Remembering Chris Benton

My Friend and Mentor

By David Gerstel

Recently a fellow builder asked me how I felt about having spent a few years of my youth at Synanon. “Does that experience inform your life, bring pain or regret?” he wondered. It informs my life I told him. Synanon is where I met Chris Benton. He put me on the career path that has brought me unending creative opportunity and reward.

Even before we met and became friends, I was inspired by Chris’ work. I had been invited to the Cliff House to talk with Dan Garrett and Chuck Dederich. I have little recollection of the conversation (perhaps big picture stuff about building Synanon cities that would demonstrate a better way of life to the world); but even now, half a century later, I admire in my mind’s eye the lovely paneling created from old barn siding that Chris had installed in the Cliff House conference room.

During my first week at Synanon, I wandered into the tin barn at the south end of the Tomales property. There in the carpentry shop on a workbench sat Chris’ toolbox. The box, as I later learned, had been made from oak flooring salvaged during the renovation of a Synanon building. The oak was smooth and waxed and polished to a soft glow. Its cover was a miniature version of the kind you see on antique roll-top desks.  The cover slid upwards through a pair of aligned slots to reveal two banks of drawers. Each drawer was upholstered in black velvet. Arranged on the velvet were refurbished carpenters’ tools: brass plumb bobs, steel awls, antique English chisels with rosewood grips

Encountering Chris’ work was, for me, a conversion experience. I already had the ambition to learn to work with my hands, but it was rooted only in a desire for a more physical life than awaited me had I gone on to graduate school like my college pals. Chris’ work added a spiritual dimension to my ambition. His work evinced reverence for carpentry done with care, intention, and attention. I wanted to learn to work at that level.

I worked with Chris every chance I got. He showed me the carpenter’s way: The values of plumb, level, square, tight, clean, finished, and true. The importance of moving smoothly and with forethought from one step in a project to the next. Using the language popular today, we would say Chris’ practice of carpentry was rooted in mindfulness.

He was eager to teach: Here’s just how you move a chisel across a whetstone to bring its blade to an edge so sharp it will shave your forearm clean in one light pass. Here’s how you changed the angle and oscillation of your hammer so as to not make “apprentice tracks” in the wood as you drove a nail home. Here’s how to disappear a track with moisture and fine sandpaper when you did make one. Chris was patient with my errors. “We’ll make mistakes,” he’d say. “But we have to take the work apart back to the point where we made a mistake and build back right.”

Chris was tolerant of my criticisms of Synanon, which were intensifying even as I remained excited about our community’s practices and possibilities. He would listen when I angrily pointed out the disconnect between our enunciated philosophies of self-reliance and self-actualization and the frightened herd obedience that took hold when pressure to take a new Synanon position came down. Chris would hear me out and say something like, “There’s an issue there. But where else could we have this?” and gesture toward the superbly equipped carpentry shop and the forest and sandy beaches across the blue waters of Tomales Bay. Then he’d get us back to work milling and fitting wood into useful objects for the community.

Chris at work in his shop

Chris could be grimly emphatic about his values. He could issue blunt pullups. Don’t ride the clutch, man! Never rip a piece of lumber on the table saw without using push sticks!  But I cannot recall ever seeing Chris get really angry over the many years that I knew him. Even when he and his girlfriend were yelling at each other in a Game about some mishap in bed or hurt feelings, there was more affection than fury in his voice.

I was taken aback when I was told, years later, that kids who had been in the punk squad and school under Chris remembered him as a “sadistic monster.” I have heard a variety of explanations for his behavior from Synanon friends. Some focus on the predation Chris suffered as a child and the truism that “Hurt people go on to hurt other people.” Another explanation is this rueful take from a person who also worked with youngsters in the squad and school and is remorseful about having abused the children: “Chuck Dederich was a heck of a salesman. He got us to do things we would have never done in different circumstances.”

I doubt Chris would have been satisfied with either view. He did not care for excuses. His carpentry and his conversation expressed the belief that a man had to own up to his mistakes and fix them. During the years after Synanon, he urged me to read a book: For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child Rearing and the Roots of Violence. The accounts of tough love in the book repelled Chris. They surfaced memories of his own childhood trauma. Had he been told that he had behaved like the adults who had abused him, he would have wanted to apologize.

Two years into my friendship with Chris at Tomales Bay, I decided to work outside of Synanon to continue learning carpentry. “It’s the right trade for you, David,” Chris had told me. “Carpenters run the job, and I know you. You won’t be happy unless you are the guy in charge.” That’s some of the most astute advice anyone has ever given me.

Chris had given me enough carpentry skills that I was able to stay employed in construction. I learned to install foundations, frame houses and build decks. I earned my union journeyman’s card. Chris urged me to bring my skills back into Synanon. “We need carpenters. We’ve got tons of work to do at the ranches.”   

Soon we were working side by side again. He took the lead, of course. He called out dimensions. I cut lumber. He fitted it together and fastened it, setting screws and driving nails. “Apprentice track,” I said to him and pointed. He smiled. “Good catch,” and he wet the dent he had made in a board and asked for some 220-grit sandpaper. 

One morning Chris and I were building window boxes in the ranch dining room. The ranch manager approached.  He told us we had to work through the weekend because his boss wanted our project completed before the arrival of a guest he wanted to impress. “No way,” I said. Sandra, my girlfriend, was coming up for the weekend, and I intended to spend it with her. The manager blurted, “Who do you think you are? This is Synanon. You don’t have any civil rights here.”  Wrong, I told him.  “I’m an American. I’ve got lots of rights.” He quieted down and murmured that maybe it was time for me to leave Synanon. On that, we agreed.

Chris watched the exchange. He was okay with the order to work all weekend. The project was going well. It would be fun to push it through to completion. “But alright,” he sighed. “I knew this was coming. I’ll miss you, man.”  I said that I would miss him too.

Sandra arrived. She told me that she had decided to leave Synanon. I told her I was leaving, too. We drove into town, had a tasty bowl of barley soup for dinner, and decided to leave together

Years passed. Now and then we heard a little news about Chris’ life in Synanon. Knowing Chris as I did, some of the news sounded good to me. Some of it sounded very bad. Most concerning: He had been moved from his carpentry shop to punk squad management and then put on the road as an advertising specialties salesman. I could not imagine that working out. A shop had been his sanctuary since he was 12 years old when he built his first workbench in the garage of his family’s home. Without a shop and carpentry, he’d flounder

More years passed. I got a call from Chris. He had left Synanon and moved into a town just down the highway from where Sandra and I had made our home. He invited me to see his new live-work space. The shop he had built was filled with first-class power tools, swept up and orderly. I contracted with him to build cabinets for my construction company’s projects.

After a time, he became unreliable. He was balking at correcting small mistakes, not showing up at jobs on schedule. I had to give him pullups as forceful as those he had once given me. I got him to complete his work at the last project we did together. But I could not recommend or hire him anymore, though I still saw him occasionally.

One day he showed up at my house in a Ford Bronco he’d just purchased. “The last of the great American trucks,” he told me, patting it on the hood. He introduced me to his new girlfriend.  She was young, short, curvy, a little plump, smiling and friendly.  “A new Sheryl,” I thought to myself, remembering the woman Chris was with when we were friends in Synanon. Chris told me that he had closed down his business and had fifty grand in his bank account. He had decided to spend it on showing his girl around America.

More years passed. There was a knock at our door. Sandra opened it. Chris was standing on the porch. Sandra recalls him as looking embarrassed. I remember him as emaciated with a ragged and dirty shirt sagging against bony shoulders.

I wish that I could unwind and redo what followed.

Chris asked me for ten dollars, for food he said. I did not invite him in for a meal, a shower, and a good night’s rest. I did not offer to get him to an AA meeting. I denied Chris the ten bucks. It would just go for dope, wouldn’t it? I sent him away. I deeply regret that. Chris always accepted and encouraged me. I should have done the same for him.

Time passed. I heard news of Chris now and then, even spoke with him on the phone a few times. The news was mixed. Sometimes Chris was productively going his carpenter’s way. Sometimes he was desperate for work. Sometimes he was being pursued by builders who felt he had ripped them off and who confiscated his tools. Now and again he went to old friends for help with recovery from a relapse. I never did see him again.

In the spring of 2021, a client invited me for lunch to see the home my company had remodeled for them decades earlier. They showed me the maple cabinets Chris had built for their kitchen. The cabinets had given good service. The doors hung plumb. The drawers slid open smoothly. The finish was still silky. The clients wondered if Chris might be available for additional work on their home. I had to tell them I did not know if he was alive, that I had been trying to find him on and off without success.

If he could hear me now, I would say this: Not long ago, Chris, I learned from the memorial section of Morning Meeting that your life came to an end right about the time our old clients were showing your work to me. I was glad to see that you had made it past your 73rd birthday. The way of the carpenter is hard on the body. With your other hardships on top of that, you did good to get so far. It looks like you may have had some fine times along the way, even deep into your life. In the photo of you with a bushy grey beard at Morning Meeting, there’s a wide smile across your face and a classic old guy’s twinkle in your eye. You are looking upward. Sandra thinks you are looking at something you built. It is no doubt, plumb, level, square, beautiful and true.

RIP, brother,

David Gerstel

11 responses to “Remembering Chris Benton”

  1. Very nice and very appreciated Dave. You brought Chris back into my heart just as I remember him from my time in Synanon and added some flavor. Hope you and Sandra are well.
    …Scott Malcolm

    1. Test.

  2. You are a master joiner of words as well. Thanks.

  3. Linda Jean Hunt Milioto Avatar
    Linda Jean Hunt Milioto

    Having recently read your book Paradise Inc. I was reminded of your relationship with Chris. I remember both of you as kind of gentle giants. I’m sorry to hear that he went down the wrong path again he was a very sweet person what you wrote was beautiful, honest and clear.

  4. GARY L. WILLIAMS Avatar

    I am glad that you wrote this David because it is complete and beyond cursory and in the voice of a brother which I certainly know we all are and have been since that first seminal breath of the life. Your recollections sadden me but the spirit of your prose touches my heart in ways only left bare by the memories of how great a person Chris would and could be in the best of all possible ways under that special time in his life and ours when a kind of serendipitous magic converged in a place that miraculously springboarded so many of us into lives that some, like me, might never have had. When I first met Chris he represented the best that Synanon was…a tradesman, clean, brash, competent and a member of the club of reformed fuckups that wasn’t afraid to say it and bring some along with him on this trip of sometimes dubious intent. I needed that. Needed that badly…and there were a lot of people like him…just like him, to shine some light on me. For that, my love for Chris and the memory of who he was for me when he was at the very best that he could be as a human being when I needed that the most is merely deepened as we all deal with the personal frailties and jagged edges of lives fully engaged with no guarantees.

    1. Gary, I just read your comment again this morning. I plan on reading it again. It’s big-minded in a way that escaped my little brain the first time through. Both you and Margo offer wisdom. I hope when I grow up, if that ever happens, I will be more like you guys.

  5. To Gary: I lift a glass (of orange juice) to that, brother!

    To Linda, I am not quite giant. I could never get myself to grow quite to 6’1″ (Alas). Chris was much taller than I am and heavier by 20 pounds of muscle. I am amazed that you remember me as gentle but am grateful to you for telling me that something other than my rage was visible during my years in the community.

    To Robert: Thanks! From a writer of your high caliber, that’s a high honor.

    To Scott: Wonderful to see your name. Sandra and I think of you every time we go to Point Reyes and remember that beautiful porcelain piece of yours that rested on our mantle piece for decades until, alas, a friend who was admiring it brushed it accidentally onto the floor. Sandra and I are doing well; and we hope you are, too.

    In response to Josh:
    I read your comment at I imagine others share your anger toward Chris and would not be surprised if they said so here in the Morning Meeting comments.
    I would not deny the validity of their memories and emotions.
    I do not deny the validity of your memory or emotions.
    However, I would also like to report to you that when I first read your comment at the following thoughts immediately sprang into my mind:
    First, my friend, count yourself lucky that you did not try to punch Chris; for he may have instinctively caught your fist in mid air with one of his big mitts and crushed it into a sack of bones. He was an immensely powerful man with the great hands of a skilled baseball player.
    Second, I have “Bentonisms” still floating around in my head more than half a century after Chris trained me. Those “Bentonisms” keep me focused and safe to this day when I work with my tools. His pullups were about safety, attention to detail, and care for one’s tools. (Another was about horses and dogs and the need to always handle them with firmness, respect, and consideration).
    I can’t explain Chris’ behavior in Synanon during the years after I left. I don’t know enough about the forces at work on him at the time.
    But I can observe that the Synanon process, along with the good it accomplished, did, over the long arc rescue people from disordered behavior only to return them to it — as spouse abandoners, as hit men, as child abusers, and otherwise.
    Recently, Josh, I read the piece you posted at Morning Meeting. One thought I had in response was, damn, there was a lot of writing talent running around our community. I just wish Tom Patton, who encouraged me to keep writing, was still with us so he could comment on our current work. Now there was a writer! (Tom, I mean.)
    I especially like your honed and chiseled word work. Chris, a chisel master himself and a man concise when using words would admire it, too.
    I understand you are now so immersed in writing that it is hard to get a minute of your time. But when I get to Manhattan again I hope you’ll have time for a cup of coffee and a further exchange of perspectives.

    Cory, I am glad you put divergent points of view side by side here at Morning Meeting. After all, no perspective ever deserves even a nine on the credibility scale and divergence equals depth.

    best to you all,
    David Gerstel

  6. Dave, a masterful job in describing Chris at his very best, and you did not turn him into a saint. We humans are so complex and none of us is all one thing, Chris had devils that he kept a leash on with his carpentry. He never recognized the magnificence of his own being, and was pulled into his beleaguered past which crushed him. Thank you for writing this and bringing Chris and his work and his workshop into such sharp focus.

    I think the blame game is a waste of life. I realize that we all grew up with it and Synanon capitalized on it. So much of our society continues to harp on it – psychoanalysis, history, the news, and surely we are products of our lives but we are products of our decisions as well, however misinformed those decisions may have been. We make our own lives.

    Nobody’s life is free from stress or bad decisions or confusion or cruelty, whether conscious or not. I just feel grateful at this point for all of my life, for my family and friends, for the intelligence and talent that is part of my being. And for the experiences that pushed me through 86 years.

    I think Chris did the best he could with his life – mistakes and all. He was a full human being, struggling a good deal of the time. I choose to remember the big guy with a warm grin who loved people. That’s who I see.

    1. Margo, yes . . . none of us is all one thing. I did write about Chris as I knew him, and reading the comments from others I understand now that was, for the most part, Chris at his best. I never saw him, except through the eyes of others, at his worst. You express it so well: he kept his devils on a leash with his carpentry. And it was in carpentry that we were comrades. I do believe that had he understood how he hurt children and young people in Synanon he would have wanted to apologize. I wrote that in my piece in the hope that by doing so I would go some small distance toward offering those youngsters, now adults, some small measure of the apology they deserve and that Chris would have wanted to give them.

      Perhaps a lot of us who were in Synanon owe one another apologies. Who among us did not at times savagely attack our fellows in Games, humiliate and shame them and denigrate and denounce them, not because we were engaged in truth telling but merely because we’d had a bad day and were venting. I certainly did. I think of certain Game attacks I launched on others, people I respected and even loved, and I take a deep breath.

      Margo, I have read your paragraph above several times now. It’s a gem of writing.

  7. i must say David, you and Chris, were the two most influential people in my Synanon life. Benton was a Master Craftsman and I had the painful privilege to be his apprentice for a few years. In those years he let me know that I would have to be reincarnated in order to ever achieve the level of craftsmanship that he had attained. Although, when he saw my skills as a Martial artist he humbly apologized for his conduct in the manner he had spoken to me at times.
    David, you tutored and educated me to enlarge the scope of perception of the world. The time you gave me to this day I immensely value. Please know that you and Chris invested time in my life, and believe me, it was not in vain. I will always be grateful for those moments.

    In life, as we live and look back, we always wish we could have been more for others, but in our flesh we are limited in our capacity to reach everyone. It is said the Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. There’s a great old classic movie named “Magnificent Obsession”. Check it out. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.
    A true delight to hear from you and about Chris. Thank you for the transparency and candidness.
    Ivan ujueta
    In synanon 1970-1980

    1. Ivan, that’s a kind and generous note.
      Chris once told another friend of mine that he would never succeed in becoming a carpenter. That gentleman became, in fact, a union finish carpenter on the Getty Museum in L.S.!
      Chris was maybe a better craftsman than prophet?
      Even so we were both lucky to have the privilege of working with him. Construction apprenticeships are rough no matter where you serve them (that’s why only about 1 out of 100 guys reportedly make it to journey level). But at least we got to serve ours with someone who built in accordance with a very high standard of care.
      Take care. I hope you are doing well.

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