The Wall is your friend …

“In the attempt his genius deserts him, no muse befriends.” 

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

I moved into Synanon in 1969. A college dropout in a failing marriage, I had quit everything I ever started. In a violent polarized country, Synanon appeared to be productive and revolutionary. I was thrilled to be part of a place where I could learn to work with committed, fascinating people from all walks of life and life experiences. I believed I had something to give and that I could get both education and opportunity. I believed we were courageously facing and changing the ills of our generation. This time I found a thing that would change and evolve. Something I could commit to. I vowed that I would never quit.

I moved into the 12-story former exclusive Oakland Athletic club with an Olympic-size pool, a spa, and a walk-in fireplace with a carved wooden mantel in the living room.  Rotating to the rolling green acres of ranches in Marin County.  I lived in Marshall with a stunning view of Tomales Bay and on oceanfront property on the beach in Santa Monica, which is now a luxury hotel.  My final Synanon home was nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills complete with tennis courts and huge communal hot and cold soak tubs.  I was never lonely, bored, or unchallenged.

I worked as a dining room girl, waitress, housekeeper, and laundress. On the sales team, I worked the T’s*and eventually sold six-figure programs to Fortune 500 corporations. I was trained by radio personality Dan Sorkin to produce, create, and host radio programs. I created the position of MAMA and coordinated with the women who ran each of our facilities across the country to make sure each resident had an ample supply of sheets, towels, and cleaning, paper, and hygiene products.  Each facility had a free store where residents could get clothes, shoes, jewelry, and books and have a place to shop through catalogs in the days before the internet and Amazon.

In the late 1970s, I was one of a four-person team of Western Regional Managers.  Lee Otto, Julian Kaiser, Brooks Carder. We reported to Steve Marks while the Founder, his staff, and members of the hierarchy were in Washington, D.C., and then Formia, Italy.  This was my sanest, happiest, most creative, and productive time in Synanon.  I loved working with those talented and intelligent men and felt that we were keeping the foundation running and managing it well, and taking care of people, while all hell was breaking loose on the other side of the world. 

I cared deeply about Chuck and his fellow travelers. I felt protective of the man who had changed my life for the better and whose vision I held dear.  My time around Chuck and Betty informed the best of who I am.  My sense of having free will, my stance of gratitude, my desire to connect with others, to be inclusive, open-minded, and curious.

Betty was gone when Chuck returned stateside.  He had suffered the loss of his wife, his sobriety, and the respect of most followers and supporters.  He was arrested and jailed. Chuck accepted a plea bargain and parole to avoid a trial and possible imprisonment. He had a series of small strokes. He returned broken, babbling but still blustering.

I do not claim to know the challenges faced by those closest to him when he was under attack.  Reports came back from Formia, Italy, framing it as a planned vacation and the building of a new Synanon instead of a flight out of the country to regroup, protect assets, and rationalize the destruction of our nonviolent community with a charitable purpose.  Nothing was revolutionary about an alcoholic relapsing after building a business based on sobriety.

Drunk Synanon was not a place I was happy in or proud to be part of. The last shred of the Founder’s genius deserted him and lesser minds manipulated what was left, trashing what he had not destroyed himself. It was a confusing time for those who cared about Chuck as a person and who wanted to protect what was left of our community.  Upstanding, educated folk who had never broken a law tried to be heroes with disastrous results. Many principles upon which the community was built went out the door.

The conditions of The Old Man’s parole prevented him from managing Synanon, either in or out of Games. “The Wall” was a speaker box hanging on the wall that allowed Chuck to patch into Game rooms.  He would listen in his lair surrounded by his minions.  When sound from the wall speaker started to sputter and hiss, those of us in the Game Lab sometimes heard  “Am I in there?” before Chuck cleared his throat to speak. Often his voice could be heard in the background coaching others to speak in his stead. Sometimes, minutes later, they would appear in the Game to deliver the message.  It was an intrusion into what had once been a sacred and private process—when what was said in a Game stayed there and there was a distinct difference between “in the Game” and “out of the Game.”

We were encouraged to play along, indulge him, and even have a sense of humor about it. “The Wall is your friend” became a watchword.

One of our good doctors, aware of Chuck’s mental condition, gave him medication in his Metamucil each morning.  Some of those closest to him were in denial about how sick and wounded he was and that he needed meds to stay stable.  When his personal physician left for two weeks, no one else would administer his meds.  Paranoia and megalomania resulted leading to the event described by Bob Navarro in “The Institute of Social Experiments part 5”.

Longtime resident Buddy Jones warned his mother, who had visited Synanon and been a supporter:

“Please don’t be worried about anything you may hear about us on the news. Chuck is losing it…”

“Son, I have worked for many families.  I have seen what happens when Grandpa starts to unravel and everyone rushes around in denial.  No one wants to admit it, and sometimes they turn on anyone who dares to point it out.”

“When Grandpa goes crazy, the family puts up a good front no matter how bad it gets till Grandpa finally shits on the carpet.  Even when that happens, people who are right in the middle of it can’t see it.  I have seen this in families over and over again.  No matter how much you try to hide it or clean it up, that ugly stain is there. Finally, they have to take a look at it.”

Chuck and Ginny left to resettle in a mobile home park for seniors.  Before Chuck left, I sat with him at Think Table one morning. He was back on his meds and open about his bipolar disorder:

“You know I built Synanon in a manic fury for the first 20 years.  After it peaked, I became depressed. I brought it crashing down all around me.”

Allen and I were among the very last people to leave the hill.  We watched our friends load up Ryder trucks and depart.  I had a horse and dog and good friends outside of our community in Badger.  I could work from there with occasional road trips.  I loved the place, every rock, tree, and boulder. I hoped we could share housing, resources, eat together, and still play the Game.

Finally, Allen could no longer handle the long, windy drive down J-21 to work long hours in Visalia and back home each night.  Our son was starting high school, so we, too, eventually tumbled down the hill to put the pieces of our life back together.

 We always had the choice.  We could speak up and take our chances, or we could leave.  We could stay and go with the flow or stay and try to fix it.  I stayed and tried to fix it till it evaporated around me.

In spite of that huge stain on the carpet, my love for Synanon has not wavered through the time, distance, and perspectives that separate us. We know each other deeply from hours spent battering down the walls of ego and image, from consciously building bridges outside ourselves.  It is a balm that many of us are deeply connected today as we carry on with aspects of the community we treasured, in our efforts to preserve the GOOD PARTS.

*Working the T’s referred to beginning Sales Trainees being dropped our in industrial areas and trained to knock on each door no matter how unpromising it looked. A “T “described a long block of such businesses culminating with a T at the end with 2 or three businesses, often in a garage. Walk all the way down to the end and then back up the other side. Knock on every door.

“Rape Weekend” also known as “The Palace Coup” was a 24-hour period at the Home Place and Strip toward the official closing of Synanon. The Founder, off his meds and in the beginning stages of dementia, called the remaining members of the community together in the fashion of a General Meeting.  Previously, General Meetings and Cop-Outs were tools to uncover a transgression, i.e., someone stealing, using drugs, or violating community rules.  In this case, rape was the analogy Chuck used to describe how he felt when someone “violated his space” by moving his eyeglasses.  Those gathered were divided into Game groups and exhorted to explore how they had been raped, focusing on women who had actually been raped.  While some people might have used their Game for healing, many felt violated by this distortion of what had once been a healthy cleansing process.

4 responses to “The Wall is your friend …”

  1. Thank you Elena. This is a well written synopsis of the long fall from grace of the Founder. I cannot help but think that the “minions” were in as much of a state of shock, confusion and desperation as anyone else. I think that from an outsiders perspective, there is no way to adequately understand or comprehend the enormity of a depressed and traumatized community. You are all survivors.

  2. Thank you Gary for your wisdom and understanding. Yes I think we were all minions at some point and there is much to learn about decisions we made or did not make back then.


    1. Thank you John! Means alot coming from you. My first Tribe Leader:)))

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