Janet (Holdaway Best) Dart is a retired IT professional living in Bend, Oregon, and is working on the memoir of her years in Synanon.
Game Player 1969 – 1971. Resident 1971 – 1977
I’m certain it was in the evening because I don’t remember eating dinner afterward. We were probably hanging out in the community living room, with the Wire broadcast in the background. It was February 1975 and I was five months pregnant, brunette hair halfway down my back, looking forward to a glamour pregnancy photo that many women had taken at about eight months pregnant. As I said, a happy time.
Back to the night. Someone who was paying attention to the Wire said that a senior resident had just shaved her head. She was a “Lifestyler” who constantly fought for women’s equality. She confessed in the “Stew” that she had sold a camera that belonged to Synanon. The Stew participants suggested she be put on a contract. Chuck jumped in the Game and said, why not shave your head? That’s what men do. Don’t you want equality? So, she did. Clippers appeared within minutes, and her friends in the Game shaved their heads in a sign of solidarity.
Like moths drawn to a light, we all went to the Stew to see this in person. Woman after woman started shaving her head as a statement of solidarity and equality, not unlike today when a friend gets cancer and loses her hair, her friends buzz-cut their hair as a show of support. We just took it to the max. The beam and camera incidents converged, and within hours every woman in Synanon had shaved her head. Including me. Within days almost all men and women were shorn. My husband was in San Francisco and wouldn’t see my new hairdo – or lack thereof for a few days.
At first, it was creepy, but then I got caught up in the momentum and lined up to have my head buzz cut. It felt liberating. It was exhilarating to be part of this, to be there right where it began. I don’t know if my exhilaration was one of equality or just succumbing to peer pressure, but I suspect the latter. There on the sidelines was my friend, beautiful blonde hair down to her waist, standing with her arms crossed, just watching, deadpan. She didn’t want to shave her head, but it was obvious within a few days that there really was no choice. Shave your head or leave. That’s what peer pressure will do to you. She finally shaved her head three days later when her husband realized bald heads weren’t going away; if they wanted to stay, her hair had to go. We thought it was just a moment, that our hair would grow back. Somehow it became another rule and symbol of Synanon. Two rules were now up to five: No drugs or alcohol, no violence, no smoking, aerobics, shaved heads.
The weekend after our head shaving, my mother had planned a family reunion in honor of my grandmother’s 75th birthday. There were all my brothers and sister, 14 cousins, aunts, and uncles, and me with a new bald head, well not quite bald, probably a quarter of an inch of hair. My mother insisted I wear a scarf, which I did for about one-half hour. Then I thought, deal with it. This is who I am. Imagine what they thought?
Embracing our new sense of freedom, at feminist icon’s urging, a large group of us women went to the steps of Sproul Hall at U.C. Berkeley, the site of peace marches and the women’s movement in my college days, trying to convince the young college students that shaving their heads would bring equality and a sense of freedom. No one stopped; I furtively watched for old high school friends, hoping no one I knew saw me. Perhaps our feeling of freedom was just our capitulation to the cult.
Funny how hard it was at first to identify people when all our heads were shaved. I hadn’t realized how much one’s hair was one’s identity. We didn’t all look the same; once you looked past the hair you saw the face, the eyes, the mouth, the ears, the facial expressions. For a while, some of us buzzed designs in our hair as a kind of decoration, but earrings and eye makeup worked better. And then you get used to it. You look in the mirror in the morning and it’s still you. It is simple not having to deal with your hair in the morning.
It was February; I was pregnant with a baby due in June. Shortly after the head shaving, I had to see an obstetrician at U.C. San Francisco, a 45-minute drive from Tomales over the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco was the only place I could walk around bald and pregnant without getting a second look.