by Sandy Rogers-Hare
The Game was Synanon’s cure-all, magic wonder drug, the elixir that cures not only whatever is wrong with you, but society’s ills as well. It reverses, we promised, the harmful effects of the nuclear family and, we added grandly, could even obviate the threat of nuclear war. Guaranteed.
The Game sharpened intellectual acuity and eliminated harmful negative ions, resulting in a robustly positive attitude. Generally, it worked.
The Game kept us on our toes socially and verbally and was a vehicle for exploring new ways of looking at things, new points of view in our strides toward self-actualization. While it helped keep the dope fiends drug free and off the streets, it was felt that the general educational level of the Synanon community needed to be elevated. Probably Betty D’s idea.
An innovative, new educational group process would also engage the squares, many of whom did not enjoy the Game’s attack-defend dynamic as much as I did. We will reach for new knowledge, yes, that’s it. We’ll call it the Reach, a group exercise where participants reach for ideas and stretch their thinking. An intellectual, not emotional exercise. Like the Game, the Reach would be leaderless. No books or references allowed. We had to rely on the wisdom and ingenuity residing in the group, which, strange as it may seem, was always enough.
A 24-hour exercise, the Reach was thus designed so that anyone could participate, regardless of educational level. Actually, it demonstrated something I had learned early in the classroom: The most optimal learning environment is diverse and contains a broad range of skill levels, abilities, and perspectives.
One of the first Reach topics was “Why does chalk stick to the blackboard?” It made for provocative exploration. Most of us hadn’t thought about it and didn’t know. Ensuing arguments and experiments blew up a number of assumptions of the better-educated participants, some of whom had PhDs. The Reach forced everyone to be articulate, say what they meant, whether imparting information or voicing objections. And in the Reach we invented a number of practical items for the community, including constructing cardboard beds to be placed on the floor for the babies so they wouldn’t get hurt falling out of bed, trapezoid modular tables for the classroom, and lazy Susans to hold condiments on every dining room table in Synanon facilities all over the country.
The problem for me with the Reach was that it was not the Game. By the wee hours of the morning, I no longer cared about the arcane details and crazy explanations touted in the group. I also felt hemmed in by the routine of my life, which consisted of my teaching job, the Game, and house projects. I was 26 and craved free, unscheduled time. Living in the Oakland club (Athens Athletic Club) was confining, despite the excitement of Games, Saturday Night Parties, swimming in the Olympic-sized pool, and saunas. I longed for the great outdoors.
I had an idea and thought, Why not pitch it? “Why don’t we have an outdoor Reach and use topics in nature as cues?” The response was, “Whaaa?”
Not really serious, but with nothing to lose, I pushed it. Gave examples: the Fibonacci sequence in pinecones, measuring shadows from a constructed sundial, geological striations, the constellation of stars . . .
“It can be exactly the same as a Reach here in the basement of the club, only we’ll be out in nature.” I winked to my best friend Sarah. The others, not knowing I was pulling a fast one, considered it. Before we knew it, the kitchen staff had packed two white Dodge vans with steaks, eggs, fresh fruit, and produce, donated sleeping bags, pots, pans—everything we needed to go camping in the “Saharas” (as they put it)—and we piled in and drove off to the Sierra.
It was exhilarating. So much sunlight! We had been indoors so much, the air sparkled. We stopped for a break in the mountains at a place called Cherry Flats. The air was crisp and clear, and the sun shone bright. A huge lake so clear you could see your feet in the red-gold mineral sand beneath its blue-green waters. We immediately stripped and went skinny-dipping. Afterward, we sat on the steep slope and ate roast beef sandwiches under trees flanking an upward rise cradling the lake in its basin. We had stopped just below the tree line, about 12,000 feet, and I suggested we study the Fibonacci sequence found in pinecones, but no one felt like it. We had clearly abandoned the Reach mentality, along with our clothes. We hung around and talked and sunbathed.
When the warm light began to falter, we decided we had better get to work on our Reach and argued about whether to set up camp under trees or out in the open. Originating from all over the country, we all had different ideas about camping. We finally settled in a clearing at the top of a mountain and built a fire, cooked our steaks, and sat around it, talking late into the night and reveling in the stars, which were clear and bright.
After a while, you could hear everyone’s mind clicking, I don’t want to stay awake and Reach all night. I came up with another brilliant idea. “Harvey, why don’t you start us off by telling your story, your whole story, starting from your earliest memory?” Running your story was fundamental in Synanon. “Don’t leave out a thing,” I cautioned. “When you finish, another one of us will tell their story. This is the most ‘Reachable’ thing we can do here in the dark.” Harvey was a gullible, sweet guy, but most of us caught on. “Yes, Harvey, do that!” everyone enthused. Harvey began, “Well, I remember . . .” He droned on and on, and we promptly fell sound asleep. We woke at dawn to hear him say, “Hey, guys, are you awake?”
Two unexpected outcomes came out of the Reach at Cherry Flats: We discovered an excellent way to crystalize ideas in the rich outdoor setting of a camping trip, and, like in the Garden of Eden, one of us was touched by Satan. The discovery process left one of our group ashamed he had broken free of the dark shell of the Oakland club. He felt guilty and copped out on us in the Stew, characterizing the trip as nothing at all like a Reach. In the Games that followed, our expedition was indicted as an orgy: We had had fun, we pissed about on the steep shores of a copper-bottomed lake, we had sunned ourselves and snoozed amid the pines. Shocking.
Typical of the inconsistencies in Synanon management, nothing was done about it beyond the twin streams of loud guffaws and wild speculation and righteous indignation befitting a fundamentalist preacher.
It was all left in the Game.
Sandra-Rogers-Hare is the author of “Salmagundi” and Co-author with her daughter Cassidy Arkin of “Little Brown Girl”: “a story of the struggle to reenter society after living in a cloistered utopian community, Synanon, in Marin County, California.”
Excerpt from “Salmagundi”: “When Sandy was an infant, her mother, Lila, made a desperate decision to flee her abusive husband, take her baby, and run to New York City where a white woman with a black child was an unusual occurrence unless she was a prostitute. Fearing loss of custody, Lila made her way without the support of welfare agencies. Sandy was often left on her own to discover the world and to define herself. This is her story, a scruffy black kid on the streets, who had one goal, to get a family. “By the time I was eleven, our family—black, white, Jewish and Christian, all rolled into one—had moved into our home in the black neighborhood of St. Paul. It was concentric circles: black kid, white family, in a black community, in the predominantly white state of Minnesota. My mother was a Norwegian Christian, my stepfather a Russian Jew, and I was plaid.“