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Scientology Cruise Ship as Hellhole: The Ramana Dienes-Browning Story

Ramana Dienes-Browning, happy to be out of Scientology [Photo: Jason Sinclair]
Ramana Dienes-Browning, happy to be out of Scientology [Photo: Jason Sinclair]

Last week, Steve Cannane of Australia's ABC network and its program Lateline broke the story of Valeska Paris, a woman who says she was held against her will on Scientology's private cruise ship, the Freewinds, from 1996 to 2007.

In that story, Cannane also talked to Ramana Dienes-Browning, a former senior executive on the ship who backed up Valeska's claims. "She had been sent to the ship so as not to be in contact with one of her parents and that's not what she wanted. She was very, very distressed," Ramana said of Valeska. "Do you consider it now it to be imprisonment?" Cannane asked her. "Yes, yes, I would definitely consider it imprisonment because there was no choice in the matter," she answered.

The church denied that Valeska was held captive, and Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw's statement (available below) made no mention of Dienes-Browning.

The Voice interviewed Ramana at length this weekend, and it turns out that her experiences as a young Sea Org member aboard the Freewinds contain as many hellish details as Valeska's own.

And now, for simply speaking out about her time on the ship, she faces the very real possibility of forever losing contact with her mother and brother.

"I had to weigh that against helping other people who are thinking of leaving Scientology. My heart goes out to them and I want to help," she says.

Ramana and I spoke at length Friday night over Skype; she lives in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney today. As a child, she grew up on Sydney's outskirts and then lived in its inner city.

It's an unusual name, I pointed out, and she explained that her last name is a combination that came from her mother's Hungarian background and her father's British family, respectively. And Ramana? "It's Indian. My parents were hippies," she says.

They separated when she was young, and her mother became a schoolteacher. Her father, meanwhile, was into "alternative" therapies. "He was a bit of a seeker. But it was my mom who got into Scientology."

Ramana was 4 years old. "Basically, I was raised in it," she says. "I went to a Scientology school. I started on course at the org in Sydney probably from about 7."

Scientology offers spiritual enlightenment to its members through a series of classes that involve repetitive training routines, a sort of lie-detector machine called an "e-meter," and counseling sessions with increasing price tags at facilities called "orgs." Ramana was already starting in on these courses at an age that other children were still running around in playgrounds.

"Because I was so young, I didn't have any other reference points. My dad lived in Tasmania, and I would visit him on school holidays. But Scientology was everything, and there was nothing to compare it to. It was a slow and steady brainwashing. They really are control techniques," she says of the "communications" classes that Scientologists start out with in their careers. "You don't even realize it when you're in, but it's what happens as soon as you step in and do these communications courses."

Scientology, however, wasn't her entire life.

Ramana had become a very dedicated dancer, and she was becoming more and more serious about it as she entered her teens. "I was splitting my time between school, dancing classes, and the org. My mother was very supportive about my decision to be a professional dancer," Ramana says, but she adds that her mother also wanted her to remain dedicated to Scientology.

At 15, Ramana went on an overseas trip with her mother -- to Flag Land Base in Clearwater, Florida, Scientology's spiritual headquarters. "I did some courses there, and my mother got sold a package on the Freewinds. It was really exciting to go to the ship where they do OT VIII."

Scientology acquired the cruise ship in 1985 to revive a tradition started by church founder L. Ron Hubbard, who spent the years 1968 to 1975 sailing a small collection of ships while developing the upper-level teachings of Scientology before moving ashore to establish the Clearwater base (hence, the "Sea Organization," which operates both on the water and on land today). Slate's Brian Palmer recently described what going to the ship means for current church members:

Coursework on the Freewinds is a combination of independent book study, cooperative activities, and personal counseling sessions...Most guests spend two or three months onboard. Preparatory and onboard counseling each cost between $15,000 and $30,000. Accommodations run about $1,000 per week, including food. In addition, representatives from the International Association of Scientologists ask for donations on top of what guests have already paid.

But the ship is also known for being the only place high-level Scientologists can go to receive the church's current highest level of spiritual enlightenment, which is known as Operating Thetan level eight, or "OT VIII." It can take several years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in courses and counseling services to reach that point. But for the young Ramana, none of the courses on the boat -- especially vaunted OT VIII -- were within her reach at only 15.

"I didn't have prerequisites for any courses, so while my mom was on course, I got to wander around," she says. She quickly came to the attention of the Sea Org workers on the ship, she adds, and they began to recruit her heavily to join their ranks.

"During our week on the ship, I did get to go on a few outings, but I spent most of the time in a room being talked to by one to three Sea Org members at a time about joining," she says.

She flat out refused. She was training to be a professional dancer, she pointed out, and that was her real passion. "I was really into it. So my mind was 100 percent -- there was no way I am joining the Sea Org."

They kept working on her, even going ashore with her when she left the ship.

Eventually, under intense pressure, she made a concession. She told them that after her professional dancing career was over, at 30 to 35 years of age, she might be ready to join the Sea Org. They seemed happy with that offer, she says, and asked her to go ahead and sign a contract now, even though she might not be ready to join their ranks for 20 years.

"They pressured me to sign a contract. I finally said OK because I wanted to get rid of them."

Sea Org members sign contracts for terms of a billion years, promising to come back to work for Scientology lifetime after lifetime. And as soon as Ramana had signed her name to the contract, the crew members changed their tune: "You have to come with us now, they told me.

The Freewinds
The Freewinds

"The pressure was so intense. And you have to also remember, I'd been raised to be in awe of Sea Org members, to almost fear them. These were L. Ron Hubbard's messengers."

Her mother had no idea this was going on, Ramana says, because she was too busy with her own coursework somewhere else on the ship. But now three Sea Org members took Ramana back into a small room to convince her that signing the contract meant she needed to join the organization immediately.

"It makes me shudder thinking about it," she says. Leading the interrogation was Jennifer Alpers, who Ramana says was the Commanding Officer of the Commodore's Messengers Organization, a high-ranking executive on the ship. "She said 'Look, I don't know how you think you're a good enough dancer to make a difference in the world. I don't know what you're thinking.' She was crushing me inside," Ramana says.

"Then she just started screaming at me at the top of her lungs, 'I was a dancer too, and I doubt you're as good as I was...If you're not going to come now you might as well tear up that contract.' And I thought, that's the worst thing you could do, tear up a Sea Org contract, like it was devil worship," she says.

Meanwhile, she says, they were working another angle on her. A good-looking 25-year-old Sea Org member was flirting with her, she says. She was flattered by the attention, and she began to confide in him after a few days.

"I had a chat with him, and I just suddenly had this image of the world on fire, and I was betraying the Sea Org because we only had a short amount of time to save the planet." (This was early in 1995, and recruits were told that Hubbard predicted the world would come to an end in the year 2000 -- so they had only a short time to "clear the planet" and rescue mankind.)

"I had this image of the world on fire, and me dancing while it was happening. And I thought, you know, she's right. I have to give up dancing and join the Sea Org. That's when the brainwashing clicked in. It makes me almost break into tears to think about it. I gave up a really promising dancing career," she says.

Ramana and her mother returned to Australia, and she immediately prepared to return to the ship. "I packed everything. Sold everything. Quit school. I managed to scrape the money together to fly to America. And then I started to do the EPF"--the Estates Project Force, the boot-camp training for new Sea Org members.

Years later, Ramana told her mother about the heavy recruitment that had happened on the ship. "I think she was oblivious to what was going on. I've since spoken to her about it, and she broke into tears. She said if she had any idea, she wouldn't have let them do that to me. And I didn't tell her about it at the time. That's what is weird about Scientology. That type of pressure becomes normal, so I didn't even share it with my own mother," she says.

At the time, her mother was happy with her decision. "She thought it was my idea and she supported it."

Ramana arrived at Flag Land Base on March 13 -- Hubbard's birthday, she remembers. (He would have been 84 in 1995, but he had "dropped his body" in January, 1986 to pursue his studies on another plane of existence, the church announced at the time.)

I asked Ramana what EPF training was like. "It's like training for the Army, but you don't get to use guns. You run everywhere. You do heavy labor -- I remember breaking through walls with sledgehammers, and the person who runs it is like an Army sergeant," she says.

"It took me about three months to do the EPF. I was pretty homesick, but I was caught up in the excitement of the adventure I was on. Just before I turned 16, I completed it and was flown to the ship," Ramana says.

She was assigned to the Commodore's Messengers Organization (CMO) because it was the division that had recruited her. The CMO had been created when Hubbard was plying the Mediterranean in 1969 and assembled a group of young sailors to carry his dispatches and generally run errands for him. Decades later, it was now one of the more powerful Sea Org divisions, and oversaw services on the ship, making sure church members paying those high prices were pleased with their experience.

Soon after she arrived, however, Ramana learned that her own experience would not be so pleasant.

Ramana, 16 years old, and dishing out punishment
Ramana, 16 years old, and dishing out punishment

"When you first arrive, everyone is so nice to you. You're the new recruit. I remember the CO CMO [Commanding Officer of the Commodore's Messenger Organization] asking me to make her coffee or a supper or something. So I went off to the galley and came back and handed it to her. And she turned around and yelled at me, about the food or the way I had made the coffee," she says. "She yelled at me so sharply, and it was my first wake-up call to what the Sea Org was really like. And I was just, 'yes, sir, what can I do to fix it, sir.' She had me go back four times to fix whatever the problem was. She was just terrible. She told me she had to do that prepare me for working with the top executives. Oh my God. That was the first thing that woke me up to what it was going to be like."

Before she could become a CMO host and work with guests, Ramana says she first spent six months working in the Treasury department. But soon enough, she was moved up to be the Deputy Commanding Officer for CMO Internal.

I asked her what her duties were. "Watching all the staff. Monitoring their training, and their ethics. So you're predominately investigating internal matters. Dishing out punishments to CMOs who weren't doing what they were supposed to be doing," she says. When the CO left the ship for periods, Ramana stepped in to run the CMO of the entire ship.

She was 16.

It's something we've heard frequently about Scientology, that it puts teenagers in positions of authority, in charge of investigating and punishing others.

"I remember investigating people in their 30s and 40s, ordering their rooms be searched, and searching their rooms myself," Ramana says.

She had to be tough on the crew, she says, to make sure that the guests paying tens of thousands of dollars were enjoying their stays. I asked her if there were any particular guests she remembered, any of Scientology's celebrities, for example.

One she remembered well was Jason Beghe.

We've written frequently about Beghe since he became the first of Scientology's pampered celebrities to make a noisy exit and denounce the organization in a very public way in 2008. Since then, he's continued to be a vocal critic of Scientology. He's a familiar character actor who has appeared in films (Monkey Shines, G.I. Jane) and television series (Melrose Place, Californication).

I called Jason and asked him how many times he cruised on the Freewinds. "Three times," he told me. "And it was fucking miserable every time."

Actor Jason Beghe
Actor Jason Beghe

Beghe says he would be flown out during the Maiden Voyage -- a time in June and July when many of Scientology's top executives would visit the ship for annual celebrations. Beghe's was a familiar voice on Scientology's internal films, and he says he would be asked, for example, to read aloud from Hubbard's fiction for events on the ship.

"Hubbard's fiction is so corny, but worse than that, who wants to be in the Caribbean in July? It's hot and so humid, and you had to wear black tie," Beghe says. "I'd ask, why can't we do this in shorts on the beach? But it always had to be fucking black tie. In July."

On more than one occasion, Beghe says he was hit with sunstroke and had to be administered saline by IV.

I asked him what he remembered about the young Sea Org members serving him on the ship. "They were sweet kids. I'd ask about them. I wish I'd known what kind of hardships they were going through. I just didn't know. They don't tell you things like that. I only found out about it after I got out," he says.

Ramana says she didn't interact with any of Scientology's more famous celebrities, and she was out of the Sea Org by the time Tom Cruise's famous birthday party was held on the Freewinds in 2004.

Celebrities were the least of her concern. From the time she got aboard, she had her hands full with other Sea Org members.

After she arrived, the young man who had flirted with her during her earlier visit was paying attention to her again. "He made it pretty clear that he was interested in me," she says.

"When I arrived, he said, 'OK, when are getting married?' He didn't even ask it as a proposal," she remembers.

She didn't take the suggestion seriously, but after she'd been on the ship awhile, she says she realized "that's what people did."

Married couples moved out of the single-sex dormitories and lived in better cabins. They worked such long hours, there was no real free time to visit members of the opposite sex in any other way, she says. "That's what you do. You join the Sea Org and find someone to get married."

The other executives encouraged the couple to marry. "He was a favorite among them. He would serve [church leader] David Miscavige when he was on the ship. These Sea Org members who are favored by the top executives are taken care of. It was encouraged. And I think, because he was favored, they wanted to keep him happy. He'd been in the Sea Org for 10 years, since he was 15. He was 25, and he was still a virgin," she says. "So I ended up agreeing to be married, and at the end of 1995, we were married."

Ramana, bride at 16
Ramana, bride at 16

The young couple -- he was 25, she was 16 -- were married in a Scientology ceremony on the ship. "Legally we were wed in [the Dutch-owned Caribbean island of] Bonaire, I think it was. And then we got a better room. I could move out of the dormitory."

Her mother flew out for the wedding, as well as a sister (she has two half-sisters, and she has two half-brothers, one of whom is a Scientologist). "My dad didn't come. He had always been critical of Scientology, and he just couldn't sanction it. He signed the paperwork that said I had his permission, but in his heart he really didn't want me to do it."

Ramana admits that she wasn't really ready for such a big step.

"As a young 16-year-old, I'd lived a very sheltered life. Suddenly, I was thrown into marital life, and marital expectations. And I was completely unprepared for it."

To understand what happened next, it's important to consider how Scientologists are constantly under surveillance to make certain that they conform, and are regularly interrogated to uncover their "crimes."

Scientologists can run afoul of the organization in many different ways. Sea Org members, in particular, are expected to work extremely long, grueling hours, and must keep up their "statistics," in whatever way their job performance is measured. If they fall down in any way, they are said to be in violation of Scientology "ethics" and are subject to intense questioning by "ethics officers."

Ramana says that her husband was the ship's "LRH Host," a member of the CMO who made sure the highest level of services were being delivered to guests of the ship. His "statistics" declined at some point, and she says it could have been from a number of different causes -- perhaps fewer church members had decided to fork out for the expensive ship packages and attendance was lower. She can't really be sure. But for whatever reason, her husband's statistics were down, and that meant he had to be interrogated by ethics officers.

During such interrogations, questioners assume that a church member is hiding dark, sinister problems from Scientology, and so the interview subject is put on the spot about his or her most personal experiences. As many ex-Scientologists have told me, ethics officers seemed most interested in their sexual practices, and, while they were being monitored on the e-meter, they were asked to confess to sexual aberrations.

When her husband was interrogated, Ramana says, he admitted that he'd been masturbating.

"It's hard to talk about it, but it's important for me to tell this because it happens in the Sea Org," Raman told me as she explained what happened next.

"He was masturbating because I wasn't satisfying him. So I was hauled in before six or seven Sea Org members and humiliated because I wasn't satisfying him," she said.

"When you're stats are down, nothing is private. The subject of sexual aberrations is very fascinating to Scientology auditors, when you're not producing as much as you're supposed to be. So when you get investigated you get put on the meter and any kind of sexual activity will be brought up."

Ramana says when she was brought into the room with half a dozen Sea Org members, the first thing said to her was by her superior, the Commanding Officer of the CMO, a woman named Pilar:

"She said, 'You little fucking bitch.' She proceeded to tell me that he was found to be masturbating, and that he was touching me but I wasn't touching him back, and that I was forcing him to masturbate because I wasn't doing it for him. That I was evil, and how could I do that to him."

Her husband was also in the room, she says. "He was just numb. We didn't talk about it between ourselves. Pilar assigned me to Lower Conditions, and she sent me on my way. I can't remember if I was sent to the engine room, but I think I was."

Ramana believes that she was assigned the ethical condition of "Treason," which is below "Enemy" but above "Confusion" on Hubbard's scale.

Soon afterwards, her husband was sent away from the ship for training. "We probably didn't see each other for a year. Later on, our relationship broke down and we got divorced," she says. They were married at the end of 1995, and split up at the end of 1998, she remembers.

During that time, there were two other significant developments: the arrival of Valeska Paris, and Ramana's escape attempt.

 

"I remember when Valeska arrived," Ramana says. "I was the Deputy CO of the CMO Internal. I wasn't in charge with dealing with her, but the CMO is a small group, and it's part of your job to know everything that was going on around the ship. And it was talked about. I knew that she was there to protect her from her mother. That she was extremely unhappy to be there. That she was distressed and under watch. That she was doing heavy work in the engine room. That she had huge arguments with the captain about not wanting to be there."

As we wrote in our lengthy interview with Valeska last week, she was moved to the ship in September 1996, at 18 years of age, because, she believes, church leader David Miscavige wanted to keep her away from her mother, Ariane Jackson, who had sued Scientology and denounced the organization on a French television show. Valeska says she was told she would be on the ship for a couple of weeks. Instead she wouldn't get away from it permanently until 2007.

Ramana remembers that soon after Valeska arrived, news about how much she hated being there was the talk of the ship. "One of the arguments was talked about a lot, that she was screaming and out of control. I just remember feeling really disturbed by how distressed she sounded," she says. "She had to go through a lot of ethics handling, that's what it's called. So she was in the engine room, and I don't know how long she was kept on that, but she would have worked through lower conditions before she was considered a normal member. That's when she was posted in the restaurant. But she was always closely guarded. She was a security risk. She was there to keep her away from her mother, but they were also worried about her blowing [Scientology jargon for escaping or defecting] because of her clear statement that she didn't want to be there. So she was heavily watched.

"They were worried about her mother taking her or contacting her -- just talking to her, even. They thought it would be disastrous because her mother was a suppressive person. SPs are seen to be deterring others from being Scientologists and therefore actually stopping people from achieving spiritual freedom. These people are the devil," Ramana says.

I asked her if there were any other people on the ship at that time who were being held there against their will. She said that there were three people who were under guard in an experimental RPF program.

The Rehabilitation Project Force is Scientology's punitive detail for members who have fallen out of favor. (The church insists that the RPF is voluntary and members go there for spiritual rejuvenation. Every ex-Scientologist I've talked to describes the RPF as anything but voluntary, a hellish sentence of hard labor and humiliation.) Two women had been assigned to the RPF on the ship before she arrived, Ramana remembers, and a third woman was added later. "They were there almost the whole time I was on the ship -- five years," she says. After a suicide attempt, the third woman was moved to a more standard RPF facility in either Los Angeles or Clearwater, Ramana recalls.

"They were heavily guarded. It was completely confidential that there was an RPF on the ship. I didn't have any conversations with these women -- you aren't supposed to talk to people on the RPF -- but I can't imagine that they were happy to be on the ship," she says.

Ramana also remembers Don Jason, a Scientologist who was the subject of a 2009 story by Tom Tobin at the St. Petersburg Times. Jason was sent to the Freewinds for punishment and rehabilitation until he made a daring escape by sliding down a berthing line in November, 1996.

Then, in late 1997 or early 1998, Ramana says, she made her own escape attempt.

"I had been feeling like I wanted to leave. A couple of things were mounting. I had been made to disconnect from my father for a couple of months. I was allowed to reconnect with him, but I was under continual pressure to acknowledge that he was a suppressive person," she says. "My dad and I were really close, and I couldn't do it. I was under a lot of pressure about it. And there were the normal pressures of the Sea Org. It was impossible to escape that."

Ramana knew that if she actually said how she was feeling, she'd be intensely pressured to reconsider. "I'd seen other people wanting to leave and saw them put on ethics programs and miraculously changed their minds," she says. "I just knew that if I said I wanted to leave, I wouldn't be able to go through that. So I decided to escape."

Because she was in the CMO, she was trusted with a phone code to make calls off the ship. So one day, she called her father in Australia.

"I told him what I was planning to do. I asked him to Western Union some money to me," she says. For the next step, she knew she'd have to get a form filled out and signed by the ship's captain, Mike Napier, for her passport to be released to her.

"I filled it out myself and forged the captain's signature. I took it to the office and lied, telling them I had a mission to go to Clearwater." Ramana timed her request carefully. She had planned it so the Commander Officer of the CMO would be in an auditing (counseling) session, and the ship was about to leave port.

She remembers that officers had to go ashore to get her passport released, she isn't sure why. She just remembers that she had to hide her request from the CO for hours.

After her passport was given to her, she rushed to put a few things in a bag, then prepared some food for the CO, so she'd be eating when she came out of auditing and wouldn't look for Ramana.

"Just as the ship was getting ready to leave, I grabbed my stuff and went to the gangway. But the security guards there told me I was still on the restricted list," she says.

Her doubts about the Sea Org had come up earlier during an interrogation, and so she had been put on the list and couldn't be let off the ship.

"I called a friend in the CMO and made up a story about how I had an errand to run. 'What am I doing on the list?' I asked. She bought it, and approved me leaving," she says.

Freedom was now just down at the end of the gangway. Shaking, she made her way down it and got to the end.

"I was about to get away, and all of a sudden these guys showed up with this huge metal piping that had to be loaded. I had to stand there and wait for them to get it on board. And I'm standing there, my heart pounding, my stomach churning.

"Finally, they were about to clear the piping away, and I heard it," she says.

"Ramana! Ramana, what are you doing?"

It was the CO. "My friend who had got me off the restricted list had told her that I was leaving."

Freedom was still just steps away. But Ramana couldn't force herself to keep going.

"I couldn't just walk away from her. The brainwashing is so strong. So I went to her. And that was it. I was back. I spent the next three or four months in the engine room, working my way back," Ramana says.

Valeska Paris spoke to us last week of the hardships of the engine room. She endured it for a couple of months when she first arrived on the ship, and then, near the end of her tenure in 2007, during another time in the engine room, she passed out from the stifling heat.

Ramana had numerous encounters with the engine room herself. "It was intensely arduous work, cleaning inside the engines. You'd get covered in engine oil, which you'd have to clean off with diesel, and then you'd get that off with a special soap. So you'd stink of diesel all the time. Anyone who stunk of diesel, you'd know they'd been in trouble. So it was kind of a stigma of stinking like diesel," Ramana says.

"A lot of the work I did was in very small, confined spaces. It was quite scary. There was a fear of getting stuck under the deck plates or in the piping. So I struggled with that. And I worked by myself most of the time. I found that quite depressing. You're working in really hard conditions, you're confined in claustrophobic conditions, and you didn't know when it would end. It was an open-ended punishment, and the only way it would end was if you were reformed. That's why I say these were mind-control techniques."

I asked her if she wore special clothing or equipment in that kind of environment.

"We just wore normal cotton shorts and overalls," she says. "I was working one time in a very small pipe, having to clean the rust out from the inside. It was pitch black and I had a small lamp. I could hardly move. I got industrial paint chips in my eyes, and had to move incrementally to get out" before she could wash out her eyes.

After her escape attempt, she worked through interrogations and spent time in the engine room in order to get herself back to a normal position, she says. "I got back to the CMO. But it wasn't long before these feelings of wanting to leave came up again."

She was becoming deeply disillusioned not only with her own work on the ship, but with the goals of the Sea Org itself.

"The things I joined for, helping humanity, I really didn't see it happening," she says. She would think about her mother's trip to the Freewinds, for example. "My mother had been sold thousands of dollars for a course she really didn't want to do. These kinds of feelings kept coming up."

Ramana says she wanted to do the right thing this time. "I didn't want to end up in the engine room. I thought I could 'handle' my doubts and be a good Sea Org member," she says. And in this case, she thought, the right thing would be to honestly explain her doubts to the Commanding Officer. "As soon as I told her, she sent me right back to the engine room."

She was crushed. "This broke me. I told her, please. Please don't send me there, I can't handle it. But I was sent down to the engine room. I was put on an ethics program. I was put under watch. The only person I was able to talk to was her, and only in writing. Every night I had to write a report of what I'd done during the day.

"I became unbelievably depressed and suicidal," she says. "I used to carry a pocket knife around with me. It was the only way I could feel that I had some sense of control, the thought that if I needed to take my own life, I could. It was the worst feeling. It was like I was in prison, but the bars were in my mind.

"I couldn't walk out. There was this big, burly security guard at the gangway. I knew the only way I could get out of this was to conform, to reform. All I can say was that it was a mental torture," she says.

After another few months, she managed to get out of the engine room and was allowed to work on the decks. "I forced myself to get through the ethics conditions and then, because I had communicated that I was feeling suicidal, it was decided that I was no longer qualified to be on the ship."

Once she had worked to get herself in good standing, at the end of 1998 she was assigned to work on promotional tours for the Freewinds, to sell packages for the ship to church members in places like Europe and the United States.

From 1999 to 2003, she would come back to the ship for a month or two between tours. Each time she returned, she says, she would end up back in the engine room. "I dreaded going back to the ship. I dreaded it."

But the tours themselves were a welcome change. They took her all over Europe and the US, to Japan, Taiwan, and South Africa.

She would go to an org and set up an event, inviting all of the "publics" (non-staff Scientologists) to attend. "We would show a video and would give a talk about the ship. Then we'd make appointments with people and would sell to them, heavily," she says.

While she was making the tours, she married her second husband in 2001, a German Scientologist named Dennis Elstennet, forming a husband-and-wife selling team.

And they had a heavy pitch. Ramana says they told church members that the more ship packages they bought, the more advancement they'd have, and the quicker their orgs would grow. This was important because every org aspired to what Scientologists call "Saint Hill Size." This refers to Hubbard's legendary former residence in England, Saint Hill Manor, which is Scientology's headquarters in the UK and in the 1960s did prodigious business, moving through many course-takers and taking in large amounts of money. Scientology orgs around the world ever since have chased "Saint Hill Size" as a standard of their growth, and Ramana would tell prospective cruise passengers the ultimate goal of all that expansion...

Once every major org in the world was Saint Hill Size, then church leader David Miscavige would release OT 9 and OT 10.

Currently, the top end of Scientology's pricey "bridge" to spiritual enlightenment ends at OT 8, which members only reach after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars over several years. Hubbard was supposed to have written these even higher levels of spiritual expansion before he died, but they have never been released.

To Scientologists, it was a magical possibility. But try as they might, outside observers (including former Scientologists) have never found an exact definition of what "Saint Hill Size" actually means. Is it the number of people using the org, the amount of revenue, or the physical size of the facilities that determine it?

But Ramana was troubled by something else. She kept telling people that they would have major gains from the ship cruises, and that their orgs would grow. "But as I traveled around and around, I saw that it wasn't happening," she says. "And I really started to question the validity of what we were doing. I noticed that the church would go through these periods of correcting things. Like they would say they'd found a mistake in OT 7, and they fixed it and now everyone had to redo it. And that would become the craze for a while. There were these crazes, and I saw this pattern, with everyone being pushed to buy the next big thing. And I started to become disillusioned."

She wrote to the ship, saying that she wanted to leave the Sea Org itself, but it resulted in her being called to the vessel, where she would begin a program for routing out. "What happens when you do that is that you end up wanting to stay," she says.

Soon enough, after being convinced to stay in the Sea Org, she was feeling disillusioned again and became more determined than ever to leave. Once again she notified people at the ship. About this time, 2003, she had met a public Scientologist in Sweden. (She had been separated from Elstennet for about a year.) She told the Swedish man about her feelings, about how she wanted to leave the Sea Org, and he understood. "We basically fell in love, and that was forbidden," she says. She was then sent plane tickets to return to the ship.

"I got as far as the London airport...I knew that if I got on that plane they'd just change my mind again. I got a sense of my mind not being my own, and it terrified me. So I didn't get on the plane."

She called the man in Sweden, and told him what she'd done. "I thought I could trust him, but he freaked out and called the ship," she says. The ship had a friend of hers at Saint Hill Manor try to talk her into getting on the plane. She refused. After avoiding any further contact from the ship for several days, she finally accepted a call while staying with friends in East Grinstead. "They threatened disconnection from my mother if I didn't leave the Sea Org properly," she says. So she agreed to route out in the proper way, but insisted that she do it there in England, and not on the ship.

"They agreed initially, but then they said David Miscavige was on his way to Saint Hill and they didn't want any 'ethics particles' around -- that's what they called you when you were in trouble, an ethics particle," she says.

Someone was sent to escort her back to the ship. She promised the man in Sweden, meanwhile, that she would leave the Sea Org and then return to him.

Her routing out, which was supposed to take a month, lasted two months. "I felt like I was going crazy every day. It felt like someone who really doesn't like you and doesn't want you to leave is in charge of your freedom. It's an awful feeling," she says.

One thing that got her through it was her promise to return to the man she was in love with. But while she worked to get her freedom, he was being told that she had changed her mind, wasn't going to leave the Sea Org, and "hated" him.

When she did finish the program and was finally free of the Sea Org, in November 2003, she flew directly to London and called the Swedish man.

"He was completely shocked," she says. They were reunited, and soon she was pregnant. They decided to move back to her home, Australia. Ramana gave birth to a daughter, Iyana, in January, 2005. Her relationship with Iyana's father, however, quickly unraveled. "By the time we got to Australia we were ready to separate, but he wanted to stay around to be near our child," she says.

"In 2007, I started dating a guy who was not a Scientologist." It was the first time she'd ever dated a man outside the church. "He started asking me about it, and he was shocked by what I said about the Sea Org. So he went on a big research project. I couldn't look at it. But slowly, I started to read the stuff on the Internet. And then it caught like wildfire. I couldn't stop reading.

"By the end of 2007, I wasn't calling myself a Scientologist anymore."

Since she's left, it's been very hard to get back to a normal relationship with her mother, who is still in the church. "Ninety-nine percent of the time I'm talking to a Scientologist. On rare occasions I'm suddenly just talking to my mom. She's really upset about my leaving Scientology.

"About a year ago I told her everything that had happened in the Sea Org. She was in shock, and the next day we met up again and she burst into tears. She was absolutely distraught. And what hurts me the most at the moment is that even though she's so distraught, she's absolutely committed to the organization. She's convinced I was mistreated because someone misapplied the technology, not that the fundamental policies that run Scientology are creating these actions."

Meanwhile, her relationship with her father is great. "He's been incredibly supportive. Since I left Scientology, he's one of the few people I can talk to about what I've been through. I've had to deal with depression and post-traumatic stress. It's been amazing to reconnect with him. We've really been able to make up for lost time."

Today, Ramana works as a photographer and a filmmaker, living in the Blue Mountains and raising her six-year-old daughter.

Despite leaving both the Sea Org and Scientology itself, Ramana has not yet been declared a suppressive person by the church. Until last week, she had never spoken publicly about her rejection of it.

You will be declared now, after speaking up on television and to the Voice, I told her.

"Yeah, I know. I had to shed that last bastion of control the church had over me," she says.

And if she is declared, won't her mother be forced to disconnect from her entirely?

"I've thought about it a lot. I'm deeply sad about losing contact with my mother and my older brother, who is also a Scientologist."

But she knows her heart. She's done with the church. She's done with L. Ron Hubbard's ideas. And she believes that her story will help others to leave. And that's something she feels compelled to do, even at the cost of her own family being ripped apart by the church.


[A programming note: There's more coming from Valeska Paris and details about her years on the Freewinds. I'll also be talking to her husband Chris Guider, as well as additional former Freewinds crew members who can talk about this era on the ship, so check back with us here at Runnin' Scared in upcoming days. What follows is the official denial of Valeska's claims put out last week by Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw.]

Statement from the Church of Scientology


The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology #1: L. Ron Hubbard #2: David Miscavige #3: Marty Rathbun #4: Tom Cruise #5: Joe Childs and Tom Tobin #6: Anonymous #7: Mark Bunker #8: Mike Rinder #9: Jason Beghe #10: Lisa McPherson #11: Nick Xenophon (and other public servants) #12: Tommy Davis (and other hapless church executives) #13: Janet Reitman (and other journalists) #14: Tory Christman (and other noisy ex-Scientologists) #15: Andreas Heldal-Lund (and other old time church critics) #16: Marc and Claire Headley, escapees of the church's HQ #17: Jefferson Hawkins, the man behind the TV volcano #18: Amy Scobee, former Sea Org executive #19: The Squirrel Busters (and the church's other thugs and goons) #20: Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and other media figures) #21: Kendrick Moxon, attorney for the church #22: Jamie DeWolf (and other L. Ron Hubbard family members) #23: Ken Dandar (and other attorneys who litigate against the church) #24: David Touretzky (and other academics) #25: Xenu, galactic overlord


Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications.

tortega@villagevoice.com | @VoiceTonyO | Facebook: Tony Ortega

Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin' Scared


SCIENTOLOGY IN THE VILLAGE VOICE

[All recent stories] | [Top 25 People Crippling Scientology] | [Commenters of the Week] [Thursday 2pm Stats!] | [Scientology vs. South Park]

FEATURED INVESTIGATIONS

[Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis secretly recorded discussing "disconnection"] [Tom Cruise and Baby Suri embarrassed by news item, so someone must pay] [Benjamin Ring, LA deputy sheriff, wants you to spend your 401K on Scientology] [Scientologists: How many of them are there, anyway?] [Scientology hates clean ice: The "Fair Game" operation that should turn your stomach] [Scientology hates clean ice, part 2: Another target, and the web as weapon]

MARTY RATHBUN AND THE SIEGE OF SOUTH TEXAS

[Scientology has Rathbun arrested] | [Rathbun and Mark Bunker reveal surprising ties] In Germany with Ursula Caberta: [Announcing plans] | [Press conference] | [Making news about Tom Cruise, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair] | [Post-trip interview] The Squirrel Busters: [Goons with cameras on their heads] | [Rathbun's open letter to neighbors] | [Ingleside on the Bay, Texas rallies to Rathbun's cause] | [Squirrel Buster's claim to be making a "documentary"] | [VIDEO: "On a Boat"] | ["Anna" sent to creep out Monique Rathbun] | [Squirrel Busters go hillbilly] | [A videographer blows the whistle on the goon squad] | [Ed Bryan, OT VIII, shows the power of Scientology's highest levels]

SCIENTOLOGY SPYING AND "FAIR GAME"

[Secret Scientology documents spell out spying operation against Marc Headley] [Scientology's West U.S. spies list revealed] | [Scientology's enemies list: Are you on it?] Spy operation against Washington Post writer Richard Leiby: [Part 1] | [Part 2] [A Scientology spy comes clean: Paulien Lombard's remarkable public confession] [Scientology advertises for writers in Freedom magazine] [Accidental leak shows Scientology spy wing plans to "handle" the Voice] [Lori Hodgson and Disconnection: "No one's going to take my eternity away"]

SCIENTOLOGY AND CELEBRITIES

["Tom Cruise told me to talk to a bottle"] | [Tom Cruise likes coconut cake] | [Tom Cruise has a sense of humor] | ["Tom Cruise not a kook!"] | [Paulette Cooper on Tom Cruise] [Paul Haggis, director of Crash, issues an ultimatum, leaves the church] [Character actor Jason Beghe defects noisily] | [Actor Michael Fairman reveals his "suppressive person" declaration] | [Michael Fairman talks to the Voice] [Giovanni Ribisi as David Koresh: Scientology-Branch Davidian link makes sense] [Russell Brand weds ex-Scientologists in wild ceremony] | [Skip Press on Haggis] [Placido Domingo Jr.: Scientology's retaliation is "scary and pathetic"] Grant Cardone, NatGeo's "Turnaround King": [Doing Scientology's dirty work?] | [Milton Katselas complained about Cardone's smear job] | [Cardone runs to Huffpo] [Philip Boyd, Saving Grace actor, rips "the business that is Scientology"]

JANET REITMAN'S INSIDE SCIENTOLOGY

[Our review of Inside Scientology] | [An interview with Janet Reitman] | [A report from Reitman's first book tour appearance] | [At the Half-King: Reitman not afraid] [Scientology doesn't like Inside Scientology] | [Q&A at Washington Post] [A roundup of Reitman's print reviews, and why isn't she on television more?]

HUGH URBAN'S THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY

[A review of Urban's scholarly history of the church] | [An interview with Hugh Urban]

EX-SCIENTOLOGISTS SPEAK OUT

[Marc Headley: "Tom Cruise told me to talk to a bottle"] | [The Nancy Many interview] [Sympathy for the Devil: Tory Christman's Story] | [Jeff Hawkins' Counterfeit Dreams] [86 Million Thin Dimes: The Lawrence Wollersheim Saga] | [Mike Rinder on spying]

OVERSEAS NEWS

[Scientology dodges a bullet in Australia] | [Scientology exec Jan Eastgate arrested] [All hell breaks loose in Israel] | [Scientology sees fundraising gold in the UK riots] [Aussie former rugby pro Chris Guider calls David Miscavige "toxic" and "violent"] [Stephen Cox, UK church newbie, pledges 20K pounds] | [Biggi Reichert: A German Lisa McPherson?] | [The Birmingham trove: 7,000 internal e-mails] [Australian farmer blamed for giving Tom Cruise a bad shrimp, loses her friends, family]

ODD VIDEOS AND ODDER NEWS

[Scientology singalong, "We Stand Tall"] | [Captain Bill Robertson and "Galactic Patrol"] [Scientology wins a major award!] | [Scientology wants your money: Meet Dede!] [Birmingham in the House! The "Ideal" dance mix] | [Scientology and the Nation of Islam] [When Scientology was hip] | [Sad: David Miscavige makes fun of his own fundraisers] [Freedom magazine parodies The New Yorker. Hilarity ensues.] [Scientology surf report: Anonymous parties outside the New York "org"]

THE VIEW INSIDE THE BUBBLE

[A scientologist's letter to the Voice and its readers] | [Scientology silent birth] [Tad Reeves: Scientology might listen to this guy] | [More Tad Reeves and family] [Scientology never forgets: A heartwarming telemarketing holiday miracle]


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