Scientology's Goons: Intimidating a 71-Year-Old Missouri Grandmother
On December 29, the Church of Scientology-Missouri's media relations officer, Ellen Maher-Forney, and another executive, Jill James, drove the 40 minutes it takes to go from the church on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis to the home of Jim and Meshell Little in Saint Peters, Missouri.
When the two women began knocking at the Little home's front door, Meshell's daughter Heather, 17, called her mother, who was at work: "Mom, somebody's at the door." Meshell asked Heather to see if her grandmother, Meshell's mother, 71-year-old Edie Fields, could answer the persistent knocking.
As Edie opened the door, Heather, who was hanging back behind her, could see who was on their porch.
"It's Ellen and Jill!" she told her mother, who she still had on the line.
Meshell and Heather tell me what the two women from Scientology then told Edie: "You've been declared. We need you to sign this paper that says you've been declared."
Meshell tried to make me understand what those words meant to Edie, a woman who had given decades of her life to Scientology. It was as if your church, or some other organization that is important to you, had sent representatives to tell you that you are now considered beneath contempt, a nonperson, an evil entity. And they do this while presenting you with a three-page list of your shortcomings and evil deeds.
And they won't leave until you sign it.
This is Scientology.
What the women from the church wanted Edie Fields to read and sign was a three page document that declared her a "suppressive person" or "SP," an enemy of the church, and someone no person who wanted to remain in good standing with Scientology could associate with in any way. [Unfamiliar with L. Ron Hubbard and his creation? Read our primer, "What is Scientology?"]
Meshell and Jim Little, and their daughter Heather, had all been declared suppressive persons earlier -- but in a document that filled only a single page, Meshell points out. For some reason, her mother's "crimes" filled multiple pages.
"My mom couldn't read it. She's very tender," Meshell told me by telephone from her home in Saint Peters. "She did sign a paper saying that she had been informed of the declare."
The women from the church left after Edie signed that document, and did not give her a copy of it or of the three-page SP declare. She was now officially a pariah of Scientology.
"She was very upset. She was on staff for 10 years. All of our friends for the last 20 years have been only Scientologists. She's already affected by that. And she's upset that her eye doctor won't see her anymore, who was a close personal friend of ours," Meshell says, adding that the physician is a Scientologist and so, per church policy, he refuses to have anything to do with Edie now that she's a declared SP.
The Littles, and Edie Fields, stopped going to Scientology's "org" and paying for services about a year ago. But they were surprised that the church took the time to pay that visit to their home.
I called the org last week twice and left a message for Maher-Forney, who is listed as the church's media relations officer on its website. She didn't get back to me.
That's a shame. I was hoping to ask her why the org didn't just mail Edie a letter saying that she was no longer welcome at the church. Or maybe a phone call would have been sufficient. Why did it require two women driving across town to shove a list of damning allegations in her face?
Maher-Forney didn't give me the chance to ask that question. But I spent a few hours with the Littles, asking about their history as longtime, dedicated Scientologists who suffered grave doubts about the church and its leadership -- as is happening to so many veteran church members in recent years. Maybe somewhere in that history, we could figure out on our own why Scientology felt compelled to intimidate a 71-year-old Missouri grandmother.
Self Help at the Mall
It all started at a Waldenbooks in a Fort Smith, Arkansas mall. It was November of 1988, and Meshell was 26 years old. A friend of hers was going through a difficult time, and Meshell decided to look through the self-help section of the bookstore to see what she could find. That's when she spotted L. Ron Hubbard's book, Dianetics.
"I studied that book like you wouldn't believe," she says.
She was married and had a 1-year-old named Travis. But after reading Dianetics, she encouraged her troubled friend to get into the book, and she also roped in her mother, Edie. Before too long, Edie and her friend were passionate members at Scientology's St. Louis org several hours away, and Meshell had divorced her first husband because he wasn't interested in also becoming a Scientologist. (Her mother even briefly joined the Sea Org, the hardcore elite of Scientology workers who sign billion-year contracts and agree to come back and serve the church lifetime after lifetime.)
Meshell replaced her first husband right away with another man, Danny Powers, who was also interested in Scientology. In 1991, they had a son they named Jeremy.
"Danny and I both joined staff. My mom was going to raise Jeremy," she says to illustrate just how into their new religion they had become.
Meshell was on staff from 1990 to 1995, rising to the level of "Flag Banking Officer."
"By that time I was untouchable. I was in upper level finance. Nobody in the local org could tell me what to do," she says. But she admits that she clashed with the local executive director. "She was unpredictable. I couldn't take her anymore." So Meshell went off staff after completing her contract, but still remained a committed Scientologist.
Heather had been born in 1994, and now Meshell and Danny had two children to raise and lots of Scientology to pay for.
"We paid for a lot of auditing. We paid a lot for him to audit, trying to repair the marriage. We paid for auditing for me. We paid for auditing for Travis," her son from her previous marriage. "It was a lot of money, a lot of credit card debt."
But after leaving staff, Meshell says she had considerable success with a business she started, selling tax strategy materials, with some Scientologists as clients. "We were educating people about the tax system, showing them how to set up a trust, for example. It was making a lot of money," she says. "But then the church told us to stop doing it. They told me it was illegal, what we were doing, which wasn't true."
The business tanked, and Meshell says she ended up in bankruptcy. By 1999, she was back in Arkansas. Only a year later, she and Danny had rebounded and returned to St. Louis. By 2004, however, their marriage was over.
Meshell says that Danny had never really embraced Scientology the way she wanted him to.
"I've lost two husbands because of this stupid religion," she says now.
She immediately found another man, and she hoped that Jim Little would be the Scientologist husband she had really wanted. He seemed to be.
"We were so dedicated that we got married on May 9, the anniversary date of Dianetics," Jim says.
They were both enthusiastic, longtime members of the church, but each was beginning to have some doubts.
Scientology and Kids
In 2003, Meshell's first son, Travis, had a tough choice to make. Either marry his Scientologist girlfriend, or never see her again. In a lengthy post at a blog she writes, Meshell explains that Scientology officials tried to keep Travis, who was then 15, from his 18-year-old girlfriend, saying that their relationship was "illegal" and something that could bring the church bad publicity. As Meshell explains, it was a church official from California who insisted that the teenagers couldn't see each other because of Travis's age, not understanding that in Missouri, there was nothing illegal about it. As the young couple continued to experience interference, Meshell writes, "All this led up to Travis just deciding to get married and stop the bullshit." (Travis and his wife, whose identity Meshell prefers to keep unnamed, had a child before divorcing in 2005.)
But 2003 was memorable not only because of the commitment that 15-year-old Travis made.
It was also the year that Scientology came for Meshell's 12-year-old son, Jeremy.
As we've written before, young teenagers who grow up in Scientology can be put under intense pressure to join Scientology's elite corps, the Sea Organization.
Meshell admits that at the time, she actually thought signing a billion-year contract might actually be good for her son.
"I thought he could learn some ethics," she says. But both of Jeremy's stints in the Sea Org -- at the age of 12 in Clearwater, Florida, and again at 15 in Los Angeles -- ended badly, Meshell says. He ended up back home, and his connection to the church had become tenuous.
His sister Heather, meanwhile, had her own disastrous recruitment to the Sea Org, which began when she was only 13. This time, Meshell says she was determined not to give in to recruiters. She told her daughter that at 18, she could do what she wanted, but there was no way she was giving her permission to let Heather join so young. As time went on, however, Heather and Sea Org recruiters kept working on Meshell.
"I got a call from an ethics officer in LA. I was being worn down. This guy was 23 or 24, and he was telling me that Heather wasn't really my kid. We're thetans, and this is just the role we're in in this lifetime," Meshell says, referring to Scientology's belief that we are ancient spirits -- thetans -- who have lived countless times over millions of years. "Why am I trying to stop Scientology, he asked me. Heather wants to do something that was the most ethical thing on the planet, and I was saying no."
Meshell says at one point she admitted to the ethics officer that she was still getting child support for Heather from her previous husband, and it would stop if Heather moved away. "He started screaming at me, 'We're going to investigate you and find out your crimes, because you're trying to stop Scientology from expanding.' Jim screamed back at him, and we hung up the phone.
"They were ripping at me with their threats. I knew I had to let her go. And I did let her go," Meshell says.
Heather was 14. She went to Clearwater, Florida to join the Sea Org. But she found it a nightmare almost immediately when she was put up in an almost deserted hotel undergoing renovation.
"Within the first month she realized she didn't want to do it. She came back," Meshell says.
Meshell and Jim say their experiences with the children deeply affected them, and they began to wonder if some of the criticism they knew existed about the church might actually be true.
They watched Anderson Cooper's CNN story of allegations that had first been published in the St. Petersburg Times -- that a slew of high-level executives were leaving the church, claiming that church leader David Miscavige was a violent, unpredictable dictator. As they began to look around the Internet, they found more and more information that shocked them, their doubts now taking deep root. So, in 2010, they decided to leave the church. and her mother decided to go too.
"I have to tell you, this is not easy to go through. It infuriates me so much," Meshell says about having her faith in Scientology deteriorate. "We gave up more than years. I was on Medicaid, I was on food stamps, just so I could work 60 hours a week for them and be screamed at."
But it all seemed to be going nowhere. Scientologists are indoctrinated with the notion that L. Ron Hubbard's ideas are spreading like wildfire around the globe, and that their current hardships will be worth it as they "clear the planet" and salvage mankind. But over the years, Meshell and Jim gradually realized that these were just methods to get more sacrifice out of them, more money out of their bank accounts.
"The St. Louis org, I have a lot of history with it," Meshell says. The staff there never grew beyond 45 or 50. "I've never seen it go over that in 20 years. They're not growing."
In their last year, Jim and Meshell noticed that foot traffic, of people simply coming into the org because they were curious, had actually gone up.
"They walk in but they walk out," Jim says.
"They never come back. We think the Internet has caused a big change. After coming to the org, they're going home and doing a Google search," Meshell says.
Jim then describes things in St. Louis which sound remarkably like what Debbie Cook outlined in her infamous New Year's Eve e-mail calling for a rebellion of sorts in the ranks of the church.
"[Church leader] David Miscavige says we need to have a new building, and you local people are paying for it," Jim says. "There was a big drive for money in 2006 and 2007. We have to get the building in 2007."
The new St. Louis "Ideal Org" was purchased -- a historic building near Lafayette Square. "In that five years they managed to put a new roof on it, they renovated an entryway and a main auditorium. The rest of that building, nothing has been done with it."
That seems to echo what happened with a building slated to be an "Ideal Org" in Orange County, California, which was described in a four-part November expose in the St. Petersburg Times, and then a follow up report by ex-church member Luis Garcia at Marty Rathbun's blog. Garcia describes a similar tale of constant fundraising for a building that never seems closer to completion -- when the existing org isn't even full.
"They're squeezing blood out of turnips, so people don't have any money anymore for courses," Jim says.
Heather, who had been working on staff at the St. Louis org, was also exhausted and fed up with the conditions at the church.
At only 14 and 15 years old, she had been working 40-hour weeks for about $50 to $80 a week. Much of her time was spent xeroxing 70-page transcripts of L. Ron Hubbard lectures for dozens of staff members -- a task that took her several hours and seemed to be doing no one any good (they were already listening to the lectures).
Meshell, her husband Jim, her mother Edie, and her daugher Heather were all ready to get away from the constant fundraising and broken promises that they had experienced in Scientology. The entire family was breaking away -- with one important exception.
Jeremy, who had had such a checkered career in the church, was now actually increasing his involvement.
Why? His family says it wasn't for any spiritual reason, but because Jeremy had fallen in love -- and with the daughter of a church executive.
"If that hadn't happened, I really believe he would have left with us," Meshell says.
Instead, as the Littles were declared suppressive persons for leaving the church, Jeremy, as a member of Scientology in good standing, would have been asked to "disconnect" from them -- even though they were his own family.
Today, everyone in the family has lost contact with 20-year-old Jeremy -- including his older brother Travis, who is no longer in the church. Meshell doesn't even have a phone number for her son, who refuses to have any contact with her.
As we've pointed out previously, Scientology officials have denied publicly that there is a policy of "disconnection," but their actions speak differently.
"They are saying there's no disconnection. But if Jeremy didn't disconnect from us he'd lose his girlfriend, his car, his place to stay, and the job he had at the time," Meshell says.
Frustrated that she can't talk to or see her son, Meshell started a blog that is written for him. Her daughter Heather was in a frightening car accident recently (she escaped unharmed), and Meshell has no other way to let Jeremy know about it than to write it up in the blog, hoping he sees it. She's let him know that they moved to a new house, and also made sure he knew about his grandmother getting her SP declare. Meshell also writes about Scientology's controversies, like the recent Debbie Cook news, hoping that it makes him question their forced separation.
In one memorable post, she admitted that she hated him for cutting her out of his life. "You're a complete jack-ass to treat me like this when I have NEVER done anything wrong to you or to anyone you love," she wrote to her own son.
"I hated him that day. I'm not deleting it because that's the way I felt," she tells me.
But does he read the blog?
"I don't know," she says. "I sent some boxes of Christmas presents over there. There was a card with a picture of me. it said 'I love you, Jeremy,' and I also wrote the address to the blog."
It dawned on me that perhaps the church is getting shitty with Meshell's mother as a way to tell the Littles to back off -- the church has their son, and they will continue to enforce disconnection.
Heather agreed with me immediately, and Meshell and Jim had to admit that it made sense.
For now, we just don't know.
"All I want is for Jeremy not to be dictated to about whether he can talk to us or not. He can be a Scientologist if he wants. I don't care. I just want my son back," she says, the emotion obvious in her voice.
"It's wrong that they're telling him that he can't have Scientology if he talks to his mother and grandmother and his sister."
Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications.
Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin' Scared
SCIENTOLOGY IN THE VILLAGE VOICE
[All recent stories] | [What is Scientology?] | [Top 25 People Crippling Scientology] [Commenters of the Week] | [Thursday 2pm Stats!] | [Scientology vs. South Park] [This Week Aboard the Apollo] | [Sunday Funnies]
[Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis secretly recorded discussing "disconnection"] [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] [Paulette Cooper, Scientology's original and worst nightmare: a Thanksgiving tribute]
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 | 12. Tommy Davis | 13. Janet Reitman | 14. Tory Christman | 15. Andreas Heldal-Lund | 16. Marc and Claire Headley | 17. Jefferson Hawkins | 18. Amy Scobee | 19. The Squirrel Busters | 20. Trey Parker and Matt Stone | 21. Kendrick Moxon | 22. Jamie DeWolf | 23. Ken Dandar | 24. Dave Touretzky | 25. Xenu
HELD ABOARD THE FREEWINDS: TALES OF THE SEA ORG
[Valeska Paris, held against her will from 1996 to 2007 on Scientology's cruise ship] [Ramana Dienes-Browning, marriage at 16, sexual interrogation, life in the engine room] [Melissa Paris, Valeska's sister: forced to marry at 16]
SCIENTOLOGY VS. SOUTH PARK: INVESTIGATION AS RETALIATION
[Scientology targeted South Park's Parker and Stone in an investigation] [More documents in the South Park probe: instructions to send in a young mole] [Scientology responds in typical fashion] | [Lloyd Kaufman confirms the probe] [Mark Ebner also investigated after South Park involvement] [Mark Chauppetta, private eye, explains what Scientology operatives look for]
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
[Hey, Scientology Celebrity, Here's Your Media Training Checksheet!] [Tom Cruise and X Factor's Stacy Francis singing together on the Freewinds] [X Factor's Stacy Francis: Her first husband, Michael Sandlofer, answers abuse claims] [Tom Cruise and Baby Suri embarrassed by news item, so someone must pay] ["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
EX-SCIENTOLOGISTS SPEAK OUT
["The Money Machine": another blockbuster St. Pete Times investigation] [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]
[Scientology in Israel: Arson, attempted murder, paranoia -- and a visit by the Voice!] [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 chillin' with hip hop!] | [The curious career of Scientology rapper Chill EB] [Chill EB and me: the Voice interviews Scientology's in-house rapper] [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] [Desperate Scientology fundraising caught on video]
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.