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The Greenwoods of San Francisco are falling apart.

Sister Wendy is a foul-mouthed addict desperate to score a fix. Joe is a traditional dad and respected doctor who isn’t dealing well since his wife’s death. He’s haunted by the Holocaust and remains disconnected from his faith.

And then there’s “A Break in the Fog’s” main protagonist, family do-gooder and acquiescer Clara, a creative entity whose passion for dance is considered by others in her dysfunctional family as a mere pastime. She’s always there to help pick up the jagged pieces.

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Santa Cruz author Molly Salans fictionalizes her past experiences in a cult in “A Break in the Fog.” (Photo courtesy Molly Salans)

In Santa Cruz author Molly Salans’ self-published novel, this ’70s era family in crisis confronts what both spiritually and emotionally ails them, a reckoning that comes to the fore when vulnerable 24-year-old Clara gets drawn into the stranglehold of the Bay Area cult, the Ancient School of Ideas. It’s led by a charismatic couple, hunky Damien and striking Melissa.

The idea for this gripping fictional debut from Salans, a marriage and family counselor and social worker, germinated from her own experiences in a cult for seven years. She broke free in 1985.

“A Break in the Fog” is effective at reflecting what being in a cult is like. Salans previously published “Storytelling With Children in Crisis,” based on her social work and counseling experiences.

We emailed Salans questions about what led her to write the novel, how she juggles her writing time with her other career and why she chose to go the self-publishing route.

You can purchase “A Break in the Fog” via Amazon. 

Your story covers issues about overcoming trauma in one’s life, and does it not only vividly but with compassion. What led you to want to write about the Greenwood family?

Molly Salans: I grew up in San Francisco during the ’60s and ’70s. It was a wild time to come of age — Vietnam War, Black Panthers, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll. Plus, my family was pretty crazy. Like so many kids, I was depressed. Complicating my life was the fact that my mother’s parents had denied their Judaism, so my mother had had no idea that she was Jewish, while my father was Jewish.

Reading “A Break in the Fog” immerses the reader into how easy it is for someone who is vulnerable to get sucked into a cult and feel trapped there. Did you model the Ancient School of Ideas on a particular Bay Area cult?

Salans: Yes. The Ancient School of Ideas is loosely based on the cult I was in for seven years. As the story suggests it was exploitative and abusive, and I had to break out somehow.

At this time, I won’t name the cult, as there are active members who enjoy litigation.

What attracted you to set the story in the mid-’70s and later in San Francisco?

Salans: I grew up in San Francisco during this time. Cults were rampant, and it was a period in history I’d lived through and experienced.

The Greenwood family is coming undone in your novel with a father plagued by the specter of Hitler and the Holocaust, a daughter addicted to drugs and the primary narrator — Clara — wanting to pursue dance but being pulled to do something she doesn’t want to. Do you see the Greenwoods being representative of families during that time period?

Salans: The household I grew up in was largely free of restrictions on the children, while some of my friends grew up in households much more strict. However, my mother, like so many stay-at-home moms at the time, felt deeply limited to her role of wife and mother. Breaking out of that was not easy. She pursued her own education in music and art with my father’s continuous disapproval. All of these things clearly influence my story, but as your question suggests, ours was not the only family being pulled in different directions.

Who was the easiest character in your book to create? Which one was the most challenging?

Salans: Wendy was the easiest character. She was so free and unrestricted, very different from Clara and Joe.

She surprised me with her sense of humor, strength and honesty. I knew I wanted to have a character who could freely explore spirituality, but I didn’t expect her to be so funny and swear so much. Nor did I expect her to become a family therapist.

To me, she was the family glue.

Joe was the hardest character to develop. Getting into his mind and heart took many years. My own father was nothing like him. Because Joe was a Nazi survivor from Poland, I took a trip there to get a feel for Krakow and Auschwitz.

This helped me understand why Joe was so reserved and traditional. The more I wrote about him, the more I understood. I’m very proud of his character!

Faith plays a role in your book. Do you think people have become disconnected to the healing power of faith?

Salans: No. Despite the huge divide this country is experiencing, there is also deep re-evaluation going on here and in other parts of the world, a re-evaluation that includes a spiritual component — however you want to define it. There’s a reason why spiritual leaders such as Tara Brach, Krishna Das, Sadhguru and Dr. Joe Dispenza are so popular.

Molly Salans visits Twin Lakes Beach in Santa Cruz on July 24, 2021. (Photo courtesy Karen T. Borchers)

There’s been a growing interest among so many in the meditations these teachers have been offering. At the basis of these ancient teachings are: (1)  the concept of kindness and compassion and (2) that every challenge and obstacle can be seen as an opportunity for inner growth and change for the highest good.

Lately, in Basel, Switzerland, Dr. Joe gave a “Progressive Workshop” in which 7,000 people attended! And they were from around the world!

I do believe that there are millions of people worldwide who are changing their lives in a deep, comprehensive and compassionate way. Faith is growing expeditiously from our hearts and souls — and it’s a source of hope amid all the negatives we experience.

What do you hope people take away from the Greenwood family’s experience and their road to recovery?

Salans: I hope that the readers who have experienced addictions, or have loved ones who have, will take heart from “A Break in the Fog.”

I hope that they see their struggles within the characters and realize that secrets are the host for such things to grow in silence. In that case, perhaps they’ll be able to reach out for help and begin to change.

As intense as this story is, I think it is in the end, profoundly, a book of hope.

Have you heard from readers who were members of a cult or are recovering from addiction? What are their reactions to “A Break in the Fog”?

Salans: Yes. Both. One reader, who had family members in the Jim Jones disaster, almost couldn’t finish it. She told me she’d called her sister crying. Her sister advised this reader not to finish the book. But she did. She reached out to me, and we had a long talk about our cult experiences.

Another reader, whose father did survive the Holocaust, told me that Joe very much reminded of her own father. She found the story both compelling and upsetting, and stated that she wished her father were still alive so that she could talk with him in more depth about his experiences. He had been tight-lipped except during the Jewish holiday celebrations, where he came alive as he recited the prayers at the dinner table. She found out about his past by overhearing a conversation he had had with her mother. Like Joe, he’d try to keep his experiences to himself.

And yet another reader told me it took her months to finish the novel because Clara and her family reminded her so much of herself and her own family. She was triggered by the mother’s addiction, and the restrictions Joe had put on Clara, and Clara’s response to those.

I understand that this novel is intense. The responses have been humbling.

Are you currently working on another book?

Salans: I previously wrote and published “Storytelling With Children in Crisis.”

“A Break in the Fog” took 13 years to create. It is time to push it out into the world, and it’s not time to write another.

I do have ideas for a second novel; I just haven’t started working on it.

Since you have a full-time job being a therapist, how were you able to write “A Break in the Fog” while working? 

Salans: I was living in Massachusetts while writing this, and I was actually grateful for the steaming hot summers and freezing winters because they sent me inside. My daughter had left home, which gave me more space to embark on this journey. I spent weekends working on it, and at night, I took writing classes. All of which left time for my day job!

Could you talk about the evocative front cover art and how that came about?

Salans: My wonderful and talented sister, Cindy Salans Rosenheim, is a professional illustrator.

When I asked her to draw the illustration for “A Break in the Fog,” she said she’d need to read it first.

To my delight, she told me it was a page-turner from start to finish. Inspired, she went to work on the drawing.

When she sent it to me, it took my breath away!

I know I’ve thanked her, but my gratitude is so huge I don’t think I can ever express it fully.

Did you always want to self-publish “A Break in the Fog.” What did you appreciate about taking that route?

Salans: The publishing industry has dried up. There isn’t much room for new authors who depart from [a] proven formula. While initially I didn’t want to self-publish, I was grateful for the choice.  Self-publishing no longer has the stigma it did years ago, and best of all, I own the rights to my book.