On the morning that 29-year-old Jillian Schlesinger finally decided to leave the Church of Scientology, she awoke early and wondered whether she was losing her mind. Was she about to do something she’d always regret? A native Californian, she’d spent most of her life in the church. Her parents were Scientologists, as were her friends—basically everyone she knew. If she left, they’d disown her. On the other hand, if she stayed, her misery would continue. Either way, Schlesinger knew her escape attempt would change her life forever.
She was not just a member of the church, she was part of its elite, the Sea Organization, Scientology’s management body of members who sign contracts promising to serve the group for a billion years. She lived at Scientology’s big blue West Coast headquarters on Sunset Boulevard, known as the Pacific Area Command, or PAC Base. Every day, she went to work with hundreds of other Sea Org members, all dressed in starched uniforms—khakis and button-downs for men, skirts and neat blouses for women. The facility, once a hospital, is monitored by security cameras and armed guards. Everywhere she went, someone, somewhere, was watching her.
Scientology is an American religion predicated on the teachings of the late science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Founded in 1954, it is a highly insular faith rooted in ideas of American self-help and psychotherapy as well as Eastern mysticism. It maintains, as many religions do, that society needs healing, and also purports to be the only group with a cure. All the problems of the world, according to Hubbard, are rooted in psychic traumas known as “engrams,” which Scientologists devote their lives to identifying and dispelling through a lengthy therapeutic technique known as “auditing,” in which members revisit their past horrors until, through sheer repetition, they are neutralized, and human suffering is relieved.
Hubbard created the Sea Organization to run his church, naming it after its original home: a ship, called Apollo, that spent much of the late ’60s and early ’70s sailing the Mediterranean, on the run from U.S. and European tax authorities. The truest of the true believers, the Sea Org’s mission was to “save the planet.” Today they are the grunts, the church’s indentured servants and, according to many, its most miserable followers.
Sea Org members live deeply controlled lives, working seven days a week year-round, with few, if any, days off. They earn between $8 and $50 a week, sleep in dormitory housing and have virtually no contact with the outside world. Many of them joined as teens, recruited directly out of high school, and with no real-life experience, easily bought into Scientology’s essential pitch: that society is sick, full of dangers, and only the church can offer relief. In reality, they are essential to the religion’s survival—the cheap labor that allows it to survive.
For most of her life, Jillian Schlesinger was a good Scientologist. Her parents, long divorced, raised her in Orange County, and she joined the Sea Org at the age of 19, though she’d been active in the church for seven years. “They pressure you a lot to join,” she says. “They’ll tell you how bad everything is in the world, and that they really need your help.”
Schlesinger worked around the country, and in 2007 was stationed at the church’s headquarters in Clearwater, Florida, which is considered Scientology’s Mecca, drawing thousands of believers each year. She worked 19-hour days, selling books to Scientologists. And when she failed to meet her sales goals, she was punished. This was when things “got crazy,” she recalls, though still, Schlesinger remained devoted to the cause. There were times she was forced to clean the kitchen and dumpsters, which was exhausting, but far better than having to scrub barnacles off a sea wall at three in the morning, outside a nearby Scientology-owned hotel perched at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. She was also subjected to “Pigs Berthing,” which involved sleeping in a tiny room without electricity or a bed, sometimes for a week.
Schlesinger was a high performer, and in 2012 was transferred to Los Angeles and the church’s main publishing arm, Bridge Publications, located at PAC Base. Here, the pressure was equally intense. “I didn’t like it there,” she remembers. “There was a lot of internal fighting, yelling and screaming.” Her boss, a man in his 30s, would turn violent when his charges didn’t meet their quotas. One afternoon, he threatened to throw one of Schlesinger’s co-workers off of the building. When she tried to intervene, he threatened her. “I’ll smash you in the face,” he said.
Challenging one’s superiors, in the strict hierarchy of the Sea Org, is a serious offense, and Schlesinger was removed from her job and sent to a windowless room at the base, where she reported each day, writing down her “crimes,” until her superiors agreed she’d sufficiently abased herself. “I spent days not writing anything,” she says, “because I thought it was crazy. I didn’t do anything wrong. Then I started to make stuff up, just to get out of there.”
As punishment for her misdeeds, Schlesinger was removed from her job at Bridge and assigned to a newly formed construction team doing renovations on various Scientology-owned buildings in Los Angeles—a project designed to save the church money on labor. Now dressed in her new uniform of jeans and tennis shoes, she boarded a white bus each day with dozens of other church workers and ventured into the city. They worked 15-hour stretches, and she began to suffer piercing headaches. “We did lots of painting,” she says. “And they wouldn’t provide us masks.”
The menial labor was backbreaking, and sometimes, overcome with grief, Schlesinger would slip away from the others and cry, seriously considering, for the first time, whether or not she could leave the church. Then one day last winter, Schlesinger and a friend were dispatched to pick up lunch for the group. Unsupervised, the women idled by a newsstand, where Schlesinger spotted a celebrity magazine with a photo of Leah Remini, a longtime and devoted Scientologist. Remini and her family, the story said, had just left the church.
Sea Org members are cut off entirely from current events, in part to prevent them from reading negative information about Scientology. Schlesinger had no idea Remini had departed, and now she was floored. She’d met the Reminis before and thought they were kind people. As she flipped through the pages, what she saw was a revelation: They’d broken away without fear, and remained intact. Schlesinger thought, Perhaps I can leave, too.
And yet, leaving Scientology, she knew, was almost impossible. The thought was terrifying for any member, but even more so for those in the Sea Org. Given how closely they’re monitored, few people ever try to leave, says Mike Rinder, a former Sea Org member and senior executive of the church. Should those in the Sea Org even voice their apprehensions out loud, they’re likely to be sentenced to indefinite terms on the “Rehabilitation Project Force,” a work-intensive program of re-indoctrination, where wayward members are subjected to heavy physical labor, rigorous ideological study and severe isolation. The process, like getting caught in the gulag, can go on for years.
“Without chaining you to a radiator, they make it as difficult as possible to leave,” says Rinder. “But mentally, it’s worse. For those in the Sea Org, there is the inculcated belief that, should they go, they’ll live for the rest of eternity as an unhappy spec in the universe. And of course there’s the fear you’ll be harassed by the church, and the threat of losing your family and friends. That all goes well beyond the physical barriers that are imposed.”
Just shy of 30, Schlesinger would be starting all over again, re-entering a strange new world without an education, a savings account or a group of friends. After a decade cut off from the outside world, the notion of catching up, not just academically but socially, too, was terrifying. Could it even be done? And what if she were to get caught? Would she wind up in the Rehabilitation Project Force? Would she disappear into the bowels of the church forever?
In January, on a Sunday morning when Schlesinger was supposed to be cleaning her room, she snuck into the kitchen of the blue building and called her father. She told him she might leave the church, explaining that she could no longer cope with its conditions. He said he’d support whatever decision she made, and truthfully, he’d only remained a member because he didn’t want to lose her. But there was still the question of how she would make her escape. Schlesinger believed she had only one chance: Her current construction site was near an L.A. Metro station. Once she lost easy access to the train, she feared, she’d be out of options, and doomed to spend the rest of her life in the Sea Org.
On the morning Schlesinger decided to leave, in February, it was her last chance. The next day, the construction crew would move to a new location. She had not told her father that she had made up her mind—should she get caught, she did not want him branded an accomplice. It was also important for her that she do this on her own. She would take the train to Anaheim, where her father owned an Italian restaurant, and surprise him.
Outside PAC, her blond California hair hanging over her shoulders, she waited for the white Scientology bus that took her to and from work. As it pulled up, she made sure to get a seat in the rear of the bus, so she could disembark last, without eyes on her back. When they pulled up to the construction site, her heart was bouncing off her chest like a basketball. She waited until the others fanned out the door before getting off, pausing to fiddle with her purse as the bus pulled away. She glanced around—no one seemed to be watching. Then, taking a deep breath, she bolted toward the Metro, flew through the entrance and frantically shoved $10 into the ticket machine for a one-way ride to Anaheim.
A lifetime passed before the ticket popped out of the machine, during which she furtively looked over her shoulder. Had anyone followed her? Would they accost her in public? Appeal to her vulnerabilities? It seemed her Sea Org supervisors were capable of anything.
She snatched the ticket and dashed for the train. Her heart, at this point, felt entirely unhinged. She stepped into one of the cars and was forced to wait as the train idled on the tracks. Frantically, Schlesinger surveyed the open doors. Had her fellow workers realized she was missing? Had they sent someone to find her? Then there was a tug, a release and the train began to roll out of the station. Schlesinger turned toward a window and felt herself detach from the person she was, heading toward whomever she might become.
Within an hour she reached Anaheim, disembarked and walked around the corner to her father’s restaurant.
“Hey,” she said, grinning.
“My gosh,” her father said. “You did it.”
They had, in fact, left the church together, and regardless of what might come, they had survived.