When I was about eight-years old, I was on a trip to Honolulu with my family. My dad and I were lucky, getting bumped up to first class on a Wardair flight, while my mom and sister came over the next day. Now, I could go into detail about my extreme disappointment at my father’s unwise choice to eat half of my sub sandwich that first night in Hawaii (now that I’m a dad, I’ve been guilty of similar indiscretions); I could regale you with our late night conversation about UFOs with two of my dad’s fellow airline workers, and how they told me all about the two primary kinds of aliens visiting Earth (the grays, who were extraterrestrial in origin, and the Hollow Earth aliens about whom I’d never heard before – and obviously it made an impression, as I remember it these 36 years later); but today, I’d rather make the point that this trip was the first time I ever heard about the Church of Scientology. It was part of the conversation, and the reference was Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard. To be honest, I don’t entirely remember the context; I imagine it may very well have had something to do with my dad’s colleague connecting Hollow Earth aliens with Thetans or some such, but the details are unimportant. I suppose that if I really want to find out what they are, I could always go for an audit at my local Scientology Center – although I might not want to, after reading Jenna Miscavige Hill’s interesting and revealing memoir.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with L. Ron Hubbard’s (I’ll refer to him as LRH heretofore) religion/philosophy will take instant note of Hill’s middle name – actually her maiden name, which I’m pretty certain she’s maintained here for the brand recognition more than anything else. Her father is Ron Miscavige, Jr., and her uncle is David Miscavige, the man who has been the head – or the Chairman of the Board – of the Church of Scientology since the death of LRH back in the mid-1980s. Hill’s parents were both part of the Sea Org (which is essentially the clergy of the church), and as such, she was deeply involved with the church from a very young age. In fact, from about the age of six, she was sent to a location in the eastern LA basin called The Ranch, a kind of combination school/work camp. She and the other children spent much of their time doing manual labor, improving the grounds and preparing them for future groups of children who would be educated in the tenets of Scientology. For anyone who has had a relatively normal childhood, this is where the story begins to diverge from expectations: not only are Hill and her fellow students expected to work every day, but they are kept largely isolated from their parents, seeing them only one day a week. This continues until Hill’s mother, now a high ranking officer in the Sea Org, gets posted out to the base in Clearwater, Florida. From that point, she sees very little of her mother for several years.
Hill’s story takes us from her childhood through until she is in her early twenties. Several times, just as life seems to be coming together for her, she finds herself thrust into a confusing morass of accusations and security checks, kept from contacting or seeing family members for months at a time, and moved from base to base so that she can’t develop lasting friendships. More often than not, it turns out that each of these stressful interludes have something in common: it’s something a family member has done, not her; and her uncle, David Miscavige, is pulling the strings that put her through the wringer. While a story like this could easily devolve into a series of “poor me” statements, Hill actually comes across as hurt but resilient, and continually attempts to please those that are mentally and verbally (not to mention occasionally physically, by preventing her from leaving their bases or audit rooms) abusing her. More than anything else, she comes across as being a victim of some sort of perverse, cultish Stockholm Syndrome. In fact, Hill appears to be apologetic for the actions of the church at times, and seems to still retain something of a soft spot for certain aspects of its tenets and ideologies. She denies this in the latter part of the book, as she makes her final break from the church, but her writing seems to belie her statements. I’m not for a second blaming her for this; it is, to my mind, a subtle reminder of the effect years of brainwashing can have over a person, and makes her book all the more powerful for it.
For me, the most interesting aspect of this memoir is that, as she is describing situations and a life that are so completely different from anything I or most anyone I know have experienced, Hill still is able to present her life as being normal to her. She never had the chance to experience life as those outside Scientology, or even as so-called public Scientologists (those who lead lives outside the church) do, so her frame of reference was necessarily narrow. While Hill does use a co-writer (Pulitzer), there are times throughout the book that the language gets a little obtuse. Scientologists have their own language, full of abbreviations and neologisms that are not easily recognizable to outsiders, and Hill slips into this jargon now and again. She does provide a glossary at the back, and usually does a good job of explaining new terms as they are introduced, but it can be a lot to keep straight as you’re navigating her tale.
The writing itself is quite good, but the book could definitely do with a defter editing hand. There is a fair bit of repetition, as though it were written from a series of recollections taken out of order and then reintegrated, and the copy-editor missed a couple of dozen word elisions and repeated articles and the like. That said, the book captured me from the start, and I couldn’t stop reading until I got to the end of Hill’s story.
Steve’s Grade: B+
Very readable tale of life within Scientology, particularly of interest due to Hill’s close relationship to the current church’s leading hierarchy.
Ex-Scientology Kids, a site Hill shares with other children brought up in Scientology.
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