Children of Scientology: Life After Growing Up in an Alleged Cult
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Scientologists have special words for the people gathered at a sleek Airbnb townhouse on a mild day in September. They’re irrational, or “banky.” They’re putting off bad vibes, or being “downtone.” They’re full of negative energy, or “chargey,” and they won’t contain it — they won’t “get their TRs in.” But the people sprawling on the living room’s vinyl wraparound couch don’t use those words to describe themselves anymore. Growing up in Scientology, they say they were constantly told to be stoic. Now that they’ve left, they’re tired of jargon about repressing emotion. Instead, they’re looking for new words to describe themselves—new ways to express the psychological consequences of their upbringing—and they’ve traveled all the way to Brooklyn to tell their stories. They’ve already landed on one new way to think about themselves—a phrase that helps illuminate why it’s so hard for them feel things. They call themselves the Children of Scientology. Psychologists call them SGAs, or Second Generation Adults.
Christi Gordon is an SGA, meaning that she — like everyone she’s invited today — grew up immersed in Scientology before eventually cutting ties. SGAs aren’t like people who join and leave cults as adults. “Many first gens choose to leave their families,” Gordon explains, “but ours were stolen from us. Scientology hijacked our parents’ hearts, minds and time, and it hijacked our childhoods.” Gordon was never taught how to be a kid. Instead, she was expected to be what Scientologists like to call an “adult in a small body,” taking care of herself, by herself, and repressing the fear, grief and loneliness that came with that. She says the experience is like bending over your whole life, trying to avoid hitting a ceiling someone assures you is there. And once you realize there is no ceiling, you’ve already grown up crooked. Gordon believes that people transitioning out of Scientology don’t just need a home, or a job—although they often need that. They also need a support group, a community where people can put new words to real emotions and experiences. And that’s what the meetup today is all about.
As more people leave Scientology, more people like Gordon are speaking out. They call the church a cult, and claim that it uses the promise of self-improvement to control and abuse its members. They also accuse the Sea Org — an elite group of the religion’s most dedicated members — of being a front for forced labor and surveillance, and criticize the church for tearing apart families, demanding that parents disconnect from children who oppose the religion. As these accusations have snowballed, the church has held its ground, continuing to deny that the church has anything to do with forced labor and family separations. It claims that its beliefs and practices help members to “freely experience their emotions and live life to the fullest.” It calls the Children of Scientology an “anti-religious hate group,” full of people that they say have a vendetta against the church, and accuses this magazine of “pandering to anti-Scientology propaganda” by publishing the group’s claims. But for Gordon, Children of Scientology isn’t about hate, or vengeance. After a lifetime of bending over, Gordon is trying to show others — and herself — that it’s possible to unkink what’s crooked so they can finally stand up straight.
When I first meet Gordon, she looks like the opposite of crooked. She’s tall and thin, her blond hair swept up in a sensible twist. As I enter the kitchen, she’s busy arranging snacks on the kitchen table and refreshing people’s drinks. Everything about her manner exudes competence and confidence. She doesn’t look like someone whose mother left her at the Cadet Org at the age of nine, a church-run “boot camp,” as she calls it, where Gordon says she lived with dozens of other “neglected and abandoned” Scientology kids and one adult. She was stuck taking care of infant babies in the nursery and trying to avoid the parasite outbreaks that flared up in the squalid living conditions.
The church acknowledges that Gordon enrolled in the Cadet Org, but disputes the idea that it’s a boot camp. They describe the Cadet Org — which was dissolved around the turn of the Millennium — as “a facility that provided children of Sea Organization members with an excellent basic education and Scientology religious instruction.” They claim that Gordon lived in a converted Quality Inn that was regularly inspected by the county health department.
When Gordon grew up, she decided the organization wasn’t for her. She remembers walking out of the Commodore’s Messenger Org in Clearwater, Florida, after being ordered to write confessions of her crimes as part of the church’s “ethics handling.” It was the last straw for Gordon. (The church says she was not called for ethics handling in Clearwater and says that her account is fabricated.).
You might expect a person like that to be frazzled, a mess. But if anything, Gordon knows she’s too calm, too competent. In fact, for years after leaving Scientology, Gordon could barely feel at all. Growing up in the church, she says, emotions like grief or frustration were discouraged, while enthusiasm and serenity were celebrated. So Gordon stuffed away her feelings to survive.
Her experience is a common one. And, according to many of the ex-Scientologists I spoke with at Gordon’s gathering, it’s not just prevalent — it’s baked into the religion in something known as the emotional tone scale. The scale was developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who created it in order to gauge a person’s life-force energy, or theta. The current scale goes from -40, or Total Failure, to 40, Serenity of Beingness, ranking emotions from grief and anxiety to cheerfulness and enthusiasm. Emotions on the low end of the scale aren’t just discouraged — they’re signs of bad theta, which must be converted to good theta so a person can progress spiritually. According to the members I spoke with, the tone scale became the basis for punishing emotions that the church deemed negative, and Scientology’s mission became almost indistinguishable from the project of repressing “bad” emotions. The solution to coping with these bad moods wasn’t to express or acknowledge them, the Second Gens explain. The solution was to go through a series of communication drills, or Training Routines, some of which critics say are designed to leave believers in a state of hypnotic calm—and then to keep the effects of those TRs in, or contain them. The result? A generation of children who grew up numb, unable to feel or even recognize basic emotions.
The church rejects the idea that it discourages negative emotions, and claims that all of its principles and practices are designed to help people recognize their emotions in order to “become more able and more aware spiritually.”
Gordon, 52, first stepped away from Scientology 31 years ago, but it took her decades to recognize her emotions. People called her flat, superior, condescending, cold. When she fell into an abusive relationship, she had to learn to react when her boyfriend hit her, because her natural reaction — to do nothing — made him even angrier. But eventually, her emotions started leaking out. She’d cry during Hallmark commercials, or during movies, and rush out of the theater, ashamed. She felt like an alien amongst enemies, afraid to reveal her true self. She wanted to heal, but she had no idea who she was. Where did Scientology end and her real self begin?
Eventually, she realized she couldn’t do it on her own, but she couldn’t do it with just anybody, either. Over the course of several years, she got in touch with a few Second Gen ex-Scientology friends and eventually proposed a radical idea: getting together. She called the group Children of Scientology, and she envisioned it as a place where SGAs could come and get support, building an ad hoc family where they could learn to feel, think and survive in safety.
The retreat in Brooklyn is the fourth and largest of Gordon’s Second Gen meet-ups. Fifteen people have RSVP’d for today’s get-together, with the plan to share stories and chart the future of the group. They also want to share their stories with a larger audience, and they’re working on a Children of Scientology website where Second Gens can describe their experiences and connect with other ex-Scientologists who’ve gone through similar things. The week of, they tell me, they still had no idea who would actually show up, and when I get there at noon, the group hasn’t gathered yet. “Can you come back in an hour?” Tristan Silverman, one of the event organizers, texts me. “People were up late last night.” But the real issue is that many of them were part of the Sea Org, and they aren’t interested in anyone telling them when or where to do something ever again. So Gordon and Silverman are playing it loose. When I get back to the house an hour later, people are drinking Chardonnay and smoking obsessively outside. “Technically, I stopped,” says a woman we’ll call Susan, the facilitator for the day, who asks me not to use her real name in order to protect her family members who are still inside the church. “But on a weekend like this?”
In one corner a middle-aged man wearing a shirt that says “Ideas Are Bulletproof” is talking loudly with another middle-aged man about his YouTube channel on cults. In the kitchen, a man with orange ringlets and a maroon suit is introduced to me as Hubbard’s great-grandson, Jamie DeWolf. DeWolf didn’t grow up in Scientology, and spends much of his time directing films, writing and performing spoken-word poetry. But he recognizes the long shadow Scientology cast on his own family, and the damage it’s done to others. “I’d love nothing more than to see Scientology end in my lifetime,” he says. Silverman — wearing a leather wallet holster, her hair cut short — is in the corner, giving everyone in arm’s reach a generous pour of wine. “We need this today,” she says to no one in particular, and tosses some back.
Finally, Susan gathers the group, being careful to not herd too hard. As soon as she starts speaking, a man starts moving toward the door. “I’m actually gonna sit this one out,” he says, meaning the rest of the day. “These sharing things just aren’t my style.” Susan nods, and he disappears out the door. She gets it, after all. Nobody here would say sharing is their style. But they’re here anyway, trying to learn how. So she starts them off easy. “Let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves,” she says, and they begin.
The first few people follow the prompt, but then someone breaks down. A man in his 30s with a shaved head tells the group that his wife’s Scientologist parents refuse to see their children. Every few months, he says, he drops off photos in his in-laws’ mailbox. But he never hears back. A thin blond woman next to him nods. Her family was recruited into Scientology from Russia when she was little. On her own since she was 11, she’s been out for several years and is happily married, but things haven’t gotten easier. She had a stillbirth, and is raising a child with autism. “All the other moms are always telling me how proactive I am. But that’s just a coping mechanism. I’m just making it go right,” she says, using the Scientology phrase for taking charge of a bad situation. “I haven’t even grieved.” She’s trying to do that now, with the help of a therapist, but it’s hard. “As a Second Gen, it’s different than someone who joins later,” she says. “They have an identity to go back to. We’re trying to discover our identity in a vacuum.”
Dr. Cyndi Matthews, a cult expert and therapist, says SGAs from cults —what psychologists refer to as “high-demand groups” — often face these sorts of challenges. People who join and leave as adults have the luxury of connecting with their past selves, she says. “For them, it’s about reconnecting, rediscovering, re-everything. But SGAs don’t have that. Their identity is the cult.” And, since Second Gens’parents often choose the cult over them — during their childhoods and when they leave — they often develop severe attachment issues, fearing that everyone in their lives will hurt or leave them. This makes it harder to make friends, which makes it harder to transition out.
At the retreat, the intros are still going. DeWolf apologizes for what his family has done to everyone else. “My family owes other families,” he says, then commits to using his video-editing skills to help people share their stories on the Children of Scientology website. A woman reads an excerpt from a book about how adverse childhood experiences can lead to heart attacks, autoimmune disease, and early death. ‘Ideas Are Bulletproof’ guy introduces himself as Chris Shelton, a YouTube host and ex-Sea Org member who now spends his life examining the claims of Scientology and other cults. “I’m trying to teach a bit of critical thinking,” he says, but when the group razzes him he confesses. “OK, OK, I did used to believe in the prison planet,” he says, referring to Scientology’s origin story that an intergalactic leader, Xenu, exiled billions of his subjects to Earth (or Teegeeack) 75 million years ago. For a minute, people go down the rabbit hole of Scientology dogma. There is a brief but passionate discussion about whether being reincarnated into a cat’s body would be a promotion or demotion.
Then David Anthony brings them back. A Brooklynite, he’s come with a small stack of memorabilia. There’s a black-and-white picture that shows him walking on a beach with his mother, the Sea Org ship Apollo hulking in the background. There’s a typed letter that, he explains, is from Hubbard himself, asking an 11-year-old Anthony for his help with a vague but very important project. “I don’t know many of you,” he says to the group, “but I know about what you experienced, and you know what I experienced, so we know each other. The group is great because there are so few of us out there.” He starts to cry, and Gordon gives him a hug. “We get to have emotions now,” Anthony says. “And they’re really fucking important. It’s taken a while.”
Then it’s Nathan Rich’s turn. Serious, quiet and lanky, he’s spent the past hour staring at the ground. When he finally speaks, he tells us that he was first shipped off to the Mace-Kingsley Ranch — a now-defunct, church-affiliated organization for children run by two prominent Scientologists, which he describes as a reform camp — when he was eight, where he says they paddled him for disobedience. (Leah Remini has covered alleged abuses at Mace-Kingsley on her show, Scientology and the Aftermath, and Janet Reitman has described the camp’s culture of hard labor in Rolling Stone. However, the church claims that it was not in charge of ranch operations and has “no knowledge” of the disciplinary practices there. Ranch co-founder Carol Kingsley disagrees with the idea that the ranch was a reform camp. In an email responding to the allegations, Kingsley said the ranch was a school designed to help at-risk teens, and did not condone corporal punishment. She calls Rich’s allegations a “reflection of his personal unhappiness” and a “desire to attack those who tried to help him.”)
Though drug use at the ranch was prohibited, Rich says that’s where he got into drugs. After a brief attempt to straighten out — a Scientology job, Scientology girlfriend, and Scientology school in his spare time — he left home and lived on the streets, using and dealing drugs. At one point, early on, he called his mom, asking for forgiveness. He says she gave him a number to call to re-enter the church and told him not to call her again. It took Rich years of addiction and homelessness before he finally got sober and off the street. He’s been out of Scientology for nearly 20 years now, and though he was interviewed on Leah Remini’s show, this is the first time in decades he’s talked to people like him in an intimate setting.
Rich currently lives in China, and he’s traveled halfway across the globe to be here. Like so many others in the room, Rich wants a place where he can process what happened to him in Scientology, among people who understand him. And he knows firsthand how hard it is to learn to feel after a lifetime of emotional stoicism. He tells the group about the first time he cried as an adult. It was late at night, he says, and he was watching It’s a Wonderful Life. “I didn’t even know I could do that anymore,” he says. But it gave him hope for the future.
Susan is nodding along with Rich’s story. “You were dealing LSD?” she says. “I probably got my drugs from you.” She says took MDMA for years because it was the only time she felt connected to other people. When she finally went to therapy, she spent the first few days crying, and the first few years figuring out what a feeling was. “It was like flashcards,” she says. “What is this feeling? Is this anger?”
Everyone is sharing their stories now, and the more people talk about Scientology, the more they talk in Scientologese, sentences stuffed with acronyms and corporate-sounding inspirational phrases. However much they might dislike Scientology, its jargon is their native tongue. Some even say it’s a relief to talk without code-switching, or worrying that they’re talking gibberish. There’s a reason why the language is so central to the belief system, and so hard to shake. According to psychiatrist and thought-reform expert Robert Jay Lifton, new lexicons are common in cults — and often essential. He calls the practice “loading the language,” and includes it as one of eight core features of high-demand groups. When the group breaks to smoke, I ask Shelton for a second opinion. Forget the question of emotional repression for a second. If there are words for these feelings already, why not use them? “It makes us feel special and unique,” he jokes. “If we used regular English words, then anyone could do this!” But he agrees with Lifton’s idea of cult idioms as thought-terminating cliches. “It gets people thinking in the cult leader’s system,” he says. “It literally makes it harder to think outside the box.”
Dr. Matthews agrees, pointing out that many high-demand groups have jargon around emotional repression. Some fundamentalist Christian cults use the phrase “keep sweet,” she says, meaning “stop whining, stop complaining.” She adds, “Jargon like that rewires the brain.”
Silverman thinks a lot about the power of words — especially after Gordon recruited her to gather people’s stories for Children of Scientology’s new website. It’s now Silverman’s job to help people unearth years of silenced stories and emotions, with the hope that this will help them and also help others who are struggling outside of Scientology. Luckily, putting words to things is something that Silverman knows a lot about. She was born into Scientology, and writing was her one refuge, even before she could read. “I would spend hours at a desk just tracing letters I didn’t even understand from the book to a page,” Silverman says. “It was like a secret treasure map that you’d unlock it and get all this info.”
And Silverman needed that map. As a kid, she struggled with mental health, and often had periods where she’d dissociate, leaving her brain and come back minutes or hours later, having partially or completely forgotten what had happened. She just knew that people thought she was bad, and she worried they were right. Scientology didn’t help. Whenever she got sad, or “griefy,” she followed church protocol and did Training Routines. According to the church, the exercises are “drills” to improve communication skills. In one, Silverman explains, two people are supposed to face each other for hours without moving or reacting. In another, she says, a person attempts to sit, calmly, while their partner yells things at them to make them react. According to Silverman, their purpose isn’t to create calm auditors or clear communicators. The goal of some TRs is to “exteriorize,” to have the soul leave the body and watch it from the outside. “And what is that?” she asks. “That’s dissociation. That’s building the muscle to dissociate at will.” Silverman knows that she would have had mental-health issues regardless of her upbringing, but she also believes that a good doctor would have helped. Since Scientology is opposed to psychiatry — viewing it as a cover for “human-rights abuses,” and “an elaborate and deadly hoax,” according to a representative for the church — Silverman never got that good doctor. She now suffers with diagnosed D.I.D., or dissociative identity disorder, and says that when she comes back from an episode she is sometimes sitting up straight, hands on knees, in the TR position.
When Silverman tries to understand her life, there are huge holes missing. She compares herself to Claire Danes on Homeland, with her wall of clues and connected dots. “A lot of my life I’ve been collecting pieces of information [about what happened to me],” she says. “But I don’t know how to connect the dots.” Honestly, she tells me, she doesn’t know if she ever will.
In the meantime, she’s trying make it, and she’s trying to help others make it, as well. That’s why she convinced her old ex-Scientology friend, who we’ll call Abigail, to come to the retreat. (Abigail’s name has been changed because she fears that talking openly about her opinions could harm her relationships with family and friends, and trigger backlash from the church.) At the retreat, Abigail jokes that she’s been involved in wacky religious ceremonies since she was in utero, when a man blessed her mom’s womb with a peacock feather. But an early life as hippie seekers was not exactly on the Scientology track. A pair of leftist activists, Abigail’s parents met protesting Vietnam, and Abigail remembers putting up campaign posters for a progressive city mayor when she was barely seven. When her mom got into Scientology through a business consultant she hired, though, she went all the way. And for Abigail, everything changed.
Abigail’s been out of Scientology for 11 years now, but has stayed neutral to protect her mom, who’s still inside. But in the fall of 2019, she is starting a master’s in liberal studies looking at the cultural, economic and social institutions that led to Scientology, and she feels like it’s time to face her intense past. No casual believer, 37-year-old Abigail spent seven years in the Sea Org, rising through the ranks until she was traveling the world, promoting Hubbard’s ideas.
But when she started to doubt — inspired, she says, by a lunch with some skeptical D.C. nonprofits, a clash with Scientology authorities, and a late-night philosophy conversation with a street-corner pimp — she doubted hard. “I had never thought, ‘Do I want to leave?’” she says. “The words just fell out of my mouth.” At one of Scientology’s international management offices in L.A., she began to cry. “I’m done, I’m done,” she said to her boss. But she wasn’t. As part of the process of leaving, Abigail had to do six months of hard labor in the Sea Org “galley,” Scientology’s naval-inspired euphemism for the worst work assignments. She says her old friends would pass her in the hallways, but now they looked past and through her, or averted their eyes altogether. (The church claims that a Sea Org member can leave at any time, and denies that hard labor is part of the leaving process.)
Abigail’s fall from Scientology was long and difficult. When she got a job at her mom’s secular healthcare company, she used Hubbard’s business principles to whip the employees into shape, banning water-cooler chat, instating a uniform policy and riding people to keep their productivity “stats” up. Unsurprisingly, she made few friends, and her efforts didn’t work. In her relationships, things weren’t much better. Believing the Scientology notion that all miscommunication is based on some sort of transgression, she’d try to resolve fights by getting boyfriends to confess their sins to her. Meanwhile, Abigail was beginning to wonder if Scientology had a handle on how to live in the first place. “All of a sudden I was like, ‘Why the fuck can’t I feel any emotions?’” she says. “Why am I so shut down?” On a bus, six months after she left, the big questions hit her. “Am I a fucking eternal spiritual being that’s going to be reincarnated again and again or am I just a bunch of cells?” she said. She’d thought she’d have a million lives. Now she was scared she’d only have one.
Abigail has tried to fill the void left by Scientology, but it hasn’t been easy. She’s been exploring her Jewish ancestry, but was freaked out when, on a Birthright trip to Israel, she saw orthodox men shielding their eyes from her. It reminded her of being on the decks at the Sea Org. As a progressive, she’s gotten in arguments with other Jews about Israel and Palestine, and she chafes against language about sin, or the idea of an angry God. Despite all that, though, she longs to find a belief system she can put her faith in, and a group where she can belong. She never practiced Judaism growing up, but her mother’s Jewish and so according to tradition, she’s Jewish, too — at least by blood. And for Abigail, that’s something to hold onto. It’s one of the few things that she was before she was a Scientologist — in spite of being Scientologist. It’s a way to connect to a past, a family and a meaning beyond herself. And so she keeps trying, cobbling together a self-styled faith that rejects dogmatism, guilt and authority and embraces ritual and compassion. She doesn’t know what she’s doing, she tells me. All she knows is that she feels a kinship with other Jewish people — as if her body remembers some other way of being and belonging and is giving her clues.
It’s the second night of the retreat, and everyone who’s still up is gathered around Nathan Rich , the lanky ex-addict, at the kitchen table. He’s in his chair, his fingers pressed into his eyeballs, breathing hard. Moments before, while another group member was telling a story about reconnecting with their mom after years of separation, Rich had crumpled like a worn-out doll, putting his head on the table until Gordon noticed. When she comes to him, he chokes it out. “I will never have that with my mom, ever,” he says. The last time he talked to his mom, he wrote her a letter saying he hated her. Now, he wants to tell her that he understands her more, that he’s ready to make peace. But he can’t. She died in 2010. Gordon cries with him. Silverman is there, too. She hasn’t spoken to her mom in a decade.
No one knows quite what to do, or how to comfort him. They can’t exactly tell him he’s wrong. So they hug him. They suggest talking to a therapist. At this, Rich rears up. “Why?” he says, his face once again an impassive mask. “Tell me why, after everything that has happened to me, I should trust anyone else?” The group talks until past midnight, trying to answer his question. When they’re done, he’s still not convinced. “I just don’t know why I’d do it,” he says to me as I am tying my shoes at the door. “How could it be worth the cost?”
Earlier that evening, Abigail went into the bathroom and wrapped her head in a scarf and grabbed a couple of crackers from the kitchen. Then she slid out the front door, not wanting to attract attention. She’d recently read up on Rosh Hashanah, and discovered a Jewish new year’s ritual: throwing bread into running water to renounce transgression. But Abigail didn’t like the idea of transgression. It felt too much like Scientology. So she decided to do the ritual her way. She decided to walk to the Brooklyn Bridge and drop some crackers in the water, not as a symbol of sin but a metaphor for anything that comes between her and God. The crackers would stand for letting go.
She walked out into the night, into the drizzle and wind and fog of a stormy Brooklyn evening. She headed toward the bridge, half expecting to see a train of other Jews when she got there. No one was there, but it helped to know that there were others, around the city, participating in the ritual. When she got to the bridge, she didn’t know what to do. So she stood for a moment, then got on her knees and dropped her crackers through the slats, watching them hit the water below. When she looked up, she saw the Statue of Liberty looming up out of the mist, and was surprised to find herself moved. She thought of her Jewish ancestors fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe, sailing into this harbor to see the same statue as she sees now. She thought of her mother, still in Scientology, and all the long years it’s taken to get to the bridge where she is standing now. Then she turned around and walked back to the group.
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