Published August 4, 2005
MARIETTA - Karen Pressley has heard it all before.
The talk of space aliens having come to earth a millennia ago, the authoritative worldview, the buffed movie star seemingly detached from reality glibly handing out solutions to personal conflicts.
Movie star Tom Cruise may be spouting the truth according to the Church of Scientology these days, but Pressley has lived in that world longer than Cruise and knows firsthand the nightmare that it entails.
"Tom Cruise is doing exactly what Scientology leaders want him to do. He's a celebrity and considered to be a shaper of public opinion and he makes a good spokesman for the organization. Scientology primarily targets the 'movers and shakers' in society in order to influence others. Those high profile personalities add a degree of respectability that breaks down any resistance listeners may have," she says.
Pressley knows well of what she speaks. For 17 years - nearly half of her life - she was involved with the cult. Four of those years she served as a member of the group's international headquarters located in a remote part of the California dessert outside Palm Springs. Her story is compelling.
A thirst for knowledge
Pressley's basic thirst for truth is what led her to being entrapped in the cult. As a fifth grader in Chicago she told her mother that she would not be returning to the Catholic school or church she had attended virtually since birth.
"None of it seemed relevant. It was just all routine, there was nothing personal when it came to God," she remembers from the conversation. "That was the year, in sixth grade, when my search for knowledge began in earnest.
"From about age 11 I had a strong desire to know God. I was searching but didn't know where to look for Him. Unfortunately I did not know any Christians who had a vibrant, personal faith who would share Him with me."
The years passed and she completed her education, moved away from home, and eventually moved to Houston, Texas, where she met Peter Schless. He was an aspiring musician (composer and arranger) and she was an up-and-coming fashion designer. The couple were married two years later in 1979.
They moved to Los Angeles where they could be closer to the creative energy of Hollywood and expand their careers. In 1982 Peter, with Karen's contributions, wrote the smash hit "On the Wings of Love." It was recorded by Jeffrey Osborne and immediately rose to the top of the charts. The couple were immediately ushered into the elite world of stars and recording artists and were introduced to Hollywood's sizeable Scientology community.
Their careers took off like a skyrocket. Karen continued in the fashion industry and opened a recording studio in their home. The couple toured with Melissa Manchester's world tour in 1983, and Peter played with B.B. King, the Allman Brothers, and was pianist for Cher.
"Scientology seemed to offer the answers to everything that I had been looking for," she says. "I understood why it was so appealing to the creative people in the entertainment industry."
Entertainers, whether musicians or actors, are insecure by virtue of their profession. They are only as good as their last hit movie or song and there is no guarantee of future success, she explains. Public opinion, which is constantly changing, shapes and drives their lives.
Scientology steps into that void with the answers to all of their problems.
While universal truth accepts that humans have five senses - sight, touch, taste, hearing, seeing (one additional sense called intuition or extra sensory perception is sometimes included) - Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard taught there are 57. By developing each of these senses, humans gain more control over their life and stand a better chance to shape their future - meaning, their careers.
Scientologists who attain the highest level - after paying up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for the training - can control other people's thoughts and even move objects with their mind, Pressley was taught. Some media accounts report that Cruise has spent upwards of $500,000 to attain his level of "auditing" to remove negative influences from his life.
"Scientology is all about 'me.' Its focus is not on others but on how I can control my world to get what I want," she says. "It may call itself a church and a religion but it's all focused inward, not outward. It only refers to a Supreme Being in vague, abstract terms."
Karen and Peter became so involved with the organization that they eventually decided to join the staff's international headquarters. They left their affluent, jet set lifestyle to move to the compound and work 16-hour days, six-and-a-half days a week, for $45.
Drawn in deeper
"I believed so much in its teachings that I really felt I would be helping to advance the human race by spreading Scientology around the world. The staff have the dedication of monks - you get to the point where you believe you are giving your life for the betterment of mankind," she explains.
The headquarters, located near the small town of Indio, is officially known as Golden Era Productions. From there it produces all of the promotional material and coordinates Scientology growth worldwide.
Peter was used in the organization's public relations arm to compose and record music for programming promoting Scientology while Karen helped design and produce clothing for churches on five continents.
In her role Karen traveled the world to help shape public opinion of the organization. She would conduct public opinion polls to determine perceptions of how those in mainline churches should dress - conservative or contemporary, high fashion or low key. She would then design the clothing and have it produced locally for that culture. It was then worn by staff members of Scientology churches or bookstores to present a welcoming image to the public.
But while Peter was enjoying the work, Karen still felt unfulfilled. Coupled with the total lack of privacy and the overbearing workload, she decided she wanted out. She talked with Peter, who was not interested in leaving. She eventually tried to escape but failed on two attempts.
"People don't understand how controlling Scientology is," she says. "About 800 people work in the international headquarters and they give their entire life to the organization. We would work from 8 a.m. to midnight and were forbidden from having children because it would distract from our mission. Only customers, such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta and others who were paying for the instruction, were allowed to have children.
"But that's part of the attraction of joining as a staff - you could receive your instruction for free, and that is very attractive. But once when I considered leaving I discovered they would charge me $225,000 for the services (meals, housing, instruction) I had been provided in four years as a fulltime staff member. There was no way I could erase that debt.
Under tight control
"At the time the organization was growing so rapidly that it could not house all employees at the compound so it purchased a nearby apartment complex. That's where they housed overflow staff, and that is where they would transport us to work in the morning and back at night. Security fences were erected around the property and 24-hour guards patrolled the grounds - to protect us from intruders we were told, but it was really to prevent us from leaving."
There was never any privacy. Staff had to assemble for muster, military style, in the morning to be sure everyone was present. All telephone calls were monitored and no one left the compound without a security escort.
Then occurred what she refers to as her Damascus Road experience. In July 1998 she came to "a place of complete brokenness" in her life and knew she could not continue in the cult - even if it meant losing her husband, which was the only reason she returned on those two previous escapes. She says she felt totally overcome with a sense of peace from God, even though she did not know who He was.
A God-led escape
"At that point I had not been looking for God because I didn't know where to look. The miracle is that He sought me out and gave me a peace like I had never known in my life. He spoke to my spirit and told me it was OK to leave, and that He would take care of me. I determined I would go to Georgia where my mother lived."
She decided that her car - an exceptional possession among staff and which she used on business trips to Los Angeles - would serve as her escape vehicle - but only if she could get through the gates.
The next afternoon between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. she pretended to need to do some laundry. As she walked out of her and Peter's tiny apartment she met a security guard who saw her basket and commented that she was doing her laundry early that day. She laughed it off and proceeded to put the basket in her car. Inside the basket were hidden a few personal belongings she would need for her escape, along with $48 in her wallet.
"That should have been a red flag because the laundry building was adjacent to our apartment and there was no reason to drive the car just a few feet. It was as if the guard's reasoning was temporarily blinded," she explains.
A short time later staff were loaded onto the bus for the return to the office compound and she followed in her car as she always did. But when on the highway she chose her moment and slipped away on another road. She drove to Los Angeles and contacted an acquaintance in the clothing industry who had once mentioned God in a conversation.
Upon learning of her predicament her contact placed her in a hotel room for the night where she could hide and returned the following day to drive her to the airport in Las Vegas, about three hours away. He then gave her a one-way plane ticket to Atlanta, where her mother was living - and, unknown to her, had come to faith in Christ at First Baptist Church of Woodstock.
"This gentleman was so understanding to go out of his way to drive me to another airport," she explains. "I had known, because of working in the headquarters, that the organization had an extensive system that tracked all reservations in the Los Angeles area using airplane, bus, and train. If anyone ever defected that would be their immediate destination, and once their name showed up in the reservation system security personnel would be sent to intercept them on either end of their journey."
Karen knew the system did not extend to Las Vegas so she chose that as her point of departure.
Upon arriving in Atlanta she learned that her mother had joined First Woodstock's senior citizens Sunday School class and learned to pray. Then her mother enlisted the class to pray with her as she sought to free her daughter from Scientology.
For six months Karen did not want to have anything to do with church or faith. She had been conditioned to rejecting those values because Scientology taught that everything man had produced had failed - that is, everything before Hubbard developed his concepts. Scientology was the only body of knowledge that could solve the world's problems, or so she had been taught.
"I knew that I didn't want to have anything to do with Scientology but neither did I want to explore anything else. I was confused and exhausted," she says.
Slowly she become more open to her mother's suggestions and went to a Christmas program where, for the first time, she heard the choir sing about God's love, forgiveness, and acceptance. Later she began attending church with her mother and on March 14, 1998 she accepted Christ following a series of sermons delivered by pastor Johnny Hunt.
"When he summed up the series with the verse 'Choose ye this day whom ye will serve ... but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:15)' I knew he was speaking to me. I gave my heart and my life to Jesus Christ that morning."
Growth and ministry
Since then Karen has been on the road to spiritual renewal that only Christ can give, she says. A seeker of knowledge, she says she has found the truth she has sought all of life - and credits the long distance prayers of a then-73-year-old-mother who she did not even know had become a Christian.
Her divorce from Peter, whom she never spoke to from the day she left the housing compound, was finalized through the U.S. mail. Scientology teaches that once an individual has left the system there can be no further communication - even if it is a spouse of 21 years.
Karen eventually joined the choir at Woodstock where she met her future husband, Greg Pressley, and they were eventually married. In 2002 she launched a ministry, called Wings of Love, which she uses to share her experience and help those whose family members remain in the sect. She also serves as a Mission Service Corp missionary for the North American Mission Board.
Today the couple are members of Roswell Street Baptist Church in metro Atlanta. A book she co-authored, titled Seven Secrets to Timeless Beauty, was published by Harvest House and released in July at the Christian Booksellers Convention.
"I know that God brought me out of Scientology to expose its false doctrines and to minister to people who have come out. I also know that I have an obligation to teach Christians about the dangers of Scientology so they will not be deceived by it," she says.
"But the best thing is that I am not searching anymore. Today I know the source of all knowledge is Jesus Christ."
Who are some of today's prominent Scientologists?
A Southern Baptist response to Scientology
To learn more about Scientology, go to the North American Mission Board's Web site at www.namb.net, type in Scientology in the "Search" box in the upper right hand corner, and hit the return key. On the next page click on "Free Resources for Cults & Sects." When the next page loads scroll down and click on PDF to download the Belief Bulletin.
The bulletin includes an overview of what Scientologists believe and offers suggestions on how to present a witness to members of the group.
To contact Karen Pressley and her Wings of Love Ministry send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Wings of Love Ministries, c/o Atlanta Community Ministries, 7 Piedmont Center, Suite 420, 3525 Piedmont Rd NE, Atlanta, GA 30305. Her office can be reached at (404) 841-0800, ext. 205.
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