By Hugh Kenny
I was sitting in a Game Circle with Chuck, who opined that his LSD experience was responsible for the creation of Synanon. I interrupted him and told him that, actually, I believed it was my LSD experience that was responsible for its creation. He didn’t disagree.
Anyway, his genesis story harkened back to the early testing of LSD before it was deemed illegal. He was hanging out with Bill Wilson, the founder of AA who also participated in the experiment.
These were psychically turbulent times, and soon some of Chuck’s early disciples visited the Esalen Institute at Big Sur. Esalen was a mecca for anyone so impudent as to inquire into reality. It was there that they picked up some tools and psychodramatic techniques for engaging in encounter groups.
C.E.D was teaching that we are actually one being, each living within our individual configured boundaries. If we break apart or dissolve those boundaries, we experience the surprise of becoming one with the others around us.
So, in addition to the Synanon Game, which was its own style of encounter group, Chuck developed what he called the Dissipation, which lasted a good 24 hours.
Next, these extended explorations developed into what he began calling the Trip. They were extravagant productions that would carry on for an entire weekend. There were six or maybe eight Game groups percolating on separate burners. These were staffed by members of the community who were familiar with the workings of this event.
I suppose this Trip staff of Synanon was the closest thing to a Hierarchy of Angels that I’ll ever see. Each tier had its own responsibilities and regalia. The first, the Guides, were most often Miriam Crawford, Margo Macartney, Dian Gewant, John Stallone, Lena Lindsey, Wilbur Beckham, Lou Delgado, and Betty Eshenauer. They were first-rate game players. They cared for people, more or less loved them, and enjoyed working the Trips and with each other. Against their white cotton robes, orange Möbius loops descended from their necks.
Two couples were working the technical end: Bob Rodriguez and Lavonne Haas and Jim and Bonni Clare. They did the lights, music, and staging. They wore black loops.
Bill Crawford was usually the Conductor of these Trips. He was also the laid-back Director of this Oakland facility. His reply to reports of misdoings was always low key. If someone were to inform him that the entire kitchen staff had been murdered, then his comment would likely be his usual one, “Well, that’s no good.” He wore an orange robe with a purple Möbius loop around his neck.
Trip season or not, the guides and the techs hung out in Bill’s office on the second floor of the Athens Club. Laughter and activity crackled within these precincts. I wasn’t part of it. I didn’t particularly click with Bill. I’d guess that he liked me well enough, but he always peered at me over the thick lowered frames of his glasses with a look of puzzlement. Like I was this odd creature he was trying to figure out.
I was married to one of the Trip Guides, Dian Gewant. She was always near Bill and the powers that be. She had good looks, charm, talent, ambition, and the gift of friendship.
Maybe that’s why someone had the bright idea to recruit me as an assistant guide. I was assigned to assist Margo, who would run the show.
I thought they would send me to guide school or something. But I was given no preparation. No Cliff’s Notes. Nothing. I was told that I would know what to do when the time came.
I reasoned that the key to the Trip had something to do with battering the ego in games, confusing the participants’ sense of time with four hours of heavy Gaming, then relaxing them at alternative four-hour intervals by having the Shepherds take them for walks, exposing them to schmaltzy music and dramatic visual images.
Still, after being softened up by two days of this compression and decompression, the most critical element needed was emotional honesty from the Guides. It would require that catalyst from the Guide or from someone in the group to infuse and dissolve the group’s tottering egos with the powerful solvent of emotional truth. Our characteristic posings are vulnerable to the contagion of feelings. There is not much you can do to defend against an honest confession, a heartfelt sob, a cry of fear or emotion. That’s why people cry in movies. Or assist in danger. Once you have let that kind of emotion loose in the group, the other egos usually go down like dominos. I was a good game player, so I was helpful with the compressive hammering. But I was not offering much in the way of emotional honesty. I saw how that would work against us. Ideally, a Guide should possess an emotional spontaneity and the ability to improvise. I witnessed John Maher also struggle in his Trip Guide debut. He was image-bound. He could play the shit out of the game, but he was unable to expose much about himself. They had to send in Betty Eshenauer as the cavalry.
In contrast, I remember the wrap-up of an earlier Trip that I was watching from the wings. The wrap-up, you’ll remember, was when after all the games were over, they brought the mostly celebratory participants into a large group setting presided over by the Conductor. It was there that they tried a last shot at reaching the holdouts who were visibly emotionally confused and stuck.
Ron P. was frozen. He had done something he felt really bad about. I think he had murdered someone. He did not know how to grieve or where to look to find forgiveness. I watched John Stallone, acting on compassionate intuition, walk across to the front of the room, kneel next to Ron and begin to pray. They prayed together, Ron mourning, weeping, and seemingly finding forgiveness. Now I’ve known John Stallone since we were fifteen. We put Christ back in the manger when we exchanged him for a # 27 gauge needle and stuck that into our veins, but he could feel what needed to happen, was emotionally compassionate, and he moved in on it.
I am not favored with so generous a spirit, so things looked a bit grim for the circle of trippers in our room. I was blind to how I could admit any honest emotion into the picture or how to evoke some from someone else.
Then Margo asked one of the people to get up, meet me in the middle of the room, and look into my eyes. I’d heard of this technique before. I’ve never since investigated its what for, but I am pretty sure what did happen was not in the playbook.
Even though I was nominally a Guide and even though I was getting more sleep, I think my ego was less intact than the person Margo matched me up with. I looked into his eyes for about a minute and saw it: His face became a demon. I freaked. The tripper, seeing the fear registering on my face, recoiled and became frightened. I saw his fear, reacted in terror, and pretty soon we were a fountain of fear. Emotions cascaded down from us and sloshed over everyone in the room. Although this little psychodrama was performed more like a routine out of Abbott and Costello, it did the trick, and we were on the path to thoroughly dissolved and disintegrating egos and the rebonding of separated souls.