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Scientology ruled my life

Woman magazine, 10 June 2007
Transcribed by Hartley Patterson

Devotees include film stars, but what's it really like in the Church of Scientology? Former member Bonnie Woods, 58, lifts the lid...

Looking back, I can't believe I spent such a large part of my life as a Scientologist, but I'd become brainwashed and it seemed a normal way to live.

I got involved in it in 1974, when I was 25, through my boyfriend at the time, who took me to one of the centres in America, where I lived. We were given a personality test and offered a course to improve our communication skills. This involved being paired up with another new member. We had to sit opposite each other in silence, with our eyes closed, for half an hour at a time, several times a day for three weeks. The Scientologists explained this would enable us to confront our feelings, but it left me emotional, light-headed and trance-like. I now realise this made me more susceptible to their teachings.

At the time, the Scientology aims of working for a planet free of war, insanity and crime sounded admirable. I signed up for more courses and took counselling sessions, called 'auditing', where I discussed everything about my life. This made me trust them more as I'd revealed so much. So when they offered me a job to recruit new members, I jumped at the chance. Three months later, I'd dropped out of university and handed over my life savings of 2,500 for more courses.

My parents tried to convince me to leave, but when I told my superiors, I was instructed to write a letter to my dad, asking him to respect my decision. As a result, we barely spoke for the next seven years, and I stopped caring what my family thought. I was happy living in my own apartment - I didn't need them. Scientology had become my family.

I made new friends, and in 1977 I married a fellow Scientologist, Bob, in a ceremony held by a Scientology minister. We adopted a nine-month-old girl, Desi, and in 1981 moved from Missouri to LA to work for a branch of Scientology called the Sea Organisation. There, I had to wear a gold-buttoned black naval uniform with a white cap, as the founder, L. Ron Hubbard, ran it like a navy.

We moved into a Scientology-owned building, and my days involved waking at 7am, having breakfast in a communal canteen, dropping Desi off at nursery and then going to work as Director of Processing, where I made sure the people who'd signed up completed their courses and progressed to the next stage. We had a break for lunch and dinner. The food was basic, although if we didn't meet our targets we were only allowed rice and beans - before going back to work until 10.30pm. The only time off was an hour at 5pm and the occasional Saturday, when we were allowed to wear our own clothes - but we had no money to go anywhere.

In that same year, my relationship with Bob broke down, although by then I'd started questioning whether I wanted to stay in Scientology. But I couldn't imagine a life without it.

It was only at the end of the year, when I was recuperating at a fellow Scientologist's house after an operation, that things came to a head. Suddenly, having the freedom to eat and do what I wanted made me question everything. I also met and fell for Richard, now my husband, who gave me the strength to leave Scientology with Desi, then aged four.

My superiors tried to convince me to stay but I refused, and so they issued me with an expulsion order saying that no one there would be allowed to talk to me again.

I was devastated as it meant losing everyone I'd ever known overnight. I don't know what I'd have done without Richard's support. He'd taken Scientology courses too, but he wasn't as involved as I was, and when he saw how I was treated he wanted nothing to do with it.

Even then it was hard to leave it behind, and we lived by their rules for the next three years, to the point where I even gave birth to my second daughter, Andreanna, now 22, silently; I'd been taught to believe that my unconscious would record the memory of pain if I made any sound.

It wasn't until we moved to the UK in 1985 that Scientology began to lose its hold. But it was when I contacted Jon Atack - a critic of Scientology - after hearing about him on the radio, that I finally came to terms with what I'd been through. He helped me see that I'd become a slave to Scientology, and I had to trust my ability to think for myself. Now Richard and I help families who have relatives in the organisation. After losing eight years of my life, I won't let others suffer the same fate.

[two page spread; pictures of the Woods and celebrities; sidebar with brief facts on the CoS]

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