Friday 15 January 2010

10 Peta O'Brien's Letter II

As well as medical neglect, Peta O’Brien’s letter told of a hostile working environment, an arbitrary internal justice system and a culture of bullying among senior executives.

When Peta O’Brien wrote to Senator Xenophon, she had only recently quit Scientology, having worked for them between 1989 and 2009, first in the Sea Org and then in staff posts.

O’Brien described how she was recruited into Scientology after a recent divorce.

She was pulled in off the street to get a personality test – the much-criticised questionnaire dismissed in a 2009 Paris court ruling as being “devoid of any scientific value”.[1]

At the time, her children were aged five and seven years old and she had 38,000 Australian dollars in the bank from the sale of the family home.

O’Brien was escorted to different levels of the building, each time for a private lecture on a different aspect of the movement.

She spent the final three to four hours with someone from the International Association of Scientologists (IAS) who tried to get her to buy a lifetime membership.

The money, she was told, would be used to fight the movement’s enemies, the “psychs” – the psychiatrists.

She was also told about the other enemies of the movement: the US Internal Revenue Service (this was before the 1993 settlement with the IRS), the government and journalists.

The ban on having children in the Sea Org did not at that time apply to children over six years old and she had been urged to sign up.

Her recruiters assured her that Scientology would pay for all living expenses, both for herself and her children.

“I was told this included medical, dental, rent, transport, food, taxes and education,” she wrote. “I was advised to sell my car as all transport was paid for.”

The recruitment procedure involved an intrusive “life history”. It included not just a list of her friends and family – along with full contact details – but “every relationship I had and what sort of relationship it was (sexual or platonic) and if sexual, what were the exact details of the sexual activity.”

It was through this life history that her handlers learned about the savings she had in the bank. Scientology’s registrars – their sales staff – came calling.

Two of them came to her house on several occasions and each time they wanted her to buy books and courses.

“[Name deleted] rang me one Thursday afternoon, asking me if the church could borrow $2,000 because as they were hoping to reach a particular target on their statistics and were and were $2,000 short.”[2]

Thursday at 2:00pm is the end of the Scientology working week, when all Scientology staff members have to make sure they have met their targets – or face the consequences.

O’Brien lent them the money on the understanding that it would be credited to her account by the following week.

“After joining staff I found that the ‘loan’ of the $2,000 was a ‘financial irregularity’ against church.”[3]

The registrars meanwhile kept working on her. Within a few weeks, she had bought three sets of auditing procedures and the entire L. Ron Hubbard library.

One of the ways they did this, she noted, was never to give direct answers to the questions she put to them.

“…each time I was told by these registrars that I had to get the information myself from L. Ron Hubbard, from a particular book that I needed to purchase and that my questions would all be answered.”

Very quickly, the registrars persuaded her to part with all her savings. It was in these circumstances that she joined the movement’s staff.

Pay and conditions

She had been told that she would start on 50 to 75 Australian dollars a week, with all essentials paid for by Scientology.

In fact however, because the centre where she worked was not meeting its targets, she received only 20 dollars – sometimes not even that.

“Some weeks we were not paid anything and all staff were usually penalised by being served up beans and rice for dinner the next week.

“It was not uncommon to have to go without deodorant or toothpaste until one could afford it.

“Most staff members with children… had to rely on government benefits to buy the basic essentials let alone give them a treat once in a while.”

Nor was the promised medical cover was never provided (see previous section).

Her superiors suggested that she sell Scientology books to earn some extra money from the 10-percent commission. But she did not have time to do this on top of the duties she had as a staff member.

In addition to her usual 12-hour day, she and other employees would often be required to work extra hours, in what was called an “all hands”, to meet a crisis.

A crisis could simply be that the centre had not met its weekly targets, she wrote.

And having completed their overtime, they would still be expected to come in the next day and work a normal shift – even if they had only had three or four hours sleep that night.

This was particularly hard on elderly staff members, she wrote.

For even though on paper at least these staff members were on a reduced schedule of nine hours instead of the usual 12-hour day, they would still be obliged to work the extra hours required in an “all hands”.

Confirming that this compulsory, unpaid overtime also applied to the oldest members of staff, O’Brien referred to a 1964 Hubbard policy letter.

Stressing, the importance of employees being available to give auditing to members of the public, Hubbard wrote: “If a staff member's breath can be detected on a mirror, he or she can do his or her job.”[4]

The only exception he allowed for was “severe temporary illness or physical injury”.

Hubbard was even more blunt in “Keep Scientology Working”, a better known policy letter first issued on February 7, 1965.

The proper instruction attitude is, “You're here so you're a Scientologist. Now we're going to make you into an expert auditor no matter what happens. We'd rather have you dead than incapable.”[5]


O’Brien spent her last two years inside the Sea Org on its punishment programme, the Rehabilitation Project Force (RFP).

O’Brien actually followed her 17-year-old son on to the programme.

He was assigned after being called back in from his first day off in nearly two years to spend time with his father and brother, wrote O'Brien.

Told of her son’s RPF assignment, she demanded to see him and found him “contained in a locked room without windows, on his own, confused and upset.”

He had no idea why he was being punished and the document that was drawn up later justifying the RFP assignment contained false accusations, wrote O’Brien.[6]

Scientologists on the RPF programme have to do five hours of hard labour and spend another five hours studying the works of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, she wrote. They got a half hour for each of their three daily meals.

As an RPF inmate they also had to comply with the following restrictions (among others):
  • They were on quarter pay, which in this case meant five dollars a week;
  • They got no days off;
  • They could not speak to anyone outside of the RPF unless spoken to first;
  • They had to get permission if they wanted to speak to their family. And any correspondence they received from them would first be vetted by a security officer;
  • They received no medical or dental assistance, nor any health insurance – though given the lack of cover afforded ordinary members, this was a moot point, O’Brien wrote. (See the previous section on medical neglect.)
Because her son was effectively cut off from any communication with her, O’Brien got herself assigned to the RPF by declaring herself unfit for duty.

Even then however, she had difficulty seeing him: the fact that she was her mother cut no ice with the officer supervising the programme.

As noted in an earlier post, several former members in the United States have reported that the RPF functions as a thought reform camp. They have also alleged that inmates are held against their will.

It features in a number of civil lawsuits launched by lawyer Barry Van Sickle last year in the California courts on behalf of former Scientologists (see in particular the lawsuits lodged by Marc Headley, Laura DeCrescenzo and John Lindstein).


During her time in Scientology, O’Brien wrote that she witnessed and experienced psychological and physical abuse.

“An incident that I still remember vividly as it was degrading to see someone publicly mocked and humiliated – I believe ruined this man’s life.

“The whole staff body (approx 150 staff) were [sic] called into the mess hall / event space one evening for a ‘special briefing’.”

Three representatives of Scientology’s international management were standing on stage waiting for them: executives trained by the movement’s leader David Miscavige.

Part of their job was to ensure that everything was being done as per orders – and to enforce punishments if they found otherwise.

They brought one man up on stage, wrote O’Brien: “…he looked just as surprised as his audience.”

They had him sit down on a chair and said they were going to demonstrate how it would feel to a public member of Scientology if he wasn’t getting proper counselling.

“A stack of books and weights were loaded onto the lap of the man sitting down on stage until he couldn’t carry them anymore and the books toppled over,” wrote O’Brien.

“Of course all the staff were aghast, but mostly all in awe of how these reps could just single out a person and publicly ruin him.”

The man in question subsequently left staff. He was divorced from his wife, a senior Scientology executive, and presented with what is known as a “Freeloader Bill”.

This is an estimate of the value of all the Scientology services he had received while on staff: having broken his contract, Scientology considered him liable for the cost of those services.[7]

The staff member concerned was widely respected by both staff and public Scientologists, wrote O’Brien, yet “they made a public display of humiliating and degrading” him.

O’Brien herself experienced violence and bullying while working as a Scientology chaplain. One of her superiors had a different idea about the nature of her pastoral role.

This officer would “very sweetly and politely” interrupt her meetings with public Scientologists. Once the public member had gone however, she would change completely.

She would “enter my office, lock the door behind her and throw me up against the wall in a rage – using her body and physical force to pin me against the wall, accusing me of defying her as I wasn’t selling the public more services – like Scientology courses or auditing.”

Other times, when they met in the corridor, she wrote, “…she would surprise me by barring my way to stop me from walking on, she’d grab my arm and twist it as hard as she could until it was quite painful – threatening me to produce more, accusing me of slacking off.

“I could not understand why she was a respected senior executive, as her actions were contradictory to the ‘Aims of Scientology’ and the creed of the church, but I found other senior executives… also using physical force, and fear created through violent rages and threats – to get compliance and their ‘products’ or results.”

Other Scientology executives used similar tactics on her, she added – and from what she understood, the situation had deteriorated over the last 10 years.
In The Aims of Scientology to which O’Brien refers, Hubbard makes a series of grand claims about his movement’s aims.

“A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where man is free to rise to greater heights, are the aims of Scientology…”

It is one of those sugar-coated homilies with which it is difficult to disagree but which promises more than it will ever deliver – much like The Way to Happiness, another Hubbard booklet.

Some Scientologists sincerely believe in these values and have made great personal sacrifices in the belief that they were working towards these goals.

But Hubbard never actually practised what he preached at this level.

It was the orders he set out in his policy letters, for internal consumption only, that determined how the movement was run – and they were based on a different set of values entirely.

As Hubbard wrote elsewhere: “Handling the truth is a touchy business… Tell an acceptable truth.”[8]

The tracts he wrote for general consumption were essentially public relations exercises – and presumably very effective recruitment tools.

[1] I will try to publish a long-overdue analysis of the 2009 Paris court judgment in the near future.
[2] Here, as in the other letters submitted to Senate, some names were deleted from the text. But Senator Xenophon said unedited copies of the correspondence had been submitted to the police.
[3] It is not entirely clear from her letter, but it does not look as if she got her money back on that occasion. What is clear is that Scientology eventually relieved her of all her savings.
[4] Hubbard Communications Office Policy Letter, February 21, 1964: “Staff regulations: Auditing versus Job”: my thanks Peta O’Brien for tracking down the reference.
Thanks too, to Caroline Letkeman, who dug up a very similar one from an August 23, 1971 bulletin: C/S (Case Supervisor) Series 1: Auditor’s Rights. This one was called “Auditors don’t have cases” – and by cases, Hubbard means problems. The gist of it was that an auditor had to leave his problems at the door of the auditing room if he was doing the auditing.
“In the chair no auditor has a case,” he wrote. “If breath shows on a mirror held to his face he can audit. Faint afterwards if you must …”
Letkeman notes that although Hubbard was talking to auditors “the reference would get used more generally for staff because staff are all auditors ‘on the 3rd and 4th dynamics’…” In Scientology, the third dynamic refers to the group; the fourth dynamic to Mankind.
The message inside Scientology is that the group is more important than the individual.
[5] Tom Cruise makes several references to “Keep Scientology Working”, or KSW as he insists on calling it, in his now-notorious 2004 message-to-the-troops video (still up at
[6] Her son had reported his superior for financial irregularities. O’Brien later concluded that this message had been intercepted by his boss and used against him, as the charges in the order sending her son to RPF echoed many of the allegations he himself had made.
[7] Although some former Scientologists do not realise it, this bill is not generally considered to be legally enforceable. Many members who have fallen out of favour with the movement do everything they can to pay off the bill in a bid to get back into good standing (financial considerations aside, being out of favour with the movement damages your relations with other Scientologists). The sums involved can run into the tens of thousands of dollars or more.
[8] From the Hubbard Communications Office Policy Letter, August 13, 1970, from the PR Series: “The Missing Ingredient”.

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