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Scientology's children: "They took our lives"

Title: Scientology's children: "They took our lives"
Date: Monday, 11 November 1991
Publisher: St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
Author: Curtis Krueger
Main source:
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Eleven-year-old Laura Hutchinson went to Girl Scout camp scared. Not scared of camp. Camp would be fine.

Laura was scared that when she returned, Mom and Dad might be divorced.

Tom and Carol Hutchinson, self-employed commercial artists in the Atlanta area, had been having marital problems. When Tom started getting counseling at Atlanta's Dianetics center, affiliated with the Church of Scientology, Carol objected.

The parents fought as Laura left.

But when Laura came back, her parents were together. By then, both were getting Scientology counseling. Before long, both considered themselves Scientologists. Soon Laura and her 8-yearold sister, Molly, did too.

But Tom and Carol did more than switch religions. They switched focus. Scientology, rather than Laura and Molly, consumed them.

Within two years, Tom and Carol spent $60,000 on the church, according to a lawsuit. They traveled to Clearwater for Scientology counseling and spent virtually all of their free time on the church. They signed billion-year contracts and prepared to move the family to Los Angeles.

Their experience is not unusual. When parents plunge into Scientology, critics say, children often are swept along and family life takes a back seat.

"I mean, they took our lives away," said Laura, now 17. And then, one brief remark changed everything.

* * *

The Hutchinsons' story begins in the summer of 1985. Tom confided to a client that he was having marital problems.

The client referred Tom to Atlanta's Dianetics center. During a weekend auditing session he spent 12 hours telling his problems to a Scientology counselor, or "auditor."

"You come out of it, of course, feeling like you've dumped your troubles," Tom said. "You get real high off the whole thing. And of course you want some more of that feeling."

After Laura went to camp, Carol went to the Dianetics center, too, despite reservations. Like Tom, she went back for more.

But Tom and Carol did not discuss their counseling sessions with each other. They had learned an important rule of Scientology: You can't discuss your "case" with anyone else even your spouse.

* * *

One thing troubled Tom. Could he be a Christian and a Scientologist too?

No problem, Scientologists said.

"They kept saying, 'Well, you can be a Christian and a Scientologist at the same time,' " Tom said.

"Eventually the lifestyle takes over and the Christianity kind of just goes by the wayside," Carol said.

* * *

Laura was put off by the first Scientologists she met. They seemed pushy and phony. Both girls were enrolled in a Scientology study course and found it boring. But within a couple of months, Tom and Carol were spending seven days a week at the Atlanta Dianetics center for auditing or Scientology courses. The staff encouraged them to bring Laura and Molly.

While their parents sat for hours in auditing sessions, the girls went to the basement and stuffed envelopes with Scientology literature.

Mom and Dad were happy.

"We thought, well, this is good, you know," Carol said. "They're staying busy doing something that's of benefit rather than just wasting their time playing or watching TV."

Molly was audited only once, but Laura was audited several times. Like her parents, she was hooked to an "E-meter" — a device similar to a lie-detector. She held two metal cans while the auditor asked her questions and evaluated her responses.

She, too, found that auditing made her feel good. "I just felt like I was floating."

Eventually, the girls went along. Molly told her friends she belonged to the Church of Scientology, which she thought was a new denomination of Christianity. At Christmas, Laura gave her friends books by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Laura was awed by some of the other Scientologists, especially the ones called "OTs" — for "operating thetans." She knew OTs supposedly could remember past lives, and that fascinated her.

"I used to ask them if they had met God at any time, you know? And like, what was God like? I never got an answer."

* * *

The auditing sessions soon got expensive, but Tom and Carol wanted more.

Scientology staff members told the Hutchinsons they were lucky because they could afford to get enough auditing to attain the state of "clear," an important goal within Scientology. Scientologists believe that by going "clear," they can increase their IQs, improve their health and accomplish their goals.

Many people couldn't have afforded the $35,000 price tag to go clear.

But the Hutchinsons could. A Scientology official explained how: All they had to do was get a second mortgage. For later counseling and training, they also cashed in their individual retirement accounts, charged up to the limit on their Visa card and sold a collection of antique, sterling-silver mint-julep cups.

Tom and Carol eventually were told to go to Los Angeles to be evaluated and certified as clears.

Thrilled, Tom and Carol flew to California.

* * *

But Laura was not thrilled. This Los Angeles trip meant Mom and Dad would miss her 13th birthday.

Laura's birthday just didn't seem so important, Carol said.

"We felt that the most important thing was to do the (clearing process), and that Laura would have other birthdays and she would get over it and, you know, no big deal. That's the way we felt," she said.

As a Scientologist, Carol said she was taught that children sometimes manipulate their parents in order to get attention. So she said she learned not to give her children much sympathy.

"The normal, mothering, motherly feelings that you have, where you want to nurture and care for your children is taken away from you."

Laura remembers that "We'd be sick or we'd hurt ourselves or there was something we were upset about and Mom would just say, 'I have no sympathy.' "

"I was always sick because I needed her attention so bad."

* * *

The news in Los Angeles was shattering. Although Carol successfully became clear, the Scientologists told Tom he failed. He wasn't clear. And it was his responsibility to get clear — by buying more auditing, even though he and Carol already had spent $35,000.

"I thought my whole world had fallen apart," Tom said. "I sat there and wept. . . . I had done everything that I could do to get what they had promised me."

"And then coming up empty-handed . . . just seemed to me to be the ultimate rip-off."

* * *

Returning to Atlanta, Tom and Carol soured on the church and found themselves swamped in debt, working extra hours to keep their business afloat.

Out of the blue, a Scientologist called from Clearwater to offer free auditing.

Clearwater, known among Scientologists as "Flag Land Base," is considered the spiritual headquarters of Scientology.

"We had always been told that Flag (Clearwater) was the Mecca of Scientology, that at Flag you could get the world's best auditing," Carol said. "And so I thought, this is fantastic. Free auditing at Flag!"

* * *

It was in Clearwater, at the Fort Harrison Hotel in 1987, that Carol had her last auditing session.

In the auditing room, Carol said she sat in the chair and relaxed, settling into something like a hypnotic trance. She picked up the two metal cylinders connected to the E-meter. Closing her eyes, she started feeling uncomfortable. Carol could see something; she wasn't sure what.

"I could see a lot of fog, and it was like the fog didn't want to clear, because there was something in the fog, or behind the fog. And I felt my back was hurting . . . and I didn't understand why."

"And finally . . . I started to get an image of what was in the fog. And it was Christ on the cross."

The auditor peppered her with questions. "She kept pushing me for more and more information . . . and that's the way you do it with an auditing session. And the more I described it, the clearer the picture got. And finally I heard a voice speaking to me, and I knew that it was his voice, Christ's voice. But I didn't want to tell the auditor."

But the auditor pushed, and eventually she explained.

"I knew that what he was saying was, Don't be afraid, I'll always be with you.

"And I burst into tears, and I felt this immediate, incredible relief, and this understanding and knowledge that that was true."

She wasn't sure what it meant. But she was exhilarated.

* * *

Carol went back to Atlanta ecstatic.

"She comes home from Clearwater, and it's like her feet don't touch the floor," Tom said. He wondered what had happened, but, under the rules, she couldn't tell him.

Before long, Tom was off to Clearwater. While they chased that dream, their debts were catching up to them.

At about this time, a recruiter visited them from the "Sea Org," short for Sea Organization.

Sea Org members are full-time Scientologists who work 12-hour days, and wear naval-style uniforms. Tom and Carol were told they would earn $35 a week. It was a way out. They could sell the house, leave their debts behind and move to Los Angeles with the girls.

Tom and Carol joined and signed the Sea Org's standard billion- year contract.

Tom, Carol and the girls told their friends they were leaving.

"I was really scared," Laura said.

"I felt like I didn't have anywhere to go. There was no home for me, there was nothing."

* * *

As he prepared to leave, Tom ran an errand to a typesetter. He told a woman there that he was moving to Los Angeles. She asked why.

Ever heard of the Church of Scientology? he asked. "She says, 'I was an auditor in Los Angeles 15 years ago,' " Tom recalled. "And she says, 'Now I'm a Christian, and I don't believe in anything that they were doing, and it's a cult.' "

The words hit Tom like a lightning bolt. Thunderstruck, he went home and told Carol. Neither of them had read any material critical of Scientology or run across former Scientologists.

"Oh my God," Carol said.

"We sat there," Tom recalled, "and said, 'Could it possibly be that we are making a huge mistake?' "

They took the telephone off the hook. Tom and Carol told their daughters to turn away anyone who came to the door. The children stood guard while the parents holed up in the bedroom.

Tom and Carol each had doubts, but, in accordance with church rules, they had never discussed them.

Now they talked heart-to-heart. After two days of talking virtually nonstop, they realized that there was no way they could go back to Scientology.

* * *

Tom and Carol were exhausted from their marathon discussion. They needed an excuse to get out of the house.

Molly said her girlfriend had invited her to a church play.

The whole family went along. Carol said she walked into the Peachtree Christian Church and stared at a stained-glass window depicting the baptism of Jesus.

"I looked up at that and I just burst into tears, because I was just overcome, knowing that this was where we were led."

A memory came to her. Don't be afraid, I'll always be with you. After the play, a crowd of churchgoers surrounded the family and welcomed them. Tom met the minister.

"I remember distinctly tears welling up in his eyes," the Rev. James L. Collins said. Collins told him Scientology was a counterfeit religion that had caused turmoil in many lives.

* * *

Today, Tom and Carol still are working as commercial artists in the Atlanta area. They say they cannot think of a single benefit from their two years in Scientology.

The Hutchinsons have sued the Church of Scientology in Georgia, seeking unspecified damages for their unhappy experience in the church and seeking to prevent Scientology from using what the suit says is a policy of harassing former members who speak out. A countersuit says the Hutchinsons' action is frivolous.

The family still attends Peachtree Christian Church. At first, Laura said, she had reservations about getting involved in another religious organization. But now, Molly and Laura both said their Christian faith is strong.

For Laura, it's stronger than before.

"I know what it's like, you know, what life is like without it," she said.

"It's a very greedy cult," said Molly, now 15. "They don't leave you any room for anything else," said Tom. "It's total control. . . . And when they're through with you, there's nothing else in your life."

Carol said she still feels a sense of guilt.

"To admit that you have done something so traumatic to your children . . . is just real hard to deal with afterward."