Reid Kimball

“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.

12 replies »

  1. Thank you Hugh. This is brilliant. Brought back that husky voice and the twinkling eyes. He had a story of redemption and recovery and lived his life to the fullest to the end. I remember him in the Tomales caves wheeling around an oxygen tank so that he could breathe, but was still smoking.

    As you described, his power in the Game was his humor and indirect approach. His vocabulary and storytelling skills had us on the edge of our chairs. I remember him using the carom shot to effect someone sitting across the room he was not even looking at and the Game moving fast and furious when he was in the room. Better entertainment than any TV and far more interactive.

    I also remember that the tape made by CED called “The Gift of Life,” began with the old man’s empathy for his friend Reid who by then was struggling for each breath. He described Reid’s difficulty, then expressed his appreciation for his own health and other gifts…”Just to breathe is so utterly fantastic, to sleep on a bed and not on the God Damn ground….etc. Alternate name for that tape was “Optimism and Negativity”. Remember?

    • When I was a newcomer at the Tomales Bay Academy, my dad stopped by to visit the utopian adventure his son had jumped into. He was taken with it, though presciently a little dubious about my claims for its possibilities and influence. The land around the facility and the weather and the nearby ocean reminded him of his own parallel adventure, during his youth helping together with my mother to found a kibbutz in Israel as a way of inaugurating not just a state but a better way of life.

      He and Reid hit it off, talking for a long while in the dining room while I scrubbed pots and chopped vegetables in the kitchen. I always have wondered what they might have talked about — my Dad in his professor’s tweed jacket and Reid with the scar down the side of his face. At a glance, they would have looked to come from too different worlds to be connecting.

      Now, I have an inkling what did connect them. Books! My father was a scientist by day and a historian by night. Like Reid he revered books and reading, often saying “never disturb a reading child” when my sister or I were engrossed in one of our books and my mother wanted us to turn our attention to our homework.

      After Reid died, someone told me about his last moments. Their account, as my memory holds it, was that Reid was taking his morning stroll down the aisle at his hospital, a nurse on either side holding him close and supporting him, and one of them pulling his oxygen tank behind. He was regaling them with jokes and satirical stories and had them laughing out loud. Their laughter was the last sound he heard, for part way through the stroll he sagged to the floor, his life over.

      I can’t be sure the story is accurate or even if it is the story I heard. Fifty three year old memories are not stable. I hope it is close to true — and Edna might know if it is — but at the worst, it is a parable for the Reid we admired.

      Hugh, thanks for another good piece.

      David Gerstel

  2. I listened to every Reid Kimball tape in the Lyceum when I was 13 ~ 14 years of age.
    This brought him back to me in a most delightful way.
    Especially since I have the perspective of being older than he was then! Oy!

  3. I was his “private” nurse toward the end of his life. He was sharp and connected up to the end.

  4. I love this story, Hugh, on so many levels: to get a sense of Reid who I didn’t know, to remember how things were when Synanon was more “pure.” Renewed my sense of mourning for what we had and lost. Thank you.

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