Julie Christofferson was a devoted Scientologist. But one weekend, while she was visiting her parents, her distraught mother took the doorknobs off the doors, hired a deprogrammer, and didn’t let her daughter out of the house until Julie had been convinced that the Church of Scientology was a con. Christofferson sued the Church, claiming it had misrepresented L. Ron Hubbard’s credentials (that he was a graduate of Princeton, that he’d served in the Navy) and promised things it didn’t deliver (improve her eyesight, raise her intelligence). Above all, she sought restitution for the years she’d devoted to Scientology, which had, she said, derailed her life’s plans. In 1977, she won two million dollars. The Church demanded a retrial. In May of 1985, a Portland jury gave Christofferson-Titchbourne (in the intervening years she’d married) 39 million dollars.
The Scientology lawyers swore she’d never see a penny of it. The organization itself exhorted all Scientologists to immediately travel to Oregon, to protest this attack on religious freedom.
At the time, I was living in Los Angeles, immersed in Scientology. I studied at a place called Celebrity Center. Three years before, when I’d been introduced to Scientology, I might have been considered a bit of a celebrity, at least by Scientologists: seasons with the Oregon and Colorado Shakespeare Festivals and the Old Globe Theatre, a stint on a soap opera, an occasional “guest star” on popular sit coms. But that career had flagged: I spent a lot of time in Scientology course rooms studying concepts that would, I was convinced, improve my life.
In any case. A bus had been hired to take a load of LA Scientologists to Portland.
“Sweetheart,” my boyfriend Skye said. “We have to get on that bus.”
“I don’t want to,” I said, but I knew protest was futile. By then I was familiar with what Hubbard called “Tone 40” — a command that expects and receives total compliance — and I went to pack a bag.
The next morning, a bus belched diesel outside Celebrity Center, a lovely building that looked as if it been lifted from a gothic fairy tale and plonked down on Franklin Avenue. Once upon a time, I thought, as I walked down the filthy aisle to settle into a dilapidated seat next to a dirty window, I’d believed in fairy tales, and I’d believed in my own bright future. But these days, even as I persuaded myself that I was a happy Scientologist, I often felt like a princess that had been captured, locked away from the world.
As the bus headed north, I was surly, unresponsive to the cheer emanating from my fellow Scientologists, wondering if I, like Ms. Christoffersson, had “derailed my life’s plans.” My comrades were bursting with pride and excitement at the idea of marching for their religion. Chick Corea had cancelled a concert to be there! John Travolta was flying in! They began to sing songs from the civil rights movement: “Kumbaya,” “We Shall Overcome.” My heroes, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, had sung these songs, and I could not help but join in. “Someone’s prayin’, Lord,” I sang, thinking, though, that in Scientology there wasn’t much praying. “We shall live in peace,” I sang, wondering how I’d ever find peace with my deeply distressed parents, who were frantic over what I was doing with my life. “We shall not be moved,” we sang, my friends Kanga and Margie providing beautiful, soaring harmonies.
And then, halfway to Portland, the bus broke down. I was thrilled.
One of the things I noticed about Scientology, and then tried not to notice — a self-imposed mind control that both fascinates and horrifies me now — was that this happened a lot with Scientology’s equipment. This was in the 1980s, before Hubbard died and David Miscavige became head of the Church and began to lavish money on what he terms “Ideal Organizations”; ever since, anything physically related to Scientology has tended to be impressively new and shiny, thick and glossy, trumpeting its expense and thereby (at least implied) the church’s success. But even in those days, we all understood that the equipment did not fail because it was ancient or uncared for or put away improperly; no, that was never the reason. The reason was that a Suppressive Person was in the vicinity. The SP caused the malfunction, the missed connection, the breakdown.
It was quite possible that I was the Suppressive Person. Because unlike my friends, who were frustrated not to be in Portland, marching, I was delighted to spend hours sitting on a dirty linoleum floor waiting for a second chartered bus. People dozed on knapsacks or smoked outside. Leaning my back against a wall, I closed my eyes, marveling, as I did all those days, how I could be so confused. Hadn’t I always wanted to be involved in a “movement”? Here was this opportunity to march for something important. Wasn’t religious freedom as important as civil rights? Or peace? Isn’t the right to worship as we choose supposedly bedrock in this country? Shouldn’t I be proud to be involved in such an important cause?
But another voice spoke with snide authority: Really, Sands? Scientology is where you want to pour those energies?
I scrubbed my head with the fingers of both hands and gave a little groan. But a phrase I’d only recently heard started to run through my head: it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. I liked the message. With an effort akin to heaving a loose bra strap back into place, I focused on that idea. Throughout history, candles had been kept flickering in spite of astounding darknesses: the Inquisition, the Holocaust, the Communist crackdown in China. Then I wondered why I was pondering religious tyrannies, and pulled my mind away from that (I was always doing this) to gaze about the bleak bus station, and from there back inward to the bleakness I felt about my continued involvement in what, in spite of constant reassurances from those around me, I worried was, indeed, a cult. Some part of me wished my own mother would take the doorknobs off the doors and hire a deprogrammer, but although she hated — hated — that I was “snared” by Scientology, she would never do that. Ironically, she had too much respect for me.
Light a candle for freedom
The words arrived with music in my mind, forming like a fast-motion crystal.
Hold it up for all to see
In the last few years, songwriting, that beloved dance with lyric and music, had become increasingly rare. But this song tugged at me. I pulled my journal from my bag and scribbled the words as fast as they came.
Spark a flame around the world
To burn towards being free
Three years previously, my older brother had suffered a terrible fall that left him brain-damaged, unrecognizable as the charismatic mentor who’d been for me a vital force: he’d led the way into drama as a major; I’d followed him to New York City, where he and friends were creating a theatre company. But he’d almost died, and for me in many ways he had. Not understanding that I was grieving, I’d fled New York, convincing myself I was headed to Hollywood to expand my acting career. A chaotic year and a half later, after flinging myself into uncharacteristic activities like sleeping with married men and snorting cocaine, I plunged into marriage with a Scientologist. Only now is it clear to me that I married Jamie, at least in part, for the order Scientology appeared to offer, order that was balm to my churning, unhappy soul.
Light a candle, the tune developed in my head, light a candle. This would be the chorus.
To burn towards being free
Light a candle for freedom
To burn eternally
I’d first seen Jamie playing upright bass, brilliantly, in a jazz trio. New to jazz, I fell in love with the music as I fell in love with him. But he scoffed at my folky, Joni Mitchell-inspired songwriting. “Pretty,” he said. “But not interesting. Now jazz — jazz is music.” I began to find reason to crumple up my songwriting efforts and put them in the trash, where the pages would fill with the brown seepage of coffee grounds. A year after marrying Jamie, I’d divorced him, but not the Church; I met Skye, also a Scientologist, soon after. Even divorced from Jamie, his patronizing contempt hovered over my songwriting. Yet these lines appeared:
The truth is in each one of us
To show us how to go
A thought zipped by: show us how to go — where?
I would not actually process this for years: that the lyrics were not in support of a religious rally, or even of religious freedom. They were a protest against the Church, the control it seems to wield over so many lives, a control that makes one feel powerless, that makes one doubt one’s own intelligence, that forces one to convince oneself, again and again, that Scientology has the answers. This was true for me, then. It remains true for many, still.
Scientology is masterful at handling doubt: doubt means you have committed a transgression. (Doubt itself a transgression, which leads one around an endless Mobius strip of reasoning.) Once you face whatever you’ve done or said, or not done or not said — all of this “processed” with Scientology’s assistance — you have an epiphanic realization: You’ve been “bad!” That made you doubt Scientology. But now that you’ve cleared all that up, you’re “good,” and Scientology, just as Hubbard promises, is once again the way, the truth, the light.
Until the next bout of doubt arrives.
It’s exhausting. It’s impossible to comprehend, now, how I opted to live like that, perpetually off-kilter, so deeply unhappy, for so long.
There’s a reason it’s called a cult.
I got up and walked over to settle in next to Kanga. Holding the scribbled lyrics before us, I began to sing. She added a harmony. Margie, sitting on the other side, found a fifth. Their harmonies made it sound like a hymn. It was a hymn. To candles, to holding a light up in the darkness — even when we’re not sure which is the darkness and which the light.
Another bus eventually arrived, and off we went to join the Scientologists who’d flown and driven and hitchhiked and bused to Portland to protest the jury’s decision to hand Julie Christofferson Titchbourne those 39 million dollars. Even after we all headed home, we were not allowed to forget this attack on our religion: hammered on us through phone calls, home visits, and endless rallies, we were reminded that every resource of every Scientologist must be devoted to fighting for this cause.
Money, of course. Money, always.
Back in Los Angeles, I booked time in a studio, and Kanga and Margie and I recorded “Light a Candle.” I played the song for a Scientologist friend and singer, Gayle. Gayle was very much a celebrity, and she thought it would be perfect for one of these religious freedom rallies. Which is how, one night, I came to be in a backstage honeywagon listening to an impressive array of Scientology musicians performing to thousands who sat entranced by the spectacular nature of the event.
I was once again being treated like a celebrity. That was nice. My song — a song I had written! — would be, because of Gayle’s involvement, a focus of the event (Margie had been replaced by Gayle, “for the good of the cause”). And like my heroes, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, I was about to sing in support of… something important!
But I felt as if I had the flu. My face, reflected in one of the trailer’s mirrors, gleamed a pale green, like the interior of celery. A slime of sweat was everywhere: forehead, underarms, the backs of my knees. As I left the honeywagon and headed backstage to join Kanga and Gayle, the music stopped. Now, religious leaders from other Los Angeles churches — Catholic, Baptist, and was that a rabbi? — thanked Scientologists for the work they were doing for this vital cause. The talking went on and on, including, of course, a pitch for donations, but finally the stage manager led us up the back stairs. Our names were announced. Three mic stands seemed to materialize even as we crossed the stage. As we took our places around them, a roar from out front engulfed us. The lights were blinding. Gayle hummed a note. It would be the right one; she had perfect pitch. We took a breath.
Light a candle for freedom
What came out of my throat was not a series of notes. It was a bleat. For the rest of that verse and the chorus, my voice humped along, barely audible. Then came verse two. I was to sing the first line alone. It came out as a croak. Kanga and Gayle’s concern radiated off of them in almost visible waves, but what was there to do but forge on? Kanga floated in on the second line and riding the upper harmony, Gayle joined us: the truth is in each one of us… Their beautiful, full voices almost made up for the lack of mine.
We headed into the final verse, which was to be sung quietly, before we were to explode into the final lyric, with all the energy and power we could muster. But by this time I was pretty much mouthing the words. And while Kanga and Gayle’s voices could more than compensate for the absence of mine, without me, we lacked the melody. Worst was the final note of the song: during the ly of to burn eternally, I was to sustain a note around which Kanga and Gayle marched a series of Bach-like harmonies, until we hit the final triad and swelled into a long and triumphant finish. But that pedal tone, needed to anchor all that delicious, cathedral-evoking polyphony, was inaudible.
Nevertheless, the crowd went wild. We headed offstage, Gayle waving a loving hand.
They tried to tell me it really wasn’t that bad. But it was that bad. The song was performed at a few more rallies, but they got someone else to sing my part until that particular cause célèbre was replaced by some other infamy the Church could use to galvanize its supporters.
“I lost my voice!” I said, laughing, as I told the story a couple of times. Then what I was saying hit me: I had literally lost my voice.
And it stayed lost. It wavered whenever I tried to sing. I picked up my guitar less often. I wrote even fewer songs.
I wish I could say that all this led to a massive epiphany and I left Scientology behind. That would make such a tidy story. But I did not. I stayed and stayed.
In fact, until a few years ago, I didn’t remember any of this.
I did finally manage to leave Scientology. I was accepted into the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the distance from Los Angeles, as well as the Workshop’s fierce intellectual energy, forced me to confront the seven years I’d devoted to the Church. I suffered terrible insomnia; I’d steep three bags of Sleepytime tea, drinking the bitter brew right before bed, and plunge briefly into sleep before waking to ponder what would happen to the soul I’d come to believe was everlasting. It took three more years before I was certain the church would not find a way to pull me back. Pre-internet, and the information it provides, there was no way to find out that with the ascendency of David Miscavige — which, I realized only later, coincided with my own departure — thousands were abandoning Scientology. I did not know this. I felt massively alone. Deeply ashamed, I confided in almost no one. I carried my wonderful old Martin guitar with me wherever I went, and I moved many times in those years, but for sometimes a year at a time it stayed in its case.
Eventually I found my way to a small town in the Sierra. I joined a theater company. I taught writing. I sold a novel. My guitar began to stay out of its case. Now and again I scribbled lyrics. Friends encouraged my music. The songs began to come again. Only then did it occur to me that while I had managed to write the words to this particular song, I couldn’t sing them — not until I understood what I was saying, not until I could believe it. I could not sing about freedom when I was, myself, in thrall.
Julie Christofferson Titchbourne never got that 39 million dollars. But not due to Scientology’s efforts. A few weeks after the jury award, Judge Louden declared a mistrial, saying that Christofferson Titchbourne’s lawyer had erred: in his closing remarks, he’d called Scientology a “terrorist organization,” and thus, said the judge, had put the religion itself on trial rather than the actual issues at hand, which included misrepresentation and fraud.
To my mind — distressed though I was by that judge’s decision — I see it as a kind of candle: he looked beyond his own opinion and, even though it meant admitting a flaw in his original reasoning, he issued a judgment based on precedent and the Constitution. I can only imagine Mrs. Tichtbourne’s disappointment. And while I’m sorry she didn’t get at least some of that money, I do hope she managed to get her life back on the rails.
It took a while, after I left Scientology, to feel my own life was on the rails again. But eventually I recorded an album, which includes “Light a Candle,” digitized from the original tapes. That a capella hymn to freedom of thought leaps across the years to connect the person I was when I wrote it to the person I am now. Oddly, sadly, so much of what I chafed against while in Scientology are part of today’s world, as if Donald Trump had studied Hubbard’s doctrines. What’s branded as “fake news” now is called, in Scientology, “Black PR” — anything that criticizes is labeled not only wrong, but assigned nefarious intent — no matter if there are sources cited, or facts to back the claims. Never defend! Always attack! — something we see every day, especially on a particular Twitter feed — is an idea straight out of a Hubbard Policy Letter (December 26, 1966), as is the idea of diverting attention from what is actually going on by making a large noise about something else (August 15, 1960). Above all, as Scientology’s top management acquires property, and thereby influence, in every major city in the world, there’s the cynical certainty that money can buy anything — that Epstein’s money could purchase the silence of both the police and the courts, that American money can buy compliance, that Russian money can purchase elections.
But then there are people like investigative journalist Julie K. Brown, who used a lot of wattage to expose Epstein’s activity in a series in the Miami Herald. There are people like that judge in Portland. There are those who donated to a GoFundMe to provide toothbrushes, soap, and blankets to the incarcerated children of migrants; or there’s a friend’s daughter, who is in Greece volunteering at a refugee camp. Innumerable artists, over millennia, have held up lamps, from Euripides in The Trojan Women, to Picasso with “Guernica,” to Morrison in Beloved. “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” reads the epigraph on every issue of The Washington Post, and these days (indeed, as they always have) journalists are lighting the way through some pretty dense and gloomy forests, including the aforementioned Brown regarding Epstein, Ronan Farrow’s bombshell reporting regarding Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein, the steadfast reporters keeping us abreast of fast-breaking news regarding Ukraine and its connections to our politics, and — back to the matter at hand — Leah Remini, with her HBO series, Scientology and the Aftermath, and Tony Ortega, with his blog The Underground Bunker, calling out the egregious abuse the Church has inflicted on so many — just a few of those who light candles and keep them burning all over the world.
The paperback of Sands Hall’s memoir Reclaiming My Decade Lost in Scientology will be published by Counterpoint on November 19, 2019.
You can listen to the full-length Light a Candle here.