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.