A journey of healing from California to the Hilltowns

Joanna Bull
Joanna Bull

RENSSELAERVILLE — Joanna Bull spoke at the Presbyterian Church of Rensselaerville this summer to talk about healing oneself through Buddhist philosophy. Her own journey to healing others began with a discovery of Buddhism, and eventually to her life in the Hilltowns.

Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Bull, 80, attended the University of Chicago, and afterwards lived in Ethiopia for some time with her husband. She later stayed with her close friend, Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s manager. They were living in Bearsville, in Woodstock, New York, where she would sit in on The Band’s jam sessions. It was here, she says, that she saw a ghost. She wasn’t sure how to confront this phenomenon.

“I had no particular spirituality at the time, and someone suggested Zen,” said Bull.

She started meditating, and began planning to travel to Japan to visit a Buddhist monastery, when someone told her of a Zen monastery in California.

“It has touched my life ever since,” said Bull, of Buddhism.

Her practice year later led her to helping establish the Buddhist retreat at Game Farm Road in Berne, and later ensuring it would be kept undeveloped by having the town of Berne buy and rebrand it Switzkill Farm.

In California, Bull had been working on a doctorate in Zen studies when she traveled to a retreat in the Mojave desert, when an associate of the psychologist Hal Stone asked if Bull would direct a newly created holistic health center, The Center for the Healing Arts. She was in the process of obtaining a license as a therapist, and completed her certificate as director. Bull said her background in Zen Buddhism was one of the reasons she was hired.

“It was the first time this kind of thing had happened,”she said, of the center.

Bull moved on to working with the not-for-profit The Wellness Community, at locations in Santa Monica and Redondo Beach in Los Angeles. Both The Wellness Community and The Center for the Healing Arts emphasized social and mental health as well as physical health, she said.

One of the visitors to The Wellness Community was comedian Gilda Radner, whom Bull would later serve as a psychotherapist. Radner had ovarian cancer, and her oncologist was also treating Bull for a cancer that had not developed, and the doctor referred Radner to Bull.

Radner died in 1989, but out of her death a group of people came together to create a club in her memory. Bull got to know actor Gene Wilder, who had married Radner in 1984, and film critic Joel Siegel, who had visited The Wellness Community.

Bull also met the actor Mandy Patinkin after a friend of Bull saw a quote from her pinned to Patinkin's dressing room door at his one-man show in New York. The quote is referenced by Radner in her memoir, and speaks of the “delicious ambiguity” of not knowing when one will die, and Patinkin used it because, Bull said, he didn’t know if he would “live or die” on stage when performing.

Intrigued by her friend’s story, Bull met Patinkin in New York, where they talked about her work at The Wellness Community and The Center for the Healing Arts. Patinkin thought it was an excellent idea, though he remarked that he’d like to it be open to everyone regardless of health, said Bull.

Bull said Wilder, Siegel, and Patinkin asked her to create a similar organization on the East Coast. In 1991, she moved to New York City and began setting the stage for what eventually would be Gilda’s Club.

It took four years, she said, of “pounding the pavement to let people know about it,” including contacting medical groups for donations and endorsements, as well as raising money and gathering materials. Sears, Vanity Fair, and People Magazine pledged funds, and Bull attributes part of its success to an article on the club in People Magazine, as people from across the country then sent donations.

“By the time we opened, we actually owned the building,” said Bull. They opened on West Houston Street, in New York City, in 1995.

The organization took its name from Radner’s reference to cancer as “an elite club that I’d rather not belong to,” and ran on the same philosophy of the previous organizations that Bull had directed: advocating for social and emotional health as well as physical health.

Gilda’s Club, noted Bull, is free of charge and open to families and friends of cancer patients as well, in order to address all those affected by the disease. A children’s room, named “Noogieland” for the noogies Bill Murray would give to Radner on Saturday Night Live, was set up, for example.

“To me, the family is terribly important, or even friends who can become anxious or stressed,” said Bull. “When cancer happens, it happens to the whole family...and it happens to close friends as well.”

She noted that it can even be more stressful at times for friends and family of a cancer patient, because of a lack of knowing what to do and how to gain control of the situation while patients can at least go about receiving treatment, said Bull.

She stresses a “three-plus” plan to addressing the mental and social toll of cancer. The “three” are finding support through groups and networking, lectures and workshops, and social groups. The “plus” applies to those surrounding the afflicted person: family focus, “team convene” (helping others), and children’s support like “Noogieland.”

The Wellness Community and Gilda’s Club merged in 2009 to become The Cancer Support Community, but many kept the name Gilda’s Club.

With the merger, Gilda’s Clubs were throughout the continent, including one in Latham. In 2010, the Latham branch closed and was bought by the American Cancer Society. Because of trademark issues, Gilda’s images were removed from the walls, and the club took on a new name, HopeClub. It continues to offer classes and seminars to those suffering from cancer, as well as programs for family and friends.

When she was looking for a location for an upstate club, Bull discovered the Hilltowns. She found the land beautiful, and asked the board president at the time, who was a real estate agent, if there was property that could become a Buddhist retreat. He knew the perfect place — what is not the town-owned Switzkill Farm in Berne.

Bull found a home in Rensselaerville and, though she remains an honorary board member of The Cancer Support Community, she focuses on helping others in her community, by applying her tactic of “team convene” in the Hilltowns. She contacts others to find out if meals can be brought, rides can be provided, or other actions can be taken so that someone who is ill is not alone.

More Hilltowns News