In December of 1996, Melissa Paris was 16 years old, and had been married for a few months to a man she says she was forced to wed. An unpleasant match, the marriage ended when Melissa left him — and Scientology’s hardcore and controlling Sea Org — two years later.
But that was in the future. In the months after her wedding, she was in a unique position, and she knew it. Her husband, Cyril Helnwein, who was himself a teenaged Sea Org member of about 18, was from a wealthy family. The son of an internationally famous artist (more on that later), Cyril had means. So, when they had returned, after the wedding, to grueling weeks of menial, unpaid labor that she had already endured for two years as an underaged Sea Org member at L. Ron Hubbard’s legendary former home in England, Saint Hill Manor, she asked her rich young husband to grant her a wish.
Fly me to a ship. The Freewinds. For our honeymoon.
Melissa asked this, not really out of a romantic notion, but knowing it might be her only chance to see her sister, Valeska, who had just been put aboard the ship against her will.
And so, in December 1996, the Paris sisters were briefly reunited after not seeing or communicating with each other for two years.
It would be another 13 years before they saw each other again.
Last night, I spoke at length with Melissa Paris on the phone. She now lives in Houston with her 10-year-old daughter and a boyfriend she’s been seeing for a couple of years. She works as a waitress and bartender, and in January, she’s going back to school. On Christmas day she will turn 32. She owns her own home, and as she says, “Life is very good.”
Over the last three days, her sister Valeska has become famous on three continents. Sunday night, Australia’s ABC network, on its Lateline program, aired a story by Steve Cannane, who explained that in 1996, Valeska, then only 18, was taken — against her will, she says — to serve as a Sea Org staffer aboard the Freewinds, and would remain there, a virtual prisoner, for 12 years. We followed up Cannane’s story with our own lengthy interview of Valeska, which filled in more about her family history, her time on the Freewinds, and how she finally managed to get off the ship and start a family with former Australian rugby star Chris Guider.
But Valeska urged me to talk to Melissa, telling me that her story alone was not a complete picture.
If Valeska was held against her will on a ship plying the Caribbean, Melissa was a prisoner on land, going four years at Hubbard’s famous estate in the UK doing menial, punishing labor, and over the course of those four years, almost all of it as a child, she was paid a total of about $40.
Not $40 a week. $40 in four years, as an underaged teenager working extremely long hours and getting little sleep.
And yet, throughout her ordeal, while her father and brother “disconnected” from her, after her schooling had ended when she was 12 years old and she had run to places like Los Angeles to work as a 14-year-old nanny, knowing no one, she kept one goal in front of her: she would, someday, reunite with her older sister.
Here’s how that journey unfolded. As we mentioned Tuesday, Valeska and her sister Melissa were born in Geneva, Switzerland to a man named Jean-Francois Paris and a woman named Ariane Jackson, both Scientologists. In 1983, the couple split and Paris took his daughters, and their younger brother, Raphael, to England, where he signed up for Scientology’s Sea Org, the ascetic outfit that requires its workers to sign billion-year contracts with a promise to come back lifetime after lifetime for endless hours and pay of about $50 a week.
While Jean-Francois put on his naval Sea Org outfit, his three children were assigned to something called the Cadet Org, a sort of mini-Sea Org for children, to toughen them up with menial chores and poor living conditions at a rundown manor named Stonelands.
Valeska was 6. Melissa was 4. Raphael had just turned 2. Melissa lived at Stonelands, and was in the Cadet Org, for eight years, until she was 12.
I asked her what a typical day was like, in the summer, when she was 7 or 8 years old.
“We would get up at about 7 o’clock. We’d muster — we’d all stand in a line, according to divisions. Then we had to breakfast on time, because if you missed it, you didn’t eat,” she says. “Then some would go to Saint Hill and do their jobs. Others would stay at Stonelands and had to clean the house. There wasn’t much free time, maybe an hour or two. When I was younger there had been something called Family Time, an hour or two in the evening when you saw your parents.”
Once they took away Family Time, when she was about 6 or 7, her day didn’t include seeing her father at all.
“We did study. We studied Scientology. And that was pretty much our day. And weekends weren’t any different. Yeah, we didn’t live like kids,” she says. In an Internet post, she has written at length about governesses who regularly hit the children, and how kids ganged up on each other.
“Did my sister tell you that we had no toilet paper 90 percent of the time in the Cadet Org?” Valeska asked me last night after I had finished my interview with Melissa. “We either had to use pages from books in the library to wipe ourselves or our hands and wipe it on the wall. I know it’s gross but it’s true. The toilet had shit all over the wall.”
“The governesses sucked,” Melissa told me. “Probably the meaner they were, that’s how they picked them.” Years later, Melissa says she was told that Scientology’s Cadet Org was disbanded in particular because of reports of the conditions at Stonelands.
Melissa says if she tended to get more bruised than other kids, it was because she would talk back. “I was pretty mouthy,” she says, and you get a sense, talking to her, that the hellraiser in her is never far from the surface.
Meanwhile, her father was largely absent, she says. “My father said something to Dominique [one of the worst of the governesses], and that’s only when she threw me down the stairs.”
With parents not around, it was difficult to get any sympathy. “You’re so in Scientology, you really can’t go against them. You’re adults in smaller bodies,” she says, referring to Scientology’s belief that we have all lived countless lives, and that if we wear a child’s body in a new lifetime, our thetan, or soul, is ancient. In that scenario, they believe, it makes little sense to treat a youngster as anything but a stunted adult.
During the school year, the Paris children went to a private Scientology school, Greenfields. “But even there, we were Stonelands kids. Dirty. We had lice. We got made fun of quite a bit,” Melissa says.
Their father, Jean-Francois Paris, was on a Sea Org salary of pennies an hour. So it was her mother, Ariane, and her new husband, Albert Jaquier, who paid for the private school. Jaquier had risen from a junkyard worker to a self-made millionaire, and gave away much of his money to Scientology. And in 1989, when her mother and Jaquier ended their marriage, the private schooling stopped.
“We went to public school after that, in East Grinstead. That sucked,” she says. “The church did not have a good reputation in town. And kids would wait for us after school. They’d try to fight us.”
I asked Melissa how she finally got out of the Cadet Org in 1992, when she was 12 years old. “I called my grandma in France and got her to book me a ticket to Florida. I called a friend I had made there, Emily Jones, and I asked if I could go live with them.”
She was in Clearwater, Florida, Scientology’s spiritual headquarters, for two years. Then, at only 14, she went to Los Angeles and became a nanny. Nine months later, she gave that up and returned to England.
Then, in December 1994, she joined the Sea Org. She was only 15 years old. (Her sister, Valeska, had joined even earler, at 14. One girl in her area was a Sea Org member at only 10, Melissa says.) That same month she joined the Sea Org, her former stefpather, Albert Jaquier, died of a heart condition.
I asked her why, at that point, she signed a billion-year contract and promised to work so hard for Scientology.
“They showed me a policy by Hubbard that said the world was coming to an end by 2000. So we had six years to ‘clear the planet’,” she says. “And I had no family at that point. My dad is an idiot, and he was in Florida. We didn’t know anything else. We were born into it. We didn’t have any friends outside Scientology. Those were ‘wogs'” she says, using the offensive British slang term for dark-skinned people that Hubbard appropriated for his jargon to mean any non-Scientologist. “We didn’t have anybody.”
She immediately hated the Sea Org. And so, at first, when she heard the news about her mother, she considered it a hopeful sign.
After the death of her former husband, Melissa’s mother had tried to get recompense from the church and then had sued and was countersued by Scientology. She then went live on French television to denounce the church.
“I was excited. I thought it was going to be a way for me to get out. The Sea Org was horrible.”
But Melissa didn’t get away, at least not yet. She was told to disconnect from her mother, who was now considered an apostate, or “suppressive person.” Melissa, meanwhile, kept laboring for the church.
“I was in the Sea Org from 1994 to 1998. During that entire time, I was paid about 40 dollars. And I am not making that up,” she says. Until December 25, 1997, she was a minor during that entire period, working for no pay.
“We were fed beans and rice. And we got no sleep. When [church leader] David Miscavige came over for an IAS event in 1998, I was assigned MEST work, and I went five days without sleep. We would catch some sleep on the bus from Walsh Manor to Saint Hill,” she says, referring to another run down estate where Sea Org members were housed, and the 18th century country house were Scientology in the UK is headquartered. In preparation for the event, she worked like mad. “I was building stuff. Building the stage. Putting up tents. Cleaning. Making stuff.” (MEST was Hubbard’s acronym for matter, energy, space, and time, and referred to work in the real, physical universe — usually manual labor — as opposed to work in the spiritual realm. Melissa also refers to the IAS — the International Association of Scientologists, a sort of booster club that church members are constantly encouraged to give large sums to.)
I asked her what the lavish event itself was like. “I didn’t get to go to the event. I was in trouble.” Why? “Because I wanted to leave,” she says.
“You got treated like absolute crap by everyone who was senior to you. I can’t tell you how many times I got yelled at by someone an inch from my face. And there’s nothing you could do. You’re demoralized. You’re not a person,” she says.
At 16, she had started to date a young man named Cyril Helnweing, who was a couple of years older. Then she found herself in the EPF, and her superiors got even more demanding of her.
The Estates Project Force is a sort of boot camp for Sea Org members, and it is something a Sea Org worker can be assigned to do again if they are not performing up to standards.
“I sucked. I don’t conform or follow retarded orders,” she says.
But she had few alternatives. She was separated from her family, who had their own Sea Org assignments to fulfill. Melissa says she was given an ultimatum: marry Cyril Helnwein, or get kicked out of the Sea Org.
“I was told that the only way I would be able to stay would be if I married him. I’d actually broken up with him right before that and…a high level executive told me that I needed to get back together with him ASAP. I was threatened with being dropped off in the middle of East Grinstead.”
Why, I asked, were executives pushing her into the match?
“The guy’s father was pretty famous, and he wanted to marry me.”
Cyril’s father is Gottfried Helnwein, a well-known Viennese-born fine artist who these days splits his time between Ireland and Los Angeles. Known for his early work in hyper-realist watercolors, some of his images are quite familiar to rock fans, who will recognize the album covers for Scorpion and Rammstein that use his art.
Over his career, Helnwein has avoided questions about his status as a Scientologist, but databases show that he’s taken courses since at least 1978, and judging by plaques he’s received, he’s been a major donor.
Despite his wealth, however, his son and daughter-in-law, as Sea Org members, lived a spartan lifestyle.
“At the beginning, we lived in a room with bunk beds,” Melissa says.
A few months after their wedding in the summer of 1996, Melissa asked Cyril to take her on a Caribbean honeymoon.
“Like I said, his family was really wealthy. I asked him if we could go to the Freewinds for our honeymoon, so I could see my sister.” In December, they went, and she turned 17 during their week on board.
“The ship was in the ‘ABC’ islands,” she says, referring to the three islands, Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao, that the ship tends to visit, even to this day.
She knew her trip would be a complete surprise to her sister, who had been moved to the Freewinds in September of that year — against her will, Valeska says. She believes that church leader David Miscavige had her moved there to make sure she disconnected from her mother and was unable even to communicate with her. (“They took our passports, too,” Melissa says, vouching for what Valeska has alleged, that every visitor on the ship gives up his or her passport when they arrive.)
On the ship, Valeska worked as a waitress for her first six years, and was never able to leave the vessel without an escort. And even though her sister had flown so far to see her, during the week Melissa and Cyril were on board, they rarely got to see Valeska.
“She would come at her dinner time. And during the week she got one half-day off.” Just one half day, I asked? “Yeah, half a day.”
Valeska, 19, and her sister Melissa, 17, said goodbye at the end of the week. They wouldn’t see each other again until 2009.
Melissa and Cyril returned to England, but Melissa says she was miserable in her marriage, and in her work. A little more than a year after her trip to the Freewinds, she began planning to leave. She told her superiors that she wanted out, and she convinced her father, who lived in Chicago, to fly her out in May, 1998. She was finally done with the Sea Org.
“I didn’t tell Cyril I was leaving,” she says. She just left him without saying a word.
She hated Chicago, however, and by January 1999, she was living in Scotland.
In March, she got a strange call from her father. He told her he was disconnecting from her, even though she hadn’t yet left Scientology itself.
“Something went off in my head, and I said, ‘You know, I’m done’,” Melissa says.
She called her Swiss (maternal) grandmother, and went all the way to Switzerland by bus. From her grandmother’s house, she called her mother, who was in Florida.
“I hadn’t talked to her in years. And my father was trying to scare me into coming back. But I was done. I went to Florida and met up with my mom. I got a job, in telemarketing. I got an apartment. I met my next husband, and got pregnant with Jade,” she says.
I asked her what it was like to reunite with her mother, who Scientology had so forcefully told her to cut all ties with three years earlier.
“It was pretty amazing. It was good,” she says. “I bought my first house when I was 20. The Office of Special Affairs [Scientology’s intelligence and covert operations wing] showed up at my door. I wasn’t declared [a suppressive person] yet. They wanted information about my mom. They were watching my house.
“I told them I wasn’t a Scientologist anymore. But they told me I still had to disconnect from my mother. I said no. So they declared me. It was 2001,” she says.
Her father and brother, who are both still in Scientology, remain disconnected from both of the Paris sisters. Her father, Jean-Francois Paris, works in art in Chicago. Melissa and Valeska both tell me that their younger brother Raphael runs the human resources desk for a Scientology attorney in Los Angeles. When I asked them if it was Kendrick Moxon, they both said yes. I have sent a message to Raphael, hoping that he’ll talk to me.
“I haven’t spoken to my dad since I was 19,” she says. “My daughter Jade is now 10, and she has never seen her grandfather.”
In 2004, Melissa moved to Texas. Although her schooling in East Grinstead had stopped when she was 12 years old, she still managed to do well on entrance tests and enrolled at College of the Mainland.
She owns her own home and, she says, after she arrived in Texas, “I just kind of lived.”
And then, in 2009, the phone rang.
“I got a call from my sister,” Melissa says, still sounding like she can hardly believe it happened. Valeska had finally managed to get away from the Freewinds. “That was probably one of the best moments of my life,” Melissa says.
In 2007, Valeska had been moved to the RPF in Australia, a kind of prison detail for Scientologists. (The church insists that it’s 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.)
In the RPF, Valeska managed to meet Chris Guider, the former rugby player. After they both “graduated” from the RPF, they got married and Valeska got pregnant with their son, Declan. Pregnancies for Sea Org women are not allowed, and many former female Sea Org members talk of forced abortions being common. But Valeska and Guider were through with Scientology, and routed out.
“I always knew that my sister would get out. She was smart. My father, no. My brother, no,” Melissa says. “I figured Valeska would get pregnant and say no to an abortion, and that’s pretty much what happened.”
Looking back, she says now that she can hardly believe how conditioned she was to think a certain way because of her upbringing in the church.
“I remember watching people picketing outside Saint Hill, and thinking these people were crazy. We were so brainwashed,” she says.
She has now left Scientology, and is not interested in the independent movement of former church members who still find L. Ron Hubbard’s ideas useful.
“I’m not an indie. I think it’s all a lot of shit,” she says.
She and her sister are close again, and their mother is doing well with her own acupuncture clinic in Florida.
When I asked her for one last statement or thought, she said, “Only this, I am proud of my sister.”
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
#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.
Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin’ Scared
SCIENTOLOGY IN THE VILLAGE VOICE
[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
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]
[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]