By Michael Young
Sands Hall has worn many hats: novelist, songwriter, playwright, musician, director, actor, teacher and now, memoirist. But what she really wants to do is tour with Beaucoup Chapeaux, the Nevada City-based European-flavored Jazz combo fronted by her dear friends Maggie McKaig and Luke Wilson.
“That’s my dream,” says Hall, whose memoir, “Flunk. Start.” has hit the streets to plaudits and warm reviews. The beautifully crafted and starkly revealing tome chronicles her life, centering on her long struggle to separate, both physically and spiritually, from The Church of Scientology.
Sitting at the kitchen table in her cozy Nevada City home with two cats roaming the premises, she talks with raw honesty about her life, growing up with highly successful parents who set high expectations for their four children, the tragic life of her dynamic older brother who was seriously injured in a fall, her relationship with the highly controversial Church of Scientology and with the men in her life.
“I’m a pilgrim. I’m a searcher. A lot of people are but they hide it. Many of us are curious about whether something orders the universe. Is there karma? Do ethics matter?”
But few of us have lived a life as exotic as Halls. She is the daughter of Oakley Hall, the famous novelist who wrote, among others, “Warlock “and “Downhill Racers,” the first of which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and both of which were made into movies. Oakley and his wife toured the world with their children, living in a number of locations.
They set very strict codes not only of behavior, but what their children should find important, what an “Oakley” should deem acceptable. “Wine, not beer; Pete Seeger, not stage musicals.
“It was an extraordinary family to grow up in. There were a lot of expectations to be remarkable,” she said.
She was well along to a career in the arts when her older brother, Oakley III, fell from a bridge and survived, but suffered severe brain damage. The trauma of it all sent Hall searching for answers, which led her to investigate Scientology.
She was attracted to its common-sense approach to facing flaws, especially as laid out in L. Ron Hubbard’s 1950 bestseller, “Dianetics,” Scientology’s predecessor, which emphasized finding the past incident that is the root cause of a current problem.
“In the fifties, those ideas seemed a bit outrageous,” she says. “But these days, they appear to be quite unremarkable in schools of psychotherapy.”
In fact, “Flunk. Start.” are words that Scientologists use when they are drilling or practicing aspects of the religion. If they do the drill incorrectly, they are “flunked.” Then they start again.
“It’s a great lesson. It’s similar to the idea of getting back on the horse,” she said.
She also was attracted to the use of language to probe deeper into why we do the things we do. She loved to study and learn the etymology of where words come from.
“Words were something I plucked from the Scientology tree. Some hated all that work of looking up words, but it fed into something in me, ironically,” she said.
But she had a long list of concerns about the church’s tactics to get members to give money, to stay in, to reject family members who speak badly of the church, and the damage it does to relationships, including her own, when one wants to leave Scientology and the other wants to stay. She also disliked having one powerful leader who controls everything.
Now that she’s broken from Scientology and written a memoir about her experiences, she says that while she’s “concerned about recrimination, the book is very fair. It’s my experience. I hope the reader will come along with me for this journey.”
Hall, whose given name, Sands, comes from her paternal grandmother’s maiden name, rewrote the book many times. Early drafts had much more focus on her brother, for instance.
“I love the craft of writing,” she said. “I know that one of the downsides (of a memoir) is that reviewers can take pot shots at the author personally but hope that if I am as open and frank as I can be, the reader will trust me.”
For now, she is working on another writing project, although she is loath to say what it will be except probably a novel. She just returned from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, where she is an associate teaching professor.
She will be performing musically May 9 in the Nevada Theatre as part of composer Jerry Grant’s “View From the Mountain” CD release concert, and on May 27 she will direct a staged reading of her play “Fair Use,” which explores the controversy surrounding Wallace Stegner’s use of the life and writing of 19th century writer/illustrator Mary Hallock Foote, who, with her husband Arthur, lived at the North Star House in Grass Valley.
And then there’s always that tour with Maggie and Luke.
About the photo:
“I’m a pilgrim. I’m a searcher.
A lot of people are, but they hide it.”
Photo by Michael Young