Ronna & Me

by Cordelia Becker

She was cultured, smart, beautiful, classy, and tall — too large-boned to be a model yet so striking.

One day she went to the hospital to visit Reid wearing a form-fitting, bright red knit dress — the sort of dress that did justice to her figure with her dark hair and pale skin.

Ronna Kimball-Siegel was a classic “winter” according to “Color Me Beautiful Season’s School of Color Analysis.”       I was glad to be a winter, too. Our colors were brilliant and bold, not rusty or washed out. Brilliant and bold is a good description of Ronna.

I wish I could find more photos of her.


She came back from the hospital, and I can still hear her big laugh and see that great smile as she informed us that when she walked into his room Reid had wheezed, 

“Ronna darling, you look like a big beautiful Seconal.” 

When I came into Synanon, I knew nothing of drugs. I learned all about them by listening to the dope fiends talk. Kathy R. explained to me how in a pinch, if you were careful, you could cook up heroin in the cellophane cigarette pack wrapper. Good to know. I learned that certain barbiturates were called “gorilla biscuits” because they made the user belligerent. And I learned Seconals were called reds — red like Ronna’s dress. I was glad I got the joke. 

Her dad was nicknamed Dutch. I think I saw him visit once. He was tall and an athletic coach, basketball?  I’m thinking he might have been the same age as Reid. 

Some day, I want to write about something we called “the dope fiend mystique.” Many lovely, talented, and intelligent square women came around Synanon. And boy did they go for those dope fiend guys. Choose your color palette — we had a lot of really great-looking, interesting dope fiend guys in Synanon. I’m not going to name names because I don’t want to leave anyone out. I do remember meeting Lou Delgado when I was a brand-new newcomer and thinking, Man, if they have more guys like him, I’m sticking around. It took me a while, but I did get my own dope fiend, finally.  He was pretty cute. Of course, I wasn’t technically a “square,” but I almost was, and I was cute, too.

Somehow in my Synanon life, I ended up working with Ted Dibble running some sort of newcomer program at Walker Creek. Here is what I remember about it. The main building where Ted and I worked was filled with annoying flies and hideous gooey strips covered in dead flies. I remember we had to wear overalls — it was our uniform. I got in an argument with Ted. We were making some kind of presentation with our newcomers on a Saturday Night. I had gone to a thrift store in Petaluma and used my WAM (walking around money) to buy this vintage 1950s party dress, off-the-shoulder, cinched waist, with a big full skirt — maybe something Ronna would wear. I thought I looked amazing, and Ted agreed, but he made me go back to my room and change into overalls.  When he wasn’t impinging on my freedom of expression, Ted and I would do skits for just us: all you-had-to-be-there jokes, but we constantly cracked ourselves up.

Soooo, It turns out Ronna’s sister had a thirteen-year-old who was acting out. I don’t know the details, but someone had the horrible idea of having her come up and be in this program we were operating. I’m thinking it was sort of a boot camp, but I don’t remember any marching. It was a wrong fit from the get-go. The kid was in shock — she wasn’t bad enough, she wasn’t old enough, and she wouldn’t stop crying. Ted and I agreed that it would be best to have her parents come up and get her. That is how I came to meet Ronna’s mother and sister. Now I was the one in shock. The mother and sister were both tall like Ronna, but that is where the comparison ended. They were both blond and hefty. I was recently reminded (thank you, Linda Westwood) that Ronna’s mother had been a basketball player and the sister was a Roller Derby girl. It came up in the conversation that the sister was involved in drag racing. It wasn’t so much that I disapproved of these two women, but if I had not known they were Ronna’s relatives, I would have thought, Huh, it takes all kinds. It was the contrast to Ronna, who seemed from a different planet than these women — roller derby!? They did not speak with Ronna’s crisp cultivated diction. They didn’t laugh at all (of course, it could have been the circumstances).  “Sorry, Synanon can’t help your cheeky little brat,” who I like to imagine turned out just fine without becoming a mighty Synanon boot camper.

The next time I found myself in Ronna’s company I asked her as tactfully as I could how it was that she seemed so different from them.

She told me a remarkable story of how she reinvented herself when she was fifteen.  She remade herself with what she had on hand. No, she had not been sent to a Swiss boarding school. She read books, went to plays and museums, and memorized the names of artists. She studied fashion magazines and carefully picked her wardrobe.  She just made up her accent, which was why it was impossible to place her in a certain geographic area. She said she just made sure to enunciate. She also took dance lessons — at least she had a long fluid stride like a dancer.  

Did I mention that she was sexy, in a very bold, not coy way?  It seemed to me she flirted with everyone. One day I told her that she was pansexual and was rewarded with her big laugh. She reminded me about the observation every time I saw her.

I heard she had died in 1991. In those days, we didn’t have a network of Synanon people, so I didn’t find out right away. I found an old journal of mine. and this is what I wrote:

“I think the loss of Ronna has driven home that I will never again get to know so well such interesting and provocative people. Not that I won’t meet interesting people, but I won’t be able to know them, nor will they know me. Something about Synanon, and I suppose the game, allowed for a wonderful intimacy where you could be close, then far apart, and then close again, without the investment of making everyone a  best friend for life. The energy that it takes to make someone your BFFL is daunting. Sitting around a big table for a meal is not. Trying to make a date for lunch with someone that you think you might want to be friends with here in the big world is like engineering a moon shot.” 

I was pretty lonely after Synanon.

That was back in 1992 when Geoff and I were struggling to survive — neither of us having been grownups before Synanon. It’s not often one finds a 40-year-old who has never bought a car or paid rent. We moved far away from Synanon people not because we didn’t want to be around them but none of the various “settlements” were suitable for our situation. We had to find a place that we could afford and raise the mixed-race child we had adopted. I don’t regret the decision, but I am glad now that via Facebook and Zoom calls that I can stay in touch with many of the fascinating, talented, and unique (read “weird”) people of Synanon and some of them are my BFFLs. I do wish one of them was Ronna.

That smile! And a bonus, Richie Alcock, another one I wish was still around. I think I see Roger Wells back there, too.

12 responses to “Ronna & Me”

  1. Ronna taught the kids dance classes and she discovered Billy J. I remember how thrilled she was when she watched Billy J. dance.
    He made a successful career out of his gift of dancing.
    I remember CED saying she was the prettiest woman with a bald head.


  2. So beautifully told. I’m glad you wrote about Ronna too. I didn’t know her well enough. She was a bit intimidating. Thank you.

  3. Croissant. She pronounced it in French. I remember her in LA, during the Preliminary Hearings announcing she’d brought some to the Sycamore House for breakfast. She knew stuff. She led these amazing dance classes for the teenagers up at the Bay, and when I’d visit, I’d get to join. They were indescribably fun. She was really a force of nature, and I remember her exactly as you describe her.

  4. I am grateful for this story and others from the “adults” because they help me understand why my mom wanted/needed to be in Synanon in ways I was never able to appreciate. Somehow it softens my heart for a place that had hardened it as a child. Thank you.

  5. Thank you … I never knew Ronna, but often wondered about her relationship with Reid. It seemed very apples and oranges. Do you have any insight?

    1. I think it was more like tea and crumpets. Great on their own, fantastic together.

  6. Linda B. (Buonaiuto) Westwood Avatar
    Linda B. (Buonaiuto) Westwood

    I knew Ronna pretty well and will seek out the picture I have of her during a Trip. We were dancing the Hoopala up on a hill in Tomales with a view of the bay. Joanne Samuels (Chalfin) is in the pic + others. During the first Hatchery, we would bring our babies to the Ranch and meet Ronna who would lead us in exercises, run us around a makeshift track,’all in an effort to get our figures back. As an aside, she & Fred Davis lobbied for the tennis court at the Ranch and gave lessons.

    When she got cancer I would accompany her to LA for treatments. She called me “her nurse fuzzy-wuzzy.” We’d stay with her mom in the same house that she grew up in, slept in her room in the twin beds she shared with her sister. Her sister was also formidable in a different way … Skated Roller Derby. I don’t know if she also raced cars. The first few days Ronna would feel great, happy to be in LA where she knew her way around. I was the driver and we’d go shopping at Loehman’s, eat out, having a good time. As the daily treatments progressed she would feel less well, spend more time at home with her mom who would make chicken soup … the comfort food. Her mom would boil up the chickens and freeze the stock in milk cartons. When we came she’d make the soup with noodles & carrots. I asked, “where’s the chicken?” She said, “Oh,’ I ate that a long time ago.”
    Her mom & dad were both basketball players … not common for women during her day.

    After she & Ed Siegel left S they moved to Ojai I only visited her there once, maybe twice. Namia Horoko (sp) became her new nurse fuzzy-wuzzy and I understand she was a caring and devoted companion until the end.

    These fond memories from Linda B. (Buonaiuto)!Westwood

    1. Linda thankyou…right it was roller derby but I do think there was some car racing too.

  7. Thank you Cory for your inspiring storytelling and reminding me how important the work you are doing on this website is for capturing the memories of that special place and time we shared. Especially gratified to see David Johnson’s comment with the great hope that he and others might get a glimpse into what we loved and the “good parts” we hope to share and maybe even to heal some pain. I first met Ronna in 1968 before either of us knew about Synanon. We were both on Ann Halprin’s Dance Deck in Kentfield. I worked for Ann (who later became Anna) and Ronna had just started taking classes. Though you will find this hard to believe, she was shy and inhibited. Ann gave me the assignment to look out for her and draw her out. We were doing wonderful large silent movement on the deck and Ronna was curled in a corner. We made eye contact and I lured her out to where other movers and dancers were joyfully connecting. There was no speaking, only connecting through movement and eye contact. Our eyes held steady contact as we mirrored each others movement. Finally her face relaxed and she cracked that big beautiful smile and stood up to her full height towering over me. We still moved in harmony. We made a close connection though we never talked. She was transformed when I saw her again in Synanon a year or two later. Magnificent and a class act on the arm of Reid Kimball a man I truly respected. Reid was the real deal. From a prominent Mormon family, one of the founders of Synanon. Powerful speaker, articulate and funny in Games. He taught us Academy kids the art of the carom shot. He played the Game like an art form. And here was Ronna in Synanon also. She had blossomed into a fashionable confident happy woman on the arm of an interesting and powerful man. They seemed so happy. He kept her laughing. Chuck made jokes about “the long and the short of it,” but you could see how good they were for each other, how proud Reid was and how radiant Ronna looked and glad she was to be on his arm.

    1. Thank you Cory. That was a good, quick read. I spied Ronna for the first time when I was working the Connect in Santa Monica. She was special, knew it but very friendly and not at all condescending. Gita Kaiser was running the Connect back then and sooner or later I knew that Ronna would be working there too. To know her was to love her because she had all of the good attributes that Synanon taught down pat. Friendly, polite, sometimes effusive but always considerate…she was a Synanon star with that Kimball name tagging right along that shapely behind, behind her. Those were some glorious days in Santa Monica then and she fit the bill like a starlet out of central casting. Working the Connect was an adventure in and of itself with the Bench and Capping Couch to the left of you and down the steps a wide door to the Universe in front of you. Ronna was the perfect piece of eye candy to behold at the top of the steps. When you spoke to her all of this banter came out in a sophisticated tone to the point where you truly had to ask yourself – “am I in the right place here…this is a drug program… isn’t it?”

  8. Memories of our own Wonder Woman. Ronna brought her magnetic smile and perfect posture to Tomales during the Academy days. She conducted a modern dance class in the Shed. Somehow she attracted as many guys as there were girls. Men in tights. Andy Cretella, Randy J., Mike G. and me, prancing across the Shed floor, searching for our inner dancers. That class infused a confidence in me, nineteen at the time, that was much needed. Thank you Ronna.

  9. So good to read again. It makes me happy.

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