What it's Really Like to Grow Up in Scientology
“And begin!” my supervisor exclaimed in a surprisingly perky tone. On that command, I sat down in an uncomfortable chair across from another student in an uncomfortable chair, and proceeded to close my eyes for an hour. A full hour. The other student, my forced partner-in-crime, did the same. The goal of this exercise, I was told, was to simply focus on yourself and your partner’s energy, and to be comfortable in the moment. This kind of zen is difficult to achieve when you’re not allowed to fidget or move in any way. Or fall asleep. And it didn’t help that we were in elementary school either. We may or may not have succeeded after five tries.
This laughable and rather useless exercise was just the first of what would be many that my cute little child self would be forced to endure during the years spent as an involuntary member of the Church of Scientology.
Ever since I was born, it seems that Scientology has increasingly embedded itself into pop culture, becoming an object of fascination, terror, and comedy, all at once. The mere mention of the word Scientology today will likely incite anger, laughter, intrigue, or utter fear in others—or, in the case of myself, all of the above. To say that the religion’s practices are controversial would be an understatement. Their beliefs about life and the world, and the often extreme forms of indoctrination and punishments that they enforce, are completely unlike any other religion. But for me, when I was first introduced to Scientology, it seemed entirely normal.
As Hilary Duff would say, let’s go back, back to the beginning. Family history and traditions naturally led me to the Church of Scientology as a child. But first, I must clarify a few things. My parents are fucking great, and did not raise me exclusively as a Scientologist, or under any one religion for that matter. My mom was raised as a Christian, my dad a Hindu, and they both liked certain aspects of Scientology. My parents chose what they thought to be the most positive aspects of all three religions, and raised me with those in mind. Not once did they ever seriously push any one religion on my brother or me. From day one, we were granted true religious freedom—and for that, I am eternally grateful.
As such, my time as a Church of Scientology member—as a young kid, and later, preteen—was less radical, and more normal, than you’d probably expect. I was never forced to undergo an intense, mind-warping auditing session, though God knows the Church tried. I never signed a billion-year contract (I’d rather become a Republican). And I never found out what a fucking Xenu was until I did my own research.
“What else do you call a school that requires their students to pass L. Ron Hubbard courses in order to move on to the next grade, or “form,” as they call it?”
Before college, I never went to large schools. My parents strongly believed that smaller classes and hands-on learning were essential to a good education. So growing up, small private schools were all that I knew, despite there being few options to choose from. It just so happened that one of the only schools that had small classes and more attentive teachers was a Scientology school. And so that’s where I went, and where I formed my first understandings of life. It’s important to note that these schools are neither known as nor think of themselves as “Scientology schools”; indeed, they accept students of all religions. I’m just not exactly in the market for getting sued over a damn essay because I used the school’s official name—and besides, what else do you call a school that requires their students to pass L. Ron Hubbard courses in order to move on to the next grade, or “form,” as they call it?
The entire curriculum, in fact, is based on Hubbard’s teaching method, Study Technology, and the books that cover it—which, sure, might be accredited, but probably only because the Church blackmailed someone into doing so, just like they blackmailed the IRS into receiving tax-exempt status. Rather than completing one grade a year alongside 367,000 kids, every student did the required readings, exercises, and courses at their own speed. The school would evaluate each student and then place him or her into what they deemed to be an appropriate “form”—or grades, as you probably call them. And rather than passing these forms, students moved up the ladder at a gradient. To some, this might sound like a dream, but in actuality, this system held many back, including myself. The problem was that the teachers expected absolute perfection from every little thing their students did, despite providing little to no guidance. Score less than a B on a final exam, and you had to retake the entire course. Seriously. In such a system, completing one form could sometimes take two school years.
Our courses in math and “science” were presented to us in check sheets that outlined the instructions of every task required to pass—and after that, it was up to us to do every single thing ourselves. Just like in the actual Church—what a coinkidink! The teachers were simply there to make sure we did everything correctly and lived up to Study Tech standards. In fact, teachers were not even called teachers, but rather supervisors for reasons I still do not truly know, but suspect have to do with their lack of professional training. Lectures and discussions were sparse and, aside from the occasional student-teacher conversation, most days consisted of being crammed into small classrooms with different forms and doing your work as silently as possible.
“In reality, the closest we got to a history lesson was reading ‘Little House on the Prairie.'”
Our daily routine went something like this: We read a lot of literature. Then we learned grammar and spelling. Then we read some more. Then we practiced more grammar. Then we read. Then we did a little math. Then to top it all off, we read. Again. We had to read more material than a college student majoring in English. For the large part, the literary genres we covered were traditional fiction and historical fiction, with a smidgen of non-fiction thrown in for “history and science education.” But in reality, the closest we got to a history lesson was reading Little House on the Prairie.
As for studying science? That consisted of—you guessed it—Scientology courses. Instead of exploring the basics of biology, I was taking Learning How to Learn, which teaches Scientology’s ideals of the barriers of learning, and how to overcome them. Rather than learning about the Civil War, I took Study Skills for Life, which expands on these aforementioned ideals and prepares students to apply certain skills to their everyday lives. Meaning, of course, to the Church of Scientology. Life before high school consisted of going back and forth between the classroom and the Org—our name for the Church. The conditions were stagnant and nerve-racking, forced as we all were to complete drills like keeping our eyes closed, then open, for long periods of time with classmates and strangers. My performance in school relied more on my ability to do a staring contest than it did on my knowledge of algebra.
The supervisors at both the Org and school followed the teachings of Hubbard like today’s demented sect of Americans follow Trump. Yawning after a night of no sleep meant that you had misunderstood a word. A very polite complaint about anything, really, would merit an ethics charge, which entailed physical punishments (cleaning, for instance) that only increased in severity as you moved up gradients. At least I had a broom instead of a toothbrush, unlike the poor Sea Org fellows.
“Under the guise of useful skills and essential teachings, our education was merely preparing us for indoctrination into the religion. And like all of Scientology, it was funded by our parents’ wallets.”
It was during these years that I realized a hidden agenda behind the curriculum. Many of the drills that were imposed on us were strikingly similar to the ones performed in entry-level adult Scientology courses. Staring contests for an unreasonable amount of time? Check. Recitations of random passages from Alice in Wonderland? Check. Attempts to coerce your partner to laugh or show emotion, when they were told not to? Check. These courses prepared you for higher gradients in the religion, ones in which you’d get physically sick just thinking about your previous mistakes in auditing, ones in which you’d accept Xenu and the concept of Thetans. Under the guise of useful skills and essential teachings, our education was merely preparing us for indoctrination into the religion. And like all of Scientology, it was funded by our parents’ wallets. How lovely.
I learned more information about what I was getting involved in as I got older and left these environments. But even without knowing what I know now, I felt the urge to move on—or, in their terms, to leap some gradients. I always wondered why all my classmates dressed the same, acted the same, held the same interests. They all wore the same raggedy T-shirts, Walmart blouses, cheap skirts, and cargo shorts. Turns out, all their families were Scientologists through and through. I now want to burn all cargo shorts in existence.
My parents, being the best, did not hesitate to start looking at other schools when I asked to leave a year before I was supposed to. I ended up going to high school a year early and only then began to realize my full potential. The switch was hard; I had no background whatsoever in science, history, or any extracurricular. While other students were asking about what guns soldiers used in the Civil War, I was still wondering what the fuck a confederate was. While they were fluent in the periodic table, I was still trying to wrap my head around hydrogen (for the record, I still am).
I’m sure switching schools would’ve been harder if I had developed the sort of emotional connection to Scientology that I did with, say, Britney. But I didn’t. Ultimately, high school taught me that asking for help was not only okay, but sometimes necessary. And that listening, taking notes, and hands-on teachers are remarkably more useful than trying to do it on your own.
As lucky as I am to have encouraging, supportive parents, it easily could’ve been different. If I had decided, or was forced, to follow the path of Scientology, I would still probably be ensconced in it today. I might’ve even been interviewed for Going Clear, Alex Gibney’s rather contentious HBO documentary on Scientology. Anyone that comes into even the slightest contact with Scientology can be affected by it, and that is what I aim to make clear here.
To this day, I don’t refer to myself as a Scientologist. Or a Christian. Or a Hindu. I proudly say that I dabble in many religions, and I will never claim to follow a specific one. But I would also never take back my experiences with Scientology. It did, after all, help me discover writing and become a damn great proofreader. I will forever vouch for the few valuable skills that the religion teaches, and I will forever treasure the distant Facebook-only friendships that I keep with my former classmates. There are some powerful skills for school, marriage, business, and life hidden within the crazy. Or maybe that’s just some Stockholm Syndrome talking.
Stay tuned to Milk for more unorthodox childhoods.
Illustration by Julien Pacaud. All other images via Going Clear.