'I feel brainwashed – a robot of Scientology'

Jenna Miscavige Hill endured a youth of child labour, family separation and bullying – and all at the hands of the religious sect led by her own uncle. Spencer McCarthy hears her story

Jenna Miscavige Hill lives a quiet life in San Diego with her husband, Dallas, and their two children, three-year-old Archie and 11-month-old Winnie. But the beginning of her life was anything but ordinary and only now, having written a book about how she lost her childhood to Scientology, is she coming to terms with growing up in a church filled with child labour, cruel punishments, family separation and bullying. Her revelations are all the more explosive as she is the niece of the movement's leader, David Miscavige.

Jenna was the third generation of Scientologists in her family and grew up on a compound in California. At the age of seven, she was admitted to the "Sea Organisation" (Sea Org) – the executive branch of Scientology's most dedicated followers. She was made to sign a billion-year contract that bound her immortal spirit (known as the "Thetan") to lifetime after lifetime of dedication to the organisation. She was also, as camp medical liaison officer, responsible for the health and well-being of her fellow trainees. "None of this struck me as odd at the time," she says. "Looking back I feel completely brainwashed. I didn't even know what I liked or what sort of person I was. I was just a robot of the church."

Jenna says that she was made to incur several hours a day of gruelling labour from the age of six until she was 12. "We wore uniforms and would be digging trench holes for irrigation and rock hauling. We would be doing 25 hours of heavy-duty labour a week. My hands were always full of blisters." Any dissent from the group could result in a bucket of ice water thrown over their heads or "pigs berthing" – spending the night on an old mattress in a dilapidated room filled with bats. Those who resisted authority were declared "suppressives" and cast out.

Jenna became isolated from the outside world. She was taught that non-Scientologists (referred to as Wogs – Well and Orderly Gentleman) were ignorant. Jenna's testimony paints a picture of mistrust and suspicion sowed among the students by the leaders, urging them to tell on each others' misdemeanours or else be considered an "accessory" and face the same punishments. Jenna explains that any violation of rules could result in offenders being sent to the Orwellian-sounding Rehabilitation Project Force. "It was like a reprogramming camp for inmates who strayed in an attempt to bring them back into line. Offenders could be sent to a segregated location in the base for at least two years."

Between the ages of 12 and 18, Jenna saw her mother only twice and father four times. Jenna's parents left the church when she was 16, though she decided to stay on. "By that time, I didn't know my parents. I thought that my life and world was always going to be the church. The idea of leaving at that time was just scary to me." Jenna stayed on. In 2001, Jenna met her husband at the Sea Org and they started dating. Marriage followed soon after and they were sent on an assignment to Australia where, against church rules, they watched TV and searched the internet. It was here that she first encountered negative comments about her uncle. Jenna also struck up a friendship with a pregnant woman, which made her start thinking about her own life. "Scientology rules stated that Sea Org executives couldn't have children. I felt like I could be really missing out. I slowly became more aware of the outside world and started to see how regular people lived."

In 2005, Jenna made the decision to leave the church. "I realised it wasn't the place I had always thought it was and I could no longer look away from its abuses." But her husband suddenly had doubts about leaving; the church was trying to persuade him to stay without her. "They had pulled Dallas aside and were telling him bad things about me and my family and convincing him to stay. They told him that if he left, he wouldn't be able to speak to his family. It all backfired on them and we got out together."

Jenna calls her uncle "evil" for the forced labour and theft of her childhood. "It's disgusting that they completely take advantage of innocent and vulnerable children," she says. She feels he doesn't follow any religious creed, but is motivated by the power and authority.

The church, referring to Jenna’s book as “revisionist history…typical of apostate behaviour”, issued a statement in response that it does “not engage in any activities that mistreat, neglect or force children to engage in manual labour.  The church follows all laws with respect to children.  Claims to the contrary are false.”  It says it always respects family units and that Jenna’s recollections are at odds with those of many of her contemporaries who are still in the church and who have published their own memories online.  The church says many of them “have gone on to enjoy successful careers and to start families”.  Jenna says they are lying.

What does she think about prominent Scientologist celebrities such as Tom Cruise who are proud and in praise of the church? "Either he doesn't know what's happening or is wilfully ignorant about it. Those inside who know what goes on have a responsibility to speak out against it."

Since leaving, Jenna has rebuilt her relationship with her parents. Jenna says she wrote the book to bring closure to the past. "I want to turn this horrible episode into something meaningful and in the process show the dark side of a church that presents itself as benign. I hope it will discourage others from joining and convince those on the inside to see it for what it is and leave."

'Beyond Belief – My Secret Life Inside Scientology and my Harrowing Escape' (William Morrow, £11.99)

What is scientology?

* The Church of Scientology was founded by L Ron Hubbard in 1954 in Los Angeles.

* "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health", one of many books written by Hubbard during a prolific writing career, established the groundwork for the new religion. "Dianetics", a word derived from Latin, means the study of knowledge.

* Scientologists believe in man's immortal soul and the application of scientific method to cure irrational sensations, unwanted thoughts and physical illness.

* Today, the Church has branches all over the world. 2,418 people declared themselves as Scientologists on the 2011 UK census.

* The Sea Organisation is the former maritime branch of Scientology, it is now a religious order comprised of the church's most devout followers.

* Scientology has repeatedly had to stave off claims of illegitimacy, as well as allegations of child labour and unwilling converts. In 2009, the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd it as "a criminal organisation that hides behind its so-called religious beliefs".

* David Miscavige currently heads the Church. According to the Scientology website: "No church executive in history ever received more direct communication from L Ron Hubbard than Mr Miscavige."

* Celebrities who are associated with Scientology include: Tom Cruise, Jason Lee, John Travolta, Priscilla Presley, Elisabeth Moss, Giovanni Ribisi, Sonny Bono and Chick Corea.

Angus West

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