Monday, March 2, 2015

Tale from the OUT file: An encounter with Synanon

HALLIE EPHRON: Hey kids, it's that time again: WHAT WE'RE WRITING week.

Mostly at the moment I'm dealing with a book launch (3/24 Night Night, Sleep Tight!) and still basking in a starred PW review: "Old Hollywood glamour, scandals, and lies infuse this captivating thriller set in 1985." All righty!

If you're curious about the new book, and I hope you are desperately so, there's an excerpt in Facebook -- a generous first three chapters.

Today I'm reviving another outtake from Night Night. Its OUT file is longer than the book. That's because the book began life as a quasi memoir about growing up in Beverly Hills and it took me forever to find the story and peel away the bits that didn't work. I'm hoping its OUT file will be the gift that keeps giving.

Here's one bit that got peeled away: channeling memories from 1964 when
I was sixteen and going to weekly “games” in the San Fernando Valley run by Synanon, the drug rehabilitation commune founded by charismatic Charles Deidrich. They called their technique for breaking down the defenses of drug addicts “attack therapy,” and their star pupils ran games for “straights” (non addicts) which included a fair number of idealistic teenagers from well to do homes. That's where I came in.

I used my experiences as the basis for this scene in which two teenagers reminisce about what happened twenty years earlier at their first Synanon game.

A Memory of Synanon

      "Remember our first game?" Joelen asked.
      "I do," Susan said. "It was right in here. All there was in the room was a circle of folding chairs."
      "And not enough of them."
      "Never enough."
      Susan's group had filed in, only to find that several people had nowhere to sit. Turned out that was deliberate, just another part of the manipulative "game." How people reacted -- who offered to share or stand, express hurt or outrage -- was, in fact, very revealing.
      It was just one of the many ways that Raoul, the charismatic young Latino and former drug addict from Synanon, manipulated the group. She could still see him, sitting there, superior and smug, a petty tyrant surveying his serfs as he gazed around the circle at the rest of them, many of them tender young straights like Susan and Joelen from left-leaning, comfortable families.
      "What are you thinking?" Joelen said, jolting Susan from her reverie. "I recognize that look."
      "Do you?" Susan said.
      Joelen gave her a knowing smile. "I didn't used to know what it was but now I'd call it contempt."
      "I was remembering Raoul."
      "Good old Raoul."
      "He ran that first game, didn't he?"
      "He goes, 'Who wants to start?' And I'm like, such an idiot." Joelen waved her hand. "Pick me, pick me!"
      Susan hadn't remembered that -- she'd only remembered how uncomfortable she'd felt, worried that someone would make her go first. But now it came back to her, how Joelen had jumped right in, fearless as always, and blurted out how unhappy she was. Her father was dead. She hated school. Her mother's boyfriend was a creep. 
      When she told them that her mother was an actress they were merciless. Poor little rich girl!
      "Remember that bitch?" Joelen said. "The one who said she was a receptionist in some plastic surgeon's office? Said I reminded her of the snotty women who came sailing into their office with their daughters in tow for mother-daughter nose jobs. I had my issues, but until that moment I'd never had a problem with my nose."
      Susan remembered that moment vividly. Something about Joelen had touched a nerve in that woman. She came uncorked, releasing all the vitriol she must have stored up being polite, day after day, to patients for whom she had only contempt. She was beyond mean, and of course it had had nothing whatsoever to do with Joelen.
      Still, with Raoul egging her on, the woman soon had Joelen in tears. The group quickly moved from Joelen's wealth to her body, honing in like a pack of feral dogs. 
       Do you always dress like that? the woman had asked. Joelen wore a loose fitting butterfly blouse with fluttery elbow-length sleeves.
      What are you hiding in there? one of the men asked, and everyone snickered.
      Does your body make you uncomfortable? Raoul said, because it sure looks like you're hiding in there. What are you afraid of?
      Joelen had folded her arms in front of her. Cleavage bunched up in the V-neck of her blouse. Her look said, Stop looking at me. All of you.
      Even now, with the meanness twenty years in the past, Joelen's eyes brimmed with tears. "He said I craved attention. That's why I made myself look like a slut."
       Joelen had screamed back at him that she was not a slut. Why would he say that? But that was the trap he must have hoped she'd fall into. He came back at her with something like What’s it like letting other people's judgments control you? What’s it like to live that lie every day?
      "But you know, he was right," Joelen said. "Remember, he asked me what I was thinking about myself, right then at that moment."
      It was a moment Susan would never forget.
      "I hate you," Joelen whispered, echoing the words she'd said at the time.
      But no, Raoul couldn't leave it at that. He'd had to pin Joelen to the wall. Say it again. Say it so we can hear you. He wasn't satisfied until Joelen's face was red, her eye makeup smeared down her face, snot running from her nose, and she'd worked herself up to the point that she was hitting herself and screaming I hate you hate I hate you I hate you! You're fat. You're pathetic. You're dumb. You're ugly.
      "I couldn't stand it," Susan said. "They were being so awful. I was desperate to get out of there. But I couldn't leave you there. You needed someone on your side. Remember what happened next? He said you were beautiful."
      Sitting next to Joelen that night, Susan had felt the heat rolling off her body. Yes, she was a crybaby, Joelen admitted. A loser. Fat. A slob. Yes, she was beautiful. At that point she'd have said anything Raoul wanted her to say.
      That was how "the game" worked. They were experts at tearing you apart but way out of their depth when it came to stitching you back together.
I stopped going to games after a rumor went around that one of the straights had gone home and tried to kill herself.

So what sketchy activities did everyone else get up to in their teens?


  1. Wow; my heart is breaking for poor Joelen. Talk about mean . . . .

    I'm definitely looking forward to reading "Night Night, Sleep Tight."

  2. Wow, Hallie. You could write a whole other book about murder in Synanon.

    Sketchy activities in my teens? Are you kidding? The only remotely sketchy thing I did was a little heavy petting with Tibor Derencsenyi in his father's car. I was terribly squeaky clean until I got to UC Irvine and discovered both sex and birth control...

  3. Oh, Hallie! That last line, I could go on a rant--how these so-called experts are so good at tearing a kid apart, but have no clue how to help them rebuild/recreate themselves in a positive way. I've seen teachers do that, more subtly of course, 'counselors' do that, pastors.

    On a positive note--wow! Congrats on that well-deserved stared review!

  4. That's 'starred' review!

  5. What an interesting out-take. And the beginning of a pretty powerful story, I'd guess.

    Until I went away to college at 17, the diciest thing I ever did was to sit in a diner booth with a friend, drinking coffee and smoking her cigarettes, while we mooned about our crushes (who may or may not have known we existed).

    Once at college, I still had no idea how to be "bad," and the scariest thing I did (without knowing it was scary) was to get on the subway every Saturday and get off at a different stop just to see what was there (and a lot of it was closed on the weekends).

    I did go out to the West End (local bar/hang-out) the night before election day my sophomore year (I was 18 and legally allowed to drink, and we had no classes the next day). I set out to get drunk, accomplished my goal, was violently ill, and have never done it since.

    Some of us rarely, if ever, step over the edge, because we have no idea where the edge is.

  6. That's an interesting quote Ellen, but maybe it could also be where you'd fall if you did step over?

    Don't throw that excerpt away Hallie! and big congrats on the starred review.

  7. Edith, I imagine you as a real free sprit of the decade, once you got unleashed!

  8. I so agree, FChurch... power is a heady thing.

  9. Yeah, Hallie! And the book is so good!
    Ellen --I love that idea about the subway stops! Oh, what a great thing.…I am captivated.

  10. Thanks, Lucy. Yeah, it could be a terrific scene in a book. But what's the book about?

    Edith's "murder at Synanon" ... I'd set it at their amazing beach house in Santa Monica which is now the hotel Casa Del Mar. I hung out on their beach and went to a number of talks there with movie stars in the audience (Natalie Wood). The founder Chuck Dederich was charismatic, a la L. Ron Hubbard.

  11. I'm so delighted. Hallie, to hear about your starred review. I'm looking forward to Night Night, Sleep Tight!

    This outfile excerpt is chilling.

    Teenagers are so wonderfully open to new experiences, which is precisely what makes them so vulnerable to creeps looking to take advantage of the adolescent instinct to hide involvement in exploits that are on the edge of danger.

    Lots to mine there, all right.

  12. Wow, Hallie. How awful that you went through this in your teens. I was so insecure that something like that would have crushed me.

    The most questionable activity I got up to was raiding the drinks cabinet at a friends house and trying every combination of spirits and mixes. (never liked gin ever since I threw up afterward)

  13. I agree with Susan - this was chilling. Even as an adult, I wouldn't have been able to withstand something like that. I was way, way too insecure as a teen. And never got up to any highjinks of any kind. Was the oldest child and a good little girl in all respects. Guess that still pretty much describes me. Whew! And on another note...

    I'm using NIGHT NIGHT, SLEEP TIGHT as my anticipated book for a Wednesday meme this week. Can't wait!

  14. Such a powerful scene, Hallie. So much tension!

    The sketchiest thing I ever did in high school was to cut school once, with an older girl. Her family was dysfunctional in a very different way than mine, and I was fascinated by her. She and her brother were real siblings, but adopted by their parents, who were both massively obese, the largest human beings in our town of Hamilton, Ohio. Her father had to sit feet from the table to accommodate his enormous girth.

    Mary Rose was a rebel, completely ignored by her parents, and she always picked boys who were even wilder than she was. We spent the day riding around in a car with some older guys, everyone smoking except me. Our friendship cooled soon after that day, probably because I was too square to be much fun.

    I wonder what ever happened to her?

  15. Congrats on the review, Hallie.

    I've seen the real-life version of that excerpt. Yeah, not pretty.

    I was also squeaky clean in my youth. I once filched a beer at a picnic. Tasted horrible. Dumped it after one sip. Turns out my father saw me and let me learn on my own. =)

  16. Congratulations on your starred review - I cannot wait!!!

    And this - wow. just. wow. Chilling, yes. and oh so powerful.

    Sketchy activities in my teens? I was a good kid in high school and really through college. It wasn't until I got to Atlanta in 1968 that I finally ran amuck. And oh laws, it was so fun!

  17. My big "rebellion" in high school was to not bother putting covers on my textbooks in my senior year. I got called to the principal's office because of it, and was told that I was setting a bad example for the younger students. I said I'd put covers on my books, but never bothered to, and found ways to hide them under notebooks so none of the teachers could see the coverless books. For squeaky clean ME, that was HUGE! (And I never managed to never get caught again.)

    I can't wait to read that book, Hallie!

  18. Correction: And I never managed to get caught again!!

    (Need more coffee...)

  19. Taking a vulnerable teen and tearing her apart seems like the worst possible type of therapy, especially when the repairing of that destruction was not within reach. I really got into your story, Hallie, and I wanted to reach out and grab Raoul and shake him. I'd say you have the makings of a great book in this story and your experiences with these "games."

    Congratulations on your starred review! Having read Night, Night and loved it, I know how well-deserved the review is. Everyone is in store for an amazing treat with this book.

    Sketchiest activity for me in high school was probably having wheelchair races as a candy striper or sneaking friends into the drive-in movie via the car's trunk.

  20. Oh my, we are an innocent bunch.

    Karen in O we are once again attached at the hip. My "Joelen" is based on a wild friend I had, also from a dysfunctional family. Introduced me to cigarettes, hitchhiking, boys... Her dad owned furniture stores and their living room had NO furniture in it. She was lovely but very needy, and I've often wondered how she fared because she moved away after 8th grade.

  21. Hallie, I'm so afraid that both Joelen and Mary Rose came to bad ends. But I hope not.

    Kathy Reel, I was a candy-striper, too, but did not dare do anything like race wheelchairs. However, some more adventurous classmates who also volunteered at the hospital did some major flirting in Spanish to the Cuban guys painting the halls. They were very nearly way over their heads, too!

  22. Oh, my, you were all so squeaky clean that I am not even going to begin to confess the things I got up to, starting from my early teens. I think it's only due to a strong sense of self-preservation that I didn't end up in terrible trouble. Many friends didn't make it out of their teens and early twenties... I can say that a misspent youth sure makes you worry about your own kids when they are that age!

    Hallie, what a chilling scene! And what an awful thing, to manipulate vulnerable kids that way. I wonder if there is another book in that somewhere...

    And congrats on the fabulous starred review!! Very well deserved!!

  23. That is chilling, I always wondered what went on in those games. Now I'm glad I never went! I was a risk taker, you don't even want to know some of the things I got up to in my terrible teens (and remarkably never got caught). I too was a candy-striper. Do they still have those? Worked at a tiny hospital where they taught us to deliver babies and suture. Said in an emergency, everyone would need to pitch in. Yep, it was before suing became a cross between hobby and blood sport.

    Mega congrats on the stared review!

  24. Hallie,

    This scene screams to be, at the very least, a short story. Your writing is so visceral, it made me anxious while reading it!

    As for me, I was remarkably un-sketchy as a teen, at least while I was in high school. I think about the worst thing I ever did was sneak into an audition for the upcoming school play when my parents had grounded me from drama (I was failing math and had to bring my grades up before I could do activities.)

    Then I got a part and had to confess all. Still gives me cold sweats when I think about it.

  25. Kait, it's amazing that teenagers survive... scary knowing that when you have a kid that age and recognize what they can get up to.

    Thanks, Julia! Really, I'm grinning.

    Did you get to play the part?? Did you bring up your math grade?? Curious minds...

  26. Hurray for the starred review, Hallie! And what a powerful scene! I think you've got another book here.

    For a while, I was afraid to comment on this post because everyone was so good. Then, thank heavens, dear Debs kicks in. I was the kid from the dysfunctional home everyone keeps mentioning. I hitchhiked to California and was staying in crash pads in Haight Ashbury before I was seventeen. Like Debs, a lot of my friends from that time never made it. I was lucky.

  27. Linda, I was very lucky that I had supportive parents who always believed the best of me. I shudder to think of the outcome if I hadn't.

    And I was always a bit of an observer, which I imagine helped protect me from the worst excesses:-)

    Hallie, I agree with Julia. A short story, at the least!

  28. Karen, my wheelchair races didn't last long. I think we got caught after a couple of times. I was allowed to remain a candy striper after a stern warning. Now, it was much later, when I was in college, at that same hospital that I spent some time in the medical students room with a guy doing a bit of kissing and lost one of my sister's earrings in the process.