This week, two women who escaped from extreme religious sects told their stories. One escaped from Scientology, the other from the Westboro Baptist Church. Although a small number of people grow up inside groups like these in America, it’s as important as it is startling to hear from these women and hear how, even in this modern world, there are still people who want to oppress women, control their bodies, and prevent them from getting educated.
First up: Jenna Miscavige Hill. She is the niece of Scientology’s controversial leader David Miscavige and author of the new memoir Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape. She made her first big press appearance this Monday on “The View.” The choice was pitch-perfect: Jenna is a pretty blonde stay-at-home mother of two, which makes her relatable to “The View”‘s audience. She grew up in the Church, with parents who were Sea Org officers. That meant that she lived in a children’s dormitory and performed manual labor as young as age five. In adulthood, Hill eventually was able to escape Scientology along with her husband, Dallas Hill, but only after plenty of psychological torture like forced confessions and interrogation sessions. As Jenna related stories of child abuse in a cool, calm voice, she gave people all over the country a peek into a damaging and scary organization.
Jenna’s story also closely resembles that of another woman from another isolated sect – Megan Phelps-Roper, who was the subject of a Medium.com profile this week. She is the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, best known for protesting at soldiers’ funerals and bearing “God Hates Fags” signs. Megan and her sister Grace left Westboro, the only home and religious community they’d ever known, after Megan got involved on Twitter and began interacting with people with different beliefs. These conversations caused her to question Westboro’s practices and challenge what she’d been taught. As the Medium profile points out, people were hailing Megan as Westboro’s next leader because of her online presence. But she knew that no woman could ever hold a position of authority in the WBC. That disconnect — that she could help with Westboro’s PR yet still never be allowed to do anything important inside the church itself — is one of the reasons she decided to escape.
Both Megan and Jenna were mostly disconnected from friends and family members for choosing to leave. Jenna had her parents, who escaped a few years before she did, and Megan has her sister. But they also have to cope with some of the economic and educational challenges caused by their isolated, sheltered backgrounds. Neither attended traditional school. Jenna learned more about L. Ron Hubbard’s writings than she did about science, math, or history. Megan’s only field trips were to other towns and cities where Church members were organizing protests. But it was brief glimpses and connections in the outside world that helped them change their lives. For Jenna, a work assignment in Australia was the breaking point. As a Sea Org member, she had agreed not to have children. (Though her own parents were Sea Org members, David Miscavige changed the rules to no longer permit members to have children. The kids’ ranch that Jenna grew up on is now empty.) But meeting a pregnant woman in Australia and seeing her joy made Jenna realize that parenthood was something she really wanted for herself. For Megan, having ideological discussions on social media made her realize that not everyone on the outside was as terrible as her grandfather said they were.
One of the ways that cults keep people in is by convincing them that everyone “outside” is dangerous and untrustworthy. But Megan and Jenna found inner strength by connecting with others and they now live lives where they are free to have children, work at jobs of their own choosing, and believe anything they want to believe . This is female empowerment at its most basic, elemental level.
There are, of course, major differences between where Jenna and Megan are in their journeys. Jenna has had several years out of Scientology and time to process everything that happened to her. She even co-founded a website, Ex-Scientology Kids, to connect with and support other people who grew up in the Church. She has repaired many of her relationships and forgiven her parents for neglecting her as a child. Megan’s story is clearly rawer, as her departure from Westboro was much more recent. She still considers herself a Christian and goes to church, though she admits that, at 27, she is still figuring out who she is.
I hope we can check in with Megan in a few years and find out what kind of a woman she grows up to be — no doubt strong and self-possessed. And maybe she’ll write a memoir of her own someday.
Lilit Marcus is the blogger for Faith Goes Pop.