Yearning for Transcendence

Rachel Howard reviews Sands Hall’s memoir of her seduction by and escape from Scientology.

Yearning for Transcendence

Reclaiming My Decade Lost in Scientology by Sands Hall. Counterpoint. 416 pages.

TWO CULTS FEATURE in Sands Hall’s memoir Reclaiming My Decade Lost in Scientology, as the author jokes to an old friend in its early pages. There’s L. Ron Hubbard’s “religion,” of course, which ensnares Hall — via a charismatic Scientologist boyfriend — after she moves to Los Angeles in 1980 to pursue an acting career. And then there’s the Hall family, headed by best-selling, Pulitzer Prize–nominated novelist Oakley Hall, who founded the MFA program in fiction at the University of California, Irvine, co-founded the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, and presided over his children’s bohemian upbringing. This “cult” dazzles her with its nightly gatherings of intellectuals sharing art and making music, long before Scientology’s ideas gripped her. As a teenager returning from the family’s sojourn to Europe, she recounts,

I’d become aware that ours was an unusual family. […] My parents were extraordinary people and had an exceptional marriage. My brother was precocious, brilliant, destined to go far. I was, too, of course: I was a Hall!

I did not see this as a burden. It was a mantle, a crown.

Except, this superiority is a burden. Like any family, hers can be judgmental: underwear should be cotton, not synthetic; artists should drink wine, not beer; hair “should be worn long and not styled”; women’s bodies should be slender; all television should be spurned. As Hall grows through an awkward “chubby” phase and takes on a role in a soap opera, the awareness of family pride feeds a gnawing private insecurity. Yet the essence of Hall’s character is not weakness: from toddlerhood, she had been drawn to religion, rushing toward altars, while her parents dismissed all faith as “claptrap.” Scientology’s idea of the “thetan,” the essential spirit or soul, and its insistence that a person “is a spirit” who happens to have a body, spoke to a conviction Hall seems to have been born with.

Hall’s powerful evocation of this complex mix of pride and insecurity, combined with an inborn yearning for transcendence, makes the recent paperback reissue of her 2018 memoir most welcome. And Counterpoint Press has sensitively repackaged the contents. The hardcover edition’s cover featured the silhouette of a falling woman, feet bare and hands flailing, telegraphing helpless victimhood. The new paperback presents a series of doorlike rectangles — in graduating shades of red — that lead the eye toward a dark inner core, suggesting the allure Scientology must hold for a certain kind of relentlessly intellectual and ambitious person.

Hall clearly was and is such a person. She reveled in Scientology’s emphasis on clarifying terms and definitions, drilling initiates at the Church of Scientology center with the assiduousness of an A student. Though she spent seven years in the Church (and three years trying to escape), she never ascended into Advanced Org or Sea Org — volunteer orders composed of the cult’s most dedicated followers.

I was never forced to sleep in a brig or scrub a latrine with my toothbrush; I was never locked in a trailer. […] I didn’t have to abandon cherished family, leap an electric fence on a motorcycle, or execute a complicated escape plan, as others have had to do.

And yet, the David Miscavige–led group still tries — and in some ways, perhaps, succeeds — to exert control over Hall. The Church dubbed her parents “Suppressive Persons” and pressured her to cut all ties with them; the book opens with Hall, decades after she’s left the sect, receiving in the mail a “Knowledge Report” — essentially, another Scientologist’s rat sheet on her — which, she writes, “can curdle the blood.”

Still, to Hall’s credit, this is not a sensationalist account of a pseudoreligious business empire. What fascinated me most about her insider view was seeing how members are coerced into staying not by pleas for blind faith but by conditioning them into over-thinking. Any criticism of the Church, the organization teaches you once you are sufficiently inside, is a projection of the member’s own “overt” — defined as “that thing that you do that you do not wish done to you.” According to company doctrine, criticizing someone (including the Church) is a subconscious effort to shift the blame for some other transgression a member has committed.

Reclaiming My Decade in Scientology is written in such a sharply intelligent yet non-aggrieved voice that, even as a person who practices elements of Christianity and Buddhism (and as a reader with no prior interest in Scientology), I found its meticulous depiction of the indoctrination process fascinating. Just as fascinating, though, is the family story. Hall traces her acute susceptibility to Scientology back to the night when her brother, the gifted dramatist Oakley “Tad” Hall III, fell from a bridge, incurring brain injuries that never fully healed. It is also thought-provoking to watch her parents’ efforts to counter the Church’s pull; ironically, just as Hall is gathering the courage to leave, her father threatens to write her out of his will if she remains, sending her into a new maelstrom of indecision.

Then, too, there’s the way Hall ultimately gets out for good — by being accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The gentler cult of her family’s writing life finally triumphs. Or is that the story here? If we’re comfortable using the term “salvation,” we might find proof of it in an early scene where Hall — though she claims to believe in the truth of Scientology’s “tech” and wants to be a good “Course Supervisor” — simply cannot bring herself to induct a new initiate, a troubled young man who is literally trembling with psychological distress. Hall’s deep-seated insecurities may lead her into the Church, but it’s her innate compassion that begins to lead her out.


Rachel Howard’s first novel, The Risk of Us, was published in April 2019.

LARB Contributor

Rachel Howard is the author of a novel, The Risk of Us, and a memoir about her father’s unsolved murder, The Lost Night. She is also a dance critic and arts writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and Fjord Review. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, StoryQuarterly, ZYZZYVA, Gulf Coast, Berfrois, and elsewhere.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!