Doug Robinson

“Nobody can tell the story of Synanon because chronology is bullshit. It just doesn’t mean anything. We started here we became this, and it ended this way. That’s not the important thing about Synanon. What is important is what happened to you and what happened to me, and Frank Rehak, what happened to Sal the newcomer from Puerto Rico, what happened to Wilbur and Brooks. That’s what Synanon is.”

Doug Robinson
Sarah & Doug

On October 13th in 1969, my best friend Brian Laurence brought me down to Synanon to play my first ever Synanon Game. I was 14. I was alternately fascinated and bored–believe it or not, the Game had bogged down with four teenage siblings copping out to having sex with each other! You’d think I would have been interested but I went downstairs to play the grand piano in the San Diego house. Eileen Gates came up, asked my name and what I was doing there. When I told her I’d left the Game, she said “If you don’t go back, you can’t come down here anymore. We’re strict about staying in the Game till it ends.” I went back upstairs and dove in.

Four years later, after hundreds of Games, a Trip, a couple of Stews, and having lived in various facilities only for the summers, I had to choose between going to Cal State Northridge, an excellent jazz college to which I had a few scholarships, and moving into Synanon full time. It wasn’t that music wasn’t important to me–it was almost everything…but only almost. My music geek friends were kind of boring to me, as their entire life revolved around this one thing. Yet here I had Synanon, an entirely different world of experiences and personalities at my fingertips. Music was a part of my experience there, but not the only part.

I discussed it with my mentor, Frank Rehak, who encouraged me to follow my heart. He said wonderful things to me about my talent and where he thought I’d end up regardless of my choice, and but he did promise that if I chose Synanon, he’d make sure I never regretted not getting a college-level music education.

Frank Rehak – Photo by Laurie Pepper

SO on October 13, 1973, at 18 years old, I moved into the SF house a few months later, and Frank and Al Bauman started working with me–I had a 40 hour a week music curriculum in addition to working out as a sandwich maker in SF AND living in community! I never slept. I studied theory and harmony, tape editing, sight-reading as well as cleaning the bandstand, practicing piano, bass, drums, and trombone. I played Games, got in jackpots, got out of jackpots, and had a ball.

Over the years, I lived in most of our facilities for a little while. Musicians came and went, and sometimes the Sounds of Synanon was a source of great pride for the level at which we played, while other times it was an uphill slog, but I never lost interest because if Frank could enthusiastically jump up on stage with a 15-year-old me, I could certainly pass that inspiring attitude on.

I fell in love more than once–Sarah, Sally, Robin, Anna, Dian, Andrea and Glenda–these wonderful women taught me more than anyone how to be a man. And yes, I absolutely failed a lesson now and then, but looking back I can see that they kept me on the right path and I will always be grateful to them.

There were unrequited crushes along the way, and while it’s fine to leave them undefined that doesn’t mean that they didn’t make my life even more interesting.

I seemed to be following Brian Laurence for a while–he had played his first Game 6 months before me, and had moved into Synanon 6 months before I’d be able to. And now, six months after he’d done so, at 19 I signed up for a sales training course along with Wendy Raineri, Joslin, Larry Sutton and a few other fine folks. Freddy Sale was our teacher.

Off we went to the streets of Oakland and L.A. with our farbuses (sample cases) in hand, walking into random businesses and walking out with orders for promotional items. As it turned out, I was good at thinking on my feet and practically unafraid to ask for an order and thus became somewhat valuable–a curse because I didn’t enjoy it all that much. I wanted to be living in Tomales, riding horses, making love to my girlfriend, listening to Thickened Light and playing music, not convincing some poodle-groomer that our pens were superior to our competitors’. Alas, Synanon needed money and I was viewed as a provider. I spent time in our little Chicago house where my lifetime friendship with Wendy solidified and many outstanding memories were made.

One of the things about being a good salesman–I learned how to make my case, so from time to time, I got management to look the other way while I slipped out of what was to become ADGAP and took jobs at The Wire (again, 6 months after Brian had done the same thing), driving the catering truck, teaching music in our school alongside my soul brothers Bruce Gilbert and David Scott.

Partners changed, weight came and went, the products that ADAGP sold evolved and the job became a far more sophisticated playground. I also learned how to take control of my life–it wasn’t that I didn’t usually join in when we zigged and zagged between social issues and experiments, because I did. But participation was always a conscious decision on my part. I always knew that I had a choice. I recognize today that many didn’t feel so centered, but I can’t apologize for my own experiences–and some of what made them so powerful was that they weren’t always following my own nature, but instead forcing me to grow in a way I might not have.

Bruce, David, Frank, Ken Elias and I produced lots of concerts and musical events. One of them was Betty’s Suite, a 30 minute piece that combined a choir, a large band, dancers and pre-recorded material. We only performed it once, but it was a thrill. I got the hang of producing and still use some of the same methodology today.

The sales work got super interesting. Off Andrea and I went to Houston for the longest and sweatiest 18 months in history. Matt Rand was my new boss and he suggested I focus on selling our promotional expertise to health care companies, then a revolutionary and untried strategy. For 90 days, I wrote literally zero business–kind of unheard of with someone with a few years experience. Matt never once made me feel like I was failing, just that I was getting started. And eventually, he proved himself right. it all came together and I became a Health Care Marketing Specialist, creating entertaining promotional campaigns for national hospital chains. I could live with that–just like Synanon had enabled me to see things in a new light, I found I could provide a similar perspective shift with clients, about their own challenges, their employees, or whatever was in front of them. Clients started becoming friends, and some of them still are today.

Was Synanon starting to unravel? I suppose so–the dichotomy of in and out of the Game had become less sacrosanct, as the founder had begun taking action based on what was said in the circle. My solution was to either play the public Games like they were merely entertainment, and stick to private Games to get my serious Gaming on. I loved the Game–not that I wasn’t resistant and terrified at times, but it was often such a thrilling ride for me that I pushed past my fears.

Back in CA, my talented friend Jon Kaufman had been appointed the role of manager of the Health Care Marketing Team, and together I think we helped to raise the bar of what was possible in ADGAP. There were other innovators, of course, but I felt good about brainstorming with Jon and the team and then presenting our crazy idea to Macyl and Dennis Speert, who almost always said “Try it out!”

I was proud that I went through most of the ’80s, which seemed to be more conspicuously materialistic than other decades outside of Synanon, without owning ANYTHING. I loved living in community, even with all the challenges. Chuck had done damage to the fabric of the place but was being moved to the sidelines and lots of us were committed to trying to keep the best parts alive and functioning. Still, every other day we’d hear that another friend was leaving.

Glenda and I had fallen for each other–the possible end of an unrequited infatuation from 8 years earlier loomed. We got together at a great cost to our partners which I will always regret, and that changed everything. She had already joined the healthcare marketing team and suddenly we were sitting in offices persuading pharmaceutical clients to spend their advertising agency dollars with us, a whole different level of sophistication and risk-taking which we loved.

To hang onto our best sales people, ADGAP started offering salaries–and the money was both comforting and terrifying to people. I had never seen someone like Bill Lundberg or Phil Applebaum as merely a blue collar grunt–you don’t need a brain surgeon when the pipes freeze, you need a guy who knows how to deal with that. We all played our roles. But the money divided people and created the perception of a typical, stratified non-Synanon community. And the perception eventually become reality for most of us.

Back to work, we also convinced clients to use my personal music CDs, which I’d been producing since the late ’80s, as branded giveaways which helped to validate my decision to do music my way as opposed to what had been expected of me as a kid. We sold over a million CDs of my music and the music of top artists in the jazz genre from around the world.

Glenda and I had the last official Synanon Love Match, officiated by the amazingly funny Russ Mumford. We tried to keep some piece of the community functioning, along with a few other diehards, but with only another month to go before the IRS was going to close us down, Glenda and I moved to Exeter and helped to reform ADGAP as an employee-owned company, along with about 100 other folks who moved to various parts of the country.

I attended Synanon reunions pretty regularly. I was still so disappointed that I had my own car, my own mortgage, my own laundry machine and so on. It was never what I’d aspired to and to this day I still believe that there are alternative lifestyles that are better for the ecosystem and for the emotional ecosystem as well. But hey, life is short and you do the best you can with what you’ve got in front of you.

Today, I am 65 years old and living in Central Mexico. The town I live in is actually an intentional community–you don’t move here unless you are interested in some level of community, IMO. After producing concerts and fundraisers for the last 13 years, I came out of retirement and began selling real estate part-time. I love that I know how to sell without actually selling anything–I’ll often do a little Unicept or T bar with clients and help them figure out what they really want for themselves, and then the town sells itself.

I am still very connected to many of my Synanon relationships. And my important newer relationships all know about my history–how could I not tell someone about a place, a way I’d spent my life from 14 to 35 years old?

My music is still at the top of my list. Over the years, I’ve had young musicians under my wing in a way that I hope would make Frank and Al and Ed Scott proud. Today, I have longtime musical associations and brand new partners…and the younger set is pushing me to keep growing. I’m pretty sure I’m a better player and composer than I was 10 years ago, and I hope there’s time to reach yet another level or two before I’m done.

There is far too much to say–there were single days of my Synanon life that could be the basis for an entire novella. But I wanted to touch on some highlights on this, the anniversary of both my first Synanon Game and later the date on which I became a full-time resident.

Thanks for reading along. I have love and respect for all of you, even if we might disagree about the details.

3 replies »

  1. My dear life long friend the talented Doug Robinson.. sending love.. You made my day reading your story and listening to your music. I love you dearly and forever.

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