Sands Hall says she had no agenda when she decided to write a memoir about the decade she spent entwined with the Church of Scientology.
The Franklin & Marshall College professor says she had no desire to bash the controversial organization, which has faced a barrage of criticism from former members in recent years.
Rather, Hall hoped her book, “Flunk. Start.: Reclaiming My Decade Lost in Scientology,” would help readers understand why someone like her would become a scientologist.
“It’s not a damning book,” Hall says. “It’s not an effort to besmirch the church or say it’s nothing but bad. What I wanted to do is take the reader with me into why an intelligent person from a very nice, loving family would find their way to and stay so long in what is essentially a cult.”
Hall, 65, who says she was a member of the church from 1982 to 1989 and then spent the next three years wondering if she should stay out or go back, will talk about her journey Tuesday night at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg. Also, she will give a craft talk on writing Thursday afternoon at the Philadelphia Alumni Writers House on the F&M campus.
Hall, who is in her 10th year at F&M, splits her time between Lancaster and California, where she grew up. She has enjoyed a varied career that weighs heavily on the creative side of things.
She earned two Master of Fine Arts degrees from the University of Iowa, one in theater arts and the other in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her professional career has included successful stints as an actor, musician and writer (Hall’s 2000 novel “Catching Heaven” was a 2001 Willa Award finalist for best contemporary fiction).
When she broke from the Church of Scientology, Hall says it was moving to Iowa that gave her the physical and emotional distance to completely break free of its pull.
Didn’t talk about it
For a long time, Hall says, she never spoke of her years as a scientologist.
“I was just so embarrassed,” she says. “I was so mortified that I had made, as I say, such an error during a really vital decade — the decade when you usually find the person you’re going to spend your life with, when you perhaps first begin to have children, and when you really establish your career.
“And I did none of those things. I was busy with the church.”
Like a lot of members of her generation, Hall says, she was searching for some kind of spiritual guidance that would give meaning to her life. The book, which was published just last month, also tells the story of her brother, who suffered a devastating brain injury in the late 1970s.
“If there were buried memories, it was around that,” she says of the injury to her brother, who died in 2011. “And definitely there were. It was traumatic in a way I did not understand at all at the time. Writing the book allowed me to examine how much I completely buried how much that affected me. I had no idea.”
Making sense of things
Hall says scientology, which was founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s, offered her a way to make sense of the senseless tragedies that seemed to be dogging her life.
“The existential horrors when life delivers these blows was answered by the tremendous orderliness that ... scientology handed me, and I was grateful for that order,” she says. “The world makes sense; there’s formulas for things like happiness and communication. It was tremendously satisfying.”
She describes her early years in the church as “funky and sweet and pleasant,” but even early on she says she was bothered by the sense that something was being hidden from her.
Hall says things changed dramatically when Hubbard died and David Miscavige took over as leader of the Church of Scientology.
“I realized it was within a year of that that I finally left,” she says. “The shift was so profound and so palpable that I had to leave.”
Writing the book
Hall says she worked on the book for about five years (for a long time, its working title was “Pilgrimage”) and has eight or nine drafts of it stored in her computer.
She has not heard from anybody who is currently a member of the Church of Scientology, but expects that she will at some point.
She has, however, heard from ex-scientologists, some of whom have remarked on the “fairness” of the book. She says she heard from one reader who remarked that she didn’t want to keep reading it because Hall made scientology sound so interesting.
“Mostly,” Hall says, “we just read about the excesses and all the bad things and the icky things that they do, and how awful it is. But what is it that gets people there in the first place? What is so intriguing about it? And why might people stay?”