Monday, January 20, 2014

Book Review: Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape

"Standing on a ledge five stories up and looking down on the cars speeding by, I couldn't believe it had come to this. It was starting to get dark and the wind tugged at the hairs of my sweater, the streetlights below merging into a blur. I had no control over anything, but the prospect of taking my own life was a way to change that. I knew that the Church had great fear about what happened when someone died or committed suicide on their watch."

Beyond Belief is the memoir of Jenna Miscavige, niece of Scientology's leader, David Miscavige. From the time Jenna was a little girl she and her family were active members of The Church of Scientology. I think the word "Church" is used rather loosely in the organization's name. I'll get to that later. Jenna and her family lived on Scientology "bases" in Clearwater, Florida and various cities in Southern California. This means they were not what is known as "Public Scientologists", who are members who go to "church" and then go back to their own homes. Her family were members of the prominent Sea Org which is an exclusive Scientologist organization which people dedicate their lives too. They live on "base", they eat in a cafeteria with other Scientologists, the "Church" tells them where they will work, and where they will live. They are even told what they will wear, when they will wake up, and when they can do chores like laundry. Sort of like being in the military, as Sea Org members have little to no control over their own lives. 

Prior to reading this book I knew very little about Scientology. I knew it was apparently pretty whacky, but I didn't know the details. I have vague memories of the South Park episode and I knew Tom Cruise is a devout member. Thanks to this memoir I now know more than I've ever wanted to know. Their exact beliefs are still somewhat vague, but their practices and how their "Church" is ran seem very clear. If what the author says is true, the "Church" is abusive, controlling, partakes in brainwashing, and violates child labor laws. They will also alienate members from family or friends who do not believe in Scientology. Members of the Sea Org are also kept from "the real world", they are confined mostly to Scientology-owned buildings and bases, so that they have little exposure to "Wogs" which is the "Church" name for non-members. 

I think the most heartbreaking part of the author's story to me was the end result of her time spent as a member of Scientology and her subsequent escape, "I am no longer a believer. I am not religious. I believe in what I can see. Dallas believes in the possibility of God, past lives, reincarnation, and karma. I believe in the possibility of these things, but I do not count on them or incorporate them into my thinking." As a Mormon and follower of Christ, that is so sad to me. The "Church" stripped her of her ability to have faith in anything. In any religion. Of course, people have turned away from organized religion thanks to negative experiences with probably every church ever established or thanks to bad experiences with members of those churches. It just takes one person or one experience to turn someone off. 

After reading this, I honestly, cannot see how Scientology could ever be considered a religion. It's more like a... theory? Hardly even a cult, as it's my understanding that most cults operate under the influence of a God or God-like deity or Prophet. The author never mentioned anything about who Scientologists actually worship or believe in. There was mention of an alien named Xenu who lives on a different planet, but apparently, you have to progress through to the final levels of Scientology to even learn about him. The author says before a member would learn about Xenu they'd already have invested over $100,000 into the Church and several years. So... my question is who do these people think their religion is about in the first years of their involvement in the church? It's just bizarre to me.

As for the book itself, I actually found the writing to be extremely dry and boring. It was like the author tried to record every single experience she had ever had with Scientology. The book just seemed so long and drawn-out. The last quarter was really good and actually kept my interest. However, everything before that I had to force myself to get through. The writing style was more like reporting rather than telling a story. Mostly she just reported "this is what happened on this day and this time" and "after that this is what happened". 

All in all, I am giving Beyond Belief 3 out of 5 stars.

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