“The Song of Bernadette”
By Hugh Kenny
In 1964, when I joined the drug rehab center called Synanon, it was early in its brief trajectory from brilliant social movement to headline-grabbing cult.
Chuck Dederich was the big cheese, but Reid Kimball was second in charge. Reid was from Salt Lake City and was a black sheep of the Mormon leadership. I don’t know Reid’s criminal bona fides; I only remember that I could tell he could be dangerous. Not by any tough guy pose he assumed. But by the opposite. He had a face fully confident, enthusiastic, and brimming over with laughter. All that good cheer diverted your gaze from a seven-inch scar on the right side of his face that looked like it had been slashed by a saber. He was in his fifties or sixties. I was 24 so he appeared old to me. Old but vital. He was always hooked up with a beautiful woman. Some said he was the only one who could keep the founder on course. Chuck relied on him. Once when he left Reid behind to run the place there was quite a fuss when one of the resident housekeepers stumbled across a pistol in Reid’s night table.
Synanon’s secret sauce was the Game. You sat in a circle with 10-14 other members, the agreement being that you could say anything you wanted to, short of a threat of violence, to or about anyone in the circle. No format. No leader. Not much intention other than the adventure of doing so and no hard feelings afterward. We did this for about two hours, three times a week. It did wonders for the communication skills of those not too frightened to play.
Reid Kimball was a virtuoso Game Player. I was in a room when he came to play the Game with a young lady in her twenties named Bernadette Bender.
It was recorded. It is among my top favorite recordings. It was called the “Song of Bernadette” aptly named by Bill Burns who was in charge of the audiotape library.
Reid had come into the Stew we were seated in to address Bernadette. Her crime? She had used a book to prop open a window. Reid laid out an inditement that was clear and reasoned.
His respect for books was made so apparent that everyone got the idea. He pattered on in that fast pace mirthful, laughing, chortling voice of his. Because his health was beginning to fail, his breathing came irregularly. He would create a sentence or two, talking real fast, take in a breath or two, then launch into it again, his short arms pumping up and down in enthusiasm. He showed Bernadette the greatest respect. She never felt attacked. He never went from the misused book to examine any other aspect of her behavior or delve into her character.
It was the book. The dishonored book. Reid feigned incredulity that such a base act could even occur. I can only imperfectly suggest his summing up: He said something like, ” If I tried to talk you into going to the docks with me and turn tricks, I would expect you to say :
‘No sir, I could not do such a thing. I could no more go to the docks with you and turn tricks, then I could use a book to prop open a window”
His tour de force completed, he leaned back and let Bernadette reflect. She was undefensive. She said she got the point Reid was making and promised to mend her ways. She admitted too, that up to these enlightened moments, had Reid asked her to turn tricks for him at the docks, she would have happily complied.