From the moment she landed in Australia, 20-year-old Jenna Miscavige Hill enjoyed a level of freedom she’d never known before. There was unlimited access to TV and the internet. She and her husband Dallas could hop on their bicycles and explore their new home of Canberra whenever they liked. Their usually rigidly-packed schedules were almost empty. There was minimal monitoring. They could even sit back with their new friends and enjoy a beer.
For the worldwide Scientology leader David Miscavige’s niece, who signed a billion-year contract of allegiance to the church at the age of seven, it was a radical new way of life.
“We were in regular contact with [non-Scientologists and lay members], which I had never really had before,” said Jenna.
“People in Australia are more real and they say it how it is. It was nice to have some real friends who were cool and relaxed. And we had some independence. When you are at the church in LA, you are told what you are allowed to do.”
Until that point in 2004 Jenna’s life had been so regimented that she had always eaten her meals in the church’s communal mess halls – Her visit to a supermarket in Canberra, where she’d been deployed by the church, was her first grocery run – full stop.
Following recipes and working the stove were new and daunting tasks. Equally eye-opening was the hour or two of TV she allowed herself each day; the convention-flouting reality show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy became a firm favourite. Jenna liked the characters and was perplexed that “what I saw didn’t match what I’d learned in Scientology” – namely, that homosexuals are “sexual perverts and covertly hostile”.
But perhaps the most profound new experience was striking up a friendship with a woman in the church who had two young daughters and a baby born during their stay. As members of the church’s elite Sea Organisation, Jenna and Dallas didn’t mix with children and were forbidden from having their own. “[My friend’s] daughter was adorable, really sweet and I fell in love with her,” she recalls. “For the first time, I wondered what it would be like to have a family of our own.”
Jenna’s Australian mission, in theory, was to revive Canberra’s small, struggling church and raise money for a new building. But the manner in which she was dispatched was, in hindsight, unusual – a seemingly rushed and ill-prepared folly.
Husbands and wives were often split up by jobs in the church – it had happened to Jenna’s parents – but Dallas received immediate permission to join her. Jenna suspects sending her to the other side of the world may have been a way to get her “offline” and ensure she wasn’t influenced by her parents, who had by then left the church.
“I don’t know if [senior church members] were worried about us telling my parents the inside goings-on of the church,” she says. “[It seemed] they were somehow trying to get us out of the way. I never knew the exact reason.”
The official mission, in any case, seemed destined to fail. The couple valiantly held fundraising events, such as raffles, games and shows, and ended up with a total of $75,000. But this was well short of the several million dollars that would have been needed to meet Scientology’s criteria for new premises, which included being a minimum of 25,000 square feet, on a busy street, not too industrial and preferably traditional and decorative.
“Most of the money came from one person who happened to have a lot of money,” recalls Jenna, who says there were just 15 to 20 practising Scientologists in the whole of Canberra at the time.
Furthermore, she says, the congregation was being kicked out of its existing location because the rent hadn’t been paid for six months. Hassling ordinary people who couldn’t afford to donate much was hard and she began to feel it was unethical to keep asking them for even more money. Yet when she raised the issue in her daily missives home, her superiors disagreed.
Perhaps the missing part of the jigsaw in Australia was a major celebrity backer. Back in California, they always had star appeal with the likes of Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley to raise the profile of the church and fill its coffers, directly and indirectly. “Celebrities are valued for their influence,” says Jenna.
“It’s not just about the money. [Church leaders] know people are interested in celebrities’ lives.” Even those who leave, like Cruise’s ex-wife Katie Holmes and their daughter Suri, are unlikely to be declared negative influences or “suppressive people” because of their high-profile status, she claims.
At their new base far away from the church’s plush headquarters in California, it was slowly dawning on Jenna and Dallas that perhaps Scientology wasn’t taking over the world as they’d always been led to believe. When Dallas stumbled across a website that was critical of the church and Jenna’s uncle, they couldn’t help but take a little look despite knowing that viewing such material was prohibited.
“The fact Dallas came across this site so easily surprised me,” recalls Jenna. “But it was also somehow satisfying, although I didn’t really know why.” As they increasingly mingled with “ordinary” people, the couple began to realise there could be a life worth building outside the church.
Cynicism from the Australian public also had an effect. On one occasion, promotional material was returned to them defaced by rude remarks about Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
“Based on everything that we heard from Uncle Dave and the senior members of the church my whole life, I had been under the impression that everyone loved L. Ron Hubbard and that Scientology was flourishing and expanding all over the world,” she writes in her book. “However, it seemed like most people in Australia did not even know what it was, and those who did were often sceptical.”
Australians’ irreverence and propensity to distrust authority is one of the reasons Scientology isn’t as popular here as in the US, Jenna believes. “I would probably say Australians are less receptive to the church. They might ask questions and not worry about beating around the bush… questions that might be hard for a Scientologist to answer.”
The Church of Scientology vigorously disputes Jenna’s story.
“Revisionist histories are typical of apostate behaviour and tabloid tales should always be taken with an enormous grain of salt,” it says in an official statement that refuses “to discuss private matters involving Ms Hill, nor any of the efforts to exploit Mr Miscavige’s name”.
In retrospect, Jenna recognises that her time in Australia was “a big part of the decision” to leave the church. After a year in Canberra, where their mission to establish new premises had failed, she and Dallas were permitted to return home for the Christmas holidays. While in LA, however, they were told they would next be posted to Sydney – permanently. Outraged, Jenna resisted. But, after a few weeks of waiting on new orders, the plan was suddenly terminated and they returned home.
Unlike most US visitors, they never got a chance to explore our vast and beautiful continent, instead confined to a city that tends to be little more than the butt of many Australians’ jokes.
Still, Jenna recalls feeling “more relaxed than I’d been in years, not to mention well fed, well rested, and having a lot of fun” during her time in Australia. (In case you’re wondering, she never could develop a taste for Vegemite.)
Leaving Scientology, however, was by no means a simple process. During the 10 months following their return from Australia, Jenna says senior church members tried to drive a wedge between her and Dallas, encouraging him to stay and her to leave. When they eventually decided to get out, their struggles still weren’t over.
Excommunicated from friends and family, the pair had to build a new life from the bottom up, all with the spectre of a possible consequence of their betrayal looming in the background: “You feel like if you leave, you are giving up your eternity.”
Their lifelong social networks evaporated. “Nobody I knew in the church is allowed to speak to me,” adds Jenna. “Everyone I grew up with is still there. I do miss people, and hope they find a way out.”
In 2008, trouble flared up when Jenna took part in a highly publicised interview about Scientology with US TV’s Nightline program. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was cathartic: “I used to have nightmares but, once I spoke out, I didn’t have them because they weren’t controlling me anymore.” Still, she and Dallas suddenly found themselves tailed by unknown cars and facing pressures from the church, all communicated via family members.
“They have what’s called a Fair Game policy, where if someone speaks out against Scientology, they are considered an enemy of Scientology,” explains Jenna. “You can do anything to someone who is considered an enemy. Since I’ve left, people have followed me but no one has tried to physically assault me. I won’t let them intimidate me.”
The church, however, insists “those who decide a religious order isn’t for them are free to move on with their lives, as Ms Hill did. Every religion has its detractors; there is no faith that can satisfy everyone’s spiritual needs.”
Today Jenna, 39, is happy being to her son and daughter, ensuring they enjoy the kind of carefree upbringing she missed. “A big difference is my children are allowed to play,” she says. “I make a big effort to make sure their childhood is nothing like mine. They are in a loving environment.”
As a child, Jenna lived on a communal property known as The Ranch with other children of Scientology, away from their parents. She says they undertook 25 to 35 hours a week of manual labour, including rock hauling, digging and weeding on top of school work and religious studies. She also recounts a relentless regime of duties, rituals, continuous assessments, paperwork and a humiliating system of moral policing. Because Scientologists believe they are immortal spirits called Thetans, which temporarily inhabit a body before moving onto the next after death, children aren’t thought to need special allowances.
“We were treated like little adults,” says Jenna. “When I was my son’s age, I was only seeing my parents once a week.”
The Church of Scientology’s official statement claims it “has long respected the family unit while accommodating and helping those raising children. Any suggestions to the contrary are false”.
It also says Jenna’s recollections are “dramatically at odds” with those of her classmates, who describe their schooling as “an idyllic summer camp and boarding school-like environment” that gave them “an educational and spiritual foundation that continues to enrich their lives today”.
Nevertheless, when her own children are old enough to understand, Jenna says she will more fully explain her past because she feels it contains important life lessons.
Indeed, her experiences inspired her to set up a website with two other former Church members called [Ex-Scientology Kids] (motto: “I was born. I grew up. I escaped.”) to connect with and support others like them. Since its inception in 2008, however, it has evolved to have another purpose.
“Now it’s more of a warning to people who are starting to get into it or kids who are being recruited,” she says. “We get emails at least once a week from people who have been targeted.”
Her standard advice to those with questions: “People should really do their research. It’s not just some benign self-help organisation; it’s actually abusive. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
After leaving the church eight years ago, Jenna re-established her relationship with her parents. And while she still struggles to understand how they reconciled harsh conditions and prolonged separations from her as a child, she now welcomes them in her life.
“At some point you have to move on; you can’t change the past,” she says. “My parents are very good grandparents to my children.”
She also had to develop a new sense of self. “When you are [in the church], you are always told who you are supposed to be,” she says. “When you get out, you find out who you really are: what do you really think? What do you really like? What do you believe?” The pressures she faced growing up have taken their toll, but she’s had
therapy, and credits Dallas for his support.
She has fond memories of her time in Australia, which she regards as a critical turning point in her life and maintains contact with friends she made here. She’d like to return for a visit one day.
And what about her faith? Despite her years of chanting L. Ron Hubbard’s teachings as a youngster, Jenna now describes herself as non-religious. “I never had a chance to evaluate things on my own merit,” she explains. “So I stick to things I can see with my own eyes now. That’s not to say I know everything: I just take what I can see.”
One thing she knows for sure: never again will she take personal freedom for granted. “I’m a free, regular person,” she says. “I was trapped, but now my life is like a completely different world.”
This feature was originally posted by Bauer Media.