A recollection by Marcy Adler Wells – Synanon
At the urging of friends, one of whom was Elliott Roberts, I had joined the Sales Team, a fate from which Ron Cook quickly rescued me, and I might add he subsequently rescued the Sales Team FROM ME, as well. I had actually won a contest we had for the one most likely to succeed (I distinctly remember I won a pen). Everyone thought I would be amazing…I was amazingly horrible!
In the meantime, there we finally were, down in Santa Monica. The training was finally to the point where we were going out on the road to do the job. I remember going out on the jitney every morning, wondering with abject terror to what little spot of heaven I would be assigned for work. I do have wonderful memories of the beginnings of a friendship with many of the wonderful people with whom I trained — Wendy, Jocelyn, Lex, and some others whose faces I can see but whose names escape me — but the rest of it was a struggle.
I remember one evening hearing rumblings of something going on in Tomales, and some of the details I recall are probably not completely accurate, but it’s how I remember it, and how I’ve told it on the rare occasions I’ve shared anything about my life in Synanon. There had been an incident in Tomales. Someone had walked through the facility with Chuck that would eventually be called “The Beam” — the place where much of the food for the entire foundation would be prepared and subsequently shipped out to other facilities. For months, many of the people on the job were noticing a support beam that was way too low — a veritable head knocker — and anyone who saw it knew it was low but figured someone else had mentioned it. In fact, no one had. On that fateful day, Chuck walked through the job site to survey the progress of the project and saw the beam and flipped. His comment, as the story goes, was “whoever the asshole is that’s responsible for this should shave his head”. I’m not sure who the players were, but one by one, men started taking responsibility for the error and shaving their heads. It was pretty big, or so we thought….until that Game in Tomales.
Again, my memory is sketchy, but it’s my story, so I’m sticking to it. Someone had sold a camera…..not horrendous on the surface (although I know we were more in the habit of giving our things to each other than selling them), except for one problem — she hadn’t paid for the camera in the first place — it had originally been given to her. It wasn’t really hers to give — it belonged to the community. Now, I’m not sure if she volunteered to shave her head, or someone suggested it. I’m also not entirely sure no woman had ever had her head shaved prior to this, but that is part of the story, as well. Up until that point, the bald head had been used for two reasons, and only by men. To isolate a man from the community and force him to run his story when he’d done something detrimental to his growth or committed some “crime”, as defined by the community, or as part of a demonstration, an example being the story of Richie and Portie not being allowed to remain in Synanon. But a woman’s version of any of those two was to wear a stocking cap. Again, to my knowledge, that had always been the case, but I could be wrong about that.
And here we were, at the height of conversations in the real world AND in Synanon about women’s liberation. Critical to that conversation was the notion that along with equal rights we must consider equal responsibility.MARCY ADLER WELLS
And here we were, at the height of conversations in the real world AND in Synanon about women’s liberation. Critical to that conversation was the notion that along with equal rights we must consider equal responsibility.
It was this confluence of events that suddenly climaxed with the “stealer” of the camera shaving her head (was it Betsy Mumford?). And so she did…..and just as the men shaving their heads over the Beam went viral, so did this, and like always, we women don’t do anything half-assed….so by the time I walked into the old Del Mar Hotel that was our beloved Santa Monica House when Richie Alcock looked at me coming up the steps and said “boy, are you gonna look great with a bald head”, the shaving had already reached epic proportions all the way down at the opposite end of the State of California in our beloved Synanon Foundation.
I walked inside to a scene that defies description and I can see it in my mind’s eye as though it were yesterday. Suffice it to say I was NOT filled with joy. My hair was beyond important to me, vain little thing that I was, and I had just finished growing it in from a short haircut. In my mind, I probably thought “someone is back on drugs here”. But as the evening wore on, I started to realize there was no stop to this insanity and I freaked. Roger was working up in Tomales and I called him, but I was almost too hysterical for him to understand, and he got scared, so he put Fred — big daddy — on the phone to save the day and keep his little princess from flying out the door. I have repeated Fred’s words over and over again over the course of the 45 some odd years I’ve told the story. He took the phone from Roger and said, “this is that special magic you moved in for”. I repeat them now with a smile and a chuckle, but he was right. My dear friend Billy Travis was in Santa Monica at this time and I knew I wanted a friend to do this. We were sitting in the Dining Room along with many others and I remember two things very distinctly — holding my breath, and the exhilaration as I saw my beloved hair fall into my lap. In the end, it was the most liberating experience of my life.
Little did I know that 35 years later I would be diagnosed with breast cancer. I was faced with many difficult decisions and ultimately had a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. That experience in Synanon prepared me for this — not just the shaving, but not having hair, as well as the ability to put one foot in front of the other and get through the coming year with strength, humor, and dignity. I know many women who, faced with this same path, were more terrified over the loss of their hair than over this horrible disease and the treatment. I was blessed by my life and experience in Synanon which had prepared me for so many things, including this. After my second chemo when it became apparent I would soon begin shedding my hair, I invited my closest friends to my home, we celebrated life, while my wonderful husband Charlie, like Billy Travis all those many years before, shaved the hair off my head for the second time in my life. I had taken control, and the power that gave me is what helped me through the next year of treatment and decisions. I know Sampson got his power from his hair – I think I got my power from giving up my hair, and I experienced that feeling twice in my life. What a gift!
Above are photos from the day I shaved my head in anticipation of treatment for breast cancer, and then on the top, the photo taken of me by Mark Cozza, all those many years ago. I know I never felt more beautiful than I did the night we all shaved our heads.