Published on: March 16, 2018
I’ve been thinking a lot about belief and unbelief lately. Oddly enough, I recall that being the name of a class that I took while attending Loyola Marymount University in the mid-seventies. It struck me then, and now, that for a Catholic university to concede that religious unbelief is a legitimate (and these days, growing) life choice was both progressive and liberated. And liberating.
This all came to mind recently when I read a wonderful memoir entitled “Flunk. Start.: Reclaiming My Decade Lost in Scientology,” by Sands Hall, a novelist, actress, musician and university writing professor.
Rather than being an anti-Scientology screed, Hall’s memoir is both more expansive and granular in its approach. When she joined Scientology while living in Los Angeles during the eighties, it wasn’t in a vacuum and it wasn’t just an impulse. Hall was raised in a literary family with high expectations; her father was Oakley Hall, probably best-known for writing the novel upon which the movie Downhill Racer was based. While she raised in a highly creative environment, and her older brother was a playwright who also was something of a mad genius, Hall also had a spiritual side that seemed to differentiate her from her family. She believed, or wanted to believe, in a kind of spirituality that many religions say they can nurture, and yet that seemed at odds with the kind of muscular, grounded skepticism about such things practiced by her parents.
It was her yearning for something more, some spiritual connection, that lured her into Scientology; she knew of its reputation as a cult, she went into its highly structured and restrictive environment with eyes wide open, and yet she was drawn to it in a way that the memoir explains in plain yet evocative language.
As a reader, one can see the signs more clearly than Hall could at the time. I kept wanting to knock her out of the way of what struck me as the speeding train of Scientology, which, if it had its way, would remake everything that she was. And not just remake her. Scientology would’ve obliterated everything she way and taken everything she had.There are times that “Flunk. Start.” reads like a thriller, full of shadows and threats and characters who may be duplicitous or honest and hard to take at face value.
In the end, though, what marks “Flunk. Start” as an unusual approach to the subject is the consistent and deep compassion of the writing. Hall is hardest on herself, writing about personal tragedies and misjudgments, which is probably what any clear-eyed memoirist should be.
“Flunk. Start” transcends the typical “how I got out of a cult” story because it has something much bigger in mind. It is about the yearning for belief and connection, looking in its own way at why religions of all kinds have value as ethical and behavioral touchstones. It explores why cults - which are just like religions in some ways, except with no room for thought or exploration, offering total certainty and absolutes - are so magnetic. Hall sees some value and values in all of them, even the ones that have become corrupted over time and through deliberate exploitation. The book explores what makes some people believe and some not, and what makes some people yearn for spiritual answers to questions they may not even know how to formulate.
Finally, a bit of full disclosure. I know Sands Hall. I’ve known her since 1977, and I was around the periphery during some of the events that occur early in the memoir, though I wasn’t really involved in them, and I’m not in the book. But we really weren’t in touch much during her Scientology years and afterwards, so I had no idea of what was going on in her life.
I don’t think my knowing the story’s author made “Flunk. Start.” more compelling a read than it would’ve been if I did not know her. There were moments of recognition, and times when I thought I should’ve been a better, more available friend. But for anyone who reads it, I believe that as a memoir and a thoughtful exploration of faith and belief, “Flunk. Start” has enormous objective power.
I heartily recommend it.
That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday.