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How one woman climbed her way out of Scientology’s elite Sea Org

Tracy Ekstrand is a former follower of Scientology and its Sea Organization. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)

The release Sunday of HBO’s “Going Clear” documentary will bring attention to members and past members of Scientology and to questions about the movement’s allure and controversies.

Among those speaking out is Tracy Ekstrand, who joined the Church of Scientology in 1967 when she was 19. Fourteen years later,  after Ekstrand said her daughter’s finger was severed in the door of a Scientology nursery, she made her way out of the the Sea Organization, which includes Scientology’s most elite and loyal members.

Ekstrand said she also served as a steward for the children of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Karin Pouw, a spokeswoman for Scientology, confirmed that Ekstrand was a nanny in a Scientology day care in Los Angeles, but also said that her supervisor at the day care center said the incident with Ekstrand’s daughter’s finger never happened.

For years, Ekstrand, 66, said she was afraid to tell her story, fearing harassment or lawsuits from the church, which has a history of suing former members. But after she was quoted in the critically acclaimed book “Going Clear,” which came out in 2013, nothing happened, she said. She received no threats of any kind.

In a series of interviews in the weeks leading up to HBO’s March 29 airing of its “Going Clear” documentary, based on Lawrence Wright’s book, Ekstrand reflected on why she was drawn to Scientology at an early age, her experience in the Sea Organization, and her recovery since leaving more than 30 years ago in 1981.

[The Washington Post reviews “Going Clear"]

The Church of Scientology, which  former science fiction writer Hubbard founded in in 1952, has been in the media spotlight in recent years due to more recent allegations of  physical abuse by some top ex-officials. The church denies many of the claims and says the former members are liars.

Pouw, a spokeswoman for Scientology, wrote in an e-mail that no one in her office has met Ekstrand or heard of her. “We aren’t naive – this is a publicity ploy orchestrated to promote Alex Gibney’s propaganda film,” Pouw said. “Why else would you be asking us, out of the blue, about something that is beyond ancient history?”

[A sneak peak at the HBO documentary on Scientology]

For his research, Wright spoke to more than 200 current and former Scientologists, and his book includes a few paragraphs on Ekstrand. The book focuses on the history of founder Hubbard and current leader David Miscavige. It also gives details of the church’s relationships with celebrities, such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

Now retired and living near two of her adult daughters in Austin, Tex., Ekstrand has become emboldened about sharing her story. (Her youngest daughter, Gillian Brockell, is an employee at The Washington Post.) “It was a high crime to speak against Scientology, and I didn’t want to get sued,” Ekstrand said. “There are so many people coming out, and I’m pretty small potatoes, so why not? Now I’m getting braver.”

Seeking a higher purpose

Before she joined Scientology in 1967, Ekstrand was a high school dropout who felt she had no real career options. “I was a naughty high school girl,” she said. “I had a pretty bohemian mother who said schools are sausage factories.”

As a high school junior, she was dating a boy named Frank, who wound up quitting school and his job and became involved in drugs. They drifted apart, but then then he called her some months later.

“Frank and I were a hot item when I was 17. He went down the tubes as far as I was concerned,” she said. “Then he called me and said: ‘I found this wonderful, new thing. I can’t wait to tell you about it. I’m back in school, I have a job, I’m off drugs, and it’s all due to Scientology.”

Frank took Ekstrand to her first Scientology lecture at a franchise, a Scientology unit where people are first exposed to the church. At the time, Ekstrand said she had had become depressed and felt as though she was a failure to her father, who was disappointed she had quit school. Instead, she admired the man who taught her Scientology courses because he could make her laugh.

“He could see the humor in how people misbehave,” she said. “It was such a relief to hear.”

[More: Scientology Fiction]

She said she received a bulletin from Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, in 1970 that suggested the world could end in five years and urged people to serve in the Sea Organization. The Sea Org, a sort of ecclesiastical order, is treated like a priesthood, in which members are dedicated to spreading the doctrine of Scientology to the world.

Ekstrand was about to start a new job as a flight attendant for United Airlines, but she decided to sign a billion-year contract to serve in the Sea Organization in 1970. Scientologists, she said, believe in reincarnation, so you signed up for this life and the next life through a billion years.

Before she joined the Sea Org, she had taken courses that were $25 a course. She then went through Scientology auditing, which she said was around $800, and she got to level four. Sea Org members, though, could take classes for free, another perk of joining the organization.

She was assigned 11 different positions during her 14 years in Scientology, she said. She spent 11 of those 14 years in the Sea Org, which was based on the sea, mostly on the Caribbean, which was like the Marines in its rigorous discipline.

Ekstrand said that while she was in the Sea Org she made $10 a week, plus room and board, and received maybe one day off every two weeks. According to former members, those in the Sea Org cadre are often discouraged from having families because of the potential distraction from their work. If the staff wasn’t producing enough, Ekstrand said, they would receive meals of rice and beans.

Pouw, the church spokesperson, said in an e-mail that Ekstrand’s description of life in the Sea Org “is grossly exaggerated and appears to have morphed over the decades.” More than 7,500 people serve in the Sea Org, she said. “Like any religious order, the lifestyle is demanding and not for everyone,” Pouw said. “Independent religious scholars have found that conditions are not dissimilar to those in the orders of other faiths and that its members find it a thoroughly rewarding career dedicated to helping others.”

[More: Inside Scientology]

Ekstrand said she was first assigned to the Celebrity Center, Scientology’s center in Hollywood that caters to stars and other high-profile members. She was a personnel officer, in charge of hiring and placing people to take care of celebrities, she said. After about two years Ekstrand said she became dissatisfied with the rigorous schedule. But she met a new recruit whose fresh perspective on Scientology rekindled her interest.

She married him at 25, and she and her new husband were selected to be part of the crew on “The Apollo” ship that included Hubbard, “a huge honor,” she said. Hubbard was moving the Sea Org from port to port to evade investigations in several countries, according to reports. Ekstrand’s experience on the ship, including encounters with Hubbard, is included in Wright’s book:

“One night as the fleet was sailing in the Caribbean, he looked at the young woman serving him dinner, Tracy Ekstrand, whose glasses were sliding down her nose in the tropical heat. ‘You’re doing yourself an aesthetic disservice,’ he pronounced. She was mortified and stopped wearing glasses that night.”

The last straw

On the ship, Ekstrand said she took care of Mary Sue Hubbard, the wife of Scientology’s founder. Ekstrand would make her bed, dust her furniture, tailor her clothes and walk her dogs, two Tibetan terriers. When Ekstrand moved to the land base in Clearwater, Fla., Scientology’s headquarters in 1976, she said she was assigned as family steward to take care of Hubbard’s children for several months.

Ekstrand said she later served as a nanny on the land base in a day care. After her third child was born, Ekstrand was sent to Los Angeles in 1980. Families were not allowed to have more than two children on the land base in Florida, she said.

Ekstrand said she and her three daughters were placed in a Scientology day care in Los Angeles, where Ekstrand also served as a nanny. Ekstrand said she complained about safety concerns several times, saying not enough workers were monitoring the day care. She said she went above her superiors’ heads to complain, which caused frustration.

While her children were playing in the day care one day in 1980, another child slammed a metal door on her 2-year-old daughter’s hand, Ekstrand said, and part of the child’s index finger was severed and could not be reattached.

“I was just devastated with guilt,” she said. “I had too many kids to take care of, and I couldn’t do it well, and my child happened to be the one who suffered.” (Gillian Brockell provided a photograph of her sister’s hand with the damaged finger.)

That 2-year-old daughter, Melissa Holmes, is now 36 and a middle school teacher in Austin. Holmes recalled how the event affected her as a child.

“When I was younger, I definitely felt self-conscious about it. I remember sitting on my bed crying and thinking, ‘Oh I’m damaged, no one’s going to love me.’” Holmes said. “Now as an adult, it doesn’t affect me. It’s more hearing my parents’ other stories that affects me.”

Pouw said that she spoke with the woman who was Ekstrand’s supervisor during the time Ekstrand worked there. “The woman said she remembers her, but is adamant that absolutely nothing like the incident described below occurred,” Pouw said in an e-mail. “She said she would remember if something like that happened to a child, especially if the child lost her finger, and repeated, ‘nothing like that happened.'”

After the incident, Ekstrand’s husband, who was on business in Mexico City, called Ekstrand to say he wanted a divorce and wanted to leave the Sea Org. Ekstrand told church officials she could persuade him to return to the Sea Org if she were sent to Mexico City. They agreed and sent her to join her husband.

But she could not persuade her husband to return. When she returned to the states, she resigned and left the Church of Scientology with her daughters. They took a train to Chicago, and she and her husband divorced. She eventually moved to Colorado and remarried.

A new life

When she left the Sea Org, “I didn’t know how to write a check,” said Ekstrand, who was 33 at the time and was on food stamps for almost a year. “I wasn’t sure who the president was. I had no idea what it cost to get an apartment.”

She started  in data entry at Colorado State University and ended up as an assistant to a vice provost. She also took English classes and attained a 4.0 at the university, she said, staying until her junior year.

About seven years after she left Scientology, Ekstrand began writing personal essays about her experience, but she was reluctant to submit anything for publication. She said she began to process her time in Scientology in individual and group counseling sessions as she also worked to establish an existence outside the church. She mostly kept quiet about her experience, though, fearing lawsuits from the Church of Scientology.

“I didn’t have a dime when I left the Sea Org,” she said. But after she moved to Colorado and found a new community, “I had a pretty good life. I didn’t want harassment.” She minored in religion in college and gave presentations for a cult awareness network at several churches, though it took her several years to start telling people about her past.

“You don’t lead with it. People look at you really funny,” she said. “People would say, ‘You’re a really good listener.’ Well, it was because I didn’t want to reveal all this nonsense. It was a couple of decades before I started admitting it, maybe after I’ve had a beer or two.”

Now Ekstrand belongs to a Unitarian church and describes herself as a humanist. “I’m kind of off dogma, kind of not accepting things on faith, which is what I did,” she said.

Ekstrand said that in her youth she had a desire to “clear the planet,” as Scientology teaches, a desire to make everyone sane and save the world. “I don’t like it when people think, ‘How could you fall for such a fairy tale?’” she said. “I think the people who are there are sincere and think they’re doing a Peace Corps thing — making a better world.”

Ekstrand has moved on with her life. Now she serves as an election judge and a deputy registrar in her community and vice president of her neighborhood association. But she finds herself frustrated by people’s initial reactions to Scientology.

“The feeling has been, buyer beware, if you’re dumb enough to get involved, you deserve what you get,” she said. “It shouldn’t be tossed off as a joke.”

(This article has been updated.)

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