Lessons in the early days

by Margo Macartney

CED at Saturday Night Party

The guy who started Synanon was stocky, cocky, had a big gut, a crew cut, and a crooked face—from an old ear infection, he said. He was Chuck. People called him the “Old Man.”  He was in his late forties then, an AA dropout who saw alcoholism and drug addiction as the same.  The chemical didn’t matter.  What mattered was the character disorder underneath.  The character disorder was what he addressed.

He said our work in Synanon came from an old Lao Tsu line, “Enabling man to go right, disabling him from going wrong,”  a phrase that ran along the bottom of the Synanon letterhead, the stationary used in correspondence. That was the underpinning of what Synanon taught.  It joined the other quotes in the concept box that provided topics for our daily noon seminars. 

 In those early days, in the sixties, Chuck was frequently evident in the Synanon House. He never held classes but did teach lessons.

Zev P told the story about Chuck sending him to the bank to make a deposit when Zev had been in Synanon only a few weeks.  Zev recognized how untrustworthy he had been before moving into Synanon.  Chuck wanted to put Zev in a position to begin to feel good about himself.  Chuck gave him this bag of money — hundreds of dollars in donations from people all over the country — and sent him to deposit the funds in the bank. Zev had every opportunity to run off with the money or to take some out and use some of it.   He did neither of those things.  He deposited the money into the bank account and brought the receipt back.  Afterward, he talked about how good he felt about Chuck trusting him, and about his own behavior.  “I couldn’t believe it!”  He told me, later.

  Lessons like that — small private lessons, were common.  Sending someone to the store for something without an escort and bringing back the change.

Sometimes Chuck would show up at morning meetings and try to raise awareness.  Most often they were in his own ” harangue style comedy,” delivered in his gravelly voice.  It became almost an art form, woven in words gauged to grab attention and entertain.  I remember one, drawing attention to something, I think it was a box, that had been left on the floor in the same place for several days.  He had picked up the box and was waving it around, like Exhibit A, with his cigarette dangling from his lips.  In those days everyone smoked. 

“This box sat on the floor just inside the kitchen for two days, and I watched to see who would pick it up and move it. Obviously, it doesn’t belong in the middle of the floor. It belongs in the trash if it’s empty, and it appears to be empty. For two days I watched.  The box just sat there.  No one touched it.  You monkeys all stepped over it, jumped over it; it was almost a dance.  It’s not a concrete wall in your way!  It’s not heavy!  Look how light it is! It’s a box!  It’s in your way!  Pick the damned thing up and put it in the trash!  What’s the matter with you people?  Wake up!!!”

 His delivery was clownish.  Everyone laughed.  Not his exact words, but to this day, when I see something on the floor, I hear the echo, I laugh to myself and pick it up.

Reid Kimball, a director, had a different style. Reid was a former addict, clean for several years, brilliant, articulate, and funny with a sense of humor and a giant vocabulary.  He was said to have come from a prominent Mormon family. He had also been connected with the Nevada gambling scene — to the point where Harrah was allegedly going to put Reid in charge of Harrah’s Casino at Tahoe, but Reid had moved into Synanon and was out of that life. 

Reid wasn’t tall, was neither fat nor thin, a bit stocky, an enormous presence.  He would wave his arms around as he talked.  In this instance, two or three guys had gotten under Reid’s skin.  He had given them a lesson in manners and gratitude the day it happened, now he was extending it to the whole house.

He delivered a lesson in manners one morning.   One of our residents’ fathers worked for a milk company and had arranged for us to have the leftover milk every day.  It was a huge donation. Reid had watched Ron’s dad carry one of those crates with a dozen gallons of milk upstairs the previous afternoon, and noticed some guys lolling around, watching.  Reid pulled them out of their torpor and ordered them to carry the crates — there were several — of milk. 

Reid turned the incident into a Morning Meeting lesson. He stood in the back, behind everyone.  He wasn’t yelling, as he described these guys standing around while Ron’s father was carrying heavy milk crates up the stairs.

“The next time I see that I will break the knees of anyone I see sitting around or standing around and not. snatching them out of his arms to carry the crates up the stairs.  We are so fucking lucky to have milk donated!  Do you have any idea of how lucky we are?! I will, I swear, break the knees of any guy I see in the area, who doesn’t stop what he’s doing and jump up to carry those crates.” 

I whispered to someone, “I thought there was no physical violence or threats of physical violence here.” I was brand new in Synanon.

“Ah, no, that’s just Reid. Don’t worry. He’s making a point.”

Well, he got my attention.

5 responses to “Lessons in the early days”

  1. Nice work Margo!

  2. Hugh, I second that.

    Margo, do I remember right. Did we collaborate on that little pamphlet Chuck wanted for the meeting with the Dutch Boy execs? I pulled it out awhile back with some trepidation. But my prose wasn’t as corny as I had feared, and your illustrations were lovely. At least I think they were yours. Maybe I am crossing up identities. Heck, that was over half a century ago. Maybe it was another artist I worked with. No. . . I think it was you. But maybe not.

    Katherine told me you were here at Cory’s Morning Meeting. She is very impressed with you and thrilled about the help you are giving her. I have some hope she and her people are capable of making a good documentary about Synanon. I have often been contacted by people who wanted to make a documentary. With one exception, I have turned them away. It quickly became apparent in conversation with them that they were in titillation entertainment. Our story deserves far better than that. Katherine does seem to get it in all its complexity and paradox and wonderfulness and horror.

    Thanks for recommending my book to Katherine. It means more to me than I can express that people like you and Hugh think it is worth reading.

    all best, David Gerstel

    1. David, can you scan the pamphlet and send it on to me? I’ll put a post up about it and put a blurb about your book “Synanon Inc.” My direct email is roazbear@gmail.com. It’s great to hear from you. Best Cory

      1. Hi Cory, I just made a note to myself to dig up that old pamphlet and scan it for you . . . or have it scanned so that it will be in color (which my scanner might not adequately produce) and do justice to Margo’s illustrations.

        Please don’t feel any need to use your beautiful site to advertise Paradise, Incorporated. I sorta feel that such a commercial would be a misuse of this beautiful place.

        I may have some other documents that are worthy of the site. Somewhere in my archives there is, I hope, a paper by Tom Patton that eloquently expresses the utopian communal urge that animated our community. If I unearth it, I will send that along, too.

        I hope to write a bit myself for Morning Meeting. This morning I woke up composing a piece to be titled “The Shoe,” a tribute to Jimmy T. and a concrete mixer. Maybe I can get it written.

        It’s great to hear from you, too. I have good memories of you — not so much from the Academy, but from Santa Monica when I was there developing the Cubic Day and you were . . . ? I don’t remember. I do remember learning that you were an artist and being impressed by your vision and acuity. It sure shows here. Morning Meeting is astonishingly good. I have treated myself to a little time with it every evening since Katherine Linton guided me to it.

        What was best about Synanon was the community . . . and It survives here in an improved form since folks are freer to express their full range of thoughts than they were as the community came under increasing control by Chuck Dederich’s corporation. The connections being made here glow with openness and warmth and I hope they will grow and spread as more and more folks chime in.

      2. Oops, of course, Paradise, Inc. I have a copy of it right in front of me. I wasn’t thinking of the blurb being for commercial advertising but rather just a reference for a unique point of view about Synanon. I hope to get a blog post up about every book written about Synanon, especially those written by former residents. I will gladly accept anything you’d care to share with the website and blog. Yes, “The Shoe”, that would be great, and I hope you find that Tom Patton piece.

        “It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives.” Plutarch (well I’m sort of curating lives, but hope to write more.) How great to be in touch after 45 years. Thank you for remembering me as an artist. Stay in touch.

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