Scientology's Grip on the Mind: An Ex-Sea Org Member Explains It For Us
In December, we brought you the story of Melissa Paris, a former Scientologist who we got to know after her sister Valeska's stunning claims that she'd been a virtual prisoner on Scientology's private cruise ship from 1996 to 2007.
Melissa had her own shocking tales of growing up in Scientology's "Cadet Org" in the UK. (The Paris sisters were originally from Switzerland and had been brought at a young age to England by their father, who had joined Scientology's hardcore "Sea Org.")
Since we profiled the Paris sisters, we've described the horror stories of others who experienced the Sea Org's deprivations, including the strange office-prison at Scientology's secretive headquarters east of Los Angeles.
Like other former Scientologists with harrowing tales of abuse and escape, Melissa says that she's constantly asked one question more than any other: how did she put up with that kind of treatment for so long? So she decided to give us an answer that she hopes will help non-Scientologists understand the mentality of Sea Org workers.
She provided the following account, and I lightly edited it only for readability. I'm sure she'd be happy to answer additional questions from our commenters.
I've been asked so many times, why didn't you walk away sooner? How could your father and brother disconnect from you? Isn't family more important than a religion? Why do Sea Org members stay if it's really that bad?
I was born into Scientology. Both of my parents were Scientologists, so I wasn't given a choice about what my beliefs were going to be. I had Scientology beliefs drummed into me as soon as I was able to understand them.
Getting thrown into the Cadet Org at 4 years old scarred me for life. [A sort of pre-Sea Org for children, the Cadet Org was disbanded in about 1996 when an edict went out that Sea Org members could not have children. After that, women have come forward who say they were forced to have abortions when they became pregnant, a policy that was only recently changed, we hear, when media reports began to criticize the church for it.] I can't explain the sense of loss that I felt when I finally understood that my mother had left me, that I didn't have a true home anymore, and that my family had now been split up and I had no choice in the matter. We didn't speak English, and we were put into a school where I didn't understand the others. My dad wasn't there to make the transition any easier -- he was on the Estates Project Force, the Sea Org's boot camp. I remember crying and crying those first few weeks. (Anyone that knows Scientology knows that to cry is low on the Tone Scale. To this day, I rarely ever cry. My ex-husband went eight years before he saw me cry. )
As Cadets and Scientologists, we learned quickly that showing any emotion other then a happy face wasn't in our best interests. So I learned to hide my emotions and I was damn good at it. I hated my life and I stored up a lot of anger towards my father and mother for putting me into this environment.
In the mornings, we would "muster." When I got slapped, spanked, or humiliated at muster for something I'd done wrong, I showed no emotion other then a smirk. On the inside I would chant, "You won't break me, you won't break me, you won't break me!"
My mom left my stepfather Albert when I was 10 for my current stepdad Alex. It was like a dam broke inside me. All those years of hiding everything that I'd been feeling finally came to a head and I became mean, argumentative, difficult, and determined to make life hell for the people around me.
The next three years I became the problem cadet. I ran away, I fought other kids, I stole money to escape, I cursed, I yelled, I refused to be sec checked. The Sea Org wanted to declare me a suppressive person when I was eleven years old but they didn't know where they would send me. [Declaring someone a "suppressive person" or SP is Scientology's version of excommunication. All members in good standing must "disconnect" from an SP or face being declared themselves.]
So that's how I became the first child the Cadet Org put on its own RPF. [The Rehabilitation Project Force is the Sea Org's prison detail, and can take adults years to "graduate" from.] I was segregated from everyone. My parents weren't allowed to talk to me, none of the cadets talked to me. I was on MEST work [menial physical labor] from 7am to 8pm. I had no contact with anyone. I was in a room by myself. I did this for months.
After heavy MEST work, barely any sleep, and serious lack of food, I had a breakdown. I started seeing things, I was so out of it. This caused a flap, so they sent me to my stepmother, Angela, who had been fitness-boarded out of the Sea Org. Once again I was on my own. I love Angela but she's a very serious, stoic, a true English woman. My brother Raphael had always been her favorite and my sister and I knew it. I did my own thing, went to school, came home, had no contact with anyone.
The most vivid memory I have from that time is getting scared so badly by a Sea Org member threatening me with getting dropped off in the middle of East Grinstead by myself that I urinated on myself. I was that scared. I walked from Saint Hill back to Angela's in wet clothes. A two-hour walk.
I always tell my sister that I wish people who are not Scientologists could understand the severe mental, emotional, and psychological abuse that we were subjected to. Yes, the physical abuse was horrific but it didn't have the same impact on me. When I say that I walk alone, I mean that. I trust no one. I walk into a room and my first instinct is to look for every exit and plan my escape if I need it. I will never sit with my back to a room. I can't handle people in my personal space and I hate to be touched. These are just some of the things that I believe are left over from my cadet days.
The only reason that I joined the Sea Org at the age of 14 is that I had nowhere else to go, no family member to live with. The Cadet Org and the Sea Org were all I'd ever known. I had just found out that that my stepfather Albert had died, I wanted some kind of family, and the Sea Org was that for me.
Any ex-Sea Org member will tell you about the complete lack of regard that you get treated with. You're not a person with thoughts, feelings, or emotions. You're there to work and "make things go right" and if you don't do that then you're fucked.
I started working to make money when I was 12, I lived on a park bench when I was 13 for a few days. I survived the Cadet Org. I'm tough, but the Sea Org was hard for me. The lack of sleep, the lack of good food, the lack of respect as a person. The Sea Org breaks you down. You aren't an individual anymore, you're just part of the "3rd dynamic," Hubbard's designation of a group.
I remember having done something wrong one time. I was 15 and Frank, a high-ranking Sea Org member, was pissed off. He shoved me against a wall and started screaming at me about an inch away from my face. He kept spitting, and I reached up and wiped it off my face. He lost it and kept slamming me against a wall in front of other Sea Org members, and they did nothing.
But you have to understand that we were so programmed to look the other way. He's my senior and I'm not allowed to back flash (talk back). You are so scared that you're going to be declared and lose Scientology and everything that comes with it, that you do nothing, and say nothing.
I'm the most argumentative person. I'm curious, I ask questions, I'm the most in-your-face person that I know. I'm brutally honest, I don't do fake, and I'll fight anyone that I feel is backing me into a corner. And yet, I sat there for 19 years and believed in Scientology enough that I disconnected from my mother when I was told to.
Parents that have lost their kids today don't seem to understand that it's the ones who are brought up in Scientology who are the most conditioned. L. Ron Hubbard is the god and Scientology is the only life we know.
I want all non-Scientologists to understand that there's no other life for the lost souls that we were in the Cadet Org. We knew that we weren't important in the grand scheme of things. We got broken down to the point where we had no thoughts of our own. We were the future of Scientology. I remember seeing a protest outside the walls of Saint Hill and thinking to myself, "What's wrong with these people, we're trying to save the world here."
One of my fellow young members of the Cadet Org routed out when she was 15 or 16. Her mother and her sisters were in the Sea Org and her father had been declared years before. So she had no one to turn to. Nowhere to go. She ended up working as a prostitute in a brothel in Zurich, Switzerland. You do whatever you can to survive.
I hate the fact that I have a wall up and can't let anybody get close to me, even my sister, who has had to fight to be in my life. I am jealous of people who have had intact families their entire lives. I feel for my daughter, who will never have the chance to get to know her grandfather or uncles.
It pisses me off that I miss my dad so much. To this day I tear up when thinking about him. That man was my best friend. He broke my heart when he disconnected from me. That hurt still hasn't healed and it's been 13 years. I'll never understand how he could have walked away from me. But that's life in Scientology.
All of those celebrities in the news are not the face of Scientology, we are. The broken ones, the kids who wandered the halls and were never important enough to be looked at, with their hollow bruised dirty faces, sad eyes and tear tracks. Unless you walked in my shoes then you'll never understand, but I hope I have given a small glimmer of what Scientology really is. I'll continue to walk alone, never broke, just badly bent.
Melissa Paris now lives in Texas, where she's attending real estate school. She says she and her daughter Jade are doing very well.
See also: "Tom Cruise worships David Miscavige like a god" Scientology's president and the death of his son: our complete coverage What Katie is saving Suri from: Scientology interrogation of kids Scientology's new defections: Hubbard's granddaughter and Miscavige's dad Scientology's disgrace: our open letter to Tom Cruise Scientology crumbling: An entire mission defects as a group Scientology leader David Miscavige's vanished wife: Where's Shelly? Neil Gaiman, 7, Interviewed About Scientology by the BBC in 1968 The Master Screenplay: Scientology History from Several Different Eras And a post that pulls together the best of our Scientology reporting
Please check out our Facebook author page for updates and schedules.
********** Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you ask nicely he'll put you on his mailing list for notifications of new stories. You can also catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, a Tumblr, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, "What is Scientology?" Another good overview is our series from last summer, "Top 25 People Crippling Scientology." At the top of every story, you'll see the "Scientology" category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories.
As for hot subjects we've covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and was sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology's "Mecca," whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology's policy of "disconnection" that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We've also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there's plenty more coming.
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.