Synanon came to life in the fifties. The ultimate temple of soul sacrifice. You laid yourself out to all comers, at Synanon, because this was the new school of drug rehab. But, unlike its twelve step brethren, Synanon did not mature very quickly, it didn’t really develop was until the 70’s.Scientology, itself often branded as a cult, had also become fruitful at the same time, and was selling its own drug program. And like Scientology, the fierce creatures of Synanon formed into a kind of cult. Musicians showed up, and Synanon put them to work, recording albums to promote the rehab. Ask yourself how many drug rehabs issue albums? Now, how many cults do?
Synanon’s self-popularization sang with such perfect pitch that hepcats near its Santa Monica, and Bay Area locations rang the bell, and joined up, before they even realized what they were getting into. Jazz and pop musicians- famed addict and sax man Art Pepper among them- came calling. What’s the plan? Don’t know, don’t care, it works, that’s all. Everyday Joes showed up, too. Synanon didn’t discriminate. They took you in, and gave you the rap. And the rap was tough love. To the extreme.
Synanon emerged, like an ex-pugilist with something to prove, straight out of founder Charles “Chuck” Dederich’s garage in Ocean Park, California. For a while, the program aligned itself closely to the twelve step groups that were gaining their own cult like status in the late 50’s and early 60’s. But only for a while. Eventually Dederich received tax-exempt status for Synanon. After that, the money rolled right in. The garage in Ocean Park gave way to a ranch in the foothills, then another. And then, there was the Santa Monica spot. Right smack dab on the beach.
So what happened? Synanon was built around one person. The group beat to his imperfect cadence. Members slipped out of reach because they were encouraged to relinquish past acquaintances and family members in favor of their new ‘family.’ Yeah, like Manson. Like the Children of God. Like a cult.
Some of the methods were outlandish for the time, but have become mainstream today. Rather than focus on the individual, Synanon sought to encourage group members to ‘test’ other group members, in regards to their sobriety, their faith, and their dedication. In essence, the group member became the therapist. These ‘test’ sessions sometimes turned into shouting matches, but in the end Dederich and the other ‘therapists’ sought to establish closure so the group as a whole, and the individuals therein, could move onward, upward to a new salvation. In some cases it made desperate junkie prostitutes able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, in others, it offered a major rush of egotistical power to people who had never experienced it, and they abused it. As Synanon moved beyond its gestation the twelve step tenets wore thin. Dederich began restructuring them, adding in new rules, new regulations, new regiments, making it up as he went along. One major theme Dederich stressed was that the patient needed to stay in the group, and not leave. To give back, to build a new community. Things got weird. Normally, a visit to the drunk farm ended with some sort of fresh start. Or not. Either way, there was a beginning, middle, and an end. Not so with Synanon. There, you stuck around in perpetuity, finding new ways to make yourself useful for years at a time. Synanon encouraged the beginning and the middle, but never the end. An end presented too difficult a task. Dederich had seen where other rehabs had failed. They all let their clients back out into the real world. And that was their great mistake. Success rates plummeted once addicts were set free. Synanon simply abolished that last act, instead electing to treat addicts over long periods, for seemingly endless terms. If you decided you were ready to leave, a group of your Synanon peers came round to remind you what it was like before you got there. They urged you to stick it out, to let Synanon keep working its magic. If that didn’t work, Chuck would send in the aptly named “punk squad,” which existed, in the words of ex-resident Charlotte (no last name) “for people who need to be tamed.”
Synanon family members began to get frightened when they couldn’t contact their loved ones. Critics of the Synanon ‘method’ arose. Some called it a cult. Most claimed it robbed them of relationships with their family members. All pointed their fingers at Dederich, who made no effort to give a public response.
In the very early part of the 1970’s, the Point Reyes Light, a teeny local paper in a small town north of San Francisco near a Synanon compound, started investigating rumors of staff abuse, and beatings. As the reports of negligence grew, the IRS took note, and began the process to revoke the group’s tax exempt status, saying it was no longer a medical rehabilitation facility, but something else, a way of life. Synanon, feeling like it was on the ropes, did what any cult-ish group would- under Dederich’s order the group declared itself a religion. Enter the church of Synanon.
Suspected of acting in and covering up the murder of a dissenter, the frayed group started to make headlines beyond the Point Reyes Light reach, though the small paper did capitalize on its coverage of the group, even receiving a Pulitzer Prize for its Synanon articles.
Time Magazine featured Synanon in an unfavorable light. The article portrayed Dederich as wife swapping messianic leader. Descriptions of the residents of Synanon referred to them as “smiling people” with “shiny, shaved heads,” who bowed in sync, and chanted like monks.
They listed assets, they mentioned Dederich’s 70’s era $100,000 salary, and quoted him, “A lot of guys could do this thing from an old Ford roadster and sit on an orange crate…I need a $17,000 Cadillac. We are in the people business just exactly as if we were building Chevrolet axles.”
Stranger things were in store. More investigations arose from the constant news coverage. Local police began getting calls from estranged family members. As the scrutiny wore on, Synanon security tightened. The punk squad grew. Paranoia took over. Addicts usually become acclimated to reality if given something else to become addicted to. Synanon added to already compulsive behavior a regimented structure that offered an alternative future to needles plunged into arms, and sucking off johns behind bus stations. While many celebrities had given praise to Synanon in the past (Steve Allen promoted Synanon on TV) the celebrity endorsements dried up in the face of the bad press of the early 70’s.
Since Synanon claimed such definite success, it pointed to the past record of its achievement, to the (past) celebrity endorsements, to the sobriety of its members. Synanon embraced a hive mind, a boot camp philosophy. Somehow, the myth continued to grow. New members arrived daily.
Sci-Fi writer Philip K. Dick battled his own demons. During the 60’s he started using large amounts of speed, taking more and more of the amphetamine to accomplish more and more writing. And of course, addiction rooster tailed in the wake of all that drug taking. Eventually things spun wildly out of control for Dick, who began living with local addicts trading dugs, and comparing notes. As some of his pals began to overdose and die, others sought rehabilitation. Synanon had a campus in nearby Marin. Dick likely experienced some Synanon concepts first hand. He didn’t like what he found. New Path, the rehab in Dick’s loosely autobiographical novel “A Scanner Darkly” is based on Synanon. In another book, the group is actually identified as Synanon by a character, “It’s a fascist therapy that makes the person totally outer directed and dependent on the group.” Critics Rosa Lee Cole and Phil Ritter came under heavier fire than Dick. Ritter was beaten after he left the group. Fifteen-year-old Rosa Lee Cole disappeared from the Synanon foundation’s Oakland center never to be heard from again. A lawyer for another ex- Synanon member was bitten by a rattlesnake, which had been de-rattled, agitated, and stuffed in his mailbox. Somehow the man survived. Each of these stories were reported by the Point Reyes Light, and later investigated by local and federal authorities. Paul Morantz, the lawyer bitten by the snake dedicated his life to debunking Dederich’s myths, writing a book and operating a website condemning all things Syn-Syn-Synanon.
By the time an NBC expose ran, Synanon was claiming to Connie Chung that it was the victim of bad publicity. Very bad publicity. Mostly stemming from the disappearance of a Synanon patient, or member, however they were classifying them, back in the early part of the decade.
Dederich made no bones about the hi-jinks. He admitted wearing costumes, that he was ”big brother big daddy.” The icing on the cake, however, was a clandestinely obtained recording. On it, Synanon’s founder can be heard ranting about lawsuits waged by ex-members and other detractors. “These are real threats, they (lawyers) are draining life’s blood from us and expecting us to play by their silly rules. We will make the rules. I see nothing frightening about it… I am quite willing to break some lawyer’s legs and next break his wife’s legs and threaten to cut their child’s arm off. That is the end of that lawyer. That is a very satisfactory, humane way of transmitting information…. I really do want an ear in a glass of alcohol on my desk” A few months later, Dederich, the man who founded Synanon on the concept of complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol, broken by strain and or megalomania, or both, was found stewed to the gills, and arrested in relation to the attempted murders of Morantz, and Ritter. John Watson, the LA prosecutor assigned to the case described Dederich upon arrest as being, “in a stupor, staring straight ahead with an empty bottle of Chivas Regal.”
But there was something to Synanon, before their tough-love-confrontational-rehabilitation-methodology shifted into its late era thuggish free for all. The program changed lives. It kept irrefutably hopeless addicts clean, long as they stayed under the Synanon roof. Many who had been through the program paid no mind to the bad press. Synanon worked where nothing else would. To this day former members meet online and in person sharing stories of their time as members of Synanon the family. Still, after Dederich’s arrest, and subsequent downfall, it was next to impossible to keep tabs on success stories because Synanon success stories kept their mouths shut, unwilling to invite the odor of the group’s last days into their well fought for sobriety. Can you blame them? Some aspects of Synanon’s ‘no bones about it’ program can’t be argued with. Desperation’s wild horse needs a jockey, and in a lot of cases, that jockey was Synanon. But even the best jockey needs the oversight of a trainer and that was where Synanon failed.
Despite the mounting bad press, or likely, because of Synanon’s previous favored-son status during the mid 60’s media onslaught, other addiction specialists took note. New York’s Daytop Village, the name sometimes referred to as an acronym for Drug Addicts Yielding to Temptation, based their methods on that of Synanon’s primal group therapy model. Whatever. Daytop remained an incredible success in the treatment of hard-core addicts and alcoholics. One of Daytop’s founders spent time at Synanon in the early sixties before Dederich’s megalomaniacal model overwhelmed the rehabilitation process. And Mel Wasserman started his CEDU schools based on his own Synanon experiences, billing them as Therapeutic Boarding Schools. Like Synanon, they failed.
It’s not hard to see why many flocked to the Synanon model. It was damn seductive. A misappropriation on tough love, it looked like you were giving the addict a punch in the face to help them get better, and one time or another we have all wanted to punch the addicts in our lives square on the jaw. They looked like elegant marines as they ran across the beach in front of the Santa Monica headquarters, moving like chiseled gazelles, turning their bodies into temples once again. The group therapy was based on absolute interrogation and complete candor. No one was allowed to have any secrets. “You’re only as sick as your secrets” took on a whole new meaning at Synanon. Secrets were hunted down, and throttled, until even the secret keeper could no longer stomach the idea of dishonesty. But Dederich couldn’t seem to stop fiddling with the more controlling aspects of his therapeutic model. Women and men had to shave their heads. Most referred to Dederich as a kind of God. Vasectomies for men were encouraged. Then enforced. If a couple entered together, they wouldn’t last. Dederich pushed for and gotwife swapping. He sought a more lurid sort of enlightenment.
Dederich wasn’t jailed, but his reign at Synanon was over. The IRS confiscated Synanon’s property after the tax exemption revocation became official. The group ceased to exist, until the Internet.
Now a few pages dedicated to the group exist. Paul Morantz, the lawyer who received the rattlesnake in his mailbox operates one. Former Synanon members operate another- Synanon.com.
Gurus are a constant problem with twelve step programs. Touting guidance for the extreme cases, Gurus almost always end up using sex and money as their puppet strings, while often encouraging members to sever ties with friends and family in case any sense will be lodged into the group member’s mind.
As for Synanon’s physical presence in Santa Monica, the former hotel standing just steps from the Pacific Ocean has once again returned to the resort mentality- rates start at $395. About the same cost for a month stay back in ’78. And the name? In an article published in 1959 by R.D. Fox, Synanon stood for, Sins Anonymous.