Harper Collins, 2013, 402 pages
Jenna Miscavige Hill, niece of Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige, was raised as a Scientologist but left the controversial religion in 2005. In Beyond Belief, she shares her true story of life inside the upper ranks of the sect, details her experiences as a member Sea Org - the church's highest ministry - speaks of her "disconnection" from family outside of the organization, and tells the story of her ultimate escape.
In this tell-all memoir, Jenna Miscavige Hill, a prominent critic of Scientology who now helps others leave the organization, offers an insider's profile of the beliefs, rituals, and secrets of the religion that has captured the fascination of millions, including some of Hollywood's brightest stars such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Scientology is so perversely fascinating, it's like a mixture of horror and science fiction, but it's real. Well, real in the sense that these beliefs exist, not in the sense that Xenu or Thetans are real.
Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion was a very good and informative book, written by an investigative journalist who took as even-handed an approach as possible, and still came to the inevitable conclusion that Scientology is dangerous bullshit.
And yet, as easy as it is to mock their beliefs, their crappy sci-fi author founder, and their jargon and acronyms that makes a Scientology pamphlet read like some sort of alien pidgin English, it is a religion that apparently still has adherents, and not just the brainwashed, indoctrinated masses still deep within the church, but exiles who have left the organization but still believe in "the tech."
Which makes Scientology, in that sense, as much a religion as any other.
Being raised Christian myself, I drifted into agnosticism and then atheism long ago, but stepping into a church (which I do on occasion, usually to make my mother happy on Christmas Eve) still has a sense of familiarity to me, and if it weren't for my rational mind preventing me from actually being able to believe in supernatural cosmologies, I'd probably find it very easy to resume attending services. Churches aren't just a set of doctrines; they are also social environments and lifestyles. And particularly if you've been brought up in one, it is natural and normal to you.
Jenna Miscavige Hill's memoir is not completely unlike accounts I've heard from other religious outcasts who feel hurt and betrayed by the people and organization they once placed their faith in, but still deeply want to believe its tenets, even if they no longer do.
I should read this.
As Janet Reitman's book explained, the modern media age, particularly the easy dissemination of information on the Internet (which has resulted in all of Scientology's "secret" teachings being available online no matter how hard the church tried to prevent it) has made it harder for the church to recruit and keep people. Ex-Scientologists are easily able to tell their stories and connect with others, and anyone can go to Operation Clambake and read about Galactic Overlord Xenu and how humans are descended from clams — stuff Scientologists aren't supposed to hear about until they're pretty deep into the cult, for obvious reasons.
The result is that Scientology has been dwindling to a cadre of mostly born-and-raised Scientologists, members who have been in the church their entire lives and don't know anything else. The church does its best to isolate and shield its members from the outside world, except to the degree necessary to send them out and recruit new members and fund-raise, which makes it difficult for people like Jenna Miscavige to cope when they start having questions or wanting to interact with a world they've been told is full of hostile and ignorant people who are out to get them.
Hill (her married name) is the niece of David Miscavige, who took over Scientology after L. Ron Hubbard "went to a new body." Her parents and grandparents were Scientologists, and she was raised in the church, given only a minimal education (what the law requires), and until her teens, had barely an inkling of what non-Scientologists thought about anything. Being the head honcho's niece was more a burden than a blessing, though she didn't realize it until much later. She was able to get away with a great deal of disobedience and rebellion and not punished as severely as other Scientologists might have been, but on the other hand, her every action was scrutinized and she was often punished for minor infractions or sent into various disciplinary programs whenever she exhibited less than perfect behavior, all because it would look bad for David Miscavige's niece to be a "bad" Scientologist.
Her account of growing up in Scientology reads like a sort of parallel universe, in which she is a fairly normal kid with fairly normal complaints (she's often a bit whiny and easily becomes hysterical), except she's living in this cult that operates like the intelligence agency of a police state, complete with networks of informers, systematically trying to replace loyalty to friends and family with loyalty to the church, public confessions, private interrogations, gulags, and petty bureaucratic indignities inflicted by anyone who gets even a little bit of power.
What slowly drives her out of the church are the years of separation she endures from her parents (between the ages of 12 and 16, she only sees her parents about four times), the church's repeated attempts to separate her from her boyfriend (successfully) and then her second boyfriend (whom they almost succeed in turning against her even after they become married), and her unwillingness to value the church above her friends and family.
The church she grew up in, as she points out, is very different from the one shown to Hollywood stars, who are certainly not shut in a room to be screamed at for hours or made to work seven days a week without breaks for the good of the church. While she speculates how much rich and famous Scientologists may be aware of what life is like for the peons who basically exist to support them and make them feel good at Scientology's famous "celebrity centers" (L. Ron Hubbard made a point of targeting celebrities for recruitment), you won't learn much about that side of Scientology in her memoir.
Jenna Miscavige Hill herself is... not that interesting. She seems a nice enough person, and I felt very sorry for her lost childhood. But outside of Scientology, she would surely have been just a normal teenager growing up in middle-class suburbia. Her story is interesting not because of anything she did, but because she's seen the beast from the inside and then left, and was willing to write about it.
Verdict: Beyond Belief is an interesting inside look at a cult that still manages to exist, largely funded by rich celebrities like Tom Cruise. Jenna Miscavige Hill's story is not really very compelling beyond that inside look, but I'm glad she was able to tell it. For a more in-depth look at Scientology, I recommend Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion. 7/10.
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