Harold Benjamin stories
Edited excerpts from a December 1980 interview by Center for the Study of New Religious Movements, The Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California
How I came to Synanon
Harriett and I and our two daughters—Ann, age about 15, and Lauren, 12 or 13— my mother-in-law, and a girl dog all lived in Bel Air. We came to California from the East. This must have been about 1965. And I did rather well financially because I never came home. There were just too many women for me to handle, and I couldn’t handle them very well. Our oldest daughter was a problem. She did give us fits.
I was invited to a dinner at which I sat next to a guy who turned out to be the attorney for Synanon, and we had nothing else to talk about. I told him I’d heard about Synanon, and I liked it very much—which was a lie because I’d just heard of it. And it turned out that very soon after, Synanon needed a lawyer (I’m a lawyer). I had been at Synanon only once before and for a very short period of time. I tried a case for them, which we won, and I became very much involved with the people who were there.
How I met Chuck
This was like 1966. And Harriet and I went to a couple of Saturday night affairs that introduce outsiders to Synanon to have them give donations of money, goods, and services. Chuck Dederich was not around. This was all in Santa Monica.
Then one night he was there, and we met. I obviously looked like a fanatic because I had been grabbed by others to meet him. But, he saw something, and he went after me. And he is a master. And I really fell in love. He was charismatic, he was funny, he was bright, he was involved. His instincts were unbelievable, in that when he made a suggestion to someone as to how they had lived their lives or how they should change their lives, it was an almost egoless suggestion, which was new to me. He was really involved with other people and operating from a position of moral ascendency. And, as I say, I fell in love. He then invited me to play the Game with the big shots in Synanon. And I started to play the Game.
I played the Game for about two or three months and became more and more involved with Chuck. Not with Synanon—with Chuck. Then in one Game, I started to talk about all the bad things about myself, that I had once flunked algebra and kicked a dog when I was thirteen. You know, the real important things. But I never told them anything, really, about my life until we started to talk about my daughter, who was a problem.
Chuck and me
In those days, we’re talking about 1966, a girl who smoked marijuana, became pregnant and had to be taken to Juarez, went around with boys with long hair, and didn’t do what her mother and father told her to do was a very, very bad girl. And we thought we had a real problem on our hands. And so did all our friends. The situation with our older daughter just kept getting worse and worse, and he suggested that I put Ann, who was then about 16, into Synanon. So Ann was the first teenage resident of Synanon. Now, I must tell you that I am duly grateful for the way it happened because, whether we were foolish or not, the situation was getting worse and worse and had we not involved her in Synanon, I think that we could have all blown it out of proportion and really had serious problems. She went into Synanon, and we became very, very interested.
And Ann changed dramatically. She changed from a real—this is a technical term, which I’m not sure you have enough education to understand—she was a real pain in the ass, I want to tell you. And she changed dramatically into a very good Synanon citizen, which means dealing with the world from a position of moral ascendency. Ann changed, and I noticed that my relationship with the people in Synanon was growing very close to a situation that I would have hoped my family would have engendered in me.
And the Game started to be played by squares in a situation that was outside of Synanon. I played inside Synanon with the dope fiends and Chuck and the people who ran Synanon, and I also played with the squares who were brought in to play the Game in the Game Club. Harriet started to play the Game within the same circles that I did, in both situations.
Chuck moved down to Santa Monica, and I tell you with glee that for about two and a half years, I spent a couple of hours a day alone with him. In those days, that was a relatively long period of time. He changed my life. The Synanon Game changed my life. What he said changed my life. He was a philosopher, he was a man who could connect disparate ideas in a way that I had never heard. It was a thrilling period of time. I could feel myself grow within the milieu of Synanon. Because he was willing for me to be, and I couldn’t wait. And, if he wanted to go someplace, we would go for a ride. If he was sitting up in his office, I would go seek him out. And he didn’t seem to mind, and I loved it. And as I say, I could just feel myself expanding and growing under his tutelage.
In, I’d say, 1969, we moved into Synanon with our younger daughter Lauren, my mother-in-law, and the girl dog. And we were the first square family to move in.
I think that one of the reasons why people went into Synanon is that Chuck did not make me lose my individuality at all. He made it possible for me to make myself an individual. Coming into Synanon, I can tell you that I didn’t like myself at all. Pre-Synanon, I had a life that was terrible. After being with him, I became an individual who was delighted with who he was. Now, he did it, and his device did it. The Synanon Game made all the difference in the world. And I would say because Chuck Dederich said that I was fantastic, I believed it. And it changed my life, no question about it. What you see sitting before you is 50 percent of the 45 years I lived prior to Synanon and certainly 50 percent of what happened after I got into Synanon.
I was prepared to do anything he asked me to do. Notice I use the word ask. Because I was positive that he would never ask me to do anything that I wouldn’t fully believe in. And he wouldn’t, when I was there. It would be unthinkable for him to ask me to do anything that was not scrupulously within the Ten Commandments, and the Koran, and everything. Just inconceivable.
Chuck, after about two and a half years, did to me what he did to most people who came along—he dumped me. Now, that doesn’t mean he hadn’t made me an extremely important person as far as Synanon was concerned. He had. I either had to take the next step, or I wasn’t going to be his boyfriend anymore. He moved back up north, and we went from there. Our relationship was still excellent.
The fact that I was good enough for Chuck to like me, to spend that kind of time with me, was tremendously reaffirming. I think that when he dumped me, he left me with sufficient resilience. He hurt my feelings. There’s just no question about it. He hurt my feelings. When he could just move away and leave me down there with the heathen and without god. But I had a sufficient resiliency to go on from there and continue to grow, but at a much slower pace.
Everything was directed at Chuck. All loyalty, all affection, all everything was directed at Chuck. He could change anything just by a snap of his fingers. We treated him as if he could make no mistake. Now, you have to understand, his disciples would act like they could make no mistake. I would act like I could make no mistake, and people would act like I could make no mistake. And I was fully aware at all times that he could knock me out of that position with a word, with an absolute word.
“Anything less than changing the world is Mickey Mouse to me.” That’s a Dederich quote. To involve yourself in a situation in which you are trying to change the world so that everyone operates from a position of moral ascendency is more fun than anything else I have ever done in my life. We would say the truth and just say the truth and let the chips fall where they may. And I will tell you. It changed things. We did not involve ourselves in subterfuge at all. And the wonderful part about that—even just before we left—it is a wonderful occupation to change the world. Really wonderful.
Up until about 1971, it was the most idyllic situation, in which I believed I could ever live. There was an enormous amount of laughter, there was an enormous amount of love, there was change, tremendous change for everybody involved, the community changed. There is no part of that which Chuck did for me that I don’t really feel wonderful about. I am still in love. I still idolize the Chuck Dederich that I knew. He was an absolutely selfless man.
How Chuck changed
At that time, I believe he didn’t think he was a god, and nobody around him thought he was a god. At this particular point, they were just starting—the Greek chorus was just starting. Now, the Greek chorus. I might just give you my impression of what brainwashing is since I was a brainwasher and a brainwasher.
One of the ways you do it is kind of easy. You are a wonderful person for a period of years, and you let your instincts bring you to this wonderful position. And you are right most of the time. And then you get a group of people around you, and you say to them, “I am very happy. My life is wonderful. I have done an enormous number of good things, and I love it. How are you? Now, you ain’t so good.” So then, after a while, he says to you, “Who would you rather be, you or me?” Now, we have just established, you feel lousy, I feel fantastic. Now what happens is pretty soon you get a group of people who will say “you.” Now, a new person comes along, and the process gets shortened. You stand there, now here’s the Greek chorus all of whom already have said “you,” and you say to this new person—that new person doesn’t know he feels lousy yet—you say, “Who would you rather be?” And the guy thinks, you know, if I say me, these other people must think I’m nuts. So they say, “I’d rather be you.” Wham! I mean, almost wham! I’ve simplified it, of course.
The reason I know is that I was the head of what they call the Game Club in Santa Monica, which had about 2,000 people in it. And I would say to people, I would say, “Who would you rather be, you or me?” and they would say “You, Harold,” and I would think that that was normal and proper. I thought that was just fine. Because I would say, “I’m happy as a goddamn lark—how are you?” And the funny part about it is, I was.
Now, I would say that I must have lost my objectivity, ability to determine that he wasn’t doing everything exactly right. I would say that in mid-1971 maybe ’72, I started to know Synanon on a different level, that Synanon was no longer the nifty place that I thought it was.
Well, I’m going to say a phrase none of you has ever heard before, and that is, “Power corrupts.” And, a lot of power corrupts a lot. And what we did, I was part of it. We attributed to him godlike qualities. And he did what is known in Synanon as go for his own bullshit. He really believed that—he really believed he could do no wrong. Now, he was also having a ball. Chuck Dederich had a wonderful time screwing people’s heads on and off and changing their views. And I would say, “Isn’t it wonderful that he wants people to live in a moral society, isn’t that wonderful. That’s what gives him his good time.” Then also his good time was seeing how much control he could take over people’s lives.
In about 1972—we left in ’74—he started to act in such a way where his whimsicality was not for the best for everybody. You see, the Synanon Game was the key around which everything was built. And up until that time, as I remember it, anything could be said in a Synanon Game, and he could get as tough as he wanted in the Game because nothing would change outside the Game. But then it started that if he would say something in the Synanon Game, your life would change outside of the Synanon Game. So that you were really afraid. His whimsically really started to get out of hand.
I became enamored with Synanon because of the relationship—because of that which he did for me, what he made possible for me. Now, when I look back and say what made me unhappy is that his response to given situations no longer seemed to be for the best interests of the individuals involved. They seemed to be for reasons other than that. That’s what became unpleasant about living in Synanon. He would make a whimsical decision. There’s nothing wrong with whimsicality if it benefits everybody. But a whimsical decision that is lousy for everybody but a few, even if you are one of the few, it’s still uncomfortable. So, that’s what I flash back on now.
How I left Synanon
I will tell you the way we left because I think that’s kind of interesting. I was, even in that period of time, I was certainly the head of the squares. And because of circumstances with a very wealthy individual square, Chuck decided that there would be a major, major Game. As I look back, I was not a very happy man. I would go into a Game with Chuck and I would be close to nausea, lest he attack me. See, there was no way at that time of fighting back. When I first came into Synanon, a guy like Reid Kimball would give as good as he got, as far as Chuck was concerned. But at this point, that was out of the question. I mean, you could say, “you fat old man,” but we would call each other all kinds of dirty names, and the worst we could say to him is “you fat old man,” and we’d better be smiling. I mean, you’d better be smiling. And this is in the Synanon Game where really anything goes. And how I knew I was unhappy is I really would be close to nausea if he was in the Game.
And there was the Wire. All the facilities were hooked up so that when you played a Synanon Game, he heard it. You know, you’d get up in the goddamn morning and turn on the radio, and you’d better turn on the Wire. And he would be talking or there would be a Synanon Game going on. And, I want to tell you that it was a little much. And if one of your friends came in, and you weren’t listening to the Wire, you would hear about it in the Synanon Game and be accused of disloyalty and not loving Chuck, and you were one of the guys who was holding us back, and so forth. He would listen to what Game he would. And he could break in. Boom! I mean, his voice would boom in. And you never knew.
Toward the end, you never knew if what you were doing was “right” or “wrong.” For instance, he would say, “You know what a good person does? A good person eats only with forks.” And you’d eat only with a fork. And then he’d say, “Anybody who eats only with forks is crazy. You’ve got to eat only with knives.” Now, that’s a bad example, but you wouldn’t know what was right or wrong. You would never know whether he was going to be pleased or displeased.
You knew goddamn well that you were disabled of the thought of leaving Synanon. That was out. The thought of disobedience to Chuck—it was not an available option. Notice I don’t say a viable option. It was not an available option. It was not one of the things that you considered.
I had acted in a way that they thought was not conducive to the best interests of the square population of Synanon because somebody who was rich said he was going to leave Synanon, and the reason he was leaving was because I didn’t love him. Now, that’s a simplified version, but that’s basically what it was. So there was a massive Game and Chuck was in it, and every big shot was in it. Harriet and I were in it, and the Game started, and it was the most vicious Game on me that I’ve ever heard played.
I took a tremendous shellacking in Games. I am an excellent, vicious, nasty black belt in verbal unpleasantness. I don’t use it because my mouth is lethal. But Chuck Dederich makes me look like a pantywaist. In a sense, he’s a bully. You know, he had the whole organization behind him, and I was only one guy. So, he was better than I was, without the whole organization. And, he really goes after me. Now, this is going to be a 24- to 30-hour Game. And when I walked into that Game, I was quite prepared to do my aikido, which I did very well. I mean, you could holler at me in the usual ways, and I could fend it off and just do nicely. Unhappy, close to vomiting, but with dexterity. Well, the Game was on me for something like six, seven hours at a shot, with people just screaming at me. And at one point, I said with a whimper and a whine because that was the way you talked to Chuck, I said, “Listen, I can’t give all my money to another man. I can’t turn over my life to somebody else.” Never thinking of leaving Synanon. Disabled of thinking of that particular alternative. It was not in my head. And he said, “Ho, ho, ho, you nasty whatever, that’s what you think I am, you don’t understand who I am, ha, ha, ha,” and then he proceeded to cream me some more.
He then left to sleep and came back, and the Game was coming to about eight hours from the end. He said to somebody who was in the Game who was quite wealthy, “I want from you $1,000,000. And I want it now.” And the guy argued with his wife a little bit and said, “OK, I’ll give it to you.” And then he went to somebody else and said, “I want $75,000,” and the guy said, “OK, I’ll give it to you.” And he came to me, and he said, “I want $50,000 from you.” And I didn’t argue, I said, “OK, I’ll give you the 50,000 bucks.” And then the Game went on.
And I suddenly felt I couldn’t handle it. You know, you can take my wife, you can take my kids, and you can take everything else I’ve got, but I ain’t giving you no 50,000 bucks. There are a couple of things that are sacred. I can still see it. Chuck was sitting there, and he walked over to the side—and this is a Game with thirty people in a rather plush atmosphere with a grandstand of maybe 100 watching, and the Wire going out all over Synanon, so everybody knows exactly what’s happening to me. And, once again, I whined, “I want to talk to Harriet about this.” And Chuck came walking back and said, “Whaddaya wanna talk about?” And I said, “Well, I was thinking of—” And then he said the following words: “Why don’t you get the fuck out of here?”
Now, you have to understand that was not his intention. It was not a way of starting a discussion, which is would you like to leave. It was not an invitation to leave, it was a hollering act. It was a reprimand. It was, you ain’t good enough to stay. The second before he said that, I was positive that I would live in Synanon for the rest of my life. The minute, the second, the microsecond the end of that phrase got out of his mouth, I was gone. It was over. I got up, and I said, “I think that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
This was unheard of in the middle of a Game for a square, for a person of my importance to leave in that nature. I can see it now. I was free. I reached over, picked up my jacket, and started to walk out. The shock on his face from my eyes was hard to believe. Now, you have to understand, my wife of some thirty years was sitting in the Game, my two kids were there, my grandson was there, and my mother-in-law (by that time, the dog had died). And I walked out. I did not know whether anybody was leaving with me, but I was free. And, it was all over.
Now, Chuck put me in the position that I was in. He made it possible for me to become mensch enough to do it under the proper circumstances. I really believe that to be true. He banged me right smack in the corner—not on purpose—it was absolutely serendipitous. I don’t believe that he has ever planned anything in his life. He banged me into a corner, and I left, and it was all over, and I have never looked back.
Somebody asked me if I miss it. I miss the laughter. I miss other people’s involvement in my life. I miss my involvement in other people’s lives. I absolutely miss the feeling of effectiveness in other people’s lives. I’ll tell you what I miss most. It just occurred to me. I miss the fact that there ain’t nobody in the world sufficiently interested in me to keep telling me what I don’t do well. As there was all of the time in Synanon. All the time I was there, if I did not act honestly, somebody would tell me. If I was not candid, somebody would tell me in a Game. I mean, in civilized life, it doesn’t work. But that’s what I miss.
How the Synanon Game changed me
I had no alternative. It was time to walk out. I was very lucky to have walked out then. It was perfect. I don’t think I gained self-esteem by doing it—I think that I had it in order to do it. See, the Synanon Game changed people’s personalities. You know, I just believe that a hundred percent. You’re looking at one.
When we became involved in Synanon, I was a reasonably well-to-do lawyer. I went into Synanon, and my career took off like a shot. I mean, I went from well-to-do to wow! And it was because—I can almost trace it—because I became candid, I became direct, I didn’t have to waste any time at all determining what was honest and what was dishonest. In the past if it seemed slightly dishonest to me, I would give it a lot of thought—”Well, what do you think? Do you think I can …,” and I’d spend a lot of time worrying about that. After I became involved in Synanon, I didn’t spend twenty seconds worrying about that—the minute I felt there was the slightest doubt about it, I didn’t do it. And I told them I wouldn’t do it. You know, “Go get yourself another lawyer.” And the more I did that, the more money I made.
I see now that when I first went into Synanon, I believed that if I did that which I was told, I was wrong. And if I did that which I wanted to, I was wrong. So I didn’t have much time to be right. And I spent most of the time being wrong. Now, it was very easy to learn that if you do what you want to do, it’s OK. When I learned that if you do what you’re told to do, that’s also OK, that changed my life. I also found out that nobody cared about the deep, dark secrets that I had, that I tried to keep hidden and used an enormous amount of energy to keep hidden. You have to understand, I played the Synanon Game three hours a night, five nights a week. So a lot of people talked to me, I listened to a lot of people, I was screamed at a lot, and I screamed at a lot of people. So what I found out is that people don’t decide whether they love you or not like you on how you feel about your mother or what you think about the size of your penis or whatever. They don’t care about that. They like you for other reasons. Or dislike you for other reasons. And that was an enormous gain.
The Synanon Game—I will give you a short version of why I think it worked so well with me. I mean the use of dirty words is extensive. And that is an indication to everybody that it ain’t real life. See, you don’t go up to anybody in the street and say, “You know, your breath smells something fierce.” He’d punch you right in the mouth. But in the Synanon Game, that was not a very unusual thing to say. For instance, when you called a person a motherfucker, he didn’t even care. You know, he ain’t, and who cares about that. I once said to a fellow, “If you ever put your chubby arms around me again and blow your cigar-laden breath in my face, I’m going to vomit on you.” I mean, that’s killing. That’s a killer. Now, what happens is the dirty shows that that’s not real life.
Another thing is that the exaggeration of your bad faults or that which they say you do—it’s a factual attack. You walked around with your fly open, your table manners are terrible, blah, blah, blah. If they exaggerate it enough, there was a possibility of taking a look, like a microbe under a microscope—you had an opportunity of taking a look at what they say is wrong with you. See, as someone attacks someone and you listen and you join in, you realize that as you’re screaming and hollering, “You broke the visor on one of our cars! You’re trying to ruin this whole fucking place, you disloyal …” that there’s a part of you that realizes that’s not so bad. The whole thing is that they like you on a different basis. That your relationship with the world is on a different basis. And the love comes out, not in my opinion in the fact that you have been exposed, but that you have voluntarily shared this exposure with these other people. And if you do it a lot with the same people day after day after day, and they come into the Game over a period of years, and you get to know them, and you live with them, I get the feeling that these people—my heart fills up with them. I like them, I want them to like me. We have a community of interests. I know them, I want to be with them. But the love is just because you have shared.
In my opinion, we aren’t very different, one from another. The reason I was such a good Game player was I recognized every nasty emotion. I mean, if somebody talked about greed, I said, “Yeah, man, I understand about that.” If they talked about avarice, I understand. Lust? Right! I understand that. And, I’m serious. Everybody identifies, empathizes, transfers, all of the words.
It started with the day I met him. It started with the day I met Chuck and started to play the Synanon Game. I found out that I am the perfect Harold Benjamin. I believe this. I know that for me, I am the perfect Harold Benjamin. And it makes me very happy.
The period of about 1966 to about 1972 was an extraordinarily happy period of my life, but I want to tell you, my days of a charismatic other are over. If there’s going to be any charismatic other, it’s going to be me, and I’m not looking forward to that.
Harold Benjamin along with his wife Harriet created the first Wellness Community — a homelike center that offered emotional support groups, educational and relaxation workshops, even joke-fests for people with cancer — in Santa Monica in 1982. His concept — to turn cancer “victims” into their own advocates, reduce despair and enhance the possibility of recovery — filled a void in the treatment world and became a model emulated around the world. He died in 2004 at the age of 80.