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Niece of Scientology leader describes rocky youth in church

She was 6 years old and dreamed of being a princess. But her life was far from a fairy tale.

She spent mornings working as a groundskeeper at a Scientology youth camp in California, where she lived with 15 other children whose parents were away, toiling for the church.

At 7, she became the camp's "medical officer.'' Her job: visit the kids who were sick and treat them with vitamins or ointments.

These are among the opening scenes in a revealing book released this week by another Church of Scientology whistle-blower, this one with a big name.

Jenna Miscavige Hill is the niece of Scientology leader David Miscavige. Her memoir, Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, is an insightful account of growing up in the church's controlling environment.

Her parents, Bitty and Ronald Miscavige Jr., joined the church's religious order, the Sea Org, in 1985, when Jenna was not yet 2. Ronald is seven years older than David Miscavige. David, however, was a rising star.

He had dropped out of high school years earlier to work for the church. Intense and intelligent, he became a favorite of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. After Hubbard died in 1986, David Miscavige took control of the church. He was 26.

Hill's memoir provides deeper insights into Miscavige, who in recent years has been accused by former members of his leadership team of physically abusing subordinates. The church vigorously denies that.

Hill breaks no new ground on those allegations. But she delivers insight into the Miscavige family dynamic. Scientology's first family now is diminished by defection.

Her parents grew disillusioned and left the church in the early 2000s. Hill recounts that inside story and describes how she left in 2005.

She also confirms that her grandfather, Ronald Miscavige Sr., left the church last year. He had introduced the family to Scientology in the early 1970s. Hill says he escaped from the church's tightly guarded compound near Hemet, Calif., fed up with life in the Sea Org. In his mid 70s, he is living with Ronald Jr. in Virginia.

Church spokeswoman Karin Pouw said Friday that the church does not discuss the Miscavige family. She also rejected Hill's claims that growing up in the church was difficult.

"The church has long respected the family unit while accommodating and helping those raising children,'' Pouw said. "The church does not engage in any activities that mistreat, neglect or force children to engage in manual labor. The church follows all laws with respect to children.''

She added that Hill's accounts of church schools don't align with recollections of 30 of her classmates. They recall it as "idyllic,'' Pouw said.

The pain of being separated from her parents is a major theme in Hill's memoir. So are the church's corrective programs that she labels as "brainwashing.'' Before turning 7, Jenna signed a contract to eventually become a Sea Org member. Mental indoctrination began in earnest, she writes.

Complete obedience was expected. Anyone breaking the rules was punished in front of the other children. Every child had an "ethics folder'' where wrongdoing was noted.

At 10, Jenna was allowed to travel to Clearwater to visit her mother, then a top officer at the church's spiritual headquarters. She found it alluring. Her mother lived in a posh apartment at a church complex.

On later visits, she often saw "Uncle Dave'' and his wife, Shelly Miscavige. Jenna had heard that the church's young leader could be demanding, even gruff. But as a youngster, she didn't see it.

"To me, they both seemed kind, even loving,'' she writes.

But other Sea Org officers became imposing figures. She says she underwent eight lengthy interrogation programs from ages 12 to 15 while in Clearwater. Hill didn't know it at the time but later learned that the church was trying to find out what she knew about her parents' growing disillusionment.

The church also had another goal: impose mental controls so that she would not spread word that her uncle's family had defected.

Hill calls the grueling and intrusive interrogations "the church's ultimate control mechanism.''

She stayed in four more years, eventually meeting a former surfer from San Diego named Dallas Hill, who had joined the Sea Org after high school. They fell in love and married in 2002. But more interrogations and punishments followed. In 2005, they decided they'd had enough.

The church assigned Sea Org officer Mike Rinder to try to persuade Dallas to stay. Jenna alleges her husband was kept in a locked room. She climbed onto the ledge of a fifth-floor window and threatened to jump. The couple left for good soon afterward.

Jenna Hill, now 29, presented a portion of her story in 2008 when she and others raised in the church launched the website exscientologykids.com. Her memoir expands substantially on that account.

She and Dallas live in Southern California and have two children. She has not had contact with her "Uncle Dave'' for years, she says. She knows of no contact between him and her parents since she left the church in 2005.

Joe Childs can be reached at childs@tampabay.com. Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@tampabay.com.

Niece of Scientology leader describes rocky youth in church 02/08/13 [Last modified: Friday, February 8, 2013 11:14pm]
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