By Andre James
“I have as much authority as the Pope. I just don’t have as many people who believe it.”George Carlin
I enrolled in the Synanon Academy in the summer of 1968. We had about 60 students living at Tomales Bay under the tutelage of the founder and DLG. We were challenged to both understand and demonstrate self-reliance, that “character is the only rank”, that “less is more” and that containment would provide all things needed. We studied the writings of Maslow, Emerson, Gregg, Reich and Philip Slater while regularly listening to the CED By-Pass Tapes.
Property Damage 1968 – John Harris and Larry Helfand invited me for ride on a donated catamaran. We set sail on Tomales Bay on one calm, sunny afternoon. As we came close to the mouth of the bay, the winds suddenly changed. The sail was racked by a strong gust, breaking the mast. All were safe. However, the sail was still billowing wildly, slowly pulling us out to sea. John kicked off his shoes, clenched his knife between his teeth and dove into the water to swim 4 feet to cut the sail from the mast. Within minutes we spotted a boater who pulled us back to shore.
Great adventure. No casualties. Just a broken mast. Happy to return to land, we docked the boat. We were excited to report to our academy peers about this harrowing event. Our Kon-Tiki inspired short story was quickly becoming legend as we recounted passing a sandbar littered with dead sand sharks (at least 3 feet in length). As our story unfolded it was John’s rush to action, braving shark-infested waters that saved us from the treacherous waters of the Pacific.
Unfortunately, history would be quickly revised, recounting our misadventure as our date with infamy. For, the next day we were invited into the Perpetual Stew, to game about ‘The Catamaran Incident’. It was explained by our betters that we showed little appreciation and care for this donated boat. What was revealed after the investigation – the footing was not substantial enough for the mast. But I won’t bore you with the facts.
Minor gaming pursued about who was at fault. It was my claim that we were victims of an accident.
Enter CED. Like a prosecuting attorney, Chuck began setting a foundation that would illuminate for the jury how adults take responsibility for their actions while children and drug addicts always blame circumstances when things go wrong. Neither drug addict nor child, but a man of 18 years I decided to object to his reasoning. Only weeks before I had listen to CED give a lecture on the game and how anyone could say anything to anyone in a game. It was my time to test that premise.
Irritated by my declaration CED pronounced, “there is no such thing as an accident!”. I persisted by telling him he was dead wrong and that there was no way we could have known the mast would break. Like a novice who had just removed his training wheels, I turned to the gallery to get a measure of how I was doing. Several classmates put their finger to their lips, urging me to shut up.
Shut up? This was the place where you don’t shut. The game was the place you could speak truth-to-power without worrying about consequences. As CED got louder, so did I. In a shrill, but righteous voice I just told him he was wrong.
“Shut up Andre. Shut up.” It became clear that the principal was enraged by my verbal fencing. So, I backed off. And for the next hour we were lectured about our immature attitudes and how character disorders always blame others for their misfortune.
Even though I lost the moment, I felt proud, emboldened because I went one round with the man. The next day I arrived at work at the front lobby we called The Connect. My job was to welcome and indoctrinate all visitors from SF and LA. The Walter (CED’s right hand man) handed me a box labeled “Property Damage”. This was a taped, edited version of yesterday’s session that prominently featured me. I was required to play this tape for visitors every day. I was instructed to identify my role in the boat calamity while clarifying my lesson learned, “there is no such thing as an accident”.
Flip-The-Truck Incident. Two weeks later, while making the hairpin turn at the bottom of the Tomales Bay property, Arnold flipped the rough wash truck onto its side. Later that day a game ensued. Fast asleep in the Outer Limits dorm, I was abruptly awoken at 3AM with a summons to dress and come to the stew. Bleary-eyed I entered the stew room and sat down in one of the Bertrand chairs to the right of the founder’s deaf ear with the hope he would not notice my presence.
The game was on Arnold. Now Arnold was an ex-addict who had survived in a tough part of New York. As one of few black guys in the Academy, he had honed his verbal arsenal, arming him with attack lines that served as defense against the
best gamers. In any argument with Arnold there were always casualties.
Well, Arnold was sitting, hunched over, with his head hanging down. No eye contact. Not the Arnold I had come to fear. After what must have been at least 15 rounds with the founder, I sensed he was in surrender-mode. Without looking my way, Chuck said, “Well Andre, what do think? Did Arnold have an accident or did he just carelessly try destroy one of our trucks?”
I do not remember my exact response. However, I got the message. It’s a game until you game Chuck. And then all bets are off when it comes to truth and consequences. And, oh yes, don’t break anything.