Some of the things Chuck Beatty says he's done over the past 30 years sound like scenes from a science fiction movie.
Annie O'Neill, Post-GazetteChuck Beatty -- "It's a strange jump to come back to the real world. But I feel like I'm on the right side now."
Signing over a billion years of his current and future lives to service. Hiding from German news helicopters flying over the California camp where he lived. Spending more than six years doing hard labor under constant monitoring by his peers.
But Beatty, 53, now of Carnegie, says he was just one of the many faithful members of the Sea Organization, an intense division of the Church of Scientology. In 2004, Beatty left behind the life that had enveloped him for nearly three decades and moved to Pittsburgh from Los Angeles to assist other people interested in leaving, since he knows how difficult it is.
Beatty's experience with the church illustrates how Scientology can become all-encompassing, a characteristic that leads some to label it a dangerous organization. Others argue that new religions have been controversial since man began to believe in a higher power, and that Beatty and others like him -- while rare -- are not much different from nuns who want to leave their orders.
Beatty was, by his own account, a naive 22-year-old student at Arizona State University when he dropped by a Scientology office in 1975. He was looking for an out-of-body experience, and Scientology seemed to offer a quick path there.
He soon dropped out of school and by the end of the year, had joined the Sea Organization, or Sea Org, Scientology's religious order. Initially, it seemed like a good deal. It gave him room and board, and he was able to spend his days studying and teaching others about Scientology. Later, the organization trained him in computer programming, and he became a computer technician in Sea Org's offices in California.
There was a downside, though. Sea Org members worked seven days a week and received very little money in return, he said. There was a great deal of pressure to improve and the threat of special rehabilitation system if you failed .
He started hearing stories about the church intimidating and threatening its defectors, and about people who escaped or sent the church's private files to the Internal Revenue Service. After Time magazine published a scathing article about Scientology in 1991, other news media began hounding church members. At one point, a German news helicopter flew over one of Sea Org's camps.
But Beatty said he still loved the community that the church provided and became increasingly proficient in its teachings .
Even when he failed at an assigned task and was sent to the Rehabilitation Project Force -- what he calls the "prison" of the Sea Organization -- in 1989, he just wanted to pay penance for his shortcomings and continue moving up the church's ladder.
The Rehabilitation Project Force represents "a second chance" for Sea Org staff "who would otherwise be subject to dismissal for serious and/or continuous ecclesiastical violations," according to the church. Participants receive daily religious counseling and work eight hours a day as a team "to improve the church's facilities."
Some who have left Sea Org have other things to say about the Rehabilitation Project Force -- that they were forced to run everywhere, that they were given only leftovers to eat, that they couldn't speak unless spoken to.
Beatty said those rules were all in place, but they weren't very strictly enforced . His biggest complaints were that the work was menial -- like scrubbing walls or cleaning bathrooms -- that participants had no time off, and that anyone who left without permission would either be tailed and persuaded to return or physically restrained and brought back to the camp.
After studying accounts of people who were in the Rehabilitation Project Force, Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta, concluded in 1997 that because it puts "coerced participants" through a regime of harsh physical punishment, hard labor, and forced self-confessions , it is a "brainwashing program."
"In my opinion, Scientology is in many instances dangerous," he said, adding that in many cases, Scientology can be a "harmful, manipulative organization whose members cannot make informed decisions about their own lives and the lives of their loved ones."
Chuck Beatty's sister, Linda Kirkhart, agrees. She was living on a military base in Germany with her husband when Beatty joined the church. He assured her it was an easy way to have a roof over his head and a chance to study.
"We just figured if he wanted to do this, he's so strong-headed in some of the ways that he thinks, you just don't want to argue," she said.
She saw him only a handful of times over the next two-and-a-half decades, and each time, she said, he seemed quieter and less emotional. She was not invited to either of his two weddings, both to women also in the Sea Org. He now is divorced from both women, who, he said, still are involved with the church.
Then, in 2002, Beatty came to Carnegie to visit her with plans to leave the church. By July 2004, he was living in her spare bedroom. Now that she's heard his stories about the church's practices, and spent more time with him, she said, "It seems like it ripped his soul out."
It's difficult to say whether the church harmed Beatty, in part because he blames himself.
Any affiliation can be harmful if it becomes an obsession that detracts from school or family life, said Jim Richardson, professor of sociology and judicial studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.
But Scientology and its demands are no different from those of other religions when they first started, said Rebecca Denova, a visiting lecturer in religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
"It's their right to be that way -- they commit their own lives," she said. "They're not doing anything that I haven't seen other religions do."
Beatty's relationship with the church is one that many scholars compare to leaving a marriage: Some say it's like a woman walking out on an abusive husband, others compare it to a divorce whose participants can't help but say nasty things about each other.
It was difficult for Beatty to leave the Rehabilitation Project Force -- to "blow," as he calls it -- because every time he said he wanted to leave, he was talked or berated out of it. He said he was kept under constant watch. He finally left after a year of paperwork and signed confessions. During his 27 years in the church, he reached only the level of "Grade 0," the lowest ranked rung on Scientology's multi-tiered Bridge to Total Freedom.
Walking out on any religion that has been your whole life is mentally challenging, said David Bromley, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on high-intensity religious groups. It is more than simply a matter of making the choice to walk out the door, he said.
"All choices are constrained in some way," he said. "It's fair to say if you're in an intense community, choices become more difficult to make."
Beatty knows he wasn't alone in being drawn in for such a long time.
"Spiritual groups have done this for thousands of years on earth, everybody is going along with it, everybody's hoping, hoping, hoping," he said. "You don't even realize it -- it takes a long time to see that you have been part of a cult," even after you get out.
But he still doesn't feel bitterness toward the church.
"I knew this could be possible from day one," he said. "I could have been happy in the cult for the rest of my life. I blame myself for being duped and not taking extra time to educate myself."
Beatty, who worked for a few months in sales for the Post-Gazette circulation department and now is on leave for cancer treatment, has started an underground railroad of sorts to help people know that they have a safety net if they decide to tear themselves away from the only life they know.
He posted his name and number on the Internet and has received a letter from a Scientology lawyer, warning him that he signed "covenants" that preclude him from revealing his experiences on the Web.
But he said ex-Sea Org members have found his postings and are contacting him, looking for a place to stay or advice on how to get a job or put what they've been doing on their resume.
Life away from Scientology is especially difficult for those in need of some sort of mental health services, Beatty said. Because Scientology teaches that psychiatry is evil, some who have broken away are reluctant to seek such help.
He's still adjusting to his new life, saying that each day he recognizes more and more that the church was not a healthy thing.
He's now left with a dull ache of regret -- had he stayed out of the church, he said, he might have become involved in politics or law.
"I lived inside a religious movement for 27 years," he said. "It's a strange jump to come back to the real world. But I feel like I'm on the right side now."
Alana Semuels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1928.