What concerns should I have about scientology and children?
December 26, 2013 8:53 AM   Subscribe

How concerned should I be about the involvement of my nephew (12 yrs) and niece (10 yrs) in Scientology?

I don't know enough about Scientology to even know what questions to ask. My niece and nephew are being taken to Scientology "church" by their mother, my former SIL. Even more concerning is the fact that they have been withdrawn from school and are now attending the S. Center for their education. They get up very early every morning and go there for some sort of daily ritual before breakfast, school and other activities. This has been going on for about six months.

My brother sees the kids regularly but is taking a passive stance on this, for several reasons including (I believe) an unwillingness to upset the applecart, both with his kids and with their mother. Their mother is trying to get my brother to attend the church too; he is not interested.

What specific concerns should I have? What experiences have you had with Scientology, specifically regarding children? Thanks for your help.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (34 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I would be concerned that they are getting a significantly sub-standard education. See here for details.
posted by Houstonian at 9:06 AM on December 26, 2013 [23 favorites]

They will likely internalize aspects of Scientology that they will never quite be able to shake off. See every adult athiest who went to a strict Catholic school for a lighter version of this.

Be careful while trying to keep them sane: if you are too up-front with things, they may be forced to disconnect.
posted by jsturgill at 9:14 AM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Scientology is a religion. From what I've heard of it, it is exclusionary, and if you or your brother are considered to be against Scientology, your SIL may be pressured to exclude you from their lives.

If you're interested, by all means ask your SIL if there's an introduction. Explain that while you are happy with YOUR religion, you want to understand hers because it's important for you to be a positive influence in your neice and nephew's lives. You want to be non-thretening, and seemingly open to her religion. Besides, what does it hurt? I'd make a bit of a show of being open-minded about this. Why put her on the defensive. If Scientologists are anything, it's defensive.

Here's a website that's put out by the Church of Sceintology. I guide you there simply so you can savvy the lingo.

If you aren't seen as a threat to her beliefs or in how she and your brother are raising their children in the church (your brother's refusal to kick up a fuss is his acquiescence in this matter.)

The sad fact is that if you defy or threaten your SIL in this matter, you may find yourself on the outside of that part of the family and that is the LAST thing you want to be.

The more you understand about Scientology, the better you can craft your reactions to the weirdness you are sure to encounter.

You can be the relative that your niece and nephew can confide in, and you can quietly challenge some of the quirkier beliefs.

You don't want to be labeled an SP (Supressive Person) you can just be that cheerful relative who is skeptical of everything. Perhaps they'll follow your lead.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:18 AM on December 26, 2013 [9 favorites]

There's no question you should be concerned, because Scientology is a centrally-controlled money-making scheme that aims to make its followers scared to quit. It keeps its absurd core tenets secret and denies their existence until the follower is judged to be sufficiently invested both emotionally and in money (or free labor). It's not something people generally enter into with informed consent: it's fraud.

But obviously, actually doing something about this is another matter. They aren't your kids. It's possible you could act as a good influence on the kids in terms of talking to them about what their experiences with Scientology are and getting them to ask more questions about what they are being taught. But even this kind of minor interaction could eventually cause their mother to cut off all contact with you as a "Suppressive Person". Only you can decide whether it's worth taking that kind of risk.

You can try to remain friendly while keeping tabs on what is happening to these kids so that you can step in when anything really criminal or dangerous is going on. Sorry you're going through this.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:18 AM on December 26, 2013 [23 favorites]

I would be concerned to the point where if they were my niece and nephew, I would attempt to get some sort of custody. Removing children from their school is taking this "religion" too far.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:20 AM on December 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

It's definitely a cult. I had a roommate who later got so into it that she turned over an inheritance to the church (half of the proceeds of an apartment building that the church's lawyers helped her fight to get). She also later married another member and they both turned over their full time wages to the church for years. To be fair, she seemed happy. And she was an adult making her own decisions and evaluations. I definitely think there is a certain amount of brainwashing going on, so I think it will be more wrenching if the kids want to break away later.
posted by gt2 at 9:26 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you want to take the time, this New Yorker article is as good an introduction as you can get to Scientology's history and misdeeds if you want to avoid the (completely justified) invective of former members writing about it online.
posted by griphus at 9:36 AM on December 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

A lot of the church's power comes from learning secrets about people which they reveal during "auditing". The threat of these secrets being revealed makes the follower loyal to the organization. I imagine this is amplified many times for kids going through puberty...

Perhaps you can have a talk with them about privacy, couched in the important context of social media. If you reveal something personal about yourself it can stick around forever. It's best to keeping the personal stuff personal even if people really demand it from you and even if they make you hold a couple of tin cans while they do so.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:36 AM on December 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

The Hairpin published a series of essays written by a woman who grew up in Scientology. You can find part one here, if you'd like to read a first-person account of a childhood in that community.
posted by amelioration at 10:04 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

In addition to the question about what's going on with Scientology, there is the question as to what you personally can do, this being an issue with your brother and his ex. If it were my brother, I'd be talking to him and trying to find out what impression he is under about Scientology, and alerting him if he is not aware of the problems. I'd be completely freaked out if any ex of mine were sticking our kids in Scientology school and I wonder if your brother is really not bothered about this or is weighing his options or what.
posted by BibiRose at 10:26 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

The experiences I have read about Scientology schools is that they are of a very low quality standard. The Catholics and some Jewish sects do religious education quite well. I don't think there are many young people who are raised in Scientology, because 2nd and 3rd generation writing is not prevalent. It is likely your sister-in-law has been lionized by her decision to join the church with her children, something that every church does. In some places it is called 'commission'. I think you could try to find a better school in the area. But you should also find out how your family can commune with SIL now that brother is out of the picture. She found a community ready to pull out all the stops.
posted by parmanparman at 10:49 AM on December 26, 2013

If I was your brother, I'd seek custody. For a parent to take their children out of school and into Scientology is extremely irresponsible, and potentially life-threatening. (Read the New Yorker-article Griphus linked to). However, depending on where he lives, he may need to be well-lawyered-up to get custody. I once knew a woman who was raised within the sect, and her story had all the horrors you will hear from very extreme sects, including physical and mental abuse, really bad basic education, and slave-like work obligations.
posted by mumimor at 11:11 AM on December 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

First things first: Scientology is a dangerous cult. Read up on it, there are ample resources online. Start at Operation Clambake. Note that Scientologists will deny what is on that and other sites.

With Scientology kids, the immediate problem is that Hubbard method schools don't actually do them much good - "Study Tech" consists mostly of reading, looking up Unknown words in a dictionary, and making clay models to demonstrate understanding. It sucks but that's the issue if they are in one of these schools. Read up on the tech and tell your brother - it's a major disadvantage if they have to go through Scientology schools.

The long term danger is them being recruited to the Sea Org. A lot of kids of public Scientologists get pressured into joining during their late teen years under false pretenses, and then made to work 12-16 hours per day, 6 or 7 days a week, for a pittance they might not even receive. Do what you can to stop this. Being a public Scientologist is an expensive mindfuck; being in the Sea Org is a life of abuse and drudgery.

The best thing you can do is to make sure they always know how to contact you. Many Scientologists, particularly Sea Org members, have nowhere to go and no one to turn to if they want to leave. The policy of disconnection is real and it is used to keep people trapped in the cult. The best thing you can do is to be a resource and connection to the non-cult world for them if they want or need out.
posted by graymouser at 11:16 AM on December 26, 2013 [16 favorites]

You should be extremely concerned, and do everything you can to save them from their mother.

Not only is this a dangerous, abusive cult based on brainwashing and intimidating its members for cash, it is one that in certain cases orders parents to withhold proper medical treatment for their children.

I have seen first-hand the damage that this organization can do to children unfortunate enough to have parents as members. It is evil. There should be enough information about this organisation's practices publically available to give your brother a good case in seeking custody.
posted by moorooka at 11:20 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd be worried about money, especially funds for childcare and college.

Yes, it is a pyramid scheme/fraud/cult. It's essentially a vicious criminal organization operating to achieve power and profit. They have not yet been successfully investigated, prosecuted, and outlawed, though there is always hope this will happen soon.

In terms of your niece and nephew, a good education is not supplied because it's easier to control people when they are ignorant.

I don't know how you should handle this. Scientology has spent A LOT of $$ and effort to be recognized as a legitimate religion, so it's not like you can easily address this through custody or the like.

If you google around, there are a significant amount of ex members that advocate against Scientology, running websites and organizations to help people with questions like yours.

I'd privately start contacting a few of these folks and gather some recommendations about how to proceed.

I'm pretty sure the definitive expose appeared in the last few years in The Village Voice, but truly, a few articles aren't going to tell you nearly enough, and the tragic testimony of ex members will be too shrill to digest.

If I were you, I'd contact experts in this field and evaluate their advice before proceeding.

I wish you the very best and I hope your niece and nephew stay safe.
posted by jbenben at 11:25 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Not a lawyer, but I am fairly certain that raising a child in any particular religion, even one that advocates noxious practices and beliefs, would not cause a parent to lose custody. Surely there needs to be proof that these specific children have been harmed in ways that can be directly traced to Scientology -- not just that Scientology is a potentially dangerous doctrine or that their schools are subpar. Again, not a lawyer, but it seems very weird and unproductive to be advocating this path, especially since it sounds like the dad is not interested in seeking full custody. Freedom of religion is a thing. Rather than getting adversarial, I think the OP can be that wonderful aunt or uncle that listens to the kids, that opens them up to alternative ideas and experiences, and that they can always go to with their concerns.
posted by Wordwoman at 12:09 PM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you haven't yet, take a trip to Los Angeles and hang out on L. Ron Hubbard Way just south of Sunset Blvd for an hour or so. It's a brick lined street about two blocks long surrounded by Scientologist dormitories and church buildings, the most intimidating of which is a large art deco highrise with a Vegas-style light up "Scientology" sign on its roof.

I can barely drive down this street without getting the heebie jeebies. Everyone wears the same bland outfit - white polo shirt with black pants - except for the armed guards who often ride around on bicycles. I think you should seriously experience it for yourself. There's a good brunch place around the corner where you can decompress afterwards.
posted by hamsterdam at 12:09 PM on December 26, 2013

Hey, my uncle is/was a Scientologist, and his son was raised in the faith. I haven't seen my cousin since he was 9 years old. He did not have a rigorous academic life, did not go to college, and took a few classes at the local community college before stopping. He is interested in computers but has no formal training and I do not know that he works in computers now.

It has only been very recently that my uncle has started coming back to family holiday dinners, and my cousin, as I said, has not been seen in years. Apart from this family unit, we are a very pro-academic, pro-career family, so they are very different in that way.

The school part is what concerns me. I am not saying that your niece and nephew will never go to college and that this is the world's biggest tragedy . . . just relating my own experience re: Scientology beliefs and schooling. I'd be wary. Talk to your brother about it: what does he want for his kids? Does he expect them to go to college? Will this school they are attending help them to get the foundation for that dream?
posted by chainsofreedom at 12:09 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

A good friend of mine and his wife are Scientologists. They do not regularly bring it up; it's a private thing for them.

Like all religions, there's varying degrees of involvement in the community. Scientology does require members to read alternative texts (Bible, Koran, Torah), so at least there's some understanding of "rival" religions for members. As such, they may become aloof, but are at least empathetic, though I doubt it will be received that way. Neither of my friends are involved in a "pyramid scheme" as some here have pointed out. When shown the South Park video about Xenu, they laughed: "we don't believe that at all; nothing in the book Scientology or Dianetics makes a reference to Xenu." Again, there's different degrees of involvement. It does seem like your SIL is more involved than they are though. They do not attend the church, though they do identify and sympathize with it (like some members of more traditional religions).

I personally believe that children indoctrinated with any religion at their age is a bit much; I realize I'm in the minority.

The major concern I'd have is Scientologists hold strong opinions about psychologists and psychiatrists. Specifically, Scientology regards mental health as a personal struggle. There's something about spirits and a bunch of other BS, but the end result is no psych-related drugs and no psych-related doctors. This would be my biggest concern for their well being going forward, should they need these modern medicines to function in school.
posted by teabag at 12:12 PM on December 26, 2013

Children in Scientology eventually become adults in Scientology. You should also consider their lives as adults; if they spend over a decade in Scientology they may not leave once they are legally emancipated.

An acquaintance of mine joined scientology in the 60s and ended up serving as a chef/butler/manservant for some of the upper echelon. He tells the story of spending two years in a Scientology "jail" after a kitchen fire started on his watch. The conditions of that imprisonment included deprivation of basic physical comforts, no meaningful human contact, and no access to the outside world. It's hard to tell from the details he shares, but he was either physically prevented from leaving or threatened with banishment, which to him at the time was unthinkable and had the same effect as physically locking him up.

At some point he got out and moved on with his life. I infer from fragments of stories that he may have been pulled out by the mother of his child or may have decided on his own that it was time to get out.

In the now, he is an older gentleman with a very interesting perspective on his time in Scientology. To me, his framing and perspective seem like a complicated Stockholm Syndrome. However, that is a judgmental thing to say about a very intelligent person who continues to lead a very interesting life. There are spiritual aspects of his experience that he appreciates deeply. Other aspects trouble him so much that he will rarely talk about them, only in the right context and if not otherwise prompted. Scientology still tries to contact him via mail and occasional phone calls, which seems to cause him some mild concern.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 12:21 PM on December 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

This book was written by the niece of the head of Scientology. She was raised in the church. It will tell you that you should be very concerned.

However, what power you have to do anything is the tricky part.
posted by The Deej at 12:23 PM on December 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

Do the reading, and talk to your brother about your concerns. He can and should document any events. School decisions should be made jointly if they are co-parenting. They're his kids, and it's hard to override parental decisions.
posted by theora55 at 1:03 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's a long story, but I was once tricked into volunteering for a Scientology event that taught children how to use laptops, then gave them the laptops at the end of the session. I thought it was a legit organization, or else I would not have been involved.

In between lessons on how to use the computer, these folks played increasingly strange videos with a moral lesson. They began with non-objectionable lessons about being nice to other people, but the video became more and more bizarre as the day went on.

At the end, they gave all the children a copy of the DVD. The volunteers received a few books written by L. Ron Hubbard.

The books were strange. There was a lot of talk about personal hygiene that seemed misinformed, ritualized, and designed to exert control over followers. The rest of the book was poorly written (typos and grammatical errors) and similarly designed to indoctrinate.

Based on what I saw with that children's event, I'd be concerned your nephew and niece will be taught certain things under the guise of them being a moral code (you need to do this because it's right/proper/just) but it's actually a way to control them.
posted by helloimjohnnycash at 1:21 PM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

From a MeFite who would prefer to remain anon:
"I grew up in a Scientology family and can factually answer OP's question. Have them contact the mods if they'd like to get in touch
with me."
posted by jessamyn at 1:46 PM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Scientology, as far as I know, is a cult that mentally abuses and manipulates people into giving everything to Scientology. I'd be pretty concerned about this and look at whether there is a way for your brother to get custody of them before the brainwashing gets too far along.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:50 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know ex-Scientologists that are lovely and intelligent people with interesting views on their time as Scientologists, very similar to what Derive the Hamiltonian describes.
posted by jbenben at 1:58 PM on December 26, 2013

Check out Going Clear, a fascinating investigative book by Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist.

(Here's the NPR interview if you don't want to read the whole thing.)
posted by jessca84 at 2:43 PM on December 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

it's not a religion. it's a cult. since folks here are saying their schools for kids are bad i'd approach it from that angle to try to at least get the kids out of the schools. tell your brother & his wife that you are concerned for their kids' education and future prospects. i think you need to impress on your brother the damage this group could do to his kids. i'd try to find the most reasonably written articles on the web about them that exposes their crap (there are tons) and send a few to your brother. try to open up a dialog with him about it and not just letting this slide. i did know someone whose brother was in it and wanted to leave but they made it so difficult he always got sucked back in. tell your brother that if his kids want to leave eventually they will exert horrible pressure on them. that is just not right to do to a kid.
posted by wildflower at 3:36 PM on December 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

I am probably a rare exception to the norm. I grew up in a Scientology household and attended a Scientology school. I also broke with Scientology at a fairly young age and proceeded to get my siblings and parents out as well, but it was a very bumpy process. I like to think I'm reasonably sane and well-adjusted, but it's not a childhood I would wish on anyone.

If I were your brother, I would be very concerned about the kids, particularly if she's put them into a Scientology school. Not all Scientology-affiliated schools are created equal, but none of them are especially good, and some are especially awful. I attended one of the "best" Scientology schools, and was a proverbial "smart kid", but even after graduating and then attending an excellent college, there remain fundamental gaps in my education which are startling and occasionally embarrassing to admit. The link Houstonian provided earlier breaking down the related schools is quite accurate. I was actually classmates with one of the founders of Ex-Scientology Kids (but we haven't spoken for well over a decade), and most things described there ring true for me as well. It may be worth adding that many of the students I attended with did not graduate from my school. Several joined the Sea Org/the church. Some eventually acquired a GED. A very small number attended college. Most never left Scientology, and those that did generally have much sadder stories than mine.

It's a tricky situation, because as well-meaning as almost all of the advice here is, it uses the exact kind of wording that is likely to cause your sister-in-law to retreat even deeper. I think the only reason my family was able to extricate itself reasonably unscathed is because we had large support networks outside of Scientology, something which is actively discouraged for most members. I've seen a lot of kids come out really messed up, so please encourage your brother to take an active role in his kids' lives before it's too late.

For us, losing the Scientology ties wasn't nearly as devastating as it could have been, but to this day, my parents still get regular phone calls and mail from the church. They've been effectively incommunicado for ~10 years, but my mom is still afraid to disconnect their land line because she's worried that will just cause them to hunt them down anew. I don't speak with basically anyone I grew up with for this reason, so understand that those hooks can sink in deep and never really let go. Even when you manage to rip them out, they can still leave scars.

Feel free to memail me if you have specific questions about anything.
posted by Diagonalize at 5:59 AM on December 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

I have been mulling over this question since yesterday. I also grew up in Scientology. My parents are still members of the church, but I quietly consider myself out of it.

Diagonlize has covered most of what I wanted to say. Scientology schools are good for kids who know what they are interested in studying because it allows them the freedom to do so, but it isn't well-rounded by any stretch of the imagination. Someone I went to school with is now--literally--a rocket scientist, but he was the kind of kid who built robots in his garage. Most kids join the Sea Org or go on staff. I went to public school starting in 8th grade, but after hearing my whole life that public school is awful I tested out as soon as I legally could after 10th grade and went to community college. I'm now in grad school, and am continually realizing I have huge gaps and wish I had stayed in high school. Education is not well-regarded by Scientologists, and I got a lot of push back from people wondering why I was going to college instead of just studying Scientology. Luckily my parents were supportive.

Definitely encourage your brother to be as actively involved as he can, even if that's just calling and being there for the kids. Scientology is an echo chamber, and if all they're getting is that the "wog" (non-Scientology) world is awful and only Scientologists can "save the planet" then it's going to be really hard for them to make their own decisions about being in the church or not once they're older. If he, and you, can quietly counter that by just being available and reasonably well adjusted then that will be huge for them. You definitely need to be watchful of them being recruited to join the Sea Org, especially once they're a little older.

A lot of this information you're getting about the evils of the church concerns the upper management. Most church members only see their local staff, who are largely well-intentioned, hard working people who truly believe that "the planet" (it's always the planet for Scientologists!) is in terrible shape and the only way it will be saved is through Scientology. No one down at the local org is getting rich like David Miscavige. So if you or he show these things to your SIL it's going to be completely unbelievable to her because it won't relate to her experience--"out-reality" to use the lingo. It would also be likely to trigger her disconnecting from both of you, and you don't want that. So tread carefully, and keep the lines of communication open.

You are welcome to memail me.
posted by apricot at 7:43 AM on December 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'd MeMail apricot. The schools may be really bad, but that's not your business. If their mom homeschooled them and told them Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs to church, there's not much you can do. Especially since dad doesn't want to deal with it.
posted by discopolo at 10:41 AM on December 28, 2013

The only professional experience I had with an ex member of the Scientologists was of him being stalked by them since he left, this is common practice. There is a lot of good advice here about treading very carefully so the kids can talk to you... you will need to hold back a bit or a lot so they can maintain contact so make sure you have a safe place to take your own emotions.

Check out the book bare faced messiah (the founders life story)... Hubbard was originally a sci-fi writer.. and look up Steve Hassan online.. the survivor of a cult and now a specialist counsellor in the area. He has a couple of talks you should be able to find and watch.
posted by tanktop at 3:16 PM on December 28, 2013

An ex became a Scientologist for over a decade, and left when they refused any support while her son was dealing with a serious drug addiction which later killed him. However, her younger son is still part of the church, was homeschooled mostly, seems happy enough (really into raves lately), and there doesn't seem to be any issue with her status with the church and his - he's in his 20s and they live together when he's in town for his job. I know Scientology demands a huge amount of money/work and time from people, but there doesn't appear to be a lot of overt cult-like pressure not to leave anymore, at least for people who aren't that significant within the church or who may be on the outs (her son's status as a drug addict and her choice to try to help him caused a rift). I still don't trust the organization as a whole, but I know some decent people who have complicated relationships with it. I would be concerned if anyone in my family joined the Church of Scientology, but I was equally concerned when my sister and her husband and kids joined a tiny Apostolic church in their rural neighborhood- people are still going to make their own choices regardless. We're on friendly terms, but we don't talk religion.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:30 PM on December 30, 2013

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