Tuesday 27 September 2011

This is why...

Scotland’s Sunday Herald published this article in November 2009, during one of the media’s periodic flurries of interest in Scientology’s activities.

The movement had just lost a very high-profile fraud case in Paris (it is up on appeal later this year). But it didn’t hurt that there was also a celebrity angle: writer/director Paul Haggis had just defected from the movement, denouncing its homophobia and the practice of disconnection.

Although I posted a link to the article at the time, its online version at The Sunday Herald website was never properly formatted. So I’m posting it here in a more readable form, with a few minor edits.

I mention the Hendersons’ terrible experience of disconnection in this article: but I tell their story in more detail here.


I know the dark side of Scientology...I almost lost my friend when she became obsessed with it.

I knew Scientology was in trouble when the media moved on from the usual silly gossip about its celebrity members to much darker, disturbing issues at the heart of the movement – issues, as I have come personally to understand, that actually matter.

After a Paris court last month convicted several scientologists and two organisations associated with the movement in France of organised fraud, and amid other investigations in France looking at a suicide and an alleged abduction, Oscar-winning film-maker Paul Haggis, a long-time member, quit Scientology.

Haggis, who wrote and directed “Crash”, denounced the practice of “disconnection”, which sees members forced to cut off contact with anyone – even their loved ones – if they are deemed an enemy of Scientology.

In Edinburgh in the early 1990s, I found out just what the practice of disconnection could do to ordinary people when a close friend became involved in Scientology.

It was an experience which marked me so profoundly that I have been tracking the movement ever since.

Let’s call my friend Hannah. I first got to know her when she moved into the house I was staying at in Edinburgh. An American in her early 20s, she was here to see a little of Europe between finishing college and starting up the career ladder.

She loved Scotland and spent the winter here, so we spent a lot of time together until spring when she packed her rucksack and took off to travel around the rest of Europe.

It was in Switzerland, I later learned, that she met some “really friendly people” who invited her to stay with them. They also introduced her to Scientology.

When Hannah came back to Scotland a few months later she was like someone in love, infatuated with this mysterious process she said had transformed her life.

It was only when I pressed her that she finally mentioned something called Dianetics – the system that was a precursor to Scientology.

I knew a little about it already – I’d seen the earnest young folk on South Bridge in Edinburgh who tried to lure you off the street for a free personality test at the Hubbard Academy of Personal Independence – the Scientology base in the capital named after the movement’s founder, writer L Ron Hubbard.

Trance-inducing exercises

I had a copy of American science writer Martin Gardner’s classic work, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Written in 1952, it contained a devastating critique of what at the time was the relatively new phenomenon of Dianetics.

But Hannah refused point blank to even look at the book.

To mollify her, I agreed to read Hubbard’s book, Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health – and that was when I really started to worry.

The book read like Freud by way of Hitchcock. Hubbard claimed to be able to clear people of the junk in their unconscious mind and thus cure a host of illnesses through a process called auditing, in which subjects recalled traumatic events in their life.

Before long, he was checking past lives too.

At first, I found it difficult to believe how anyone could fall for such nonsense. But when I started talking to former Scientologists, I learned about the control mechanisms used inside the movement.

Newcomers underwent courses that included a powerful series of trance-inducing exercises that reduced one’s critical capacities, said ex-scientologist Bonnie Woods.

“The degree of involvement doesn’t have to be long for there to be a pretty intensive desire to continue because of the nature of the techniques,” she warned.

I also learned how recruits were trained at a very early stage to reject negative information about the group, as it would only slow their path along “the Bridge to Total Freedom”.

For Scientologists believe that their movement is the last, best hope for humanity.

In a now notorious leaked internal video, Tom Cruise told his fellow believers: “We are the authorities on the mind. We are the authorities on improving conditions … we can bring peace and unite cultures.”

Billion-year contract

Hannah moved to England to join the Sea Organization – or Sea Org – Scientology’s elite corps for its most dedicated members. She signed a billion-year contract – covering this life and all future lives.

Although Hubbard called the Sea Org “Scientology’s aristocracy”, some former members describe it more like a forced labour camp. Sea Org members wear naval-style uniforms, practice parade ground drilling and observe a strict disciplinary code.

When they are not pulling all-nighters, they work 14-hour days, six or seven days a week, for $50 a week – about £30.

It was about that time I contacted Hannah’s parents who, it turned out, were already frantic.

I kept them updated about my visits to Hannah at Scientology’s UK base at Saint Hill, near East Grinstead, West Sussex. These were stressful affairs.

One senior member, suspicious of my background as a journalist, was appointed to check me out. He let me go with an armful of literature explaining how psychiatrists were responsible for everything from the Holocaust to the Bosnian War.

More difficult was when Hannah and a friend tried to browbeat me into buying Scientology books and paying for courses.

I was determined not to cave in, but the pressure to comply was tremendous, especially as it was coming from someone I cared about.

“What is there in your life that really needs improving?” asked Hannah’s friend, an earnest young Hungarian. I could hardly say that getting Hannah out of Scientology would be a good start – but I was saved by the arrival of my taxi.

By this time, I had read my first account by a former scientologist of her time inside the movement.

She told how, while in the movement, she had broken off contact with her parents under orders from her superiors – disconnection.

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: I can only imagine what it must have been like for her parents. We worked together to do everything we could to stop Hannah from fully disconnecting from her friends and family.


In those days, Scientology seemed virtually invincible. Developments this year, however, have started to crack that aura of untouchability.

In June, the Florida-based St Petersburg Times launched an investigative series featuring former senior Scientologists denouncing the movement’s leader, David Miscavige.

In a rebuttal of the claims, Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis – who famously drove journalist John Sweeney into an apoplectic rage during a 2007 Panorama investigation – denied that Scientology enforced disconnection on its members.

It was this denial that helped convince film director Paul Haggis to quit the movement.

In his resignation letter he wrote to Davis: “You might recall that my wife was ordered to disconnect from her parents because of something absolutely trivial they supposedly did 25 years ago when they resigned from the church.”

Since Haggis’s letter was leaked, Davis has again denied that Scientology enforces disconnection, repeating the official line that it is a decision taken by individuals rather than imposed from above.

Hannah’s story had a happy ending. When she eventually went home to visit her parents, they introduced her to a former associate of Hubbard who persuaded her to leave the movement.

It took her a while to recover from the experience, but today she has a family and a successful career.

Over the years, however, I have talked to people who were not so lucky: to families who have had no word of their sons, daughters, brothers or sisters for years.

Some simply lost their loved ones to the Sea Org, where promised holidays rarely materialise – and where members are often posted far from their homes and families.

Other people simply received formal disconnection letters from family members caught up in the movement, officially informing them that they were no longer a part of their lives.

Former members have told me how they were ordered to disconnect from loved ones, or were themselves disconnected when they quit Scientology: and some have lived both sides of the experience.

Former member John Peeler told me his job as an ethics officer included ordering scientologists to disconnect from loved ones deemed “suppressive” – the term for anyone deemed hostile to the movement.

And in 2007 I spoke to Allan Henderson, 77, a former Scientologist, as he lay dying of cancer in a California hospital.

In 2001, he was declared an enemy of Scientology and his whole family – his first wife, his six children and 22 grandchildren – all disconnected from him.

It was his eldest son, Mike, who introduced us.

Mike had only just re-established contact with his father after quitting the movement himself – and of course the rest of his family had disconnected from him.

Allan 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 … you better question that group.”

But Mike could not persuade his brothers and sisters to visit their father as he lay dying. And not one of them attended his funeral.

I emailed the Church of Scientology leadership last week to get their side of the story in this article. I explained I would be exploring the continuing controversy over the policy of disconnection; the recent allegations of abuse against David Miscavige; and last month’s fraud convictions in France.

By the time of publication, there had still been no reply.

Paris-based journalist Jonny Jacobsen runs the Infinite Complacency website covering allegations of violence and abuse in Scientology.

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