Saturday, February 23, 2013

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, by Jenna Miscavige Hill: Review

This hasn’t been a great year publicity-wise for the Church of Scientology. In January, long-time New Yorker contributor Lawrence Wright published Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (the book’s release has been delayed in Canada pending a legal review by publisher Knopf but is available from Now comes a sober, well-written memoir by ex-Scientologist Jenna Miscavige Hill, Beyond Belief My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, that dovetails, damningly, with Wright’s. The church has accused past whistle-blowers of lacking credibility; that will be a harder sell this time. Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for his acclaimed book on Al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower, and Miscavige Hill is the niece of Scientology leader David Miscavige (her co-writer is Lisa Pulitzer, a former New York Times correspondent who apparently won the name lottery).

Still, Karin Pouw, Church of Scientology International’s official spokesperson wrote to the Star that allegations in Miscavage Hill’s book about famous parishioners “are false and absurd,” and that if she had contacted Scientology they “would have been able to correct the many documented factual errors contained in it.” (For the full story on Scientology’s rebuttal of the books allegations, go to
Hill has deep roots in the church, her paternal grandfather having joined when he discovered the writings of L. Ron Hubbard — or LRH (Scientologists’ love of acronyms makes the military seem florid) — in the ’60s. Her uncle David took the helm shortly after Hubbard’s death in 1986.
As members of Scientology’s highest echelon, Sea Org, Hill’s parents, according to the book, worked around the clock at mysterious jobs in Los Angeles and Florida. At six, Miscavige Hill claims she was sent to live on an isolated ranch outside L.A. with other Scientology children, where she was made to perform long hours of manual labour interspersed with schooling in church doctrine and made to sign a billion-year contract with the church. Access to her parents was limited or non-existent.
Scientology’s precepts are by now well-known, and though easy to mock, often resemble those of other religions. “Thetans,” the church’s term for spiritual beings, must be “cleared” of “overts,” or sins, in a process akin to Catholic confession called “auditing.” Scientologists believe in multiple lives, like some Eastern religions.
Scientology terms can be amusingly anachronistic. Leaving without permission is called “blowing the church,” while non-Scientologists are called “wogs.” When Miscavige Hill was suspected of withholding overts, she claims she had to undergo the church’s version of a polygraph test using a device consisting of two soup can-like tubes connected by a wire, called an E-Meter, that sounds rather like a prop from an early Batman episode.
Miscavige Hill’s account claims the church manages to exert absolute control over its members through a combination of incessant indoctrination, limiting contact with naysayers, and a culture of paranoia in which members are given strong incentives to rat each other out for not toeing the line. Despite living in a major metropolis, Miscavige Hill’s memoir claims she had virtually no contact with wogs or with technology. In contrast to the freedom of so-called public Scientologists — a group that includes celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta — she allegedly lived an Orwellian existence in which individualism was touted while being suppressed in every possible way; that the church calls someone who speaks out against it a “suppressive person” thus becomes the ultimate form of doublespeak.
It wasn’t until she was married and in her 20s that she found criticism of Scientology on the Internet that gave her pause. By then, however, she says she felt so brainwashed that she elected to stay in Scientology even though her parents and brother had already left. Though he seemed kind when she was a child, Hill later felt that “Uncle Dave” was a shadowy puppet-master who personally manipulated almost every aspect of her experience in the church leading to her departure in 2005. Many ex-members allege that the church actively seeks to divide families, and Miscavige Hill says she would have left earlier were it not for the knowledge that her husband’s Scientologist family would be forced to disown them.
Courting celebrities for their public visibility has purportedly been another key church strategy. Hill and Wright’s high-profile exposés, along with the recent defection of Canadian director Paul Haggis, however, are already demonstrating what the flip side of that coin can be.

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