Life at Scientology’s International Base, at Hemet, California, got steadily more oppressive from the early 1990s, former Sea Org member Maureen Bolstad recalls.
From 1985 until well into the 1990s Maureen Bolstad spent a lot of time travelling doing film work for Scientology.
Her work shooting the special events that helped establish David Miscavige as the movement’s undisputed leader won her his respect. And that brought a certain status at the International Base.
But as she began to spend more time at the base in the early 1990s, she noticed that there was another side to Miscavige.
“He could be a hard task-master,” she said, recalling how tough he was on one man in particular. “Every time I saw them together DM [Miscavige] was yelling at him about something or other.”
And there were other changes in his behaviour. Sometimes it was just the odd sarcastic remark. Others times, he would lay down the law. “Nobody’s going home until this gets done,” he would tell staff.
“One time he got really snide and he handed out Hershey chocolate bars to everyone.” He was alluding to one of the policy letters written by the movement’s founder.
“L. Ron Hubbard’s theory about why there was so much trouble at the Hershey chocolate factory was that Hershey was treating his workers too well,” Bolstad explained. “They had it too good.
“So David Miscavige said, ‘Oh look, we’ve fixed up our dining hall and we have got all this great food – you have your exercise park and your sports fields… we have all of these things, and you’re not getting your work done. So here’s some Hershey candy bars for you.’”
In “Blow-Offs”, a December 1959 policy letter, Hubbard wrote: “Probably the finest working conditions in the world were achieved by Mr. Hershey of chocolate bar fame for his plant workers. Yet they revolted and even shot at him.”
But he added: “This in its turn led to an industrial philosophy that the worse workers were treated the more willing they were to stay which in itself is as untrue as the better they are treated the faster they blow off.”
Miscavige must have forgotten that passage: he started cracking the whip.
In the early 1990s, senior officers at the base were ordered to introduce a tougher regime, which involved military-style drills.
Now, in addition to their normal duties, hundreds of staffers found themselves marching around the compound.
This was no picnic in the blazing California sun, and many of them were already exhausted from their existing workload and from lack of sleep.
Workers were also obliged to attend three musters, or roll calls, a day – with strict penalties for no-shows.
“If you were late for muster twice in a row you would get sent to the RPF,” (the Rehabilitation Project Force) Scientology’s dreaded the punishment programme.
Bolstad however, got a certain amount of leeway.
Because she was still in Miscavige’s good books, she found she could get away with misdemeanours that would have spelt serious trouble for other members of staff.
If she failed to turn up in full uniform or forgot to deliver a report, her superior officer would turn a blind eye. “You get some sort of slack – and you need it – when you are working such long hours.”
At some time around 1993 or 1994, Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige, started holding briefings for everybody. The staff of the International Base – in those days, perhaps a thousand people – would be summoned to hear their leader.
“He would brief everyone about the state of affairs and he would say who he was mad at, and about what,” she recalled.
Suddenly, Miscavige was making a point of naming and shaming – and once Miscavige had publicly humiliated you, your stock was worth nothing at the base.
“He was bypassing normal ethics procedure,” recalled Bolstad. “He would denounce people in front of the whole crew as being a screw-up or a mess-up.”
Whatever outsiders might think of Scientology’s disciplinary code, there had at least been a recognised procedure, set out in detail by Hubbard.
Punishments could be harsh – in Hubbard’s day you could be thrown overboard from a ship or put on a forced labour programme – and sometimes whole divisions could suffer the same penalties.
But whatever happened, certain rules were meant to be followed.
Now however Miscavige appeared to be acting as judge, jury and executioner. Only Hubbard had claimed such powers in the past.
Gradually, Bolstad and her colleagues found they could not get anything done without Miscavige’s specific approval. “He was micro-managing more and more.”
And when things went wrong, Miscavige looked for someone to blame.
“He had this thing where if a person made a mistake or did something wrong… that mistake was intentional,” said Bolstad.
“And so the way to deal with it was to single the person out who made the mistake and accuse them of having evil intentions or trying to sabotage things.”
Scientology’s literature is packed with examples of the same principle: believers are encouraged to learn how to shatter suppression.
And all this of course, came from the writings of L. Ron Hubbard.
“People making mistakes or doing stupid things is evidence that an SP exists in that vicinity,” he wrote in a March 1968 policy letter: an SP of course being a Suppressive Person – an enemy of Scientology.
This attitude was something all Sea Org members had drummed into them during training, Bolstad explained. “I actually started to think that way.”
She recalled one particularly troublesome shoot on which things kept going wrong,
“The film was going into overtime and lots of money was being spent on re-shooting and stuff like that and I found myself accusing or thinking that other staff were purposely trying to prevent the film from going out…
“There was even one time when I found myself accusing a fellow staff member ‘You’re purposefully trying to prevent us from getting this film done aren’t you? You are trying to stop Scientology dissemination.’”
She even wrote a list of people she thought might be suppressives – enemies of Scientology deliberately trying to sabotage their work – and sent it off to her superiors.
Looking back, Bolstad struggled to explain the mind-set. “I guess you could call it paranoia, a distrust of your fellow staff members.
“It is an explanation for things going wrong besides taking a look at the fact that the planning was all wrong and that people weren’t getting enough sleep.”
But that was how the system worked, she said. You did not question the oppressive work-load imposed from on high: when thing went wrong, you looked for the suppressive influence.
Bolstad was still much in demand as a camera operator: if she wasn’t getting put on a plane for a shoot abroad, there was plenty of work at the base or nearby.
She enjoyed her reputation as the go-to person, the one who got the job done. But by 1993, it was taking its toll.
“I realised I was only getting two and a half hours sleep. I realised that the only reward for doing all this great work – apart from getting a bit of slack from the disciplinary committee – was I just kept getting more and more work to do.
“The better I got, the more work I got to do – and at one point I thought, ‘You know, I don’t want to be the best at anything any more. I want to go home on time.’”
But the pressure just kept on increasing. And then her life started falling apart.