As Scientologists, we believed that when our current body died, the spirit inside it would begin a new life in a new body. Our founder, L. Ron Hubbard, said that, as spirits, we had lived millions of years already, and we would continue to do so with or without bodies.
…If I wanted to be with my parents and friends for the next billion years, the obvious thing to do was to sign my name.
That’s how Jenna Miscagive Hill, niece of Scientology’s current leader David Miscagive, decided to sign her name to the infamous billion-year contract required of Sea Org members (the elite clergy of the cultlike organization). She was eight years old.
She had already been taken away from her parents, who were also in the Sea Org, to be raised with the children of other members at the “Ranch,” a kind of school-slash-camp. She eventually left Scientology with her husband, a fellow member, in 2005, after they were finally exposed to TV and the internet while on a mission trip to Australia. She’d found criticisms of Scientology online that sealed the deal, but had already dipped into some critical thinking on certain concepts, like around the Thetan, or soul, on her own (thinking about it was already verboten, obviously).
Beyond Belief is a detailed account of her life and especially her childhood in Scientology, ultimately arriving at this extremely difficult decision to leave the group. Her own situation was even more complicated than that of other members who have left, given that she’s Miscavige’s niece, and her leaving would certainly reflect badly on the Church.
Jenna’s story is undeniably fascinating, and a major, if absolutely batshit, highlight here was her explanation of various Scientology principles and behaviors. She devotes considerable time to detailing how things worked, which is crazy enough but coupled with shock as she was “working” as a medical assistant at the Ranch as a small child. She observes, “Looking back on this time, it’s difficult even for me to understand how a seven-year-old child could be entrusted to do a job like this.” Sometimes she was giving actual physical care, other times applying Scientology’s kooky solutions for medical problems:
The assists were based on Scientological principles that the Thetan controlled the mind and the body. There were some procedures, like asking a kid to explain his bad dream over and over again, that were supposed to help him get rid of its hold on him. There was also the belief that people got colds because of a loss, so I would ask, “Tell me something you haven’t lost lately?” as a part of the cold assist, reminding them of things they still had.
The first part of the book, detailing her time on the Ranch, felt somewhat different than the latter part. It’s better written, more thoughtful and descriptive, with fewer mindless filler sentences. It’s chilling and evocative to consider what her childhood was like and she makes that strongly felt. It was barely a childhood at all, she acknowledges being “robbed” of hers.
As she moves through her life and her development as a Scientologist, she shows more of what the group’s beliefs are and it’s pretty astonishing stuff. Like this one: “Because LRH believed that the misunderstood word was at the root of all stupidity and wrongdoing, he wanted to be sure that the meanings of even the smallest and most common words were clarified.” So they spent hours of study time looking up words in the dictionary. It would be funny if they weren’t so scary-serious. You often don’t know whether to laugh or be afraid.
We’d stand there for hours, next to our twin, packed into a room full of other twins, each pair doing a different part of the course. Some would be barking orders to go to the wall, while others sat silently, as they stared deeply into each other’s eyes. In another part of the room, someone would be yelling insults as part of a Bullbait session, at the same time that someone a few feet away was screaming instructions to an ashtray.
It’s weirder than I imagined, and I think we all knew it’s very weird already.
When her parents left Scientology first and were labeled SPs, she had to take a PTS/SP course: “The victim of the SP was the PTS, the Potential Trouble Source, because in the presence of an SP, the PTS would undoubtedly mess up, get sick, have problems, lose something, and basically have a hard time in life.”
I love the words “Potential Trouble Source”. I’ve been borrowing that term and mentally applying it to things like work emails that I can tell are going to be potential trouble sources disrupting my day. I’m misapplying that term and refusing to look it up in the dictionary, just like L. Ron would’ve hated!
If, like me, you’re interested in stories of women who leave religions or cults, or if you want a closer look at Scientology’s concepts, this is worthwhile. It needed another round of editing though, and it’s hard to believe it had a professional co-author as it’s a disorganized, scattered mess in parts. The second half reads diary-like; thoughts aren’t always expressed as clearly and cohesively as at the beginning. Perhaps this had to do with perspective, or having to be more careful legally with this content, I’m not sure. It’s generally compelling but the structure and writing aren’t strong.
Plus I’ve never found so many errors in a finished book from a major publisher. Some typos or omissions were so significant that the sentence couldn’t actually be understood. Every book deserves a good copy editor, I can’t stress that enough.
Complaints aside, this is the dishiest book I’ve read on Scientology. Leah Remini’s Troublemaker focused a bit much on her acting career for my tastes, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely was great (and terrifying) but covered more of the group’s menacing “Fair Game” policy; and although Going Clear is my favorite on Scientology by far, it’s more about L. Ron Hubbard and the cult’s evolution over the years, whereas Jenna pulls the curtain back and really shows what living within the Scientology compounds — and confines — is like.
It was remarkably brave of her to tell her story, and to reveal so much at great personal risk. Her life hasn’t been easy, but her choices are impressive and commendable.
My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape
by Jenna Miscavige Hill with Lisa Pulitzer
published February 2013 by Harper Collins