Many A Blunder and Foolish Notion

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us an’ foolish notion

Robert Burns 1785

In a land of faraway and forgotten dreams, there once was a human circle, where there were no fatal words.  All words were free to be said or unsaid. No words were held sacred or held against the sayer.

Those who entered the circles were called PLAYERS or Game Players, as the circles came to be known as The Game.   

Over a period of time that spanned 33 years several thousand souls traveled to the Circle Spaces called Game Rooms. They were mostly in California USA. Some were sprinkled across the wide country with a smattering over the ocean.

Towns, villages, and cities sprung up around the circles. Families sent their hopeless cases for the cure as the circles became known to have healing qualities.  All who lived in a Synanon village entered a circle to play the Game at least once a week. Games could be short in hours or long in days, work related, gender specific, any theme or arrangement that could be imagined, with humans face to face in the round, could be and was created.

The circles were full of stories.  Some were lies.  Deliberate lies or unconscious self delusion. Often a higher awareness or sense of deep connection would arise from a spinning circle of human words and minds.

Initially there was a sacred agreement.  All intimacies and revelations stayed in the Game.  Behavior out of the Game was helpful and kind because feelings and suspicions could be held for a Games. Games could be called or gathered whenever needed by anyone.

Things one might experience when “Circling up:”

Shock, surprise, danger, unmasking, contract breaking, paradigm shifting, courage testing, lying cowardice, infuriated finger pointing, chilling revelations, sobbing, howling laughter, intimacy, education, insight, incitement to action.

Things one might witness:

The hurling of an indictment, a voracious defense. Exposure of deepest fears, confession of shameful secret  A closed mind opening.  Acceptance of responsibility, healing of hurts.

Players were encouraged to tell or “run” their story.  How had they arrived, or been delivered to the this unusual spot?  The more the story was told the closer it came to a reasonable truth and scales often fell away from the eyes.  Curating an image became less necessary.  People became intimate and trusting as masks were stripped away in a safe space.  It was safe because of the clear distinction of IN the Game and OUT of the Game. It was audience participation entertainment to see and be part of live transformation.

A Game Story from the Sixties

Twenty comfy chairs were surrounded by a viewing gallery on risers. The Perpetual Stew, a continuous Game bubbled along.  Anyone could tap in from the gallery if they had an issue to address. Players were staggered in and out for chunks of time 24/7.  Audience Participation Theater in the Round.

Esther was a singer who had a #1 hit on the Billboard charts at the age of 14. Heroin stalled her career.  After trying the prison like Lexington Narco Farm, returning and then faltering, she came to the Circles of Synanon for the cure. She ran the switchboard for her job and sang at Saturday Night Parties with an ensemble of fellow musicians whose brilliance had also been dimmed by drug addiction. 

She was backed up by Frank Rehak, Greg Dykes, Frank La Marca the night I heard her sing. Her pure, powerful quavering voice was mesmerizing.  I stood stock still, at the side of the stage, close enough to see the sweat on her brow and upper lip as she finished to thunderous applause.  She did not smile or look out at the audience.  

She simply put her head down and stepped down from the platform which served as the stage.  The band, picked up the beat as the announcer took the mic “Esther Phillips everybody.  Lil Esther.”

She turned and gave a half- hearted wave, not smiling.  The applause thundered as she exited out the huge heavy ornate wooden doors that lead out from the Ballroom and disappeared into what had once been the bar  back when the Athen’s Club had been an exclusive enclave of wealthy white men.  The Synanon Bar, called the Data Lounge, served no spirits.  

Days later, I observed Esther move through the environment with intention and purpose. She did not suffer fools gladly and seemed not to suffer anyone at all.  She was about my height, maybe even shorter, packed tight into her skin and a short cotton sheath dress. Her skin deep and dark, her full lips painted bright red.  Large bristling eyes under a close cropped Afro. Gold hoop ear rings

In the Stew, she sat coiled like a snake on a padded leatherette Bertram Chair.  She had little to say to her fellow Gamers.  Her scarlet fingernails twitched on the arm of the chair.  If aroused to speak, she sprang to the edge of her perch teeth flashing, eyes laser focused.  The object of her venom, stunned, silent and frozen as the Game moved on.

I observed safely from the Gallery with Susan another non-resident member of the Game Club. Susan suddenly “tapped in” to Stew to address her boyfriend.  She thought they were engaged, till she learned he was now “with” Ivy.   A catfight ensued while Matt, grinned like the Cheshire Cat watching a ping pong match, saying nothing.

“Matt how about telling the truth and stop playing wit deese two girlies?,” said a muscular man with a strong Bronx twang.

“Busted” came a chorus of agreement from the men as some women in the room piled on to Matt in an outraged din, remembering every creep that had ever played with their affection.

“Ok, Ok” his hands raised in resignation. “Look, Ivy came on to me.” We both needed some…”

“Yeah we know what you needed… you just didn’t think Blondie over here would to join the Game Club.”

More hoots, and hollers till the Game shifted to Susan.

“Whad da you want wid dis loser anyway? Yer a Doll.  You could have any guy in here.  Ain’t you a square?  Whad are you doing with this patient?”

Her face was red and tear-stained.  “I don’t know anymore.  I trusted him, hoped he would…you know, be faithful… get well… stop using”

Raucous laughter and side comments filled the circle as Matt’s face paled.

“ Aww c’mon Babygirl..”

Ivy spat out.

“You can have the little prick.”

Susan wavered, “I thought I knew you…”

“Baby,” cooed Matt.  The Game switched abruptly when a clear strident voice said,

“I want to talk to this Bitch.”

A brown pudgy finger pointed directly at me.


I didn’t even know these people.  I was an observer from another world. How could anyone I had never met have a bone to pick with me?

My attacker was a small chubby Mexican girl, sitting with her short legs curled under her Bertram chair.

“We saw you”, she continued, “All of us.”

She swept around the room with her fingers stirring the air.

“ A’in’t you supposed to be some kind of Square? Bitch you crazier than anyone else in this room.”

“Didn’t we see her Hector?” She pointed the skinny Puerto Rican kid across the room who was on the edge of his chair.

“Yeah, we seen her.”  I had been dancing the Hoop-la earlier in the evening with Hector, in the Wood Shed.  He had been all smiles and charm.

Angie, now at the edge of her chair.  “What were you doing out there fucking a bunch of buildings like a crazy person. Jesus.  I prayed no one knew you were part of Synanon.  Who even let you in…”

“Yeah,” joined Hector, what the fuck were you doing?  The whole Jitney saw you.  This stupid bitch needs a job.  Don’t tell me some one PAYS you to do that shit.  What a fucking joke.”

Defenseless and humiliated, my two worlds had collided. I had no words.  Maybe what I did really was ridiculous compared to the important work being done in Synanon.  Probably, I was a silly joke.  

I had no idea what we looked like to others and began to doubt everything I did or was.  Usually able to defend myself, coming out swinging, I had nothing to say as the rest of the room piled on calling me a silly hippy, trivializing my life.  Susan was now sitting up in the gallery cooing with Matt. 

 A calm slow deliberate voice rose above the cackling.  

“You fools wouldn’t have the guts to put yourself out there and do what she does.  It takes balls to be different. While you patients were being shuttled around in the jitney, she had the nerve to express her art.  What have you ever done?”  

Esther’s fury and power that had intimidated, was now protecting me. 

“Why don’t you explain what you do and why you do it, Baby, these clowns might learn something.”

“Well,” I began tentatively.  “We are connecting people in new ways, using ancient neural pathways that might be asleep.”

Wild derisive laughter ensued

“How you mean, Baby?” She asked patiently while glowering at Angie who was scoffing on her side of the room while others were giggling with a little less certainty.

“The Dancer’s Workshop, where I work, defines “dancer” as anyone who moves is a dancer.  Movement and connection are healing…

Snorts and  mutters,

“What’s this crazy bitch talking about?” 

“Go on Baby” Esther encouraged.  

“So we do most of this in the studio, but we also go outside and find things in the environment to inspire us to move and connect with each other and strangers on the street.  Once we went to the park to move and breathe with trees. This time it was an experiment with less friendly space and unfamiliar territory, to notice our own breath and body …”

“In the Financial district?”

“Yeah, you were humping a bank building.  What was that supposed to be?”

“Shut up fools” said Esther standing up.

“Can you show us any of what you do in here?” 

And so I did.

After dimming the lights and sliding all the chairs against the wall, the Gamers became Dancers.

All were gliding, sashaying, or jumping around the room to their own breath and heartbeat. Some made eye contact and improvised mirroring each other, while others did their own thing looking not unlike my students on Montgomery St.  Even Angie and Hector were getting into it when a group of serious elders entered the Stew and the dynamic shifted again.  

Bud Bancroft, Bernice Gibbs, the Director Bill Crawford with his wife Miriam took the four seats at the arcs of the circle after we raised the lights and slid the chairs back in place.

The four big shots, former addicts, came to talk to Esther who had announced she was leaving.  Residents were often told they might fall down a manhole when they left as had indeed happened to one hapless fellow.  It became the caution for all who might not be ready to leave the Circles to return to a world of temptations and trepidations.

They asked her to think it over and give it some time but she was set on her path to her music and art.  She had had enough of the switchboard and idiots.

In the 15 years after she left, her output was prolific.  She produced seven albums and was nominated for 4 Grammys. She was flown to London by the Beatles, praised by Paul McCartney for her cover of “And I Love Her.” Her music continues to set souls on fire.

She was 48 when she died of complications relating to drug use.  This year (2023) she was posthumously entered into the Blues Hall of Fame.

Susan and I left the Stew that night. We returned to our Marin County homes pondering if we would move our lives toward or into the Circle.

3 responses to “Many A Blunder and Foolish Notion”

  1. Elena, I enjoyed reading your story. I imagine other readers will, too.
    But your pretty pictures of Synanon and the Game dynamic
    strike me, to put it as mildly as I can manage, as pollyannaish.

    You say “All words (in the Game) were free to be said or unsaid. No words were held sacred or held against the sayer.” That’s just not the case. “Negativity,” i.e. criticism of Synanon or the man who seized increasing control of it was shouted down in Games. It was punished outside the Games. One example: Jack Hurst told me that he found himself on the way down and out because he merely allowed other members to criticize Dederich in a Game. At the Academy, even by the time I arrived in 1969, none of the Academy members or the genuflecting adult acolytes Dederich had gathered around himself would have dared to voice serious criticism of Synanon or Dederich in Games for fear they would soon find themselves shipped out.

    Bottom line: To suggest as you do that the Game was somehow a forum of free speech just does not hold up. It glosses over the use of the Game as a management tool and as an instrument of coercion (for example in the Bloodbath Stews so clearly chronicled in Anthony Lang’s book, The People Business). If anything, it was the reverse, an instrument for throttling independent speech and, thereby, of thought.

    You also say “The more the (rotten) story was told the closer it came to a reasonable truth and scales often fell away from the eyes.” Maybe in some cases to some extent, though I can’t think of one.

    What is more true and verifiable is that in many case the pressure to tell and embellish one’s rotten story inculcated people with an overly harsh and unbalanced view of themselves. The practice, as it was intended to do, destroyed self-esteem and self-confidence so that it could be replaced with allegiance to Dederich and Synanon.

    On that score, my wife was smart. She flatly refused to tell even the beginnings of a rotten story during her brief time in the community because she saw that whatever small amount she gave would be enlarged, engrossed and thrown against her in an attempt to undermine her independence and self worth. I was not so smart. It took me some years after leaving to shed the damage done by rotten storytelling and replace it with a more balanced and realistic tale of who I had been before encountering the community. But that is a tale for another day.

    Meanwhile, thanks for your vivid tale about Esther.

    best, David Gerstel

  2. Here is to the Varieties of Religious Experiences!

    I felt freedom of speech and trusted the Game.
    The Game worked for me. Never felt so free or encouraged to express myself. Learned about how other’s saw me. Learned the thoughts of folks from vastly different backgrounds. Challenged my assumptions. Created strong friendships, still alive.

    You and your lovely wife had different experiences. My brother and I grew up in the same family. Have vastly different stories to tell and points of view. We still love each other.

    We all came to Synanon for different reasons. We took some, we gave some.
    I am curious
    1. Why did you come?
    2. What did you contribute?
    3. What did you leave with?

    I got what I came for and am richer today because of it.

    Thank you for taking the time to read my humble offerings.

  3. Elena,
    Thank you for the story. I found it to be a well written brief snippet of a single life emblematic of the journey one must take upon entering Synanon. I say must because when you are in, you are in all the way, until you are not. There is no partial submersion in the process bubble that was Synanon. If you were a resident, you came, you saw, and you made an attempt to conquer whatever self imposed limitations drove you to that cold seat on a wooden bench which served as a gateway to a dream. Esther was no different than any other entrant of notoriety or not. She made a Faustian pact with herself, and Synanon brokered an unlimited number of “clean woman/man days” specifically tailored to embrace a Philosophy anchored in sobriety and group interaction. Nothing more and nothing less. In every second of time and on the heels of every turn of events, one never loses sight of the fact that the door swings both ways and that Faustian choice would always be within your power to rescind. Such is the fate of the substance abuser, character disordered entrant. “Squares” and minors should speak for themselves. Everyone is invited and encouraged to speak for themselves. As was the case in residency. I was a resident recovering heroin addict from January 12, 1972 until a date unknown in the Fall of 1978.

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