Raised as Scientologists, Christie King Collbran and her husband, Chris, were recruited as teenagers to work for the elite corps of staff members who keep the Church of Scientology running, known as the Sea Organization, or Sea Org.
They signed a contract for a billion years—in keeping with the church’s belief that Scientologists are immortal. They worked seven days a week, often on little sleep, for sporadic paychecks of $50 a week, at most.
But after 13 years and growing disillusionment, the Collbrans decided to leave the Sea Org, setting off on a Kafkaesque journey that they said required them to sign false confessions about their personal lives and their work, pay the church thousands of dollars it said they owed for courses and counseling, and accept the consequences as their parents, siblings and friends who are church members cut off all communication with them.
“Why did we work so hard for this organization,” Ms. Collbran said, “and why did it feel so wrong in the end? We just didn’t understand.”
They soon discovered others who felt the same. Searching for Web sites about Scientology that are not sponsored by the church (an activity prohibited when they were in the Sea Org), they discovered that hundreds of other Scientologists were also defecting—including high-ranking executives who had served for decades.
Fifty-six years after its founding by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986, the church is fighting off calls by former members for a Reformation. The defectors say Sea Org members were repeatedly beaten by the church’s chairman, David Miscavige, often during planning meetings; pressured to have abortions; forced to work without sleep on little pay; and held incommunicado if they wanted to leave. The church says the defectors are lying.
The defectors say that the average Scientology member, known in the church as a public, is largely unaware of the abusive environment experienced by staff members. The church works hard to cultivate public members—especially celebrities like Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Nancy Cartwright (the voice of the cartoon scoundrel Bart Simpson)—whose money keeps it running.
But recently even some celebrities have begun to abandon the church, the most prominent of whom is the director and screenwriter Paul Haggis, who won Oscars for “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash.” Mr. Haggis had been a member for 35 years. His resignation letter, leaked to a defectors’ Web site, recounted his indignation as he came to believe that the defectors’ accusations must be true.
Is it a movement or just a few frustrated former members? Time will tell. The real question, obviously, is what does it mean for Beck?