When my friend Derek Bloch was five, his parents became Scientologists. Because of this, he grew up in a parallel universe.
The family packed up and left their small-town Texan home, first moving to Dallas, then Los Angeles, to be closer to the church. Throughout his childhood, Derek took Scientology courses, studied the works of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and absorbed Scientology-approved entertainment. He and his parents lost touch with the majority of their extended family as a result of the church's "disconnection" policy of cutting off friends and family who are critical of the religion.
When Derek was 15 he signed a billion-year contract pledging his allegiance to the Sea Org, a super devout group within the Church of Scientology. He left his high school and his parents, and moved into Scientology dorms to devote his every waking hour to the church. He didn’t have access to TV, radio, cell phones, the internet, or books relating to anything other than Scientology. The only movie he saw was Battlefield Earth, the 2000 John Travolta movie based on a book by Hubbard and generally considered to be one of the worst movies of all time. “I only went because someone else paid for it and they made us go,” he told me. “They made me see it like, three or four times and I slept through it.”
His journey out of Scientology was a long one, beginning, he says, with him being kicked out of the Sea Org at 18 after it was discovered he was in a relationship with another man, and ending with him being disowned by his parents and kicked out of their house at 25 after he posted anti-Scientology comments online. (The Church of Scientology denies this. In an emailed statement to VICE, a spokesperson said that Derek left Scientology and cut off contact with his family voluntarily. The church would not comment on why he was kicked out of the Sea Org.)
Through Derek, I found out about the Southern California Interfaithless Beach Party, a biannual beach meetup he attends in Orange County. The meetup is for people like Derek; those who grew up on this planet but, due to their religious beliefs, existed completely detached from our world. It's attracted former Scientologists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Orthodox Jews, devout Muslims, and evangelical Christians. But Morris Bird, the event's founder, told me it's open to anyone with a background in "higher-demand religions."
Bird, a former Mormon, started the meetup in 2014 after noticing similarities between his experience losing his faith and that of people from other extreme religious backgrounds. "When you leave that kind of community that tends to be all-encompassing [with] high expectations for doing all the things, it’s like you’re losing your community," he said. "You don’t have people you feel like you identify with."
The most recent meetup, which I attended on a cold, gray day late in May, felt much like any other beach party. People sat around fire pits or under gazebos. There were folding tables with cookies, Doritos, and trays of baby carrots. The only difference was that between mouthfuls of potato salad, the people I chatted with told me stories of being raised in abusive environments, fringe beliefs, or being completely shunned by their family and friends.
Though a variety of belief systems were represented, there were common factors tying the backgrounds of most attendees together. Some grew up believing that they would go to hell if they drank coffee. Others that it was sinful to observe birthdays, or that Native Americans are the descendants of cursed Israelites. Henny Kupferstein, a former Hasidic Jew, told me she was raised with very strict rules about cutting her nails. “You can’t do your toenails and fingernails on the same day," she said, "and you can’t trim them in order; you have to skip a finger and come back.”
All of the people there knew what it's like to live in a community that places immense pressure on you to believe and conform, where daily life is dominated by sets of strict rules that don’t exist in general society. And they’d all gone through the painful process of leaving.
“When I meet people here, we’ve all had the same experience, whatever high-demand religion we left, it’s the same experience,” said Bruce Christianson, a 61-year-old former Mormon in a hoodie bearing the logo of the ex-Mormon subreddit. “We have the same story.”
The people I spoke with seemed shocked by the things they used to believe. “One of the ridiculous things [I believed] is that people who are disabled deserve to be that way… because of something they did bad in a past life,” Derek told me. “That sometimes really makes me upset.”
Kupferstein, the former Hasidic Jew, has been attending the meetups for the last couple of years. “I was born and raised in what I now call a religious cult,” she told me of her childhood as part of the Belz Hasidic Dynasty in Brooklyn.
“Girls were not allowed to get an education,” she said. “We were not allowed to speak to our brothers—strict separation of the sexes, we had two different bathrooms: boys and girls. There was no education at all. No secular education. We were not allowed to read or speak in English. No access to television, secular media, radio, classical music, pop culture. Nothing. It’s like living in a shtetl back in Europe, but right in the heart of New York City.”
Kupferstein told me she became estranged from her family eight years ago, after rebelling against the strict rules of her religion. Her marriage broke down and she lost custody of her children.
“I don’t blame God,” she said. “Whatever God is, I don’t blame it for what a small group of really horrible people have done to a lot of other people.”
Kupferstein told me she has had very little contact with her family in the last eight years, but tries to keep tabs on them over the internet. “My oldest [daughter] was also placed into an arranged marriage, as I was when I was 18,” she said. “And now I’m a grandmother whether I want it or not.”
Family shunning was a common theme in the lives of the people I spoke to.
“We talk a lot about comparing the shunnings,” said Christianson, the ex-Mormon. “The most systemic and complete shunning, I would say, are the Scientologists. And the next and very complete are the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Mormons are much more of a spectrum.”
Derek told me that just the fear of being shunned kept him inside Scientology. "I actually have a friend who was in prison, and my experience in the Sea Org is nearly identical to his," he told me. The thought that leaving would mean never seeing his family again, he said, "kept me locked up, rather than an actual physical door."
A familial shunning is, generally, devastating. But when it happens to someone who’s been raised cut off from the rest of society like many of these people have, it can be doubly traumatic.
“They’re often isolated from their family, they’re condemned, in some cases they’re shunned completely," Bird, the event's founder, told me while cooking a batch of ribs. "In some cases, if they’re not shunned, their family treats them differently—they feel like they don’t have anywhere to be around people who understand them.”
Jacqueline Hernandez, 24, explained that familial rejection was just one of the many painful things to come out of the night five years ago when she lost her Jehovah's Witness faith as the result of an intense four-hour Google session. “It just felt like, completely groundbreaking and painful,” she said. “I felt like I’d been lied to. I hadn’t been allowed to make friends in high school or go to [college] or have a normal upbringing or celebrate birthdays. I never hung out with anyone from school. I tried to not make friends. And all of that was now a waste. And I also wasn’t going to live forever, so I had to face my mortality.”
The people I spoke to told me they appreciated the meetup as they can find it hard to relate to other people. Like Derek, many spent their childhoods completely removed from mainstream pop culture, so lack a shared set of references with most Americans. But Kupferstein said that while she still hasn't figured out the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek, she feels there are more fundamental differences. "I was raised to be communal," she said. "No identity, no sense of self. I had no idea what my favorite hair color was or shoe style or anything like that, I just knew what I needed to do to contribute to the collectivist group. My self-worth was measured by how much I contributed to the community so stepping away from that and finding that there’s no such concept in America, most people are very individualistic, it’s all about them—and I had to learn that it isn’t a selfish thing, it’s what life requires of you.
"I think some of my closest friends are Mormons or ex-Mormons because we share a lot of lifestyle values and the focus on family and politeness, ethical behavior, being a good citizen," she added. "I admire that."
All of the attendees I spoke with had a sense of humor toward their former beliefs and made jokes about their religions and their behavior when they were deep within them.
Sara Hart, a 38-year-old former Mormon who lost her faith seven years ago, brought along cupcakes decorated with fondant Prozac pills as a reference to the high rate of antidepressant use in Utah, the state with the highest percentage of Mormons. "I was like super depressed, too, when my marriage was falling apart because I got married way too young, for the wrong reasons," she explained. "And I’m not gonna shut up. I’m gonna make fun of it."
She also came equipped with a Bible, a Mormon hymnbook, and some tithing slips, which she threw into the fire pit towards the end of the afternoon.
"I like to make fun of things," she said. "Because if you can laugh at something, it has no power over you."
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