It’s making headlines and turning heads. One former Scientologist recounts her experience.
by Christa Martin
A few months ago I was told that a local, former high-level Scientologist, “Janet,” was interested in talking with a member of the press. It was particularly noteworthy for several reasons. The Church of Scientology of Santa Cruz opened in 2005. Also, many people who have left the Church of Scientology (CoS) generally don’t speak out about their experiences, except online. Scientology has also generated controversial headlines in the press lately. Last year, when Tom Cruise was promoting MI:3, he commented publicly about Scientology. There was a war of words with Brooke Shields about antidepressants, which made national news. Then came a South Park spoof on Cruise and Scientology. Earlier this year, in 2006, columnist Janet Reitman wrote a lengthy article in Rolling Stone magazine, which covered the A-Z’s of the controversial religion. More recently, the television show, nip/tuck decided to pursue a Scientology storyline.
Anyone who claims that Scientology hasn’t experienced its fair share of controversy surely has dived headfirst into a Santa Cruz beach. The religion, which was granted tax-exempt status in 1993, has always generated attention for its practice of paying for services, its testy relationship with the press and the scathing reports from apostates—people who have left the church. However, on the other hand, its followers are known to avidly proselytize, and its celebrity devotees are often outspoken, claiming that Scientology has changed their lives for the better. Literature distributed by the CoS claims that participants in its various programs garner outstanding results and that Dianetics helps people. Additionally, Scientologists claim that the church is actively involved in making the world a better place.
As I embarked on this quest to tell Janet’s story, I was met with many comments, worries and some criticism. Mostly, friends, colleagues and associates were concerned. Scientology has a reputation for bullying anyone who it concludes is criticizing the church, I was told. For example, in Time magazine’s May 6, 1991 article about Scientology, writer Richard Behar wrote that he, as well as people that he knew, were harassed and/or threatened, and he believes these things happened because he was writing a story about Scientology. My intent, however, was merely to tell a story from one woman’s point of view about what she claims were her experiences in and out of Scientology.
All names in this article have been changed at the request of “Janet” for reasons of privacy.
Janet is striking for her age. At 55, she has a lion’s mane of auburn, curly locks, piercing eyes and a steely resolve. She’s smart, firm and serious in one breath, laughing easily in the next. She’s your neighbor, the woman next door who runs a successful Santa Cruz business with her husband. Janet could be anyone.
For about 10 years during the ’70s, Janet was a Scientologist. Not your Average Joe Scientologist, but a member of the Sea Org, the elite, the upper echelon, who sign a reported billion-year contract of dedication to Scientology. These people reportedly work for the church for most of their lives. They are generally considered to be the most dedicated followers. Janet knew L. Ron Hubbard, the founder and deceased leader of Scientology. She remembers running into David Miscavige, the religion’s current leader, before he took that post in 1987. And she remembers why she entered the church and why she “blew,” which is Scientology terminology for “a sudden departure.”
Janet, being an ex-Scientologist, isn’t considered a hero among the CoS. The church often dismisses the stories of such people who sever ties from Scientology. Janet decided to publicly share her story after a recent upheaval—her sister left the church after 38 years of service.
During the course of about two months, I met with Janet often. We had tea and she shared her point of view of what Scientology and the Sea Org were like in the 1970s, when she was deeply involved in the religion. I also met with her 58-year-old sister, who shared with me recent experiences she says she has had.
In 1969, Janet was a 19-year-old girl living overseas in Hong Kong, where her parents were Christian missionaries. Her older sister, Lisa, was back in the United States, and had written to her family explaining that she had become involved in Scientology. “My parents were flipped out, devastated,” Janet says about what happened when they heard the news about Lisa’s interest in L. Ron Hubbard’s religion. Janet soon returned to America and moved to Pasadena, Calif. Her sister Lisa tried to persuade her to check out Dianetics and Scientology. Dianetics is not only the title of one of Hubbard’s best-selling books, but it’s also considered a type of technology, a way of improving your life. Scientologists use their own vocabulary to describe virtually everything within their religion. The church’s Web site, scientology.net, describes it like this:
“Dianetics uncovers the source of unwanted sensations and emotions, accidents, injuries and psychosomatic illnesses, and sets forth effective handlings for these conditions ….
“Scientology, on the other hand, is the study and handling of the spirit in relationship to itself, to universes and to other life. ...”
Janet read Hubbard’s “Dianetics” book and still wasn’t interested. But her sister eventually convinced Janet to visit a Los Angeles Church of Scientology for an introductory lecture.
“I had no family nearby,” Janet recalls. “I was lonely. So I went. Everyone was so lovely and inviting. It was this awesome sense of belonging; you’re part of something. But they prey upon you if you don’t have a lot of money and a big family structure.”
And this is what Janet believes happened to her. She says she was soon sucked into the system, partly through her sister, partly through the friendly nature of the Scientologists and partly because the guy teaching the introductory class, Joe, wasn’t, as she tells it, bad to look at.
Janet continued to take more classes. At one point, she felt pressured to be at Los Angeles’ Church of Scientology Advanced Org. and its Church of Scientology American St. Hill Org. five nights a week and weekends. Eventually, Janet worked her way up higher and higher in the organization. She became a staff member and later a high-level, Class V II “auditor.”
An auditor is someone who runs an E-meter device during auditing sessions. An E-meter, according to Scientology’s Web site, “… passes a tiny current through the pre-clear’s body. This current is influenced by the mental masses, pictures, circuits and machinery. …”
It has been likened to a lie-detector. It’s used in one-on-one meetings called auditing sessions, where an auditor will ask personal questions to the person who is paying for that session. These questions run the gamut of subjects. The point of the session is for the person to attain a “win,” meaning that they have, in essence, overcome a “hang-up” in their life.
After about eight years into Scientology, Janet joined Scientology’s elite Sea Org. In 1978 she was invited to join a crew of “cream of the crop” Sea Org members who were asked to work directly with Hubbard at his compound in La Quinta, an area near Palm Springs, Calif. By this time, Janet says she had moved up to The Bridge of Scientology.
Walking Across ‘The Bridge’
Think of The Bridge of Scientology as being something like climbing up a ladder. It is a series of levels in which a person works his or her way up the religion. Participation in many of these levels, taking courses and receiving auditing costs money. The CoS has come under critical fire for its practice of charging for its services. Some might equate this to someone paying to listen to a sermon at church, or paying to go to confession. While many churches and temples ask their parishioners to contribute a tithe (10 percent of their income) to their house of worship, typically, that is a suggestion and not a requirement for membership or association. To move up The Bridge of Scientology, one must hand over money. However, Janet and her sister Lisa were on staff. They basically traded their work for the organization, in exchange for free classes and auditing sessions, accruing what would later be called a “Freeloader Debt.”
At that point, Janet had become a Class VII auditor and an OT III. To those outside of Scientology this begins to sound like technical jargon, but to those within the church, these phrases and words make perfect sense. It’s part of being on the inside. OT III is one of the levels that people attain while on their journey through Scientology. It’s also one of the supposedly confidential and elite levels, but it’s also widely been poked fun at, as information about it has allegedly been leaked to the Internet and is available for anyone to read.
OT means “Operating Thetan.” According to scientology.net: “… Thetan refers to the spiritual being, and operating means here (sic) ‘able to operate without dependency on things.’”
At OT III, it is said that these Scientologists are placed in a room by themselves and given a folder which contains a creation story of sorts, as told by L. Ron Hubbard in his own writing. Documents claiming to be scanned copies of this confidential information are on the Web. Anyone who’s acquainted with pop culture these days, by way of South Park, may already know of these “secrets.” In 2005, South Park aired an episode, “Tom Cruise Trapped in the Closet,” that still has people guffawing and others cringing. Among other things, it characterized the OT III confidential materials.
Janet’s claims of her experience with OT III are similar to those of many people who’ve reported their stories online. “You go in this room, and they’re telling you the reason why the Earth is like it is,” she says, adding that the information also explains why people are the way they are. “I went into a room at AOLA—Advanced Organization of Los Angeles—and (after reading the materials) went, ‘Oh my God, is this it? It’s disappointing.’ But you can’t tell anyone, because you’ll get in trouble. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try it.’ You come out of the room and suddenly everyone’s like, ‘You’re on OT III!’ And suddenly you’re up on this pedestal and it’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes. If you said, ‘This is crap,’ you’d be kicked out of Scientology, so your brain makes a way for it to be real.”
“It,” according to Janet and other published sources, is basically this: About 75 million years ago, Xenu, an alien warlord, took billions of souls from overpopulated planets, brought them to Earth, stuck them in a bunch of volcanoes, and blew them up with bombs. Their souls floated around the planet, got stuck to us humans and now wreak havoc.
La Quinta and the RPF
“They said, ‘Hubbard wants you to come and be in this secret place and work just for him, and we’re going to be doing top secret stuff,’” Janet says. “I was 28 at the time and I thought, ‘OK, I want to do this.’ Getting to go see Hubbard would be like going to see Christ.”
Janet was married by this time, so she and her husband sold some of their property, she quit her day job, changed her last name in order to use an alias and had all mail routed to Scientology’s headquarters in Clearwater, Fla. Separately, Janet and her husband moved to the La Quinta compound where Hubbard was residing at the time.
“There were maybe 60 people there,” she says. “By then I had signed the billion-year contract to the Sea Organization that I would agree to give my life to Hubbard for a billion years. And I did that—oddly enough,” she says now looking back. “It didn’t seem wacky, which is very odd because I’m a very sensible person. I don’t consider it wacky (now), but absolutely manipulative … and scary.”
Janet says she spent about a year at the La Quinta compound, working for Hubbard. Her primary job was as an auditor, specifically doing auditing sessions on the woman who was Hubbard’s auditor.
“(One day) a Commodore Messenger—(one of the people who followed Hubbard around, writing down everything he said)—sent a note that Hubbard wanted to meet me. … It was truly like I was in complete awe, as though I was going to meet God. I was very well educated, worldly, not stupid, and yet my legs were shaking. … I walked on the set—(at that time Hubbard was doing a lot of Scientology films)—and someone introduces me and he goes, ‘Welcome aboard, honey,’ and he takes my hand and shakes it. He was very welcoming. Then he immediately goes to whatever project he was doing. Someone does something wrong and (then) he has a complete psychotic tantrum, shaking with rage and yelling. … I began to get a little red flag.”
As time went by, Janet says she came to understand that if someone did something “wrong,” he or she was punished.
“I screwed up or something, I don’t remember what, and I had to clean the floor of his house. He didn’t like cleaning smells, so I had to clean the floor using only the oils of my hands.”
Janet’s husband was sent off-site after two months to work on a project. He returned for a short time and then left again permanently. According to her, he wanted out of Scientology, and he got out. But Janet was still in, although she was having second thoughts.
Things began to change at La Quinta. Janet refers to it as a witch-hunt. Hubbard, she says, became convinced that the compound was filled with “suppressive persons.” A suppressive person is, according to Scientology’s own Web site, “ … The suppressive person, also called an antisocial personality, works to upset, continuously undermine, spread bad news and denigrate other people and their activities ...”
“Suddenly everyone turned against each other,” Janet adds, and numerous people were being put in the RPF. The RPF is the Rehabilitation Project Force. Critics of Scientology call it a “jail,” while the CoS explains that it’s a place where people who would otherwise be kicked out of the Sea Org for something bad that they’ve done, can have a second chance. People like Janet, who were sent to the RPF, explain it very differently. She says there’s no free will in being sent to the RPF. You could be sent there for any reason and be left there for a lengthy period of time. And you can’t leave.
When Hubbard was upset about supposed suppressive persons at the La Quinta community, someone issued Janet an order that she was to audit Hubbard’s auditor and look for things that would show that the woman was a suppressive person. To do so, Janet was to look for the needle on the E-meter she was using to show a phenomenon called RSs or “Rock Slams,” where the needle starts slamming. “I was sent to the RPF for missing her RSs,” she explains.
According to Janet, there are many RPFs. The RPF that she was sent to was in the La Quinta area.
At the time, she says the conditions of the RPF that she was sent to included housing in a room with six other women. She’d wake up at 5:30 a.m., rush for a two-minute shower, shovel down some food, do required physical exercise and then spend a long day working, often until 10 p.m. There were also specific hours during the day allotted to Scientology studies. Being that Janet was a high-level auditor, it was her job to audit people in the RPF.
One day, she got sick of it. Joe, the guy she initially met at her first introduction class way back in 1969, was a person in charge at the RPF. By then, Joe had become a high-level executive for the CoS.
“One day he came to me and said that he had an order in his pocket to send [a woman] to the RPF’s RPF (similar to solitary confinement,” Janet says. “[She] was the highest person in the Commodore’s Messenger Org. When that kind of shit happened [someone like her being sent to the RPF], you know the shit was going to explode. Joe told me that … it was time for us to go.” Before then, the two had had quiet conversations about leaving, but nothing had materialized.
Janet says she was sent there for four months before she escaped—from the RPF and from Scientology. Her sister, Lisa, who was also at the same location, was later sent to the RPF. Once, reportedly, for two-and-a-half years.
It was a Saturday morning, and Joe and Janet had the details worked out. When everyone went to breakfast, Janet quietly threw her few possessions in her car, which she had managed to somehow hold on to. She drove to the other side of a golf course, which was on the grounds. Joe hopped in and the pair sped off. They traveled to the Lake Arrowhead area, where Janet, at the time, still owned a cabin with her estranged husband. In the meantime, she says, people at the RPF found out they had disappeared, and her parents, Joe’s parents and her younger sister were all telephoned, asked about the duo’s whereabouts.
“We had no money because we’d been there for years,” she says. “I had a credit card that I wasn’t supposed to have, and I was hoping that it would work.”
Two days later, after they had to Joe’s parents’ home, Scientologists contacted them and convinced the pair to “route” out correctly. Routing out is allegedly the by-the-book process of leaving Scientology.
The pair had left, basically, without permission. According to Janet, if they had been caught, they would have been physically restrained. Her sister Lisa admits to being involved in capturing some people who tried to “blow” from an RPF.
Joe and Janet agreed to meet Scientologists at a Denny’s, where “they reamed us,” Janet recalls. “There were papers they wanted us to sign that were all bullshit. Just crap. I think we signed them. We were there for several hours and we told them, ‘No, we’re not going back.’”
Following their dramatic exit from Scientology, Janet and Joe set up a life together. Janet eventually became divorced from her first husband and later married Joe. But, she says, the next 12-18 months were challenging. “We were totally harassed,” she says. “They would park outside our house, watch us, follow us … call us to come back in and handle our freeloader debt.”
Eventually, she says that she and Joe were finally left alone. They later developed lives outside of Scientology, and they had two daughters. Much later, they divorced amicably and remain friends today.
Janet remarried again, and in 1994, she received a telephone call from Lisa, who was still in Scientology. Lisa told Janet, using Scientology terminology, that Janet needed to “handle” her freeloader debt and/or return to Scientology, or Lisa would have to “disconnect” (disassociate) from Janet. Janet explained that she would not be returning to Scientology, and Lisa then told her that she was disconnecting forever, and from 1994 to 2004, Janet never heard from her sister.
“This is not a benign little tea party,” Janet says of her experiences in Scientology. “It’s opening a door that is hard to walk out of.”
In 2004, Lisa got back in touch with her sister, telling Janet that she was now in good standing with the church. Later, in 2005, at their father’s 80th birthday party, Lisa and Janet saw each other again. “It was fabulous and emotional, and connecting,” Janet says. “She was quiet, but she looked great.”
Later that year, during the Christmas season, Lisa seemed somewhat forgetful. “We could see that something was wrong with her, and I called down to the Church of Scientology [in Los Angeles] … who said she’d been diagnosed with early onset dementia,” Janet says. Lisa is currently 58 years old. Meanwhile, following Lisa’s Christmas vacation, she decided not to return to the CoS. Since Lisa’s decision, she has been staying with various family members. On one occasion, when she visited Janet and her husband in Santa Cruz, I met Lisa.
The resemblance between Lisa and Janet is strong. You can tell they’re sisters. I ask Lisa to tell me her story about her experiences in Scientology, but she has some difficulty. I come to learn, from Lisa’s perspective, that she was a Sea Org lifer. She had achieved a high-level position working for OSA, the Office of Special Affairs, in Los Angeles.
A few times, she got in trouble, but she can’t remember why, and she was sent to the RPF. On one occasion, in the early part of this decade, she spent two-and-a-half years in an RPF. Lisa says that while there, her conditions included sharing sleeping quarters with 20-30 women in a large room, hurried eating and demanding work assignments. While being discharged to do physical labor, Lisa says that a wooden door fell on her, causing her to fall to the ground and hit her head fairly hard. She claims that little was done to follow up on her injury and assure her if she was fine. She does, however, remember visiting a chiropractor. After this incident, things become a bit fuzzy for Lisa, but she alleges that she was demoted a few notches in the ranks at work. According to Lisa, things were looking bleak, and she began to want out of the religion that had been her life for 38 years. She no longer felt at home, and she no longer felt safe or cared for. “I said, ‘I’m never going to come back to something like this,’” Lisa says.
Enter Janet. She says that through a series of faxes, phone calls and in-person conversations with Scientology personnel, both in Los Angeles and then during their surprise visit to Santa Cruz just months ago, Janet became involved in her own ongoing, personal investigation into what she considers to be maltreatment of her sister. Janet says she demanded that medical records be released to her sister and back pay be sent. Eventually, Janet claims that some requested things materialized, but not without plenty of stalling and chaos.
Janet says that Lisa is now undergoing psychiatric help instead of auditing sessions.
“She devoted 38 years [to Scientology],” Janet says. “She has no children, no money, no husband, absolutely nothing.”
“When Lisa first arrived [here in Santa Cruz], she wanted to do art work, so we set up paints and an easel,” says Janet’s current husband, Paul. “After a couple of weeks she only produced a piece of paper with some brush strokes on it. I talked to Janet about it and wanted to know why she couldn’t put paint on the paper. ‘She’s terrified that she might do the wrong thing, pick the wrong color or stroke, and if you do anything like that in Scientology, you’re screwed: Back to the RPF,’ Janet told me. We got her a big sheet of paper and told her to cover every square inch of this thing. We came back the next day, and she had five [sheets of paper]. They went from yellow brush strokes, to all red and looked like red flames. The next was orange and red. It was really amazing. And the following one settled down. She had a breakthrough.”
Paul says he was never involved in Scientology, so when he first began hearing his wife’s stories, he was shocked. He found them fascinating, otherworldly, until he began hearing more of them. The couple has had numerous visitors—people whom Paul believes are on-the-ball, sane and intelligent—come to their Santa Cruz home, people who lived with Hubbard and personally assisted him, and attest to wildly disturbing stories about their experiences in Scientology, the Sea Org and in the RPF.
“I feel bad that I didn’t get my sister out,” Janet says. “She just didn’t want to. And I feel I should have done that.”
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