Wednesday, March 20, 2013

#13 (2013/CBR5) "Beyond Belief" by Jenna Miscavige Hill

I find religion kind of fascinating: why people are drawn to it; different beliefs; how religion affects society; whether religion in the world does more harm or more good. For myself, I was raised as a protestant Christian by a mother who regularly went to church and a father who made fun of the ridiculousness of prayer. The peak of my religious life was in middle and high school when I was involved in some church youth groups. But I am a very idealistic, all-or-nothing kind of person. If I were going to be religious, then I would believe with all my heart and dedicate my life to it. Instead, the hypocrisy I saw around me was disillusioning. I eventually discovered that as much as I wanted the comfort of believing in something bigger than me, directing my life and watching out for me, I would have been lying to myself. I kind of avoid labels, but I guess now I'd probably call myself an atheist. I am moved by the natural beauty and power of nature, by beautiful music and art, by selfless actions of others, and even by other people's spirituality. But I see just some of the suffering that's in this world, and I think that if there is a God, this God would be dealing with some of that hopelessness before caring about my trivial problems--especially who wins Grammy awards and the Super Bowl.

As far as organized religion, I'm not a big fan. I know there's a positive feeling of community in belonging to a church and many churches do important charity work, helping others in need. I like this stuff. My mother now belongs to a very nice church that focuses on helping others and not on telling people what to think or believe. I'd almost want to join it myself except that I still don't believe in God. What I don't like is that it seems the more powerful the church, and the more hierarchical, the more time and energy is spent on consolidating power, and the good stuff gets pushed to the side. Now, I've heard bits and pieces of the crazy that is Scientology, but I've always been a little fuzzy on the details. After having read Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape (2013) by Jenna Miscavige Hill (with Lisa Pulitzer), I think Scientology is on the far side of the power-grabbing spectrum of religion--although a cult may be a more accurate term.

Beyond Belief is the very personal story of Jenna [Miscavige] Hill, the niece of the current Scientology leader David Miscavige, and her life growing up and eventually getting out of Scientology. Jenna's parents moved to Los Angeles and became members of the Sea Org when she was only about two years old. After the move, Jenna rarely saw her parents. And when she was moved to the "Ranch" at about six years old, she saw them even less. Hill presents a pretty harrowing picture of Scientology that involves tearing families apart, manipulation, controlling behavior, manual labor, and more. Because Hill was a part of Scientology since she was a child, she had almost no knowledge of the outside world, she was afraid of Wogs (non-Scientologists) and didn't realize for a long time that there was more out there and she could think for herself. Because of her uncle's high standing in the church, a lot of pressure was put on her to keep up the family name.

The ridiculousness of it all was pretty overwhelming: the stupid, controlling rules--no cell phones or television, the hierarchy, the stuff with the cans and e-readers. I sometimes felt like I was reading a science-fiction novel rather than a true account of something that just recently happened in the United States. A surprising page turner, I ended this with an appreciation for Hill's strength and courage; this was definitely a book worth reading.

However, in some ways this book left me with even more questions. Because this was a personal story of what happened to Jenna Miscavige, it did not give much detail on the beginning of Scientology or L. Ron Hubbard, why people are drawn to it, how those e-meter things are supposed to work, why people would join the Sea Org, or more information on the differences between the Sea Org members and public Scientologists. In addition, I often wanted more information on Jenna's story. What were her parents thinking when they basically gave up their children to become members of Sea Org? I imagine this still might be a sensitive issue in the family with unresolved guilt and anger on each side, but she could have delved much deeper on many issues.

In addition, Beyond Belief sometimes felt a little short on emotional detail and explanation. When Jenna meets her future husband, she says that he's cute. When they're not allowed to marry for months and months, she says they were frustrated and eventually had sex out of wedlock. Perhaps it's unfair to demand a baring of your soul from anyone who chooses to write about their life, especially when that person was forced to expose every aspect of their lives in humiliating detail through forced "security checks" and audits. But this book did sometimes feel more like a dispassionate recitation of facts than a real glimpse into someone's thoughts and feelings.

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