapeutic techniques that bring previously unheard of levels of freedom and power in mind, body and spirit. They believe these powers are the only thing that will stop mankind from destroying itself.
So Peeler was eventually persuaded back to work for Scientology the Sea Organization, which is acknowledged by Scientologists as the movement's elite cadre.
Between 1990 and 2000 he worked at the Int. Base, a 500-acre, high-security compound near Hemet, California, where Scientology’s leader David Miscavige works. Now Peeler was an ethics officer: he served as a “Master at Arms” (MAA), enforcing security at the base.
His duties included making sure staffers were not in contact with anyone hostile to Scientology – and that involved checking their mail and listening in on their phone calls.
If a staffer’s family was hostile to their involvement in Scientology, he would coach the person concerned on how “handle” them. Since it was so hard for staffers to get leave from the base however, this was no easy task, he said. “Most staff at the Int. Base hardly ever got time off to be able to visit their families.”
If a staffer failed to handle a hostile relative, then they would have to “disconnect”, said Peeler. He had the power to order a staffer to cut off all contact with a hostile friend or relative, a policy known as disconnection.
Scientology continues to deny that it practises enforced disconnection.
He was also responsible for disciplining staffers judged to be unproductive. One punishment was known as over-boarding: it involved throwing staffers, fully clothed, into the freezing waters of the lake at the base.
Peeler eventually tired of the harsh discipline and the increasingly aggressive atmosphere. “Weekly staff meetings became scream fests, finger pointing and pure rage ... David Miscavige was beating people up.”
Other senior executives, taking their cue from Miscavige, were also beginning to use violence. “I even found myself at times displaying this attitude and had to put myself in check because that was never me and not what I ever wanted to become.
“But I realized that to most people at the base, DM (Miscavige) was the leader and so had the ‘winning attitude’ … The bottom line is that it just started to get out of hand and I didn't see conditions getting any better any time soon. So I left.”
Another reason he left was he could not stand having been separated from his wife. After she got sent away from the base on a mission he simply never saw her. “I was separated from my own wife for four years ... I only got to see my family, who lived two hours away, a total of six days in 10 years … I just couldn't take it anymore.”
Adjusting to the outside world was not easy, he admits. “It took me a good four years after getting out, to finally get used to the real world and start thinking and feeling like a regular person again.
“I had nightmares for years, and occasionally still have one ... dreams where I'm back in the organization and having to escape again…,” he added. His ex-wife is still in the Sea Org.
Next: Life at the Base