They wire up children to lie detectors, interrogate them about their families and denounce non-believers as enemies. Is this what devoted mother Nicole Kidman so fears about Tom Cruise's obsession with Scientology?
DRESSED in jeans and a T-shirt, perched on the sofa of her father's modest Californian home, there is little to link Astra Woodcraft with Nicole Kidman.
The British-born single mother has never been to a showbiz party, but shares something far more fundamental with the soon-to-be-ex Mrs. Tom Cruise.
According to Kidman's friends, the actress, who was raised a Roman Catholic in Australia, has become disillusioned with Scientology - in which Cruise is so active and her desire to distance the couple's two adopted children from the church's teachings is cited as one of the main reasons behind their marriage break-up.
It is a view Astra, 22, understands only too well. She is adamant her two-year-old daughter Kate will not be raised according to the doctrines of Scientology's founder, the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.
'I want Kate to have a normal childhood and make her own decisions in life,' she says.
After 19 years as a Scientologist, Astra knows what she is talking about.
She spent much of her childhood in the church's strictest order - the Sea Organisation and her story provides a rare insight into the workings of Scientology, which numbers some of Hollywood's biggest names among its adherents.
Her views are shared by Teresa Summers, 42, who works for the Florida-based Lisa McPherson Trust, an organisation which vehemently opposes Scientology.
Theresa was a Scientologist for 20 years, working for the Sea Organisation in a Scientology school, though she did not have degree or formal teacher training.
'I didn't teach. The children had worksheets and I just checked them and helped them look up a word if they had difficulty with something,' she says.
If her pupils still had difficulties, they would be sent to attend 'ethics' sessions at
which they would be hooked up to a machine called a 'learning accelerator', similar to a type of lie detector.
The children would hold two electrodes while answering questions. The meter detects small amounts of electronic resistance and an unbalanced needle would indicate the children did not understand something.
Other tests undertaken in 'ethics' sessions include a bizarre questionnaire which the Daily Mail has obtained.
Designed for six to 12-year-olds, the questions include: 'Have you ever decided that you did not like a member of your family?' 'Have you ever refused to obey an order from someone you should obey?' and 'Have you ever broken something belonging to someone else?' Such questions could disturb impressionable minds.
Astra Woodcraft has her own extraordinary memories of growing up as a Scientologist.
ASTRA'S architect father, Lawrence, and mother, Lesley, were Scientologists. Her grandparents were members of the church's UK HQ in East Grinstead, West Sussex.
Lawrence joined as an idealistic 24-year-old, fresh out of college.
'I was approached by someone on the street in San Francisco, where I was on holiday, and became interested in the promises they made,' he says.
'They tell you that past experiences are holding you back and when you reach the upper levels of Scientology you will know the secret of life itself. It sounds ridiculous now, but they
are very convincing. I'd just split up with my girlfriend, and had not found satisfactory answers to the meaning of life. Scientology seemed to provide some answers.' Back in Britain, he took a Scientology course in London, and met Lesley. She had a son, Matthew, by a previous marriage.
The couple wed and had Astra and then a second daughter, Zoe.
Astra soon felt the effect of Scientology teachings.
'If I fell over, Mum would do a "contact assist",' says Astra.
'That means that whatever part of your body you hurt, you must take and press against the object which hurt it. You keep repeating this until the pain goes away. She made me do it in public, which embarrassed me.
'If I was ill my mother would give me a "touch assist" - I would lie down and she would touch me with her finger. She would say: "Feel my finger." She wouldn't stop until I felt better, so to stop her prodding me I'd say I felt better.' Astra and other former Scientologists have confirmed the church does not believe in comforting children, viewing them as adults in young bodies who can handle pain and responsibility like a grownup.
When Astra was five or six, she started going to church for 'auditing', a form of counselling which is the basis of Scientology's teachings.
'It was like a drill where I
was told: "Look at the wall, walk to the wall, touch the wall, walk away from the wall." Other times I would be told to follow someone's hand movements with my eyes.
'It was supposed to calm you down and help you see the world clearly, but really it was hypnotic.' But if Astra thought this odd, more was to follow when the family moved to Florida and Lesley joined the church's strictest religious order, the Sea Organisation.
MEMBERS dedicate their whole life and the next billion years, because they believe in reincarnation - to Scientology. Their mission is to convert the world.
'I hated it. Mum and Dad did not get home until 10pm, and we had to do chores after school, under the supervision of a Scientology nanny,' says Astra.
'We had to clean the kitchen and mop the floors. After dinner we'd do homework and be given a bedtime drink called "calmag".' This drink, others verify, is calcium, magnesium, vinegar and boiling water, which acts as a mild sedative on children.
After two years, Lesley was promoted and the family moved to Los Angeles.
For a year, Astra was in the cadets, a group for children of Sea Organisation members.
'My school teacher was not a trained, certified teacher but a Scientology "supervisor". We had no lessons but worked straight out of books and instruction sheets,' she says.
Lawrence explains: 'Hubbard believed we had all lived before and attended school, so he didn't put too much emphasis on a formal education.' Astra's life became even more gruelling.
After lessons, she had to do several hours' filing before falling asleep on a campbed, finally being collected by her parents at around 2am.
A year of this regime proved enough and she refused to return to the cadets, whereupon her father enrolled her in another Scientology school, which, she says, was no better.
Around this time, her parents' marriage buckled under the strain of long working hours and Lawrence's increasing disaffection with Scientology.
'I had become disillusioned, but Lesley was still very active,' he says.
Under custody arrangements, Astra stayed in California with her father while Zoe moved to Florida with her mother.
Despite her experiences - or perhaps because she knew no other life - Astra began attending a Scientology course at the Celebrity Centre in Hollywood. There, she was invited
into the Sea Organisation, aged 14. 'I knew it would make Mum and Gran happy and I thought I was going to earn good money.' Astra says she was told she would be working for a publishing offshoot and would earn 200 a week. In fact, she found herself working long hours as a secretary for nominal pay (10 a week plus board and lodgings). During this time she says she attended school for only six hours a week.
ONE OF my tasks was to persuade people who wanted to leave the Sea Organisation that they should stay.
If they refused I had to order them to do hard labour and make them sign "confessionals" saying it was all their fault they were leaving.' In such a prematurely responsible environment it comes as little surprise that Astra's next venture was to marry. At just 15 she wed fellow Sea Organisation employee Jason Merrill, in the Silver Bell chapel in Las Vegas.
'Jason was older, 22, and very attractive. In the Sea Organisation you are not allowed to do any more with a boy than kiss. If you marry you can move out of your dorm and into your own room. And you can have sex,' says Astra.
However, after just a few months of marriage, Astra became disillusioned with her limited life and the strict teachings of the religion.
'I couldn't tell anyone how I
was feeling, not even my husband, because he would be obliged to report me and I'd be ostracised. You are taught to think there is something wrong with you if you are not happy in the organisation.' Scientology teaches its adherents to file reports on members who are acting against the church.
Such people are deemed to have brought shame on their families and are sent to 'ethics' sessions, where they are questioned for hours about their thoughts and forced to make 'amends,' which can include manual labour.
Finally, Astra extricated herself from the movement in 1998, but not before she confessed to a list of petty crimes to avoid being declared a Suppressive Person.
Other Scientologists are ordered not to speak to such outcasts, who are declared enemies, and Astra didn't want to lose contact with her family.
Her crimes included 'stealing' leftover food and a pair of tights, forgetting to return a borrowed shirt and trying marijuana at 13.
'I signed the confession because I didn't want to lose contact with Mum, Gran, my sister and brother,' she says.
In a written response to the Mail's investigation, the church of Scientology refuted Astra's claims
as 'fabrication', describing her as a 'disaffected former member' out to extort money. Spokeswoman Janet Weiland insists children in Scientology schools receive at least the state of California's legal minimum requirement of 20 hours' teaching a week, and head teachers at the Sea Organisation are fully qualified.
Astra was pregnant when she left and Kate was born soon after. Free of the constraints of Scientology, she felt relief, tempered with sadness and fear.
'It took me a long time to fully
break free because so many of my friends were in Scientology. It was like starting my life all over again.
'I also felt sorry that Kate would not have a father figure, but my husband had decided that he couldn't devote himself to the Sea Organisation and us. I didn't want Kate brought up in Scientology.' The pair have since divorced.
Her relationship with her mother has broken down since she denounced Scientology, and the church has sent Astra a bill for almost 60,000 for the classes she was given. She refuses to pay.
Two years later, Zoe followed her sister and left Scientology. Now 16, she is at an ordinary Los Angeles school and is struggling to keep up with her academic work.
'I found it very difficult to be at a school with so many people, with nobody wearing uniform and hardly any rules after the strict regime of Scientology,' she says.
Scientologists, the sisters say, denounce outside schools as places full of 'wogs' (their word for non-Scientologists).
'I was led to believe state schools were all overrun by guns and drugs,' says Zoe.
'It was very difficult for me to let go of all the things they had told me, because I was so locked into it.
They told me I was a very special person with special powers and I really thought I could save the world one day.' To hear Astra and Zoe poking fun at the religion which absorbed them for years, it is at times difficult to believe their tale, yet it has been verified by others who went through similar experiences.
WHAT is much harder to comprehend is Lawrence's role in this saga. How could any father allow his daughters to remain in such an organisation, even giving his consent for one to marry at 15?
'I feel really guilty about what happened and I'm trying to make it up to them,' he says, struggling to explain something he can barely comprehend himself.
'I had no idea Astra was unhappy.
She used to tell me everything was fine, because that is what she was drilled to say.
'I let her marry because I didn't want to lose her. She needed only one parent's consent and Lesley had already agreed.
'As for Zoe, she lived in Florida and I rarely saw her. I had to be careful not to put too much pressure on her to leave or she would have been obliged to tell her mother and others, according to Scientology rules, and it could have pushed her further away.
'Looking back, it all seems so crazy, but you stop being yourself.
Your thinking is, in a sense, controlled by them.' Alarming though this account is, hopefully it will fortify Nicole Kidman in her attempts to raise her children - Connor, six, and Isabella, eight - outside this bizarre religion.