The Freewinds cruise ship is the Holy Grail for any dedicated Scientologist: a coveted destination where members can mingle with rich and powerful A-listers - for a price.
Hollywood celebrities, such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Lisa Marie Presley and Kirstie Alley, and top-ranking management - most notably leader David Miscavige - have attended extravagant parties on Freewinds.
It was here that Cruise celebrated his 42nd birthday and, in a famous video clip, was seen wildly singing and dancing on stage, while scenes from his most popular movies played on a loop behind him.
Described by the Church as ‘a religious retreat ministering the most advanced level of spiritual counseling in the Scientology religion’, the ship is where Cruise was said to have been holed up when completing his very final level in Scientology, Operating Thetan VIII, which members believe signifies complete enlightenment.
Meanwhile, down in the engine room of Freewinds, quality of life could not be more different. It serves as a ‘prison’ for punishing members of Scientology’s hardcore sect, the Sea Org.
Australian Ramana Dienes-Browning was a Sea Org member who signed a 'billion-year contract' with Scientology and, like many others who have escaped from the Church, tell of appalling working conditions.
The now 36-year-old endured ten years of hell, five of them what she calls ‘imprisoned’ on the ship.
In a searing exclusive interview with DailyMail.com, Ramana reveals what it was like to be a member of Scientology.
‘A lot of the celebrities use Scientology like a free thinking movement: "I’m all powerful, I can bring my own reality."
'I don’t think they believe that there are people like me in an engine room. They might know people get corrected, but they don’t understand the reality of it,’ Ramana said, speaking from her home in the Blue Mountains, just outside Sydney.
‘They’d come, go scuba diving, have their own cabin, eat in the officer’s mess, have their own waiter and cook, meanwhile Sea Org members are not sleeping, not eating, passing out, and some of them are literally cleaning their crap in the bilge.’
Ramana joined the ship at the tender age of 15, when her parents gave away their guardian rights to the Church and saw that power being abused. She was brought up in Scientology through her mother, a devout member, but her father stayed out.
‘We grew up using a different language, using code.
'I’d be five, I’d say: “I’ve committed an overt”, not “I’ve done something wrong.” I’d write letters to Ron [founder L.Ron Hubbard] all the time, he was our Jesus, I thought that was cool, I didn’t know anything else. I totally took it as truth.
‘I was doing [Scientology] courses from the age of seven, like auditing. Some of it would be talking about sexual experiences. No way should a girl talk to an adult man about that sort of thing without it being a qualified psychologist. That happened over and over again,' she said.
But it was on a supposed ‘holiday’ on board the Freewinds that life would change for her forever. A keen ballet performer, the young teen thought that she’d have a career as a dancer.
‘I was training seriously, I’d even left school to do full-time ballet, that was my dream. They’d tried to recruit me before, and I’d always said no. But when I got to the ship, I was out of my normal environment. I was 15, I thought it was exciting, we get to go on the world famous Freewinds.
‘The recruiters would not leave me alone, I spent hours in their office while my mother did courses, they’d made me read all about the Sea Org and why it’s so important, the world is in crisis, how you are needed to save it, it was total indoctrination.
'It got heavier and heavier during the week, they’d follow me everywhere. It makes me shudder now. I eventually said I’d sign a contract to say that when I finished my ballet career, I’d join the Sea Org. It’s a billion-year contract, it’s ridiculous.
‘But, once I signed it, they came on hard, they said I had to come as soon as possible. I was terrified. They brought in Commanding Officers to say I’d never make it as a dancer, you’ll never change the world, screaming at me, I was in trauma.
'As a 15-year-old, it was confusing and overwhelming. There was one point my brain cracked, I had this vision of ballet on one side and the world on fire on the other, and I had a hose, I thought I had to do it.
‘I had to go back, tell my ballet teachers, break up with my boyfriend, I didn’t even consider I had an option to change my mind. My dad is not a Scientologist, and he didn’t understand what was happening to me, he thought I was joining Greenpeace, and I thought I was saving the world, so he signed the paperwork, so that a couple on the ship were my legal guardians, my new mum and dad, because I was underage,' she said.
Once on board the ship in 1995, slowly but surely Ramana got a taste of what was to come. The teenager began to question everything - and everyone - in her previous life that didn't conform to the teachings of Scientology.
‘You write out your life history - the good, bad and ugly - then there’s a Security Check on that to make sure you’ve not missed anything out. So as a 15-year-old, a 45-year-old man is asking me questions about my sexual experiences, and this would go on for days and days, 15 hours a day.
'[If] they couldn’t find a room, it was in a dormitory in between two bunk beds. They wouldn’t be all sexual, but they’re obsessed with sexual perversions. This all gets stored in your personnel file.
‘That stayed with me for a long time and then when I joined the Sea Org. it’s meant to be a privilege to work on the ship, but, after two weeks, reality kicked in. I was the youngest on board.
'Over the first few years, they wouldn’t stop trying to convince me that dad was a "Suppressive Person". On that point, they couldn’t crack me.’
Because the ship sails outside of U.S. territory - around the Caribbean, Bahamas and Mexico, with its base being the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao - Ramana realized that different rules applied on board.
’We’re in international waters, so you can literally get away with murder. But to Scientologists, they claim that it’s the only place you can do the highest levels, to be away from the world. It’s just a marketing ploy to get people to spend more money on the courses.’
One of the Sea Org members who had recruited Ramana quickly made his intentions known.
He was a favorite of the Chairman of the Board [COB], David Miscavige, and his celebrity buddies, because of his position working in the VIP bar lounge.
Within a few months, Ramana, who had just turned 16, found herself married and forced into a sexual relationship.
’He was onto me as soon as I entered the ship at 15, he was part of the team trying to recruit me. It was bordering on pedophilia especially as he asked me to marry before I was 16,' Ramana said.
'I just went along with it, he was a favorite of COB’s, he worked in the VIP lounge where the celebrities and executives were when they were on ship, their private space. If they were smoking cigars and drinking whisky that’s where it’d be. It was like seventies kitsch, marble and white leather sofas, a gold-lined bar, supposed to be really VIP, but it looked tacky.
’They wanted him in management. They like to get those sort of people hooked up with a wife, so they’re steady. He had met all the celebrities. He would have met John Travolta, he’s like their servant.
‘It’s very common to get married young in the Sea Org. You’re not allowed to even kiss a girl, it’s impossible to have a relationship without getting married.
'If I was a normal teenager, there’s no way I’d marry that guy. You’d just date and its over. I was 16 in June, and we were married in December. He was 25.
‘We got married in the VIP lounge, his work place. But we barely knew each other. We only saw each other at lunchtimes, it was like a school romance. There’s no help for girls like me, who’d only kissed one boy in my life, to having a husband and expecting to have sex.
‘Then it came up that he’d been masturbating, I got in so much trouble for not satisfying him, this was only after a year of marriage. It’s impossible to keep secrets, every inch of your lives you have to tell them about.
‘I was publicly shamed and called a “f***ing b***h”, really degrading names. I then felt this pressure to do it. I felt totally violated. I’ve had to deal with that as sexual abuse, I wasn’t ready at all emotionally or physically.'
The relationship fizzled as Ramana remained on the ship and her husband went away for training. After two years of being mostly apart they went through a divorce, namely because he needed to distance himself from his ‘trouble-making’ wife.
‘[Scientology] is fine with it, people do it all the time: get married, divorce, four or five times. He needed to distance himself, and I was getting into trouble.
‘They set impossible targets, then you get nailed if you don’t get them. Or you might do something against the policy. They’ll always get you. I was working in the Commodore Messenger Org - we’d run messages for International Management, this was dating back to L. Ron Hubbard days, who had this little army of pert young girls running around for him.
‘We’re like the Gestapo of Freewinds, we’d investigate and interrogate people, ask why production is down in certain areas, which is a crime in Scientology. We’d go through their belongings, we could look through their private files, then we’d find something, and we’d write a program to handle this problem.
‘I wasn’t allowed time off. Up at 8, start at 8.30, you were meant to be in bed by
'Every two weeks, you’d be up for a day off if you could get a replacement, but there’d always be a reason why I couldn’t have the day off. You’d get paid $50 a week and two weeks off at Christmas.
‘I would go out on the deck when allowed and felt no joy for the exquisite beauty of my surroundings: the clear waters, yachts, Caribbean bands playing in the distance. I’d feel nothing, I felt like a slave,' she said.
Time and again, the problem of Ramana's non-Scientologist father came up. They wanted her to fully ‘disconnect’ from him by labeling him as evil and abusive.
‘I thought I was getting help, but no, they were interrogating me. You start making things up to please them, I started to believe that my dad had actually raped me and the next day, I was like that never happened.
'It’s so damn perverted. You’re getting yelled at, and made to think my family sexually abused me.'
Punishment for some members who have committed ‘crimes’ is to go to the lowest deck on board, the bilge, and scoop out the sewage that accumulates there.
‘When you get in trouble, you’re segregated from the crew, generally to do heavy labor in the engine room. There’s sludge, oil, hot, steam everywhere. It’s hardcore.
'The ship is from the 1970s, there’s lots of rooms with pistons, pipes and engines, then there was the bilge where you had to wear gumboots and scoop up sewage. Most of the punishment was cleaning lots and lots of pipework in hot boiler suits. I got to know it really well, I became a really good engineer!
‘They call it the Decks Project Force and you’re made to go on a re-correctional program. First time was because of my dad. I kept thinking that I was evil, there were unknown spirits in me.
‘People coming down to do the services and courses wouldn’t have a clue what goes on. My mum came to visit, and I was on a major re-correction program, below deck in the engine room. I was allowed out, and cleaned up, so we could have dinner. She had no idea, she thought I was so happy and fulfilled in my life.’
Ramana worked in the engine room for roughly a year before she finally attempted a daredevil escape.
‘I was feeling the pressure, so I tried to escape, which is difficult on a boat. I chose a night where I knew it was sailing, I forged all signatures to get my passport, I told the port captain I was being sent out on a rush errand. He ran off the ship to get it cleared through customs.
‘I got to the gangway just before it was set to sail, I got two steps down it, and heard my name being called, I’d been caught.
'Then I was in the engine room for a long time, on a re-correction program for a good year, in the engine room most of it. I’d have oil all over me, and you’d have to wash in diesel to get it off, so you were always smelling, it was such a stigma on ship as people knew you were being punished.'
‘There were mazes of pipes all painted different colors. There was this whole area that had been rusted and it was my task to paint them the right color. The worst job was to de-rust a huge pipe and having to get inside it. It was 11 hours a day in there, 20 minutes for lunch, 20 minutes for dinner, and five hours of study.
'This is what they call reconditioning. You had to run everywhere, and I was still on watch, so couldn’t go anywhere on my own including the toilet. There were many, many days where I wouldn’t see daylight. Cabin to dining room to engine room.’
During the time when Ramana wasn’t incarcerated, she saw first-hand the exclusive world of David Miscavige and his entourage of executives and celebrities; the latter she believes probably have no idea how bad it is down below the ship.
‘Miscavige and other VIPs would come at least once a year for the Maiden Voyage yearly gala; senior management would come more often. I’d have weeks where I’d have two hours a week sleep. I’d be assigned as a runner, and I’m literally just running after them.
‘I was in the kitchen holding this platter of food for COB [Miscavige] and he was in the dining room. I literally just fell asleep and dropped to the ground, thankfully, the food stayed on the plate,' she said.
Ramana was also able to witness Miscavige's infamous habits and desires up close.
'You are his servant, you would do any whim he wanted. I remember I had to find Camel non-filters, as he decided he wanted a cigarette late at night. The only place to get them was the airport, but I had to make it happen.
'One of the few conversations I had with him was in the kitchen, and he came in out of the dining room, and said: “So can you do the Macarena?” I said: “No, sir”. He said: “Are you sure?" I said no again. I wished I could have danced for him, but I just froze. I was a teenager.
‘His room had to be perfect, and only ever used by him: COB’s room. They had hot water enemas in the shower every day, one for him, one for his wife Shelly.
'He had his own maid, Georgia, and I always wondered if she had to administer the enemas. He was obsessed with stuff like that.
‘There had to be no smell in the room, no dust, no light, his window had to have special blackout shades. He’d have make-up on, then he’d come in after ranting and raving at some of his executives, and he’d scream: “Put my make-up on”, after beads of sweats would be running down his face, spoiling the mascara.
‘It was like a holiday for him, scuba diving every day, he didn’t have to say why he was there, just: “Oh, I need to be away from everyone.” Sometimes he’d just come with his bodyguard and secretary, and Shelly would always be with him.’
Finally after five years on the ship, and several failed escape attempts, Ramana threatened to commit suicide with a pocket knife, ironically, engraved with her name and given to her as a Christmas present by the Church.
‘They didn’t realize I was suicidal. I seriously considered it. I’d had one holiday . They were never going to let me leave, I thought it wasn’t ever going to get better.
'I felt I was in this prison of an indefinite sentence. I thought I might as well start all over again, after all, we believe in reincarnation. But I just couldn’t do it to my mum, though.’
Ramana eventually got off the ship after she was deemed a security risk because of her suicide claims. She was moved onto selling Freewind packages across the globe to members of Scientology centres, called Orgs, desperate to go onto the ship and mingle with top celebrities.
‘I was on a world tour going from city to city, doing promotional events trying to sell packages to Freewinds. We’d have income targets to reach, $50,000 a week, and each week we had to make more money.
'It would cost between $3 and $10,000 to go on the ship, that’s for board only, and sharing with three others, no flight, and maybe one basic course.
'We’d send them in groups from five to 30 people. When they get on the ship, they’d get the hard sell to do more courses. The biggest sell is that you can mingle with the top executives, the VIPs, they’re the ones doing the talks and seminars: "Wow, you get to meet the celebrities like Tom Cruise and David Miscavige!"
‘I got to travel Europe and the US, which was great compared to the ship. But it was that repetitive selling to the same Orgs and nothing was really changing. It was still the same every time we visited - people are broke, desperate, trying to pay for their Scientology courses.
'I’ve seen people who’ve lost everything, in debt upto their eyeballs, remortgaged their house, and they’d keep paying more, and still be the same person.
‘I saw this over, and over, and over, again. Hundreds of people. It was then I started doubting everything I held true. I was asking, "What am I doing?"
'I was really passionate: I’d got through the Ship, the engine room, the reconditioning program, I thought I was sending people to the ship so they could be happier, better off and become pillars of their community.
'But I didn’t see Scientology expanding, taking over the world, I was just seeing people struggling.
‘And every year, I’d have to go back to the ship. I’d be security checked, and they’d always find some crime, something we’d done wrong while selling the packages, and I’d get thrown down into the engine room, time after time.’
Ramana couldn't take any more after being sent on another re-conditioning program: this time for selling too many packages.
‘I finally snapped after we started selling too many of the packages, and we got pulled up that it was anti-Scientology. It was then that I realized I hadn’t got control of my own mind. I wanted to leave,' she said.
Ramana's true realization came when she met Jacob, a 'public' Scientologist - or a member who has a career outside of the Church and lives at home - while she was working in Sweden.
‘He got it out of me that I wanted to leave, and he agreed with me. It was totally forbidden for us to speak about this. I refused to get on a plane back to the ship. I knew that I wanted to be with him,' she said.
Eventually, though, Ramana did board another plane back and she went through ‘more hard labor and studies'.
Finally, ten years after joining, in 2004, she was allowed to leave after hours of completing the official exit procedure.
She had a daughter with Jacob and the pair spent a year in England, but Ramana was desperate to return to Sydney to be close to her father, two sisters and brother.
Ramana has also made a series of emotive artwork about her time in Scientology, created using thick paint coated over her leaving papers from the Church.
Despite a partially happy ending, Ramana is still disconnected from her mother Jancis, which she says made her integration into society that much tougher.
’Even now I’m trying to recover, I’ve been mentally unwell, depression, self-harm. Having my dad there, he’s an absolute rock, he’s so supportive.
'I came back into the world, I felt like an outsider, how do you speak like a normal person?
'I had no normal experience of how to build up a friendship, and what does it mean ‘to have a family’? They never wanted you to have a family. People would always say they preferred to stay on the boat than see their family.
‘Now I have no relationship with my mum, it was very strained for years once I’d got out, she was definitely under pressure to cut me off. We disconnected last Christmas.
'We had a final confrontation that she admitted I was going to have to deal with this "Suppressive Person Declare" if we were going to have a relationship. It’s called the 88 steps, you’ve got to grovel to make up "the damage". You could be doing this for years. They’d want me to go volunteering, get donations for the Church. I couldn’t do that. I’ve only just got my freedom back.
‘But Scientology is my mum’s life, for her to allow her brain to question it now, would almost kill her, I don’t know how she would cope with it mentally.
'It’s heartbreaking, I’ve lost my mum to it. But it’s almost better that she’s in it without talking to me, as she doesn’t have this pressure. Scientology policy has forced her to choose between us, it’s evil.
‘It’s a rock and hard place, if she leaves her religion, there’s no reincarnation and she’ll be damned forever. One day I hope I don’t hear that mum has died, but I’m mentally preparing myself for it.
‘For now, my dad and daughter are everything,' Ramana said.
DailyMail.com reached out to Scientology for comment on this story. This is a response given by the media relations team.
'Claims made by Ramana Dienes-Browning are completely false and not backed by any evidence.
'The Freewinds is a religious retreat onboard a 440-foot ship and has impeccable maritime qualifications and is much loved in all of the ports that it visits.
'Ms. Dienes-Browning’s service aboard the Freewinds terminated 13 years ago in November 2003 when she was dismissed from the Sea Organization, the Church of Scientology’s religious order.
'The truth is that Ms. Dienes-Browning had an exciting position, travelling to over 35 different locations in a period of five years to promote the Church services to parishioners all around the world, including in Australia.
'She flew by herself in most instances. She had opportunities that the bulk of young people in the world are never privileged to experience.
'She cannot now rewrite history to suit her current prejudices against her former faith.'
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