If David Miscavige, the head of the Church of Scientology, had delivered a Christmas Day speech he might have described 2009 as an annus horribilis for his organisation. In October, a French court convicted the Church of fraud, following a trial over allegations by two women that they were conned into paying tens of thousands of Euros for Scientology training materials; and a bookshop belonging to the organisation was fined 600,000 Euros. A month later in Sydney, an independent senator, Nick Xenophon, stood up in the Australian parliament and denounced Scientology as a criminal organisation that “coerces its followers into having abortions” and one “that defrauds, that blackmails, that falsely imprisons”. He then called for a parliamentary investigation into the tax-exempt status enjoyed by Scientology in Australia.

The allegations of violence made by Xenophon echoed the contents of a damning exposé published by Florida newspaper the St Petersburg Times, whose coverage of Scientology’s activities in the Florida town of Clearwater had previously earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize. In June last year it published a three-part special report that revealed the endemic violence and intimidation at the heart of the Church’s operations. Whistleblowers included former high-ranking Scientologists Marty Rathbun, Amy Scobee and Mike Rinder, who alleged that church leader David Miscavige runs a regime of extreme violence and intimidation, physically attacking employees regularly, and encouraging them to attack their subordinates. In one bizarre and shocking instance, they recalled the day Miscavige settled an “employee reassignment” issue by forcing his staff to play a game of musical chairs, set to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. The loser was fired.

How has such a famously litigious and defensive organisation come under sustained attack? Arguably, the credit goes to Anonymous, the loose, web-based coalition of online activists and masked protesters who in 2008 dedicated themselves to Scientology’s downfall (I wrote about them that summer, having visited one of their protests in London). According to Marc Headley, a former employee at Scientology’s International Headquarters in California and author of Blown for Good: Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology, the efforts of Anonymous’s members – who, true to their name, carry out their protests and online attacks incognito – have helped to reverse a situation where journalists and former Scientologists were too timid to speak out, for fear of lawsuits and personal attacks.

“Scientology has this fierce policy of attacking people that attack them, as laid out by founder L Ron Hubbard,” Headley told me on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “The first thing they’re supposed to do when somebody attacks is ‘dead agent’ them – dig up any information on the person that they can use and basically carry out a character assassination. But Anonymous have circumvented this, because they have no identity.” Because of the endless stories circulating online – something he refers to as “death by a thousand papercuts” – Headley believes Scientology has lost the ability to control its critics, and as such the fear-factor has diminished, with media outlets more willing to publish allegations than ever before.

Marc HeadleyAnd in what seems like open season on the 57-year-old Church, Headley could well provide its biggest headache to date. In Blown for Good, he details what he saw at the Headquarters, situated in the small town of Hemet, southern California, where he worked for 15 years on the production of audio-visual “study” materials, during which time he fell victim to the system of forced labour and abuse presided over by David Miscavige. Having been indoctrinated into Scientology as a child by his mother, Headley was recruited at the age of 16 into the Sea Org, a military-style organisation which provides the core workforce for the Church’s operations around the world (members must wear naval-inspired uniforms and sign an employment contract for a billion years). In 2005 Headley escaped from the 500-acre compound, which he says is protected by guards and lethal razor wire, aided by the fortuitous intervention of two local police officers, who stalled the security guards who were pursuing him as he made his getaway by motorbike. The picture he paints of his years at the base – where employees are forced to work over 100 hours a week for far less than the minimum wage, are deprived of food and sleep, and are subjected to physical violence when they fail to cooperate – corresponds closely with that revealed by the more senior former employees in the St Petersburg Times, so much so that former senior executive Marty Rathbun supplied the foreword for Blown for Good.

What is absent from the book is any discussion of the Church’s doctrines, which may disappoint readers in search of juicy details regarding Scientology’s bizarre beliefs – that, for example, an intergalactic overlord named Xenu destroyed billions of souls on Earth 75 million years ago, a revelation that is apparently only shared with adepts once they have ascended to the highest “Operating Thetan” levels, and parted with several hundred thousand dollars. Headley explains that this is a conscious omission. “I wanted to make this a book a Scientologist could read, to give them more information on what happens behind the scenes,” he says. “One of the first things members are taught is that anyone who says anything bad about Scientology is what’s known as a Suppressive Person. So if you attack the philosophy, the Scientologist will immediately reject the information. But if you talk about the organisation, then they might listen.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Headley says that employees barely study the doctrines – he had never even heard of Xenu until he left, and says much of what he was exposed to amounted to Hubbard’s pseudo-spiritual rehashing of the works of motivational mentors and the self-improvement credos of gurus like Dale Carnegie. The story he tells is not about the zany beliefs commonly associated with Scientology, but the exploitative way it treats its employees. “I’m not trying to get between people and their philosophies,” he says. “That’s their business. I’m trying to warn people of the actions of the organisation that runs Scientology, and the things they do that are illegal.”

And that is the real importance of Blown for Good – where the St Petersburg Times brought testimonies from the upper echelons of Scientology, Headley reveals what it is like for a worker, of which there are more than 500 at the International Headquarters alone. As they laboured tirelessly to produce the multimedia study materials, which are then sold on at extortionate prices to Scientology members around the world, Headley and his colleagues would stop only for meal breaks lasting a matter of minutes – he says that by the time he left, he had more or less forgotten how to savour food – and working days would often stretch well into the night (or day, for those working the night shifts). In a manner reminiscent of Stalinist Russia, departments were expected to meet unattainable quotas, and would descend into blame and denunciation when they inevitably failed. Those who were eventually deemed responsible would be declared “Out-Ethics” (Scientology-speak for those seen to be operating against the principles laid out by Hubbard) or even “Suppressive”, and would be sent to something called the “Rehabilitation Project Force” for “counselling” (read “interrogation”). Underperforming workers were often made to sleep at their desks, rather than return to their homes, or “berthings” as they are called in Sea Org argot. In one chapter, Headley describes how he and five colleagues, deemed to have failed with a film shoot they were working on, were made to sleep outside in flimsy tents for two months, performing menial cleaning duties by day as punishment. Of the night they were initially forced outside, Headley writes, “To this day I think that the night when we were being chased around the Int Base by motorcycles in the dark is the only time that I have entertained the idea of suicide.”

Despite such physical and mental abuse, perhaps the most shocking aspect of Scientology’s employment practices is in relation to pay. Headley estimates that in the 15 years he spent working there he was paid just 39 cents per hour, and as such he is currently suing the Church for violation of the California labour code. He told me that throughout his time at the base, the prospect of receiving reasonable pay was used as an incentive to try and meet production quotas. “For a few years, we didn’t even get paid at all,” he says. “But we were promised that if we met the quotas, we would get $3,000 of back pay, which to us would have been as good as winning the lottery. Inevitably though, somebody would always screw up, and everybody would be back in the crapper.” Yet when Headley and his wife Claire eventually left (she escaped several weeks after him), they were hit with a bill for $150,000, ostensibly for on-the-job Scientology training received at the base. “They make you sign all sorts of legal documents while you’re there,” he explains. “So when we got the bill we actually thought it was legally binding and we would have to pay. I’d worked for them for 15 years, in which time I’d made about $29,000, and they sent me a bill for $150,000.”

Cover of Blown for GoodThis financial manipulation is just one of the techniques Scientology uses to ensure employees don’t leave. Of course, to an outsider the idea that they are practically imprisoned seems implausible, and I put that point to Headley – how, in a free country like the US, can a place possibly exist where the employees are not free to leave of their own volition? “Well, first of all, the property is locked,” he says. “It’s not like you can just walk out. They have motorised gates controlled by the guards. The entire perimeter of the property is covered by what is called ultra-barrier razor wire. If you climbed over, you could very possibly die from wounds. Secondly, if you do get out, you’re going to get hunted down like an animal. If you leave, they will bring you back. Period. But if you do get away, what are you going to do? Where are you going to go? You don’t have any money. You don’t have anything. You literally do have to find somebody who will take you in, or go to a shelter.”

In this respect, Headley was lucky – having evaded his pursuers, he was then able to contact his father in Kansas City, who had set up a special toll-free phone number in anticipation that one day Marc or his sister, who remains in the Sea Org, would require his help to break free. But for most would-be escapees, this is the point at which one of Scientology’s best-known tactics, “Disconnection”, comes into play. “This is the trap,” he explains. “Once you’ve been in for long enough, you can’t just leave. If you’ve spent 20 years of your life there, and everyone you know is a Scientologist, if you leave you are disconnected from your entire life in an instant.” Headley and his wife may have been able to get away themselves, but they have not been unaffected by disconnection. His parents separated when he was a child, after his father refused to commit to the religion. “My mother gave him an ultimatum,” says Headley. “Either do Scientology or we’re getting a divorce. He chose divorce.” Today he has no contact with his mother or sister. He longs for a day when he can see them again.

Looming over Headley’s testimony is the figure of David Miscavige, who as the successor to L Ron Hubbard (or Chairman of the Board – Religious Technology Centre, as he is known within Scientology) directs operations from his luxury home on the International Base. The unachievable quotas are dictated directly from his office, from where he also likes to call impromptu day-long meetings for his staff and personally directs the punishments when things inevitably go wrong. In one episode recalled by Headley, a furious Miscavige called several hundred staff back on to the base at 2am and ordered them, one by one, to “walk the plank” fully-clothed from the diving board of his swimming pool. I put it to Headley that Miscavige appears to fit the mould of the typical cult leader, in that the entire operation with which he surrounds himself seems to exist entirely to please him. Certainly nobody else on the base appears to get anything out of being there. “I think that’s a very good observation,” says Headley. “He has this many cars, he’s living in this nice place and he has people waiting on him hand and foot. Meanwhile, we’re working 100 hours a week and getting paid if we’re lucky. Whatever he says, that’s what you do. It’s very scary now to see how controlled I was. He can definitely be compared to any of the major cult leaders.”

Perhaps the only people Scientology appears to exist for, other than Miscavige, are its celebrity members, who pop up again and again in Headley’s story – he was chosen to be the subject for Tom Cruise to practice his auditing skills on when the actor visited the base with Nicole Kidman in the early 1990s. So what is the attraction for the celebrities? “Scientology tells them what they want to hear,” explains Headley. “They preach that artists are the ‘opinion leaders’ in society. So Scientology puts celebrities on a pedestal and tells them they need to be protected, because people will try to knock them down and give them bad advice. They blow smoke up their asses and cater to their egos – it’s an art they’ve really perfected and the celebrities just lap it up.” And the benefits of this are clear for Scientology itself, with major Hollywood celebrities helping to lend the organisation an air of credibility. “When they were having problems with the local authorities in Clearwater,” Headley recalls, “they held a big charity function and John Travolta came and danced with the wives of the politicians. Now, if you’re the mayor of a small town and your wife just danced with John Travolta, how can you say anything bad about Scientology?” Not that the credit for such things goes to anyone other than Miscavige. “That’s the way he is. Even in the case of Tom Cruise, you’re led to believe that the only reason he is in Scientology is because of David Miscavige. To give you an idea, one time he attended an event with all these celebrities, and Bill Clinton was there. When he came back to the base, somebody said, ‘Oh, you met Bill Clinton,’ and Miscavige said, ‘No, Bill Clinton met me.’ That is David Miscavige in a nutshell.”

Since its release at the end of last year, Blown for Good has made the kind of impact its author hoped. Having built up an online buzz courtesy of Anonymous, and sold thousands of copies in the US, Headley says he has been receiving letters and emails from Scientologists, many of whom have said the revelations in his book have confirmed their suspicions about the inner workings of the Church. “People have written to me and said they can’t believe they did it for so long,” he says. “They say they gave them over a million dollars, but now they’ve read the book they won’t give them another penny.” So are we now seeing the beginning of the end for Scientology? “I don’t think they’re as powerful as they used to be, but at the same time I wouldn’t want people to underestimate them,” he warns. “In 1979 they were found guilty of perpetrating the largest infiltration into the US government in history, but here we are 30 years later. But now things are happening on a global scale – more and more people are speaking out, and lawsuits are under way around the world. I think if things continue in this way, within a few years we’ll know which way this thing is going to go.”

In the meantime, Headley says he will continue to speak out against Scientology, while also pursuing his labour suit against the organisation. Having endured life at the heart of the Sea Org himself for 15 years, he knows better than most what its employees, including his own sister, are being put through at the hands of David Miscavige. “A year or two after I left, I saw this documentary about Jonestown,” he says. “I almost cried, because it’s so similar to what I saw. I thought to myself, if they got out the Kool-Aid, what would happen? Part of me was saying people would drink it, but the other half was saying people probably wouldn’t. I don’t know. But when you’re in that mindset, it’s not so far-fetched.”

Blown for Good: Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology by Marc Headley is available from Blownforgood.com