The following essay was sent to the Lisa McPherson Trust and it was decided to include a "Junior Category" in this year's Literati Contest. The judges thought that special recognition was in order for this very compelling account of a 16 year old's experience with Scientology. "Darla" was awarded a Special Junior Category Award of $500 in the 2000 LMT Literati Contest. "Darla" turned out to be Zoe Woodcraft who came forward with her father and sister to share their full stories with the world.

Here is "Darla's" story:

When Can I Start My Life?
By "Darla deToledo"

How do I tell this story?

I feel that to explain one part of my life, I have to explain the rest. But I will strive not to. I was raised in the Church of Scientology, as they like to call themselves, and I was living in Clearwater, Florida. I now know that the "church" is really a cult. But even back then I didn't like it very much and I knew that I had to get out. I wasn't happy, I wasn't getting schooling, and I didn't want to dedicate my life to working for the church as my mother, grandmother, and brother had.

I had tried several times before to leave the church but my mother and the officials put so much pressure on me and put my father in so much trouble that I gave up each time. I wanted to live with my father and lead a normal life. You see my father had left the church clergy when I was five years old and had divorced my mother. He lived in LA with my sister and her baby, Sophie. He was still a follower of the religion in everyone's eyes, although he really didn't believe it and no longer paid for services. My sister had been in a situation similar to mine, had joined the clergy, got married when she was 15 years old, and had gotten pregnant so that she could leave the clergy in a relatively quick time (a few months). If you work for the church and become pregnant, they try to convince you to have an abortion and if you don't you have to "route out". They're too cheap to take care of babies.

I had finally put my foot down in early 1999 about it. I was adamant that I would leave and live a normal life in the "wog world", as the epithet was. But my mother held a lot over my head. If I left the church with the slightest bit of hard feelings or upset on anyone's part I would no longer able to receive church services, damning my soul to eternal pain and inability. In order to leave I had to study and practice a given amount of church doctrines. I knew my mother's plan; she wanted to wear me down with years if need be, of waiting and studying church rubbish until it was too late for me to lead a normal life in society. I wouldn't have the proper social skills and education for it.

It's hard to explain what my life was like back then, and I've fogged it over in my memory now. But let's just say that I lived in a tiny room with two other people, slept on a mat on the floor, and did clerical work all day. The only things I did on my own were 1) I went to the library each morning, and read until lunch, 2) I called LA almost every day. My mom disapproved of both. Actually, she didn't even know how often I called my dad and sister. I did it in secret at the library's public phone. The phone calls were probably my one line on sanity. Without them I'm sure that I would have given up on leaving.

Finally one night over the phone my sister asked (and I thought she was joking), "Do you want Dad to just come pick you up secretly? No one would have to know until you got to LA, and then you wouldn't have to speak to anyone when you got here." I thought about the possibilities and it was just too much. I would be entering an existence that I had never experienced. I didn't know if I had what it took to survive in it. But then again, my own life! "Yes," I said, before even realizing it. I felt such acute relief that my whole body seemed lighter. My sister was really surprised. "Are you serious?" she asked. But we started making plans that night and we would continue to for several weeks. Standing on that phone, in a bad area by the bay, the receiver stunk of alcohol and bad breath. But I was the happiest I'd been in a long time.

The night before I was to leave, I kissed my grandma goodnight for the last time. I felt horrible. Because in spite of everything else, I would be leaving half of my family. They would never look at me the same way. They would think me scum. In spite of all their characteristics that I didn't like, my grandmother's loftiness, my mother's manipulativeness, my brother's selfishness, they were victims of the church just like me.

Then, the next morning, I woke up late. I had to rush, throwing out all of the stuff I wasn't bringing so that my poor mother wouldn't be bothered with it. I caught a ride with this guy I knew. He had this 40 year old jeep with no doors and I remember the feeling of spontaneity I had. After all, I took the crowded church bus every day. Riding in a car was something special. Most people weren't even allowed to drive their cars into work, but he worked on renovations and needed his jeep for transportation.

I finished packing my things at the work building and went to say goodbye to my mother. I had to make up some dumb excuse to talk to her or else I wouldn't have been allowed in to her course room. Families don't count for anything there. I said, "Okay then, see you later," even though there was a chance that I never would. I was in fact hoping that I never would see her again.

I was planning to make two trips to the library to carry all my stuff. My hands wouldn't stay dry as I thought of passing all of those scientologist ethics personnel and security guards. But at the same time, it was a great adventure. As I waited at the first stop light I saw a scientologist approaching me. I froze up, thinking that he might notice the several tightly packed backpacks on my back. But he just made idle conversation while we waited on the corner.

When I saw my Dad, I tried to bury my emotions. I knew that he didn't want to have to handle me crying when we were in a rush to make the return flight. He was parked in the library parking lot with a rented car. We were a little behind in time, but besides that the plan was going well.

When I went back to get the cardboard box, it collapsed on me in the stairwell. So I quickly stashed it in the side alley and went to go get my dad. I couldn't leave it behind and enter LA life without anything of mine. I just couldn't. I kept thinking that that would make me no better than a bum.

So we planned to drive up to the alley and grab it. I was really scared as scientologists had planted cameras all around their buildings. I knew because I'd seen their videos. In fact, I even had Dad duck when we drove under the traffic lights by the Coachman building.

I ran, grabbed the box, and tried to look relaxed as I lugged it about a hundred feet or so to the car.

As we were driving my sister called, asking if the "mission" was going well, and we joked that we were doing 007 work or something. But on that rather long drive to Tampa airport reality started to enter in again and the James Bond adventure effect wore off. "If I turn back now no one will know," I kept saying to myself. It was a weird mix of emotions. After all, I was leaving my mother, an old woman who had never had good health.

We shoved my stuff into some suitcases my Dad had brought and got on the plane. I didn't ask my Dad if I could stop the plane as we were going down the runway, but I wanted to.

When we arrived at the LA airport I changed shirts, not wanting my mother to be able to describe what I was wearing. It wouldn't be unusual for church security guards, with someone I knew, like my brother for instance, to come to "escort" me back to the church's embrace. We got in the car and my sister dialed up the receptionist in Florida. She left a message saying that I had arrived safely, a message I often left when I flew to LA for a visit with my dad. I did this because I didn't want my mom to worry about me too much. I had stayed late at the library several times before and I was hoping that she would think I had unethically stayed there late again. That way she wouldn't even know that I had flown to LA until I arrived. But I could tell that Janet wasn't fooled. I could tell from the tone of her voice that she thought I had possibly run away. Even in scientology organizations receptionists know all the gossip, including the stuff circulating about me.

When I got home my Mother had left 3 very angry phone calls on the answering machine. When she next called my sister picked up. My sister and dad were insisting that I didn't have to talk to her, but I took the phone anyway. My mother was at a conference table or something with security guards and ethics personnel, all there to handle the situation I'd created. I was so scared that I could hear my thunderous heartbeats. I didn't think I could bear it if she played the whole grieving mother role, and when she snapped, "Well that wasn't very smart," I felt relief crash through me. A little smile came to my face. I had made the right choice.

Later, after I'd dragged it out of her, she finally admitted to me that she had never even thought that I would possibly leave the church. She had never even thought of the possibility. She had always thought to just force and manipulate me into doing exactly what she thought best. I find it ironic that although many parents do this exact same thing, my mother was as truly off the edge as many kids think their parents are. Too bad she forgot how stubborn I can be.

It was the hardest decision I ever made and the best choice I ever chose.