Monday 15 February 2010

Disconnection: The Hendersons' Story

The way to happiness includes being on good terms
with one’s parents or those who brought you up

L. Ron Hubbard, The Way to Happiness

FROM HIS hospital bed Allan Henderson asked me where I was from. 
 When I told him, his eyes lit up. “Scotland!” he exclaimed, and in an instant his American accent had crossed the Atlantic. “Aye lad, aye lad! Aha!” He gave a delighted chuckle and, speaking perfect Scots now, quipped: “Me faither an’ me mither tauld me, ‘Ye’re not cheap – ye’re frugal!”

He talked about how his father, the son of a Scottish immigrant, had once walked off a job at the height of the Great Depression because the foreman had turned out to be a MacDonald. He talked about the beauty of Edinburgh, a city he only knew through a treasured book of photos. It was the lightest moment in a difficult interview.

Mike Henderson had taken me to see his 77-year-old father Allan at a hospital in Auburn, California, where he was seriously ill with stomach cancer. The prognosis was not good and Mike had been doing everything he could to get his brother and four sisters to contact their father. But he was fighting an uphill battle.

The rest of Mike’s family are Scientologists, just as he and his father were for decades. In 2001 Scientology declared his father a suppressive person; an enemy of Scientology. After that, there was no question of his family having anything more to do with him. His first wife, his six children, his 22 grandchildren: all disconnected from him, the Scientology term for cutting off all contact.

Despite the debilitating effects of both his illness and the chemotherapy he was receiving, Allan had agreed to talk about the effect that Scientology had had on his life. “The general thing as far as I’m concerned personally is their rules and regulations, which divide a family and turn child against parent – and turn child against child … And all for the sake of L. Ron Hubbard,” he said.

Hubbard of course, is the onetime pulp fiction writer who founded the Scientology movement in the early 1950s.

“I don’t know whether you were raised that way,” said Allan, “but churches are designed supposedly to hold people together, I don’t care whether you’re Jewish or Catholic or whatever – it is all the same basic thing. Love, love is the main thing and holding a family together.”

But not Scientology, he added. “The basic thing of Scientology – they want your money and the hell with all the rest of it.”
It was Mike who introduced his father to Scientology in 1972. “There were eight of us, you know: my father, my mother and us six kids, and when we got into Scientology we naturally thought we would invite our parents to join us because we liked it.”

Allan was by this time divorced from his first wife, the mother of Mike and his other children. “I was working with my dad – we were bachelors together,” recalls Mike. “And we came into the Scientology centre. He took one look at the receptionist and said ‘Not bad!’.” That was Antje, from Germany. They married the following summer.

Over the next few years Allan, who worked as a building contractor in California, did a lot of work for Scientology – usually at buildings where his kids worked. He helped remodel one centre outside Los Angeles; and did work on another at New York. He and Michael installed a sauna at one California centre, and he put in a koi pond at another.

At the same time, he was buying Scientology courses and by the early 1980s had reached the much-vaunted state of Clear, which meant he could move on to the upper levels. By then however, Allan and Antje had become disillusioned with the increasingly regimented nature of the movement.

This was the period when Hubbard’s eventual successor, the young David Miscavige, was rising to power. He and a group of colleagues were conducting a ruthless purge of the old guard, expelling many veteran members. As a result of this crackdown, many other Scientologists quit the movement in disgust.

“My Dad drifted away from Scientology. Every the time the family would get together my sisters would descend on him and try and ‘handle’ him quote-unquote – handle him to get back in and be active in the Church and he wasn’t that interested once he had attained the state of Clear … So he became a problem for them because they couldn’t handle him.”

Some of Miscavige’s victims were “mission holders”: members who ran lucrative franchises selling Scientology services but were considered too independent. Mike did not realise it at the time, but Allan and his wife had more sympathy for these people than for new management. “I did not learn until much later that they had actually had meetings of a breakaway group of Mission holders at their home…

“I always wondered how Antje would get mailings from these groups, as I would see them around her house,” said Mike. “She just said they had somehow got on these mail lists and couldn't get off.” Like the loyal Scientologist he was, Mike would gather up the literature and pass it on to Scientology.

Allan and Antje retired to Foresthill, California, in the mid-1990s, where their family still visited them. “Antje quietly began a small spiritualist practice, which is forbidden for members of the church,” said Mike.

In Scientology terms this was “squirreling”: an unorthodox and unauthorized practice. Mike’s sisters wrote what are called knowledge reports on Antje, which is to say they reported her to the movement. After several such reports, things came to a head in 2001. Allan, from his hospital bed, picked up the story.

“My wife decided that the logical right thing to do was just to write a letter: we are going to resign honourably from the Church of Scientology. Whoah! Pardon my French but the shit hit the fan. Boy, we were told ‘You can’t resign, you cannot resign.’ We did it.”

In November 2001, Antje was declared suppressive – an enemy of Scientology. And because Allan was her husband, he suffered the same fate. Anyone who refuses to break off contact with a suppressive faces the same fate. “I was never a suppressive person to the Church,” said Allan. “I did all that I could do to help the Church and each one of the children.”

Allan’s children also had to choose: Scientology or their father. All of them, including Mike, chose Scientology. They broke off contact with their father.
Scientology does not simply expel its outcasts; it issues a special document on goldenrod-coloured paper listing his or her offences, known as a suppressive person declare. It is posted publicly in Scientology’s offices so that everyone knows that this person is persona non grata.

Allan, like any dedicated Scientologist, already knew about the disconnection rule before he fell foul of it. In his book An Introduction to Scientology Ethics, Hubbard presented it as a positive action by someone determined to maintain control of his life. “He is simply exercising his right to communicate or not to communicate with a particular person,” wrote Hubbard.

On paper, it had seemed perfectly reasonable, said Allan. “I discounted it. Every group’s got a bunch of troublemakers, people who just don’t get along with the rest of the group.” He reasoned that if someone was disconnected, there had to have been a good reason. He personally had never had to disconnect from anyone during his 20 years as a Scientologist.

The first Mike knew about his father’s fate was when he saw the official goldenrod document posted on the wall of one of the movement’s buildings. “It was if someone had struck me a physical blow. I have never read anything in my life that has had that kind of effect on me because I realised that basically I was cut off from my father.”

Devoted Scientologist that he was however, he complied. “I did not speak to my father from then until approximately September, 2005, four years later.”

Mike had been in Scientology since 1971. He had gone to get one of his sisters out of the movement and ended up being recruited by her. His whole family had become deeply involved: his mother, his brother and four sisters and all their children. Just like them, Mike felt he owed Scientology everything.

But then in 2005 he and his wife Donna Shannon got talked into signing up with the Sea Org. They joined at Flag Land Base in Clearwater, Florida, which Scientology promotes as one of its centres of excellence. What they experienced there forced them to acknowledge the darker side of the movement.

Mike and Donna had been encouraged to look up to the Sea Org as Scientology’s elite. Members sign a billion-year contract to serve the movement in this life and millions of future lives. They wear naval-style uniforms and operate under paramilitary-style discipline. Sea Org members occupy most, if not all of the senior executive positions in Scientology.

Once they were part of that elite however, things changed very quickly. “It was immediately apparent that we had made a huge mistake. It was brutal.”

As public members paying for their courses, Mike and Donna had been treated with kid gloves. Once they signed the billion-year contract, the gloves were off. Mike found himself working 110 hours a week or more, getting five or six hours a sleep a night and sometimes not even that: “People were actually proud of the fact that they had done an all-nighter... For me, if I do three or four days in a row of five hours a night, I’m a zombie – complete zombie.”

Mike had already served in the Sea Org as a teenager, but in the intervening years he had worked in the outside world, run businesses, trained and supervised employees. This was completely different. “In the Sea Org, they don’t work with people, they just tell people what to do – and if they don’t do it they scream at them and I saw people being held up to public ridicule.”

The Clearwater operation was bringing in millions of dollars, said Mike. But some of Scientology’s most dedicated followers were subsisting on 50 dollars a week or less. Even with food and shared accommodation provided, that was a stretch, said Mike. “They had people walking around in broken shoes, uniforms that people were basically sewn back together, that didn’t fit properly and so forth. The money that people were paid was just enough to cover their sundries. God help you if you smoked cigarettes!”

His wife told him about the bullying, macho atmosphere in her office, how executives screamed at their subordinates on a daily basis. He did not witness much of that personally (but then he is six foot nine). But he added: “I did participate in almost daily close-order drilling. ‘Right Face! Left Face! About Face!’ That kind of thing.”

Looking back, he thinks he knows what that was all about. “They want instant compliance without fault and they are conditioning you to do what you are told, when you do it without thinking. Instant obedience so they use that military model a lot.”

During his 34 years inside the movement, Mike spent something like half a million dollars on Scientology processing. He studied all the way up to OT 8, the highest published level in the movement, which is meant to confer special powers on those who pass it. He even met Hubbard on his ship the Apollo in 1974, and still remembers him with awe and affection.

Henderson cherishes the personal gains he experienced using Hubbard’s therapy. But the original spirit of fun is long gone, he says. He and his wife left in 2005.
It was only then that he contacted his father. “I had been out of the Sea Org since July, and then had firmly decided to leave the church myself, and decided to call my father. He was happy to hear from me. At Christmas, I got pictures of my great nephew, my fathers' first great grandchild. I made copies and sent them to him.”

“Thank God,” said Allan. “Thank God one of them has good common sense to break away from the group.” He was delighted too with the news that he was a great-grandfather – nobody in the family had told him. In October 2006, Mike and Donna visited and the reconciliation was complete.

By early 2007 Allan was seriously ill. Mike appealed in vain to his brother and four sisters to contact their father, explaining that he had cancer. But as loyal Scientologists, they remained disconnected.

In the meantime, he struggled to deal with the guilt he felt for what he had done to his father. “When I was in, I felt that the greatest good for the greatest number would be for me to achieve the state of OT,” the much-vaunted secret, upper levels. If somebody got himself kicked out of the movement, it made no sense to be dragged down with them, he reasoned. “I would be stupid to do anything else than cut myself off from them.”

Now that he was out however, he was experiencing the process from the other side of the fence: the rest of his family, his son and daughter included, had broken contact with him. But sitting outside in the shade of the hospital, sheltering from the California heat, he was more preoccupied with his father’s condition.

“There is no way of knowing what his prognosis is but he has been a good man all his life, he has worked really hard. When I was a kid he always worked extra jobs to make extra money for Christmas presents so that we always had enough to eat.”

Mike admits that some members of his family might have good reason to want nothing to do with him personally: during his time in Scientology, in his obsessive pursuit of the money for the next course he borrowed money that he never paid back. But his father, he insisted, was an innocent victim of Scientology’s rigid laws.

“At a time of his life when he should be comforted by his kids he has no communication with five of his six children, and no communication with any of his grandchildren and he has never seen his great grandchild.” He was struggling now to maintain his composure.

Mike had tried everything to get his brother and sisters to contact their father – including threatening to go to the media. “I did basically all I could to encourage them or shame them into communicating with their father and at least making peace with him.” Nothing worked.

“There is only so much you can do and then you start to realise you are up against a mind-controlling group that demands obedience from its members and the price of disobedience is a very high price indeed … it’s emotional blackmail is what it is.”

“I am not anti-Scientology,” he insisted. “I am for reforming it and keeping all that is positive and only changing what is destructive or cruel … By and large, the Scientologists you meet are good people, some of the friendliest and brightest you may ever meet. They are interested in improvement, in themselves and in society.” But the movement has lost its way, he says.[1]

In the hospital, I had asked Allan if he had a message for his family. “I’d say stay together: family is family and if somebody is trying to talk you out of being a member of the family and to go to some place of the group, you better question that group.”

Mike too had a message for his family, which he says still holds good today: “The door is always open... I love you all, wish you the best in life, and will always be proud you are my family.”

I interviewed Allan Henderson in May 2007. On June 4, I got an email from Mike: “My Dad passed away at 10:19am in Auburn, at the hospital in Auburn, today. He went peacefully. Thanks for your concern and for interviewing him. He was a good man. I am sorry you did not get to know him when he was on his feet.”

[1] Mike says his views have hardened against Scientology since we first met, but he still has no doubts about the good faith and good will of most Scientologists. I left messages for two members of Mike's family still in Scientology for comments but have yet to hear from them. I also contacted Scientology's press team for a comment. I am still waiting for a response.

To see copies of the official Scientology goldenrod Suppressive declares, have a look at the press pack for Saturday's LA press conference of former Sea Org members (seventh on the list of documents).

Mike Henderson has spoken movingly about his situation on more than one occasion. This video is from an April 2008 meeting in Clearwater, one of the main Scientology centres in the United States -- and indeed the world. Follow the links to the second and third parts of his speech.


Monday 8 February 2010

Disconnection: an introduction

Disconnection, which forces members to cut off contact with anyone deemed to be an enemy of the movement, is arguably the single most destructive policy in Scientology.

There is no consensus among the growing numbers of defectors from Scientology as to how much, if any, of the movement’s “spiritual technology” is worth salvaging.

Those who believe they experienced genuine psychological or spiritual insights during auditing, Scientology’s version of therapy, cherish what they say was its transforming effect.

Others however describe the supposed benefits of auditing as essentially illusory, dismissing it along with the rest of L. Ron Hubbard’s system.

One thing former members do tend to agree on however is the devastating effect of disconnection – not least because most of them have been on the receiving end.

Disconnection is probably the single most destructive policy in the sprawling system that Hubbard developed. Certainly, in the 1960s and ‘70s, several inquiries into Scientology singled it out for special criticism.[1]

This rule requires Scientologists to cut off all contact with anyone who their superiors in the movement declare to be a Suppressive Person – an enemy of Scientology.

And Hubbard saw enemies everywhere.

“Our enemies are less than twelve men,” he declared in 1967. “They are members of the Bank of England and other higher financial circles. They own and control newspaper chains and they, oddly enough, run all the mental health groups in the world that had sprung up…”[2]

And then there was the enemy within.

“People making mistakes or doing stupid things is evidence that an SP exists in that vicinity,” he wrote in a 1968 policy letter.[3]

Unable to consider the possibility that Scientology itself was the problem, he blamed “suppressive” elements for the regular setbacks his organisation suffered.

This scattergun paranoia still permeates the organisation.

Scientology ethics

To understand how disconnection works you have to go back to the Hubbard’s original writings.

Alongside what he presented as a therapeutic system of almost miraculous potential, Hubbard developed what he called Scientology ethics.

If you wanted access to Scientology auditing then Hubbard stipulated that you had to comply with an increasingly oppressive set of rules that stipulates how to behave.

“The purpose of ethics is to remove counter intentions from the environment,” Hubbard wrote in a June 18, 1968 policy letter. “And having accomplished that the purpose becomes to remove other intentionedness [sic] from the environment.”

As more than one commentator has pointed out, this effectively redefines ethics as attacking anything that opposes Scientology.[4]

From Hubbard’s point of view however, this was perfectly reasonable.

“We're not playing some minor game in Scientology. It isn't cute or something to do for lack of something better,” he declared in Keeping Scientology Working, a key 1965 text.

“The whole agonized future of this planet, every Man, Woman and Child on it, and your own destiny for the next endless trillions of years depend on what you do here and now with and in Scientology.”

Hubbard’s system of ethics divided the world into social and anti-social personalities.

Up to 20 percent of the population was made up of people with anti-social tendencies, though only two and a half percent were truly dangerous.[6] These were the Suppressive Persons, or SPs.

Hubbard of course considered anybody consistently critical of Scientology as suppressive. And in his view, a Suppressive Person was an enemy not just of Scientology but of mankind.

Today, all Scientologists, but particularly those working full-time for the movement, find their social circle and their conduct closely monitored for any sign of suppressive influences.

If the movement’s Ethics Officers decide a Scientologist is in contact with a suspected SP – say a parent unhappy about their sudden involvement in Scientology – then they are denied further counselling until they have resolved the problem.

The Scientologist concerned has become what Hubbard called a Potential Trouble Source (PTS): they must either “handle” or “disconnect”.[7]

Handling involves what Hubbard called a “good roads and fine weather” approach to friends or relatives uneasy about or hostile to Scientology. You only acknowledge the positive aspects of any conversation; you do not engage with anything critical or hostile.

Using the communications skills you have acquired from the movement you try to smooth out any misconceptions about Scientology and bring people around to your way of seeing things.

But if handling does not work, the final resort is disconnection.

An instrument of control

It is difficult to overstate the extent to which this policy controls the way Scientologists behave.

Former members have said that the mere prospect of being disconnected persuades many members to keep any doubts they might have about the movement to themselves.

For they know that quitting the movement will have devastating consequences: that they will become an outcast among Scientologists, with even close friends and family shunning them.

Non-Scientologists, those who have lost loved ones to the movement, face a similar dilemma.

As soon as they become aware of Scientology’s disconnection policy, they know they are walking a thin line.

If they do nothing, they risk losing all contact with their loved one; but if they object too forcefully to their new allegiance, they risk receiving a disconnection letter.[8]

The irony is that being prepared to speak out about Scientology has on some occasions brought about a “tactical reconnection”.

For in recent years at least, disconnection has been a mechanism that can be turned on and off, the better to control those inside the movement and their loved ones outside.

In 2007, BBC1’s flagship documentary series Panorama ran a programme on Scientology, perhaps best known for presenter John Sweeney’s shouting match with his Scientology minder, Tommy Davis.[9]

Although they had recorded two interviews with mothers whose daughters had disconnected from them, in the end, they only ran one. In the programme, Sweeney explained.

We filmed another mother who's been disconnected from her only child for nearly two years. No Christmas cards, no birthday cards, nothing. It was a heartrending interview.

Three hours after we left her daughter came round asking for reconciliation. Was this a coincidence? And the next day she begged her mother not to take part in this Panorama.

Her mother feared she might harm herself if we ran the story: so we won’t.[10]

The real purpose of disconnection then, is not to protect Scientologists from “suppressive” influences: it is first and foremost an instrument of control.[11]

The “Misconceptions about Scientology” section of the main Scientology website devotes three paragraphs to disconnection.[12]

It repeats Hubbard’s point that it is a last resort “when all attempts to sort out such situations have failed”.

It even draws parallels with religions such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and practices among certain “Orthodox Jewish congregations” – as if somehow the fact that other religious extremists practise it makes it okay.

But it also gives the impression that a Scientologist’s decision to disconnect is theirs alone.

There is no indication that there is any pressure, or that the decision in fact often comes from higher up – from their handlers in the ethics section of the organisation.

This follows Hubbard’s line in Introduction to Scientology Ethics, when he tried to present disconnection as a positive action by someone determined to maintain control of their lives.

“He is simply exercising his right to communicate or not to communicate with a particular person.”

A more careful reading of Hubbard’s writings however makes it clear that disconnection is compulsory, not a matter of personal choice.

For among the high crimes Hubbard listed for which one can be declared a Suppressive Person and cast out of the movement, is the following offence:

Failure to handle or disavow and disconnect from a person demonstrably guilty of suppressive acts.[13]

Hubbard’s disconnection policy, which he first introduced in 1965, was so controversial and attracted so much negative publicity that he cancelled it in 1968.

But it was gradually reintroduced in the 1970s and was fully reinstated in a September 10 1983 policy letter.[14]

Scientology spokesmen nevertheless continue to deny that disconnection is enforced on its members.[15]

This section of the website will look at the devastating effects of disconnection through the personal stories of those affected by the policy.

[1] They include the 1965 Anderson Report for the State of Victoria in Australia; the 1969 Dumbleton-Powles Report for the New Zealand government; and the 1971 Foster Report for the British government.
Some critics of Scientology have singled out the policy forcing Sea Org members to have abortions as being the one that deserves most condemnation, but as offensive as this is, this policy affects a limited number of people. Disconnection can be applied to any Scientologist and is one of the strongest instruments of control used inside the movement.
Many contacts I have spoken to over the years have either declined to speak out or insisted on remaining anonymous for fear of losing contact with loved ones who are still loyal Scientologists. And as we shall see, for many defectors, the worst part of leaving the movement is the experience of being cut off from loved ones still inside.
[2] Ron’s Journal ‘67.
[3] From the March 12, 1968 Hubbard Communications Office Bulletin “Anatomy of Mistakes”.
[4] “In plain English, the purpose of Scientology ethics is to eliminate opponents, then eliminate people's interests in things other than Scientology,” wrote Professor Stephen J. Kent in “Scientology and the European Human Rights Debate: A Reply to Leisa Goodman, J. Gordon Melton, and the European Rehabilitation Project Force Study” in Marburg Journal of Religion: Volume 8, No. 1 (September 2003). See page eight.
Former Sea Org member Martin Ottmann was even more blunt in his detailed April 19, 1996 affidavit.  Commenting on the same Hubbard quote, he wrote: “The purpose of Scientology-ethics is therefore to impose one’s will on others. The purpose of the Sea Org, which is to get ethics in on the planet, is therefore to dominate the world. Scientology has exposed itself as a fascist organization, who reaches for world domination and nothing else.” This from the conclusion to Section C: “How Scientology Ethics was Applied.”
[5] Keeping Scientology Working, February 7, 1965.
[6] This doctrine is set out in Hubbard’s Introduction to Scientology Ethics. See here for an extract of the relevant passage.
[7] As I have covered elsewhere on this site, a number of former members have confirmed that during their time as ethics officers they ordered people to disconnect from loved ones deemed suppressive. See John Peeler’s account of how he enforced disconnection here; and Aaron Saxton’s testimony here and here.
[8] And I can speak here from a personal perspective: see this account of my relatively limited experience in this area from Scotland’s Sunday Herald, (November 8, 2009). “How do you explain to a loved one your concerns about the movement they are in when they are trained to ignore such information – and could even be ordered to cut off all contact with you? It was bad enough for me, but I can only imagine what it must have been like for her parents.”
[9] Panorama: Scientology and Me, May 14, 2007. Transcript here.
[10] From the official transcript of the programme at Panorama’s website:
[11] The BBC anecdote is not an isolated incident.
On the Why We Protest message board, former member Marc Headley has reported that friends and colleagues of his still in the movement after he quit were offered the chance to reconnect with “suppressives” among their loved ones if they agreed to approach him in a bid to get information about his activities. This phenomenon, which some people are calling “reverse disconnection” – and others “blackmail” – has surfaced on some of the message boards covering Scientology.
Some of the people I have approached over the years have refused to speak on the record – or even to speak at all – because they still had hopes of getting back in touch with loved ones lost to the movement. I scrapped one article on disconnection after my interview subject, the person who had been disconnected, was suddenly contacted by his son and a reconciliation of sorts arranged.
[13] From Chapter Seven of An Introduction to Scientology Ethics. But this originally came from a December 23 1965 Hubbard Communications Office Policy Letter, “Suppressive Acts Suppression of Scientology and Scientologists” – so it can hardly be said to be a corruption of Hubbard’s policies by the current leader Daivd Miscavige.
[14] “An Ethics Officer can encounter a situation where someone is factually connected to a Suppressive Person, in present time,” wrote Hubbard.
“This is a person whose normal operating basis is one of making others smaller, less able, less powerful. He does not want anyone to get better, at all.
“In truth, an SP is absolutely, completely terrified of anyone becoming more powerful. In such an instance the PTS isn't going to get anywhere trying to handle the person. The answer is to sever the connection.”
"PTSness and Disconnection", September 10, 1983.
[15] On CNN, for example, Scientology’s most prominent current spokesman Tommy Davis denied that Scientology enforced disconnection. He was responding to an open letter by David Miscavige’s own niece Jenna Misavige Hill, who said she had been cut off from her own grandfather by the policy.
Mike Rinder, during his time as one of Scientology’s top officials, also denied in media interviews that Scientology enforced disconnection policy on its members. Since then of course he has quit Scientology and become a victim of that policy himself.