Sarah* joined the Church of Scientology in 1977. She was 19 years old, a college student in Boston. After finishing the Church's introductory communication courses, she joined the Church of Scientology staff in Los Angeles. Around that time she met who she describes as her "past-life husband," another member of the religion who was working at Flag, the Church's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Florida.
"There's a long and weird-sounding romance story, but in short, we discovered that everyone was trying to keep us apart. That wasn't acceptable, so we left. We literally disappeared overnight," says Sarah. "It was very much a last straw thing. We saw too many stupid things being done that were not in the direction of helping people to better themselves. It's an amazing example of Pournelle's Law, except in our minds it was the difference between sometimes-miraculous technology and blithering idiots at the helm."
Sarah was only a member of the Church for three years, from the spring of 1977 until January of 1980. The 1980s were the start of a particularly tumultuous time for Scientology. Founder L. Ron Hubbard was pushed out of the scene and the controversial David Miscavige seized control. Miscavige's reign over the last few decades has been marked by accusations of physical abuse, economic exploitation, and Mafia-like fear tactics. In a sense, Miscavige is responsible for Scientology's current reputation as a global, money-grubbing scam.
Sarah left. But in 2015, long past her 20s and her brief stint in the Church, she's still a Scientologist. She's part of a group of people who practice the religion outside of the Church. It's called Independent Scientology, or more colloquially, "Freezone Scientology"—those who believe in the technology and some (or all) of L. Ron Hubbard's ideas, but refuse to conform with the orthodoxy. Some Freezoners came to Scientology completely autonomous of the Church, but most are former members who are fed up with the exploitation and the bureaucracy and believe Scientology can still be a pure, positive thing. They continue to practice, and continue to believe, whether Miscavige likes it or not.
The Freezone encompasses thousands of people and many different groups of practitioners, but there are other breakaway groups like the California Association of Dianetic Auditors that claim to have been founded as early as 1950. There is no clear, organized Scientology assembly removed from the Church, and while longstanding independent organizations like CADA exist, most people on the outside follow their own interpretations and their own rules.
"The Freezone or 'Independent Scene' or 'Indie Scientology' is just people who practice Scientology and Dianetics outside the Church of Scientology. Because there's no centralized authority there, it's mainly loose-knit practitioners. So [practices] vary. It's not standardized," says Claire, a former Freezone Scientologist.
The beliefs of Freezone Scientologists also vary. There are some who only believe parts of what L. Ron Hubbard wrote, others who focus primarily on the auditing process, and still others who are fully committed to the space opera Galactic Confederacy story you may have seen represented on South Park. The one unifying feature shared by most Freezoners is a general distrust for the Church of Scientology.
"Like the early Lutherans, the initial intention was to 'fix what's broken,' believing that it always makes sense to resolve differences internally," says Sarah. "When that didn't work, Luther broke off to do what he felt was the better path to God—just as the [Freezone] did."
The alleged emotional and financial abuses of the Church have been extensively reported. These are, for the most part, the same reasons that drive Freezoners to dislike the Church. There are other, more insular issues—like the misuse of dianetics technology—but primarily Freezone Scientologists are hostile towards the Church because they don't like the idea of their religion and fellow Scientologists being exploited for a profit.
David LaCroix has been a Scientologist for 45 years. He left the Church officially in 2008, and runs the website Scientolipedia, which aims to expand the knowledge base of the religion beyond the Church.
"The site is not geared toward attacking the Church, it's just trying to say that the subject is separate from the Church," says LaCroix. "The Church of Scientology is a global criminal organization run by sociopaths. You could call up Coca-Cola and ask them about Scientology and their response would be just as valid as the Church of Scientology."
To LaCroix, the final downfall of the Church came with the dismantling of the Mission Network in 1982. The Mission Network was one of the longer-running traditions in Scientology. They were small franchises to welcome newcomers to the religion.
"[These missions] were making tens of thousands of Scientologists... they were the heart and soul of Scientology. These were real entrepreneurs, and they were making money," says LaCroix in his video What Happened to Scientology, "but in 1982, David Miscavige and a bunch of his thugs started declaring mission holders suppressive."
Being deemed "suppressive" in Scientology is like being excommunicated by the Pope. If you're deemed a suppressive person, your friends and family within the Church will be asked to completely cut you out of their lives. According to LaCroix, that's what happened to the missions—in the past they offered a tithe to the main Church, but it wasn't enough for Miscavige and his quest to maximize profits and maintain his control.
The destruction of the network is probably the most famous example of the antagonistic relationship Scientology has with the Freezone. To the Church, those who practice independently are "squirrels," and squirrels will not be tolerated.
"There's a whole body of aggressive scripture by Hubbard on the subject," Marty Rathbun, the former second-in-command of the Church of Scientology, told VICE. "This is an exact quote from Hubbard, he says if he found someone 'squirreling,' which is his word for being a heretic, they would 'think that he got hit by a Mack truck, and I don't mean thought-wise.' There's a bunch of stuff about how the biggest threat to the 100 percent workability of [Scientology] is people going outside of the established hierarchy."
"Their idea is that they're trying to wake up the entire planet to the point where you're a spiritual being and free of your body," says John, a former member of the Church who is no longer a practicing Scientologist. "There's this idea that before you had a body you were a spirit, you were like a god, you could transport your consciousness from one side of the Solar System to the other. But you fell into this trap, and they have come up with the exact technology to get you out of this trap. And if you fall off even a little bit, you're not going to get there. But the real reason is that they have a money-making enterprise, and even if you believe it's useful, it's still tremendously overpriced... It's nothing more than wanting a monopoly."
The Church of Scientology has maintained this stranglehold on the religion for decades. Understandably, it's led to a healthy amount of cynicism within the Freezone. These are people watching something they love, something they care deeply about, be tarnished by greed, exploitation, and lies.
"It's like seeing a beloved child become a drug addict," says Sarah. "You can't do anything to stop it, and you see others sneer critically... when you know how wonderful a person he is or was."
But is Scientology worth saving? It's a religion with the makings of a cult. It's a new-age myth cooked up by a man who, by all realistic accounts, was a pathological liar with a vengeful hubris. Why does it matter that Scientology isn't being represented properly? Is it possible to find redemption in the Freezone?
"The idea of contacting thoughts, pictures, memories, and ideas in your head isn't a new concept in Scientology alone, other disciplines do that," says John. "The idea that a meter might spike when I'm thinking of something and the electrical currents in my body change, that can make sense. Locating a past trauma and having conversations about it, that sounds reasonable. I'd tell the same person to try neuro-emotional technique, not just Scientology. If it's helping you, if you think it's doing some good, go ahead."
The issue with the Church of Scientology's perspective on the technology is that they treat it like a magic bullet. Use this, find peace, it's the only thing that works. The fundamentals of auditing—the core practice in Scientology—is forging a connection with your past, your past lives, and with other non-human entities, often while alone in a room or with one other individual. You're making a connection. As John says, it's hypnosis. The promises of telepathy, mind-reading, and teleporting consciousness is a massive oversell. Along with financial and emotional exploitation, those are the things making the religion a public laughing-stock.
"Someone could read the Bible and think, that Jesus guy had some good ideas, and yet be grossed out by what the Catholic [Church], or any church, has done—the message is not the organization. And organizations can be or become corrupt," says Sarah.
Sarah is a well-known tech journalist, and keeps her beliefs secret to protect her reputation. You can't blame her. Freezone Scientology is a niche community; it wouldn't translate. But she has come forward in certain moments.
"I've stepped forward to tell a friend in pain that maybe I know something that can help. At least it's helped me. All of those led into relatively long conversations in which I said something like, 'I have to start out by what I'm not and I'm emphatically not a member of the Church of Scientology. I am, however, an Independent Scientologist,'" says Sarah. "I also know people who present Scientology with different words, or without a label at all. When a close friend was devastated after she lost her job, I arranged for her to get a few sessions with my auditor. She thought of him as 'a life coach,' and three hours later she said, 'I realized a bunch of things, I think my life is going to be very different now.' She has no idea that she got Scientology or Freezone Scientology; she just had a very good session with 'my guy.'"
It's hard to know if things could ever change. Most Freezoners seem content to practice on their own, and opinions toward the Church's mandates or guilt-trips run from ambivalence to anger. But there are others who are more optimistic. David LaCroix is perhaps the most orthodox of the Freezone Scientologists I interviewed, and one of the few who believes the Church isn't beyond saving—that someday the hierarchy will fall, and the corruption will be cleansed.
"David Miscavige is a bully and a strong-man, and once he's gone... I think there are many people capable of cleaning up the place," says LaCroix. "It's not like if he goes tomorrow Scientology will be wonderful, it'll be chaos for a while. But there's too many people who [have] a vested interest in those organizations being a place that is fun, a place that does deliver standard Scientology and trained auditors."
I am not a Scientologist, nor am I religious. But even I could find some empathy within the Freezone. These people are far more realistic and more reasonable than the Church's soaring lectures and world-conquering rhetoric. These people are simply doing what feels right. For the most part they are happy, accepting, and nonviolent.
But is it healthy? Is religion healthy? Am I allowed to question what someone thinks will save their soul?
"Scientology is very similar to Mormonism," says Marty Rathbun. "If you've read Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven he talks about how Mormonism was always going to be subject to splinter groups and reform movements because Joseph Smith put in the scripture that anyone could achieve a direct communication link to God, so therefore they could prophecize. Scientology is very similar. It's heavily indoctrinated that your faith is a certainty. It's certainty, and any failure is a misapplication of the technology. I had that same mindset, I came to realize that that mindset was ingrained."
This realization ushered Rathbun out of Scientology altogether. The emperor has no clothes. He grew tired of blaming it on the doctrine, and came to terms with the deception of faith.
"I recently spoke with a long time Freezone auditor who described it as something people turn to when they are in anguish. When the auditing has helped them deal with that pain, they go away to live their lives which is as it should be. When or if they're in anguish again, they ask for more help," says Sarah. "In the Freezone, I found a community of people who shared the same goals and purposes I do including the freedom to disagree, and the respect towards others' choices. So it's avoided all the abuses of the Church of Scientology, from ridiculous prices, to forced disconnection, to 'ethics handlings,' to the expectation that you'll sacrifice your life in order to save it. In short, I found a community of people who want to work together to use a set of processes that helps us say, 'oh cool! I just realized something!' And that's all that's expected. Shared goals, attention to making-things-better, and respect."
It's going to be a long time before Scientology rehabilitates its image enough for it to be accepted in casual conversation. It might never happen. But it's undeniably left a mark on thousands of people. The Freezone is a community of men and women who saw the man behind the curtain and chose not to let go. Maybe that's faith, maybe that's truth.
"I got out of Scientology ten years ago," says John. "I think there's something there. I think some people can do crazy stuff like remember past lives, but I don't like how it's so standard. 'You do this, you get that,' which is so far from the case." He pauses. "But ten years later, here I am. I'm still talking about it."
* Names have been changed.