By Janet Best Dart
It was harder than I thought.
Before I wrote my still-to-be-named memoir of my time in Synanon, I intended to write about a fabulous place I lived in the 1970s. Many young people joined communes and utopian communities in those years. I joined Synanon, not knowing it would become, or maybe always was, a cult.
To write about my wondrous life in Synanon, I interviewed many people who had lived there to gather stories and remember the happy times. A friend suggested that I ask everyone the same question, which may not have been a great idea, but that’s what I did. As I tried to integrate the stories into a whole, I realized I couldn’t tell anyone else’s story until I told my own.
If you don’t know me, I came across Synanon in 1969 as a square, naïve 19-year-old Game Player (Janet Holdaway at the time), after having been thrown out of my home because I spent the night at my boyfriend’s house. I was thrown into a whirlwind of trying to find out where I fit in the world, while going to college, working, attending anti-Vietnam rallies. My friends were taking LSD and smoking pot. I even ended up at a drug dealer’s house in San Francisco where he offered me opium and wanted to paint my body. To me, Synanon was a sane place in an insane world. I moved into Oakland in 1971, got married to Bobby Best in the big wedding of 1972 (becoming Janet Best), moved to Walker Creek with the Breeders, moved to Santa Monica with the Hatchery, and finally ended up as Clerk in Badger (on the Cube with Carol Goldfeder), where I left in 1977 — with 1/4 inch of hair on my head, $30 dollars to my name, a 2-1/2 year old mixed race son, my ex-dopefiend love-matched boyfriend, George Agnosticus, and a suitcase of clothes among us.
Photo by Mark Cozza, 1970-ish
When I interviewed Will (name changed to protect privacy), a tall black man who arrived in 1972 to kick his habit, he asked: Do you believe now that you live in a cult?
I didn’t, even forty years later. Until I wrote my story.
I have told my story. Next, I will tell theirs.
Here is the request I made via Synanon’s on-line groups:
I am gathering stories of the people of Synanon and hope you will let me share yours. Much has been written about Synanon, and perhaps you feel that everything has been said. Perhaps you, like me, feel like you were only a part of the larger whole and cannot speak for Synanon itself. Have you ever tried to describe what it was like to live there to someone who wasn’t there? It was a little different for each of us – we came from different backgrounds; our involvement spanned overlapping years, facilities, and subgroups (e.g., School, Hatchery, Breeders, Boot Camp, etc.). I think gathering oral histories and stories will paint a picture of the essence of living there. Would you like to participate? I would love to interview you in person, by phone or Skype. Of, if you have written something – or would like to write something – that works too. All of this will be anonymous.
Here are the questions I asked and then it went on from there.
- What years were you there? How old were you when you came in?
- What brought you there? What was the draw?
- Why did you stay? What was it like living there?
- What did you love?
- What didn’t you like?
- What do you miss?
- Were you in any special groups or have specific memories? School – Breeders – Hatchery – Boot Camp – Punk Squad – Shaving Heads – Vasectomies – Tribe Leader?
- Why did you leave?
- Where are you now?