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Wednesday 7 December 2011

Scientology's Cruise Ship as Prison: The Voice Interviews Valeska Paris (UPDATED and CORRECTED)

Scientology's Cruise Ship as Prison: The Voice Interviews Valeska Paris (UPDATED and CORRECTED)

Yesterday, a story about an Australian woman who says she was held for 12 years against her will aboard Scientology's floating cathedral and cruise ship Freewinds hit the Scientology-watching world like a depth charge.
Last night, we had a lengthy conversation over Skype with Valeska Paris, and learned much more about her upbringing in Scientology, her time on the ship, and in particular, what it was like when church leader David Miscavige brought aboard his best pal, Tom Cruise, for the actor's big birthday celebration in 2004.
We also talked about how she decided to speak out even though she had previously signed confidentiality agreements with the notoriously litigious church.
"They're cowards. They always threaten, but they never follow it up," she says.

Valeska, with Declan
​Valeska left the Freewinds in 2007, and later left Scientology itself. In 2010 she first went public with her defection at the blog of former high-ranking Scientology executive Marty Rathbun. Then, yesterday, she appeared on the Australian network ABC's program Lateline, saying that she was held against her will aboard the cruise ship for more than a decade. A fellow former member of Scientology's hardcore Sea Organization, Ramana Dienes-Browning, backed up her version of events. The church has denied all of the allegations by Paris and Dienes-Browning, and spokeswoman Karin Pouw's full statement can be found below. At the end of the statement, Pouw writes to ABC's Steve Cannane: "Your source is doing this because she and Chris Guider apparently cannot get their life in order and move on."
In fact, Valeska and her husband Chris -- who was the subject of his own Lateline program -- are getting on with their lives quite nicely, and even have a bit of an announcement...
"They say we're not getting on with our lives? We both have jobs, we have a boy," she told me last night from Sydney, "And I'm pregnant with another baby."
What a change from her time in the Sea Org, where having children is prohibited, where she signed a billion-year contract at only 14 years old, and where she was pulled away from her own mother and put aboard what she says was a floating prison.
Valeska Paris was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1977. She had two younger siblings -- Melissa (1979) and Raphael (1982) -- and their lives changed radically when their parents, who were both Scientologists, split up and her father, Jean-Francois Paris, decided to join the church's Sea Org in England. At only 6 years of age, Valeska was put into a former Scientology organization known as the "Cadet Org." (Her sibs joined too -- Melissa was only 4, and Raphael barely 2, she points out.)
Her sister, Melissa, has written that the Cadet Org was a sort of "mini Sea Org," where even the youngest children were treated like future hardcore church workers, and were "assigned all sorts of manual labor: scrubbing walls, floors, cleaning the toilets...not stuff that kids would normally do." (We're going to be interviewing Melissa, who has her own story to tell about growing up in Scientology and living in a family torn apart by the church.)
Scientology believes that each of us has lived countless lives over billions of years -- our souls, which Scientology calls "thetans," are ancient, and so even when we inhabit a new body in a new life, as a child, there is actually an adult soul inside.
"We were just future Sea Org members that needed to be molded into 'good' SO members which meant breaking us down into robots," Melissa writes.
Valeska did join the Sea Org, at only 14 years old, signing its standard billion-year contract, promising to come back, lifetime after lifetime, to serve the church by working incredible hours for only 50 dollars a week.
In the meantime, her mother, Ariane Jackson, had remarried to a French man named Albert Jaquier, a rags-to-riches success who had managed to go from junkyard worker to self-made millionaire. But Jaquier gave away much of his money to Scientology, and had made loans to fellow Scientologists, and then spent the last years of his life trying to get that money back. Wrote Jackson in 1996:
The various methods used to persuade [Jaquier] to pay money...included daylong interviews by groups of salesmen, "investment opportunities", donations to translate a book, donations to "protect Scientology", etc...Two of the "investment opportunities" where he loaned almost half a million dollars in 1989 to a "patron" and a "patron meritorious" of the International Association of Scientologists"(IAS) turned out to be very bad "investments"...Their failure to repay him added to the fact he had given so much of his money to Scientology ruined him financially. The stress arising from his bad financial position aggravated a heart condition for which he could not afford proper medical care and which he had been persuaded Scientology would resolve. This illness killed him before he could recover the money owed to him.
(See the hard-hitting new investigative series at the St. Petersburg Times for a description about how Scientologists are pressured more than ever to give huge sums to the church.)
Jaquier died in December, 1994, and Jackson began speaking out the next year, at one point going on live television in France to describe her problems with Scientology.
But before her mother went on television, Valeska tells me, Jackson first went to Scientology directly, trying to get some kind of recompense for what had happened to her husband.
"She went to the org in Switzerland and asked for damages for her husband's suicide. So they sued her for blackmail and tried to get her jailed," Valeska says. That attempt to get Jackson prosecuted criminally failed, but then Jackson went on television.
Valeska at the time was a Sea Org member, working diligently for the church, cut off entirely from the outside world. All she knew was that suddenly, in 1995, she was told that she would need to "disconnect" from her own mother, with no word about what her stepfather had gone through or the church's attempt to get her mother prosecuted.
"They never told us any of that. They only told us she had sued the church. I didn't know that my stepdad had been upset or any of that," she says.
In standard church procedure, Jackson was declared a "suppressive person" -- Scientology's version of excommunication -- and as a result, every Scientologist in good standing was required to cut off all ties to her.
CORRECTION: I have a fairly significant change to make to this story. Yesterday, the Australian ABC network reported, "David Miscavige sent her to the ship when she was 17." But after talking with Valeska last night and writing this story, the dates in it bothered me -- something wasn't adding up right. I have now checked with Valeska and have learned that the Australian program, and my earlier reporting, were in error. At 17, Valeska was confined to her quarters at the Flag Land Base in Clearwater, Florida when she was told she had to "disconnect" from her mother. This in itself was a form of illegal imprisonment, she alleges. However, she was not moved to the Freewinds until September 1996, and by then she was 18 years old, and a few months from her 19th birthday. I regret that I did not catch this earlier (she had said she went on the ship in Sept. 1996 at Marty Rathbun's blog last year), and news organizations should be careful not to give the impression that Valeska was taken aboard the ship as a child. I have talked with the ABC's Steve Cannane, and he is also doing a correction. I have amended the following paragraph to reflect this information.
Valeska alleges that church leader David Miscavige, in order to keep her away from her mother, had Valeska kept in isolation away from her mother at Flag Land Base, in Clearwater, Florida while she was only 17 years old. The next year, in September 1996, after she had turned 18, she was then moved to the Freewinds, the cruise ship that sails the Caribbean and caters to wealthy Scientologists paying for the highest level of spiritual training, Operating Thetan level eight, or "OT VIII." Valeska joined the Sea Org that works on the ship. She says she was told her stay would only be two weeks. Instead, she spent the next twelve years there, unable to leave. For several months, she alleges, she was punished with an assignment in the ship's engine room, where at one point she passed out from the noise and heat.
For the first six years of her imprisonment, she had an escort assigned to her whenever she left the ship. But even after that, she says, she was conditioned to believe there was no escaping the Freewinds.
"When I first went there, I hated being there, and I wanted to leave," she says. "I knew that wasn't going to happen, so I began to accept that that was the way it was going to be," she says.
She compares it to the experience of Jaycee Lee Dugard, the girl who was held for 18 years in a California backyard and despite the ability to escape, felt completely resigned to being held captive.
"You're so resigned to it," she says. "I had grown up in Sea Org. I never had a bank account. You get 50 dollars a week. You don't have a passport. If you want to leave the ship, you have to go down the gangway, and there's a security guard there 24 hours a day." (Valeska's passport had been taken from her when she boarded the ship; the church says that was just maritime procedure.)
"You were taught that Scientology was the only answer. You think you're doing the right thing," she says, adding that Sea Org members are constantly made to feel that they haven't done enough to "clear the planet" for Scientology's advancement. "They make you feel that you could always do more. I never really took any days off. That's your whole life, basically."
Valeska was put aboard the Freewinds in 1996. For her first six years, she worked as a waitress in one of the ship's restaurants. In 2002, she spent a short time as a "word clearer," a technical position that had her helping Scientologists understand the arcane terms of L. Ron Hubbard's "technology." She then supervised cases, and then became an auditor and an instructor of courses.
I had to ask her: some people might not find that so bad, working in a restaurant and then giving classes while sailing around the Caribbean.
"Well, the schedule in the Sea Org is very different than in the real world. You'd get up at 6 and go to work, and you'd work until midnight. In 1997 and 1998, after our regular jobs we were up every night until 4 am cleaning up asbestos," she says. "There was rubble on the deck. We'd have to go behind the guys doing renovations, vacuuming up dirt until 4 in the morning."
Near the end of her time on the ship, she was selling "The Basics," the remastered set of Hubbard books that Miscavige released in 2007 and then tasked nearly every worker with selling at a breakneck speed. "We were getting three hours of sleep a night, for months. Sometimes you worked all night. You were a walking zombie. We'd go to the toilet and fall asleep.

"Look at the photos. I'm white as a sheet. I never really got to go out," she says with a laugh.
Often, the ship was not very full, she says, as not enough high-level Scientologists could be convinced to spend large sums to come take their OT VIII training (which runs about $8,000 for only that step -- to reach that point will cost a typical church member hundreds of thousands of dollars over his or her career).
But every June, the ship would fill up for the annual "Maiden Voyage," a celebration of the vessel's actual first voyage. Executives would travel to the ship and would stay for weeks, into July and even August. And one July, in 2004, was especially significant.
"We were all pulled down to the cinema," Valeska says, remembering the special announcement when they were told that Tom Cruise was coming to the ship for his birthday, which is July 3. "We were all told we can't ask for his autograph, or we'd get a comm ev." (A "committee of evidence" is a sort of Scientology disciplinary trial.) "We can't tell anyone that he's coming to the ship or that he'd been to the ship, or again, a comm ev. And we had to call him 'sir.' It was like he was David Miscavige's deputy or something."
As the date for the party neared, however, Valeska committed a grave error.
She got a cold sore.
"David Miscavige saw that I had a cold sore, and I was assigned to lower conditions and I was put in isolation for 4 days," she says. She explains that she was assigned the "condition" of "Treason," which is below "Enemy" but above "Confusion."
"I was in Treason. So I wasn't allowed to go to Tom Cruise's birthday." [Note: I misunderstood what Valeska told me last night about the particular condition she was assigned, and have corrected it. -- T.O.]
By the time Cruise arrived, her cold sore had gone away, but she was still in the doghouse. She remembers that before he arrived, Miscavige was eating a meal and addressed her and a few other workers.
"He said, 'Tom Cruise is coming and I need really good service, so who's going to serve him?' A woman spoke up. 'No, no, it can't be a woman, because he's so good looking, any woman would fall for him.' So a guy had to take the job," she says.
The first morning after Cruise arrived however, the male worker assigned to serve Cruise and his guest, Penelope Cruz, slept in, and Valeska ended up doing the job.
Cruise and Cruz were staying in the best cabin on the ship, which Valeska says was actually a violation of Freewinds rules -- unmarried "publics" (non-Sea Org Scientologists) were never allowed to sleep in the same cabin. But the rule was bent for the famous actor.
"They had a yacht specifically for him," she says, referring to a smaller boat that Miscavige and Cruise used for diving. "Everything was free. They'd go diving and on motorbikes in Bonaire. When they went on the yacht, they had the best service, the best food. Tom was on a special diet. A chef, maybe from New York, a Chinese chef, was flown in to cook for him," she remembers.
Meanwhile, back on the ship, preparations for the big birthday were in full swing. "There were posters for every single movie he'd been in except for the one he made with Nicole Kidman [1999's Eyes Wide Shut, directed by Stanley Kubrick], because she's a big old SP." [Update: Kidman also starred with Cruise in 1990's Days of Thunder and 1992's Far and Away. Valeska says all three movies were absent from the posters and music during the party.]
Still in lower conditions for her now-vanished cold sore, Valeska was unable to attend the party, but she heard plenty about it. "The band did all the songs from his movies, except the one he did with Nicole." And she says three young women from the IASA -- the administration of the International Association of Scientologists -- were disciplined after the party. "They were trying to get Tom's attention. So they were put in the engine room."
The party itself was all about lavishing Miscavige's attention on his buddy Tom. "It was all set up by David Miscavige. All done by the church. And all about Tom Cruise. It was really weird. I mean, who wants to have posters of that stuff everywhere? And music playing from his movies."
A video of the night's festivities leaked some years ago. As we've pointed out several times recently, Cruise got up to sing "Old Time Rock & Roll" with Scientologist Stacy Francis, who would go on to be a contestant on television's X Factor...
Another person on ship that night was former top Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder, who says he does remember Valeska Paris, but didn't know her very well or her situation on the ship. He has his own memories of the night of Tom Cruise's birthday party.
"I was in the bilges," he tells me.
"That's right, he was," Vaselka says. "He was in the engine room. And so were [other top Scientology executives] Guillaume Lesevre. Heber Jentzsch. Marc Yager. I think Jennie Linson was down there, too."
Rinder tells me that each year, from 2004 to 2006, when he went to the Freewinds for the Maiden Voyage, he ended up in the bilges, at one point for more than two months.
What had they done?
"I remember Miscavige yelling -- he's always yelling, always, you could hear him a mile away -- and it was always something about how incompetent they are, and how they can't get anything right," Valeska says.
The year before, in 2003, the same thing had happened with Jentzsch, Yager, Linson, Lesevre, and another executive named Angie Blankenship.
"They had to call us 'sir.' They had fifteen minute meal breaks. They were running everywhere like they were in the RPF," she says, referring to the Rehabilitation Project Force, Scientology's prison detail.
"At night they would come to the course room and they were listening to tapes. And then they were getting ethics interrogations on the meter, and they were not getting enough sleep, I can tell you that. Angie was sick, Guillaume was sick. And then they were working on the ship, on the deck, where public could see them. They were there way after Maiden Voyage that year, all the way to August," she says. "At night they were serving our dinner, and had to call us 'sir.' And these were supposed to be the executives of Scientology."
She sounds stunned, thinking about it today. "That whole time, Miscavige, every day, no fail, he was either going diving, or he was going and taking photos with two people from Golden Era Productions. And then he'd come back at night and come down to the cinema to watch brand new movies flown out from the States. I can't imagine what that cost. Every night he'd go down and watch movies. This went on from June to the end of August."
Again, I asked, what had the executives done? "Nothing. It was just in his mind. Miscavige's thing is that he's doing everything, and everyone else is incompetent, and they were all pieces of shit, and he has to handle everything."
Work in the engine room was incredibly unpleasant, Rinder tells me. "Valeska talks about passing out? That happened to Heber one time, too.
"It's a kingdom unto itself. There's really only one way into or out of the ship. There's no outside law enforcement," Rinder adds, backing up Valeska's assertion that it was virtually impossible to leave on one's own. "Mike Napier, the captain of the Freewinds, is one of David Miscavige's favorite hit men. He gets used to control and intimidate people that Miscavige wants controlled and intimidated," he says. "It is such a completely controlled environment. It's very difficult to get away from there. Don Jason is the only one I know who was able to get away on his own."
In 2009, St. Petersburg Times journalist Tom Tobin wrote the incredible story of Jason, a Scientologist who had been sent to the ship for counseling and discipline, and who finally escaped from the Freewinds by riding down a cable with a sort of rolling pin to maintain his grip. That was in November 1996, soon after Valeska had herself arrived on the ship.
"After he got away, the guy who was the security chief was given a committee of evidence and was taken off his post and put in a lower position. And the security guard who was supposed to chase him down was made a plumber. So heads rolled for him getting away," Valeska says.
I asked her if, during her 12 years aboard, there were others like herself who felt they were imprisoned. "There were people who were there who didn't want to be there, but it takes forever to get off the ship."
And was anyone working there actually happy with their situation?
"Well, the captain was happy. But nobody liked him," she says.
"I guess it's all about David Miscavige now, but it's not about caring about the individual at all. The goal is clearing the planet, so they just trash the individual. There's a bigger
purpose," she says, explaining how no individual's happiness was considered very important.
Near the end of her time on the Freewinds, Valeska had been busted down to washing pots and pans. "I knew I was going to the RPF, but I didn't care, I just wanted to get off the ship." She had run afoul of the management, and plans were being made to send her to an RPF complex in Australia. Valeska remembers having to sign papers to that effect, and it had to be videotaped.
"I had to put makeup on, I looked like shit."
Finally, she got off the ship, in 2007, and at the RPF met Guider, who was also there. After they "graduated" from the RPF, they began seeing each other, got married, and had a son, Declan. That was against Sea Org rules, but by then they didn't care. They decided to leave Scientology, but the church wanted first to get them to sign gag orders.
Valeska says that she had already signed one confidentiality agreement while on the Freewinds.
This time, she made sure not to sign her legal name.
"Of course, you don't get a copy of it. I didn't even read it. It was 15 or 20 pages long," she says. Guider, meanwhile, didn't sign his at all.
"He was stronger. He said 'Fuck you, I'm not going into session, I'm not being sec-checked [Scientology's version of interrogation], and I'm not signing anything.' I wish I'd done the same thing," Valeska says.
Even so, it must have taken some soul-searching before she decided to go public with her statements at Marty Rathbun's blog. What brought her to that point?
"I was pregnant and I was getting nasty messages from my dad and e-mails from my brother," she says. Once she left Scientology -- and reunited with her mother, who she hadn't seen in 15 years -- then her father and brother, who remain in the church, were forced to disconnect from her and her sister Melissa, who has also left Scientology.
"Melissa has a a 10-year-old daughter who has never met her grandfather," she says.
Did she worry, however, that Scientology would use the confidentiality agreements she signed to take her into a legal hell?
"I spoke to Mike Rinder. He said that if you bring up David Miscavige, there's no way they'll sue you, because they would never risk having him in court," she says.
It's been two months since Lateline did its own story about Chris Guider. I asked how the publicity has affected them.
"It's all been positive. Since we've left the church, life has been awesome. and speaking out is great. You get it off your chest. And I want them to go away. I want that whole church scene to be taken down," she says.
Her story has certainly had a surprisingly strong impact. I'll end with this video from Australia's version of A Current Affair, which aired last night. And after that, Scientology's entire response to Valeska's allegations.

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