One of the new wave of Scientology defectors describes why he devoted decades of his life to the movement: and why he finally quit.
Jeff Hawkins spent most of his adult life in Scientology before joining the recent wave of defectors from the top echelons of the movement. While he has still has fond memories of his time there, he has no regrets about leaving.
“I got involved in Scientology when I was still quite young,” he recalled. “I was living in Southern California and was part of the hippie culture. I was very actively involved in the anti-war movement, and was a voracious reader.”
Hawkins had experimented with the drugs culture, read Eastern philosophy and dabbled in the ancient Chinese divination system, the I Ching. “Like a lot of my generation, I was searching for a higher reality, beyond the shallow façade of 1960's society. But Eastern philosophy wasn't making it for me - too esoteric for a Western mind.
“When a friend told me about Scientology, it seemed like exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. It was spiritual, yet with a basis, they said, in science. You were told to try it for yourself, and make your own decision about whether it worked or not.”
Back then, he said, Scientology centres were packed with hundreds of young people just like him. “There was an atmosphere of incredible excitement and discovery.”
Hawkins was impressed by a video of the founder, L. Ron Hubbard talking. “He seemed to be a nice guy, very warm and friendly. He wasn't at all arrogant or didactic, but seemed to be a fascinating guy who had travelled all over the world and investigated all kinds of different civilizations.”
It was only after he left Scientology that he discovered that independent researchers had dismissed many of the claims Hubbard made about his life as lies.
Hawkins remembers the powerful effect that some of the early courses had on him. In one exercise, he recalled: “I had an experience of feeling out of my body and very serene.” Other exercises helped him get over his shyness and become more outgoing.
He had extremely vivid ‘past life’ experiences, he said. Scientologists believe that we have all lived past lives and that these can be recovered using the movement’s techniques.
“I also agreed with the aims of Scientology, which were to create a civilization without war, ignorance and insanity,” he said. So he decided to sign up as a full-time staff member.
“Once I was on staff, I began to encounter the ‘dark side’ of Scientology, particularly the late nights, no sleep, no pay, and the abuse of staff who didn't perform to expectations.
“Frankly, I blamed all this on a few individuals who had gotten in control, and believed they would soon be gone, and justice and sanity would triumph. This is sort of what you tell yourself. All this will pass.”
He recalled a constant sense of crisis and urgency inside the movement. “We were told that Scientology was at war with psychiatry and the big drug cartels, who were spending billions to wipe out Scientology.
“We didn't have billions, so we had to work harder and work all night and work for little or no pay, because we had to win the war. And anyone who didn't exert enough effort or who fell behind on quotas was ‘working for the enemy.’” And at the time, he believed it.
Then he was transferred to International Base near Hemet, California, where the most senior executives worked alongside the movement’s leader, David Miscavige.
“I could write a book on conditions at that Base,” said Hawkins. “They were bad when I got there, and went down from there.”
It was not just the long hours, the tight security and the constant pressure, he said. “There is a high incidence of physical and emotional abuse. I was made to run around buildings – up to two miles in street shoes – and thrown in a freezing lake.”
He also had to sit through many late-night meetings during which Miscavige would harangue and browbeat senior executives, accusing them of being incompetent and “suppressive” – an enemy of Scientology. On several occasions, he saw Miscavige physically assault members of staff – and on several occasions he was the target.
“Ultimately I decided that this was no longer the group I had joined, and that the goals I believed in had been betrayed, and that it was never, never going to get any better. At that point I decided to leave.
“I was given 500 dollars’ ‘severance pay’ and basically put out on the street. Fortunately I had a bit of personal money and so was not destitute. A friend of mine literally had to live on the street for two weeks before he found his feet.
“I had no one to go to. My closest friends were still Scientologists and I was told that I could not contact them. This is ‘disconnection’. Any Scientologist in good standing has to disconnect from anyone who had been declared suppressive, as I had been.
“I had no friends outside Scientology. I literally picked a city at random drove up there, checked into a motel and started looking for an apartment. I found one in three days, then began job hunting.”
After 35 years in Scientology, Hawkins has built a new life for himself. But while he is ready to denounce the abuses he says are still going on inside the movement, he takes a balanced view of his time inside the movement
“No, I don't consider my time in Scientology a waste. I made many close friends and knew many wonderful people. I learned a lot of skills over the years. I had a lot of adventures and travelled the world. And I also learned a lot about groups and what can go wrong with them.”
People should avoid stereotyping members of the movement, he says. “Some people have the idea, I think, that Scientologists – or members of any cult or similar organization – are just mindless, brainwashed zombies. It just isn't true.
“By and large, they are intelligent, well-meaning and dedicated people. Some of the finest people I have ever known, in fact.”
But he added: “They are controlled through methods that are not limited to Scientology, things like peer pressure, milieu control, manipulation of purposes, goals and ideals, guilt, shame, the need to belong, the desire for purpose and meaning in life. Thus they can be trapped and used.”
For a detailed account of his time in Scientology, see Jeff Hawkins' blog: “Counterfeit Dreams”.