Escape From Synanon 4 –Bernie Kolb

Escape From Synanon 4–Bernie Kolb

Dedicated to his memory

by Paul Morantz
(C) Nov. 2010

When I was just a toddler Bernie Kolb robbed banks and knocked off liquor stores. When I was a young lawyer fighting Synanon (first ever self-help drug rehab) in l978, Bernie, then a long time Synanon resident, witnessed and covered up some severe Synanon beatings of “perceived” enemies after Synanon evolved into a violent religious cult by l974. After Synanon tried to murder me by placing a rattlesnake in my mailbox in l978 (I was bit), Kolb was assigned in l979 to go to the homes of my friends, particularly ex-girl friends, and try to find dirt on me plus deliver the implied message anyone around me could be reached.

Hardly the resume for a best friend. But in l979 while searching for my evil doings, Bernie met a non Synanon member girl–Annie, was accused of too much outside Synanon contact and ordered back inside Synanon to get his thinking corrected. Instead, Kolb defected after 17 years of living in Synanon.

Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, in his l962 book on brainwashing, “Thought Reform; the Psychology of Totalism,” dealing with prisoners of Korean War, wrote those so exposed self deprogrammed if separated 90 days. We found that generally to be true of Synanon members. When Bernie finally called me, he knew I was of that opinion and said “Well…it’s been 90 days.”

He also said his Synanon assigned investigation to find information from which to attack my reputation had instead led him to like me. The feelings quickly became mutual. When we first met I couldn’t believe the great shape he was in at 48 and how committed he was to stopping Synanon even though its members had been, and in some sense, still were, his family. It was not easy for him. But he knew unequivocally what was right.

Bernie Kolb was a credit to Synanon’s early days and the values it then installed in people. Back on the streets he became a hero to ex Synanon members, many living in fear, turning state evidence against Synanon, giving authorities descriptions of Synanon violent attacks, the names of those in Synanon who did the crimes and those who gave the orders. And he did it while they had his little daughter Rachel.

In the end, with his aid, Synanon founder Charles Dederich and two Synanon Imperial Marines were convicted of conspiring to murder me in l980. The Department of Justice won its case retroactively removing Synanon’s tax free status for years of terrorism and the added up tax bill led to Synanon closing in l991. Dederich died in l997. In 2001 Bernie was a character in a Showtime movie on Synanon that was never made.

Born August 4, l933 in New York, after his father died when he was five, Kolb was raised by a socialite mother who taught him he would never do anything worthwhile. She gave him a carton of Lucky Strikes with a Zippo lighter one Christmas and then sent him away to a private school because she was having problems with her new husband. Bernie completed the 11th grade then enlisted in the Army in 1950 at age 17.

He was sent to the Korean war where his sergeant took him under his wings and taught him how to survive. The sergeant died in Kolb’s grasp, leaking blood and brains. After nine months of seeing the killing of many of the 50,000 people who would die in the war, Kolb’s knee cap was torn off by shrapnel from incoming artillery. He was injected with morphine starting 15 years of addiction and crime although he always waived an unloaded gun.

In l966, while I was a student at USC, he was released from the Federal Penitentiary/ Public Help Service Hospital for drug addicts at Lexington KY and entered Synanon, the same time as Matt Beard, a long time heroin user, who as a child played Stymie in the Little Rascals.

His first job was as part of the service cleaning crew but quickly promoted by 1968 he was in charge of the new Northern Division in Oakland. His Synanon career covered all facets, particularly aiding the rehabilitation of others, but concluded ultimately in recognition the organization that had taught him right from wrong had run a muck, turned into something akin to an armed terrorist camp (over 80 physical attacks by Synanon members took place) that had to be stopped.

Ultimately, I helped him get his daughter Rachel out of Synanon and his last life stage was that of a father–to her and to me, too. By the l990’s his old war wounds began to take hold and he walked with a cane, supporting himself as an apartment building manager but most of all spending time looking after his daughter. We regularly met for brunches, rehashing Synanon tales, at a favorite spot of his in Venice Beach–The Rose Cafe– where he was treated like a king until both of us were too handicapped by our own illnesses. In recent years he was often at the Veteran’s hospital in Westwood, Ca. which is where I last saw him.

He could talk like an eastern thug, but in all my years I knew of no one of such charm, who matched his final morality, who was so loved by all who knew him and who so loved his daughter, now 35.

On October 29 at 2:30pm Bernie Kolb at age 77, died in Rachel’s arms.

Bernie stands for something. He proved rehabilitation not only was possible, but he transformed from an addicted criminal to a small man who stood tall when forced to face a monster even if it grew out of the very organization that once saved his life. Synanon had saved Bernie, but Bernie could not save Synanon.

Still, he said, not long ago, perhaps the most precognitive statement ever on Synanon:

“For years now, for whatever reason, programs all over the world have been claiming to use synanon techniques, methods and people. I think it’s mainly because we were first, but also because we were considered successful, whether we were or not. We made bold statements about our many clean-man days and threw percentage numbers around like we were in our right minds. I’ve come to believe that success is in the eye of the beholder. as long as we were in synanon, most of us were clean because we had no choice. When we left a lot of us slipped once, twice or many times, but eventually decided to stay clean because using is stupid and makes for a miserable lifestyle. Synanon taught us how to live a clean and decent life and many skills that are useful and valuable in the ‘larger society’.

“We all know a few people who have landed in the manhole and disappeared, but I know many people who are happy and healthy and enjoying some degree of prosperity. if I ran a program I think I would be proud of my Synanon background, and, ….I was very much involved in the newcomer biz. I don’t think there was a better f program anywhere in the world than the one we put together in Synanon 1 & 2 and I’m glad someone took notes.”

love, bernie

Before he died, learning a friend had committed suicide, Kolb wrote:

” It’s so hard to hear that someone we all loved and spent years with took the very thing I fight for every day.

“With sheer will (they tell me) to hang on to. Of course I do it for Rachel and my friends without whom I’m sure I couldn’t do it at all. And then there are prayers from so many and the hospice folk and open arms and hearts. It’s too late for Steve, but not for the rest of us.”

Bernie, Bernie, Bernie…you were a better person than I.

And I miss you so.

Paul Morantz