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Club Casa del Mar (seen here in 2005), at one time a Synanon facility
|Genre||New Religious Movement   |
|Founder||Charles Dederich Sr.|
|Defunct||1991 (US); still exists in Germany|
|Headquarters||Santa Monica, California|
|Charles Dederich Sr.|
|Subsidiaries||Synanon Branch, Germany|
Synanon was initially a drug rehabilitation program founded by Charles E. "Chuck" Dederich Sr., (1913–1997) in 1958 in Santa Monica, California. By the early 1960s, Synanon became an alternative community centered on group truth-telling sessions that came to be known as the "Synanon Game." Synanon ultimately became the Church of Synanon in the 1970s. Synanon disbanded in 1991 due to members being convicted of criminal activities (including attempted murder) and retroactive loss of its tax free status with the Internal Revenue Service due to financial misdeeds, destruction of evidence, and terrorism. It has been called one of the "most dangerous and violent cults America had ever seen."
Charles Dederich, a reformed alcoholic, cult leader, and member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), was said to be an admired speaker at A.A. meetings. Those suffering from addictions to illegal drugs were not always welcomed into AA because it was considered that their addiction issues were significantly different from those suffered by alcoholics. Dederich, after taking LSD, decided to create his own program to respond to their needs. Although he was said to have coined the phrase "today is the first day of the rest of your life", the sentence was the chorus of "O primeiro dia", a celebrated song from the Portuguese singer Sergio Godinho, a song edited earlier in April 1978. After his small group, called "Tender Loving Care," gained a significant following, Dederich incorporated the organization in to the Synanon Foundation in 1958. Synanon is a word of his own invention integrating togetherness (“syn”) with the unknown (“anon”).
Synanon began as a two-year residential program, but Dederich soon concluded that its members could never graduate, because a full recovery was impossible. The program was based on testimony of fellow group members about their tribulations and urges of relapsing, and their journeys to recovery. Synanon differed from Alcoholics Anonymous in that it was directed toward both drug-users and drinkers. The Synanon organization also developed a business that sold promotional items. This became a successful enterprise that for a time generated roughly $10 million per year.
In 1959, Synanon moved from their small storefront to an armory on the beach. In the early 1960s Charles was able to utilize the media and his Hollywood associates to promote his organization. In 1967, Synanon purchased the Club Casa del Mar, a large beachside hotel in Santa Monica, and this was used as its headquarters and as a dormitory for those undergoing treatment for drug addiction. Later on, Synanon acquired a large building that had been the home of the Athens Athletic Club, in Oakland, California, and then transformed it into a residential facility for Synanon's members. Outsiders were permitted to attend the "Synanon Game" there as well. Children were reared communally in the Synanon School. Juveniles in the justice system were often ordered to enroll in Synanon by California's courts.
Professionals, even those without drug addictions, were invited to join Synanon. The New York psychiatrist Daniel Casriel M.D., founder of AREBA (today the oldest surviving private addiction treatment centre in the United States) and cofounder of Daytop Village (one of the world's largest therapeutic communities) visited in 1962, lived there in 1963 and wrote a book about his experiences. Control over members occurred through the "Game." The "Game" was presented as a therapeutic tool, and likened to a form of group therapy; but it has been criticized as a form of a "social control", in which members humiliated one another and encouraged the exposure of one another's innermost weaknesses. Beginning in the mid-1970s, women in Synanon were required to shave their heads, and married couples were made to break up and take new partners. Men were given forced vasectomies, and a few pregnant women were forced to have abortions.
The film director George Lucas needed a large group of people with shaved heads for the filming of his movie THX 1138, and hired some of his extras from Synanon. Robert Altman hired members of Synanon to be extras for the gambling scenes in his movie California Split.
Entrance into the Synanon community required a strong initial commitment. Newcomers were first interviewed by Synanon leadership to gain entrance into the community. Upon their arrival, those newcomers were forced to quit using drugs cold turkey, going through withdrawal for the first few days in the program. Furthermore, for their first ninety days in the community, members were expected to cease contact with outside friends and family.
During its first decade, Synanon members entered into a 1-2 year program in three stages aimed at preparing members to reenter greater society. During the first stage, members did community and housekeeping labor. During the second stage, members worked outside of the community but still resided within the community. Finally, during the third stage, members both worked and lived outside of the community, but still attended regular meetings. After Synanon's transition into an alternate society in 1968, this program changed to a "lifetime rehabilitation" program, with the premise that drug addicts would never truly be well enough to return to society.
One of the most distinguishing practices of the Synanon community was a therapeutic practice commonly referred to as "The Game." The game was a session during which one member would talk about themselves and then endure intense criticism by their peers. During this practice, members were encouraged to be critical of everything, using harsh and profane language. However, despite the very aggressive nature of The Game, outside of The Game, members were required to act civilly to each other. While in The Game, members criticized each other, but left as friends and supportive community members. The Game served not only as Synanon's most prominent form of therapy and personal change, but also worked as a way for leaders to collect the opinions of community members. Because there was no hierarchy in The Game, members could freely criticize Synanon's highest leadership, who would then take member concerns into consideration when deciding policy.
The game turned into a 72-hour version and was admitted by Dederich to be brainwashing. The game was eventually used to pressure people to submit to Dederich's will, abort pregnancies, undergo vasectomies, and commit violence.
Dederich eventually changed his way of thinking about Synanon and transformed it into something resembling a human progressive group. Synanon moved to create schooling for members, and Dederich wanted members to mentally change in order to improve society on the outside. The school was headed by Al Bauman, who believed in an innovative philosophy and aimed to teach children in the same manner to think differently. The school attracted lawyers, screenwriters, and business executives, all wanting to educate their children in a progressive environment.
Lifetime rehabilitation concept
Beginning in 1964, the legal authorities began to investigate Synanon's practices. The concept of "lifetime rehabilitation" did not agree with therapeutic norms, and it was alleged that the Synanon group was running an unauthorized medical clinic. Synanon expanded an old Trans-Pacific Marconi RCA radio station in Tomales Bay now Marconi Conference Center State Historical Park. It was alleged that on remote properties in California such as at Marshall in Marin County and in Badger, Tulare County, Synanon had erected buildings without the legally-required permits, had created a trash dump, and built an airstrip. Taxation issues also arose. In response to these accusations, Dederich declared that Synanon was a tax exempt religious organization, the "Church of Synanon."
Legal problems continued, despite this change. Children who had been assigned to Synanon began running away, and an "underground railroad" had been created in the area that sought to help them return to their parents. Beatings of Synanon's opponents and its ex-members, "splittees", occurred across California. Beatings occurred in Synanon basements. A state Grand Jury in Marin County issued a scathing report in 1978 that attacked Synanon for the very strong evidence of its child abuse, and also for the monetary profits that flowed to Dederich. The Grand Jury report also rebuked the governmental authorities involved for their lack of oversight, although it stopped short of directly interceding in the Synanon situation.
Though many San Francisco area newspapers and broadcasters covered the Synanon case, they were largely silenced by legal action from Synanon's lawyers, who made claims of libel. These lawsuits ultimately turned out to be a large part of Synanon's undoing, by giving journalists access to Synanon's own internal documents.
Criminal activity and collapse
Synanon is purported to have been involved in several criminal activities, such as the disappearance of Rose Lena Cole in late 1972, or early 1973. Cole had received a court order to enroll in Synanon before she disappeared. She has not been seen or heard from since. Initially Synanon did not support violence; Dederich later changed the rules to allow for violence in order to maintain control. Much of the violence by Synanon had been carried out by a group within Synanon called the "Imperial Marines." Over 80 violent acts were committed including mass beatings that hospitalized teenagers and ranchers who were beaten in front of their families. People who left the organization were at risk of physical violence for being a "splittee"; one ex-member, Phil Ritter, was beaten so severely that his skull was fractured and he subsequently fell into a coma with a near-fatal case of bacterial meningitis.
In mid-1978, the NBC Nightly News produced a news segment on the controversies surrounding Synanon. Following this broadcast, several executives of the NBC network and its corporate chairman allegedly received hundreds of threats from Synanon members and supporters. NBC continued with a series of reports on the Synanon situation on the NBC Nightly News. The Point Reyes Light, a small-circulation weekly newspaper in Marin County, would later receive the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their covering Synanon at a time when other news agencies avoided reporting. Several weeks after NBC began receiving threats, on October 10, 1978, two Synanon members placed a de-rattled rattlesnake in the mailbox of attorney Paul Morantz of Pacific Palisades, California. Morantz had successfully brought suit on behalf of people who were being held against their will by Synanon. The snake bit him, and he was hospitalized for six days. This incident, along with the press coverage, prompted an investigation by the police and government into Synanon.
Six weeks later, the Los Angeles Police Department performed a search of the ranch in Badger that found a recorded speech by Dederich in which he said, "We're not going to mess with the old-time, turn-the-other-cheek religious postures... Our religious posture is: Don't mess with us. You can get killed dead, literally dead... These are real threats," he snarled. "They 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." During the investigations researchers also came across multiple lawsuits and arrests against Synanon members.
Dederich was arrested while drunk on December 2, 1978. The two other Synanon residents, Joe Musico and Lance Kenton, the son of the musician Stan Kenton, pleaded "no contest" to charges of assault, and also conspiracy to commit murder. Lance Kenton was sentenced to a year in prison. While his associates went to jail, Dederich received probation because his doctors claimed that due to ill health he would most likely die in prison. As a condition of probation, he was disallowed from taking part in managing Synanon.
Synanon struggled to survive without its leader, and also with a severely tarnished reputation. The Internal Revenue Service revoked the organization's tax-exempt status and ordered them to pay $17 million in back taxes. This bankrupted Synanon, which formally dissolved in 1991.
Synanon's influence in the behavior-modification field
Mel Wasserman, influenced by his Synanon experience, founded CEDU Education. CEDU's schools used the confrontation model of Synanon. The CEDU model was widely influential on the development of parent-choice, private-pay residential programs. People originally inspired by their CEDU experience developed or strongly influenced a significant number of the schools in the therapeutic boarding school industry.
The author, journalist and activist Maia Szalavitz claims to chart the influence of Synanon in other programs including Phoenix House, Straight, Incorporated and Boot Camps in addition to those mentioned above.
Despite its controversies and its downfall, the Synanon program is credited with curing some people of their addictions. For example, Synanon was credited with curing, at least temporarily, the heroin-addicted jazz musicians Frank Rehak, Arnold Ross, Joe Pass, and Art Pepper (Pepper discussed his Synanon experiences at length in his autobiography Straight Life), and the actor Matthew Beard. In 1962, Pass formed a band composed of Synanon patients who recorded an album titled Sounds of Synanon. The Synanon organization was praised by the motivational speaker Florrie Fisher in her speeches to high school students, and she credited Synanon with curing her of her heroin addiction. Synanon also inspired the creation of successful programs such as the Delancey Street Foundation, co-founded by John Maher, a former Synanon member. Many former members still value what they see as the positive aspects of Synanon, primarily its strong sense of community, and remain in close contact, in person or through on-line chat groups, and have gone into business together.
A branch of Synanon that was founded in Germany in 1971 is still in operation.
The 1965 Columbia Pictures movie Synanon, directed by Richard Quine, was set at (and filmed in) Synanon; it starred Edmond O'Brien as Chuck Dederich, as well as Chuck Connors, Stella Stevens, Richard Conte, and Eartha Kitt.
Synanon is referred to in Bob Dylan's song "Lenny Bruce", from his album Shot of Love (Bruce "never made it to Synanon."). It is also referred to in the song "Opening Doors" from Stephen Sondheim's musical Merrily We Roll Along, which mentions it as a hypothetical song title in a satirical revue of the 1960s.
The "New-Path" drug treatment centers in science fiction writer Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly bear numerous similarities to Synanon. Dick's 1981 novel VALIS begins with the initial romantic interest jumping off the tenth floor of the Synanon building in Oakland, California.
In Charles Alverson's 1977 novel Not Sleeping, Just Dead, private eye Joe Goodey attempts to solve a suspected murder at The Institute, an organization that bears more than a passing resemblance to Synanon. (Alverson had lived in Synanon for six months in 1967 as a straight, or non-addicted, resident.)
Deborah Swisher, a former Synanon member, recounts her experiences growing up in several Synanon communes in her one-woman show Hundreds of Sisters and One Big Brother
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