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Jenna Micavige Hill, wrote a book about her life in, and escape from, Scientology. (Handout)
Jenna Micavige Hill, wrote a book about her life in, and escape from, Scientology. (Handout)

Is Jenna Miscavige Hill Scientology’s most powerful opponent? Add to ...

Official Scientology membership numbers are hard to come by. The degree of commitment to Scientology can extend from a casual purchase of Mr. Hubbard’s seminal book, Dianetics, or the filling out of an introductory Scientology questionaire (“Do you sleep well?”; “Do your past failures still worry you?”; “Are you often impulsive in your behaviour?”) to the high-level courses that supply Mr. Hubbard’s more esoteric revelations after years of study and the expenditure of several hundred thousand dollars.

Canadian Scientology leaders say there are about 100,000 members in the country, but the 2001 Census recorded only 1,525 Scientologists. Prof. Dawson estimates that there are 5,000 Canadian Scientologists, and 150,000 worldwide. Mr. Hawkins guesses that the global total is no more than 40,000 – countering claims by church officials that there are as many as eight million members.

If there is such a glaring discrepancy between low membership numbers and a grandiose expansion plan, attracting new followers to the glamorous new buildings would seem to be essential for Scientology. But some outsiders think the growth strategy could be just as much about boosting the enthusiasm and support of long-time members, particularly big donors such as Mr. Cruise, and Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson.

And so the unveiling of a new facility resembles a massive Scientology pep rally. At the recent opening of an Ideal Org. in Padua, Italy, thousands of devotees celebrated the renovation of a delapidated 18th-century Veneto villa, local politicians praised the church’s anti-drug campaigns and disaster-relief efforts, and the boyish-looking Mr. Miscavige made a pledge “to bring our help and the infinite wisdom of L. Ron Hubbard’s technology to this region.”

Such highly visible displays of solidarity aim to drown out all the ambient negativity about the faith: “There’s a P.R. value externally, but there’s also a P.R. value internally,” Mr. Hawkins says. “Because they can say, look how well David Miscavige is doing as our leader.”

But beyond the ambitious CEO’s growth trajectory, there’s also a deeper psychological element that holds Scientology’s believers close to their faith. “You think your entire progress as a spiritual being is tied up with your progress in Scientology,” Mr. Hawkins says. “You’re going toward a state of immortality where you’re an all-knowing being and can go from body to body, and that’s a hell of a thing. If somebody says, ‘You do what I say or I’ll cut you off from any spiritual advancement,’ you’re going to tend to do what they say.”

To outsiders, this kind of complete devotion may sound extreme and even self-destructive. “What we’re missing is that an individual has undergone maybe a decade of what’s called cognitive drift,” Prof. Dawson says. “It’s a process where you get drawn in and experience social reinforcement, you like the people and enjoy the activity, maybe you get psychological benefits, you feel more relaxed. Eventually, and only a small segment of people get to this stage, your mindset shifts.”

But this is where Ms. Miscavige Hill draws the line: Scientology’s growth strategy, she says, now depends on retaining the children of the most fervent Scientologists, people who are nurtured in the faith and accustomed to its ways.

“There are many people like myself who were born into it,” she says. “They didn’t have a choice and that’s all the world is for them. They don’t have anywhere else to go. … We weren’t given a good education, we weren’t taught how to drive, we don’t know how to use a bank account or how to cook, and that’s a really big deal.”

To address those feelings of isolation and anxiety, she helped establish the exscientologykids.com website with a mission that neatly matches the It Gets Better campaign for gay youth.

“It’s a place where people in Scientology who are having trouble and don’t think things are quite right can visit and know that there are people out there going through the same thing,” she says. When Katie Holmes split from Tom Cruise and demanded custody of their daughter, she offered public encouragement. “I was just saying, good for you, get your daughter away from there, that’s no place for children.”

Yet for all that she is dedicated to changing the ways of Scientology, she is still a product of the system, and she hesitates when asked if it did her good as well as harm.

“There are some truths there,” she says slowly. “Scientology started out as a self-help group, and there’s one thing Scientologists love to say: Communication is a universal solvent. Some things L. Ron Hubbard said may be true. But you can find those same truths in much less controlling and abusive organizations.”

And then she turns back to her own experience of Scientology, the lesson she’s gleaned from the 21 years she spent in the faith. “It’s one thing if you go there to get help as an adult. But if you start to experience Scientology as a child, it’s hard to say it’s helping you solve your problems when it’s also creating all of your problems. The one thing Scientology helped me with is to get over my fear of crazy Scientology executives.”

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