2016-06-30
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, repression, 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. "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. Back in London, Woodcraft signed up for an introductory Scientology course. 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. Later, the entire family was transferred to Scientology's international headquarters in Hollywood. Astra said her formal education stopped at age 9. When she was 14, 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 headquarters 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 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. Mason took two visitors on a tour of the offices where Astra worked. 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. 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?" 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. 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.
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. In December 1999, Davies married another Sea Org recruit. 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, at age 15, married a 22-year-old Scientologist who also grew up in the movement. 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. 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." 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. 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.

"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."

more from beliefnet and our partners