My name is Jennifer Wilson. I lived in Synanon from 1970 until 1988. I was 11 when we moved in and was in the school until 1975. Then I worked in various jobs: school demonstrator, law office paralegal, sales on Adgap, and sales in Second Market. Due to the work ethic and training, I learned at Synanon when I left I was able to get good jobs and support myself. My first two jobs were law firms, one in Century City and another in San Francisco. After about a year and a half in California, I decided to break all ties with Synanon and California and travel the world. I traveled to parts of Europe, Nepal, and India and finally returned to the states and settled in Boston, Massachusetts. While in Boston, I worked at both Harvard and MIT and worked toward getting my bachelor’s degree at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. It was a great place to be getting a degree in my 30’s since most of the students were older and commuting from various jobs. While at UMass I took many courses in photography and art (although my degree was in English) and I was able to do a lot of photography in addition to my day job. I got my BA in 1996 and went to work at Harvard Medical School mostly in the Department of Neurobiology. I took photographs for the team in my department, at my church, and even was enlisted by a friend in publishing to produce photographs for a book “Praying with our Hands” (SkyLight Paths Press, 2000). In 2005, I decided that I wanted to adopt a child and start a family. A little over a year later a good friend of mine and I traveled to Ethiopia to bring home my daughter Sarah. She was less than six months old when I brought her home. We moved to Pasadena, California in 2019 and we live here still. Life, although challenging at many times, has been very good to us.
This blog post is composed of memories of my life in Synanon. My family moved into Synanon when I was 11 years old. So, you ask, what was Synanon? Those old enough to have heard of Synanon in the news often conjure up images of bald heads, rattlesnakes in mailboxes, and cult-like obedience to a charismatic leader. For those of us who grew up there, it was home, with all the complications and contradictions that home represents. I loved it and hated it. I’m not good at narrative writing, so disjointed moments are the best I can do. Some of the memories are quite funny, and many are painful. This is a place that is for the benefit of those of us who grew up there during various phases of our lives.
Is Synanon Over Now? Pails, Privacy, and Potential Rapists
In the mid to late 1980s, Synanon entered what could be called the last of the troubles. The troubles from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s were in the past (except the lawsuits), and people had settled in after the constant disruption from years of a militarized and armed existence. In the late 1980s, the Founder was relieved of the constraints of his probation, and the shit hit the fan. My memories of the specific order of events might be confused, but that is not as important as the atmosphere that prevailed.
I planned the outing with great attention to detail. I “rented” a van, hired a driver and a bodyguard (the obligatory male since we girls were considered fair prey on the country roads). But this was an outing for the girls. It was not very often that we would get into the city (Fresno) for an evening outing. We would leave late afternoon when most had finished work. About 10 girls piled into the van for an evening of fun. We went shopping, then out to dinner (probably TGIFs), and then to a movie. It was a nice evening. Laughter, food and drink, and a good movie. We got home around 2 in the morning, safe and sound, and went to bed. As I got close to my house, I could tell something was off. There was something about the quality of the light and the dead silence that seemed unusual even for that time of night. However, I went to bed and was almost asleep when I heard a knock on the door. I was not surprised. It was one of my housemates coming to inform me of a general meeting that had been called that night. Apparently, someone had “moved” the founder’s glasses, and he decided that whoever had the balls to do that was a potential rapist. Let that sink in for a moment. Although a young woman told a group who had gathered at the Home Place that she saw the Founder move his glasses, the ball was rolling and could not be stopped.
I entered the main building where hundreds of residents of the Strip property had gathered. One young woman was talking about the time she was raped. Then another rose and told her story. And then another, and another, and another. We were all expected to openly talk about times we were either raped or had put ourselves at risk for being raped. Strangely, my own experience with a real rape never came to my mind. I was confronted by others for the fact that I arranged a trip to the city that didn’t end until after midnight. Even though we’d brought a young, trusted Synanon guy with us, we (in particular I) had put ourselves at risk for being raped. I was supposed to “confess” and make a statement of contrition for this crime, and I did as I was expected. Let that sink in. We were escorted, we had a driver, we were never left alone to be taken advantage of, and yet we were guilty.
The next few weeks were a litany of craziness. The pails (about 10 inches high, probably the same diameter, and had lids) seem in my mind the beginning of some strange and surreal commandments we were expected to follow. We were expected to carry them everywhere and keep them filled with water to drink. This made a certain amount of sense considering where we lived. The lower Sierra were hot and dry, and we could easily become dehydrated. Everyone had one and some decorated them quite creatively. And we carried them everywhere.
The second commandment was not quite as rational. The Founder was sitting holding court at his table around his swimming pool. There were a few other tables scattered around the pool where people were drinking and chatting and having a good time. I suppose an exaggerated paranoia prompted what followed: The Founder decided that he had to be able to hear what people were talking about from across the room. Thus, the commandment: Everyone had to speak loudly enough at their table so that all the other tables of people could hear them. No secrets, no private conversations allowed. The cacophony that would ensue was not a consideration. At the Strip, we were told to expect a couple members of the Executive Committee to come and make an important announcement. We all gathered at various tables expecting something serious. But the “important announcement” was “The new policy is that all conversations must be loud enough for everyone in the room [which was quite large] to hear you!” I was sitting at a table with an older gentleman, who was a fanatic and rather bombastic as it was. He was thrilled and started yelling for all to hear. I sat in mute disbelief. I decided the best course of action was to stop talking in public. Let that sink in.
How long the second commandment lasted is lost in the dustbin of my mind. However, the end of the first one is emblazoned in my mind.
Is Synanon Over Now? Part Two
Parties at the Home Place were highly coveted affairs. We would wait for an invitation for a Saturday evening party with excitement. When the invitation failed to appear, we resigned ourselves to a less coveted but in reality much more fun party. It just lacked the status that some of us were desperate for (I count myself as one of the guilty). Drinks would flow, often with a particular drink being highlighted. Boilermakers? Manhattan ice tea? What’s your pleasure? And no worries about drunkenness — the Sober Squad was at your beck and call for a ride home. We all had our turns working Sober Squad, and the fun was watching everyone else.
My boyfriend and I were invited to a Home Place party right in the middle of the troubles. It was a party/dance lesson. We were all going to learn the Two-Step from a resident expert. Those of us who lived at the Strip got dressed up in our best cowboy duds and piled into the jitneys that took us to the Home Place. We arrived, and my boyfriend and I were hustled over to the Founder’s table. This was usually an honor, but I felt a sense of dread. Things were not going well, and I had no illusion they were suddenly going to get better during the party. We got our drinks and our dinner and enjoyed our meal.
When most of us had finished our dinner, the Founder commanded that the floor be cleared for our dance lesson. In the middle of the floor was a table that was circular and 20 feet across. It was quite heavy. About 10 strong guys went up to the table to move it. What an innocent event. What common sense. Who knew that this night was one that some of us would never forget. As the men were getting ready to pick the table up, the Founder stood up and yelled at all of them. “That table can be moved by two strong men!” They all stepped back, and two went to try to lift it by themselves. They could not. “Get two stronger men!” And so on. The table would not budge. Finally, the Founder’s son walked right up to him and yelled, “It cannot be lifted by only two men.” Suddenly there was a standoff. They both stood their ground. The Founder finally relented but would not let the table be moved at all. There would be no dancing that night.
We all sat down again, and it was obvious that quite a lot of drinking had happened and that included the Founder. He announced to the table that he had never been drunk in his life. A woman sitting to my left agreed that he had never been drunk! I sat in utter shock and disbelief. The Founder suddenly commanded that all the drinks be removed from the tables. The staff and Sober Squad scattered to every table and removed all of our alcoholic drinks. All was well, right? No. What was left? Our pails. Yes, those pails we were all compelled to carry everywhere with us. Of course, we brought them. But now the Founder bellowed that all the pails were to be collected. By this time, I was in such shock that I turned around and faced the other way so that I could not see him. Across the room, his daughter was crying. I felt so sad. But all of our pails disappeared — never to be seen again. Of course, the Founder announced that the party was over.
We all left. Those of us living at the Strip got into our jitneys in dead silence. Suddenly, Eddie “The Spaghetti Man” Cunningham said, “Is Synanon over now?” I suppose it was. Nothing was ever the same again.
The next few days were a flurry of activity for the Executive Committee. It was decided that they would cut off the source of the increasingly bizarre commandments. The Founder usually had a hotline that he could pick up and make announcements that would be heard on both properties. Now, he was given a “cold” line. He could pick it up and make his announcements, but no one could hear him. There would be no more strange orders from him. It was about time.
Being Schooled at Synanon (first in a possible series)
I was in the School for 5½ years at Synanon. Then at various times in my young adult life, I was a “demonstrator.” For every year I was in school, there was a different approach to teaching.
Just before my family moved in, my brother and I went to a Summerhill knock-off school in North Hollywood. The concept was no compulsory classes. There would be staff who offered different courses, and we could go or not. Being the semi-nerd that I was, I went to algebra class, English class, and art class. I also would climb the hugest hill of pure dirt that we would tunnel through and jump off of and have a generally awesome time. I would also ride the horses — almost getting knocked off by a low hanging branch while riding a horse way beyond my abilities. We also enjoyed the spectacle of horse breeding. All around, it was wonderful. Most of our classmates came from parents who were part of the late ’60s and early ’70s counterculture. One girl, who apparently thought she was a lion, was said to have been given milk laced with LSD. We also took a ride up to San Francisco to attend an anti-war rally.
Other than the drug use at my previous school, the Synanon School in many ways had the same approach to classes. We had weaving with Sue, language arts with Ruth, math, and science workshops. The only compulsory class was PE with Buddy who would run us up and down the Santa Monica beach. I spent most of my time in weaving, learning how to develop patterns, how to warp a loom, and how to choose yarns. Pushing the pedals up and down and weaving the weft through the warp and creating beautiful shawls. We learned how to use Inca looms to make belts and scarves and learned the basics of crochet. In language arts, we mostly wrote poetry and played with words. I don’t think we wrote much in particular. In math, I learned about Cuisenaire rods.
In Oakland, we had the additional pleasure of the bread baking workshop. Thus, chemistry and fractions were learned, if we were paying attention. Sandy taught us all to play bridge to give us a foundation in paying close attention to patterns and numbers. She also had us read Dune by Frank Herbert and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Glenda tried to get a small group of us interested in the intricately circular essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson (I hate his writing to this day). She thought I was asking too many stupid questions. Dan was teaching us science with the use of the Time/Life Series. I got to write all about digestion.
At some point, the California Department of Education imposed on our school the requirement that we take a standardized test to see how we were faring. Most of us did quite well, some not very well, and there was one boy who at 12 could not read at all (he was in the science workshop, observing nature, and probably some chemistry most of the time). Thus began our foray into compulsory classes. There were some kids in remedial courses, but most of us were required to go to the same workshops we had voluntarily attended before. For some, it may have taken the joy out of our experience, but as I said, I was a semi-nerd, and I still enjoyed the workshops even if we had to go.
During our summer, we spent a few weeks on the Ranch in Tomales Bay and a few of us were allowed to audit the High School class in genetics with Mel Simon. That was a heady time. (I’ve met many people since who studied with Mel as graduate students or who were colleagues of his). After my experience in Oakland, I moved back to Santa Monica. I was officially in “High School.” I don’t remember any of the classes there, but we did spend a lot of time in what was called the Lyceum.
The next experiment was with month-long workshops. One month learning about Calculation with Sandy, History with The Habe, an entire month of physical education and history with The Habe, and Film with Jeanine. Sandy turned our entire class into calculators. Much like the calculators in Hidden Figures, but we were not up to their level. We made graphs of our results in each test, which we did every day. They were timed and tough, and I loved every minute of it. Sandy introduced us to the concept of “feed-forward.” Instead of giving her rote “feedback,” where we would normally parrot what we had just learned, she insisted that we think and synthesize what we were learning. Some people would make 3D models, some would make up stories, some would theorize — all based on some concept she had taught us. Some were wildly off base and others were kind of boring, but it freed us to explore the larger implications of numbers.
In physical education and history, I remember two things: trying to make an outline of the Peloponnesian War that ended up being about as long as the book (foreshadowing my OCD) and one short Synanon Game which was on me the entire time with all of my friends yelling at me and insulting me for the whole hour. Then, of course, we left and were supposed to be all smiles (in the Game/out of the Game). To this day, I have no idea what sin I committed that precipitated this event. I can tell you that I have never forgotten it, and yet, I love most of my friends still.
The most memorable monthlong workshop was our film and photography workshop with Jeanine. We went down to stay the month at the San Francisco paint factory on Potrero Hill. We learned how to use a camera with black-and-white film, how to load a spool of film, and then develop and print. (I took pride in being the only one to load my spool both times correctly. There was one other student who managed to load it once correctly; the rest failed and never produced a proper set of negatives.) We learned how to use a motion picture camera (I was not as good at this). We learned how to film with video cameras and how to splice both video and regular film. We also enjoyed a private lecture with a pioneer of Cinema Direct (the American version of Cinema Verité), Richard Leacock. We watched Nanook of the North and Birth of a Nation. The whole month was thrilling, and yet it was the first time I ever thought about leaving Synanon. I was surrounded by friends, yet I felt completely alone. Since my thoughts at Synanon veered from one extreme to another (fanaticism to traitor), this was my first mental experiment with being a “traitor.” I was convinced that I was the only one of my friends who thought of leaving (of course I was disabused of this notion in due time). I must have “copped out” to my evil thoughts since I have the dim memory of being roundly abused in a Game over them. But I never forgot that month that was more wonderful than dreadful, and I still have the negatives from one of my rolls of film.
Oakland 1972: 6-year-old night watchman
For some reason, we were all anxious to move on to the High School as soon as possible. In retrospect, this was a huge delusion. We had it good in Oakland. The demonstrators were good teachers and really cared about us a lot. The first to leave our cocoon in Oakland was a boy about a year older than the rest of us. He was cute, and I had a crush on him after a game of truth or consequences resulted in my first kiss. We decided that he had to have the best send-off. We planned it out meticulously: We would wake up in the middle of the night, drag him out of bed, everyone would get on their swimming suits, and we would go swimming in the Clumps next door to our compound. Then we would have cake and ice cream and off to bed again. We ran into our first obstacle: We needed an adult to accompany us, and there were no adults at school at night other than the night watchman, Wally. The catch-22: He could not leave the property unattended to watch us in the pool.
But we came up with a solution. Wally had a sidekick at night: a 6-year-old boy who had a hard time sleeping and would hang out with Wally. He would make the rounds and then sleep in the office after the rounds were done. Wally decided to let this little boy fill in for him as night watchman while Wally played lifeguard with us. Genius, no? Of course, we knew better than to tell any other adults of our plan. We bought our cake and ice cream, put our bathing suits on under our pajamas, set our alarms, and rested or slept until 11:30 p.m. We woke up and ran to the budding high schooler’s dorm to wake him. Wally gave the six-year-old boy his large flashlight and gave him the specific rounds he should do while we were gone.
Off we went. We ran as quietly as possible to the pool and then jumped in for a half-hour midnight swim. We forgot about making no noise at that point and jumped and splashed and screamed for the entire time. Then we ran, all the while laughing hysterically, back to our complex for cake and ice cream. Wally went to relieve the 6-year-old boy of his duties. The boy had done exactly as he was told; he did a really good job. We were relieved that there were no problems and went to bed knowing our secret adventure was safe.
How innocent, how naive, how foolish. The next morning we woke up and it still seemed as if no one was onto us. As the morning went on though, the complaints from the adults next door started to pour in: What was all the noise at the pool at midnight? Who was swimming at that hour? If they were kids, was there an adult watching them? Some of us thought we would solve the whole thing by mentioning that Wally was with us and the 6-year-old boy filled in as the night watchman. Weren’t we smart? We were met with stone silence and horrified faces. Nevertheless, we were not disciplined or shamed. We thought all was well.
But not for Wally. We never saw him again. Poor Wally. All he wanted to do was make us happy and fulfill our dream of a midnight swim. He was a fool. He was just about as immature as we were, naively thinking that leaving a 6-year-old boy to watch over the lives of 80 other young children was a good idea. I’m sure that Wally got no mercy from the powers that be and probably ended up working in the furnaces for the rest of his time at Synanon. One can’t blame them for firing him and sending him to the equivalent of Siberia. But I know we were partly responsible for his demise.
Bad Gas: It is about what you think it is about. 1970 – 1988
My father was a prolific and musical farter. It happened so often that I stopped hearing it. In our house, people farted and no one said a thing. It just happened; it was part of the human condition. The first time I even heard a name put to it was at my friend Lisa’s home (a large tract of land with lots of beautiful buildings in Altadena, owned by the Theosophical Society to this day). We would go play horses (we or our bikes were the horse), and when we were the horse, we’d jump into the dry fountain, get on all fours, hike down our pants, and pee. And then we would fart like horses, but Lisa would let out a crazy laugh and say, “Mooment bubble!” and I would collapse in laughter (but not in the pee). But mostly, I am sure I farted without a thought and certainly no shame.
All that changed one day at the Cloverfield Clumps. All of the kids were in the lounge watching a movie. I was lying on the floor next to an 11-year-old boy. My bottom neatly aligned with his head. I’m sure you know what happened next. I farted. Pretty much ignored it until the boy jumped up in outrage and scorn and yelled, “Jennifer farted!!!!! Ewww! Disgusting pig!!!” Well, you can pretty much figure out what happened after that. I ran out bright as a beet and completely and morbidly embarrassed. I never again farted in public. I’m sure some think it was a public service on the boy’s part.
My restraint in public would have dire consequences for my lower abdomen. Private bathrooms were hard to find at Synanon. In Santa Monica at the Del Mar Club, we had a beautiful restroom (in the true sense). One entered a lounge area with couches, sinks, and mirrors. In a second room, there were toilet stalls. Many of them. But I would use them only when no one else was there. At the Ranch in the early days, there were a couple of outhouses at the top of the hill, near the barns. We lived at the far end of the field in tents. We had to haul ass up that hill to relieve ourselves. I’m sure the more relaxed folks used the many bushes, but not me. When they finally built bathrooms, they had toilets with no stalls. At least they weren’t coed yet. In the dorms with private bathrooms, I would, of course, wait until no one was in the dorm to use the toilet. I was pretty much a mess and had constant gas cramps.
This all came to full flower during one of many “General Meetings. To this day, nothing gets my heart rate and panic button going more than a large meeting being called that I am required to attend. This one particular meeting was called before I had a chance to find a private bathroom, and I had waited most of the day. Somehow I ended up cross-legged in the front row. The authorities would stand in front of us for hours yelling and screaming and exhorting us to confess. I don’t even remember who our tormentor was during that meeting. Often, it was a group of adults aided and abetted by one of our more well-regarded peers. The general gist of all of these meetings was our collective guilt. We were all expected to “cop-out” to something in order to be released to Synanon Games where we would be yelled at even more. The authorities would stand in front of us for hours yelling and screaming and exhorting us to confess. Then even worse, they would leave the room for us to stew in our juices. It was during this stewing that my gut finally had its revenge. Stabbing pain wrenched my gut so painfully that I almost passed out. The only thing that could relieve it was getting to pass some gas, but I was not going to do that in front of everyone. And I wasn’t going to draw any attention to myself by asking to be excused. I sat there in excruciating pain and could barely sit up straight. I’m sure to some I just looked guilty, sitting there squirming, sweating, and pale. I was just in pain, and no thoughts of evil deeds entered my head. But I’m sure I came up with something just to get out of that room. We all did. I don’t remember what I copped to, nor how the meeting ended, nor the inevitable Game that followed. All I remember is bad and painful gas.
Toward the end of my tenure at Synanon, I finally learned to let go and let gas, thanks to a boyfriend who just made lighthearted jokes about the noise when he was using the bathroom, and that gave me the freedom to use the bathroom without worrying about who was listening or not in the next stall. You may think it funny, but that was a real gift.
The Borrower: My life of crime at Synanon
Trading coveted clothing and other goods were common in the Synanon School. My first experience was with CS. I moved into Synanon in 1970 with a classic garment: a blue suede vest with long fringe. There is a photo of Michael Jackson wearing one, so it was popular — and not cheap. It had been given to me as a Christmas gift by my stepmother. She had a great sense of style. I loved it. I also had a full sewing box of my own with all the tools of the trade. I lived in a dorm with CS and somehow she convinced me to trade these two items with her. I think I was paying for some social credibility. Whatever she gave me in return is completely forgotten, but not that blue suede vest. After trading, borrowing was also popular in the Synanon School. Someone would have the desired item, mostly clothing, and all the other girls would ask to borrow it. Most often the garment would be worn once, washed, and returned in good condition.
Of course, I came up with a unique twist to this practice, and I maintained my take on borrowing to the bitter end. I started borrowing much like the other kids. For some reason, I would never return the item. Did I get a spot in it that I was not able to get out? Did I have a horrible body odor? Did I not have access to laundry facilities? I would never wear it again either. I would stuff it away in the recesses of my private space and feel the constant itch of guilt that I had not returned it. How many shirts, pants, sweaters, socks, underwear, or even books I borrowed, I have no idea. The stack would grow, and my guilt would be almost more than I could bear. Did I then return the items and apologize and confess in a Game about my chronic and criminal borrowing? No.
Every few months I would grab a plastic garbage bag and stuff all of the borrowed items into it. Late at night, I would drag that bag (or sometimes two) to the foyer. Remember the foyer? The repository many unwanted or misplaced and forgotten items. If our names were emblazoned on the item we would be part of a gang shamed into cleaning the foyer out every once in a while. But I was good at this. I made sure my name wasn’t on anything in the bag. I would then leave that bag in the foyer, leave, and then feel an intense sense of relief as if this alleviated all of my guilt. At least it wasn’t in my possession anymore. I must have done this about twenty times while I was at Synanon (or the few times I did it are exaggerated in my memory). Bags and bags of my friends’ clothing. Beloved items that we coveted. I never knew what happened to the bags. Sometimes I think my friends were onto me and would only loan me items they didn’t worry about getting back. Perhaps the word got out that Jennifer put another bag in the foyer, and if you wanted something back you could go through it. More likely it ended up in the piles of lost and unwanted clothing that were then washed and distributed.
We all carried a heavy load at Synanon, and perhaps this was my way of manifesting this constant accumulation of trauma and then unloading it, one bag of clothing at a time. An analyst could have a heyday with this, I’m sure. So, my apologies to all the girls who gave clothing and other items to the black hole known as Jennifer Wilson (Griggs). I don’t have anything . . . wait whose T-shirt am I wearing?
Bolta Bowls of Chicken: Fat-a-thon
Skin on, bone-in, baked just right, until the bones are soft. Salted, delicious. God, I was hungry. All of the time. I was blessed with a body that developed early and abundantly. I remember standing awkwardly with my friends and feeling the weight and the sting of being damned with faint praise: “You’re zaftig!” “You’re built like a brick shithouse” (which I later learned are actually compliments of sorts). And I also remember being screamed at in the Game for being a fatso. This all came to a crisis point at Walker Creek in 1976. The onset of the Fat-a-thon, the striving for a “lean normal” body. I remember the praise of many skeletal-looking bodies strutting proudly around and shaming those of us who never attained those heights.
With the monthly weigh-ins, I developed several techniques to try to lose a pound or two. The most drastic was the three days I ate nothing and drank nothing but water. I went around feeling like I was going to pass out all three days with my stomach eating itself away. I also went to sit in a sauna the night before the weigh in to shed a little more water weight. I’m sure I was not alone in this. And I’m pretty sure I lost two or three pounds after the ordeal. At one weigh-in (which I did not fast drastically for) I gained five pounds. There were four or five other people who gained weight, and our names were posted with our weight gain on a blackboard for all to see.
I learned never to eat in front of anyone. There was a grazing board with soy oat bread (some of the heaviest, most calorie-laden bread in existence, but it was good for you), peanut butter, fruit smush, and butter. No jam, no honey, nothing that had any form of processed sugar. Despite the healthy array, I never grazed when there were people in the Shed. I would go late at night when the only person there was the night phone monitor. This person was generally a very congenial, nonjudgmental, quiet person, so I never felt ashamed in front of them. I would grab four or five slices and slather them in butter and eat them all at once. Like I said, I was hungry. All of the time.
But there was nothing quite like the nights when we would have baked chicken. I remember these mostly being Sunday nights at the Shed when most people didn’t feel compelled to hang out. It was one of the few nights when we could have some semblance of privacy. I would go early, grab a Bolte bowl, and fill it with up to 10 pieces of chicken. I would then scurry away to my room (inexplicably, I had a private room at that time). I ate every piece of chicken in the course of one hour. I would be especially happy to get the pope’s nose (the triangular fatty end). I ate anything soft enough to eat. But then, the marrow sucking began. I would bite off the ends of each bone and suck out the marrow. Sometimes, the bones were soft enough that I could crack them open and scrape out any marrow that I missed. I was hungry. All of the time. There was nothing left but the boney scraps that would have choked me. If I could have chewed them enough, I would have eaten them, too.
Remarkably, I did not puke after this private gluttony. I became neither bulimic nor anorexic. I just became a sneak eater par excellence. My apologies to anyone who came late to dinner on Sunday nights and found no chicken left.
Jenny Griggs Day
Most people who remember me know that I used my stepfather’s last name from the day we moved in. As we walked down the pathway to our welcoming ceremony, someone asked me and my brother, in front of our stepfather, what name we wanted to use. So, yeah, we chose his name. I was known as Jenny Griggs most of my youth until my one and only marriage. Then I had a hodgepodge of names like most women at Synanon (and some men).
But, that’s not the story I’m telling today. My favorite time in the Synanon school was in Oakland, California. There, we lived in an enclosed apartment complex called the Highland Clumps. We would then regularly take a jitney to the Athens Club, which figures in many fond and perhaps not so fond memories. We would walk to Swan’s and Lake Merritt and De Lauer’s Super Newsstand. We (or at least I) never worried about being bothered, and apparently, this was remarkable. I loved Oakland.
The kids acted like kids and often got in minor trouble. We also didn’t have great manners. I’m not sure why but the Game didn’t provide as much social pressure as it did at other times. After a while though, the adults were getting tired of our rudeness, so they decided to have a competition for who would display the best manners. We were given fairly simple guidelines: please and thank you and you’re welcome. Smiling and greeting adults and standing up whenever an adult walked into a room. This was also when we were banned from listening to the radio. For whatever reason, I was motivated to win the competition, and indeed I did.
Thus, the first and only Jenny Griggs Day was celebrated by all the kids. I must have been an insufferable prig! I sit here laughing as I think about it. I don’t remember if I was embarrassed or not, but I imagine there was a lot of snickering behind my back (this would happen anywhere, I imagine). Someone made a poster, and I was praised at our morning meeting and given the privilege of picking a friend and going to have dinner at the Athens Club. That was a big deal then. It was a beautiful building, the food was better. (Does anyone remember Eddie “The Spaghetti Man” Cunningham, God rest his soul?) And, we didn’t have to rush through our meal.
I chose LW to come with me. She was a year or so younger than I was. We got our meal and went to sit at a small table in the hopes that we would be left alone ready to tuck into something delicious. As soon as we sat down, we saw Frances V. make a beeline to our table. My heart sank. I’m sure Frances was one of the kindest adults at Synanon, but the kids dreaded her. She wrote notes to everyone at Synanon for their birthday. My God, that was something so out of the ordinary and lovely that we should have been grateful. But no, we really were snotty kids. And anyone at Synanon that displayed that kindness on such a consistent basis had no social credibility. I’m sure she never yelled at anyone in the Game. She sat down and greeted us. LW and I looked at each other as if our meal had just been spit on.
We really thought we were cool, and somehow I managed to whisper to LW that after we ate (quickly) that I would excuse myself to go to the ladies’ room. I was not going to return. LW then was supposed to excuse herself and take our plates with her (of course, I left the younger kid behind rather than having any courage). As soon as LW left, we met up at the jitney stop laughing hysterically at what a trick we pulled. We were not ashamed at all, and indeed I was so confident in our superiority to Frances V. that I bragged to Sandy (one of the demonstrators) what a funny trick we pulled. She didn’t say much. The next day I was approached by Glenda and Sandy. My heart sunk as my feet of clay were fully exposed and I was stripped of any honor for best manners since I clearly had some of the worst. I was told in no uncertain terms that a person who has truly good manners is kind to everyone they meet. Kind of like Frances, who was probably one of the kindest people to pass through those doors. We never celebrated Jenny Griggs Day again. It is a lesson I’m incredibly grateful for now.
ADDENDUM: One of the more remarkable aspects of the Oakland School, at least from my view, was that often we were confronted privately, rather than publicly, about our infractions. I don’t recall being shamed at morning meeting, nor in a Game, about this incident. I could be wrong, but since the many incidents of shaming publicly are emblazoned on my memory, I can only conclude that this was not one of them. About 95% of the time, public shaming was the way things were done at Synanon. This doesn’t mean that the Game was not played in the usual way. I remember one Game that I ran out of I was so upset (running out of Games was considered a big infraction).
Learning to Dance: Race at Synanon
I am very white. So white that even with a high ACEs score (Adverse Childhood E xperiences) from before I even moved into Synanon, I still came out ahead of the pack in a diversity workshop a few years ago. And like many white people, I have benefited greatly from the African American community. My mom, while perhaps justly accused of tokenism, made concerted efforts throughout my young childhood to make sure that we had lots of black friends. Dolores, who was my nanny for a while, remained friends with my mom long after she worked for her (and she didn’t feel like making my mom a shit pie ala “The Help”). My mom insisted on having black folks over to our house on a regular basis in our lily-white Tacoma neighborhood. The Vidals were our kissing cousins. She invited Mrs. Vidal to the church tea and was roundly censured by the white ladies who told her friend to go to her own church. My mom left the church over that. It does sound kind of like tokenism, but this was not true of most white families from our middle-class background.
So when she felt compelled due to circumstances to move our family into Synanon, the appearance of racial harmony was a big plus in her view. Look, even the Founder is married to a black woman! What could be more convincing than that? At the level of the School, it was largely true though. At least from this white girl’s point of view. Black, Latino, and white kids all lived, worked, and played together. The women who had the hugest impact on my life, and indeed became surrogate mothers, big sisters, and aunties, were by and large black: Lena, Paula, Sandy, Gloria, SE, and YE. But I was the beneficiary of their love and kindness.
I also benefited from the first and best dance lessons I ever had from BJB. I know you might think this is stereotyping, and you would be right except that BJB is indeed one the best dancers I have had the privilege to know. And yet, he took his time to teach this little white girl to dance. The cha-cha, the Lindy Hop — real dances, not the bobbing back and forth that white folks often call dancing (Donald Trump’s sword dancing is a fair example of this nonsense).
We had some good dance parties at Synanon, so it was good to know a few dances. His lessons gave me some social credibility at these parties that I would not have had otherwise. I wasn’t great, and I still have more blues than rhythm. But the music of my youth was not Led Zeppelin, it was Detroit Motown music: The Jackson Five, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Aretha, and of course the wonderful Temptations.
It was the soundtrack of my early adolescence. I can still see the walkways through the Cloverfield Clumps, the evening hangouts in the remodeled carports (site of my dancing lessons), riding the old wooden cable spools in the back drive, and even the darkness of The Woodshed dancing to My Cherie Amour by Stevie Wonder. When my friends and I were banned from the radio, we kept to the letter of the law by playing records instead; we listed to the Jackson Five and came up with dance moves in unison.
And yet, I think in retrospect, that the issues of race at Synanon were not as progressive or simple as they appeared. I remember that later when people would that if a black woman wanted to be in a relationship with a black man (and vice versa), they would be roundly criticized. It was always considered better if a black person was in an interracial relationship. The same was not true for whites. And however involved we were in supporting the breakfast program of the Black Panthers in Oakland, I remember distinctly Betty D. discouraging young black people from getting involved in the movement themselves. The assumption was that at Synanon it was the best life they could ever imagine. These memories have always tempered my idyllic memories of racial harmony at Synanon. However, in the School, which for many years was not close to the centers of power, the people who worked in the School did indeed foster a more harmonious environment. But I’m just a white girl, probably remembering through rose-colored glasses; my African American and Puerto Rican compadres may have a completely different memory.
OCD, Badger school 1975, part 1
The lab was filthy. That day the schoolhouse had been emptied to make room for the new executive offices which were on their way from Tomales Bay. It was my assignment to clean the lab. I started with the shelves, which had not been dusted in the two years the School had been at Badger, and they were thick and grimy. After cleaning all of the shelves and counters with hot soapy water that turned brown every five minutes, I scanned the results of my work. In one hour, I had cleaned every shelf in the room, which was 15 feet wide and 30 feet long with shelves from floor to ceiling. But the more I looked, I realized something was wrong. In the corner of each shelf lay a stubborn corner of now very wet grime that I had to eliminate. I went back to work carefully, wiping the grime with a wet soapy rag and then a dry clean rag and then even an old T-shirt to make sure that no dirt seen or unseen escaped my notice. I counted the number of shelves and realized that if I spent ten minutes on each shelf I would be done by 6 that evening. I knew I would miss dinner since Game call-offs started at 6:30 and I would have to change out of my dirty clothes before call-off time. I could go back after Games to clean the floor and windows.
So I set to work, and it started to dawn on me that every speck of dirt I missed was somehow connected to the state of my conscience. If any dirt was left, it would be obvious that I was hiding some dirt inside of me. And in Synanon there was nothing worse than “hiding dirt. Please, I kept thinking, please let there be no dirt. I had to clean every bit of it. With Games that night, it made it even more critical. If I hid any dirt, someone would find out.
I wondered how the dirt had escaped my notice before. I became aware of it a month before when everyone in the High School and the “character disorder” kids had all gone on a Trip together in San Francisco. You know what kind of trip I mean: We weren’t sightseeing. During this Trip, we were all labeled “damaged goods” (original sin anyone?). When the Trip broke up with the usual cathartic hugs and dancing and professions of true love, I felt completely dirty. After 48 hours of little sleep and constant Games, Ouija board sessions, and art classes, I came out of it heavy with guilt. When I got home to Badger, I started keeping a catalog of sins knowing that at some point I would have to confess.
As I was blowing softly on a stubborn bit of dust, my friend walked in and told me to stop or I’d miss dinner. I said I wasn’t going, and she told me to stop immediately and come with her. It was not a request. My eyes were stinging with tears and embarrassment since she was a good friend and I knew I was a fraud. But off I went, and we went to our semiprivate room above the carpentry shop. Our dorm was considered elite housing for the older kids who had demonstrated a certain amount of responsibility. We had moved in just before the Trip, and at the time I felt elated. My days of sloppy writing, sluggish running, and morose bearing were over, and I was considered a role model for younger students. I had a job as a teaching assistant and was teaching a class of my own.
To get into our dorm, we climbed a ladder-like set of stairs directly out of the shop. It was spacious but only had one window, which was at the north end of the barn so we received no morning or afternoon light. We had more space and privacy than the other students except for whoever inhabited the chicken coop. Occasionally someone would set up a private tent, but they were usually driven back inside by the rains.
I took a shower first and relished watching as the dirt and grime easily came off my entire body, hoping that my inner life could be so easily washed clean. My friend and I walked up the hill to the Lodge and walked into the dining room, which was already abuzz with the nervous tension common before Game call-offs.
OCD, Badger School 1975, Part 2
The conversation at the table on Game nights was polite and minimal. We tried to minimize the possibility that a conversation would give someone ammunition for the Game. I filled my plate with cabbage and hotdogs, carefully avoiding the buns lest Mrs. Habe accuse me of being fat. My friend had the lean physique of an ectomorph, which I would have killed for. As it was, I already knew I was doomed to a life without the constant comfort of carbohydrates if I wanted to keep slim. I had managed to lose 30 pounds over the last year and a half under the running program of The Habe and constant criticism from his wife. At one time, I had managed to survive on a diet of coffee and an orange for breakfast, a slice of processed cheese for lunch, and a fairly hefty dinner of something resembling a protein and a small salad. Fortunately, those days were over, and I had a certain amount of pride in the fact that I was one of the better runners and actually looked forward to a 5-mile jog up to Martha’s, and the hairpin was even better adding another 2 miles.
We sat at a table with a group of younger boys — by one whole year :-). All I saw was an ocean of adolescent lust in the form of boys a foot shorter than me (they all grew up handsome and tall). The boys were mostly silent except for a few snarky comments. I was absorbed by my inner angst and newly returned morose attitude. I kept thinking of all the possible attacks that might be launched at me in the Game tonight (including accusations of hiding dirt) and all of my possible defenses. My approach to the Game was “a good offense is the best defense,” even if I was the focus of my offense.
As soon as dinner was over, the tables were cleared and everyone gathered in front of the fireplace for Game call-offs. One of the younger girls was officiating, which was a good choice. Everything about her exuded a confidence I completely lacked. She greeted us all, and we responded with a wilted good evening. “I hope you’re all ready for an exciting night of Games that we’ve made up for you. First, The Habe and Mrs. Habe have a couple of important announcements. “ The Habe walked up with his signature pants, hitching waddle, and scowl reserved for major irritation, which communicated that someone was about the get an earful out of the game (OOTG). “Some idiot thought it might be really cute to live park the Toyota truck under the window of the girls’ dormitory. Boy, if I see you within ten feet of the truck in the next two weeks, I’ll run your ass from here to the hairpin 10 times at midnight.” Such hyperbole was not hyperbole for The Habe. Mrs. Habe then came up and exhorted the dormitory girls to figure out how to properly dispose of sanitary items. If they failed to do this, they could go live in a tent, even if it was raining. We didn’t take her hyperbole as seriously, but she had a mean streak and one of us could easily be the target of her well-sharpened tongue.
The group tension and depression solidified into a thick mass. I was sweating already (a precursor of the panic attacks I would suffer before every Game in my future). There being no more announcements, Games were called off. My friend and I were in the same game, along with The Habe, down in the schoolhouse. As the names were called, one kid was shamed by name for not having done his laundry in three weeks.
My friend and I walked in silence down to the schoolhouse. I was still wary of self-incrimination.
OCD, Badger School 1975, part 3
We all settled into our seats with The Habe taking the king freak seat. My friend sat across from me, and I sat next to the laundry offender. I figured that she and The Habe had a plan of attack on me. I went on the offense to deflect by launching an attack on the laundry offender: “You asshole, what are you trying to do? Stink us all off the planet? You smell like a sewer, and I’m gagging sitting here by you”!! He responded by calling me a fat bitch. One can hardly blame him, and although I knew I wasn’t fat anymore, it still stung (what adolescent girl would not be stung by that?). I felt my face flushing and hot tears started to roll down my cheeks. I tried to wipe them away quietly, which was difficult since the Game was on the laundry offender sitting next to me. My friend seemed annoyed, and I knew it was about my oversensitivity.
The Game moved quickly from the laundry offender. There was no more to say in the absence of a good defense. My friend moved it to the next logical target: the Toyota offender. He responded with a loud, incomprehensible defense mostly consisting of the fact that The Habe and the older students used him as a target since he was younger (there was certainly some truth to this). I interjected, during an interlude from my tears, that perhaps his oafishness, an inability not to interrupt conversations and a lack of awareness of anyone else, could be a reason he was a good target. He complained that no one listened to him and delved into a self-pity bag we were all guilty of from time to time. Tears were running down his cheeks, which were purple with embarrassment. The golden-haired boy who was also in the Game then attacked with a sure-fire slam: “Shut up you little shit. No one wants you to sit with you anyway.” Toyota boy’s shoulders sagged, and he was sobbing now.
The battle between the ins and outs was in full force when The Habe turned on the golden-haired boy and said “How much would it take out of your precious time to pay some attention to some of the younger kids”? The golden-haired boy rubbed his short blond hair and his eyes and rolled his head backward and said he always helped the younger kids. In unison, everyone yelled “How!?” and general laughter broke out. He claimed that he told them to clean up their messes. I asked if he reminded the laundry offender to do his laundry, all the while rolling my eyes. The golden-haired boy told me “Shut up, you fat bitch!”
The damage was done. I could feel my heart squeeze tighter, my pulse speed up, and the sweat under my arms spread. Then new hot tears of embarrassment and rage were brewing. To have the golden-haired boy, the object of all the girls’ fantasies and true longing, call me fat was more than I could bear. I fell back against the hard brick of the fireplace and fell into a deep silence as the Game moved from one target to another. The Game seemed to be wrapping up when my friend turned the game onto me: “What the hell is wrong with you. A couple of nasty asides and you clam up and look like it’s the end of the world. What’s eating you?”
The Habe didn’t care what was eating me and accused me of doing a sloppy job on the lab. I could not respond. All the heat and rage had built a roadblock, and I couldn’t speak. Laundry boy and Toyota boy jumped on the bandwagon and accused me of sniping at them at dinner and calling me a mean, fat bitch (the mean part was probably close to the truth). A few other volleys came flying and after about 5 minutes (which seemed like an hour) The Habe suddenly shifted his approach and a look of concern came over his face and he gently asked what was eating me. I defended my work in the lab, and I lashed out again at the boys.
General verbal mayhem ensued. I had a knack for stirring the pot but got no pleasure from it. Then I collapsed as I was wont to do into a puddle of tears and snot. My friend pointed out that tears were easy for me (true) and asked what I was hiding. The blood drained from my face and I started to feel lightheaded and my stomach hurt. I knew I was hiding something — I just didn’t know what. I started rambling on about how awful I had felt since the Trip and revealing my list of sins. I couldn’t figure out how everyone else felt so great after the Trip and I felt so despicable.
The Habe responded in classic Betty’s Game form: “I don’t despise you. I think you’re pretty amazing, and you know it. You came here with 30 extra pounds of fat (not to mince words), the most morose look on your face and you were lazy. Now you’re in good shape, I’ve seen you smile about 50% of the time and for God’s sake, I have you teaching a class! So shape up, don’t be such a blubbering idiot when someone dares to snipe back at you, cause you are pretty snippy.” My friend defended my work on the lab and the golden-haired boy said he didn’t really think I was fat, just oversensitive, and that I should lighten up. The Habe said the only blubber I had now was too many tears.
The Habe then launched into a classic end-of-the-Game roll. He exhorted the older kids to get back to work preparing the property for the Synanon Founder and his entourage and to help the younger kids prepare to move to Tomales Bay to continue school there. We older kids had been summarily dismissed from school since the Founder decided we had enough. We were all excited to be free from the School since The Habe and Mrs. Habe were tough, and we were ready for what we thought would be freedom.
The Game ended at almost midnight. Laundry and Toyota boy could hardly keep their eyes open, and the golden-haired boy offered to walk them home. The Habe grabbed me and my friend and gave us a bear hug. He called me a knucklehead saying I had no idea how much I was loved (I was desperate for love). I felt slightly idiotic but mostly elated at getting so much happy attention from him. My friend and I went home to bed, ready to wake early to finish cleaning the lab.
I didn’t get over my OCD until 3 years later. I was one of the lucky ones.
My first boyfriend, Santa Monica 1970
The Synanon School was not like any school most people would know and yet, it was completely familiar to most schools. Sex was on most kids’ minds, much like your average middle schooler. And lots of kids were claiming much more experience than they really had. I had none and honestly wasn’t much interested at 12 years old. I liked learning and spent hours in Ruth’s language workshop, Sue’s weaving workshop, and the math workshop. But inevitably I was convinced that what I wanted was a boyfriend. There was social credibility that I craved and I figured a boyfriend was how to get it.
I started hanging out with DB, and he was funny. I don’t remember what we talked about, and I had no inner stirring of desire (I was maybe not that unusual since I was still in my latency, that time when some girls go underground and have almost no inner life). Eventually, DB asked me to “go out” with him. Going out with someone was not going on a date — it was getting together as a “couple.” I remember I was standing at the top of a cast-iron staircase in the Cloverfield Clumps. I said yes and then ran away and stopped speaking with him for three weeks. Then we broke up. He had the nicest smile and beautiful eyes and he was very sweet, and we probably should have just stayed friends. I think it was probably a kindness of him to break up with me. I was an innocent and immature 12-year-old by Synanon standards, and he had no interest in changing that.
MC, I’m sorry. Hazing at the Santa Monica School 1970
Not long after I moved into the School, Jeff was shot. The kids were moved to the apartment complex next door that was more enclosed and had a courtyard in the center. The commons where we ate was there and the infant program where babies as young as 6 months were living together without their families.
But it’s the courtyard that’s been on my mind. There were lots of activities that went on in the courtyard and not much could be missed. One evening after dinner, I was surrounded on my way from dinner to my dorm by a group of kids who had been in the School longer than me. They were very friendly at first, and I was happy to be the focus of their attention. I had no reason to be afraid and I wasn’t. But I probably should have been.
Describing what happened next is something I don’t want to do. Suffice it to say that at the end of it, I ended up being thrown into a cold shower with no clothes on and covered with spit. I never told anyone. So, I guess I passed the test. I’m sure I wasn’t the first, and I know I wasn’t the last. The last victim, as far as I know, was MC.
A few days later I rounded up a group of my friends and we attacked MC. It was somewhat different in execution, but the results were devastating for her. But I was not aware of the calculus that went into selecting a victim. Kids who still had secure attachments to their parents were probably not the most reliable at keeping quiet. M’s father was still very much connected to his children. So she told her father what happened.
I’ve always wondered where the adults were. We were surrounded by open windows, and it was dusk, not yet dark. Did they not see what was happening? Or did they turn a blind eye? Nevertheless, the adults intervened after M’s father complained. None of us who were victims or perpetrators were called out, but the message was conveyed that the hazing was to stop. As far as I know, it did. But there is a lot we don’t know, isn’t there?
So, I’m sorry MC. And thank you for not keeping silent.
Broken leg: Badger 1974
We didn’t like sick people at Synanon and especially hated it when someone complained of physical pain. It was often assumed that they were lying to get pain killers. At Badger, we were running up and down the winding country roads, often dodging the logging trucks, which could not brake for us. We would run up to Martha’s and back, logging 5 miles, or perhaps we would go farther to log 7. When I arrived at Badger, I was slow as molasses. I would run up the mountain and never once did I stop, even though I would be about a mile behind the group. A would run with me to make sure I didn’t stop to walk, and I never did. Apparently, A was also spying to report back to The Habe. At the end of the first semester, I received an A in PE just for not stopping. Eventually, I excelled and became a forerunner. On one occasion, we were running in 50 degree weather, which suddenly dropped to freezing when we reached Martha’s, and a light drizzle turned into snow. It was the first and one of the only times I had to stop and puke my guts out. Then I returned to the front of the line and kept running. I was proud of having achieved my place at the front of the line. I was so desperate to be one of the best that I would push myself beyond my limits. My desire to be the best was certainly rooted in deep insecurities common to kids who lose their families. That’s another story.
The other time I had to stop was after I had suffered a stress fracture above the ankle of my left leg. Synanon had decided to impose compulsory exercise for everyone in the commune. At first, we were convinced that we were already fulfilling our obligation, but we were soon disabused of that illusion. In addition to running 5 to 7 miles on school days (was there ever a day off?), we were forced to either run in place or do step-ups for a minimum amount of time. We would often run in place in the Lodge on a quarter-inch-thick rug covering concrete. Thus, the stress fracture. Two days before our three-week vacation, I was bedridden and wracked with pain from head to toe. I could not move even my neck without my entire body hurting. Our resident EMT looked at it and just sent me back to bed for rest. No pain killers (even aspirin), no offers to bring meals, no heating pad or ice. I just laid there feeling pretty sorry for myself.
I honestly don’t think there was any malice. Everyone who was sick or in pain was at best treated with benign neglect. Tonda was told that the pain from her sickle cell anemia was all in her head. Stephanie was compelled to stay out of bed even when her feet and legs were falling apart due to spina bifida. GH, who was completely disabled due to cerebral palsy, was left in the care of her dorm mates, none of us older than 14, until Andrea came along and devoted herself to GH’s care. Andrea was a hero in my estimation. So, I was not being treated exceptionally. But I felt sorry for myself nonetheless. On the first day of break, I managed to hobble to the jitney to take us for vacation to the compounds in Marin County. I made my way to the infirmary at the Bay property and had the misfortune of being examined by Dr. M. Years later, he almost killed another woman, so many of you are familiar with his incompetence. He looked at my leg and told me to stay off it for a couple of weeks. No X-ray, no pain killers, nothing. I returned to Badger and was not compelled to run by The Habe, so there was some mercy. Within a week though, I started to feel so guilty that I started riding the stationary bike just to alleviate my guilt. Soon, I was back running and slamming my legs on the barely covered concrete floor. My leg healed after a fashion. I was left with a huge lump above my ankle that would often ache when the weather was damp (it often was in Tomales Bay). As I approach my 60s, my leg aches constantly. The ache and the lump are still there. I never complained about this at Synanon, and I’m pretty sure I was not alone in that silence. So, I will complain now. Dr. M was an incompetent boob. He was guilty of extreme malpractice in my case and others. But the powers that be allowed him to continue his malpractice. And we were all compelled to let each other suffer and buck up.