TO most of us, Scientology is the peculiar religion that counts movie star Tom Cruise among its adherents.
Jenna Hill knows it as the church that robbed her of her childhood and tore her family asunder.
The apostate Scientologist tells her fascinating story of survival in Beyond Belief, a long memoir that captivates the reader from cover to cover.
Hill is the San Diego-based niece of Scientology leader David Miscavige. Her parents were also high-ranking executives in the church for 15 years until leaving it in 2000.
When she was just seven years old in 1991 she signed a billion-year contract to serve the church in its elite Sea Org.
Yes, that's right: a billion years. Sea Org members are expected to serve for as long as they can in their current lives, and resume service in subsequent ones.
Hill says she "felt no hesitation" in signing the contract. Her age was practically irrelevant, she explains, because Scientology holds that every person is an ancient soul (or "thetan") "capable of the same responsibilities" at any age.
That reasoning justified putting children through physical labour at the Sea Org Cadets camp where she lived during what should have been her school years.
The daily routine at the California camp, called "the Ranch," included an early morning wake-up call, a military-style "muster" or assembly, a few hours of labour (carrying old railway ties, for example), some secular schooling in the afternoon without teachers, and Scientology indoctrination in the evening.
From wake-up call to the end of evening sessions, it was a 14-hour day with no time for the sort of play or recreation a normal child would enjoy.
Her parents, Ron and Elizabeth Miscavige, lived several kilometres away and saw her for only a few hours every weekend.
Hill left the Ranch in her middle teens to work and study Scientology at the church's "Flag Land Base" in Florida, where she was routinely interrogated, bullied and reprimanded.
Any deviation from church policy or doctrine was committed at risk of being reported to the bosses and subjected to a "security check," essentially a session of badgering that would end only when she admitted to some sin (or "overt" in church terms) against Scientology.
Needless to say, she learned to keep her thoughts to herself and be careful in the presence of other Sea Org members.
The church flew her back to California when her parents exited, and gave her the option of leaving to live with them.
She refused, largely because she felt too committed to Scientology -- "brainwashed," she admits now -- to leave it.
Another factor in her decision was that she was 16 at the time, and leaving the church would have also meant enrolling in school. She knew her education wasn't up to snuff.
Hill finally reached her breaking point when the church tried to prevent her marriage to Dallas, a fellow Sea Org member, and then tried to keep them apart after they married.
She tried to "route out" of the Sea Org on good terms with the church, but those efforts were met with hostility and harassment.
It was only after leaving Scientology that she learned of some of its wackier beliefs, such as the story of a galactic overlord dumping aliens into Earth volcanoes millions of years ago.
She co-founded a website for ex-Scientologists in 2008.
Beyond Belief comes soon after U.S. Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief was published to much fanfare south of the border. Due to Canada's more plaintiff-friendly libel laws, Going Clear isn't available in Canadian bookstores.
Hill's book is not only a good substitute, it's a terrific tome in its own right. Interesting, informative and accessible, this insider's story is well worth the price.
Winnipeg writer Mike Stimpson is an apostate Roman Catholic.
Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape
By Jenna Miscavige Hill with Lisa Pulitzer
William Morrow, 404 pages, $19