Lisa McPherson (1959-1995)

The abuse and harm caused by extremist authoritarian sects are why the DialogCentre UK exists, along with many other groups that work to provide help for members, ex-members and their families.

Often it is hard to demonstrate the severity and inexorable nature of that harm to people who do not live with the stories of those who have been abused and harmed.

Sadly, from time to time something happens that is so dramatic and clear-cut that no amount of PR can gloss over the reality. Jonestown, the Solar Temple, Heaven’s Gate, Waco were all tragedies that could not be hidden behind “spin”, excuses, or blame-shifting, although the passage of time has dimmed the memory of them.


Yesterday, December 5th 2015, marked 20 years since another such event. That day in 1995 was the day that Scientology’s policy of how to “handle” a mentally ill person bore its fruit most emphatically. Systematically denied all access to the professional medical help that could have saved her life, Lisa McPherson was imprisoned in room 174 of the Scientology-owned Fort Harrison Hotel instead. Minders were assigned round-the-clock to keep her under control during her imprisonment. All this was supervised by Scientology leader David Miscavige. Just 17 days of systematic neglect was enough: Lisa McPherson died.

This treatment was not concocted on the spur of the moment. It had been devised many years before by L. Ron Hubbard and designated as Scientology’s official policy for “handling” mental illness. Scientology likes to mask the cruelty and destructiveness of this policy with the euphemism “babywatch”, but it cannot conceal the reality of what was done to Lisa McPherson. She was held in solitary confinement, subjected to conditions likely to cause her physical and mental health to decline, and denied the medical and psychiatric attention she needed. Even in her final hours, her minders chose a course of action intended to hide Scientology’s culpability for her death, rather than one which might have secured the emergency care needed for her survival.

I will not repeat here the details of what Scientology perpetrated against her. That already has been done far more competently by others. Instead, I recommend Tony Ortega’s account of her final days. Start at Remembering Scientology’s grimmest scandal and read each day of his blog posts through to the end. It is an account punctuated by the dreary yet concentrated misery of Lisa McPherson’s deterioration, of what was not done for her, and of why she was subjected to treatment that never could have resulted in anything but tragedy for her and those who cared about her. There were a number of times when one or more of her minders made decisions about how to respond to Lisa McPherson’s declining physical and mental health. Each time, they ignored her distress and chose instead to protect Scientology and perpetuate the myth of the supremacy of “the Tech”, thereby also perpetuating and aggravating her suffering, and making her death unavoidable.

FH Cabanas- 300x183
Fort Harrison Hotel cabanas

Sometimes we find it easy to imagine that callousness in the face of human suffering must be the result of sadism, or of a lack of conscience, or perhaps that it is an expression of sociopathy. There can be another reason, and I believe it is the one that applies to most Scientologists including Lisa McPherson’s minders at Fort Harrison Hotel.

Fear. Fear created by unyielding fundamentalism. Fear of contaminating that fundamentalism with “reasonableness”, one of Scientology’s snarl words. Fear of not being considered a sufficiently dedicated Scientologist. Fear of “losing eternity”. Perhaps supremely, fear of how David Miscavige treats those who do not follow his orders exactly. Such fear grows out of the inappropriate methods of influence and control used to indoctrinate Scientologists.* The immediacy of such fear can be sufficient to make all other concerns pale beside it.

I believe fear is why the human beings assigned to stand guard over their fellow human being Lisa McPherson, chose to carry out their orders. Those orders deprived her of their compassion, of the exercise of their intelligence, of proper nutrition and care, of medical treatment, of her dignity, and finally of her life. I believe that if her guards thought about it at all, they thought they could count on being protected from the civil consequences of their actions and inactions, but feared that nothing could protect them from the condemnation of Scientology or the wrath of David Miscavige. It is too easy to imagine that these were “bad people”; that misses the reality of the situation. They were scared people. The abuse of her minders made possible the abuse of Lisa herself. They watched her die.

In connection with this, it may be relevant to observe that only last week, a London crown court found Aravindan Balakrishnan aka “Comrade Bala”, the leader of a Maoist totalitarian sect called “the Workers’ Institute”, guilty of rape, violence and imprisonment against his followers including his daughter, over a period of some 30 years. When the case was first uncovered, police described Comrade Bala’s complete domination of his followers by comparing it to “invisible handcuffs”. In court, this picture of the extent of his control was confirmed and fleshed out in detail.

Reading about how Comrade Bala controlled his followers and the long-term effects of his control, the oft-described characteristics of totalist sects are recognizable. The main difference I see is that Balakrishnan was far more crude and unsophisticated in his application of the techniques of undue influence and coercion than are groups like the Unification Church, the Watchtower Society, the Exclusive Brethren, Scientology, extreme right wing political groups, other extreme left wing political groups, race-hate sects, Islamist extremists, conspiracy-based survivalists, UFO-sects, or any of the hundreds of other extremist authoritarian sects. Even so, he ruled over his members from the 1970s until 2013. Now he is on his way to prison.

How much longer will it be before our governments, politicians, courts, police, and general population come to realize how pervasive this problem is? The kind of analysis that identified Comrade Bala’s psychological control and abuse of his members is capable of identifying the control and abuse in these other groups. The kind of laws that have sent Aravindan Balakrishnan to prison might have helped save Lisa McPherson’s life. They might still save someone else’s.

Not every extremist sect takes abuse to the extremes of Comrade Bala, but abuse comes in many flavours. For the most part, Lisa McPherson was not treated like the members of Workers’ Institute. However, she was held in solitary confinement. She was denied medical care. She was denied appropriate nutrition and hydration. She was denied emergency treatment in the final hours of her life. She was denied the basic compassion and respect that would have made these other abuses impossible or at least less probable. Not one person who saw her declining health spoke for her or acted for her.

Fear. Control. Abuse. Acquiescence. Death.

R.I.P. Lisa McPherson.


* If you would like to know more about Scientology indoctrination, there are many resources both printed and on the internet. One day I will try to post a list of books and websites but for now, start with Tony Ortega’s blog, The Underground Bunker. It is a useful and informative starting point and will connect you to a host of other great source material and research. If you prefer books, have a look at Scientology: the cult of greed, and let’s sell these people A Piece of Blue Sky: Hubbard, Dianetics and Scientology, both by Jon Atack.

Also, last June (2015) there was a conference in Toronto called “Getting Clear”. Videos of the sessions are now available here: Getting Clear: the videos. I also describe it in my previous post.