Women in the World

07.06.12

Scientology’s Sea Org: A Story of Escape for Katie Holmes and Suri Cruise

Astra Woodcraft grew up in the hard-core, militaristic arm of Scientology known as the Sea Organization—until she risked everything to break free. As told to Abigail Pesta.

I was 7 years old—just a year older than Suri Cruise—when I entered the Orwellian world of rules, rewards, and punishments known as the Church of Scientology.

Before that, I had led a relatively normal life with my family in London. My parents were Scientologists, but not in a zealous way. Then my mother decided to become more involved with the church, and we moved to Clearwater, Florida, where she joined a religious order called the Sea Organization. She signed a contract commiting herself to the group for a billion years—covering her future lives, as the church believes people are immortal. We settled into a compound with other families. The year was 1986. I remember it as the year I lost my freedom.

I imagine that Katie Holmes is trying to protect her daughter, Suri, from the rigid world of Scientology now, and I applaud Katie for that. I wish my mother had done the same.


sea-org-escape-pesta-article-1
Astra Woodcraft in her Cadet uniform as a child in the Sea Org, with her mother. (Courtesy of Astra Woodcraft)

Instead, my own mother became a stranger to me, when I needed her most—when I was a scared kid in a strange compound in Florida. But in the Sea Org, as it is known, parents aren’t supposed to pay much attention to their children; kids are a distraction from a higher mission.


Scientology, founded by the late science-fiction novelist L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s, has its roots in Hubbard’s self-help system known as Dianetics. Hubbard believed that people could be counseled, or “audited,” to recall and cast off negative events that prevent them from reaching their full potential. The Sea Org came along after Scientology, in 1967, initially operating from several ships. The group essentially serves as the managerial arm of the church; its members live together in communal compounds, wear uniforms, work for minimal wages, and supervise church operations. It is run with military precision.


Suri Cruise may be having a different experience with the church than I did as a child. Her parents are celebrities, and are likely treated as such. They would be more like “public” Scientologists, people who live at home and have careers outside the church. But Suri could certainly be going through indoctrination. She could be learning that if something bad happens to her, it’s because she “pulled it in,” or brought it on herself with negative thoughts. If her friends question her religion, she may be labeled a “potential trouble source,” a person with bad influences. She would be taught that wanting to leave the church is deeply shameful—and possibly a result of her misdeeds in a previous life, coming back to haunt her. She would need to be “audited” to bring her back in line.


I was “audited” from an early age, even before we moved to Florida. I remember a Scientology official asking me to answer the same questions over and over, or telling me to touch a wall time and again, until I felt almost dizzy. The repetition in an auditing session, essentially, is designed to help you clear your mind, and make the physical world disappear—to separate you from your body. In Scientology, you go through increasingly advanced sessions over the years, to ensure that your mind remains “clear,” that you shed negative thoughts and reach your potential.


Once, after one of these childhood auditing sessions in London, I fell while running down a hill. I remember my mother telling me this was a good thing; it meant I had left my body. It’s a memory that stayed with me, in vivid detail. I didn’t quite understand what my mother was saying, but I knew it was important.
 
It was an indicator of what was to come.


In the compound in Florida, my mother seemed to change overnight, transforming from a loving, caring parent into a distant, aloof figure, as she dedicated herself to her religion. She had grown up in Scientology; she took her new role in the Sea Org very seriously. I remember a time, soon after we moved to the compound, when I was delirious with fever and desperately wanted her by my side. She came—but only briefly, before disappearing. I felt abandoned.


Video screenshot

Writer Abigail Pesta on Woodcraft’s escape.

I saw her only once or twice a week. I wasn’t supposed to call her “Mom” in public, but rather “Sir,” reflecting her rank within the organization. My older brother also signed the billion-year contract, dedicating himself to the Sea Org. My dad reluctantly committed himself to the organization, too. As an architect, he was sent off to renovate a Scientology ship, the Freewinds, where Tom Cruise would later celebrate his birthday. My little sister and I were too young to become full-fledged members of the organization, so we became trainees.


My first two years in Florida, I attended a public school, along with other Scientologist kids. Our group was not terribly popular—we often had head lice, I guess because we were all living together in the compound, sleeping in dorm rooms on sofas and bunk beds. We were dressed in old, sometimes stained and torn clothing. The compound wasn’t the cleanest of places, even though we were all tasked with cleaning chores after school, like sweeping floors and scrubbing toilets.


I made friends within our community, but they didn’t feel like real friends; I couldn’t confide in them that I felt miserable, or they would tell on me for being negative. There were rewards for good behavior—such as a dip in a swimming pool—and punishments for bad behavior—such as extra chores. There was always a looming threat of hard labor for those who seriously misbehaved. At night we drank a beverage we called “CalMag,” a terrible mixture of calcium, magnesium, vinegar, and water. It was supposed to calm us down. I'm 33 years old now and can taste it still when I think of it.


When I was 9, my mother got transferred to Los Angeles. Our family moved into a rundown apartment, and my public-school days were over. Instead I went to Cadet School, a training school for the Sea Org, where I learned the basics of reading, writing, and math, but had no classes in subjects like history or geography. After school, I worked for hours in the basement of the Sea Org offices, filing papers and doing other organizational tasks. I often stayed there overnight with my fellow students, sleeping on cots.


I complained to my father, and he got me into a different school, also run by Scientologists. This school, called Ability Plus, was supposed to be better, but it was about the same. There was no real curriculum; our teacher spent hours reading to us from L. Ron Hubbard's science-fiction book Battlefield Earth. Other than that, I remember a lot of spelling bees and math bees.

At this point, my father had begun to get frustrated with the rules of the Sea Org. He separated from my mother, taking a leave of absence from the Sea Org and becoming a “public” Scientologist. I continued to live with him in the apartment, while my mother moved to a Sea Org compound.


In my early teens, I, too, began to rebel. I envied the public-school kids and their freedoms. I started smoking. But at the same time, I feared the outside world. I had been told that kids in public school are all on psychiatric drugs. And I knew that leaving the church would mean separating, or “disconnecting,” from my family; it would mean I was a flawed, dishonorable person.


And then, I had an idea—a way out. I knew it meant separating from my family, and the thought of it tortured me.

So, at age 14, I agreed to commit myself to the Sea Org. I attended a two-week boot camp called the Estates Project Force. There, from morning till night, I memorized Sea Org policy, performed chores such as emptying trash cans and polishing shoes, and eventually, signed the billion-year contract.


People often married young within the Sea Org, as premarital sex was forbidden. I chose a husband at age 15, a 22-year-old named Jason Merrill. I was attracted to him and we had known each other for some time; we married in Las Vegas, with parental consent and a signed order from a judge, as I was underage.

We eventually settled into a small room at a Sea Org compound, and I accepted my fate—for the most part. Sometimes, I would sneak away at from bed at night and visit my father, and remember that outside world. He lived in a comfortable house and had a cat; visiting him felt like heaven.


One of my first jobs as an official member of the Sea Org was in the security department, meaning I had to make sure people obeyed church rules and ethics. It seemed that people were always in some kind of trouble—the place felt ruled by fear. You could get in trouble for random things; for instance, someone might question why there were so many loose papers on your desk. Another thing you could get in trouble for: masturbation. Early on in my new job, I had to sit down with a man in his 40s who had admitted to masturbating, and tell him to cut it out. I was 15 years old.


A turning point came when I was 17. For reasons I do not know—perhaps money-related—members of the Sea Org were suddenly advised not to have children. We were told that a pregnant woman would be turned out of the organization. I felt shocked and betrayed; I had always wanted kids. A wave of depression set in. I felt I had utterly no freedom or control over my life. I worked round the clock; I was not allowed to go to school. I saw a dreary future unfolding.


And then, I had an idea—a way out. I would secretly get pregnant. Maybe it could help me exit the organization without the usual routine: the relentless chastising, ostracizing, and auditing from superiors that often made people feel they should stay. I knew that leaving the Sea Org, or “blowing,” as it was called, meant separating from my family, and the thought of it tortured me, but my mother and sister had been transferred to Florida without me, and it had become increasingly difficult to visit my father. My family was already disjointed. I stopped taking my birth-control pills. I got pregnant.


As I hid my pregnancy and dreamed of escape, I decided not to discuss it with the officials, but just to go. So, one morning in February 1998, I snuck off to my father’s house. My plan was to go from there to the airport, where I would fly to my aunt’s house in England. I didn’t tell my dad my ultimate plan, as I didn’t want to put him in a difficult position. I knew he would help me, but that the church would make my sister “disconnect” from him for doing so.


At the airport, I remember looking around frantically, to see if anyone had followed. Indeed, someone had. I heard my brother, Matt, shout my name as I neared the security line. He was there with a Scientology security guard. I felt a searing pang of fear—and guilt. I didn’t want to get Matt and my mother in trouble for my escape, but I had to go. I ran from him and made it to the plane.


In England, I was free—at least physically. Psychologically, I still felt connected to the church. Conflicting emotions tore me up inside. I didn’t want to be viewed as a negative “suppressive person” who had left the church without following procedure, abandoning my family. So, two months later, I went back to Los Angeles to go through an official “routing out” procedure. Essentially, this meant confessing all my bad deeds over and over again, and eventually signing a document saying I had had a wonderful experience in the Sea Org.

I got ushered out unusually quickly, due to my rebellious pregnancy. I received a bill for $89,000 for the Scientology classes I’d taken over the years. I filed for divorce from my husband, and moved in with my father. In September of 1998, I gave birth to my daughter, Kate.


Video screenshot

Woodcraft tells Anderson Cooper her story.


I remember being amazed in those early days by the most simple of freedoms, like riding my bike around a nearby park. I felt so free. Even a trip to the grocery store made me happy—I could buy whatever food I wanted. I began working with my father in his architecture firm, and he literally saved me, offering his full support and helping me realize what an oppressive environment I had been in. He encouraged me to get my GED, take college classes, and pursue my architecture license. He did the same for my sister, swooping in to whisk her away from the Cadet Org in Florida. 



I started speaking out about my experience in Scientology, talking to publications like The San Francisco Chronicle and Glamour magazine. My mother stopped communicating with me, as did my brother. I started a website with two friends, Ex-Scientology Kids, inviting others to share their stories.



Today, it has been 14 years since my escape. I live in L.A. and have my architecture license. I continue to work with my dad, designing buildings. My sister has graduated from Berkeley with honors. My daughter just finished middle school; I can’t believe her classes—biology, Spanish, geometry. I’d never had such classes myself; I’d never gone to middle school. My former husband has not kept in touch with either one of us.


I saw my mother two years ago, for the first time in a decade. Her sister, my aunt, had arranged the meeting, in the hopes that we could work things out. I can only describe seeing my mother after all those years as a strange and sad experience. She said she wanted to have a relationship with me, but that I needed to respect her beliefs. I said I could do that. I also said I wouldn’t stop talking publicly about my experience within the church. I have not heard from her since.



I never did pay that $89,000 Scientology bill. I received several follow-up letters about it in the years after my exit from the church. It took me a long time to gain my confidence, to feel like I was a part of normal society. It saddens me deeply that I have no relationship with my mother; I feel that she chose Scientology over her daughters.

At the same time, I’m proud to be where I am today. I had the courage to leave and to choose my own future. I appreciate my freedom in a way that some people might not be able to imagine. I hope Suri Cruise gets to appreciate hers.