I was a Scientologist for eight years. Although I identified as one I didn’t really understand what actually being a Scientologist fully entailed until after a couple of years of being heavily indoctrinated. The reality of Scientology is deceptively hidden and cleverly disguised. When I look at Scientology today, I have to forgive myself for not seeing through the manipulation sooner. I’ve spent the last 13 years keeping Scientology out of my life. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve realized that the religion is built on a foundation of violence. I’m proud to add my voice to the many who, despite fear of retribution and humiliation, have come forward to tell of our experiences. This is my story.
The day I was taken to The Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles for the first time, I had no idea how much the visit would change and shape me into the person I am today. Or what I’d be like if the fates had something different in mind for me.
I bought a one-way ticket from Georgia to California when I was 19. My dream was to be an actor. Four months after arriving, I met the person who would introduce me to the organization around which my life would soon begin to revolve. Jason Lee, the actor best known for My Name is Earl, and I were introduced at an action sports trade show in San Diego where I was working as a model for an indie clothing label. Jason was at the height of his pro-skateboard success. We got married in 1995 after being together for one year.
Jason had been a Scientologist for about five years when we met. He was introduced through his ex-girlfriend, Marissa Ribisi, and her family. When I think back, I believe a part of me knew if I didn’t accept Scientology the marriage would be over before it even started. That may sound somewhat superficial and at that age, maybe it was. But in truth, regardless of how different I feel about Jason and Scientology today, I was very much in love with the guy and wanted our marriage to work. I did what I thought was right. But I made the mistake of immersing myself completely in his world. I did what so many other people who join Scientology do: I lost all sense of individual identity in the name of the cult.
What made becoming a Scientologist all too easy, especially in the beginning, were the famous and successful faces that surrounded and influenced me. It made it seem like maybe Scientology was the real cause behind all this success these young people were having. Jason’s friends became my friends. I was impressed with how educated in art they all were. I learned a lot through them, but at 20 years old, there was no one in my life who wasn’t a Scientologist.
I got a horrible feeling in my stomach that first day at the Celebrity Centre. Jason and I had spoken about Scientology many times. Our relationship was serious; we had just moved in together. Eventually, I started to feel like he was forcing Scientology on me, past the point where I didn’t want to go any further. He would never stop talking about it. It became a source of contention and I realized that unless I accepted Scientology the way he did and the way he wanted me to, we would most likely cease to know each another.
I didn’t want to go inside the Centre, but Jason was so excited for me. He had set up a tour of everything. A very nice Sea Org staff member showed us around, taking us to the different levels and departments and explaining how Scientology worked. Of course, Jason had been there before and it wasn’t lost on me that the tour was all for my benefit. It was unnerving to know that my reaction to what was happening could be a dealbreaker in our relationship. I think I was too young to even understand the impact this had on my decision making.
We walked over to a room where a couple of people were reading and waiting to be taken into “session,” as it was described to me. As we kept going, it occurred to me how unreal and expensive Scientology was to going to be. (I’m not exactly sure, but I know with all the auditing, books and courses I took, the cost of Scientology added up to more than $50,000. This includes the cost of my lifetime membership to the International Association Of Scientologists, which is thousands of dollars and a requirement that must be paid before any services can be started. This amount does not include the donations the church asked us for over the years.)
To me, Scientology seemed more of a surreal lifestyle for the privileged than a kind of belief system. Our tour guide showed us the auditing part of the grade chart, then the training part. She asked us, wouldn’t we like to become clear one day and was that something we could imagine ourselves doing? I remember saying I did, but that I would most likely only do the auditing side since it seemed impossible for me to finish both sides. I joked that I had no idea how I’d ever have time to do anything else.
She surprised me when she abruptly cut me off me mid-sentence in order to say that I would finish both sides, like every other Scientologist is required do. Her quick personality shift from accommodating to controlling shocked me. I didn’t expect to be belittled by our tour guide, given that it was my choice to do anything concerning Scientology—if I was going to do it at all. I wondered how she could see it any other way. But she didn’t back down from what she said. It made me feel stupid. And then she just moved on with the tour as if nothing had happened. I didn’t like it and I didn’t understand it. Worse, Jason seemed to not notice.
After I left Scientology I came to know this type of communication very well, if you can call it that—it’s too one-sided for it to be called an actual communication cycle because it’s more like being talked at. Hubbard created a complicated emotional tone scale and used it to teach Scientologists how to “deal with people.” This specific way of talking was called “speaking with tone 40 intent.” This was all learned in a very low-level course, all under the guise of having better communication skills. We practiced speaking this way with each other. Two of the training routines taught us how to deal with a person who was doing something wrong by basically ordering them around. In this routine you spoke to the person in a commanding way and you didn’t offer them a chance to reply. This was how people in the church talked to me after I left. I regrettably admit to speaking to people that way myself when I believed it was called for. It was also how Jenna Elfman and Gay Ribisi treated me when I became known as a “Suppressive Person.” More on that later.
Our tour of the Centre continued on. I’d run out of adjectives to describe how beautiful the building was. I hated sensing the need to over-emphasize exactly how much I liked everything, like I had to prove it. (This is something else I got used to doing while being a Scientologist.) I listened to the history of how the Centre used to be a hotel and all the renovations done to it, but I couldn’t help thinking that nothing seemed religious about Scientology. Most of what was presented to me was focused on the material side of life.
I was shown L. Ron Hubbard’s office, set up perfectly for when he comes back in another lifetime. The famous members of the religion were mentioned over and over again. In the Rose Garden, cans of Coke were on sale for $2 each alongside overpriced snacks. It was all very ostentatious. Most of the focus was on ways things appeared. It confusing to me that a church was called the Celebrity Centre. I didn’t like having class systems mixed into my religion. It just didn’t seem right.
A year or so later, at a party at the Centre, I discovered just how difficult it was for me to hide my critical feelings. Most people in the church will say it’s a person’s critical thoughts that get them in trouble with it. But when you leave, it’s those same critical judgments that end up freeing you. For me, being the emotional creature I was and still am, it was those thoughts I couldn’t let go of, even in the most intense days in my time as a Scientologist.
This was a Hollywood premier-type party, with red velvet ropes and a guard who’d lift them if you were a recognizable Scientology celebrity, worthy of the status of being separated from the crowd. It got under my skin that this was being done in the name of religion, but I wasn’t strong enough yet to voice my opinion about it. When my own friend’s mother couldn’t get in and I had to pull the guard aside as to not embarrass her, I asked myself what the hell was I doing there.
It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that I never related any of this to anyone around me, at least not until I left Scientology and it felt safe to do so. You’d never think that speaking your mind could get you in that much trouble, but if you knew what the average Scientologist’s perspective was on friendships you’d understand. It becomes a lonely world. It wasn’t hard to see how my story would end if and when I went that route. No one is really friends with each other in Scientology. I began to call my Scientologist friends “faux friends,” because who could be close to somebody when you know for a fact that they would betray your confidence in a heartbeat? In Scientology, your friend can become your worst enemy overnight.
The backstabbing and creative deceitfulness I experienced in Scientology were what wounded me the most. Faux friends have no problems betraying you. A few years ago I looked up my former best friend on Facebook. I had been gone from Scientology for almost a decade and hadn’t spoken to anyone from the group, so I was very surprised to see pictures of me on her page, and even more surprised to see that she and her friends were gleefully making fun of me in the photos. They wrote captions comparing me to Anna Nicole Smith, saying I was going to end up dead just like her. They said I was “a missing person” and asked if “anyone [had] seen me” (but not in the helpful sense).
It made me sick to see them making nothing out of another human being’s life. They took pride in knowing about my private struggles with addiction, which at that time in my life I’d never spoken about publicly and certainly never shared with them (I’d also successfully gone through rehab and had been in recovery for several years). When I discovered these Facebook postings, I had two small children at home who needed me very much and who I lived for. Seeing people that consider themselves the most ethical immortal beings on the planet take bets in public on how long I had to live was an ugly sight, to say the least. But to Scientologists, I am not human. I am a Suppressive Person, a one-dimensional, unthinking humanoid who has no rights. And in Scientology, the way they were treating me was the only way a Suppressive Person is to be treated.
A Suppressive Person is the worst thing you can be in Scientology. This label is reserved for anyone who is opposed to, speaks out about, or leaves the religion. Scientologists believe that such a person, like an ex-Scientologist who speaks out about their former beliefs and/or who doesn’t disconnect from one who has, will make everyone around them sick. They’ll ruin everyone’s lives with whom they come into contact and must never be socialized with again. According to the written doctrine of Scientology, Suppressive Persons must be destroyed if the religion is to continue saving the world. This is why it’s difficult to look at these nice and sweet celebrities and ever imagine they could be full of such rage and hate. But they’ve actually been hardwired, slowly and over a long period of time, to fanatically believe in this.
I remember when I tried telling one faux friend how the writings of L. Ron Hubbard felt too convoluted for me to absorb. About a sentence into my opinion, she cut me off. Before I knew it, she had totally whitewashed what I’d said. But it was like she thought she was doing me a favor by not letting me express myself. I found myself agreeing with her in the hope that I wouldn’t cause any more problems. Anything I said or even thought that was considered a deviation from the general Scientological (an actual word we used) teachings was seen by others as an error on my part—something that needed correction. Or it meant something was horribly wrong with me.
Shortly after I left Scientology, I ran into one of my former faux-friends, Jenna Elfman, at Fred Segal in L.A. She walked up to me and said “Hi” and stared in my face for a second in a semi-confrontational way. I was shocked for a second but said hello, how are you, thinking it was going to be a normal conversation. But rather than telling me how she was, she went on a rant about all the courses she was working on and finishing in Scientology to let me know that nothing other than religion mattered. She didn’t ask me how I was. She didn’t wish me well or ask me about my life. She wasn’t interested. I was just supposed to listen to her while she lectured me in that tone-40 type of voice and told me I needed to get back on “the bridge.” Then she walked off without saying goodbye. It was a very cold encounter. (Honestly, even when I was a Scientologist, I thought the Elfmans—Jenna and her husband, Bodhi, who married me and Jason—were cheesy people. They sent out a monthly newsletter in the mail to everyone they knew called “The Elfman Empire” listing all their Hollywood projects and Scientology work they were doing. It was funny.) Anyway, Jenna thought she was being a good Scientologist by talking to me that way. Of course, they’re trained to act like that.
When I first started Scientology, I figured I’d likely have to do something pretty bad in the religion’s eyes to earn the Suppressive Person label. Something horrible like killing someone or printing fake money, I don’t know, something truly criminal. I wouldn’t have ever dreamed that I would one day earn this distinction because I read a book (A Piece of Blue Sky, by former Scientologist Jon Atack, which forever changed my life) that opposed the church’s beliefs. Most people know the only view you’ll see of any Scientologist once they disconnect from you will be their backs. Before I was disconnected with him, I still got along with Jason as long as I agreed with his and the church’s demands. But when I revealed over the telephone to my talent manager, Gay Ribisi, that I’d read an anti-Scientology book, it started the chain of events that led to me being disconnected with everyone I had known.
Suddenly, my entire life got stolen out from under me. My entire support structure shattered. Nothing that I knew was ever the same. I lost Gay, Jason, and every friend and source of love I knew besides my family in Georgia, 3,000 miles away. I was completely on my own and not one of them cared. What I didn’t expect to happen was that Gay would get my agent at United Talent Agency to drop me. Or at least that’s what she told me in her disconnection letter I received two days after our phone call. So I had no way of even getting work. I was supposed to start over.
Gay’s disconnection letter consisted of one paragraph and ended with “Love always comma Gay.” But what it meant was: “Never speak to me again. You are now a big bad Suppressive Person.” I was being punished. I wish I would’ve kept the letter. I’d written many myself while I was Scientologist and was trained on how to compose one. They’re to be kept short and you’re to remain detached and emotionless. But the most important part is to be final, so the person on the other end knows they’ll never see you again. I burned it.
Jason’s disconnection letter was delivered to my mailbox the same day as Gay’s. It was also a paragraph, and it also ended in the same meaningless way and insinuated the same serious things. I actually questioned who wrote his letter because it mimicked Gay’s in every way. It practically said the same thing. It was silly that he had to write me a polite letter to tell me never to speak to him again. In my mind a more honest dialogue would have gone like this: “Yeah, Carmen, I know I knew you better than anyone else, especially Gay. And I guess I loved you for almost ten years but you’ve done the unforgivable deed of reading a book that my ass-backwards religion doesn’t like so I’m going to have to turn you into a more demonic version of yourself where you can never be redeemed or believed. Your pain is a lie. Just suffer in silence.” This would have at least been a more open conversation to have had with Jason. I might have respected him for at least telling the truth.
Anything Jason did after our marriage ended is truly none of my business. But his participation in what happened to me and my family after our divorce is unforgivable. I always joke that for people to understand what ex-Scientologists go through, they’d have to take a class on it. One thing they would learn about is something called “Fair Game”—a practice Scientology uses to target its enemies. This is what happened to me after I divorced Jason and was disconnected from Scientology.
Scientology has a sophisticated intelligence agency known as the Office of Special Affairs, which is essentially a complex system dedicated to ruining the lives of those it sees as enemies in any way possible. Those who work for the OSA do not follow the law. I didn’t believe any of this was real until I left and started to research it in the attempt to figure out the strange things that were happening to me and my family—like how and why my former best friend suddenly knew about everything about my personal life, and why she felt compelled to involve herself in it.
There was more. Vicious rumors were being spread about things I had said only while in session, which I was made to believe were private. Some rumors I knew could only come from certain people, like Jason. I got followed all the time. People in public would loudly discuss a conversation I had just had in private, word for word. Similar things occurred on social media.
Scientologists have no boundaries and their cruelties exclude no one. From my experience, Fair Game’s main tool is mind games. They’re very good at it and they play with your emotions. I’ve found they skirt the law and use methods like electronic surveillance and cell phones to monitor a person’s every word and every move.
You’d think I’d get a divorce from a Scientologist and realize that Scientology was bunk. But brainwashing doesn’t go away like that, and especially that fast. I wish it did. I was interested in knowing the truth about Scientology but couldn’t get past the idea that in doing so, I would be reading something so horribly wrong that I’d explode or something. So I decided to read A Piece Of Blue Sky. As I began it, I had a gut reaction: This, finally, was the truth.
This set off a process that I like to call “The Unraveling.” My Unraveling still isn’t over. I don’t know if it ever will be and I love the fact that I’ve finally gotten to the point of accepting this. I write poetry, and a major theme I love is the sky. This is taken from two things. In Scientology they called praying “just talking to the sky.” I also got it from the book. In a sense, reading this book was my first layer of freedom, the time where I fought for my sky with my sun again, to belong to myself again. I’ll never forget the effect this book had on me, and continues to have on me. I will be forever thankful to Jon Atack.
No one imagines themselves as so fragile to ever let something as sinister as a cult take control of their minds. I didn’t think anyone would ever tell me how to think and when to think it. We all believe we’re above such things and only stupid people could fall for that.
But there are no choices in Scientology. There never were. It is all a ruse. In truth, after I left Scientology, I had to learn how to think for myself again, to speak for myself again. It’s very different from the language Scientology promotes in its advertisements: “think for yourself.”
But in the end, for me, irony does bring justice. I now live and work in Atlanta with my family. I’ve been in a long-term relationship since 2003 and we’re blessed with twins who are about to turn 11 years old. It’s a whole other subject with what my children have gone through at the hands of Scientology and how they understand it to be. We all watched Going Clear together and they’ve told me how glad they are to not be Scientologists. And that makes me happy.
I’m still acting. I’ve been surrounded by religion my entire life and I’ve recently thought about going back to school to learn more. It’s facinating for me to explore relationships people have with religion and the choices they make because of it, good and bad. It’s always been a dream of mine to travel and film a documentary on all different ways people incorporate their beliefs into their lives all over the world. And I one day hope to help and be of service to other survivors who have suffered through the experiences of predatory cults.
Carmen Llywelyn is an actor and photographer.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]