By Evan Heichelbech
Judging by the inside of Danni Peck’s apartment in Bowling Green, she’s a happy person. She even says she is.
The posters on her walls aren’t evenly spaced or patterned in any way, but they cover most of the walls. She estimates that she has over 100 of them.
From Zelda to Shaq-Fu and Breaking Bad to Red Dead Redemption, these posters are a colorful sample of the little things that make Peck smile just talking about them. The posters are representations of things she enjoys. They point toward a small part of her story — her new story.
“I’m way happier,” she said, nodding her head while looking at the ground. “I’m not trapped somewhere, and I’m not doing anything that I hate.”
The first part of Peck’s life wasn’t easy. And while it is not always easy today and never will be, it’s a lot better. But her past is the reason why she is the person she is today.
Three life-altering things happened in 2003 when Peck was 10 years old: Her mother died of esophageal cancer. Within a year, her father
got remarried to an old girlfriend. Not long after that, her father took Dani and her brother Kevin to their first Scientology event.
Today, it doesn’t bother her. She can talk about it.
“I wasn’t very comfortable with the place but I didn’t understand what was going on,” Danni said about the church. “My brother was 8, I was 10, and we were very uncomfortable.
“I thought it was weird as shit,” she said.
After about a decade of being involved in the religion in some fashion and four years of serving on staff at the Church of Scientology and Celebrity Centre Nashville, Danni “freed” herself at the age of 21. It’s been three years since she left.
“I’m a lot happier than I was before,” Peck, now 24, said. “Here’s the thing that sucks about it: You still sit around with those beliefs sometimes, but they don’t affect you anymore. You’re not at the mercy of it, but they kind of sit there.”
Established in 1954 by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology prides itself on being a religion of individualistic progression and growth.
As stated in “Scientology: Theology & Practice of a Contemporary Religion,” a 1998 reference work by the Church of Scientology International, a main attraction and distinction of the religion is its lack of dogmatic principles.
Its multifaceted and intertwining components are centered around the cornerstone concept that man is a spiritual being. Hubbard wrote that man did not own a spirit or a soul, offering that instead he is a spiritual being with a separate mind and body. This concept of man is called a thetan. Scientologists believe that the power of the thetan can be supernatural in nature.
In “Scientology 8-8008,” one of Hubbard’s many books accepted as scripture within the religion, Hubbard describes a fully rehabilitated thetan as being capable of things like controlling others from a distance, creating his own universe and moving objects without “mechanical needs.”
Practices called auditing and training take precedence over any element of belief in a higher power.
Training sessions are intensive studying of the fundamental truths and tenets of the religion. Auditing sessions involve conducting a series of questions to an individual using an electropsychometer, or e-meter. Questioning in auditing sessions seek to move members to reach a spiritual state called Clear. There are eight levels beyond Clear, all the way up to the final level called Operating Thetan VIII. Required courses to reach these levels are laid out on a list called “The Bridge to Total Freedom.”
Auditing and training are the roots of the religion that lead Scientologists toward these abilities.
But neither come without a price.
For Scientologists who intend on reaching Clear and working toward Operating Thetan VIII, a checkbook or a credit card is the first essential tool.
According to a price breakdown using official prices from the 2006 listings of American Saint Hill Organization (a service organization of the church that trains auditors) the price of necessary auditing courses and courses to get through Clear could cost upward of $20,000, and other current estimates suggest that getting through Clear costs more than $120,000.
Actress and “King of Queens” star Leah Remini, who left the church in 2013, claimed that she spent millions of dollars in her 35 years with the church. She told businessinsider.com last year that required courses cost $650 each and auditing sessions with an E-meter cost $800 an hour.
For those who can’t afford the prices of the required courses and auditing, the church offers jobs for members to work on staff in exchange for training and auditing sessions.
Staff workers serve as supervisors to training sessions or can be co-auditors to assist in auditing sessions.
Peck was one of these workers.
“Joining staff has been the greatest action I have ever taken. I have been looking for something new and for the past year I have been looking for a bigger game.
While I was at the Northwest Chicago Mission one week, a recruiter from Nashville came in and talked to me about joining staff. I was so excited and I felt like it was the right thing to do. From that point, the only thing on my mind was joining staff. So I signed up!
I have only been in Nashville for a couple of days now and I already love the city and the people. They make you feel so much more; I feel so at home in this org. Everyone is smiling and I just love the atmosphere. The org is also professional and standard. I love the people here and I feel so happy to be part of this great organization.
I wanted change and I am so excited for the adventure that I am undertaking. A couple of my friends said I was really going to like Nashville. They were wrong…I love it!!”
When Danni Peck joined staff at Church of Scientology and Celebrity Centre Nashville in 2010, she didn’t know what her true intentions were. She did it as an out; a way to escape a situation at home she didn’t like.
She resented her stepmother, who had dated her father before he was with her mother.
“I was forced to call her mom even though I hated the woman,” Danni said.
After being “at each other’s throats” for a few years in Chicago, Danni began to wonder about her options.
She said she asked herself, “How do I get out of this?” a question she wouldn’t stop asking herself for four more years after joining the “org” in Nashville. (The churches of Scientology are referred to as “missions” and “orgs,” short for organizations. Missions are smaller churches, orgs are bigger churches, and celebrity centres are orgs that recruit artists, filmmakers and musicians to attract more people to join.)
Peck said it doesn’t bother her to talk about the entire situation, but the tone and speed of her voice along with the vulgarities repeatedly sewn into her speech on a November afternoon three years removed from her exit indicate otherwise.
The decision only made things worse.
“So [my father and stepmother] decided to prey on this 17-year-old girl who doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing and said, ‘Hey you can come to Nashville and work at the church down there, how does that sound?’,” Peck explained. “Me: ‘Hey this is a way to get away.”
Danni grew up in the Catholic Church and was baptized Catholic. Her mother was a devout follower of the faith, she said. Once her mother died, Danni decided “all religion is bull shit.”
“Before she died I never believed in religion, period, but I was just doing the Catholicism thing to make my parents happy,” Danni said.
Danni’s father worked as a chiropractor near a mission in Chicago where they lived, and according to Danni, her father’s interest in the religion began well before her mother’s death.
Her first memory of Scientology began with a discovery in the basement of her childhood home. When she was almost 7 years old, Danni’s black and white cat Hershey was nowhere to be found.
She started on the main floor first looking under the bed. No Hershey. Then she checked her brother Kevin’s room. No Hershey. Danni’s room was vacant too. Her mother was “freaking out” because Hershey was declawed and would not do well outside, she said.
Danni made her way through the cluttered bar area to her father’s office. She didn’t find Hershey, but she encountered boxes full of stuff she’d never seen before. She said both of her parents were hoarders. Within a few minutes in the office, Danni’s focus shifting from finding her cat to the contents the boxes that filled the room.
At the front of the room were things she knew her father was interested in. She found books, fantasy novels and science-fiction stuff. Toward the back of the room, beneath dusty binders were tape cassettes.
The tape cassettes looked weird to her, as did a book titled “Dianetics” and a smaller red collection called “The Scientology Technical Dictionary.”.
A few moments before a meow revealed Hershey sitting in the rafters, Danni remembers wondering to herself why her father had all of these things and what they were about.
“I didn’t know it was Scientology stuff at the time,” Peck said.
Several years later, her stepmother made that room her office and Dani found all of the books again around age 13.
It was around this time that Danni and Kevin were being told to attend more communication courses in the church.
“Part of me thought I should go say something because this is making me uncomfortable,” Danni said. “But my dad was so proud of us. Both Kevin and I really wanted to make our dad proud. We were both very big into that.”
Her dad had been involved in Scientology since his high school days in Niles, Illinois. He told his two children that he used to practice this stuff “back in the day.”
Danni said her father told her he stopped practicing the religion for a while because he “needed to go finish school and start a family”, leaving his girlfriend (who would become his second wife) to go start a family of his own.
“If they didn’t part ways, I wouldn’t be here,” Danni said of her father and the ex-girlfriend who is now her stepmother. “It kind of freaks me out a little bit knowing that.”
From 2010 to 2014, Danni was a course supervisor on staff at Church of Scientology and Celebrity Centre Nashville. She signed a five-year contract to work at the church, allowing her to continue to take training and auditing sessions.
“They tell you you’re allowed to do all of this for free because you’re a staff member,” Danni said with an exaggerated roll of the eyes. “I was working to the bone. I was working my normal job then having to go work at the church, and they were trying to force me to work more.”
She said the communication courses were somewhat helpful, but being taught to do common sense things like listen to people when they’re talking and acknowledging people when they are done talking is “obvious shit” that she already knew how to do.
But Danni said she never understood the heavier stuff like auditing, even after long sessions.
“I honestly did so much in there that I’m like, ‘Did I really believe in any of that or was I forced to believe in all of it?’”
For Scientologists, there is no Bible, no Quran, no Torah.
There is L. Ron Hubbard’s extensive collection of works.
The most widely known work in the Scientology Scripture, according to the church, is Hubbard’s “Dianetics.”
In this 1950 bestseller, Hubbard declares two separate components of the mind: the analytical mind and the reactive mind. Broadly considered to be a pseudoscience and criticized by scientists for its lack of evidence to support some of its claims, “Dianetics” is a collection of Hubbard’s ideas regarding the nature of man and how to understand one’s own mind. It is referred to as “Book One” of Scientology, and its publication date of May 9 is celebrated by Scientologists every year.
Through the process of auditing — what the church refers to as its central religious practice — the reactive mind is erased by a series of questions and commands that help identify a person’s issues and unenjoyable experiences and memories from the past. Scientologists view the reactive mind as an obstacle to spiritual progression. By essentially erasing the reactive mind in auditing, Scientologists believe the analytical mind is freed and the Clear state of spiritual awareness can be reached.
By reaching Clear level of spiritual awareness, Scientologists believe that things such as ancestry, personality and inherent goodness and decency are restored.
In yet another twist, the religion claims that man’s existence can span more than one life.
Understanding of the religion increases along the eight dynamics and levels within The Bridge to Total Freedom. More information is made available to those who advance and kept from those who don’t.
Hubbard’s breakthrough from taking his ideas and concepts published in “Dianetics” to founding a religion in Scientology came when he realized and formed the idea of a thetan. Instead of owning a spirit or soul, man simply is spiritual by being himself, according to Hubbard, who died in 1986.
The reference work “Scientology: Theology & Practice of a Contemporary Religion” lists nine of Hubbard’s books as important scripture, and recognizes the Scientology Scripture as an “expansive series” of Hubbard’s works.
Sitting in her apartment with her two cats, Togami and Gatomon (named after videogame characters from the games Danganronpa and Digimon), Danni is at peace with her stance on religion. She describes herself as an atheist and says she will never change.
“I can’t believe in religion,” she says as Togami, a black cat, brushes under her legs. “I just can’t.”
Her past with religion has been guided by a want to appease other people, she said.
“In terms of being in religion, I don’t see myself ever doing that again,” she said. “I don’t want to.”
Today, she says she is tolerant of people who practice religion and has no problem with other people having faith.
While stress and abuse are two of the many words Danni uses to describe her time in Scientology, regret is not one of them. If she didn’t agree to work at the church in Nashville, she may have never gotten out of the mission she was at briefly in Chicago.
“So I said ‘yes’ and it was, on one hand, a really bad idea, but on the other I never would have met Adam,” she said.
Minutes after answering a question about the relationship she has with her father today, Danni’s husband, Adam Sims, walks into their apartment carrying an armful of groceries. Making his way to the kitchen, Sims addressed the couple’s massive videogame collection in the living room with a subtle jab at himself.
“We’re like huge nerds,” he says in passing. “We met through Cosplay.”
At the Middle Tennessee Anime Convention in 2013, Sims was cosplaying (short for costume playing) Roy Mustang and Danni was cosplaying Lust — two characters from separate series.
The two said they quickly became friends and developed a dependence on each other. By April of 2016, they were legally married in a Bowling Green courthouse.
Sims admitted that conversation was a bit weird at times in the beginning and questioned why Danni didn’t just quit the job she always complained about and do what she loved and become a freelance writer. He was only beginning to understand.
“Some of the things she was saying were weird,” Sims said, staring blankly at his living room wall.
Sims said he noticed Danni’s Facebook page included a tab that said she practiced Scientology, but immediately dismissed it as a joke. Previously, one of his friends put Scientology under his religion on Facebook as a joke, and he thought she was doing the same thing.
“It was one of those things that I was afraid to address how bullshit it is because they teach you to dismiss anything negative someone says about the church,” he said. “And I was afraid she would break up with me.”
Sims said he kept dropping subtle hints to Danni urging her to consider leaving the church. He knew what Scientology was prior to meeting her, thanks to a “South Park” episode. An atheist himself, Sims said he began to look deeper into the religion as he saw Danni struggling with her job as a staff member.
Today, he uses the word “bullshit” six separate times in a span of 20 minutes to describe the religion and its beliefs.
“You can look it up and learn that L. Ron Hubbard was a con man,” Sims said. “He said so himself. If you want to get rich, start your own religion.”
Danni said she can’t pinpoint a singular breaking point. There were several.
One came when she asked for a day off for the first time in her three years on staff. The organization’s executive secretary told her “no,” and that she needed to stay on a normal schedule working every day of the week.
“He closed the door and I said, ‘Maybe this is not the right thing. Maybe I should get out of this,’” Danni recalled.
Danni and Adam both remember tensions running high between them around this time. Adam, now 26, had just enrolled in classes at Western Kentucky University and was living with Danni in Nashville. His studies were suffering because he was taking care of Danni and helping her deal with stress.
“If your parents really care about you they’ll understand,” he told her.
Realizing she could take care of herself, Danni decided it was time. She didn’t show up for her shift on a Sunday morning after having a rare Saturday off.
She didn’t tell her father she had left, but it didn’t take long for him to figure out.
A few days later, Danni received a four-page letter from her father asking her why she left and encouraging her to stay in the church.
“He wrote me a letter saying that Scientology helped during the time when mom was dying and when she passed,” Danni explained. “I wish I kept it but I was actually so pissed off I tore it up. They tore our family apart. What the fuck are you talking about? I can’t even see my little brother.”
Danni and Kevin went to Catholic school from preschool to eighth grade at St. Alphonsus Liguori in Wheeling, Illinois, and Danni received the Catholic sacrament of confirmation at age 13, after she had started to take Scientology communication courses. Kevin never finished grade school, and Danni said she doesn’t know if he received any kind of educational certificate or a general education diploma. He began working in the Sea Organization, a group within the Church of Scientology comprised of the “most dedicated” members, at age 13.
Danni said she hasn’t seen Kevin since she last talked to him on the phone when he was 16 years old in 2011. She said she didn’t tell him she left because he didn’t have means of communication: no cell phone, no Facebook, just a telephone from inside the Sea Org that she had no desire to call.
A month or so after receiving the letter, her father came to Bowling Green and had dinner with Danni and Sims. Both Danni and Sims separately remember her father saying that the situation was “water under the bridge” and that as long as Danni calmed down her outward vocal diatribes against Scientology on message boards, there would be a peaceful relationship.
“That was a blatant lie because shortly after that I stopped getting text messages from him,” Danni said. “He was just doing that to win brownie points with the church.”
Danni hasn’t spoken to her stepmother since she blocked her from Facebook for “harassing” her and Sims after she left the church in 2014.
The last time Danni heard from her father was when she texted him on Father’s Day two years ago.
“I texted him and said, ‘Happy Father’s Day, dad. Hope it’s going good,’” Danni recalled.
To her pleasant surprise, he responded but not in the way she had hoped. Danni said that he told her he was doing fine and immediately told her that Kevin was finishing courses and his wife had finished Operating Thetan VII.
“My response: ‘That’s great dad, hope everyone is doing good,’” Danni said. “After that, nothing. No communication whatsoever.”
Danni said she tried to reach out to him when his mother died this past summer and didn’t get a response.
Multiple phone calls to Bob Peck were not answered.
The last that Danni heard, he and the rest of the family live in Geneva, Illinois. She doesn’t talk to anyone on his side of the family.
It is not uncommon for people who leave Scientology to be effectively shunned by its members, even by family members.
The church declares some who leave the religion as suppressive persons, in the belief that those who left are blockers who can impede the spiritual growth of practicing members.
According to statements from the Church of Scientology’s website, this practice is “extremely rare” and is known as disconnection. It is usually used as a last resort method after encouraging its members to reach out to those trying to leave to provide them with “true data.”
Arguments in court by the church have tried to justify this action as a constitutionally protected religious practice but the arguments have all been rejected.
On the church’s official website, a suppressive person is someone who tries to “continuously undermine” and “spread bad news about” the religion.
Seth Parker, 31, said that he has known Danni Peck and Adam Sims for over a year now. The three play videogames together, watch anime, go to costume conventions and even hosted “brosgiving,” as they called it, sharing Thanksgiving food a week after the actual holiday.
“I think those two belong together,” Parker said of Danni and her husband. “They have a really, really good communication with each other. If one gets upset, I’ve seen one of them turn and address the discomfort and move forward like nothing ever happened.”
Danni, who goes by Danni Sims on social media accounts but hasn’t legally changed her last name yet, said she and Adam are planning a wedding ceremony within the next year or so. Adam is graduating from WKU with a journalism degree at the end of the fall semester in 2017.
“He deserves to be happy,” Parker said about Adam. “I’m incredibly proud of him.”
Danni is a freelance writer writing on topics ranging from how-to articles to fantasy fiction stories. She often writes under pen names and has done ghost writing for multiple sites.
Beyond writing, Danni said she runs, works out and plays videogames with her cats close by.
Danni said she isn’t scared of the church and no longer feels emotionally burdened to do anything for anyone. She also said she thinks she was declared a suppressive person by the church, but doesn’t know for sure.
“Yup, that’s my success story,” Danni said about the post she wrote after joining the church, which was found on exscn.net. “All of that was not published from the heart. That was something that I did to go and make myself look good. Because that’s what you gotta do, you gotta go and make yourself look good to get everyone to accept you in the church. Though the irony of the whole thing is, you don’t have to be accepted or liked or admired, that’s what [L. Ron Hubbard] says in one of the texts. It’s one of the codes of honor points.”
Danni said that making new friends has been one of the most satisfying things she’s done since she left the Church of Scientology, because she didn’t have any “real” friends in the church. She keeps the mention of scientology on “the down low.” Some of her friends didn’t find out until two weeks ago at dinner that she had ever been a part of it.
“Knowing her, she’s the type of person who lets things roll off her shoulder,” Parker said about Danni. “She enjoys communicating and talking about drama and making fun of it, so she copes with that by saying they’re a bunch of bitches, let’s talk about that drama and move forward.”
Parker said he doesn’t ever recall a time not seeing Adam and Danni together.
“He cares enough about her to be in a better position that’s for sure,” he said.
Danni doesn’t want their wedding ceremony to be “too big” and said she will invite “whatever is left of my family.” She doesn’t plan to invite her father.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I have love for the guy,” she said, rubbing her shin-high socks covered in designs of mushrooms from the videogame “Super Mario.”
“If he was dying on his deathbed and I somehow saw him, could I forgive him for what he did?” she asked. “I don’t know.”