Children are impressionable and what they learn at a young age often stays with them throughout their life. The old adage, children learn what they live, is very much at play with our guest Aaron Smith-Levin, who was raised in Scientology. 

His mother joined when he was four, and he grew up in the cult, later joining the Sea Org, a sub-group in Scientology where members make a billion-year commitment. He left the Sea Org in 2006 and officially left Scientology in 2014, starting a YouTube channel called Growing Up in Scientology. He is also the vice president of the Aftermath Foundation, which is dedicated to helping those who want to leave Scientology and the Sea Organization but lack a system of support they can rely on while getting on their feet in the outside world. Now living in Florida with his wife and three daughters, he talks with us about growing up in Scientology. 

“Seeing” Through the Lens of a Child

Aaron discusses the uniquely damaging and empowering aspects of Scientology when it is viewed through the lens of a child. Scientology sees children not as small humans but rather as billion-year-old spirits in new little bodies. Because children don’t often like to be treated as children where they are condescended to and have no rights and no freedoms, Aaron talks about how easy it is to pass on these beliefs to them as they feel they’re being treated like the adults they want to be. He discusses how being given the freedoms of adults is an empowering aspect of this.

Aaron was able to contrast his experience as a Scientologist with his experience of being a child in public school, which he attended up until the sixth grade. He reports in school that he didn’t feel listened to or respected. However, as a staff member at a Scientology organization, he was suddenly being paid and given the freedom and liberties of an adult. 

The downside to having the freedom and liberties of adults is also having the responsibilities and burdens of adults. We talk about the severe emotional consequences of not allowing children to be children, of placing adult responsibilities on their shoulders and excising the normal childhood experimentation, fun, play, and imagination that is an integral part of emotional development. 

Parenting in the Aftermath of a Cult

Another consequence of this for Aaron is difficulty parenting his teenage daughters, who are 16, 14, and 12. He talks about the uncertainty of what an everyday teenage experience is supposed to look like because he never had one. He defers to his wife on some decisions because she had a typical high school experience. This is a very common issue for people recovering from cults. They need to learn what typical, healthy development looks like, as it’s not something they have ever experienced. Cults do not typically value the child; the organization is always the number one priority.

Everyday Undue Influence

Aaron talks about the common question, “how could anybody fall for this?” He discusses the idea that no one thinks they’re joining a cult, and this is something it’s essential to emphasize. The word “cult” is so pejorative for most people that if they genuinely thought they were joining a cult, they wouldn’t do so. We like to think we’re stronger emotionally and mentally than to fall for that. However, we fall for things every day. The entire concept of advertising is built around influencing people: we think we’re immune, but every day, people are buying into concepts of influence. It’s not that difficult to think they would buy into the concept of a group where they feel comfortable, accepted, and loved, which cults are experts at.

It’s so important to be humble and human in understanding that everybody falls for a lie. Everybody can be tricked. There are feelings of shame and embarrassment at falling for things, but everyone has been there in some form or another.

It’s also important to remember that two things that appear to be opposites can be true at the same time. Aaron talks about his time in Scientology and then after leaving as a researcher for hedge funds and investments. That is, a job takes a certain level of intelligence. He was able to do those things while also having been under the influence of mind control techniques. 

Accelerated Adolescence

Aaron discusses beginning full-time work in Scientology when he was 12 and finishing the training at 15. He doesn’t have any formal education beyond that point at this time. He talks about feeling like his formative years were compressed into a single stage. He didn’t have the normal developmental stages, instead going through his adolescence and adult years all at once from age 13. 

Show Me (no) Money

Once he finished his training in Clearwater, Florida, he returned to the organization he was from in Philadelphia and worked full-time, which meant seven days a week from 8 am to 10 pm. The pay for this ranged from $50 to $100 per week. Despite the very small wages for the amount of time spent working, Aaron talks about feeling as though it was “almost virtuous to do all that work and expect nothing in return.”

This kind of thinking leads to feeling like one is part of an elite group, which also resonates with my time in the Moonies, where we felt like we were the elite, the chosen ones like we had a superior understanding of the absolute truth. Aaron talks about Scientologists believing they have this kind of superiority even without a concept of a god or supreme being. 

Human Bodies as Prisons

At the same time, Aaron explains how Scientology sees the human body as a prison. People trapped themselves in these prisons over trillions of years despite being infinitely godlike in their potential. He says that “we think we’re physical bodies. We think we’re living lives of free will, but we have terminal amnesia of all of our previous lives. We have none of our inherent godlike powers.” 

L Ron Hubbard convinced Scientologists that completing Scientology’s Bridge to Total Freedom is the only way to free yourself from bodily prison and amnesia. However, Aaron talks about how all levels of that bridge are confidential, and no one is allowed to discuss what is on them. This means one can be at the highest level of Scientology (the Sea Organization) and be at the lowest level of the bridge and still have no understanding of what the confidential levels are all about. Aaron talks about this as almost being a cult within a cult.

Phenomenal Wealth

Despite paying its workers very little for long hours of servitude, Scientology is very money-driven in that it is phenomenally wealthy and does nothing for charity. Aaron talks about the $50 a week Sea Org members are paid, often being cut to even lower amounts because there’s not enough left to pay the members after management gets its cut. 

Aaron talks about the contradiction in Scientology wanting to recruit new members. Still, many people are not able to afford the high cost of it, not just in lack of pay from the organization, but in the upfront costs of joining and continuing in the activities. This is likely one of the many reasons we see celebrities linked to Scientology, such as Tom Cruise. 

Given this, members of Scientology tend to be people who can afford it, such as affluent business owners and professionals such as attorneys, doctors, and so forth. Aaron shares with us the Scientology practice of packing course materials for sale to non-Scientologists, some of this under the guise of business consulting, which is a way to get unsuspecting people into the organization.

The Red Flag Parade

We talk about some of the red flags of cults, including being asked to cut out people from your life, paying upfront for courses with little understanding of what they are about, and there is one person at the head of the organization who is all-knowing such as Hubbard is for Scientologists. In looking at Hubbard’s background, he was a science fiction writer who claimed to be a Naval war hero and to possess a PhD in Nuclear Physics, but there is no evidence for either of these claims. 

We talk about my research of malignant narcissists as the stereotypical profile of cult leaders and how the criteria of malignant narcissism apply to cult leaders, including Hubbard. Opening Minds by Jon Atack explores this more deeply.

Legal Consequences

Aaron discusses the current legal case filed against David Miscavige and several organizations within Scientology. The plaintiffs are former Sea Org members Gawain and Laura Baxter (a married couple) and Valeska Paris. They allege labor trafficking abroad on the Scientology ship Freewinds. An amended complaint alleges several sexual assaults against Valeska Paris by members of the Scientology organization. The plaintiffs have been unable to legally serve Miscavige and recently filed a motion to declare Miscavige served and in default. 

Should a judge rule that he’s been served, discovery will proceed, meaning Miscavige can be deposed, and we discuss how no cult leader wants to have to answer honestly in a court of law for their actions.

Aaron talks about the argument lawyers for Scientology are making that the three plaintiffs signed contracts while members of the Sea Org that they would agree to settle disputes within the organization rather than using the legal system. We discuss the many issues with this including the lack of informed consent on the part of the plaintiffs when signing this and the undue influence inherent in saying they need to sign these contracts in order to move to the next level in the organization. 

Changing the Law to Reflect Undue Influence Truths

In some cases, courts have upheld such agreements, which is indicative of a complete lack of understanding in the legal arena of how cults work and the undue influence at play. Changing the law to reflect comprehension of how authoritarian control works and how undue influence can create disastrous consequences is so important.

A good start to understanding this is studying the BITE Model of Authoritarian Control, the Influence Continuum, and visiting Aaron’s Aftermath Foundation. Additionally, I’ve recently launched a course, Understanding Cults: A Foundational Course for Clinicians, but anyone interested in learning more about cults is welcome to participate. 

Resources:

Aaron’s YouTube Channel: Growing Up in Scientology

The Aftermath Foundation

Scientology and the BITE Model

Freedom of Mind Resource Page: Scientology

Opening Our Minds: Avoiding Abusive Relationships and Authoritarian Groups

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