High-ranking Scientologist's defection, in detail

A long (frankly, overlong) piece in the New Yorker by Lawrence Wright gives the backstory of celebrated writer/director Paul Haggis's defection from the Church of Scientology. Haggis had been a high profile member, defender and fundraiser for the Church for most of his life, but a series of disenchanting events — the Church's support for the California gay-marriage ban, public lies about the practice of ordering members to sever ties with family, revelations about child labor abuses on the maritime Sea Org — caused Haggis to publicly split with the Church.

I've casually followed scandals regarding the C of S for decades, mostly out of curiousity about the "free personality tests" I'd see as a kid, and later, because of high-profile anti-anonymity/dirty tricks involving the Internet, starting with the outing of the users of the anon.penet.fi remailer. There wasn't an enormous amount of new material in here, though Wright does a good job of spinning out Haggis's remarkable life in Scientology and in the entertainment industry, and, towards the end, some damning material about physical abuse and financial malfeasance from the Church's highest leaders.

I have three or four friends who are second-generation Scientologists, including one guy who met his wife in the Sea Org and is particularly devout. I've always found it hard to reconcile their otherwise-reasonable outlooks with some of the more immediately falsifiable claims made by the Church (for example, the claim that electric charges leave the body when bad memories are recalled, and that enough of this will eventually uncover memories from past lives). This stuff isn't potentially allegorical or a story out of the distant galactic past — rather, it's an article of faith pertaining to a regular, public ritual that makes scientific claims that are just plain wrong, like, Bill O'Reilly, Mars-doesn't-have-moons wrong. Wright's article illuminates the mindset you have to get into to believe this and still participate in rational discussion on other matters, and this is where the piece shines brightest.

But if the 26,000-word piece drags a bit (and it does), it also provides a vivid look at the way the Church rose to power and the remarkable clash between the Church's culture of secrecy and the Internet's capacity to blow open the doors.

At his house, Haggis finished telling his friends what he had learned. He suggested that they should at least examine the evidence. "I directed them to certain Web sites," he said, mentioning Exscientologykids.com, which was created by three young women who grew up in Scientology and subsequently left. Many stories on the site are from men and women who joined the Sea Org before turning eighteen. One of them was Jenna Miscavige Hill, David Miscavige's niece, who joined when she was twelve. For Hill and many others, formal education had stopped when they entered the Sea Org, leaving them especially ill-prepared, they say, for coping with life outside the church.

The stories Haggis found on the Internet of children drafted into the Sea Org appalled him. "They were ten years old, twelve years old, signing billion-year contracts–and their parents go along with this?" Haggis told me. "Scrubbing pots, manual labor–that so deeply touched me. My God, it horrified me!" The stories of the Sea Org children reminded Haggis of child slaves he had seen in Haiti.

Many Sea Org volunteers find themselves with no viable options for adulthood. If they try to leave, the church presents them with a "freeloader tab" for all the coursework and counselling they have received; the bill can amount to more than a hundred thousand dollars. Payment is required in order to leave in good standing. "Many of them actually pay it," Haggis said. "They leave, they're ashamed of what they've done, they've got no money, no job history, they're lost, they just disappear." In what seemed like a very unguarded comment, he said, "I would gladly take down the church for that one thing."

The church says that it adheres to "all child labor laws," and that minors can't sign up without parental consent; the freeloader tabs are an "ecclesiastical matter" and are not enforced through litigation.

The Apostate

(Thanks, Jack, via Submitterator!)

(Image: SCIENTOLOGY Neon Sign, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from mylifeafterdeath's photostream)