To the Church of Scientology, Jenna Miscavige Hill is an apostate – a discredited troublemaker bent on destroying the faith in which she was born and raised.
The soft-spoken 29-year-old mother of two doesn’t come across as a heretic worthy of Inquisition-era damnation.
But with Beyond Belief, her just-published coming-of-age memoir, she has challenged a church that despises criticism by making allegations about Scientology’s mistreatment of its youngest adherents. What makes her defiance even more provocative is that her uncle, David Miscavige, is the all-powerful leader of the highly secretive institution.
Ms. Miscavige Hill says Scientology makes it hard for devotees to leave the faith, and most who do depart go quietly, since the church threatens its dissidents with severe reprisals. For an insider to speak out is rare, but her testimony is rarer still: Groomed for leadership from earliest childhood, she says she has direct experience of the church’s indoctrination process and can speak with personal authority about an upbringing in which child labour, family separation, arbitrary punishment and psychological bullying were sanctioned by the church.
“I want to turn this horrible part of my life into something that has a good purpose,” she says. “I hope to discourage new people from being lured into Scientology, as well as helping people whose loved ones are in there. And maybe I can get to people who are inside, and plant a seed of doubt.”
Ms. Miscavige Hill’s story suggests that the open society we inhabit still includes enclaves where authoritarian religious values are forced on innocent children. It is hard to look away when she describes the day-to-day torments she says she suffered in a church whose beliefs and behaviours are weird even by the standards of offbeat new religions.
But then everything about Scientology is peculiarly fascinating to the rest of us: the intense cultivation of Hollywood celebrity culture, the “space opera” theology of past lives and roaming aliens created by founder L. Ron Hubbard and the extreme enthusiasm of the church’s followers, who spend small fortunes on training courses that lead them through the mysteries of the faith. Ms. Miscavige Hill describes it all as “brainwashing,” a cultish term that can’t help but pique the sensation-seeking prurience of outsiders.
Like all new religions that face opposition, Scientology is keen to trumpet its successes and the church has embarked on a global expansion plan that includes the building of dozens of state-of-the-religious-art facilities – including a new church in Cambridge, Ont., that is being opened on Saturday, and a luxurious advanced-training resort nestled along the Niagara Escarpment northwest of Toronto. But the church’s trademark optimism can’t fend off a dissonant chorus of complaint that the institution has lost its way.
The mounting criticism includes Lawrence Wright’s new book Going Clear, which focuses on Mr. Miscavige’s courting of celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Canadian filmmaker Paul Haggis; a recent Vanity Fair article on the church’s efforts to arrange a marriage for Mr. Cruise; a film, The Master, which describes the dodgy origins of a post-war therapeutic cult called The Cause; a South Park episode that casually revealed Scientology’s most closely guarded secrets about the creation of wandering spirits known as thetans; and calculated cyberattacks by the Anonymous group of hacktivists.
The anti-Scientology campaign claimed a victory in Canada last April – and added to the skepticism about the future of the organization – when a church-affiliated Narconon drug-rehabilitation centre in Trois-Riviere was shut down by provincial health-care officials.
Scientologists are trained to ignore all this critical noise. For powerful Scientologists such as Mr. Cruise, the church’s rigorous teachings have undoubtedly helped them overcome doubts and find a discipline that is laser-like in its fixation on a goal.
“They sincerely believe that their lives gain purpose and meaning, and that they have superior insight into the world,” says Lorne Dawson, professor of sociology at the University of Waterloo.
Mr. Miscavige has made it a priority to cultivate the church’s big names, maximizing their P.R. potential and flattering them with deluxe celebrity centres and special honours of recognition – Mr. Cruise was awarded Scientology’s newly created Freedom Medal of Valor in 2004.
But there’s little Mr. Miscavige can do to counteract the memoir by his own niece, because it’s such a seemingly matter-of-fact retelling of the indoctrination process that gives the church control over its members.
Ms. Miscavige Hill says her early childhood was spent at a remote camp in the California desert, where the third-generation Scientologist was put to 14-hour days on manual labour and the church’s technical training without getting even a rudimentary academic education. She says she saw her parents, who lived at Scientology headquarters 30 kilometres away, once a week at best.
By the age of 7, Ms. Miscavige Hill says she held the job of camp medical liaison officer, responsible for tending the health of her fellow trainees. Her Miscavige name accelerated her advancement: The same year she was inducted into the Scientology’s executive-leadership stream, known as the Sea Organization, and told to sign a billion-year contract with the church.