Judy Muller: Thoughts about the School & Orphans from Vietnam

By Judy Muller 3-29-21   

woman holding dog
Judy & Lucy

I have recently heard some young adults refer to the Synanon School as an orphanage. For some reason, this term hits me like a punch in the gut. I well know, forty years after my departure from Synanon, and many, many hours of thought and deliberation about my time in Synanon, that the School was not perfect. From my perspective, we should have had the parents more involved in their children’s lives. Many of the young adults did indeed feel abandoned by their parents. Many of the parents felt and unfortunately still feel) that they abandoned their kids. The kids in the school were loved (certainly by me). I continue to have a significant group of younger people that are part of my life, wherein a mutual love and affection exists to this day, based on the relationships when they were children.

The kids were fed well, always had new clothes and shoes (that they could pick out themselves), and lots of hugs and kisses and laughs from the adults charged with their care. If you were not inclined to a caring person with the kids, you just would not be fit to work in the school. We could have done better. Like many things in Synanon, we did what we were told, even developing an entire philosophy to support what we were doing. I truly felt that I was helping to change the way that children grew up. I believed we were nurturing kids who would become both self-reliant and reliant on their peers instead of being raised by only one or two adults.

One of the qualities that I liked about our community (before the drinking and the violence) was that we were genuinely concerned about how the outside community viewed us. We volunteered for various causes in the larger community to let folks know who were out in the world; that this bunch of rehabilitated drug addicts, as well as the folks who chose to live in our community, were not just concerned about ourselves, but also concerned about things going on in the world and ready to lend a hand where needed.

In 1975, I was in a management position in the school and asked to head up a group of folks from Synanon to travel to San Francisco to assist with a large group of Vietnamese orphans immigrating to the United States with the hope of finding permanent adoptive families. The group was comprised of school folks and non-school volunteers from our community. The underlying truth was that we Americans had probably eradicated their families during the war. The children, ranging in age from 8 months to 5 years, had lived in orphanages all their lives. They spoke only Vietnamese, and as you could imagine, they were frightened. In addition to the Synanon crew, there were other volunteers, including nurses administering required vaccinations before the children were allowed to enter this country.

Dr. Alex Stalcup, who had witnessed their arrival in San Francisco, described it as “the most incredible scene of deprivation and illness I’ve ever seen.”

The New York Times

Warren Katz was one of the volunteers. Anyone who knew or knows Warren knows he is a good guy. Always willing to help. He volunteered for most things. As we were getting ready to receive the children, Warren said to me “What are we supposed to do with these kids, Judy? They don’t speak English and none of us speak Vietnamese?” I said “Warren, there is a universal language that all children understand, whether you speak the same language or not. They understand a smile, they will understand being given something to eat, and we all understand a hug. So, start there, and I think we will all be fine. If you want to talk to them and tell them your name, that is fine too.” I was told that all the children, regardless of age, would be diapered so I told our crew that the children would most likely need to have their diapers changed. Each child, holding tight to a blanket, entered the facility in the arms of a Vietnamese worker who had traveled with them to the U.S.  and placed in an oversized crib. I am only assuming that this is what they had been living & sleeping in Vietnam. There were stacks of diapers alongside trash cans, next to sinks and we began to clean those skinny little tushes as best we could. Everyone naturally followed my instructions, although probably none needed to be given. Our crew were holding the kids, asking the Vietnamese helpers when we could get some food for them. Some brilliant person on our crew figured out if they made the gesture that looks like putting food in your mouth and chewing, the message just might get across, and it did.

Less than five minutes later bowls of food arrived. For the most part, these hungry kids needed to be hand fed, many asking in their own way for more, which we gladly requested on their behalf. Once they were sated (which did not take much) the children started to relax a bit. So far so good, they may have thought. I got cleaned up, I got food, TWICE, and all the people are smiling at me!

I looked over at Warren. He had two kids, one in each arm and there were three big smiles coming from that group. There were very few kids who remained in their cribs, most had decided to cling on tightly to whatever member of our Synanon crew was caring for them. We were told that there were a few kids that were ill, so if they didn’t want to be held it was okay to leave them be.

I found this day, the way our team responded to these orphaned children, and the time we spent with them to be most inspiring. On the most basic level, it was just people who had needed help, enjoying helping other people. Little people, who wanted little and gave much back.

It had been an exceptionally long day; however, no one was suffering the usual fatigue following a community-wide pole barn clean-up. As our crew was getting to head home, many asked what would become of the kids they had spent the day with. Is there a family waiting for him or her? Some couples came to pick up their new family member, and the folks coordinating the effort said that almost all the children were accounted for. I sure hope they all found loving homes.

What a great day for the Synanon crew and the kids for which we cared. We all found a universal way to communicate with our foreign friends for the day. We were certainly better for having shared the experience.

Judy Muller was born in 1953 in Queens, N.Y. She entered Synanon in 1971 through the New York house, having used barbiturates and LSD for a few years, transferring to the Santa Monica house after 3 days. Within two weeks she rotated to the Oakland House, along with over 100 newcomers. After less than a year on the housekeeping crew, Judy joined the Oakland school, working in Commons, serving meals, and cleaning. She continued to work in the school for the next 8 years, rising to management positions, dispensing love, and care to the children. She also spent an unhappy two years as a member of the Sales Team, ending in Lake Havasu. She left Synanon in April of 1981 at four in the morning with 4 cardboard boxes of her possessions and $400. Judy now lives in Los Angeles; in a home, she owns and shares with her wife of 37 years and their three dogs. She is retired from a long and prosperous career in customer service management. She is currently working on a memoir.

Judy’s Brief Bio

2 replies »

  1. Judy thank you for this powerful story. The love you gave our kids and that you spread around the universe is treasured❤️

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