After listening to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, I decided to dig into these two memoirs – one about Scientology, one about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). I had begun Jessop’s Escape in print several years ago but never finished. (In my
early 20s I often checked out lots of interesting nonfiction from the
library and then never read it.) I have an interest in first-person
accounts of fringe religions/cults (like many of us do, I’m sure).
Raised without a religion, I’ve always been intrigued by what people
believe and why they believe it, as well as where that line between a
religion and a cult actually lies.
Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill with Lisa Pulitzer
Jenna Miscavige Hill is the niece of David Miscavige and was born into Scientology, trained from a young age to join the Sea Org. She fled Scientology in her early 20s and wrote this book about her experiences growing up in the religion. Much of what she discusses is covered in Wright’s book, but getting it from a first person point of view is valuable.
Although Hill was related to the most powerful man in the religion, this was a mixed blessing. At times it seemed she was given preferential treatment (allowed to visit her mother and stay in a relatively nice hotel while others in the Sea Org were not); at others, it seemed she was blamed for it (punished for asking for something she had always gotten before, not realizing it wasn’t standard). What struck me most about Hill’s story was the manipulation and mind games played by Scientologists with power. Frequently, Hill was called in for “security checks” that lasted hours. She was made to answer personal questions and often felt like she was being disciplined for an unknown infraction. Sometimes she’d discover that it was her parents who had misbehaved; often the reasons remained unknown. Particularly startling are Hill’s statements as to how infrequently she saw her parents (half a dozen times in as many years) and how little supervision is exercised over young children. For example, one of Jenna’s jobs as a pre-teen was to administer medical care to all the other children in training for the Sea Org. There was no adult back-up.
The “harrowing” part of the subtitle is a little misleading when compared with Carolyn Jessop’s account of her escape from the FLDS (below). This is partly due to Hill’s writing, which is simplistic and very event-based. She describes her feelings, but mostly this is a straightforward account of what happened, and then what happened next. The events themselves are interesting enough, but it’s not among the most riveting memoirs I’ve read. (Interestingly, neither of these two memoirs were narrated by their authors.)
Escape by Carolyn Jessop
Jessop’s account of her life in the FLDS and her escape at age 35 after over a decade of marriage with a man over 30 years her senior is riveting and horrifying, just as the accounts of Scientology are. She had eight kids at the time of her escape, including one who was profoundly disabled. She managed to escape with all of them and received full custody of them. She tells of rampant abuse, both physical and psychological. I expected that her husband would be horrible, and he was, going so far as to deny life-saving medical care to one of Carolyn’s children in order to punish her. What I didn’t expect was just how horrible her “sister wives” were as well. One of the wives was clearly the dominant one in her husband’s affections and used that power to manipulate and harm the other wives and their children. It ranged from little things, like not allowing the other wives time to use the washer and dryer, to more extreme things like preventing enough money to be given for the purchase of food.
In some ways, members of the FLDS are harder to understand than Scientologists – perhaps because of the way they dress. At first glance, Scientology doesn’t seem harmful as much as it seems just weird and a place for gullible people to get fleeced of all their money. The FLDS is definitely more blatantly awful, particularly for women (but not only for them).
As memoirs go, Escape is better-written than Hill’s Beyond Belief. The people in Jessop’s story have personality and depth, even those who were sometimes cruel to her. She delves deep into her reasons for believing and staying in the FLDS as long as she did. While both Hill and Jessop were born into their respective religions, the FLDS doesn’t really accept newcomers as Scientology goes. The FLDS needs to get them from birth and keep them isolated, and that’s exactly what happened with Jessop. Unlike Scientology, there doesn’t seem to be much to appeal to someone raised outside the FLDS. Even as she came to realize that her husband and those in power were not good people, Jessop believed in her religion. This creates sympathy for her daughter, Betty, who returned to the FLDS when she turned 18.
Next on my list: Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven.
Both books borrowed from my local library.