My Interview by Margo Macartney

Woman standing in fronto of bookcase
Margo as a Newcomer

It was my brother’s birthday in 1963 when I stepped cautiously into the old three-story Armory, located right on the beach in Santa Monica. Pacific Coast Highway ran above the beach, so you could look down and see the place from the highway. Dede Harvey, a Presbyterian minister whom I had met a few months earlier, convinced me to go into Synanon.

So before taking that huge step, I had parked along Pacific Coast Highway several times and just watched the activities. It didn’t seem intimidating. People walking around in jeans and tee-shirts and flip-flops, for the most part. They walked back and forth, going about whatever their business was. Pretty ordinary, it seemed to me. A beach community.

I had given notice to vacate my rented duplex in Los Angeles, and my parents agreed to take care of my beloved dog, Borrow. I had been burning the candle at both ends, working all day and sitting around jazz clubs all night. I had debts I couldn’t pay. I’d also given two weeks’ notice and left early on my last day.

Admitting failure at age 26, moving in with a bunch of losers, and having quite literally no idea of where I was headed pointed to a bleak future and was frightening. It was stepping off a cliff. I had never fit in anywhere and didn’t imagine I would fit in here.

But I really did not want to be an addict. I sat down on a bench in the lobby, just inside the door, and could hear a jazz band rehearsing somewhere in the building. That, and Bill Lane, a guy about my age, clean-cut and friendly, sitting at the front desk, was encouraging. I remember I was wearing a blue dress. There were no dresses I could see walking around, but that’s what I had on, having come straight from work.

Two women finally came and led me upstairs into an office, where they interviewed me. Arline and Carmen, both a few but not many years older. Both were well-groomed, clean, wore jeans and a blouse and flip flops on their feet. They looked happy. They were kind. I was tearful. Tears at that point, and for years before and afterward, were my initial defense. I shared my frustrations, my fear of everything, my fear of being an addict all my life, and my fear of change. I must have convinced them I needed help because they accepted me. I’m sure there were drugs in me, but I wasn’t obviously loaded.

I went back to my duplex, packed my things, and donated everything I had to Synanon — including my old 1950 Cadillac that got eight or nine miles per gallon, my thrift shop furniture, and extra clothes, my 100 Peso Gold piece, and my concertina. I couldn’t bring my dog, borrow, and my mother said Borrow could stay with them. I was only allowed to keep a few of my clothes, as space was limited.

5 replies »

  1. Margo,
    Somehow, Synanon has come back into my life. I guess its arrival started with a call from a documentarian who wanted my help and steered me to Cory’s wonderful website. And it’s still here in my consciousness because of a podcast (The Sunshine Place) my step son wanted me to hear.
    Reading and listening I often hear your voice.
    I am writing this note to thank you for your reflections. By and large, in the past, I have thought of my time at Synanon — and for me it was more an “at” than an “in” experience — mostly as a nearly deadly detour during which I managed to fight off Dederich’s attempts to manacle me to his ambitions and to find what I needed — a start on my career as a builder and a love affair with the wonderful woman I married and have been with now for half a century.
    However, listening to you (especially, though others too), I am conscious again of what was good and bold and exhilarating and special about the community (not the corporation).
    I am now thinking not so much that I made a wrong turn the day I stopped by to visit my old friend Steve Simon at Tomales Bay and decided to stay. I am feeling glad I was the kind of young man who was able to take that step, plunge in, and give that lunge toward something special a go. (I am probably not capable of such a move any longer, alas. Nothing gets a 10 on my credibility meter any longer. I see a world of pluses and minuses and pros and cons, evaluate before I move, and place my bets carefully.)
    None of that is to exculpate Dederich in any way. But never mind the details of his socio-pathology, or for that matter the cowardice and syncophancy of his board of acolytes. For it is also worth bearing in mind that many people built Synanon, not just Dederich by any means, and of those who did many were with sincerity trying to build a better world. It was not at all a bad thing to try to be part of that. Synanon was at its best, as your voice powerfully reminded me, an attempt to build a caring community.
    Ted Dibble summed it up as well as anyone: As I remember his words they were “The worst thing I ever did was to stay for too long. But the best thing I ever did was to go into Synanon.”

    all best to you Margo, David Gerstel

  2. It must have been a few days before or a few days after I entered in Westport CT. I did not get to the Armory until January, We became friends shortly thereafter and forever, to this day. We have shared so much. You, Dian, Betty, Nicki and I.

  3. Wonderfully written! I was there. You were what made Synanon work. Until it couldn’t. I love you, Hugh

  4. Now I know you a little better. Thank you Margo. I remember good times working with you in the school at the Ranch.

Leave a Reply