by Carole Brodsky, August 17, 2011
Despite well-defined laugh lines radiating from his brown eyes, there is something about Bill Churchill that tells you this is not a guy to get into a hassle with.
At well over six feet tall, with an unfussily trimmed salt and pepper beard and tousled hair, sporting a small, thick hoop earring, barking a confident, clamorous laugh, Jabez “Bill” Churchill is no lickspittle.
Churchill is a Ukiah resident and foreign language instructor at Mendocino and Santa Rosa Junior Colleges. When he’s not commuting between campuses, the 50-something triathlete swims in the San Francisco Bay and spends time with friends and family on his boat in Sausalito or his hometown of Sonoma, California. A father and grandfather, volunteer at Mendocino County Juvenile Hall, licensed US Coast Guard Captain, published poet, former probation officer, world traveler and musician, Churchill has no shortage of tales to tell.
Churchill’s family and education created optimum conditions for the development of an intelligent, curious, well-rounded young man. His mother was a classically trained cellist. His father was an educator and principal in the Sonoma Valley. Storytelling was a significant part of Churchill’s heritage. Once a week, family story time would commence with his mother’s familiar introduction. “Twas a dark and stormy night…” she recited, coining the instantly recognized brogue of the high-seas pirate. Family tradition dictated that storytelling was an activity reserved for the elders. Tipping his cap to his ancestors, Churchill elected to wait until he reached his current age of reason before spinning this particular yarn.
Even as a young man, Churchill seemed destined to travel the globe. At the age of 16, his family’s association with Berkeley’s International House helped facilitate a study-abroad opportunity with the American Field Service in Argentina. Before departing, Churchill spoke French. By the time he returned home in 1971, he had learned Spanish. The intrepid traveler possessed boundless energy and youthful earnestness. Lanky and tall, photos of Churchill from that time resemble one of the four pages depicted in the Rider-Waite tarot cards — a young lad eager to explore the world, hungry for the meaning of life.
Following his time in Argentina, Churchill returned to Santa Rosa Junior College where he met celebrated author/mythologist Joseph Campbell. That meeting marked a turning pointing in Churchill’s life. Campbell acted as a compass, pointing Churchill toward his spiritual True North. He drank in Campbell’s words, attending his lectures by day and visiting his home informally with friends in the evenings. Churchill began to yearn for a hero’s journey. “My best friend and I decided to spend the summer touring the historic places Campbell referenced — Stonehenge, Tintagel, even Findhorn.” Young Churchill set out for Europe.
He spent several years abroad. Churchill describes the exhilaration he felt touring the world for the first time. “Steinbeck said, ‘the journey is an entity in itself.’ We were just passengers on the bus. Whatever itinerary we had disappeared within the first four days,” he recalls.
His magical mystery tour set down in Paris, where, not surprisingly, because of his language skills Churchill became a tour guide. “We visited Pisa, the Roman ruins, Corfu and Athens. After a time, Churchill continued on to another adventure. “I took a job as a crew member on a touring yacht and did the first leg of the Odyssey’s journey.” He found himself gazing at the walls of Troy and sailing through the Bosporus.
Following the yacht job, relatives in Cornwall encouraged Churchill to settle in Great Britain. He cobbled together jobs waiting tables, farming, tending pigs and learning stonemasonry.
At that time, Churchill was hitchhiking and got picked up by a physician. “We started to talk. He was a really genuine, interesting guy. He’d studied at a small, private university south of London.” During the ride, the physician had to make a stop at his office, and Churchill had an opportunity to observe the doctor work with his patients. Something about the doctor’s interactions intrigued Churchill. “He was very empowering with his patients. At the time, I’d never seen anything like it.”
Churchill was so taken by his observations that he questioned the doctor directly about his techniques. “He explained that his methodology was rooted in the teachings of what he called ‘a philosophical organization.’ He mentioned we were nearby their community and he invited me to check it out.” Their destination: Grinstead — national headquarters and former home to the creator of Dianetics and founder of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard.
Prior to that moment, Churchill had never heard of Scientology. When he arrived at Grinstead, he was not fully prepared for the impact the community would make upon him. The fellowship, sense of purpose and feeling that one had stumbled upon kindred spirits at East Grinstead was exciting: what better than to align oneself with a sensible group of intelligent, well-meaning and purposeful individuals, embarking on a shared journey for the betterment of the human race? “Most residents were from the UK or the US. It was a nice community. People were very present, articulate and well-educated.”
Churchill initially planned to stay a few weeks but extended his stay when he was offered a job as a cook for 150 residents. He was provided with a bed, board and small stipend.
Initially, the philosophy espoused by Churchill’s new friends seemed congruent with his own philosophical pursuits. He made a point of contrasting Scientology with other burgeoning spiritual movements of the 70s. “I’d met members of the Hare Krishnas and the Unification Church.” He’d even seen Jim Jones. “I remember Jones giving talks at school around 1969 and being very suspicious of him. Grinstead didn’t feel like any of those things,” he emphasizes.
From a young age, Churchill had been encouraged to think for himself. His parents, who were not particularly religious, raised him to be “a discriminating Protestant.” When he was five years old, Churchill was taken to by relatives to a quaint but beautiful Baptist Church. “The preacher told us every man, woman and child in church was going to hell. I’d done some bad things, but even then I thought, no, I don’t think so. It was icky. I told my folks I didn’t want to go back, and I never did.”
Churchill describes the Grinstead community as very inclusive, demonstrating little or no elitism. “Whatever I did was always appreciated,” he notes. “I attended regularly scheduled classes and had a day off from work every week.” He prepared three substantial meals daily. There were no restrictions regarding communication with the outside world. “I entertained several visitors and had the option of returning home to visit.” That visit never occurred, says Churchill, due to lack of replacement staff. Looking back, Churchill realizes that the staffing problems may have been the first evidence of a tiny rent in the seamless Scientological veil.
Grinstead classes outlined the principles of Scientology. Churchill participated in “processing,” using techniques which have become synonymous with the organization’s core principles. “We participated in intense, interrogative processes measured with galvanic skin response devices called e-meters. Galvanic skin response measures what level you’ve attained in your processing. Above ‘clear’ there are other operating Thetan levels. I topped out as an ‘OT4.’ I presented no threat,” he notes. (The highest level is OT8.)
Churchill worked at Grinstead for a year and was planning to return to the States when he was offered an exclusive job working as a staff person for L. Ron Hubbard. “I knew who he was. It didn’t raise any alarms. I hadn’t met him or heard any negative press at that point,” Churchill notes. The job offered Churchill a priceless opportunity to meet the founder of Scientology and serve as his interpreter.
Churchill’s previous time at sea and his multi-lingual background made him a perfect candidate to mingle with the Scientologists responsible for the management of the organization — the ultra elite group which became known as the Sea Organization. According to the Church of Scientology website, Sea Org members…
“...are the only Scientologists entrusted to minister the advanced levels of training and auditing and the only individuals who may hold the senior ecclesiastic positions in the Scientology hierarchy. All advanced churches and management-level church organizations employ only members of the Sea Organization religious order. While Sea Org members enter into binding employment contracts and are responsible to the directors and officers of the church where they are employed, the eternal commitment to Scientology as a member of the Sea Organization is a fundamental requirement for employment.”
Churchill was headed to Scientology’s watery Ground Zero headquartered aboard the Apollo, the vessel known formerly as the Royal Scotsman — Winston Churchill’s flagship. Churchill was, in the Scientology vernacular, “flagged.”
And yes, they are related. “We’re cousins,” he says of cousin Winston.
The whereabouts of the Apollo were a complete secret. “At the last moment I was given a ticket. I was going to Tenerife.”
It was November of 1973 when Churchill boarded the Apollo, unaware that Hubbard had recently taken a spill on his Harley and was in severe pain. “I was immediately taken to the promenade deck to interpret for his Spanish physician,” says Churchill.
His first meeting with Hubbard was if nothing else, memorable. “I don’t remember whether he was wearing Hanes or Fruit of the Loom. I do know he was not a happy guy,” Churchill recounts. “For a man considered to be a revered master, there was nothing to revere when I met him. He was hurtin’,” Churchill muses, and, as he recollects, appeared to be heavily medicated.
The Apollo was a Panamanian registered vessel. Having worked on ships, Churchill was familiar with surrendering documents and valuables upon boarding, so relinquishing his passport to Sea Org staff felt like standard protocol. But Hubbard was on the lam. “The Apollo went from port to port. Hubbard had been booted out of North Africa. I didn’t know that at the time. He worked the coast of Spain and Portugal during the Franco dictatorship,” says Churchill.
“You had the international administrative staff on board — Hubbard, his wife and his chief administrators. Second tier staff was busy with daily tasks. Then there were a lot of people like myself,” says Hubbard. Crew rosters included his name along with names of about 300 others. “I was listed as galley staff as well as interpreter.”
Over the next nine months, Churchill was sporadically called to the promenade deck to translate. “I did some interesting translating. Hubbard was working on musical projects, so I sat in on some of those. Mostly I was involved with ship’s business, assisting the purser when he would go ashore to purchase ship’s supplies.”
Churchill anticipated once on board he would continue his Scientology studies, but quickly discovered school was not in session. His time was primarily spent below deck working in the galley. If he was needed to translate, he was expected to complete all work in the kitchen in addition to all other duties.
It didn’t take long for Churchill to realize he wasn’t in East Grinstead any more. “In less than a couple of weeks I knew this was an unhealthy place. The abuse and lack of dignity I saw aboard the Apollo was almost immediately apparent,” he recalls.
With Churchill were two men he knew from the UK. “One man was the ship’s baker. Shortly after I got there, this man ‘failed.’ He believed he saw a humming aluminum globe hanging from the galley. When this man started humming back at the globe, he was relieved of his duties,” says Churchill, who was instantly promoted to chief baker.
Churchill worked 14 to 18 hours per day, seven days per week providing baked goods and other food for the crew. Breakfast included pancakes, egg dishes, oatmeal or omelets. Churchill quickly discovered that providing the crew with regular meals was fraught with land mines which if not navigated could cost him dearly.
“My day was supposed to end at breakfast. Usually I would finish up by about 4pm. I’d take a rest and return to the galley at 10pm when I would prepare mid-rations for the engine room staff. Then I’d start baking at about 1am.”
Churchill learned to bake about 200 loaves of bread and desserts every night using large, coal-burning ovens. “I’d make a shortbread or a crumble. If I did a good job there was trouble because there wouldn’t be enough. If the dessert wasn’t good there’d be more trouble. By 4:30am it was time to begin breakfast preparations.”
“In the galley, I was always at war with the purser. He looked better if he spent less money, so he would lock me out of the stores. I had to go the to engine room, get the hacksaw and cut off tempered steel locks that were larger than my finger. On one occasion, the purser looked at me and said ‘You know, Billy, you’re not going to get that cut off in time for lunch, let alone for breakfast.’”
Churchill’s response to the purser: “No negative energy.” And he continued cutting.
Though there was certainly enough money flowing through the organization to feed everyone amply, food was rationed. “You would think that such an exclusive assembly of people working that hard would be compensated well with food. We weren’t.”
Hubbard, who inhabited the promenade deck, utilized the services of a private kitchen staff working in a separate kitchen. They provided Hubbard and his entourage with three entree options. Like many poison tasters of old, the chef would sample each dish prior to Hubbard making his meal selection.
“I watched a lot of people fail physically and psychologically. You watched people say, I’ve had enough, I want to go home. They were ridiculed until they were no longer a threat,” Churchill explains.
Those who did “fail” were placed into the RPF — the Rehabilitation Project Force. “Instead of being nurtured, you were humiliated by the crew, forced to live in the hold and eat scraps,” says Churchill. “People went through complete personality changes. If they were successfully rehabbed, they were re-assimilated into the crew,” he explains.
“There could be any number of people in the RPF. Usually there were more than 10 and less than 30. Sometimes they were incarcerated for weeks. Sometimes it was months.” Those relegated to the RPF would live below deck but would be given the worst manual labor jobs on the ship — chipping or painting the deck. “They were allowed to interact with the crew,” he notes. “Some had very high positions in the organization.”
“If you were designated as part of the RPF you were regularly deprived of sleep and forced to eat leftovers — food scraped from the crew’s plates,” Churchill explains. “I was so offended by this I would always put aside sufficient bread and decent servings. I made sure those people got fed every day. The chief cook and galley staff knew I was doing this, but no one messed with me.”
“At one point our purser was sent to RPF. Another man was sent to replace him. I was in the process of baking bread when a platoon of people came to the galley to clean.” Churchill asked them to return as soon as he finished baking. “The purser shoved me in the chest,” which Churchill said was a “bad thing,” both for the purser and for him. “I’d be held responsible if I didn’t get food on the table,” he explains. “So I picked him up, turned him upside down, put him in a garbage can and slid the can down the deck. It slammed against the bulkhead.” When the purser crawled out, he vowed to return with the Master-at-Arms. He showed up the following morning, not as the purser, but as the dishwasher.
“Graduating” from the RPF was a gradual process, says Churchill. “You proceeded back through various levels.”
“Those that didn’t rehabilitate were offloaded, assisted off the boat. Those that failed, failed entirely. They had become so humiliated they were institution material.”
When you witnessed that, according to Churchill, your incentive not to fail increased exponentially. “If you voiced any desire to leave the organization, it would be less than a year before you’d self-destruct.”
Churchill created new marching orders: stay alive and help those who were in worse shape than him. Churchill credits his survival to his physical stamina, translation skills and ability to keep the food coming — even during a hurricane.
“We were headed to the Canary Islands when a hurricane came up. Most of the galley staff became seasick,” he recounts. Churchill stayed up and fed the crew. “I was awake for four nights, just keeping the food going.”
The hallucinations appeared on the third night. “There were giant, clicking tarantulas all over the countertops. I turned around to make sure no one was watching. I told the tarantulas, I am so sorry you had to come here. I know I brought this on, but I need you to go away now. They disappeared briefly. I took a step and they all came back. They went away again. Finally I somehow finished making my bread.”
Churchill realized he was in a perilous situation. “After meeting and working for L. Ron Hubbard, I knew I had no aspirations of becoming anything like him. I just wanted to survive and get home.”
Trusting others was impossible. “We all have physical, emotional or psychological limits. When people broke completely, confidential relationships were most certainly revealed. The one person I had confided in about expressing my desire to get off ended up in the RFP. After that, I entrusted myself to no one.”
At one point the Apollo landed in Madeira. “I was the only person allowed off board because I could speak a little Portuguese and conduct business. We were in the capital city of Funchal. The people of the city began to stone the vessel, so we left for Nassau.”
As Churchill tells the tale, it is difficult to imagine the tall, idealistic young man — who during his scant alone-time must have been consumed with abject terror and some degree of self-loathing for having made such a costly error in judgment. But perhaps this hero’s tale was progressing just as Joseph Campbell would have recited it, back in the safety of the Sonoma County salon.
“I knew I had to tolerate whatever the conditions were. To have displayed or even articulated any physical or emotional stressors would have made me more vulnerable to demotion, humiliation, and possibly intolerable hardship,” he says. “You learned not to be emotionally vulnerable in any way.”
“I was in a position where I no longer had control of my own liberty. I had to be patient or the chances for escape would be less likely. During times when I was physically challenged or became frustrated, I could have overpowered people successfully, but even if I managed that, I would have ended up dead or in a foreign prison.”
Resistance seemed futile. “All business was conducted by teletype. People watched to make sure no one got off board. All mail went through the Los Angeles organization and was censored. Letters would have pieces missing. Basically you were stuck,” he explains.
Churchill hit bottom. “There was a point at which I lost hope of ever getting home. I was exhausted physically and emotionally. It was probably night. I found a compartment down below. I remember the steel deck.” Churchill sobbed uncontrollably until he fell asleep. “I woke up in a pool of my own tears.” He went back to work and waited for an opportunity to get away.
Soon, an opening appeared. “They needed an escort for some teenaged interns. My job was to take them home. In exchange I received a two-week leave to go home myself,” he recalls. Prior to disembarking the Apollo, Churchill was hooked up to a lie detector and was compelled to affirm he would be returning.
He escorted the youth to London, Toronto, New York and finally Los Angeles. “As soon as I could get to a phone, I called my parents and told them I was coming home.” From the States he took a flight to San Francisco where his parents awaited him.
The 235-pound young man who had left for Europe several years earlier had lost 100 pounds. “When my parents met me at the airport, they walked right by. They didn’t recognize me.” He discovered his parents had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the International Red Cross to intervene on his behalf. “My dad was a veteran of World War II. He recognized a kind of shock in me. My parents fed me and got me new clothes. They just nurtured me.”
Church members tried to contact Churchill, physically and by mail. He had to play it cool. “If somebody shows up to your house and you lose your temper, you go to jail. I knew better than to get exploited further.” Now that he was home his singular goal was not to be irrevocably scarred by his ordeal.
After he’d been home a few months, he received a cryptic piece of mail. “It was addressed, Bill Churchill, Sonoma, California. Please Try Hard Mr. Postman.”
“Another crew member had jumped ship and was trying to contact me. I wrote back and said, I’ve got seven part-time jobs. You can have three. We recovered together. He didn’t make peace with Scientology or rally against it. He just went on with his life.”
Churchill returned to education. “I got into the psych department at Sonoma State and organized panels on cultism. A wrong had been done. It was important to me that it not be perpetuated.”
His journey to place of balance has taken decades. “The experience definitely made my life very, very different. Trusting people takes longer, and I had PTSD to deal with. I didn’t feel for 20 years. Nobody could touch me.”
“I was studying psycholinguistics at Sonoma State,” he recalls. A guest speaker gave a presentation on PTSD, outlining the symptoms. “I felt myself turning red,” he recounts. The lecture ended, his classmates exited and Churchill was immobilized in his seat. “The lecturer tucked his card in my pocket and offered his help.”
Churchill called him and was referred to a Vietnam Veterans organization called Flower of the Dragon. “They specialized in PTSD, at a time when the ramifications of the disorder were beginning to be more fully recognized and understood.” He began unraveling the crossed wires of confusion and abuse. “Initially I was ashamed at what had happened to me. I lead as normal a life as I possibly could. Time went by and it became apparent that more trauma was surfacing.” Churchill worked with another therapist for ten more years.
His experience informed many of his subsequent career choices and ultimately enabled him to support trauma victims. “I took a job at Hannah Boys Center as a residential treatment counselor working with youth at risk. They didn’t need to be abused or humiliated any more than they had been. Deliberate deprivation and abuse is evil.”
“Because I’d been abused and humiliated and watched others suffer, it’s something I can’t allow,” says Churchill, a spark of anger glinting in his eyes. “I’m not really diplomatic if I witness someone being abused. If I’m around, you do not want to be the abusive mother hitting your kid in the grocery store,” he bristles. He quotes Scott Peck, stating anything short of nurturing is abuse.
Scientology “survivors” create Internet sites and support groups, but documentation regarding that early period aboard the Apollo is scant. “There’s not much written about the 300 people on that ship. I still know who those people are. I’ve been in contact with a few. Some fight the organization. One man tried to create peace with them, but today he’s kind of a shell of a person. A lot of people self-destructed through suicide and drug abuse.”
Churchill could never simply forgive. “No. It’s one thing to recognize wrongdoing and make amends. But you don’t get my other cheek,” he says with a sardonic smile. One wonders exactly which kind of four cheeks he’s referring to.
God is not part of Scientology’s lexicon. “Mainly they talk about aliens. I think the record reflects Hubbard’s beliefs were a combination of paranoia, self-delusion, and entrepreneurship. Applying logic to insanity is at best a path untaken,” he notes.
He likens Scientology to a delicious pie made with berries sprayed with pesticides. “It might taste good going down, but it’s going to make you sick. I don’t believe any spiritual organization can thrive if it is inspired by profit.”
Bill Churchill’s spiritual journey continues and time has brought healthy skepticism along with a depth of faith. “The failure of many spiritual institutions is the failure to acknowledge the intellect,” adding that his version of the great unknown offers innumerable doors to a spiritual home. The influence of Campbell is still apparent. “A rational approach to knowledge doesn’t require abandoning common sense,” he muses. “I read the great works from many traditions — Judeo-Christian, Islam, Zen, mystics.” He has prayed with Indian swamis and Native American medicine people. “I’m having a good time. I’m a work in progress,” he smiles, but without nearly the same levity, adds he is exceedingly grateful his experience as a Scientologist did not become the defining moment of his life.
Churchill had the opportunity to visit Joseph Campbell several more times. During their final conversation before Campbell’s death, Churchill told him about his experiences aboard the Apollo. Campbell appeared increasingly pained as he listened to Churchill’s tale. “Billy,” Campbell sighed at the conclusion of the story. “I didn’t mean for you to take it all literally.”
“Yes, I was a member of the Sea Org,” says Churchill. “And now, I am an enemy of the church. A proud one,” he smiles.