Leaving the Fold

Third-generation Scientologist grows disillusioned with faith

Chronicle Religion/February 12, 2001
By Don Lattin

Astra Woodcraft, apostate and defector, is the latest enemy of the Church of Scientology. Woodcraft, 22, never really joined this controversial psycho-spiritual movement, at least not as a free-thinking adult. Astra was born into it. Founded in the 1950s by L. Ron Hubbard, a prolific science fiction writer and freelance philosopher, Scientology describes itself as "the only major new religion established in the 20th century," as a bridge to increased awareness and spiritual freedom. Woodcraft, a third-generation Scientologist, paints a different picture.

Recruited at age 14 into the movement's elite "Sea Organization," Woodcraft describes a brave new world of authoritarianism, greed and spiritual manipulation. Two generations of her family have been torn apart by Scientology. Holding her 2-year-old daughter, Kate, in her arms, Woodcraft vows that there will be no fourth generation in her clan. "I don't want her to have any connection to Scientology," said Woodcraft.

All cults have problems with apostates, insiders who leave the fold and denounce their former faith. But the Church of Scientology plays hardball with defectors, investigators and others seen as church enemies. "They are very hard on apostates," said Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara and the author of a recent scholarly study on the Church of Scientology. Church leaders make no apologies for their vigorous defense of the faith. "Scientology is something people feel very, very strongly about," said Jeff Quiros, a church spokesman in San Francisco. "It's not a go-to-church-on- Sunday kind of religion. It's an intense religion. If people get in your way, they need to be dealt with one way or another."

Two ways the church deals with critics are lawsuits, its own undercover investigations and public denunciations of those attacking the church. "Make it rough, rough on attackers all the way," Hubbard once advised his troops. "Start feeding lurid blood, sex crime, actual evidence on the attack to the press." Given those instructions, it is not surprising how church leaders responded to Woodcraft's allegations.

"She has made a decision in her life that her religious values and what she got from Scientology - how it saved her from drugs and a life of promiscuity and petty crime - are all irrelevant," said international church spokesman Aron Mason. "Now she's hoping the Church of Scientology will pay her to shut up." Somewhere between Woodcraft's Orwellian tale and Mason's fierce response is a lesson - a story about how authoritarian movements deal with the anger and apostasy of children raised in their midst.

Born in England to Scientology parents, Astra Woodcraft came to the United States when she was 7 years old. Her mother, Leslie, had crossed the Atlantic to attend "advanced auditing sessions" at a large Scientology training center in Clearwater, Fla. Scientology is based on the precepts of Hubbard's 1950 book, "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health."

Practitioners at Scientology centers around the world hook themselves up to a simple electric device - an "e-meter" - for "auditing" sessions that purport to measure thoughts and emotional reactions, known in Scientology parlance as "engrams." Their goal is to attain a psychological and spiritual state called "clear," where they are said to overcome compulsions, repressions and other self- generated diseases and psychoses. "Clears" are then sold advanced training sessions to become "operating thetans," spiritual beings said to possess such supernatural powers as the ability to leave their bodies.

Operating as a thetan does not come cheap. Scientologists purchasing 12.5 hours of advanced auditing, for example, are asked to make a "donation" of between $12,100 and $15,125. Graduates purportedly achieve "a new viewpoint of sanity and rationality."

It was the lure of supernatural powers that attracted Astra's father, Lawrence Woodcraft, to Scientology. His story begins in San Francisco in 1974. Woodcraft had just finished his university education in England, earned his architect's license, and was in the city on vacation. "I was wandering around the city, and someone came up to me and asked if I wanted a free personality test," Woodcraft recalled. Intrigued, he walked into the Scientology office in San Francisco. "It seemed kind of weird to me," he said. "They put me on the e-meter. They'd stare at me and ask me to define words." Back in London, Woodcraft signed up for an introductory Scientology course.

"Psychotherapy is the hook that gets you in," he said. "Then they promise to reveal higher levels, and the secret to life itself." Woodcraft's involvement deepened in 1977, when he married Leslie, who worked in the Scientology office in London. Astra was born in 1978, followed five years later by her sister, Zoe. In 1986, Lawrence said, the family got a call from Leslie in Florida. She had joined the Church of Scientology's Sea Organization, an intense cadre of true believers, and wanted her family to join her in the States.

Woodcraft flew to Florida with Astra, Zoe and his 12-year-old stepson from his wife's previous marriage. "I hated it," Astra said. "All five of us lived in one little cockroach- ridden motel room." Rather than working as an architect, the church position he thought he had landed, Woodcraft said he was assigned to a job monitoring Scientology auditors. "They told me to just do what I was told," he said. "They said now that you've joined the Sea Org, you have to join the greater purpose of clearing the planet."

Astra said her mother was working long shifts in Clearwater. "We hardly ever saw my mom," she said. "At some point, I was moved into a dorm." Later, the entire family was transferred to Scientology's international headquarters in Hollywood. Astra said her formal education stopped at age 9.

Over the next few years, she was sent to a series of makeshift schools run by Scientologists. "There were no lessons, and hardly any books," she said. "Mostly, we just hung around." California law requires that minors receive at least 20 hours of schooling per week. "We were only getting five or six hours a week," Astra said.

When she was 14, young Woodcraft was recruited to follow her mother's footsteps and join the Sea Organization. From age 14 to 19, she said, she was working from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., laboring for months without a day off, doing administrative work at the church world headquarter building in Hollywood. "Every week, you're supposed to do more than the week before," she said. "You are in such a state of paranoia. All these kids are running around yelling at you. They'll come up to you and yell, `What are you doing! Your statistics are down! What are your crimes?' "

Scientology leaders concede that the 5,882 members in its Sea Organization - including about 500 under the age of 18 - work long hours. But they said the Sea Org is a volunteer religious organization - like the Jesuits of the Roman Catholic Church - and thus exempt from child labor laws. Church leaders also stress that members of the Sea Org practice a very intense form of Scientology. It's much different, they say, from the larger worldwide body of rank-and-file Scientologists, who engage in a more individualized approach to the Hubbard philosophy.

Scientology spokesman Aron Mason, who worked with Astra at the church headquarters on Hollywood Boulevard, defended the schooling of minors in the church's Sea Organization. They receive at least 20 hours of self-directed education using a series of check sheets based on L. Ron Hubbard's innovative "study technology," he said. Members are brought into the Sea Org at an early age, Mason said, to "begin learning the fundamentals of the religion." Much of that training, he concedes, is administrative work, but he insists that is still part of their religious training. Mason took two visitors on a tour of the offices where Astra worked. Rows of filing cabinets and charts showing the growth of Scientology organizations around the world, line the walls.

Sea Org members in mock navy uniforms - a vestige from the days when Hubbard ran Scientology from a ship in the Mediterranean - bustle about the church offices. This is the command center for a network of 170 Scientology churches, training centers and affiliated organizations representing a purported 8 million adherents around the world. Outside experts say that figure is greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, there is no question the Church of Scientology has become one of the wealthiest and most successful of the many new religious movements born in the last half of the 20th century. "These are the most dedicated Scientologists on the planet," Mason said of the workers in the Hollywood office. "This is the mother church. You only understand it if you compare it to other religious orders."

Down the hall at Scientology headquarters, young Sea Org recruits practice using the e-meter by firing questions at a large teddy bear subbing for a counseling client. "Has anything been repressed?" they ask the stuffed animal. "Has anything been invalidated? Do you have a present-time problem? Is there an earlier time when someone said you had a present-time problem and you didn't have one?" It's a strange scene, Mason concedes, but designed to give counselors-in- training a safe way to practice using the e-meter. "If we did this with real people," he said, "we could get people very spiritually muddled up." Working here are devotees such as Kenny Davies, a Sea Org "director of correction," whose job consists of supervising counselors engaged in study and auditing sessions. "If there is some imperfect functioning area of the organization, I step in and find out what the difficulty is," he said.

Davies, 28, joined the Sea Org cadets when he was just 10 years old. His mother, a recently divorced single mom with three children, got involved in Scientology in St. Louis in 1977, when Davies was 4. Davies went to Scientology schools, and said he prefers the independent study to the regular classes he attended during a brief time in public school. "My learning curve went way up," he said. "I was able to duplicate faster - to grasp knowledge - faster than usual." Today, Davies lives and works on a Los Angeles street named L. Ron Hubbard Way, which runs through a cluster of converted hospital buildings taken over by the Church of Scientology.

Members of the Sea Org are provided food and housing, and given a small stipend of $45 to $50 a week to buy personal items. "What I'm doing is not like working at McDonald's," he said. "I'm not doing it because I have to. I'm doing it because I love it, and because it makes me happy to help people." In December 1999, Davies married another Sea Org recruit, moving out of his dormitory "berthing" and into a private room with his new wife. Like most Sea Org couples, they understand that they are not supposed to have children. "I am very focused and busy doing what I want to do," he said. "My wife feels very much the same way."

Astra Woodcraft says she was tricked into joining the Sea Org over lunch with Scientology recruiters at a Denny's restaurant in Hollywood. She was offered a job at Bridge Publications, she said, which publishes books by L. Ron Hubbard. "In the regular Sea Org, they only pay you $45 a week, but Bridge is a for- profit company, so they have to pay minimum wage, about $300 a week," she said. "I thought it would be great. I was 14, and I'd be making $300 a week." Astra signed the standard billion-year contract promising loyalty to the Sea Org. "They say you join the Sea Org for a billion years, and every time you die you get a 21-year leave of absence between lifetimes," she said. "It's ridiculous." Once she signed up, however, Astra was told she would be working, not at Bridge Publications, but for Scientology's international justice chief for $45 a week as a secretary.

At age 15, she married a 22-year-old Scientologist who also grew up in the movement. That same year, Woodcraft became an "ethics officer" authorized to mete out punishment to anyone breaking Scientology rules. It's not uncommon in the Sea Org to have young teenagers supervising and disciplining other members two or three times their age, she said. "It's like in (George Orwell's novel) `1984,' when they have all the kids spying on their parents," she said.

Meanwhile, Astra's mother and father got divorced. Her dad left Scientology, hoping his two daughters would eventually follow his lead. Those hopes brightened when her paternal grandmother died, and Astra persuaded her wary Scientology bosses to let her attend the funeral in England. "They are paranoid about external influences," she said. "They are worried that if people get too much of a glimpse of normal life, they'll want to leave. " Her week in England with her father and his family did give Astra a window to another world. She began thinking of ways to get out of her marriage, and out of Scientology. Her solution, strange as it seems, was to get pregnant. "If you get pregnant, they'll send you to one of their smaller, lower-level organizations. In reality, you're very heavily pressured to get an abortion, but I figured it was my only way to get out."

Church leaders say Scientology has no policy on abortion, leaving the choice up to individual couples. But Melton, the new religious scholar, said the Sea Organization does discourage procreation among Sea Org couples. "They don't look at children as a resource, but as a problem," he said. "Children take people off-line, so they discourage members of the Sea Org from having children." With that knowledge, Astra Woodcraft decided to get pregnant, but not tell her husband.

Two months later, Woodcraft suddenly left her husband, and her religion. She got a day off from work, and never went back. Instead, she headed to the airport, intent on fleeing to England, seeking refuge with her relatives, and having her baby there. Her brother and a Scientology security guard intercepted her at Los Angeles International Airport, she said, even trying to grab her ticket.

Woodcraft got on the plane. Once in England, however, her family and church leaders persuaded her to return to Los Angeles and take the formal steps required to officially leave the Sea Org. That included submitting to a "confessional," admitting her misdeeds and signing a nondisclosure statement. "I had to promise I'd never say anything to anyone, and that I was a really bad person, and did all these horrible things, and that the church never did anything wrong and did great things for me," said Woodcraft, who does not consider the statement a legal contract.

Woodcraft said she signed the statement to avoid being declared a "suppressive," the Scientology ex-communication order forbidding family and friends in the church from having any contact with her. "If you're not raised in Scientology, this all sounds crazy. But when you're brought up in it, it's all you know," she said. "You think there's something wrong with you for wanting to leave." In July 1998, Woodcraft received a detailed bill from the Church of Scientology International office in Los Angeles demanding payment for all the "free" training courses and auditing sessions she had received while in the Sea Org. The total amount was $89,526.

Today, Astra lives in her father's Van Nuys home with her 2-year-old daughter and 16-year-old sister, who left the church last year. Her mother and stepbrother remained in the Sea Org, along with her maternal grandmother. According to Astra and Lawrence Woodcraft, their family has spent at least $100,000 of inherited money on Scientology classes. Her mother, Leslie Woodcraft, declined to be interviewed. But in a written statement, she charged that Astra was "being conned by people from the Lisa McPherson Trust," an anti-Scientology group in Florida that is trying to "pry money out of Scientology."

"Both of my daughters were raised in Scientology," Leslie Woodcraft wrote. "Both of my daughters are free to make their own decisions about their spiritual futures." Meanwhile, Lawrence Woodcraft was officially declared a "suppressive person" by the very office that once employed his daughter. His alleged crimes included his "efforts to assist blown staff members." That is Scientology lingo for helping his two daughters leave the church. Now it's Astra who finds herself on the verge of excommunication. "They tell people they have to get family members into agreement with Scientology, or disconnect," Astra said. "They split up families."

Scientology officials see it differently. Astra, they say, is the one who violated the tenets of the church and disgraced her family. It was the church, they say, that kept Astra from drugs and petty crime. And it is Astra, they contend, who is attempting to extort money by working with the Lisa McPherson Trust, which has a civil suit pending against the church. As proof, Mason provided a copy of the May 1998 affidavit Astra signed to be released from her billion-year, multilife Sea Org contract. In it she admits to such crimes as getting into "yelling matches with my boss" and taking nylons from a Sea Org colleague. She also said five years in Sea Org "stopped me from becoming more unethical and it saved my relationship with my family and stopped me from going downhill."

As for the church's assertion that Scientology saved her from drugs, Woodcraft said her illegal drug use was limited to experimentation with marijuana. She also denied Mason's charges that she is trying to get money from the Church of Scientology or that she has received money from anti-Scientology groups. "I'm not looking for any money, and I'm not suing them," she said. "I had something to say, and now I just want to get on with my life."

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