Reviews & Endorsements
Novelist Hall (Catching Heaven) has written a beautiful memoir about spending seven years as a Scientologist. What sets this memoir apart from so many recent “leaving Scientology” narratives is that the author has no ax to grind. Though she never felt comfortable as a member of the religion, she fell in love with the study of words and their meaning, which she says is an integral part of Scientology coursework. She still uses these methods as a teacher of creative writing. Although her experience was mild compared to others’, she was frequently pressured to “disconnect” from her parents, as they disapproved of her involvement in the religion and were thus considered “suppressive persons.” Hall leaves much up to readers to decide, but few will close this memoir wishing to become Scientologists and she does sound a clear warning, at the end, to stay away. VERDICT An early candidate for memoir of the year, this is a thrilling story of one woman’s search for truth and her place in the world.
Library Journal (starred review)
Novelist and actress Hall (Catching Heaven) probes her descent into Scientology in this impassioned, wonderfully constructed memoir. Raised in a creative, bohemian family, she felt tremendous pressure from an early age to live up to the artistic expectations set by her parents—a pressure that helped to drive her away from southern California and into anorexia, an ill-fated marriage, and, eventually, Scientology’s promise of spiritual solace. In the first section, she weaves together parallel narratives that describe her childhood alongside fraught years in her 30s within Scientology, describing the psychological ideas and tactics pioneered by L. Ron Hubbard, such as the reactive mind versus the analytical mind and the interrogation practice of “auditing,” and the fear that came from the intense culture of secrecy. In the second section, the two narratives combine as she recounts the dark period in her early 20s following an incident in which her brother fell off a bridge and suffered brain damage. As her marriage crumbles and her career ebbs and flows, she turns to Scientology hoping to find answers. Instead, after seven years within Scientology, she concludes that she has made a serious mistake. Hall reflects with brutal honesty on her decisions throughout this meticulously crafted book, which explores her negative experiences with Scientology and how her desire to please led her to believe in the unbelievable.
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Sands Hall’s transcendent memoir, Flunk. Start, describes, with precise and utterly absorbing detail, her experience in the world of Scientology. But this is also a story that explores so many issues—how language is used to both illuminate and obscure, how we long for connection and meaning; it’s also a vivid portrait of how we find a place in our family and find a path through chaos. I could not put down this book—it is a triumph, a work of great honesty and insight. It is a necessary book for our time.
Karen E. Bender, author of Refund, Finalist, National Book Award
Media is rife with harrowing stories from former Scientologists detailing the myriad abuses of the organization. This memoir takes a more reflective approach and is less condemning. Though Scientology has a starring role, the story focuses on the author’s life—beginning with her burgeoning doubts about her new faith but tracking back and forth between her childhood with her loving, artistic, and eccentric family and following her personal journey. As she tries to discern who she is and her place in the world, she falls into the welcoming arms of Scientology. Hall is honest about Scientology’s appeal, elucidating many of the tenets that drew her in and kept her dedicated for so long. The book contains many details about the basics of Scientology, especially for newcomers; readers can empathize with why the author was drawn to it. But, like many former Scientologists, Hall is honest about the insidious ways it can capture and isolate its adherents. It’s a memoir of a life filled with joy and tragedy, and readers will appreciate the author’s candor.
It is a great strength of Sands Hall’s clear-eyed and compelling memoir that she shows what she found authentic and rewarding in the Church of Scientology, not merely its corruption and imprisoning dogma. There is regret in her account but little anger or blame. Her triumph is not that she got out, but that she winnowed what nourishment the church could provide and took it forward in her spiritual journey.
John Daniel, author of Gifted and Rogue River Journal
In this unflinching and nuanced self-portrait, Sands Hall examines a decade of entanglement with the cult of Scientology and her circuitous process of liberation. Interweaving the backstory of a tragic accident that left a hole in her legendary family, Hall takes readers on a profound journey of loss, longing, and recovery.
Elizabeth Rosner, author of Survivor Café
Sands Hall, daughter of a novelist whose writing workshop launched the careers of dozens of famous authors, was born into intellectual splendor, but worried about living up to her family’s reputation and expectations. How Scientology used those youthful fears to rope her into one of the greatest mind-control hustles of all time is a cautionary tale not only for our religious life, but especially now, for our political one.
Jordan Fisher Smith, author of Engineering Eden and Nature Noir
Sands Hall has brought her remarkable talents to bear on this memoir. By turns endearing and alarming, this story describes the hazards involved in having to choose between a strong, loving family and a demanding, seductive church – between one sort of belonging and another. I consider it Sands’ best book.
Lynn Freed, author of The Last Laugh and The Romance of Elsewhere
Sands Hall displays her fine literary talent in Flunk. Start, a raw and moving account of her personal journey through the Church of Scientology. Sands shares her uniquely Californian coming-of-age tale with grace and courage.
Julia Flynn Siler, author of The House of Mondavi and Lost Kingdom
A former Scientologist examines why she entered the church and then left it. Hall didn’t intend to join with the Scientologists, but when she fell in love with a man who was deeply committed to the Church of Scientology, her resolve was slowly worn away. In this revealing memoir, the author explains her many conflicting emotions toward the religion before, during, and after her seven years as a Scientologist…Throughout the book, Hall interweaves the story of her family, particularly of her older brother, Oakley, a wild child and wilder adult who eventually took one risk too many and suffered permanent consequences. The author is sincere and open about why Scientology appealed to her, and she effectively uses Hubbard’s work to show the complexity and strangeness of thinking…Hall risks her friendships with Scientologists by revealing what she experienced, and her work serves as a significant behind-the-scenes look at this cultlike religion. Frank and edifying information on Scientology from a woman who experienced it firsthand. A good complement to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear.
Flunk. Start. is an intriguing, beautifully written memoir by Sands Hall, a writer, singer/songwriter and actress raised in California in the literary world. Her father Oakley Hall was a novelist, founder of the UC Irvine writing program and co-founder of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. With his wife Barbara, he was at the center of an ever-changing artistic scene. Her brother Oakley Hall III was a
rising star with his own theater group performing summers in Lexington, NY in the Catskills, when he sustained a life-changing brain injury. Hall had a part in a soap opera shooting in New York at the time of her brother’s accident. ” . . . when he fell and damaged his brain, and I lost my brother, my leader, my model,” she writes, “I plunged into a vertigo that—so it seems now—spun me directly toward the Church.” Hall was drawn into the Church of Scientology, after being introduced through acting colleagues, first in New York, then in Los Angeles. She spent nearly a decade immersed in Scientology—seven in which she was involved with the church, three in which she decided to leave for sure. She toggles between her family and the church, digging deeply into the dynamics of power and control, love and compassion, before coming to a surprising resolution. Going Clear.
Jane Ciabattari, Lit Hub columnist
When the first notices for a memoir about Scientology coming out by author Sands Hall started appearing online some months ago, we distinctly remember former Scientologists and other Scientology watchers asking, “Sands who?”
Scientology memoirs are much more common today than they were just a few years ago now that the church’s terror machine has been disrupted somewhat, but they still tend to be written by people whose names are well known in the ex-Scientology community: Janis Gillham Grady, Karen Pressley, Ron Miscavige, Leah Remini — just to name a few from the last couple of years, each of them very well known before their books came out.
Hall points out herself that she isn’t a former Scientology celebrity like Leah Remini, and she’s also not a former high-ranking Sea Org official dishing new revelations about the inner workings of the church.
But her decades as an author, playwright, and musician is what really sets this book apart: Sands Hall is an experienced literary talent and writing teacher whose seven years in Scientology from about 1982 to 1989 may not provide new revelations about Scientology’s controversies, but they do provide some of the most penetrating, illuminating prose about how an educated and skeptical person could get so deeply into, and then struggle to escape, what everyone around her warned was a dangerous cult.
Another thing setting this book apart is that so much of it isn’t about Scientology but about Hall’s fascinating life journey as the daughter of a well known novelist, Oakley Hall, and how she and her older brother, Tad (known professionally as Oakley Hall III), both struggled to make their own way as artists under their father’s weighty reputation.
Sands is quite self-aware about how good she had it growing up: Her famous father and her mother, Barbara, provided the sort of home that most people would kill for. The world-traveling Halls were immersed in a life of books and authors and wine-soaked parties and an ongoing pursuit of a meaningful life. How could someone brought up in that kind of loving family and utter support be sucked into, of all things, Scientology?
As Tad’s self-destructive habits derailed his path as a playwright, Sands found her own journey disrupted as she struggled as an actor in New York and Los Angeles. Through a friend, she managed to get into the acting classes of Milton Katselas, a Scientologist we’ve written about numerous times and whose Beverly Hills Playhouse was a major conduit to Scientology. Later, she met a bassist, Jamie Faunt, who played with Chick Corea. Hall was charmed by Faunt, but she couldn’t believe that she was falling for a Scientologist — every step of the way, she seemed very aware of how wrong it was even to entertain the idea.
But describing a gathering with Faunt and his fellow musicians, she captures the sense of her objections starting to melt away as these intelligent, talented people described Scientology’s metaphysical concepts in the best possible light. A better world, focused on improvement from within, and helping your fellow man? Against her own misgivings, she felt herself getting swept into it.
Along the way, Hall does a brilliant job helping the reader learn the vocabulary and concepts of Scientology in a manner that many others have tried, but few with such facility. Readers with no knowledge of Scientology will find themselves thinking in terms of the overt-motivator sequence and the conditions, and without having to take courses at their local org. Hall takes us through the lingo as she does the Comm Course, PTS/SP, the Purif, Hubbard Qualified Scientologist, and also trains at the Advanced Org in Los Angeles so she can become a Course Supervisor at a mission in Beverly Hills.
Throughout these steps deeper into the church, she tells us she has doubts. But she also admits that she simply didn’t see much of the abuse that came out later in the accounts by former Sea Org members and high ranking officials. She heard about the RPF, and about David Mayo being declared, and about some other things, but it would be many years before she learned the extent of it. Even in her relatively low-level position, she could see how insidious Scientology’s mindset was, and how it was stifling her career, encouraging her to push away her family, and putting her into a philosophical hamster wheel that became incredibly difficult to escape from.
Hall anticipates that her book won’t please everyone. She knows that friends she’s had in Scientology who she managed to hang onto after leaving the church will “disconnect” from her for writing the book. But she knows also that Scientology critics will have reason to complain as well.
“There may be those who attack the book for not being harder on the Church, who will insist that the things I found effective are so much psychobabble,” she says, and we expect that will be the case. She still describes experiences she had in the “training routines” or in auditing in mystical terms that “independent Scientologists” will hail and church critics will jeer, for example.
But many former Scientologists will tell you that there is “good” in L. Ron Hubbard’s work, that their early experiences in Scientology were valuable, even if they later felt betrayed by an increasingly authoritarian organization under the leadership of David Miscavige. In that regard, Hall is very much like many of the former Scientologists we’ve talked to.
Maybe that’s why, time and again, the characters we most identified with in Hall’s memoir were her parents, who couldn’t believe that they’d raised a Scientologist. We really enjoyed the scene when Hall tried to explain to her father — a novelist — that Scientology’s great value was that it had taught her how to use dictionaries and look up the etymology of words. You can practically see his veins popping in his forehead.
We would have loved to have a glass of wine with Oakley and Barbara Hall.
And heck, maybe we’ll get a chance to raise a glass with Sands. But we may just have to get into it with her about all that woo and the TRs, sheesh.
Tony Ortega – Underground Bunker