This book is about Delancey Street, mostly about the way it operated as of 1974-ish, based on a visit by an East Bay reporter. I grew up with a big Delancey Street building in my neighborhood, but from the name, I always assumed that the organization got started in New York City. But it's not true: Delancey Street was (and is) a San Francisco-based halfway hou— Well, I always assumed it was a halfway house for paroled convicts, but I had that wrong...
I read this book Sane Asylum and, as you might guess from the tangly sentences above, it knocked down a bunch of my false assumptions. Delancey Street isn't just ex-cons; it's also drug addicts and other folks with, uhm, self-control issues. It's not a bunch of professional therapists nattering at their charges; mostly, the people in the program help each other.
- Learn about responsibility by relying on each other. Give a new arrival a small task. If they can handle it, give them more to do.
- Relying on each other means watching each other. If you notice a drug addict sneaking out for a fix, speak up about it.
- Group venting sessions where folks learn how to argue about things without trying to hurt each other.
This was the 70s, and there are some interesting tensions here. There was a strong counter-culture, folks were pushing back against discipline. But here is an organization of people who realize that they need some discipline, that their built-in sense of limits has led them astray. So Delancey Street has to tell the helpful hippies: it's fine that you want to smoke weed, not everyone gets addicted to it. But the people here... well, they are people who tend to get addicted to things, so don't bring your weed here, don't offer it around as a friendly gesture... just don't. Social experimenters, it's great that you've decided to found a new society with new societal rules, but maybe you don't want to try your experiment here seeing as how the residents have shown themselves to be better at exploiting holes in society than in following utopian rules; and now they're trying to learn how to stick to some rules...
From the book's description, it's hard to distinguish between Delancey Street and a scary mind-control cult; some of the techniques sound like things you'd see in the Moonies, the Scientologists or some similar bunch. Some of this is the times; back in the 70s, apparently mind-control cults were in. The book talks about Delancey Streeters who came from other groups of the time, groups like Synanon. At the time, Synanon seemed like a group-therapy self-help group, but apparently it was turning into a scary cult around this time. Typical cult recruitment tactics: get new members to admit things that they're ashamed of; sleep deprivation; encourage members to watch each other; group therapy sessions in which members are very critical... Delancey did all of this.
How can you tell if an organization is a self-help group instead of a scary mind-control cult? Maybe the methods are similar. Maybe the organization's goal is the difference? Synanon seemed like a fine thing when its goal was people getting their act together. It became a scary mind-control cult when its goal became expand Synanon and start behaving like scary cultists. Delancey Street is a great organization because it's helped thousands of people to get their act together.
The heroes of this book are the Delancey Streeters. When they arrive they're fuckups. But once they find out that they can be worthwhile, they thrive. Well, they don't thrive right away. It's hard to slough off the habits, the baggage of years. You know that their accomplishments didn't come easy. But the accomplishments are there and they are great.