Kate Bornstein's Amazing Voyage

America's gender outlaw takes us on a wild tour of trans-formation

There have also been quite a few books published recently by former church members. Nancy Many, in My Billion Year Contract (2009), wrote about the mental anguish she experienced after splitting away from the church she had served for decades. In Abuse at the Top (2010), former high-ranking church executive Amy Scobee wrote that she'd been raped as a teenager by a senior executive, but the crime had been covered up. Jefferson Hawkins had one of the most unique careers in Scientology—he marketed church founder L. Ron Hubbard's essential text, Dianetics, as the church experienced its greatest expansion in the 1980s. His account of becoming the man who sold Scientology to the world, Counterfeit Dreams (2010), is a fascinating tale. And perhaps the most dramatic of the bunch, Marc Headley's escape narrative, Blown for Good (2009), turns his years working at Scientology's secretive desert international headquarters in California into a cinematic yarn.

I've read them all, interviewed the authors, and talked to many other former members about their lives in the church as I've covered Scientology closely on the Voice's news blog.

And that's why I can say with some confidence that none of these recent narratives captures and conveys the hardcore Scientology experience quite like Bornstein's book.

Kate describes, perhaps better than anyone has before, what it was like to become a dedicated Sea Org member during Scientology's more freewheeling heyday.

Al Bornstein joined Scientology in 1970, sailed the ship Apollo with L. Ron Hubbard in 1971 and 1972, and was driven out and declared a "suppressive person"—Scientology's version of excommunication—in 1982. By then, his wife, Molly, whom he had met in the church, had left him and taken their daughter, Jessica, with her. Molly, Jessica, and Jessica's son and daughter are all still members of Scientology and are required by the church's policy to have no contact with any "SP," including Bornstein.

And that's why Kate has never met her own grandchildren.

In the early chapters of the book, as Kate describes growing up as Al in Interlaken, New Jersey, and trying to live up to the masculine expectations of her father, Paul Bornstein, she gradually introduces concepts about Scientology and makes Hubbard a sort of parallel figure to Paul who is lurking in the background (both manly, pudgy father figures).

Kate's relationship to both was consuming and complex. Dad, for example, wanted a sports-minded, skirt-chasing son and was alarmed enough about young Al's virginity that he paid a prostitute to do the honors. (Al balked and ended up talking to the girl instead.)

In college, Al fell hard for JoBeth Williams, but he slept around a lot ("I fell in love with every woman I had sex with") and was also cruising guys so that he could feel like a girl. Having discovered tranny porn, Al increasingly nurtured his desire to look feminine and feel pretty.

By the time Al stumbled upon Scientology—at a mission in Denver following a soul-searching mountain-climbing excursion that almost ended in disaster—he'd been questioning his own ideas about men, women, boys, and girls for years.

At the Denver mission, he met a woman named Molly who started to help him understand the basic concepts of the religion: L. Ron Hubbard had discovered that we are immortal beings called thetans and that we have lived countless times before in other bodies—male and female—spanning a past that is trillions of years old. Our minds are cluttered with obscuring material—the result of past traumas—and only through Hubbard's mind-clearing process called "auditing" could the thetan begin to see its true situation.

It was a lot to absorb, but Al was struck hard by one thing in particular about Hubbard's scientific-sounding ideas.

"Thetans have no gender. Can you imagine a more appealing theology for someone like me?" Kate asks.

It's hard not to feel Al's excitement when, in 1971, he was transferred to the Apollo, Scientology's flagship and home to L. Ron Hubbard himself. (Having found both American and British governments to be hostile, Hubbard the Navy veteran simply created his own armada, named himself its commodore, and ran Scientology from sea for several years as he and his crew of young believers got kicked out of one Mediterranean port after another. In 1975, after getting turned away by Portugal and then sailing around the Caribbean for a while, Hubbard's navy invaded little Clearwater, Florida, and took over much of the town. To this day, the spiritual mecca of Scientology is still in Clearwater, called "Flag Land Base" as a reminder of the days at sea.)

But along with his heady days as first mate and then missionaire, his sexual opportunities with pretty women (Scientology seemed to have a never-ending supply of them), and his numerous "wins" as a hardcore Sea Org member, Al also repeatedly ran into the less pleasant side of the organization. The paranoia, for example. Everyone was under suspicion at one time or another of having committed "crimes" against the Commodore. In that case, the same machine that supposedly helped a person locate and get rid of mental scars holding them back, the e-meter, was turned into an interrogation device.

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