Tuesday 29 December 2009

7 The Underwoods' Letters

Carmel Underwood’s letter listed a number of abuses: but her experience of a series of devastatingly hostile interrogations recalls similar incidents in the US that drove another woman to a mental breakdown.

Carmel Underwood, in her letter to Senator Xenophon, outlined a catalogue of abuse, ranging from pressure on pregnant staffers to abort and the cover-up of child abuse to verbal and physical assaults.

But it is her account of a series of devastating hostile interrogations to which she was subjected that stands out. The experience left her "an emotional wreck", she wrote.

This aggressive and destructive grilling bears striking similarities to Nancy Many's account in her book, My Billion Year Contract, of the sessions that drove her to a mental breakdown.

Underwood had been involved with the movement for 18 years: from early 1980 until early 1998, occupying senior executive positions with the movement in Sydney.

By the mid 1990s however, she had left her staff post.

Although she had already witnessed and experienced her fair share of abuse, she was still committed to aspects of Scientology's system, even if she had her doubts about the management.

Things started to go wrong for her and her husband Tim when they got involved in a project to promote the movement in Sydney.

They paid for a large, replica volcano that spewed smoke and lit up as though it was erupting – as per the cover of founder L. Ron Hubbard's book Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health – together with a large screen showing Scientology advertisements.

It was an ambitious and costly exercise, but the Underwoods and a colleague put a lot of time and money into the project, signing a lease for 18 months with an option on another 18 months.

Carmel’s husband Tim Underwood explained what went wrong in his letter to Senator Xenophon.

Towards the end of the first 18 months they did not have enough money to take up the renewal option, but the movement wanted them to sign up again.

“The C of S [Church of Scientology] was insistent that the sign stay up. They agreed to help find someone who was willing to finance the lease for the second 18 month period.”

As the deadline approached, the couple became increasingly nervous. Although Scientology executives had made it clear the site had to stay, they had not delivered on their promise of a backer – and the Underwoods had been warned off looking for funds from fellow Scientologists.

Finally, as the last 48 hours to deadline slipped away, Tim Underwood faxed Scientology management: unless they delivered on their side of the bargain and found a financial backer, they would not be renewing the lease because they could not afford the payments.

That was when the real trouble started.

I was scoffed at, insulted, yelled at…”

Scientology executives appeared to view his faxed message as an attempt at extortion and summoned all three of them – the Underwoods and their partner in the venture – into the local headquarters, Tim Underwood wrote.

“We were taken into a conference room one by one where we were confronted and interrogated by 11 senior executives…” he continued.

“Judging by the tone and nature of their questioning all present had formed the opinion that we were enemies of the church and must have committed some awful crimes that we were now hiding.”

All three of them were subjected to hours of interrogation and then ordered to report for “security checking” a particularly aggressive form of questioning conducted using the device normally used for Scientology counselling, the e-meter. As several former members have said however, in “sec-checking”, the machine is used as a lie detector.

Normally, this kind of questioning was not a paid service, wrote Underwood. “We however were made to pay tens of thousands of dollars… under threat of expulsion from the church if we did not comply…

“When you undergo ‘Justice’ procedures in the church you are on your own against the hierarchy of the church," wrote Underwood.

"No advocate is appointed to defend you. You are expected to have learned all the policy and procedure so you can defend yourself.

“There are no clear rules of evidence. Reports are called for from any source and are not substantiated as to their factual correctness before they are presented in a ‘Court of Ethics’ or a ‘Board of Investigation’,” wrote Underwood.

And these reports could be on incidents completely unrelated to the matter in hand, he added.

“In other words, they can be a form of ‘character assassination’ undermining any position or status you have within the church.”

Tim Underwood wrote that he was subjected to 50 hours of this, after which his accusers decided he had committed no crime.

A “corrupting influence”

His wife was not so fortunate.

Carmel Underwood was identified as a “corrupting influence”.

She was “subjected to further interrogation that violated both church policy and procedure and probably violated civil laws of Australia,” wrote her husband.

“I personally felt completely betrayed and despite efforts in subsequent years to have the injustice corrected could not do so.”

What was particularly galling, he added, was they had tried to something special for Scientology and had ended up being punished, despite their past good standing with the movement.

Carmel Underwood’s account more than bears out her husband’s summary of Scientology’s justice system.

“It was eleven on one,” she wrote of the first interrogation, when she was questioned by a battery of executives.

“It was done in the early hours of the morning when we were tired and hadn’t eaten… When they interrogated me, they were verbally abusive, accusative, and their interrogation was very damning.

“I was scoffed at, insulted, yelled at and prevented from leaving the room. I was treated like a criminal and put under severe duress. It was gruelling. Eventually I got worn down to the point where I couldn’t speak,” she wrote.

It was four in the morning by the time they were done, she recalled.

And she confirmed her husband’s account that they were forced to pay for their subsequent interrogation

“We were told individually, that if we didn’t, then we would be declared a suppressive person, and expelled from the C of S.”

That meant that all their friends, family, employees and clients would be ordered to disconnect from them: cut off all contact.

So despite the fact that they felt Scientology management had become quite “fascist”, they felt that they had no choice but to comply, she wrote.

The interrogations for which they paid involved spending three or four hours every night at the Scientology, wrote Carmel Underwood.

Since they were running three businesses at the time as well as raising three young children, this was particularly punishing.

She refused to tell them what they wanted to hear: she refused to acknowledge her “crimes”.

After about three months of this she even wrote up a detailed critique of everything she thought was wrong with the movement.

When she handed it in to one of the executives (name deleted in the Senate copy of the letter), he reacted angrily.

Their subsequent argument degenerated to the point that she found herself backed up against the wall while the executive shouted at her, “so close to me that his spit from yelling was going into my face…” she wrote.

When she tried to push him back, there was a scuffle and the executive called two colleagues in to physically restrain her. “I later got charged [under Scientology rules] with ‘striking’ him.”

“Then I started screaming…”

A few months later she was called in for more interrogation.

She was confronted with a “knowledge report”, a written denunciation by a fellow Scientologist, an old friend, of some misdeeds she was meant to have done.

They were false, wrote Underwood: and the wife of the man in question later told her that he had been pressured by two Scientologists all weekend to put his name to the charges.

Despite her protests that she was tired and hungry – it was already 10 o'clock at night – they took her into a small room with just enough room for a table and two chairs and started another interrogation session.

The interrogator’s superior and a colleague went into a neighbouring room where they could watch.

Here again, she was obliged to hold an e-meter, the device used in Scientology counselling. “It wasn’t like anything I had ever studied as any procedure in Scientology…” she wrote.

“[H]e was insulting me; calling me a liar; yelling at me; refusing to accept the information I was giving him as the truth; cutting me off mid-sentence etc. It was horrific.”

Her interrogator was wearing an earpiece and receiving instructions from the next room, she wrote.

“Several times he put the earpiece down, would go outside, and then I would hear [name deleted] yelling at him, saying things like ‘That counter intentioned fucked up piece of crap in there has crimes and you’re not getting them. If you weren’t such a counter intentioned pile of crap yourself, you’d be getting her to cough up.’”

“Counter-intention” is Scientology-speak for disobeying the orders of a superior, and thus the group.[1]

They finally let her leave at 3:30 in the morning – but despite her protests that she had only had two hours' sleep she was called in for more questioning the following night.

This time her interrogator was asking her about highly personal details of her youth.[2]

“He was verbally abusing me for what I was telling him, cutting me off then directing me to one thing, then another and another, in a very choppy manner,” she wrote.

“I was an emotional wreck after that interview.”

They let her go at 2:30 in the morning: the next day she had no recollection of her drive home.

She was ordered back for more questioning for a third night. And when after two hours she tried to leave, she was physically prevented from doing so.

“The repetition of it all… was nearly driving me insane,” she wrote. “I let some of that feeling of insanity out by screaming a few times.”

“I had been there for hours and had tried to leave several times, but I couldn’t get out of the room. Then I started screaming as loud as I could. I was calling for help and I was yelling for some-one [sic] to call the police.”

Once she had made it clear that she would go to the police if she was not allowed to go home, she was allowed to leave. She packed a few things and got out of Sydney as fast as she could, knowing that she needed time and space out of their reach.

But it only took them a couple of days to track her down: she was staying with a fellow Scientologist.

Her handlers told her they were preparing a Committee of Evidence, a kind of Scientology court martial. But she was convinced that the outcome had been decided in advance.

So in early 1998, Carmel and her husband shut down their three businesses and left Sydney, since when they had had little to do with the movement to which they were once so dedicated.

Looking back, she thinks Scientology considered her a threat because of her standing in the movement in Sydney and because she had been complaining about what had been going on.

“[T]hey effectively ‘shut me down’ and left me an emotional wreck for 10 years, until I discovered what had been and what was going on within the CoS worldwide,” she wrote.

“I would not be speaking about the CoS and Scientology now, if this was all in the past, but it is not," wrote Underwood. People were still being abused, "financially, physically and mentally" by Scientology, she added.

The movement needed to be held accountable for the harm it had done and prevented from inflicting further abuse, "...and this is the purpose of my letter."

Nancy Many’s experience

The parallels with Nancy Many's story are striking.

Many, as she explains in her book My Billion Year Contract, had also been on staff for several years (including a traumatic spell in the Sea Org).

Like Carmel Underwood, she had become increasingly disenchanted with the movement after witnessing – and experiencing – the abusive aspects of Scientology.

And when Many’s handlers picked up on her doubts, they too responded with more abuse.

In Chapter 21 of her book, “The Handling of Nancy”, Many tells how Scientology officers somehow got hold of an email she had written to a Scientologist who had been declared suppressive – an enemy of the movement.

When they confronted her with this, she told them she was no longer comfortable with the movement’s attitude that the end justified the means.

Her handlers however seemed more interested in getting the names of those disaffected members with whom she had been in contact.

She was called in for special auditing, which she was told would help her sort out her doubts and confusions about Scientology.

Instead, she found herself subjected to the kind of abusive interrogation that Carmel Underwood described in her letter.

Here is how Many described her experience.

It was not like any interview I had ever had. This was more like an adversarial interrogation… Did I know anyone who is a suppressive person? How about people I chat with? How about what I think? ... When I returned home I was numb.

Many so was upset by that first interview, she could not sleep that night. Her account of what followed also echo Underwood’s experience.

The next day I was escorted into the auditing room by Donna and Kirsten. The auditor was already set up behind a small desk, and they both followed me into the tiny counselling room…

The room was cramped with just enough room for a small desk and two chairs. I noticed a security camera in the upper left corner of the room. I had no way of knowing if it was on or off or if they would begin recording us when she started the session. Joan sat in the chair by the door, and I knew from past courses and experience that she had been trained to stop any unauthorized attempts by myself to leave the room. My chair was right up against the signe window that overlooked a parking lot many stories below.

What transpired over the next several days was like no auditing I had ever experienced. Grueling is a word that seems to fit. Mental torture is more accurate. The sessions were seven or eight hours long with very few breaks and went on for several days…

All night, I would feel these sessions repeating over and over, a constant drone in the background. It was like the session never really ended. I had brought the auditor home with me. She was in my mind, disagreeing with me, screaming at me, digging into my mind.

Carmel Underwood wrote in her letter that her interrogations left her “an emotional wreck.”

Nancy Many, in her book, is more explicit. Of one particularly tough session, desperate to leave but knowing that she won’t be able to get out of the building, she wrote: I spent most of those six hours sitting in the stifling auditing room, sobbing and doubled over a trashcan with dry heaves.

When they finally did let her go, she was in tears the entire drive home.

That Sunday night, February 11, 1996, I finally got to sleep. It was 2:00 am that I was violently awakened with an audible cracking of my mind, my soul, my self. I don’t know how else to describe it. My mind physically broke…

Many’s description of the mental breakdown that followed makes for extremely distressing reading.

The destructive interrogation to which Many was subjected – and her subsequent breakdown – took place in early 1996.

So far as one can tell from her letter, Carmel Underwood went through her ordeal from mid-1997, possibly into 1998.

Two women: one in Australia, the other in the United States; both long-time Scientologists; both of whom knew enough about the dark side of Scientology to pose a threat to the movement (of which more in future posts).

Scientologists subjected both women to abusive and destructive interrogation techniques that left them psychologically and emotionally devastated.

Senator Xenophon, in his speech to the Australian Senate, argued that the abuses about which he was talking were not isolated incidents but something that was systemic in Scientology.

“What we are seeing is a worldwide pattern of abuse and criminality,” said the senator. “On the body of evidence this is not happening by accident; it is happening by design.”

Xenophon reached this conclusion mainly on the strength of the letters he had received from former members based in Australia.

But the accounts by former members in other parts of the world only strengthen his case.
[1] In Modern Management Technology Defined, counter-intention is defined as “a determination to follow a goal which is direct conflict with that known to be goal of the originator and the goals of the group…”
[2] Underwood does not say, but this is the kind of deeply intimate material that might have been found in her supposedly confidential counselling folders.


  1. Jonny, your work analyzing these letters is superb. Thanks for the work you put into these.

  2. Dear Jonny,

    First, congratulations on a terrific chapter. You really did justice to both Carmel's and Nancy's stories by aligning them as you did.

    A couple of thoughts from me:

    * I believe that the process of so many executives "ganging up" on a member, as happened to both Carmel and Nancy, is referred to within the Sea Org as a "gang bang sec check". The expression was used in Richard Behar's (of Time Magazine fame) 1986 article in Forbes Magazine (The prophet and profits of Scientology). It pre-dates 1984, which is when Homer Schomer gave evidence in one of the Armstrong cases of having been subjected to a 10-hour "gang bang sec check" by a group of senior staff, including David Miscavige; and
    * Marty Rathbun also spoke in June 2009 of using 10 or 11 (I don't recall the exact number, but it is mentioned in the video interview) of Scientology executives to frighten Sea Org escapee, Terri Gamboa, in early 1990. Rathbun referred to this as a "Severe Reality Adjustment" or SRA. (In this instance they weren't doing a sec check.)

    Great work.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Heather.

    I take your point about the "gang bang sec check". I researched examples from people who had worked with Hubbard in the early 80s, possibly earlier. But I could not get the key people to come clean, or find victims from so far back willing to speak up.

    I deal with SRAs in an earlier section ("Abuse in the Sea Org"). I'm not sure when the actual phrase "Severe Reality Adjustment" was first used, but this kind of macho, abusive behaviour certainly predates the Miscavige era.

    Again, the problem here is that the former executives ousted by Miscavige and his lieutenants have been less than forthcoming about their own excesses when they were in power. One has even reinvented himself as a motivational speaker: now that's what I call infinite complacency.

    Scientology talks a lot about taking responsibility, but few of these people are willing to own up to what they did. That is why people like Aaron Saxton are so important, describing in often graphic detail their own abusive behaviour while inside.

    Coming clean in this way clearly cost him a great deal, but he did it anyway. Chapeau, as they say over here: hats off.

  4. Good on you, Jonny. Both Tim and I like what you've done with our letters and with the others - You've highlighted and given substantiation to the key factors, which amongst all the info can be and often are lost.
    Those who aren't former Scientologists rarely get familiar enough to understand this whole Scn trip. I know of only a few who have grasped this understanding, and you are among them - Your objective perspective on it all is a gem. Thank you.

  5. In case it's of any interest to anyone, here is a news article re. the "replica volcano that spewed smoke and lit up as though it was erupting – as per the cover of founder L. Ron Hubbard's book Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health – together with a large screen showing Scientology advertisements":