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Why I fled Scientology

Title: Why I fled Scientology
Date: Thursday, 1 September 2005
Publisher: Glamour
Main source:
Alternate and/or complementary: link (24 KiB)

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Tom cruise calls his religion "extraordinary," but 26-year-old Astra Woodcraft, who grew up in the Church's inner circle, has a different story to tell — about bizarre beliefs, pressured rules and how she finally broke tree to start her life over.

On a chilly February evening in 1998, I strode quietly through Los Angeles International Airport, clutching a Virgin Atlantic ticket for London in one hand and a duffel bag stuffed with my clothes in the other. I was drenched, having splashed across the parking lot in the rain, and frightened. I scanned every face, hoping I wouldn't see anyone I recognized, and looked over my shoulder every few steps. As I got near the security line, I thought with relief: I've made it. Then I heard a familiar voice call, "Astra!" My heart stopped. It was my older brother, Matt, and another man I knew; like me, they were both members of the Sea Org, the religious order and management corps of the Church of Scientology. I assumed they were there for only one reason: to keep me from running away.

I ducked into the ladies' room and locked myself in a stall. Matt barged into the bathroom, stood on the toilet of an adjacent stall and peered down at me. "Astra," he said. "You need to come out. I have Mom on the phone." Mom, too, was a member of the Sea Org. Guilt flooded me, because I remembered my own experiences in the Sea Org — the times I'd been sent to the airport to track down defectors, and how I'd been punished if they weren't found. I didn't want Matt to get in trouble, but I wasn't going back.

My escape plan had unfolded early the previous day on one of my rare mornings off from my work. I woke up feeling nauseated and terrified. My husband and fellow Sea Org (or SO) member, Jason Merrill, and I, both worked at Scientology's Los Angeles Offices, and we lived nearby in an apartment complex for married SO members. After Jason had dressed and left for his Job, I quietly threw my clothes into a laundry bag and acted as if I were going to the Laundromat. Instead, I drove to my father's house a few miles away. Dad, who was divorced from Mom, had once been an active Scientologist but had gradually grown disenchanted with the religion. He'd be my safe haven for the night. I knew I could appear at his house and borrow $100 for my trip — and he wouldn't tell anyone I'd been there.

But I didn't share with Dad my biggest secret: I was pregnant. If my Supervisors found out, I felt sure they'd discourage me from having the baby; I'd heard that SO members were pressured not to have children because caring for kids takes time and attention away from their mission, which is to spread Scientology around the world. [For the Church's response to Woodcraft's Claims, see the box on page 288.]

Matt finally left the ladies' room; he probably feared the airport cops would get a call about a man lurking in the restroom. I waited a few minutes, ran to the gate and boarded the plane. As we lifted off, I was sobbing at the sheer emotion of having cut myself off in one fell swoop from my husband, mother and brother — and a group to which I'd pledged eternal loyalty. Ten hours later I landed in London, where my aunt and uncle lived. I still believed in Scientology and thought that I was the one who'd failed the church. Only when I had time to reflect on my last 13 years did I understand what a strange and scary world I'd been living in.

What's Katie going through?

If you've heard about Scientology lately, it's probably because of all the attention focused on outspoken Scientologist Tom Cruise and his fiancée, Katie Holmes. News reports say Katie, who was raised a Catholic, is taking classes in this self-help movement founded in 1954 by the late science fiction novelist L. Ron Hubbard, and she may even be converting. But whatever her link to Scientology, it's unlikely Katie will go through any of the traumas I suffered.

First of all, she's a movie star, and I know from the time I spent helping at Scientology's Celebrity Centre International — where high-profile members get instruction in the religion — that famous people get special treatment and aren't pressured to take as many classes as regular members are.

And she certainly won't be subjected to the stifling regimentation I endured as a member of the Sea Org. Instead, if she officially joins, her experience will resemble that of the so-called "public" Scientologists, ordinary members who live at home and work regular Jobs. To be an active public Scientologist, you pay to get "audited" until you are "clear," meaning free of negative influences that can limit your potential. (Auditing sessions usually consist of a trained Scientologist asking questions about incidents in your past that make you uncomfortable. Over time, the questions are repeated until your discomfort with those moments seems to disappear.) With more and more auditing and more advanced class-es, you proceed up the levels of Scientology, the highest levels being reached only after you're "clear."

Still, all of this takes lots of money and lots of belief. A new recruit learns that if something bad happens to her, even an accident, ifs because she "pulled it in." If her family and friends don't like her adopted religion, she might be labeled a PTS — Potential Trouble Source — a person who can have a bad effect on herself and those around her. (I was called a PTS when my dad left the Sea Org.) If she has gay friends, she may start to view them differently. Although nothing in Scientology's text says, "Gays are bad," Hubbard wrote in Dianetics that the definition of the sexual pervert" includes homosexuals. Scientology instills a way of thinking and talking that took me a lifetime to learn; I'm still trying to get over it.

Growing up in the Sea Org

When I think of the first seven years of my life — in England, where both of my parents grew up — the following words come to mind: happy. Ordinary. Peaceful. My mom, Leslie Woodcraft, was a public Scientologist — and a loving parent who taught me and my five-years-younger sister, Zoe, to read. The first day I walked to school by myself, in first grade, I turned every few feet and watched her standing in front of the house, nodding proudly.

But then Mom moved us all — my dad, grandmother, Matt, Zoe and me — to Clearwater, Florida, one of the main centers of Scientology. (The church also has a huge presence in Los Angeles.) There she and Matt, then 13, became members of the Sea Org, which involved signing contracts dedicating themselves to Scientology for a billion years. (Scientologists believe that humans are Spiritual beings, or "thetans," that exist forever.)

After our cozy existence in England, life among the Scientologists in Florida seemed sterile and confining. I lived in the Cadet Org, a barracks-style dorm for Sea Org kids, and I went to public school for second and third grades. When I wasn't in school, I was working — cleaning and doing other menial around the Scientology Offices.

My dad became a Sea Org member too, but never developed passion for it that my mother had. Because he was an architect, he was sent away to do renovations on the Scientology-owned ship served as a kind of mobile base of operations for the Church. I saw my mother only about twice a week, and when I did, she asked me not to call her Mom in front of others. Because Scientologists put more importance on titles than on gender, everyone addressed her as "Sir" and "Mister Woodcraft." To console myself for not having my mother, I made up a little chant. "I wish I was back in England, I wish I was back in England," I'd say to myself over and over.

When I was nine, Mom got transferred to Los Angeles, and the rest of the family came along. There, I barely had a chance to meet non-Scientology kids. I was placed in a Cadet Org school and didn't get the lessons in literature and history that most kids get in school, just the three R's and Scientology. I felt I was learning nothing, so I talked Dad into enrolling me in a different school — at Mom's insistence, also a Scientology-run place. I didn't learn much there, either. As the years went by, my Dad grew increasingly dissatisfied with the way our lives were going; when I was 12, he separated from my mother and became a mere public Scientologist.

Around this time, a bunch of us Sea Org kids turned rebellious — hanging out on the boulevards, smoking, panhandling. But as much as I wanted to be in the outside world, I also feared it. I'd look longingly at the public-school kids walking to class — and then quickly remind myself of what I'd been told: that the students in public schools are medicated with psychiatric drugs. (Scientologists teach that psychiatry is a destructive force in the world — as anyone saw Tom Cruise denounce Brooke Shields' experience with post-partum depression on the Today show can attest.)

Somewhere inside my 14-year-old self, a battle was raging. One force was calling me, urging me to think for myself and be my own person — and I longed to follow. But there was another, even greater force, the pull of the familiar, and with a heavy heart, I took the path of least resistance. I'd been recruited for the Sea Org — entry is not automatic, even for the offspring of members — and I gave in. After all, like every child, I wanted to please my mother. I knew it was a big mistake, but I did it anyway. I was about to go from being a helpless teenager to someone who enjoyed wielding power over others.

Becoming the enforcer

New Sea Org members go through a boot camp called the Estates Project Force. There, from early morning till late at night, days a week, I learned Sea Org policy, ran (not walked) around doing chores such as cleaning toilets and polishing boots, and marched and drilled. I signed my billion-year contract and put on my military-style uniform. I'd be a Sea Org member for eternity.

In the Sea Org, most premarital sexual contact is discouraged, and lots of Sea Org members marry young. I was no exception. In December 1993, one month after my fifteenth birthday, I became the bride of another SO member, 22-year-old Jason Merrill, whom I'd been dating for only a few months and found charming and cute. There was no special Scientology ceremony — just a quickie wedding at a Las Vegas chapel and a one-night honeymoon in a hotel. After living for a month with Jason's parents, we moved into a Los Angeles apartment, which we shared with three other Sea Org couples.

Almost immediately I went to work in the Sea Org's security department. My tasks were not ones you'd expect of a 15-year-old girl. For example, since masturbation is frowned upon in the Sea Org, one of my first assignments was to sit down with a 40-year-old man and talk him out of his masturbation habit. A friend of mine, Ann Marie Woodward, who spent 16 years in the Sea Org and left — or "blew" — three years ago, says she saw underage female SO members counsel older men on their sexual habits "at least 10 times." (A Church of Scientology official denies that teenage girls perform this task and that masturbation is not permitted.)

Being a sex counselor was troubling, but the strangest role for me was that of bully: I was told to make sure that hundreds of Sea Org members performed their jobs up to par — and to do so by yelling and intimidating them. I carried a metal-tipped baton under my arm; if someone did something wrong, I was to slam it on his or her desk. In one sense it was horrible, but I also enjoyed being angry: In my regimented world, it was the only way I could get my aggression out.

Night and day, all I knew was the Sea Org. And then… a blissful respite. My dad had remarried, and he invited me to visit him and his new wife at their house in L.A. I had to sneak away to do it, but the minute I walked through his front door, I felt the relaxation that had eluded me for so long. For two hours we talked and laughed and never mentioned Scientology. We watched TV (nixed for SO members), played with their kitten (pets were also verboten) and ate a wonderful brunch. Those two hours were like oxygen, and when I had to go back to my Sea Org apartment, I felt as if I'd been deprived of my very breath.

When I was 17 things got stricter for those of us in the Sea Org, for reasons they never told us. Our incoming calls were screened, and I needed special permission just to visit my father at Christmas. (By this point my mom, along with my sister, Zoe, had been transferred to Florida.) Then a new order came down: Sea Org members were to be discouraged from having babies. If a woman got pregnant and had the child, she'd be kicked out of the Sea Org and not allowed to return until the child was at least 10. I thought: What?! I want to have kids! I never agreed to this when I got here!

When I thought about how little I had to look forward to, my eyes filled with tears. My existence was constricted and joyless. I'd been making monthly secret visits to my dad's house, and I recalled how good I felt whenever I was there, basking in the humor and warmth. Family was the only thing that mattered to me. I told Jason I was going on birth control, but I didn't take my pills. I'd just let nature take its course.

In January I missed my period. As soon as I realized that I was pregnant, I knew I couldn't give birth to the child while still in the Sea Org. With each passing day I grew more certain that I had to leave. Knowing that my dad would support me in my decision gave me the extra dose of courage I needed, but I couldn't tell anyone, not even Jason. I was afraid he'd try to talk me out of it. So every day for two months, as soon as the alarm clock rang, I'd go to the bathroom and turn on the shower so Jason couldn't hear me vomiting from morning sickness; in the restroom at work, I'd hold toilet paper in front of my mouth to muffle the sound of my dry heaves from my coworkers. All the while I was plotting, saving my money. On February 23, 1998, I raced to the airport, pushed past my brother and flew to London: free at last.

Welcome to the real world

When I first got to my aunt and uncle's house in England, I thought that I still wanted to be a Scientologist — that I was just too weak for the Sea Org. But as I was exposed to the outside world — the world I'd been denied — my views changed, and I grew hungry for a normal life.

First, however, I had to properly leave my old one. If I remained a "blown" SO, I would be declared a Suppressive Person and denied all contact with my mother, brother and precious younger sister, Zoe. So in April I flew back to LA. for the '"routing-out" procedure, which involved my "confessing" all the things I'd supposedly done wrong. When the process was complete, I got a bill for $89,000 for the auditing and Scientology courses I'd taken over the years. (Let them try to get that money from me!)

I realized my marriage to Jason was a sham, and I filed for divorce. Then in September I gave birth to my beautiful daughter, Kate. Jason and I saw each other only once after we split; since then, apparently on the advice of other Sea Org members, he has had no contact with either of us, and that's fine with me. I moved in with my dad in LA., whose disillusionment with Scientology had turned to disgust, and started helping him with his architecture business while getting my GED.

Being able to walk free in the outside world was a thrill. I loved just going to a drugstore and trying on perfume. Biking where I wanted and watching movies were also huge treats, not to mention eating normal food instead of the Army-style grub we got every night in the Sea Org. (My first indulgence: a gooey banana split.) There was a lot I had to relearn, though. When Dad told me two of his best clients were gay, I said, "Really?!" But then I met the men and my homophobia disappeared. And there was so much I didn't know! One time somebody mentioned Liberace, whom I'd never even heard of. I figured maybe Liberace was like Napoleon. "What war did he fight in?" I asked.

Initially I was embarrassed to talk about my past with my new friends from Kate's play group, but people were very understanding. In an Internet dating chat room, I met a cute guy named Shane who worked for the park service, had a daughter the same age as Kate and had never been in Scientology. Our first date was at a pool hall; we've been together three years now. One night my father said he wanted to share something with me. As Scientologists, we'd been told that the most sacred secrets of the religion wouldn't be revealed to us until we'd moved high up the rungs of understanding, well past "clear," a level I'd never attained. I'd been led to believe that those secrets would allow you to acquire almost superhuman powers; but now, Dad said, defectors were splashing the group's arcane details, including those mysteries, all over the Web. At first I didn't want to see them. For years I'd been taught that if you read things beyond your level you could get sick and die. But I forced myself. And there on the Computer screen was the supposed hidden core of Scientology wisdom: that we were trying to "clear" the planet because 75 million years ago evil space aliens had invaded it and polluted every living soul.

I was dumbstruck. And then I got angry. This was why I gave up a decent education and a happy childhood? This was what I almost passed up my chance to be a parent for? Because of space aliens?

That revelation helped me focus on an important mission: getting 15-year-old Zoe out of the Cadet Org school she was attending in Clearwater, and out of Scientology altogether. She had told us that she wanted to leave, but that Mom wouldn't let her. So in early 2000 Dad flew from L.A. to Florida, went to the public library where Zoe had arranged to meet him, scooped her up and taxied to the airport. After she left Florida, Zoe worked hard, and was admitted two years ago to a top university.

Today, after taking junior College courses, I'm an assistant draftsman and work for my father; Shane is studying to become a draftsman too. We have no plans for marriage, as we're taking things one day at a time.

My mother, grandmother and brother have no contact with me or Zoe or my dad, and that gives me a pang of heartache for what could have been. Right after Kate was born, I talked to my mom once, from the hospital. I told her about my labor and she told me how proud she was of me. We forgot about our differences for a while. But after I started speaking out about Scientology, she stopped returning my calls. When I think about that window of communication that was opened and then slammed shut, it makes me so sad — and angry. My mother chose Scientology over her children.

Losing so much of my family is hard, but I try to focus on the main point of my life now: giving Kate the happy, normal childhood I never had. I look at her and how eagerly she embraces the real world — and I know that all the pain has been worth it.

A response from the Church of Scientology

When asked to comment on Astra Woodcraft's experience, Edward Parkin, vice president of cultural affairs for the Church of Scientology International, said, "Astra was happy in the Church. She left the Sea Org in 1998, and now she is being used by someone who doesn't like the Church." However, he declined to say who, and in addition to members of the Woodcraft family, Glamour spoke to six former Sea Org members and one current Scientologist who all confirmed details of her story.

In a subsequent letter to Glamour, Mike Rinder, a member of the board of directors of the Church of Scientology International, said that Woodcraft "is not a reliable source." He went on to deny her description of the Sea Org and its activities, adding that the Sea Org is no different than the religious orders of many other faiths: "Ms. Woodcraft's allegations are not only untrue, they are offensive to the thousands of happy Sea Org members who have dedicated their lives to making a better world." As for her characterization of Scientology's secret tenets, he said, "The materials for the upper levels are confidential — though they form only a minute part of the overall body of Scientology scripture. We don't discuss them."

Certainly, the religion has its supporters. Celebrity members — including Kirstie Alley, Juliette Lewis and Kelly Preston — are particularly enthusiastic. "Were it not for Scientology," says Lisa Marie Presley on, "I would either be completely insane or dead by now."