That’s funny, where are your children right now?
Last summer I was listening to Snap Judgement's “The Return” episode, and when Glynn Washington said during the opening, “...there’s an urge that makes us want to go back, to revisit, to remember, to recollect…”, I thought to myself, “why does anyone do that?” Then a voice inside my head that I’ve never heard before, said very loudly, “That’s funny, where are your children right now?”
My 12 and 13 year old daughters were staying at Walker Creek Ranch with Camp Be’chol Lashon, a Jewish summer camp.
Walker Creek Ranch is now a rustic retreat center in the hill country of Marin County about an hour north of San Francisco. It hosts various summer camps, yoga & drumming retreats, environmental field trips for school kids, and church group weekends. But before that it was owned by Synanon.
Synanon has been called many things. It’s foremost mission, beginning in the late fifties was as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, yet It expanded to an alternative lifestyle/commune in the sixties, and by the seventies, into a full-blown cult. Member’s heads were shaved, you dressed and ate according to rules laid down by the “founder”, you never interacted with anyone on the “outside”, and if you wanted to leave you packed your bag and got out fast, often sneaking away in the middle of the night.
All the children of Synanon members lived together at Walker Creek Ranch, boarding school style. Long before we were married, my husband and I were two of those children.
Like many at the Synanon school, we were there for years. Some kid’s parents had come for help because of addiction. Both my husband’s family and mine were like many people who were just looking for another way to live in that idealized time. We rarely saw our parents. They resided at other Synanon facilities around the state, and there were no set vacations, holidays, or parent visit days. We were tended to by other people in the community who had been assigned jobs working in the school. These people were from all walks of life; some were trained teachers and caregivers, others were recovered junkies who learned on the fly how to coach sports or teach English.
Many of our memories are of a bizarre and often terrifying life far outside of a normal childhood. But as my husband remembers, there were also times when he thought that there was nothing better than living out in the country with no parents around. All the kids were thrown in together, and we didn’t know (nor did it matter much to us) whose parents came in “clean”, and whose were recovering. And since addiction does not discriminate on race or color, the Synanon school would be revered now as highly diverse.
At the time, my husband and I only knew each other by name. He’s four years older than I am, and even there, eleven year old girls didn’t really hang out with 15 year old boys. We both left Walker Creek when our parents decided they had had enough. It’s been well documented that even if a child is in an unhappy situation, that when they are removed, they still long to go back. That was true for both of us. I eventually adjusted. He tried being a normal suburban high school student, but couldn’t tolerate it, and briefly returned to Synanon. He found it even harder to live there, as a culture of violence and paranoia was taking over the community, signaling it’s ultimate downfall.
Many years later, mutual friends, who realized our shared history but also saw potential for a relationship, pushed us to meet. Outside of our families neither of us had had much contact with anyone from Synanon in a very long time. I was shocked that I had fallen in love with a “Synanon kid”. He says he felt like an immigrant meeting a girl whose family came from the same shtetl.
In 2005, Jewish friends with kids the same ages as our girls, invited us to a Be’chol Lashon family weekend at Walker Creek Ranch. Be’chol Lashon is Hebrew for “In Every Tongue”, and was a program founded to embrace Jewish multiculturalism. We didn’t know much more about Be’chol Lashon than that, but my husband thought it would be fun to show the girls where we grew up. I thought he was nuts. I had no intention or desire to ever go back there. We compromised on going up for half the weekend -- a single day and night.
Like most of these family weekends, there are separate activities for kids and adults. When we got there, my husband and I checked the girls in with the child counselors, didn’t even take notice of the adult programming, and left on our own to walk the property. We walked for hours. We talked and remembered and talked some more. We found a storage shed with piles of our old bunk beds and footlockers still embossed with the Synanon logo, moldering away. We looked at what had changed and what had stayed the same.
We also completely forgot about the children.
We were so caught up in our own story that it never occurred to us that they were creating their own. They were busy doing all the camp activities. They had a great time with all the other kids and staff, and they wanted to come back! We went to a few more annual retreat weekends, and then they started going by themselves to the summer camp. The kids they spent that first weekend with are now their very close friends.
Those few years that we went to the retreats, I always referred to Walker Creek Ranch as *my* place. I grew up there. Myself and my husband and my brother and my husband’s siblings, and all the other kids who found themselves lost there in the seventies *owned it*. Now it seems that I meet so many people that have stayed there for some program or event, and they believe that *they* discovered Walker Creek Ranch. It’s their place also. I don’t have a hold over it anymore. Now it belongs to a lot of people.
My daughters spend just a few weeks at Walker Creek Ranch each summer with their friends and no parents, in a diverse group of kids, but now cared for by loving counselors and camp directors with a rich respect for education, Judaism, and fun. My husband and I tell them that there’s nothing that they can do there that we didn’t do ourselves.
Before summer camp this year, my younger daughter said to me, “In one week, I’m going to the best place on earth.” I couldn’t resist. I posted it to Twitter with the hash tag #NoIrony.