Reclaiming My Decade Lost in Scientology: A Memoir

Reclaiming My Decade Lost in Scientology: A Memoir

by Sands Hall


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"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

In Flunk. Start., Sands Hall chronicles her slow yet willing absorption into the Church of Scientology. Her time in the Church, the 1980s, includes the secretive illness and death of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and the ascension of David Miscavige. Hall compellingly reveals what drew her into the religion—what she found intriguing and useful—and how she came to confront its darker sides.

As a young woman from a literary family striving to forge her own way as an artist, Hall ricochets between the worlds of Shakespeare, avant-garde theater, and soap opera, until her brilliant elder brother, playwright Oakley Hall III, falls from a bridge and suffers permanent brain damage. In the secluded canyons of Hollywood, she finds herself increasingly drawn toward the certainty that Scientology appears to offer.

In this candid and nuanced memoir, Hall recounts her spiritual and artistic journey with a visceral affection for language, delighting in the way words can create a shared world. However, as Hall begins to grasp how purposefully Hubbard has created the unique language of Scientology—in the process isolating and indoctrinating its practitioners—she confronts how language can also be used as a tool of authoritarianism.

Hall is a captivating guide, and Flunk. Start. explores how she has found meaning and purpose within that decade that for so long she thought of as lost; how she has faced the “flunk” represented by those years, and has embraced a way to “start” anew.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619021785
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 03/13/2018
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

SANDS HALL is the author of the novel Catching Heaven, a WILLA Award Finalist for Best Contemporary Fiction, and a Random House Reader’s Circle selection; and of a book of writing essays and exercises, Tools of the Writer’s Craft. She teaches at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, and is an associate teaching professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Read an Excerpt


Knowledge Report

For a decade, I pretended that a decade of my life hadn't happened. Those "lost" years included the seven I was involved with the Church of Scientology, and the three it took to be certain I wouldn't, again, return. Eventually, I began to peer and prod and then write about those years, and just as I'd completed a shaggy draft of this memoir, I found out that Jamie, the man who'd introduced me to the Church, had died. A memorial was planned for him in Los Angeles, a city I'd fled decades before and since visited just once—and then only because a book tour took me there. Because I'd been examining what had come of meeting and then marrying Jamie, it seemed imperative to attend his memorial, even though it meant putting myself back in the maw of what I'd first found scary, then intriguing and even engrossing, and then, during the awful time of leaving, terrifying.

I would also see people who'd once been incredibly dear to me but with whom, since leaving the Church, I'd lost contact. One of them, Paloma—who'd been not only a close friend, but also one of my auditors (Scientology's form of counselor)—even offered her guestroom. Paloma's open-heartedness and her willingness to walk outside Scientology's boundaries moved and surprised me: generally, those in the Church do not associate with those who have defected from it. But Paloma welcomed me, and, as we always had, we talked deeply, including about what we were currently writing. She pressed, and finally I offered up that I'd finished a draft of a memoir.

"About Scientology!" She looked shocked.

I told her it was also about my family, "which was, in a way, its own kind of cult," I said, laughing.

Clearly troubled, she asked me what I meant. After a bit more discussion, I suggested we not talk further about it. "When you get your next chunk of auditing," I said, "you'll have to answer all those 'security questions.' I don't want to make trouble for you in any way."

Paloma shook her head. "I won't let the Church dictate who are and who are not my friends."

I found this admirable, and, though surprising, even possible: Paloma has been married to a non-Scientologist for three decades; perhaps she and the Church—she and her own psyche—had figured things out. And for a few months after that remarkable and unexpectedly heartwarming time in Los Angeles, she and I stayed in touch. In one startling phone call she even implied that she might have accomplished all she needed to with and in the Church.

However, almost immediately after that confidence, if that's what it was, the phone calls and emails stopped. As Scientologists put it, we "fell out of comm." I was not surprised. I knew she was regretting our candid discussions. A few months later, a mutual friend told me she was very ill. This, too, I did not find surprising. Because Scientology—like Christian Science and other spiritual paths—believes that physical troubles are linked to emotional and psychological ones, I was fairly sure that Paloma was tracing her illness back to our talks. If she had doubted, and certainly in communicating such feelings to an ex-Scientologist, she was guilty of transgressions against her church. By now she'd be seeing someone known as the "Ethics Officer." Maybe getting auditing. In any case, spending lots of money "handling" that she'd talked to an apostate. She would not be in touch again.

So I was startled when, a few months later, I received a business-sized envelope with her name and address in the upper left hand corner.

Standing in the morning sun next to my mailbox, which is at the end of my driveway in the rural area where I live, I opened it. Inside were three typed pages. Centered at the top of the first page were the words:

Knowledge Report

For even a seasoned member of the Church of Scientology, the phrase, "Knowledge Report"[i] can buckle the knees; to be the subject of one can curdle the blood. Knowledge Reports are one of the increasingly totalitarian tactics L. Ron Hubbard employed as Scientology became bigger and more successful—and more controversial. In a 1982 policy letter, "Keeping Scientology Working," he writes that for an organization to run effectively, "the individual members themselves enforce the actions and mores of the group."[ii] This can lead to rampant paranoia, as it's possible to imagine that every step you take in your job (especially in an organization established on Hubbard's principles) and indeed in your life, is being observed: snitching is actively encouraged. As a Knowledge Report may lead to intense disciplinary measures, to receive one is literally hair-raising.

The walk out to my mailbox that morning was to take a break from writing; I was almost done with a second draft of the memoir. By that time, I had processed enough of my emotions about the Church to be able to give a laugh at what I held in my hand, although it was a shocked laugh. I understood why Paloma might have been led to write a Knowledge Report, but why on earth would she send me a copy? It would be placed in her Ethics folder—this much I remembered from my time in the Church—but I wasn't a Scientologist, hadn't been one in over a decade; Scientology's protocols had nothing to do with me.

Nevertheless, as I read what Paloma had written, my world tilted and spun.

Time, Place, Form, Event, Hubbard requires in such a report,[iii] and Paloma supplied them. She described our friendship while I was in the Church, discussed her role as my auditor, addressed how my parents had been virulent in their disapproval, how the Church had dubbed them Suppressive Persons and insisted I formally disconnect from them, which I'd refused to do. She also included details of our recent talks, including the fact that I'd called Scientology a "cult"; and that—this was the "knowledge" she was "reporting"—I was writing a memoir about it. Except for perspective (her point of view was not mine), what she wrote was neither histrionic nor incorrect. It was knowledge—her knowledge—and she reported it.

I scanned the pages again, wondering what her purpose was. Had she sent the Knowledge Report to scare me—after all, the Church is infamous for attacking those who criticize it. Was she sending it as a warning? To make me stop writing, to "shut me up?"

Of course it was intended to scare me, and to shut me up. Such behavior is consistent with my experience within the Church: for years I observed Scientologists, especially management, employing such tactics, creating a semi-hysterical "us versus them" tension to keep us (for then I was a Scientologist) in fear and in thrall.

And even though I was empathetic to Paloma's need to employ every available tool to make her illness go away, I was shocked: She is smart and kind, and a writer herself; was she really willing to subject a fellow writer, and a friend, to such a thing?

But why be shocked? Paloma has been a Scientologist for at least thirty years, weathering and justifying decades of attacks against Church practices. In Hubbard's nomenclature, she was being "unreasonable," which is, believe it or not, an accolade. When you are a devout Scientologist, no one is capable of "reasoning" you out of your firmly held beliefs (which are, of course, Hubbard's). Being called reasonable does not, to a Scientologist, mean "having sound judgment, being fair and sensible"; rather, it's the worst sort of pejorative: it means you are explaining things away, coming up with reasons you haven't managed to get something done, justifying behavior.[iv] Paloma, being a good Scientologist, was being unreasonable about the possibility that anything negative might be published about her church.
And this decision—to file a Knowledge Report, to send a copy (warning) to me—is an example of the mind control her Church exercises: teaching its practitioners, as they accept and embrace its commonsensical and useful ideas, to accept and embrace its authoritarian and outrageous ones. Scientologists willingly and of their own accord place those blinding mechanisms around their intelligences—so that they can continue to believe.

I know, because I was once so persuaded. With intention and purpose, I screwed those mechanisms into place, and in spite of ferocious doubts, kept them there a long time.
I slid the pages of the Knowledge Report back into its envelope and headed back up the driveway thinking of the many memoirs written by former Scientologists, filled with their dreadful stories, and of the nonfiction books and documentaries that substantiate these abuses. But for me, and in my book, beyond this incident—if you can call receiving a Knowledge Report an "incident"—there was no personal outrage or scandal to relate (except how and why I came to stay in a cult for seven years). I was never forced to sleep in a brig, or scrub a latrine with my toothbrush; I was never locked in a trailer playing musical chairs with my future attached to grabbing a seat. I lost dear friends when I finally left, but I didn't have to abandon cherished family, leap an electric fence on a motorcycle, execute a complicated escape plan, as others have had to do.[v]

Although, I did lose things. Those years, for instance.

Which is how I thought of it, for a very long time.

However. Scientologists, to learn a particular skill, drill that skill with a partner. If one does the drill incorrectly, the partner says, "Flunk." And, immediately, then, "Start." Harsh as "flunk" may sound, there's no intended animosity; it's just a way of communicating, "you're doing it wrong." The first few times I experienced it I'd been startled, shocked: it's horrid to be told you've failed, and flunk begins with that f-hiss and ends with that shocking "k." But once I got over the jolt of it, I came to see its efficacy: you just get on with doing the thing you didn't do correctly the first time.

Staying in Scientology as long as I did, I felt I'd "flunked" a huge chunk of my life. As I worked on the book, I realized that, somewhat to my surprise, that perspective was changing. Also, that I was finding a possible "start." Certainly in examining those lost years and what, in fact, I might have gained from them. Also in the hope that the book might bolster someone doubting her own involvement in the Church to find the courage to leave. Even, possibly, that it might offer a lens to those who felt they'd tossed a decade of their own into the dustbin—a drug problem, a destructive relationship—through which to see meaning and find purpose. Perhaps not in having made those choices in the first place, but in the life we have as a result. That is, having "flunked," there is the option to "start."

All this I thought about on that walk back from the mailbox. Then I settled in again at my desk, put the envelope in a drawer, and got back to work. I was, I realized somewhat grimly, writing a knowledge report of my own.

Table of Contents


Foreword: Knowledge Report

One: Nothing Better To Be

We need you to be a zealot


Enthusiastic devotion to a cause

If God exists, why is he such a bastard?

Training Routines

Dancing through life

This is so weird!

Saint Catherine's wheel

He is kind of a nut case

Nothing better to be

She went Clear last lifetime!

You do know C.S. Lewis was a Christian?

Imagine a plane

Age of Aquarius

Guilt is good

I'm me, I’m me, I’m me

Wills and things

Two: The future of this agonized planet,

the lives of every man, woman, and child…

You do know that guy’s a Scientologist?

Your brother’s had an accident

Please, please, don’t take his mind

That’s that Scientology stuff he does

Hope springs eternal

That’s Source!

How much electricity?

A comb, perhaps a cat

Flunk. Start.

You could take a look at Doubt

The Ethics Officer

Every sorrow in this world

The true sense of the word




What is true for you is true for you

He has simply moved on to his next level

Because, you know, you did just turn 36


Binding back

That spiritual stuff does matter

Three: After Such a Storm


It doesn't matter

Spit Happens

The loss of nameless things

Pilgrimage Season

Who never left her brother for dead

After such a storm




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