Scientology Cruise Ship as Hellhole: The Ramana Dienes-Browning Story
Last week, Steve Cannane of Australia's ABC network and its program Lateline broke the story of Valeska Paris, a woman who says she was held against her will on Scientology's private cruise ship, the Freewinds, from 1996 to 2007.
Ramana Dienes-Browning, happy to be out of Scientology [Photo: Jason Sinclair]
In that story, Cannane also talked to Ramana Dienes-Browning, a former senior executive on the ship who backed up Valeska's claims. "She had been sent to the ship so as not to be in contact with one of her parents and that's not what she wanted. She was very, very distressed," Ramana said of Valeska. "Do you consider it now it to be imprisonment?" Cannane asked her. "Yes, yes, I would definitely consider it imprisonment because there was no choice in the matter," she answered.
The church denied that Valeska was held captive, and Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw's statement (available below) made no mention of Dienes-Browning.
The Voice interviewed Ramana at length this weekend, and it turns out that her experiences as a young Sea Org member aboard the Freewinds contain as many hellish details as Valeska's own.
And now, for simply speaking out about her time on the ship, she faces the very real possibility of forever losing contact with her mother and brother.
"I had to weigh that against helping other people who are thinking of leaving Scientology. My heart goes out to them and I want to help," she says.
Ramana and I spoke at length Friday night over Skype; she lives in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney today. As a child, she grew up on Sydney's outskirts and then lived in its inner city.
It's an unusual name, I pointed out, and she explained that her last name is a combination that came from her mother's Hungarian background and her father's British family, respectively. And Ramana? "It's Indian. My parents were hippies," she says.
They separated when she was young, and her mother became a schoolteacher. Her father, meanwhile, was into "alternative" therapies. "He was a bit of a seeker. But it was my mom who got into Scientology."
Ramana was 4 years old. "Basically, I was raised in it," she says. "I went to a Scientology school. I started on course at the org in Sydney probably from about 7."
Scientology offers spiritual enlightenment to its members through a series of classes that involve repetitive training routines, a sort of lie-detector machine called an "e-meter," and counseling sessions with increasing price tags at facilities called "orgs." Ramana was already starting in on these courses at an age that other children were still running around in playgrounds.
"Because I was so young, I didn't have any other reference points. My dad lived in Tasmania, and I would visit him on school holidays. But Scientology was everything, and there was nothing to compare it to. It was a slow and steady brainwashing. They really are control techniques," she says of the "communications" classes that Scientologists start out with in their careers. "You don't even realize it when you're in, but it's what happens as soon as you step in and do these communications courses."
Scientology, however, wasn't her entire life.
Ramana had become a very dedicated dancer, and she was becoming more and more serious about it as she entered her teens. "I was splitting my time between school, dancing classes, and the org. My mother was very supportive about my decision to be a professional dancer," Ramana says, but she adds that her mother also wanted her to remain dedicated to Scientology.
At 15, Ramana went on an overseas trip with her mother -- to Flag Land Base in Clearwater, Florida, Scientology's spiritual headquarters. "I did some courses there, and my mother got sold a package on the Freewinds. It was really exciting to go to the ship where they do OT VIII."
Scientology acquired the cruise ship in 1985 to revive a tradition started by church founder L. Ron Hubbard, who spent the years 1968 to 1975 sailing a small collection of ships while developing the upper-level teachings of Scientology before moving ashore to establish the Clearwater base (hence, the "Sea Organization," which operates both on the water and on land today). Slate's Brian Palmer recently described what going to the ship means for current church members:
Coursework on the Freewinds is a combination of independent book study, cooperative activities, and personal counseling sessions...Most guests spend two or three months onboard. Preparatory and onboard counseling each cost between $15,000 and $30,000. Accommodations run about $1,000 per week, including food. In addition, representatives from the International Association of Scientologists ask for donations on top of what guests have already paid.
But the ship is also known for being the only place high-level Scientologists can go to receive the church's current highest level of spiritual enlightenment, which is known as Operating Thetan level eight, or "OT VIII." It can take several years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in courses and counseling services to reach that point. But for the young Ramana, none of the courses on the boat -- especially vaunted OT VIII -- were within her reach at only 15.
"I didn't have prerequisites for any courses, so while my mom was on course, I got to wander around," she says. She quickly came to the attention of the Sea Org workers on the ship, she adds, and they began to recruit her heavily to join their ranks.
"During our week on the ship, I did get to go on a few outings, but I spent most of the time in a room being talked to by one to three Sea Org members at a time about joining," she says.
She flat out refused. She was training to be a professional dancer, she pointed out, and that was her real passion. "I was really into it. So my mind was 100 percent -- there was no way I am joining the Sea Org."
They kept working on her, even going ashore with her when she left the ship.
Eventually, under intense pressure, she made a concession. She told them that after her professional dancing career was over, at 30 to 35 years of age, she might be ready to join the Sea Org. They seemed happy with that offer, she says, and asked her to go ahead and sign a contract now, even though she might not be ready to join their ranks for 20 years.
"They pressured me to sign a contract. I finally said OK because I wanted to get rid of them."
Sea Org members sign contracts for terms of a billion years, promising to come back to work for Scientology lifetime after lifetime. And as soon as Ramana had signed her name to the contract, the crew members changed their tune: "You have to come with us now, they told me.
Her mother had no idea this was going on, Ramana says, because she was too busy with her own coursework somewhere else on the ship. But now three Sea Org members took Ramana back into a small room to convince her that signing the contract meant she needed to join the organization immediately.
"It makes me shudder thinking about it," she says. Leading the interrogation was Jennifer Alpers, who Ramana says was the Commanding Officer of the Commodore's Messengers Organization, a high-ranking executive on the ship. "She said 'Look, I don't know how you think you're a good enough dancer to make a difference in the world. I don't know what you're thinking.' She was crushing me inside," Ramana says.
"Then she just started screaming at me at the top of her lungs, 'I was a dancer too, and I doubt you're as good as I was...If you're not going to come now you might as well tear up that contract.' And I thought, that's the worst thing you could do, tear up a Sea Org contract, like it was devil worship," she says.
Meanwhile, she says, they were working another angle on her. A good-looking 25-year-old Sea Org member was flirting with her, she says. She was flattered by the attention, and she began to confide in him after a few days.
"I had a chat with him, and I just suddenly had this image of the world on fire, and I was betraying the Sea Org because we only had a short amount of time to save the planet." (This was early in 1995, and recruits were told that Hubbard predicted the world would come to an end in the year 2000 -- so they had only a short time to "clear the planet" and rescue mankind.)
"I had this image of the world on fire, and me dancing while it was happening. And I thought, you know, she's right. I have to give up dancing and join the Sea Org. That's when the brainwashing clicked in. It makes me almost break into tears to think about it. I gave up a really promising dancing career," she says.
Ramana and her mother returned to Australia, and she immediately prepared to return to the ship. "I packed everything. Sold everything. Quit school. I managed to scrape the money together to fly to America. And then I started to do the EPF"--the Estates Project Force, the boot-camp training for new Sea Org members.
Years later, Ramana told her mother about the heavy recruitment that had happened on the ship. "I think she was oblivious to what was going on. I've since spoken to her about it, and she broke into tears. She said if she had any idea, she wouldn't have let them do that to me. And I didn't tell her about it at the time. That's what is weird about Scientology. That type of pressure becomes normal, so I didn't even share it with my own mother," she says.
At the time, her mother was happy with her decision. "She thought it was my idea and she supported it."
Ramana arrived at Flag Land Base on March 13 -- Hubbard's birthday, she remembers. (He would have been 84 in 1995, but he had "dropped his body" in January, 1986 to pursue his studies on another plane of existence, the church announced at the time.)
I asked Ramana what EPF training was like. "It's like training for the Army, but you don't get to use guns. You run everywhere. You do heavy labor -- I remember breaking through walls with sledgehammers, and the person who runs it is like an Army sergeant," she says.
"It took me about three months to do the EPF. I was pretty homesick, but I was caught up in the excitement of the adventure I was on. Just before I turned 16, I completed it and was flown to the ship," Ramana says.
She was assigned to the Commodore's Messengers Organization (CMO) because it was the division that had recruited her. The CMO had been created when Hubbard was plying the Mediterranean in 1969 and assembled a group of young sailors to carry his dispatches and generally run errands for him. Decades later, it was now one of the more powerful Sea Org divisions, and oversaw services on the ship, making sure church members paying those high prices were pleased with their experience.
Soon after she arrived, however, Ramana learned that her own experience would not be so pleasant.
"When you first arrive, everyone is so nice to you. You're the new recruit. I remember the CO CMO [Commanding Officer of the Commodore's Messenger Organization] asking me to make her coffee or a supper or something. So I went off to the galley and came back and handed it to her. And she turned around and yelled at me, about the food or the way I had made the coffee," she says. "She yelled at me so sharply, and it was my first wake-up call to what the Sea Org was really like. And I was just, 'yes, sir, what can I do to fix it, sir.' She had me go back four times to fix whatever the problem was. She was just terrible. She told me she had to do that prepare me for working with the top executives. Oh my God. That was the first thing that woke me up to what it was going to be like."
Ramana, 16 years old, and dishing out punishment
Before she could become a CMO host and work with guests, Ramana says she first spent six months working in the Treasury department. But soon enough, she was moved up to be the Deputy Commanding Officer for CMO Internal.
I asked her what her duties were. "Watching all the staff. Monitoring their training, and their ethics. So you're predominately investigating internal matters. Dishing out punishments to CMOs who weren't doing what they were supposed to be doing," she says. When the CO left the ship for periods, Ramana stepped in to run the CMO of the entire ship.
She was 16.
It's something we've heard frequently about Scientology, that it puts teenagers in positions of authority, in charge of investigating and punishing others.
"I remember investigating people in their 30s and 40s, ordering their rooms be searched, and searching their rooms myself," Ramana says.
She had to be tough on the crew, she says, to make sure that the guests paying tens of thousands of dollars were enjoying their stays. I asked her if there were any particular guests she remembered, any of Scientology's celebrities, for example.
One she remembered well was Jason Beghe.
We've written frequently about Beghe since he became the first of Scientology's pampered celebrities to make a noisy exit and denounce the organization in a very public way in 2008. Since then, he's continued to be a vocal critic of Scientology. He's a familiar character actor who has appeared in films (Monkey Shines, G.I. Jane) and television series (Melrose Place, Californication).
I called Jason and asked him how many times he cruised on the Freewinds. "Three times," he told me. "And it was fucking miserable every time."
Beghe says he would be flown out during the Maiden Voyage -- a time in June and July when many of Scientology's top executives would visit the ship for annual celebrations. Beghe's was a familiar voice on Scientology's internal films, and he says he would be asked, for example, to read aloud from Hubbard's fiction for events on the ship.
Actor Jason Beghe
"Hubbard's fiction is so corny, but worse than that, who wants to be in the Caribbean in July? It's hot and so humid, and you had to wear black tie," Beghe says. "I'd ask, why can't we do this in shorts on the beach? But it always had to be fucking black tie. In July."
On more than one occasion, Beghe says he was hit with sunstroke and had to be administered saline by IV.
I asked him what he remembered about the young Sea Org members serving him on the ship. "They were sweet kids. I'd ask about them. I wish I'd known what kind of hardships they were going through. I just didn't know. They don't tell you things like that. I only found out about it after I got out," he says.
Ramana says she didn't interact with any of Scientology's more famous celebrities, and she was out of the Sea Org by the time Tom Cruise's famous birthday party was held on the Freewinds in 2004.
Celebrities were the least of her concern. From the time she got aboard, she had her hands full with other Sea Org members.
After she arrived, the young man who had flirted with her during her earlier visit was paying attention to her again. "He made it pretty clear that he was interested in me," she says.
"When I arrived, he said, 'OK, when are getting married?' He didn't even ask it as a proposal," she remembers.
She didn't take the suggestion seriously, but after she'd been on the ship awhile, she says she realized "that's what people did."
Married couples moved out of the single-sex dormitories and lived in better cabins. They worked such long hours, there was no real free time to visit members of the opposite sex in any other way, she says. "That's what you do. You join the Sea Org and find someone to get married."
The other executives encouraged the couple to marry. "He was a favorite among them. He would serve [church leader] David Miscavige when he was on the ship. These Sea Org members who are favored by the top executives are taken care of. It was encouraged. And I think, because he was favored, they wanted to keep him happy. He'd been in the Sea Org for 10 years, since he was 15. He was 25, and he was still a virgin," she says. "So I ended up agreeing to be married, and at the end of 1995, we were married."
The young couple -- he was 25, she was 16 -- were married in a Scientology ceremony on the ship. "Legally we were wed in [the Dutch-owned Caribbean island of] Bonaire, I think it was. And then we got a better room. I could move out of the dormitory."
Ramana, bride at 16
Her mother flew out for the wedding, as well as a sister (she has two half-sisters, and she has two half-brothers, one of whom is a Scientologist). "My dad didn't come. He had always been critical of Scientology, and he just couldn't sanction it. He signed the paperwork that said I had his permission, but in his heart he really didn't want me to do it."
Ramana admits that she wasn't really ready for such a big step.
"As a young 16-year-old, I'd lived a very sheltered life. Suddenly, I was thrown into marital life, and marital expectations. And I was completely unprepared for it."
To understand what happened next, it's important to consider how Scientologists are constantly under surveillance to make certain that they conform, and are regularly interrogated to uncover their "crimes."
Scientologists can run afoul of the organization in many different ways. Sea Org members, in particular, are expected to work extremely long, grueling hours, and must keep up their "statistics," in whatever way their job performance is measured. If they fall down in any way, they are said to be in violation of Scientology "ethics" and are subject to intense questioning by "ethics officers."
Ramana says that her husband was the ship's "LRH Host," a member of the CMO who made sure the highest level of services were being delivered to guests of the ship. His "statistics" declined at some point, and she says it could have been from a number of different causes -- perhaps fewer church members had decided to fork out for the expensive ship packages and attendance was lower. She can't really be sure. But for whatever reason, her husband's statistics were down, and that meant he had to be interrogated by ethics officers.
During such interrogations, questioners assume that a church member is hiding dark, sinister problems from Scientology, and so the interview subject is put on the spot about his or her most personal experiences. As many ex-Scientologists have told me, ethics officers seemed most interested in their sexual practices, and, while they were being monitored on the e-meter, they were asked to confess to sexual aberrations.
When her husband was interrogated, Ramana says, he admitted that he'd been masturbating.
"It's hard to talk about it, but it's important for me to tell this because it happens in the Sea Org," Raman told me as she explained what happened next.
"He was masturbating because I wasn't satisfying him. So I was hauled in before six or seven Sea Org members and humiliated because I wasn't satisfying him," she said.
"When you're stats are down, nothing is private. The subject of sexual aberrations is very fascinating to Scientology auditors, when you're not producing as much as you're supposed to be. So when you get investigated you get put on the meter and any kind of sexual activity will be brought up."
Ramana says when she was brought into the room with half a dozen Sea Org members, the first thing said to her was by her superior, the Commanding Officer of the CMO, a woman named Pilar:
"She said, 'You little fucking bitch.' She proceeded to tell me that he was found to be masturbating, and that he was touching me but I wasn't touching him back, and that I was forcing him to masturbate because I wasn't doing it for him. That I was evil, and how could I do that to him."
Her husband was also in the room, she says. "He was just numb. We didn't talk about it between ourselves. Pilar assigned me to Lower Conditions, and she sent me on my way. I can't remember if I was sent to the engine room, but I think I was."
Ramana believes that she was assigned the ethical condition of "Treason," which is below "Enemy" but above "Confusion" on Hubbard's scale.
Soon afterwards, her husband was sent away from the ship for training. "We probably didn't see each other for a year. Later on, our relationship broke down and we got divorced," she says. They were married at the end of 1995, and split up at the end of 1998, she remembers.
During that time, there were two other significant developments: the arrival of Valeska Paris, and Ramana's escape attempt.