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.



  1. I am deeply moved by this article, by the story of Allen Henderson and about how 5 of his 6 children have forsaken him in exchange for the false hopes of scientology. The WTH precept you wrote about at the beginning reveals the hypocracy of scientology.

    Most of all, I am sincerely moved by Michael Henderson's dedication to making things right with his father during his last years of life, his recognition of his own mistakes of the past and his doing all he could, out of love, to bring his family together.

    Sometimes, all we can do is make the most of the situation and Michael, with the help of his wife Donna, did just that. I pray Michael's siblings come to their senses someday and get to know what unconditional love really means.
    ~ Mary McConnell

  2. I know Mike and knew of his father's story. You did a great job bringing this into the open and letting the world see it. Mike did the right thing, his siblings will, alas, never be able to make up for what they have done. Disconnection is an evil practice that has a lot of repercussions. My wife and I have not seen even a picture of our grandson or daughter-in-law because our son disconnected from us 8 or so years ago.