Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape
Jenna Miscavige Hill (with Lisa Pulitzer)
Reviewed by Marcia R. Rudin
New York, NY: William Morrow (imprint of HarperCollins). 2013. ISBN: 978-0-06-2248473 (hardcover), $27.99; ISBN: 978-0062248480 (paperback), $15.99; ISBN: 978-0062263438 (international edition). 404 pages.
In 1980 I coauthored one of the first books about cults, Prison or Paradise? The New Religious Cults, with my husband Rabbi James Rudin. For some reason, we were prescient enough even in those very early stages of our efforts to understand the cult phenomenon to write that there were children caught up in these groups as well as adults.
I say “for some reason” because I really don’t know how, 33 years ago, I managed to realize there were children and hence complicated multigenerational family situations in these movements. At that time, we pioneers of the countercult movement dealt only with the scenario of college-age young people recruited from college and university campuses or as they wandered around the United States or the world. The cult experiences of these individuals generally lasted only a few years. These bright, often affluent young people told what were at that time typical stories of recruiters approaching them during their travels or on their college campuses: “chance” encounters, invitations to meetings or weekends, love-bombing, isolation from parents and friends, pressure to quit their jobs or drop out of school, and so on. Most commonly, these young people were rescued by their parents and then channeled into our recovery network for the purpose of rebuilding their lives.
How could I have foreseen 33 years ago that today cult educators, therapists, and researchers would be dealing with what we now call SGAs—second-generation adults? Now we hold special conferences and recovery workshops for former members raised from early childhood in groups and often born into them. Their numbers are increasing. Today we hear and read accounts of the lives and struggles of many who have grown up in groups and have managed to exit and build new lives, perhaps leaving behind families, loved ones, and often the only world they knew. These tales are fascinating and filled with heart-breaking details. As time moves on, we are seeing third-generation cult members, with these complications compounded.
One can perhaps always assume, and both what I have read and firsthand accounts I have heard support, that growing up in these groups is painful and difficult. Generally there is a lack of education; inadequate if any health care; often physical or even sexual abuse; and isolation from other kids, “normal” life, and normal events or phases of growing up. (I once read a sad account of how a young girl in a cult, who attended a public school, was not allowed to go to her high-school prom. This event may not be very important in the universal scheme of things, but it is oh, so important to a teenager!)
There are also horrifying accounts of childhoods in these groups. The memoir of Jenna Miscavige Hill, the niece of the president of Scientology, David Miscavige, written with Lisa Pulitzer and titled Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, is one of these accounts. The life Jenna led as a child raised as a third-generation Scientologist—or, more accurately, as she points out, who fended for herself even as early as age 6, elevates these stories to an astonishing level.
When Jenna was 6 years old, her parents joined Scientology’s Sea Organization (“Sea Org”) religious order comprising the group’s most dedicated members and placed her as a cadet in a Scientology settlement known as The Ranch in California so they could devote themselves to intensive Scientology work elsewhere. Jenna and her brother, along with other children, could see their parents only a few hours on weekends, if at all. Jenna’s serious indoctrination and separation from the outside world had begun:
Questioning attitudes and nonconforming behavior was [sic] kept in check through threats, punishments, and humiliation in front on the group. Any time you were late, flunked an inspection, or behaved in a way that was not considered ethical, you would get a chit [a “kind of written demerit”], sometimes several chits a day.
Copies of chits were placed into the children’s ethics folders, with this self-policing destroying trust between them.
The youngsters were subjected to a nonstop, exhausting, physical and educational routine. Rising at 6:30 am, they dressed, cleaned their dormitories, did laundry, swept, and collected trash. At 7:00 am, they lined up for “morning muster,” a military-style inspection. Then they went to “Chinese school,” where they had to parrot in unison quotations from L. Ron Hubbard.
After that came a period of “fulfilling their posts,” primarily physical labor. When Jenna was 6 years old, her job was to maintain a portion of the grounds. At age 7, when she signed her billion-year contract with the church, she was given the Medical Liaison Officer post, which required her to “visit each child at the Ranch and make what was called the ‘Sick List.’ This meant I had to walk up to everyone and ask him or her, ‘Do you have any sickness?’” (p. 55). When she received a positive response, Jenna treated the condition, sometimes even serious cuts. She distributed vitamins, made a special health concoction, and administered “assists,” special procedures based on the Scientology theory that “the Thetan controlled the mind and the body” (p. 56). If a child appeared seriously ill, Jenna would tell an adult, but she never saw a doctor while she was at The Ranch. They never used drugs to relieve pain or fevers. “Looking back on this time,” Jenna tells us,
…it’s difficult even for me to understand how a seven-year-old child could be entrusted to do a job like this. I hate to think what might have happened if a child had been extremely sick and I hadn’t realized the seriousness… However, I didn’t feel unqualified or unprepared, because this was the only way I knew to do things. They supposedly told me how to care for kids, and I learned how to follow their instructions as best I could. (p 57)
Finally, the children ate breakfast at 8:30; afterward they cleaned the dishes and kitchen, and had their “second muster.” This time consisted of the labor-intensive work projects that lasted 4 hours and brought, according to Jenna, the total hours of work time for young children and young teens to more than thirty-five hours a week (in addition to their schooling and Scientology training). The small work teams landscaped, hauled heavy rocks, loaded piles of roofing into wheelbarrows, and pulled weeds in every kind of temperature and weather. The children were told they had to do this heavy labor in return for the privilege of living at The Ranch. They were also told the work kept them from being criminals because only criminals got things for free. And it was good training for them.
At 1:45 PM, after lunch and cleanup, the children began school, which lasted until 6:00 PM, with one 15-minute break. They learned subjects on their own. From 6:00 PM to 6:45 PM, the children ate and cleaned up dinner. Then their Scientology studies, complicated and demanding Scientology courses that included training-routine (TR) drills, lasted until 9:00 PM. Before their 9:30 PM bedtime, all children had to fill out a point-based personal progress report for the day. On Thursday afternoons, they calculated complex numerical data, charting on graphs their personal improvement.
Jenna summarizes her early life:
The list of duties and procedures went on endlessly, and the result of all this process, paperwork, and regulations was that there were no children at the Ranch—only little adults. At special events, we were dressed up in cute outfits and paraded in front of our parents and Int (international management headquarters) crew to make it seem as though Scientology was creating a normal and joyful childhood, when in fact we were all being robbed of it. (p. 80)
Jenna knew her Uncle Dave was very important, but being the niece of David Miscavige did not make her life easier. Rather, it made it more difficult, especially as she got older and others accused her of currying favors because of her name. She details a complicated relationship with her uncle and explains that she learned of his key role in her experiences with the church only after she had left it.
I focus here on Jenna’s bizarre childhood because I think her unique contribution in this memoir is the information she imparts about children raised in Scientology. Space here does not allow for additional details of her high-demand life. Her rigorous training and education punctuated by seemingly random and terrifying restrictions and punishments continued. She entered the Sea Org when she was 12. She rarely saw her parents; after her mother was isolated for extreme punishment because she had a love affair, Jenna wasn’t able to see her for years. She rarely saw her brother, and not at all after he left the church until she later left as well.
She fell in love at age 15 with a boy named Martino. She was severely punished for “flirting and related behaviors,” and they were forced apart. However, Jenna claims this experience prompted her to begin to trust herself. “Suddenly, I wasn’t afraid to call things what they were or trust my own judgment about other people, as well as myself,” she writes.
Previously, I’d compare my actual feelings to whatever Scientology said I was supposed to feel. If I felt anything else, then surely the problem was with me. As a result, I doubted myself constantly… Now for the first time, I was able to see myself for what I was… This realization was the beginning of personal integrity. (pp. 237–238)
Jenna finally concluded she was being punished because her parents had left the Sea Org. Selling time-shares in Mexico, they wanted her to leave the church. She refused, choosing life at Flag (Scientology’s religious retreat center in Clearwater, Florida where she had spent time previously). But the leaders did not allow her to go back there.
The turning point for Jenna came when at age 16 she met Dallas Hill, who also grew up in the movement. They became engaged when she was 18. Marrying at a young age was common in Scientology—Jenna says that she knew of 15-year-olds who were married—but impediments were put in the couple’s way. Finally, they slept together before marriage and after Dallas confessed were severely punished.
They were suddenly allowed to marry in September of 2002, and then sent to Australia to do important church work there. They experienced life in the outside world for the first time. They discovered websites hostile to the Church of Scientology and damaging information about Uncle Dave, especially his acts of violence against top leaders. Jenna wanted to have a baby, but Scientology forbade it. When they returned to the states, their conflict with the church was concretized in a battle over whether or not to turn over their cell phone. Jenna wanted to leave the church, but Dallas hesitated because he knew if he did he would never be able to see his parents again.
In a climax more suspenseful than a film script, Jenna decided to leave the church without Dallas. He finally relented and left also. They began their difficult adjustment to life in the outside world.
Now parents of two children, they have become active in extensive media and Internet anti- Scientology activity, networking with former top leaders—including those who had “handled” Jenna and Dallas—who also had left the church. Jenna summarizes:
I made a choice that I didn’t want to be controlled, and in walking away from everything, I learned the value of listening to the voice in my head telling me what was wrong and standing up for what was right. Being the lone voice of dissent is hard … But, in the long run, many others will appreciate your courage, even if silently, and someday it may lead to them mustering up the courage to stand up for themselves.
Everyone seeking an inside peek into life in the Church of Scientology should read this well-written and fascinating memoir. Jenna explains clearly Scientology’s main concepts, explanations aided by a useful glossary of Scientology terms at the end of the book. Jenna’s struggle to survive the rigors of her life and to break free is inspiring. The book is especially interesting because of her relationship with David Miscavige and his missing wife, Shelly; but, to me, it is especially enlightening because of Jenna’s account of the lives of children trapped in this group.