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In the last few years, a trickle of literature has begun to emerge from within the otherwise highly secretive Church of Scientology. This might shock you, but a lot of that literature hasn't been particularly positive. One of the more recent examples of that is a memoir by Jenna Miscavige-Hill, the niece of Scientology top brass David Miscavige, titled Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape.
A former member of elite Scientology group Sea Org, she left the Church in 2005 and now co-runs exscientologykids.com to help those still stuck in its nefarious clutches. I got in touch to discuss her stories and experiences from her time as a Scientologist, and to hear her opinions on the way the Church operates.
VICE: Hey Jenna. Can you describe your childhood as a Scientologist?
Jenna Miscavige-Hill: My parents joined Sea Org when I was two, while I was in the Cadets. I did four hours a day of manual labour and worked 35 hours a week. I joined Sea Org when I was 12; Sea Org is the group of the most dedicated Scientologists, working 14-hour days, seven days a week.
What work were you doing in the Cadets?
We would dig trenches, lay the pipes for irrigation, glue them together, haul rocks out of the creek bed and build rock walls. Basically, we did landscaping.
What's the purpose of Cadets?
I think it’s mainly for indoctrination purposes. We were taught that only criminals get things for free and we were doing our part to earn the beds we slept in and the food we got to eat. It was about teaching us to obey, teaching us discipline, teaching us not to question.
And you were making stuff the church could sell?
We were definitely being used for our labour.
What happened if you were disobedient?
People would write a “chit” on you. People would report on each other because if you didn’t, and the other person was caught, you would get the same penalty as them. You had a file with all of your reports on it and depending on how bad it was you could be assigned to only having rice and beans to eat, that sort of thing.
Were there ever any physical punishments?
Not that I’m aware of. I’ve heard of stories of people getting beaten but that never happened to me. There was an assigned unit for people who would get into trouble and the hardest physical labour tasks were reserved for them. They were basically ostracised, we weren’t allowed to speak to them.
Why did you decide to move from Cadets to Sea Org?
I wanted to join because I thought I was going to be with my parents, but then I was told that I was stuck in the Sea Org in Florida and I couldn’t see my parents who were three thousand miles away. From the time I was 12 to when I was 18, I only saw my mum twice and my dad four times, and the majority of those were for less than an hour. The other main reason came from when I visited my mum in Florida; she was an executive in Sea Org and was treated like royalty.
Did you get the same privileges?
Not really, I didn’t know this at the time but only a very small handful of extremely high-level executives get that sort of treatment. Only very senior executives like my uncle, my mum and a handful of others get treated that way.
Were there any changes, like being allowed to use the internet?
We had virtually no communication; I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t a Scientologist. We didn’t have the internet, we weren’t allowed to watch TV, only sometimes were we allowed to listen to the radio and that was only for 20 minutes each morning.
What about education?
Kids from six to 16 years old were all in the same classroom and there wasn’t a teacher teaching the class. If you asked the supervisor for help or didn’t understand something, they would tell you to find the word you don’t understand in the text. It was basically like talking to a robot. In Scientology they believe that the only reason you fail at a subject or want to no longer study something is because there’s a word or several words from the text that you don’t understand. You’re supposed to look them up in the dictionary and use every definition in sentences.
Were there exams, grades, etc?
They didn’t issue diplomas; they didn’t issue credits so people could get diplomas in the future, either.
Surely the government should be regulating these schools, why don't they intervene?
They can’t investigate something if people say, “Oh, it’s fine, I’m fine” and parents are giving permission for this sort of stuff to happen. Even when you get out it takes you time to realise everything that happened to you – though I was 21, it took me years to understand that my life was insane.
Your parents left the church before you, why did you stay?
The prospect of going to a public school was scary because I was so behind. I didn’t know anyone outside of Scientology – Scientologists have a whole different language from other people, so going out into a world I didn’t know anything about, being made fun of, being told about psychiatrists that’ll drug you, it was just too scary.
When you finally left, did you experience any retaliation from the church?
When my husband and I first broke out in 2008 we were followed by private investigators for a month, they even flew down in a helicopter in the middle of the night to intimidate us.
Creepy. What did they want?
They were mostly yelling at me and trying to get me to stop the ABC Nightline piece from airing by promising they’d let my friends speak to their families.
So emotional blackmail, basically?
Your husband used to work at the Church’s "Celebrity Centre". What is it that draws celebrities to Scientology in such droves?
They're targeted because people are interested in the lives of celebrities, so if people hear them talk about [Scientology] they’ll hopefully become members themselves. I think it’s also because in Scientology you don’t worship anybody, you learn in the end that you are your own God, you have endless capabilities and you can create anything. I think that definitely attracts egotistical people. I think it’s about power.
Follow Aleks on Twitter: @slandr
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