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3543_browning_frankTo read Frank Browning’s latest book The Monk and the Skeptic: Dialogues on Sex, Faith, and Religion is to eavesdrop on series of confessionals, and to be party to the converse positions and erotic agreements of Browning and Brother Peter, a homosexual Dominican monk, a relationship that begins in kitsch surroundings that Jean Paul Gaultier might want to rip off. It is to enter a rich demimonde frocked in drag and incense, at times sensuous and melancholy, at others cavalier and threaded with paradox. The confessions leak from the ecclesiastical to the secular world, revealing the sexual wounds of the Catholic church, the often painful duality required of gay men within the institution. The relationship between Browning and Brother Peter is—in all senses—touching. The Monk and the Skeptic is a remarkable book, full of yearning and transcendence. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to correspond with Frank about his book and to have him elaborate further on some of the questions arising from it. Since then, Time magazine has named Pope Francis ‘Person of the Year,’ an accolade about which I suspect we would both remain skeptical.

God-Is-Disappointed-in-You-coverThe Gospel According to Matthew:

Jesus was born in a barn in a small town called Bethlehem. Despite his redneck beginnings, everyone seemed to realize that there was something really special about Jesus. Even foreigners noticed it. Following an astrological sign auguring the birth of a new king, three wise men came to Israel to give Jesus some really expensive gifts, including gold, which was the ancient world’s equivalent of a gift card, frankincense, which was a kind of perfume, and myrrh, which was almost the same thing as frankincense. The three wise men were not imaginative gift-givers.

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Even in the frozen center of Massachusetts winter, my college campus was ripe for the blood harvest. Red Cross banners were everywhere, always. I felt compelled to volunteer myself in part because it seemed such a blameless cause that I could think of no reason not to, and easy charity is de rigeuer for the college kid. But the first time I tried to sign up for an appointment, I was turned away. Somebody I vaguely knew — a student liaison for the Red Cross — looked up at me from behind a table in our echoing humid dining hall and told me, without asking my weight, that I wasn’t heavy enough to give blood. My winter coat dwarfed me, but she was still right: The Red Cross asks that donors be 110lbs, and I weighed only 100.

I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple.

Help. Thanks. Wow.

You may in fact be wondering what I even mean when I use the word “prayer.” It’s certainly not what TV Christians mean. It’s not for display purposes, like plastic sushi or neon. Prayer is private, even when we pray with others. It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God. Or if that is too triggering or ludicrous a concept for you, to the Good, the force that is beyond our comprehension but that in our pain or supplication or relief we don’t need to define or have proof of or any established contact with. Let’s say it is what the Greeks called the Really Real, what lies within us, beyond the scrim of our values, positions, convictions, and wounds. Or let’s say it is a cry from deep within to Life or Love, with capital L’s.

Imagine you have in your possession a fantastic new game: a programmable, mechanical ant farm. This farm consists of some dirt and water and plants, as well as a few mechanical ants that have tiny programmable brains in them. These ants are also able, by a fun mechanical diversion, to reproduce.

When you first take the ant farm out of the box and assemble it, the ants can’t do anything. You alone are responsible for their behavior by using a set of rules that their programmable brains will follow. You don’t control every decision or motion they make (where would the fun be in that?) but rather you set up the rules and turn them on and watch what happens. Will their little civilization rise to greatness, forcing you to buy expansion modules to give them room to grow? Or will it wither and die before it ever really gets started? Oh, and one other fun attribute possessed by these ants: They know they’re in the game. Their brains are just smart enough to realize that their inconsequential lives are owed to you, the owner of the game. But they’re okay with it because otherwise they would enjoy no other existence.

Jane Smiley’s novel Horse Heaven was published in 2000, about three years after I left the Judaism in which I had grown up and was baptized in the Anglican church. Smiley is quite possibly my favorite living American novelist—I read her novella “The Age of Grief ” at least once annually—and I snatched up Horse Heaven as soon as it hit the stands. It’s a sprawling comic novel about horse racing, a subculture I have little interest in, and it is not my favorite of the Smiley oeuvre: I prefer her quiet, finely grained family stories—Ordinary Love and Good Will, Barn Blind, At Paradise Gate. But one small section of Horse Heaven spoke to me with a force I had mostly felt only when reading liturgy or poetry or epitaphs.

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy. Brother Terrell reveled in that characterization.

Keep Astarte in Easter

 

Part One: Wisdom without Doctrine

 
1.

The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings.

To save time, and at the risk of losing readers painfully early on in this project, let us bluntly state that of course no religions are true in any God-given sense. This is a book for people who are unable to believe in miracles, spirits or tales of burning shrubbery, and have no deep interest in the exploits of unusual men and women like the thirteenth-century saint Agnes of Montepulciano, who was said to be able to levitate two feet off the ground while praying and to bring children back from the dead – and who, at the end of her life (supposedly), ascended to heaven from southern Tuscany on the back of an angel.

Every week I receive two or three e-mails asking me whether Jesus existed as a human being. When I started getting these e-mails, some years ago now, I thought the question was rather peculiar and I did not take it seriously. Of course Jesus existed. Everyone knows he existed. Don’t they?

But the questions kept coming, and soon I began to wonder: Why are so many people asking? My wonder only increased when I learned that I myself was being quoted in some circles—misquoted rather—as saying that Jesus never existed. I decided to look into the matter. I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there ever was a real man, Jesus.

 

On Super Tuesday, after a blast of last-minute organization, Rick Santorum won the North Dakota caucus. I spent a strange and happy chunk of my kid-hood in the city of Minot, barely an hour from the Canadian border, and I attended the St. Leo’s parish school downtown, just blocks south of the Souris River and the giant red neon sign of the Bridgeman Creamery. Because this was also a time when my parents happened to be grassroots crusaders in the anti-ERA, anti-secular humanism textbook battles of the late 1970s, I feel a sense of déja vu to see Santorum win in North Dakota.

This is another way of saying I watch him win and feel about ten years old.

The world is green, grass in full fall five o’clock shadow, and I stand in the middle of it. My hands cradle two pecans. There are more barely hidden in the verdant whiskers. Nearby, I may have a pile of them or a bowl full. Now, I have only the two—perfect brown ellipses flecked with black. The nuts warm quickly in my touch, the dust of their abandoned husks bitter and drying as alum. I hold the pecans. We are poetry, a song of praise. This is my first conscious memory.

I am two years old.

And I am sacred.

 

 

I descend from generations of Catholics, numerous as rosary beads. My grandparents are devout beyond the expectation of prayer and Sunday mass. The One True Church is chosen for me, and I sit in one of its domiciles surrounded by echoes and incense but anxious to go outside.

Beyond the cathedral steps is the largest, oldest living thing I’ve ever seen. Almost 500 years old, it is Magnificence and Beauty. The oak tree waits for me, for my hands on its bark, for my entranced orbit around its trunk. I will learn the words axis mundi decades later, and I will know exactly where that is.

For now, the tree holds the space between the cathedral and the school building where I attend catechism. In the classroom, I’m told of the indelibility of original sin, the importance of pleasing the Lord, and the stories of a great ark, burning bush, giant whale, and woman who turns to salt.

But before I’m called away, I stand on the fluorescent-lit sidewalk within a footstep of the darkness, a leap away through moonlight into a canopy of leaves. At the ancient oak’s roots is where I want to be.

I am a pagan.

 

 

Requisite catechism classes and first confession complete, I wear the white dress my grandmother made for this first communion. I walk down the aisle with the other children to the pews—boys sent left, girls sent right. The veil’s haze blurs my sight. I kneel. I mutter what I’ve learned by rote, and I feel I’m doing something wrong. I don’t belong here. I’ve told no one I don’t believe what I’ve been taught in catechism, by example, through osmosis. I push this feeling down, hard, and it stays. The wafer on my tongue transmutes into caulk.

I am a bad girl.

 

 

We move to another parish, with a modern building and no oak tree. The priests are younger, as well as the families. The circumstances are different, but the doctrine isn’t. I barely contain the danger of what I know, what I feel, but I can’t speak of it.

So I sit in the bright sanctuary where the acoustics are balanced and the pews are unworn, with the unacceptable thoughts I’ve formed on my own. I am only twelve, but I don’t believe birth control, sex before marriage, or homosexuality is wrong. I don’t believe in hell, purgatory, limbo, or heaven. I don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin or resurrected from the dead. I don’t believe that Catholicism is theOneTrueChurch, that people of other religions—or none at all—are damned, or that the pope is infallible.

I am an apostate.

 

 

I meet with a confirmation counselor, a middle-aged woman who does most of the talking about the solemn sacrament. My feet dangle from the edge of the wingback chair. I sip the Coke she serves me. Knowing I can’t endure an act of hypocrisy, I tell the woman I’m not ready to do this yet. I don’t know her, or trust her, so I summon up the most neutral excuse I can imagine. “I need more time to think about this commitment,” I say. Perhaps I come across as mature, or at least respectful. Several weeks later, after much sulking and silence, after several red-faced insistences upon my obedience, I am allowed to quit.

I am a disappointment.

 

 

I’m not prepared for the difficult growth from the tendrils of doubt into the gripping vines of uncertainty. Our Father who art in Heaven has been imposed upon me, but I have no guide to take his place. I want to be an atheist—desperately—but all I can achieve is an embittered agnosticism. My rage at God, if God exists, is complicated. I don’t want to be this way, but I am, and if my will alone can’t make me a believer, then was I fearfully and wonderfully made not to be one?

At fourteen, I begin a search for answers beginning in philosophy, psychology, and natural science. In college, I learn of a time when God was a woman, or at least not only a man. I behold the Venus of Willendorf and the Minoan snake goddess, who seem familiar to me, like someone I’ve forgotten. I read the names of the dead goddesses and their myths, invoking the Feminine in the place where the rigid, judgmental Masculine banged his hairy white fist. I encounter Joseph Campbell, the venerable sage, who reveals the common motifs of mythology and religion from all over the world throughout time. He teaches me that human beings have always assigned stories to the Great Ineffable.

I am a scholar.

 

 

During the first years I practice yoga, I acknowledge the envy I have of my grandmothers. What is it like to believe as they do, to have trust in a faith, to have prayers and rituals that hold meaning? What does it feel like to have a relationship with the Divine that isn’t constantly in question? And if there’s doubt, how does one carry its weight, the pressure that perhaps there is, in fact, nothing after all but the spooky action of matter and energy?

As I enter Eastern territory—where Hinduism and Buddhism speak to me—I also return to the Earth. I read and think about the span of human wisdom, but it is only in stillness with Nature that I discover any truth. I ache for a return to something I think I once knew, something that belonged to me, something that was stolen and buried.

Then I find peace in my knowledge that the Divine force takes many forms. Each is a fragment of the whole, a glimpse through which the person perceives according to his or her understanding. My grandmother finds comfort in the Blessed Virgin Mary. My sister’s Hindu friend has a shrine to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. My Buddhist friend sits in meditation, sometimes in the presence of Tara, the bodhisattva of compassion and action.

I reach for the ancient oak, a flower, the song of a bird. When I hold these things, I am connected to the Divine in the purest state I comprehend.

I am a seeker of what cannot be taught or found, but instead known and felt by my individual human soul.

 

My last year of college I dated a charming pixie from the august, tree-lined burgh known as Winchester, Massachusetts. She was sweet and funny and doing her damnedest to feel slightly less middle-class, if only briefly. I sported a beard, drank too much and wrote pithy little stories about eating the rich. We were determinedly hip and sophisticated, which in those days meant we had to bear our souls utterly, immediately: in the span of a few short weeks we revealed everything, from past lovers to surgery scars, favorite movies to worst deeds (she claimed to have once stolen a car, but not really: it was her friend’s dad’s car, and all she did was park it two streets over). It was actually the first night we kissed (hours before the kiss itself) that we discovered we’d both been raised ostensibly Catholic. “Oh, yeah,” I told her, “Sunday school, First Communion, all the way through Confirmation.”

“You must have been adorable in your little altar boy outfit,” she suggested.

I raised an eyebrow and said, “I was never an altar boy.”

“Of course you were,” she insisted. “You had to be.”

I shook my head. “Nope. Definitely not. I’m sure I’d remember something like that.”

She pursed her lips but was too polite to be incredulous. Sometime after one in the morning when she finally leaned in and said, “C’mere, you,” I suspect she still held in her mind the sweet, saintly image of long-ago me bashfully performing my duties at the priest’s side. Which was fine with me, I was picturing her naked.

A month later I took her home to meet the parents. We had a fine time basking in the warm glow of my childhood hovel, swapping stories about the old days for the girl’s entertainment. After dinner, my mother pulled out the photo album. I sat across the room, indulging the ooh’s and aah’s, the unchecked laughter at me in my purple bell-bottoms (why is that funny? it’s not like I bought them for myself, I was five). Then came the moment when the girl grew suddenly silent and serious. Her eyes narrowed before she looked up at me and said, “I thought you told me you were never an altar boy.”

“Beg pardon?” I asked.

She turned the album my way, and sure enough, there I stood, eyes appropriately downcast, hands folded in front of me, and dressed in the traditional white surplice over an ankle-length black cassock.

“That appears to be me,” I assented.

“Of course you were an altar boy,” my mother chirped. She turned to the girl, “He’s probably repressed the memory because he hated it so much.”

Sure, Mom. That was probably it.

The sex abuse cases that rocked the Catholic foundations were still vague whispers at that point, certainly in our quiet jerkwater. It was 1990, and we had no reason to expect we were witnessing anything more than the sad but limited dismantling of what had been a long-standing bad joke about priests and little boys. The girl thought it was odd that I didn’t remember, but I doubt she suspected anything sinister had happened. Of course, generally speaking, we all know better now, and I’d be both surprised and disappointed if in the years hence that girl hasn’t at least once recounted to a friend that she dated a guy in college who was . . . “Well,” she would say, “the thing is, he doesn’t remember being an altar boy!” And we all know what that means.

Over the next twenty years I took a perverse pleasure, whenever the opportunity presented itself, in telling people I don’t remember being an altar boy. You can’t always direct the conclusions to which people will jump, but this happens to be one of the topics with which you easily can. “Oh my god, really?” Me (grinning): Weird, right? “Yeah, um . . . Oh my god!”

I’ve only been trumped in my fun once, and I should’ve known better. I was sitting at the bar with my best pal Peaches, an inveterate smartass and steadfast match to my wit, especially after I’d faced him one evening while he was chatting up a young woman and turned to me for confirmation when he announced to her, “Well, I’m not completely full of shit,” to which I replied, “No, but it wouldn’t take much to top you off.” Yeah, I had it coming. So there I sat, telling my little joke for perhaps the two-hundredth time, when Peaches pulled out his smart-ish phone and asked, “What was your priest’s name?” I thought nothing of it, rattled off the name, and went back to my amusement. A few minutes later he handed me his phone and said, “Read ’em and weep, altar boy.”

And there it was, a real story in a real newspaper, Father X implicated in Catholic sex abuse scandal, multiple confirmed incidents.

He was a regular Jack the Diddler.

“Where’s your messiah now, funny guy?” Peaches asked.

What could I do? We got drunk and had many laughs, mostly at my expense.

But I thought a lot about Father X after that. He was a bald, obese, painfully myopic old priest: he had to use a staggeringly thick magnifying glass to read scripture. That’s about all I remember about him, except a vague recollection of his Elmer-Fudd voice. I can, however, say with absolute certainty he never touched me, not even appropriately. I don’t think he ever even looked at me. Believe me when I say, I don’t repress anything. I can tell you what I had for breakfast my first day of kindergarten: half a grapefruit, for some unimaginable reason (hell of a time to try out a new food on me, Mom). I can tell you the last time I peed the bed: I was nine and tried to blame it on the cat (volume gave me away). Nothing has ever hurt so badly or shamed me so deeply that I’ve dug a hole in my psyche and buried it there. That ain’t me.

Which leads to what I think is a rather obvious question, given what we know: why not me? I mean, I was cute. I had a near-perfect little boy body, thin and lean and mostly hairless. The pipe-cleaners hanging from my shoulder sockets made it abundantly clear I wasn’t strong enough to fight back. I wasn’t the incessant talker I am now, so I’m sure I didn’t give the impression that I’d tattle. So what was wrong with me? Why didn’t you pick me, Father X?

I believe in the value of reflection, particularly in light of new information. I don’t wish to pin everything on Father X, but give the devil his due. Here I sit, a man in his early forties who has experienced a long and satisfying sex life with some truly delightful women. I don’t scratch shallow troughs in my skin with a knife, don’t wake up crying in the middle of the night, don’t hate my body (although I kind of should). I’m a lot of this and a whole lot of that, but goddamn if I’m not pretty fucking normal. Rejection, whatever form it takes, always comes with some cost.

Perhaps I should just get over it, but I confess, it has been on my mind constantly, so much so that during a recent trip through the family photo album with another excellent girl, something caught my eye and inspired what I consider to be a damned solid theory. Stretched out side by side in my narrow bed, we flipped slowly through the 1970s. There I was again as an altar boy, there in my fuzzy footie pajamas, there in my purple bell-bottoms, and a page later, a picture I had neither seen nor thought about in decades (because it was my sister’s birthday party and thus I wasn’t the focal point): there I stood in a pair of Lee jeans, back-to this time, and immediately the words I’ve heard a thousand or so times in my adult life from the mouths of friends and loved ones rang out in my head like the bells of Notre Dame: “Pull up your pants.” At this mild admonishment I invariably shrug and halfheartedly hitch, meantime explaining somewhat apologetically that I have no ass (it’s true, I have none). It wasn’t until the moment I saw myself from behind in that random Polaroid from more than thirty-five years ago that it finally hit me: I have never had an ass. And clarity washed over me like a rape shower.

I understand you now, Father X, and I forgive you your failure to trespass against me.

You, sir, were an ass-man.

Lucky me.

Synanon came to life in the fifties. The ultimate temple of soul sacrifice. You laid yourself out to all comers, at Synanon, because this was the new school of drug rehab. But, unlike its twelve step brethren, Synanon did not mature very quickly, it didn’t really develop was until the 70’s.Scientology, itself often branded as a cult, had also become fruitful at the same time, and was selling its own drug program. And like Scientology, the fierce creatures of Synanon formed into a kind of cult. Musicians showed up, and Synanon put them to work, recording albums to promote the rehab. Ask yourself how many drug rehabs issue albums? Now, how many cults do?

Synanon’s self-popularization sang with such perfect pitch that hepcats near its Santa Monica, and Bay Area locations rang the bell, and joined up, before they even realized what they were getting into. Jazz and pop musicians- famed addict and sax man Art Pepper among them- came calling. What’s the plan? Don’t know, don’t care, it works, that’s all. Everyday Joes showed up, too. Synanon didn’t discriminate. They took you in, and gave you the rap. And the rap was tough love. To the extreme.

Synanon emerged, like an ex-pugilist with something to prove, straight out of founder Charles “Chuck” Dederich’s garage in Ocean Park, California. For a while, the program aligned itself closely to the twelve step groups that were gaining their own cult like status in the late 50’s and early 60’s. But only for a while. Eventually Dederich received tax-exempt status for Synanon. After that, the money rolled right in. The garage in Ocean Park gave way to a ranch in the foothills, then another. And then, there was the Santa Monica spot. Right smack dab on the beach.

So what happened? Synanon was built around one person. The group beat to his imperfect cadence. Members slipped out of reach because they were encouraged to relinquish past acquaintances and family members in favor of their new ‘family.’ Yeah, like Manson. Like the Children of God. Like a cult.

Some of the methods were outlandish for the time, but have become mainstream today. Rather than focus on the individual, Synanon sought to encourage group members to ‘test’ other group members, in regards to their sobriety, their faith, and their dedication. In essence, the group member became the therapist. These ‘test’ sessions sometimes turned into shouting matches, but in the end Dederich and the other ‘therapists’ sought to establish closure so the group as a whole, and the individuals therein, could move onward, upward to a new salvation. In some cases it made desperate junkie prostitutes able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, in others, it offered a major rush of egotistical power to people who had never experienced it, and they abused it. As Synanon moved beyond its gestation the twelve step tenets wore thin. Dederich began restructuring them, adding in new rules, new regulations, new regiments, making it up as he went along. One major theme Dederich stressed was that the patient needed to stay in the group, and not leave. To give back, to build a new community. Things got weird. Normally, a visit to the drunk farm ended with some sort of fresh start. Or not. Either way, there was a beginning, middle, and an end. Not so with Synanon. There, you stuck around in perpetuity, finding new ways to make yourself useful for years at a time. Synanon encouraged the beginning and the middle, but never the end. An end presented too difficult a task. Dederich had seen where other rehabs had failed. They all let their clients back out into the real world. And that was their great mistake. Success rates plummeted once addicts were set free. Synanon simply abolished that last act, instead electing to treat addicts over long periods, for seemingly endless terms. If you decided you were ready to leave, a group of your Synanon peers came round to remind you what it was like before you got there. They urged you to stick it out, to let Synanon keep working its magic. If that didn’t work, Chuck would send in the aptly named “punk squad,” which existed, in the words of ex-resident Charlotte (no last name) “for people who need to be tamed.”

Synanon family members began to get frightened when they couldn’t contact their loved ones. Critics of the Synanon ‘method’ arose. Some called it a cult. Most claimed it robbed them of relationships with their family members. All pointed their fingers at Dederich, who made no effort to give a public response.

In the very early part of the 1970’s, the Point Reyes Light, a teeny local paper in a small town north of San Francisco near a Synanon compound, started investigating rumors of staff abuse, and beatings. As the reports of negligence grew, the IRS took note, and began the process to revoke the group’s tax exempt status, saying it was no longer a medical rehabilitation facility, but something else, a way of life. Synanon, feeling like it was on the ropes, did what any cult-ish group would- under Dederich’s order the group declared itself a religion. Enter the church of Synanon.

Suspected of acting in and covering up the murder of a dissenter, the frayed group started to make headlines beyond the Point Reyes Light reach, though the small paper did capitalize on its coverage of the group, even receiving a Pulitzer Prize for its Synanon articles.

Time Magazine featured Synanon in an unfavorable light. The article portrayed Dederich as wife swapping messianic leader. Descriptions of the residents of Synanon referred to them as “smiling people” with “shiny, shaved heads,” who bowed in sync, and chanted like monks.

They listed assets, they mentioned Dederich’s 70’s era $100,000 salary, and quoted him, “A lot of guys could do this thing from an old Ford roadster and sit on an orange crate…I need a $17,000 Cadillac. We are in the people business just exactly as if we were building Chevrolet axles.”

Stranger things were in store. More investigations arose from the constant news coverage. Local police began getting calls from estranged family members. As the scrutiny wore on, Synanon security tightened. The punk squad grew. Paranoia took over. Addicts usually become acclimated to reality if given something else to become addicted to. Synanon added to already compulsive behavior a regimented structure that offered an alternative future to needles plunged into arms, and sucking off johns behind bus stations. While many celebrities had given praise to Synanon in the past (Steve Allen promoted Synanon on TV) the celebrity endorsements dried up in the face of the bad press of the early 70’s.

Since Synanon claimed such definite success, it pointed to the past record of its achievement, to the (past) celebrity endorsements, to the sobriety of its members. Synanon embraced a hive mind, a boot camp philosophy. Somehow, the myth continued to grow. New members arrived daily.

Sci-Fi writer Philip K. Dick battled his own demons. During the 60’s he started using large amounts of speed, taking more and more of the amphetamine to accomplish more and more writing. And of course, addiction rooster tailed in the wake of all that drug taking. Eventually things spun wildly out of control for Dick, who began living with local addicts trading dugs, and comparing notes. As some of his pals began to overdose and die, others sought rehabilitation. Synanon had a campus in nearby Marin. Dick likely experienced some Synanon concepts first hand. He didn’t like what he found. New Path, the rehab in Dick’s loosely autobiographical novel “A Scanner Darkly” is based on Synanon. In another book, the group is actually identified as Synanon by a character, “It’s a fascist therapy that makes the person totally outer directed and dependent on the group.” Critics Rosa Lee Cole and Phil Ritter came under heavier fire than Dick. Ritter was beaten after he left the group. Fifteen-year-old Rosa Lee Cole disappeared from the Synanon foundation’s Oakland center never to be heard from again. A lawyer for another ex- Synanon member was bitten by a rattlesnake, which had been de-rattled, agitated, and stuffed in his mailbox. Somehow the man survived. Each of these stories were reported by the Point Reyes Light, and later investigated by local and federal authorities. Paul Morantz, the lawyer bitten by the snake dedicated his life to debunking Dederich’s myths, writing a book and operating a website condemning all things Syn-Syn-Synanon.

By the time an NBC expose ran, Synanon was claiming to Connie Chung that it was the victim of bad publicity. Very bad publicity. Mostly stemming from the disappearance of a Synanon patient, or member, however they were classifying them, back in the early part of the decade.

Dederich made no bones about the hi-jinks. He admitted wearing costumes, that he was ”big brother big daddy.” The icing on the cake, however, was a clandestinely obtained recording. On it, Synanon’s founder can be heard ranting about lawsuits waged by ex-members and other detractors. “These are real threats, they (lawyers) are draining life’s blood from us and expecting us to play by their silly rules. We will make the rules. I see nothing frightening about it… I am quite willing to break some lawyer’s legs and next break his wife’s legs and threaten to cut their child’s arm off. That is the end of that lawyer. That is a very satisfactory, humane way of transmitting information…. I really do want an ear in a glass of alcohol on my desk” A few months later, Dederich, the man who founded Synanon on the concept of complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol, broken by strain and or megalomania, or both, was found stewed to the gills, and arrested in relation to the attempted murders of Morantz, and Ritter. John Watson, the LA prosecutor assigned to the case described Dederich upon arrest as being, “in a stupor, staring straight ahead with an empty bottle of Chivas Regal.”

But there was something to Synanon, before their tough-love-confrontational-rehabilitation-methodology shifted into its late era thuggish free for all. The program changed lives. It kept irrefutably hopeless addicts clean, long as they stayed under the Synanon roof. Many who had been through the program paid no mind to the bad press. Synanon worked where nothing else would. To this day former members meet online and in person sharing stories of their time as members of Synanon the family. Still, after Dederich’s arrest, and subsequent downfall, it was next to impossible to keep tabs on success stories because Synanon success stories kept their mouths shut, unwilling to invite the odor of the group’s last days into their well fought for sobriety. Can you blame them? Some aspects of Synanon’s ‘no bones about it’ program can’t be argued with. Desperation’s wild horse needs a jockey, and in a lot of cases, that jockey was Synanon. But even the best jockey needs the oversight of a trainer and that was where Synanon failed.

Despite the mounting bad press, or likely, because of Synanon’s previous favored-son status during the mid 60’s media onslaught, other addiction specialists took note. New York’s Daytop Village, the name sometimes referred to as an acronym for Drug Addicts Yielding to Temptation, based their methods on that of Synanon’s primal group therapy model. Whatever. Daytop remained an incredible success in the treatment of hard-core addicts and alcoholics. One of Daytop’s founders spent time at Synanon in the early sixties before Dederich’s megalomaniacal model overwhelmed the rehabilitation process. And Mel Wasserman started his CEDU schools based on his own Synanon experiences, billing them as Therapeutic Boarding Schools. Like Synanon, they failed.

It’s not hard to see why many flocked to the Synanon model. It was damn seductive. A misappropriation on tough love, it looked like you were giving the addict a punch in the face to help them get better, and one time or another we have all wanted to punch the addicts in our lives square on the jaw. They looked like elegant marines as they ran across the beach in front of the Santa Monica headquarters, moving like chiseled gazelles, turning their bodies into temples once again. The group therapy was based on absolute interrogation and complete candor. No one was allowed to have any secrets. “You’re only as sick as your secrets” took on a whole new meaning at Synanon. Secrets were hunted down, and throttled, until even the secret keeper could no longer stomach the idea of dishonesty. But Dederich couldn’t seem to stop fiddling with the more controlling aspects of his therapeutic model. Women and men had to shave their heads. Most referred to Dederich as a kind of God. Vasectomies for men were encouraged. Then enforced. If a couple entered together, they wouldn’t last. Dederich pushed for and gotwife swapping. He sought a more lurid sort of enlightenment.

Dederich wasn’t jailed, but his reign at Synanon was over. The IRS confiscated Synanon’s property after the tax exemption revocation became official. The group ceased to exist, until the Internet.

Now a few pages dedicated to the group exist. Paul Morantz, the lawyer who received the rattlesnake in his mailbox operates one. Former Synanon members operate another- Synanon.com.

Gurus are a constant problem with twelve step programs. Touting guidance for the extreme cases, Gurus almost always end up using sex and money as their puppet strings, while often encouraging members to sever ties with friends and family in case any sense will be lodged into the group member’s mind.

As for Synanon’s physical presence in Santa Monica, the former hotel standing just steps from the Pacific Ocean has once again returned to the resort mentality- rates start at $395. About the same cost for a month stay back in ’78. And the name? In an article published in 1959 by R.D. Fox, Synanon stood for, Sins Anonymous.

I Sought Order

This do I teach:
The more you seek security, the more you are haunted by insecurity.
The more you desire surety, the more you are plagued by change.
The more you pretend to permanence, the more you invite suffering.
The more you do for control, the less you do for joy.
-  Ecclesiastes 1: 15-18

It seems we have the whole of life backward.  We want what we cannot get, and we reject that which we have in abundance.  We want the world to fit into a neat and understandable package. What we get is a jumble of experiences from which we fashion a life.

We want life to fit our story about life; instead we find ourselves in a swirling soup of ever-changing events some of which seem to make no sense whatsoever.

So Solomon is correct: The more I crave security, the more I am haunted by its absence. The more I seek to maintain the status quo, no matter how hurtful or damaging to me and others, the more things slip through my fingers and change against my will. Indeed — and this is his main point — my will does not much matter. Things happen whether I will them to or not. Reality does not give a damn about what I want; it just does what it does.

Our task then is simply to be fully present to whatever is happening now. When we are fully present, we seem to know what to do. Doing become effortless, choiceless. We are not weighing options but simply taking up the task that the moment presents.

My friend Leon is Chaplin at a local hospital. We cover for each other when one of us is out town. Late one evening I got a call from his hospital about a family whose mother was dying. Leon was unavailable, and they asked me to drive to the hospital and help in any way I could.

When I arrived at the hospital, a woman had just died and the family was being ushered out of a room by an orderly. I asked the family if they had a chance to pray with her mother and say goodbye. They had not and the orderly was kind enough to let us back into the mother’s room to be with her for a while longer. I encouraged the family to gather around their mother and take turns speaking to her — telling her they loved her, that they would miss her and that though it was sad, it was okay, that it was her time to die. As they spoke to their mother, the dead woman’s eyes suddenly filled with blood and thick red tears began to stream down her cheeks. I have never seen this happen to anyone before, and neither had her family. They stop talking and just stared, their bodies tense.

Part of me was horrified. I had performed this kind of service for people many times and this had never happened before. If I had thought about what to do, I suspect I would have left the room and called for a nurse. But I did not think about it. Instead, I sat on the bed, took the woman’s head in my arms, and wiped away the blood with a towel that had been hanging on the bed rail. I nodded to the family and encouraged them to continue speaking to her. I did all of this is if it was the most natural thing in the world. And at the time it was. After I left the hospital and returned my car however, I began shaking all over.

I still feel that I did the right thing and I learned something in the process. The lesson I learned was not simply what to do in this particular situation; rather, I learned the wisdom that comes when we are simply present. I did not have a set procedure to handle the situation we faced. In fact it was not a “situation” that needed handling. It was simply a family grieving, a mother bleeding, and a rabbi with an access to a towel.

This is what I mean by being present to the moment.  Nothing magical or extraordinary, just life as it is – often messy and rarely scripted. The more I empty myself of self and of the quest for surety, permanence, and control that defines the self, the more I am at home in the chaos of my life. The less we imagine what our lives ought to be, the more we can be present to what they really are. And in this, grace – an ease of doing – that we cannot imagine as long as we seek to control and manipulate things to our end.