In 1986, after years of illness, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard died, leaving the church to his key deputy, David Miscavige. Under its new leader, Scientology changed its image dramatically: Hubbard’s absurd cravats and trademark leer gave way to Miscavige’s gleaming business suits and beaming professional smile. Former leaders were euphemistically “rehabilitated.” Small and secretive gatherings blossomed into celebrity engagements in Sheraton Hotel conference rooms. In a word, the church went corporate.
One thing that makes Scientology uniquely American is its amalgamation of corporate and authoritarian modes of social control. “[P]art of what made me get out had been observing that increasingly corporate mindset,” recounts the novelist Sands Hall in her intriguing new memoir, Flunk. Start. Reclaiming My Decade Lost in Scientology. “This is ironic, of course, considering the authoritarian mentality of the Church under Hubbard, but most of those years I managed to stay unaware.” How this combination attracts untold thousands of members—to what is, by most accounts, a cult—has received much attention in the decades since Scientology’s founding in the early 1950s.
Margaret Thaler Singer, an expert on the psychology of cults, believed that no one is impervious: “Any person who is in a vulnerable state, seeking companionship and a sense of meaning or in a period of transition or time of loss, is a good prospect for cult recruitment,” she wrote. Flunk. Start. concerns the way that one ordinary, wayward, middle-class kid found herself in just such a state. And with its keen attention to the language and tactics of the church, Hall’s memoir is unique among the assortment of Scientology reports and exposés, offering insight into the certainties that its subjects gain. Even more strikingly, though, her initiation serves as a symbolic social experience: It reminds us of the American bourgeois conviction, resurgent in our uncertain times, that we can purchase peace of mind—no matter the cost to companions, community, or open society.
The first section of Flunk. Start. moves, chapter by chapter, between the events that attracted Hall to the church and those that separated her from it. The form establishes the split consciousness that governs the rest of the book. Hall’s telling alternates between wisdom and cliché, between moments of avid awareness and banal bromide. When we meet her, in the early ’80s, she’s a “Course Supervisor” on Hubbard’s texts, albeit one with growing doubts about the church’s treatment of its members. “Flunk” and “Start,” we learn, are terms that the church uses to correct practitioners during training exercises: The instructor responds to an error with a dispassionate “Flunk,” while “Start” signals the student to begin again. These terms also come to represent Hall’s abortive search for a sense of purpose.