Flunk cover

“Flunk. Start.” by Sands Hall, Counterpoint, 2018. 416 pages, $26.

I have to admit that this is one of the more oddly titled books I’ve read. When I would carry it around my family they would look at it and ask, “What on Earth is Flunk. Start.?” Don’t let the title turn you off. It makes sense fairly quickly and is poetically appropriate on a number of levels.

‘Flunk,’ as the subtitle mentions, is the true story of the years Sands Hall spent in the Church of Scientology while living in Los Angeles. Her path to the church wasn’t the most obvious.

She grew up as one of two children in a family that lived a wealthy, bohemian, and strictly secular lifestyle. While her father loved Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus he was less than enthused with the subject matter.

Sands was once reprimanded sharply for showing too much veneration at a Catholic Church in Mexico. Her father also let her know his displeasure with the fact that she had taken a liking to the Chronicles of Narnia books.

After some time in New York, Sands moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career that never took off. While there, she fell in love with a jazz bass player who introduced her to Scientology. From there she takes a tepid step and signs up for the first course that every Scientologist takes, Success Through Communication.

Thus begins a period of seven years that contains one husband, one divorce, and one live-in boyfriend. Both men are Scientologists who are much further up the church ladder than she is. She makes friends, infuriates her parents, loses contact with her brother, and slowly gets sucked into one of the strangest cults I’ve read about.

Here is probably a good time to give a quick overview of Scientology. Going in, I didn’t know much except that Tom Cruise is a member. Scientology is a bizarre mashup of cult, linguistics club, and corporate culture with an obsession for etymology and “upstats.”

Scientology has its own language. A sin is an “overt,” a soul is a “Thetan,” a non-Scientologist who disapproves of your faith is an SP or “Suppressive Person.” After going through the early phases of “Enemy,” “Confused,” and so on you “attest as Clear” and then move through OT (Operating Thetan) levels III-XII (though as far as I read only L.R. Hubbard was considered to be an OT XII.)

Scientologists believe in mind over matter. As an OT, your habits and attitudes shape the world around you. If you have a ski accident, you “pulled it in.” Tsunami hit your house? Pulled it in. Poor? Pulled it in.

Thus the church excuses its complete lack of charity. There are no scholarships. There is no giving, except to the church, because bad things are your fault.

The title echoes a common phrase found in Scientology classrooms. If you don’t adequately understand a pamphlet or word the instructor will simply say “flunk.” When it is time to begin the drill again they simply say “start.” Thus when doing exercises that require repetition to master, one will often be told “Flunk. Start.”

The story contained in this memoir is personal and well-written. You get a feel not only for Sands but for the characters around her, whether it’s her zealot and controlling first husband or her laid back, kind, but slightly ne’er-do-well boyfriend.

There is a constant tension between her and her parents, her father especially who is enraged by her commitment to the church. He views it as a personal insult that she would abandon her potential and sell her soul to the Evil Empire, as he calls it.

The beginning of the book alternates between the middle to end of her years as a Scientologist and her childhood. Somewhere in the middle it coalesces into a single continuous narrative, I believe about the time she first becomes a Scientologist. The structure works well and I had little trouble telling which piece of her story belonged where.

The very end of the book deals with her life post-Scientology and her criticisms of the church. It was eye-opening to see how long it took for her to confess to her new acquaintances about her past (she likens it to confessing a murder.)

As a whole, I really enjoyed this book. It’s a strange tale of conflict and spiritual desire told on the level of a single person’s point of view. It can be funny, poignant, and painful. I don’t have any complaints about it.

Aaron Pauls is a service technician for McKinzie Pest Control.

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