Understanding Scientology, by Margery Wakefield - Next - Previous


Coming Out of Scientology: The Nightmare Ends, The Nightmare Begins

For weeks after I left I would suddenly feel spacy and hear the cult leader saying, "You'll always come back. You are one with us. You can never separate." I'd forget where I was. I got so frightened once that I slapped my face to make it stop.
-- ex-cult member, quoted in Prison or Paradise

The last time I ever witnessed a movement that had these qualifications: (1) a totally monolithic movement with a single point of view and a single authoritarian head; (2) replete with fanatical followers who are prepared and programmed to do anything their master says; (3) supplied by absolutely unlimited funds; (4) with a hatred of everyone on the outside; (5) with suspicion of parents, against their parents -- the last movement that had those qualifications was the Nazi youth movement, and I'll tell you, I'm scared.
-- Rabbi Maurice Davis, Youth, Brainwashing and the Extremist Cults

For me, by far the most difficult part of my Scientology experience was in leaving the cult. Being a Scientologist was not always easy -- the work was hard, the hours long, and the pay almost nonexistent. For the most part we had to be satisfied with the intangible rewards of knowing we were helping to rescue the planet and save mankind.

There were some good things about being a Scientologist. One has the pleasure of working with a group of similarly committed friends toward a goal which seems at the time to be worthwhile. There is always plenty to do, and one has the satisfaction of working hard and completing challenging tasks. Because of the communal lifestyle, there are always people to be with and to talk to. In Scientology, as in many cults, it is hard to be lonely.

I worked over a twelve year period at many different jobs in the organization. I traveled up the "Grade Chart" through the various Scientology Levels and completed three of the secret "upper levels," or "OT levels," to a point where I was supposed to have regained some of my magical, long lost "OT abilities," such as the ability to travel outside my body at will and the ability to be "at cause" over physical objects.

My personal demise within Scientology came at the exact point that I began to utter the one thing a good Scientologist must never say -- a simple three-word phrase that is guaranteed to get one excommunicated from Scientology: "It doesn't work."

I was at the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Florida, Scientology's "mecca of technical perfection" where celebrities and the well-to-do from home and abroad casually write out hundred thousand dollar checks as they pursue the elusive promises of "the Tech."

My auditing, paid for by a sixteen thousand dollar inheritance from my grandmother, was not going well. Nothing was happening. Where were the magical "gains" I had been promised?

I had become a problem, a liability, to the organization. I was complaining a bit too publicly. The emperor had no clothes, but as long as no one said so, the game could go on. I was trying to spoil all the fun.

For several weeks I was confined to a room on the second floor of the hotel. Meals were brought to my room. One evening I was told to pack. The next morning I was escorted to the airport in Tampa where I was told to pick any place out of the state of Florida, and to go there. I was being given a one-way ticket.

I was in shock. I knew what this meant. I was being "offloaded" (Scientology's form of exile). I was no longer welcome in Scientology, which had been my world for twelve years.

I flew back to Wisconsin, where my parents were living. My father met me at the airport. Soon I was sitting in the living room of my parents' home, staring at the snow drifting outside the window, trying to assemble my fractured sense of reality into some kind of coherent and workable mental order.

For the first week, all I could do was work a huge jigsaw puzzle of Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany. Slowly fitting the pieces together seemed to correspond to an internal process taking place in my mind. I was still unable to think.

I noticed that when my father turned on the television, there were periods of time when I would stare at the screen, yet the words of the announcer were in a foreign language. I knew that was strange, because my father was understanding it just fine.

My relationship to reality was tenuous for a long time. I had periods of "floating" when I experienced a strange feeling of being disconnected from everything around me, and felt blissfully apart from it all.

The bliss was short-lived. Feelings of terror soon emerged as I began to deal with my predicament. I had been exiled from Scientology and would probably be declared "SP" (Suppressive Person), a death sentence not just for this short lifetime, but for trillions of years to come. It was a scary thought.

For the first few weeks, I couldn't go anywhere by myself. I felt too fragile. Even walking around the block by myself became a major challenge. The sudden and unexpected rejection by the cult had caused a complete loss of psychic cohesion that would take months to rebuild. I was, to be blunt, a "basket case."

Even though I had been a computer programmer while in the cult, the only work I could do now was to work as a waitress. It didn't require any complex thought. The physical work was actually therapeutic; concentrating on menial tasks helped me to pull my mind back together.

It wasn't until eighteen months later that I went through my post-cult "crisis." I began to feel an unfamiliar emotion boiling up inside me -- anger. I had given them everything for twelve years: my time, energy, any money I had, my inheritance. How could they just throw me out?

The more the anger brewed, the more I was forced to search for an outlet. I began to have dangerous thoughts, suppressive thoughts. One night, I picked up the phone and called a lawyer, one I knew to be anti-Scientology. This was a clearly suppressive act, and I was terrified.

The lawyer asked me some questions and promised to send me some information to read. The knowledge that I had committed a suppressive act threw me into a suicidal crisis. I was tormented with guilt for what I had done. I got in my father's car and drove through the town, trying to decide what to do. Finally, I stopped at a phone booth and looked through the yellow pages. I called the local hospital and explained to the person at the other end of the line that I was in trouble.

A man's voice came on the line, and he gave me directions to the hospital. I was surprised to find that he was a priest. He took me to the cafeteria and asked me questions about Scientology. Later he took me to the house of a couple who had a son in the Moonies. I stayed there for the weekend and with their help began to recover my balance.

After that, I made progress. I began to read books about other cults, thinking maybe that would not be quite as "suppressive" as reading anti-Scientology books. Seeing the similarities between the other cults and Scientology was what finally helped me to snap out of Scientology.

I visited a religious bookstore in search of books about cults, and happened to pick up a book about Christianity, which was my religion before the cult. One night, while reading all these books, I was struck with a startling realization. All these cult leaders were saying they were God -- but there could only be one God. Which one was it?

In an instant, I realized that Hubbard was not God. And at the exact instant I had that thought, I experienced something miraculous. I snapped out of Scientology. I jolted awake as if an invisible hypnotist had snapped his fingers. A light went on in my mind. Hubbard was wrong, Scientology was wrong. And I was free. That was my turning point.

Soon after that, I returned to Florida to begin my long legal battle with the cult. I had to do something to channel the anger I felt toward the cult or the anger would destroy me.

People do not understand how long it can take to recover from the experience of a destructive cult. Just as veterans from the battlefield go through an extended period of post-traumatic stress disorder, so do refugees from a cult.

It is ironic to me that I spent twelve years in the cult, and it has taken me another twelve years to fully recover from the experience. It has been an expensive lesson.

Margaret Singer, the American Family Foundation and others have written about some of the problems facing the former cult member. I will relate these to my own experience.

The one problem shared by almost all former members of any cult is depression. There is a loss of friends left behind, the loss of years wasted, and the loss of innocence and self-esteem. Dr. John Clark of Harvard University writes:

A person who comes out of a cult has been plunged into a grief state. He has lost something, and it can't be returned. These feelings must be dealt with by the therapist as though he were dealing with the real elements of grief. There is a real loss. Something has died. The person cannot go back. He has a right to grieve and mourn. (1)

Another big problem for many former cult members is loneliness. During my twelve years in Scientology, I was hardly ever alone. The loneliness I felt when I was out of the cult was devastating. The cult provides a natural support network that can only be acquired with time and effort outside the cult.

Margaret Singer writes:

Leaving a cult also means leaving many friends, a brotherhood with common interests, and the intimacy of sharing a very significant experience. It means having to look for new friends in an uncomprehending or suspicious world. (2)

Another problem that was difficult for me was making decisions. Especially small decisions. What to order from a menu. What to wear. What to do with free time. Which station to watch on television. Which way to walk when taking a walk. Many times I was afraid to make a decision out of fear that I would make the wrong decision, even when there was no wrong decision.

Learning to waste time is still a problem for me after living for so many years in the time-structured world of Scientology, where we had to graph our production every hour of the day. It is still hard for me to waste time, watch television, read a book for pleasure, go to the mall, go to a movie. There is still a feeling of guilt, but it is diminishing all the time.

Trying not to think or speak in Scientologese was another hurdle in recovery. There are still some words that have no suitable English equivalent, like "ARC break," or "comm lag." Every once in a while I revert to a word in the cult language, but this habit also seems to be diminishing with time.

My confidence was shaken by my experience with Scientology. After all, if I could be that wrong once, why couldn't it happen again? I am much more conservative about my beliefs now than I was while in the cult, and much less likely to share them with others.

Scientology threatened my life when I first decided to initiate a lawsuit, and there is always the fear of retribution. I cannot take my personal safety for granted, and I frequently have dreams -- nightmares -- about the cult.

It is very hard to explain my experience in the cult to people who ask me things like, "You're so smart. How could you ever have gotten involved with a group like that?" Trying to explain the complexities of mind control in Scientology to someone who has had no equivalent experience is difficult, if not impossible.

I had to deal with guilt feelings after I found out for myself that Scientology was wrong, because while in the cult I had persuaded several other people to become involved, including one who signed a billion year contract to work for the Sea Org.

There were other problems. When I came out of Scientology, I was twelve years behind my peers in terms of finances and career. I had the equivalent of a Ph.D. in Scientology. After I had snapped out of Scientology, I burned all my Scientology certificates. Starting back in school with much younger classmates intensified my feelings of alienation and failure.

There is also the syndrome of being "elite no more." In Scientology, as in many other cults, we believed we were the elite of the planet. Coming back to reality was a humbling experience. I had also believed in Scientology that I would be immune from diseases and from a normal death (I believed that on the "OT levels" I would gain the ability to leave my body at will at death). Becoming an ordinary, vulnerable, mortal human being was also an adjustment.

And there is the dilemma of what to put on job resumes for the years spent in the cult. It is not something one can tell most employers.

When I snapped out of Scientology, my problems were by no means over. I had to deal with a tremendous amount of anger toward the cult. I also found that in many ways I was, emotionally, right where I had been when I joined the cult. All those adolescent problems were right there where they had been twelve years ago -- family problems, identity problems. Emotionally, the years in the cult were a period of arrested growth.

Most cult members face a spiritual and ideological void when exiting the cult. The cult provided answers for a great many questions. After as spiritually intense an experience as Scientology, it becomes necessary to fill the void with something else, a process that can take some time.

I think what made recovery from my cult experience the hardest was the fact that so few people, and especially professionals, were able to understand what I was going through I am sure it is not too different from the feelings of a veteran returning from Vietnam, or the victim of a rape. The people who were best able to understand and to be supportive were other former cult members.

When I first came out of Scientology, I thought it was an experience I would never be able to live with. I thought that my life had been irreparably destroyed. The real victory for me now is that my experience with Scientology has become an integrated part of my life. It no longer dominates my life or my thinking. It has become an accepted part of my past.

There are other victories. Sometimes when I am in the bookstore in the mall, I see someone picking up a copy of the Dianetics book. I go up to them and tell them, "You don't want to read that book. That book is about Scientology, a destructive and satanic cult. I know. I was in it for twelve years. I don't want you to go through the nightmare I've been through."

Usually they are happy for the advice, and they put the book back on the shelf.

In the few cases where they don't, I see them walk out of the store with the book, and I know that just as my nightmare ends, theirs is about to begin.

But the greatest victory of all for me is that no matter how tough life gets or what kind of battle I am having to fight -- I know it could always be worse.

I could still be in Scientology.


  1. Appel, p. 158
  2. Article by Dr. Margaret Singer, "Coming Out of the Cults, " in Psychology Today, January 1979, p. 76

Contents - Next - Previous