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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Company typeFor-profit
GenreNew Religious Movement[1][2][3][4]
FounderCharles Dederich Sr.
Defunct1991 (US); still exists in Germany
HeadquartersSanta Monica, California, U.S.
Key people
Charles Dederich Sr.
ProductsDrug rehabilitation
SubsidiariesSynanon Branch, Germany

Synanon, originally known as Tender Loving Care, was a new religious movement founded in 1958 by Charles E. "Chuck" Dederich Sr. in Santa Monica, California, United States. Originally established as a drug rehabilitation program, Synanon developed into an alternative community centered on group truth-telling sessions that came to be known as the "Synanon Game," a form of attack therapy.[5][6]

Described as one of the "most dangerous and violent cults America had ever seen,"[7][8] Synanon disbanded in 1991 after several members were convicted of offenses including financial misdeeds, evidence tampering, terrorism, and attempted murder.[9][7] However, an offshoot of the group remains active in Germany and Sydney, Australia.[citation needed]



Synanon was founded in 1958 by Charles Dederich Sr., a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) from Santa Monica, California.[3] At the time of Synanon's founding, those suffering from drug addiction were not always welcomed into AA because their issues were considered significantly different from those of alcoholics. Dederich, after taking LSD,[7] decided to create his own program to respond to their needs. He was said to have coined the phrase "today is the first day of the rest of your life."[10][11] After his small group, called "Tender Loving Care," gained a significant following, Dederich incorporated the organization into the Synanon Foundation in 1958.[12]

The origins of the name "Synanon" are not entirely clear, with some claiming it to be the result of a group member slurring the words "symposium" and "seminar" and others simply describing it as a portmanteau of "symposium" and "anonymous." The word syndicate also means "an association of people or firms formed to promote a common interest or carry out a business enterprise."[13][3]

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.[citation needed]

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.[14]

In 1959, Synanon moved from their small storefront to an abandoned armory on the beach. In 1967, Synanon purchased the Club Casa del Mar, a large beachside hotel in Santa Monica, as its headquarters and 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.[15]

Professionals, even those without drug addictions, were invited to join Synanon. The New York psychiatrist Daniel Casriel M.D. visited in 1962, lived there in 1963, and wrote a book about his experiences. He later founded AREBA, the oldest surviving private addiction treatment centre in the United States, as well as Daytop Village, one of the world's largest therapeutic communities.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18][19]

Leonard Nimoy taught drama classes to members of Synanon partly as a result of the role he played in the production of Deathwatch, a 1965 English-language film version of Jean Genet's play Haute Surveillance (the story deals with three prison inmates). Nimoy is quoted as saying "Give a little here and it always comes back".[20]

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.[21] Robert Altman hired members of Synanon to be extras for the gambling scenes in his movie California Split.[22]



Entrance into the Synanon community required a strong initial commitment. Newcomers were first interviewed by Synanon leadership to gain entrance into the community.[15] Upon their arrival, those newcomers were forced to quit using drugs cold turkey, going through withdrawal for the first few days in the program.[23] Furthermore, for their first ninety days in the community, members were expected to cease contact with outside friends and family.[15]

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.[23] 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.[12]

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.[24] During this practice, members were encouraged to be critical of everything, using harsh and profane language.[15] The practice has been charactized as a form of attack therapy.[5] 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.[24] 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.[15][24]

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.[7]

Over time, Dederich's vision of Synanon evolved, and he began to envision the group's potential to promote social progress. 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.[25]

Lifetime rehabilitation concept


Beginning in 1964,[26] the legal authorities began to investigate Synanon's practices. The concept of "lifetime rehabilitation" did not agree with therapeutic norms, and it was alleged in 1961 by the city of Santa Monica that Synanon was "operating a hospital in a residential zone." (Synanon Fight Seen At Council, Evening Outlook, May 8, 1961) Synanon expanded an old Trans-Pacific Marconi RCA radio station in Tomales Bay now Marconi Conference Center State Historical Park. It was alleged[by whom?] 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."[27]

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.[7] 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.[citation needed]

Criminal activity and collapse


While Synanon initially did not tolerate violence, Dederich came to allow for violence as he sought greater control over the group. Much of the violence by Synanon was carried out by an internal group called the "Imperial Marines."[28] Over 80 violent acts were committed, including mass beatings that hospitalized teenagers and ranchers who were beaten in front of their families.[29] People who left Synanon risked 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.[30][31][32]

In mid-1978, NBC Nightly News produced a segment on the controversies surrounding Synanon. Following the broadcast, several NBC executives, including the network's chairman, allegedly received hundreds of threats from Synanon supporters.[33] On October 10, 1978, two Synanon members placed a de-rattled rattlesnake in the mailbox of Paul Morantz, an attorney who had successfully brought a suit against the group on behalf of Synanon detainees.[25][34] The snake bit Morantz, and he was hospitalized for six days.[7][34][35] This incident, along with the press coverage, prompted a law enforcement investigation into Synanon.

Six weeks after the snake attack, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) 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 stated. "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."[30]

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. The main thorn in the cult's side was the Point Reyes Light, a weekly newspaper published by David V. Mitchell. The newspaper was domiciled in a tiny town ten miles south of Marshall, where Synanon's main facility was located. The paper prevailed on press freedom and protection issues and its reporting was consummately professional. It won a $100,000 judgement against the cult and in 1979, for its efforts, became the smallest paper ever to win a Pulitzer Prize.[36]

As a result of the snake attack, Dederich and two Synanon residents, Joe Musico and Lance Kenton (son of the musician Stan Kenton) were arrested and pleaded "no contest" to charges of assault and 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.[37][38] Dederich died on February 28, 1997 at age 83, after a series of strokes; the cause of death was cardiorespiratory failure.[39]

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.[40][41][42]

Subsequent treatment approaches


Mel Wasserman, influenced by his Synanon experience, founded CEDU Educational Services, a company in the troubled teen industry that owned and operated several schools. CEDU's schools used the confrontational model of Synanon.[43] 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.[citation needed] The company's schools have faced numerous allegations of abuse. CEDU went out of business in 2005, amid lawsuits and state regulatory crackdowns.

Father William B. O'Brien, the founder of New York's Daytop Village, included Synanon's group encounters and confrontational approach in his research into addiction treatment methods.[44]

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.[45]


See also



  1. ^ Goethals, Ilse; Yates, Rowdy; Vandevelde, Stijn; Broekaert, Eric; Soyez, Veerle (2011). "A religion too far: a historical and qualitative study on how ex-Synanon members value critical incidents that might have led to the downfall of their Utopia". Mental Health and Substance Use. 4 (3). Informa UK Limited: 177–194. doi:10.1080/17523281.2011.578582. ISSN 1752-3281.
  2. ^ Stark, R.; Bainbridge, W.S. (1985). The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation. University of California Press. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-520-05731-9. Retrieved 2020-09-30.
  3. ^ a b c "The Story of This Drug Rehab-Turned-Violent Cult Is Wild, Wild Country-Caliber Bizarre". Los Angeles Magazine. 2018-04-23. Retrieved 2020-09-30.
  4. ^ Schager, Nick (April 24, 2020). "A Violent, Deadly Cult With Forced Abortions and Shades of Scientology". www.thedailybeast.com. Retrieved 2020-09-30.
  5. ^ a b Helping People Change: A Textbook of Methods, Page 508., Frederick H. Kanfer, Arnold P. Goldstein, ISBN 0-08-025097-1, 1980, Pergamon Press
  6. ^ "How to watch 'Born in Synanon,' the docuseries about a cult led by Charles 'Chuck' Dederich". USA Today.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Matt Novak (29 September 2014). "The Man Who Fought the Synanon Cult and Won". Longform. Archived from the original on 2015-01-28. Retrieved 2015-01-24.
  8. ^ "Synanon's Sober Utopia: How a Drug Rehab Program Became a Violent Cult". 15 April 2014. Archived from the original on 2017-12-07. Retrieved 2017-12-07.
  9. ^ The Cult That Spawned the Tough-Love Teen Industry. Archived 2018-06-12 at the Wayback Machine, Mother Jones, September/October 2007.
  10. ^ Her life with "One Big Brother", San Jose Mercury News, March 19, 1999, Michael D. Clark
  11. ^ a b Morgan, Fiona (30 March 1999). "One big dysfunctional family". Salon. Retrieved September 9, 2023.
  12. ^ a b Ofshe, Richard. "The Social Development of the Synanon Cult". Sociological Analysis 41.2 (1980): 109–127. Web.
  13. ^ "The History of Synanon and Charles Dederich". Retrieved 2023-04-18.
  14. ^ Magill, Jenny (2022-04-04). "Playing the Game: The Origins and Impact of Synanon". BREAKING CODE SILENCE. Retrieved 2022-08-26.
  15. ^ a b c d e Janzen, Rod A. The Rise and Fall of Synanon: A California Utopia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. Print. ISBN 978-1-4214-4810-7
  16. ^ So Fair A House: The story of Synanon, New York: Prentice-Hall. 1963.[ISBN missing]
  17. ^ "Where did it come from?", Synanon Church and the medical basis for the $traights, or Hoopla in Lake Havasu, by Wes Fager, 2000.
  18. ^ "Stephen A. Kent" (PDF). ualberta.ca.
  19. ^ Kids of El Paso. Archived 2008-02-10 at the Wayback Machine. Timeline 1958–2003 and present-day litigation information.
  20. ^ Branham, Stacy L. (2012). Nevada State Prison. Arcadia Publishing. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-738-58545-1.
  21. ^ Pollock, Dale (1999). Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas. Da Capo. p. 100. ISBN 0-306-80904-4.
  22. ^ Reid, Max (October 1974). "The Making of California Split: An Interview with Robert Altman". Filmmakers Newsletter. p. 26.
  23. ^ a b Sternberg, David. "Synanon House – A Consideration for Its Implications on American Correction". Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 54.4 (1963): n.p. Print.
  24. ^ a b c "Synanon: Toward Building a Humanistic Organization". Journal of Humanistic Psychology 18.3 (1978): 3–20. Web.
  25. ^ a b Janzen, Rod A. The Rise and Fall of Synanon, A California Utopia, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, p. 214.[ISBN missing]
  26. ^ PDF of FBI file governmentattic.org Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine
  27. ^ Roberts, Sam (November 1, 2023). "David Mitchell, Weekly Editor Who Exposed a Corrupt Cult, Dies at 79". The New York Times. Retrieved November 4, 2023.
  28. ^ "Synanon Sequel". Time Magazine. 1980-07-28. Archived from the original on 2011-09-21. Retrieved 2011-05-23.
  29. ^ "The True History of Synanon Violence and How it Started". paulmorantz.com.
  30. ^ a b "Light to celebrate 25th anniversary of its Pulitzer", The Point Reyes Light, April 15, 2004, by Dave Mitchell.
  31. ^ Colson, Charles W.; Pearcey, Nancy (2001). Developing a Christian Worldview of the Problem of Evil. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. p. 25. ISBN 9780842355841.
  32. ^ "The History of Synanon and Charles Dederich". www.paulmorantz.com. Archived from the original on 2017-12-18. Retrieved 2017-12-18.
  33. ^ Jack Anderson, "NBC Cancelled Jonestown Story", March 20, 1981.
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  53. ^ D'Alessandro, Anthony; Patten, Dominic (December 6, 2023). "Sundance Unveils Packed 2024 Lineup That Includes A.I., Pedro Pascal, Kristen Stewart, Satan, Devo & Steven Yeun". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved January 21, 2024.
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