An innovative drug
treatment program founded in 1958 by Charles Dederich Sr. that later denigrated into a multi-million dollar cult
Dederich, known as CED by members, was born on March 22, 1913 in Toledo
. By the time he reached California
in the 50's, he had gone through two marriages, had been battling with alcoholism
for twenty years, and was flat broke. After trying Alcoholics Anonymous
, he became dissatisfied with its effectiveness and began holding meetings in his apartment for friends with similar drug problems. A few months later, he rented a small store in Ocean Park using his $33 unemployment
check and moved his meetings there. The club was named "TLC" (Tender Loving Care), and soon turned into a halfway house for drug abusers with nowhere else to go. Alcoholics Anonymous disapproved of the direction the club was taking -- namely, that the gatherings featured more narcotic
s abusers each week and less alcoholics, and parted ways with Dederich.
In 1959, Dederich moved TLC into an old National Guard armory in Santa Monica and changed the name to Synanon, (the word is said to come from an addict's attempt to say "symposium
" and "seminar
"). From the start, Synanon was a treatment program that refused to coddle the drug user. First, the user would go through detoxification
by quitting cold turkey. As described by Phill Jackson:
"When I first walked into Synanon, the first thing I saw was the former lobby, now containing several dozen couches. On each lay some haggard individual, supplied with a carton of cigarettes, a wastebasket and a companion. The cigarettes were to smoke, the wastebasket to barf into and the companion to offer testament that the next 48 hours could be lived through because they themselves had done so. For that was how heroin addicts went "cold turkey" at Synanon. You could smoke, read, throw up, watch TV, or bitch to your companion, but you couldn't run around banging your head on the wall like all those actors in the movies and TV. In Synanon it just wasn't done."
Slowly the patient would gain more and more responsibility, ultimately either finding an outside residence and job (rehabilitation
) or a position within the organization (absorption
). Within the group, there were three distinct social classes: the Residents, Lifestylers, and Squares.
Residents were former addicts who had gone through the program and decided to stay at Synanon to help others. Initially they would do menial tasks like cleaning toilets or washing dishes, and as they achieved more self-control and respect from their peers, would rise in rank
within the organization
. The structure, discipline and hierarchy has at times been compared to the military ("boot camp
", some residents would call it). Lifestylers were those who were contributing their skills to Synanon even though they had no drug problems of their own. They lived in apartments in nearby buildings owned by Synanon and felt part of the community that Dederich was slowly building. Squares were ordinary people giving Synanon a try to see if it interested them.
The most important aspect of Synanon was "The Game
", a kind of fascist group therapy
designed to simultaneously wear down and build up an addict's inner strength. Phill Jackson:
"Visualize this. A hotel room, bare of furniture except for 20 to 30 directors chairs arranged around the wall. There was a leader of sorts, I have forgotten the title, normally a resident. There were conventions: no threats of violence, supporting the indictment, pulling covers, and no contracts. Supporting the indictment meant that if someone accused you of anything, including the most highly improbable, everyone else in the group piled on and added the nasty bits, even if they had to make them up. Pulling covers was unveiling secrets, fears, and destructive behaviors, either toward the self or others. No contracts meant that there were to be no explicit or secret alliances between players. No 'I won't show you mine and you don't have to show me yours.'"
New members of Synanon were slowly integrate
d by treating them gently at first. After a few sessions, the players would stop holding back and vent
their rage at each other. Sometimes these sessions could last for several hours -- the longest was called the 100 Hour Dissipation
and lasted four days.
The first decade of Synanon's existence was praised by the media as an innovative solution to severe drug addiction. Time Magazine
lauded their work with prisons, Life
did a photo spread of some of the people treated, and Columbia Pictures
made a movie ("Synanon") starring Edmond O'Brian. The U.S. Senate
dubbed it "a man-made miracle on the beach of Santa Monica
". In 1963, Dederich married a former patient of the program, Betty Jean Beckham, who later evolved into a maternal figure for the Synanon community. For the next decade, Synanon would grow from 100 members to more than 1000 "residents" and 3400 Game players by 1968.
But by the end of the 60's people began noticing that Synanon was headed in a new direction. Instead of rehabilitating patients and sending them back into the mainstream, it was creating a growing commune
of followers looking to change the world. This increased further when Game clubs were opened to non-residents. Berkeley sociologist
Richard Ofshe claimed that of the 6,000 to 10,000 residents of Synanon between 1958 and 1968, only 65 rehabilitated people chose to live and work outside of the Synanon community. There was a generally accepted notion that those who benefited from the treatment would try and help the organization afterwards (the rule of containment
). At the same time, however, there was an underlying sentiment that one would find it difficult to live outside in the "real" world. Dederich said that "a person with this fatal disease will have to live here all of his life." The outside world increasingly came to symbolize the reason why Synanon came into existence in the first place: as treatment for the corrupting influence of the world outside the group.
In 1968, the decision was made to stop rehabilitating patients to the outside world and focus on creating an ideal community
. As Dederich was famously quoted, "We're out of the dope
fiend business." In order to accomplish this, it developed several hustling operations to get money from large corporations or wealthy individuals eager to help the cause of drug rehabilitation. Synanon also began selling pens, papers and other office supplies to Fortune 500
companies to be used for promotional materials. At the same time, Lifestylers would contribute hundreds of dollars for membership and the privilege of participating in the Game. Synanon then took the millions it made and bought several real estate holdings in California. The land purchased in Tomales Bay in Northern California would house the new Synanon community.
The Santa Monica center served as the primary connection with the outside world, getting new Residents into the program while keeping Lifestylers and Squares around for their financial and technical contributions. The main members of Synanon moved to Tomales Bay and began to build their ideal world. A school
(and later a high school and college) were created for members with children. But as the Tomales Bay community grew, it also became more reclusive and self-sustaining, closing off links with the outside world. Phill Jackson describes the feeling of visiting the new facility and watching a Game take place:
"The game began and it provided a painful surprise to Kathy and me. Chuck took part and some of his insights and comments were valuable, but they were larded in among even more exchanges filled with the kind of self-satisfied nonsense that would have made an ordinary member the subject of enthusiastic scorn and ridicule; and no one seemed to notice. The cult of personality was already well established and the checks and balances of the normal game were suspended where Chuck was concerned. I think that his little society "corrupted" him by honoring him so much they were no longer willing to point out his human failings and errors. A fatal mistake for an addictive personality and that was the one characteristic all Residents had had in common. I think that when Synanon residents left Santa Monica to escape the influences of the city, they lost more than they gained, because they left the rest of us behind: those Squares and Lifestylers who could always be counted on to comment that the King had neglected to button his fly."
While the coffers of Synanon were filling quickly, the standards of living for the members was always paltry. Most shared rooms in the Santa Monica or Tomales Bay facilities -- except for Dederich, who gave himself a large loan
to buy a 300-acre ranch
near Badger, California. Family members were given $2 million of Synanon funds, while Dederich gave himself a $500,000 pre-retirement bonus
. In Tomales Bay, big financial donors
never had to share rooms with fellow members, and were allowed to join Dederich for his huge dinner parties at his house and enjoy drinks from his fully stocked bar. Synanon employees were paid only a few dollars a week ("walking around money") for their efforts.
What had started out as a self-supporting community began to take more ominous
characteristics. In late 1975, the Board of Directors
proclaimed that Synanon was a religion
, and their organization was primarily to operate as a church. While many saw this as a not-so-clever way to evade taxes
, the members within the community were to take it completely seriously. At one point a Synanon Catechism
was attempted in which questions and answers about the Synanon religion would be codified into a text akin to the Catholic
Catechism. What Charles Dederich said was for all practical purposes the word of the God
. He had "saved their lives" from the ravishes of their addictions, after all -- or at least replaced it with a less destructive alternative.
As Dederich grew drunk
on his power, he followed a time-worn path of megalomaniac
s before him: test the limits of his authority by dictating the most unreasonable mandates upon his people. Members had been shaving their heads at this point for a while, but it soon became required of both sexes. When Dederich was told that sugar
was bad for his diet
, he enforced a no sugar or white flour
was banned. Regular exercise was next on the agenda, with several mile runs required of both adults and children in the Synanon schools. Recordings of the Game and lectures of Dederich's speeches were piped into every building through a closed-circuit
radio station. Those who disobeyed the rules were admonished during the Game, given "contracts" as punishment, or publicly humiliated by being made to wear signs around their necks. Those who refused were forced to leave. Children who failed to follow the rules were harshly beaten, and troublemakers sent to the "Punk
Squad", where a boot camp-like system would brainwash
and reshape them into productive members of the community. From early childhood, children were separated from their parents and grew up in dire need of affection -- lovingly provided in the form of Charles Dederich, their spiritual
After Dederich's wife died in 1977, he imposed a new decree ordering all married couples to switch spouses. Called "changing partners", hundreds of followers reluctantly abandoned their marriage vows
and were paired up with other members of the community. Synanon was also developing a paramilitary
organization that included two police
forces (the Imperial Marines and the National Guard). Children were often recruited from the Synaon schools and trained in military techniques with the growing stockpile of munitions
Dederich had purchased.
It was decided that Synanon needed a representative in Washington
, D.C., but the deal fell through. Dederich struck a photographer
who had been following them with his cane, prompting a complaint to the police. Fearing imprisonment, Dederich fled to Bermuda
and then Europe
. He invited the entire Board of Directors and their spouses to join him in Formia
, a small town in Italy
, with the excuse of finding property in Germany
to open a new Synanon. While there, Dederich had decided that he was cured of his alcoholism, and everyone was free to eat sugar and drink alcohol (but not smoke). It soon became apparent that he had fallen off the wagon, and eventually he was persuaded to return to the U.S.
Soon after he returned, Dederich and two other Synanon members were charged with attempted murder
. The incident involved a 4 1/2 foot diamondback rattlesnake
that had been placed in the mailbox of attorney who had successfully won a $300,000 settlement
against Synanon. Dederich avoided going to jail
by offering to step down as director of Synanon, while the other two went to prison.
In 1980, David and Cathy Mitchell, the owners of a small Northern California newspaper called the Point Reyes Light, along with a professor at UC Berkeley named Richard Ofshe, began reporting what had been happening inside the Synanon community. Their efforts caused a national spotlight to be cast on Synanon, and the trio were awarded Pulitzer Prize
s. Two years later, the IRS
revoked Synanon's tax-exempt
status and confiscated much of their assets and real estate holdings. With Dederich gone from the picture and the negative media attention Synanon received, the community slowly disbanded over the next decade.
In the end it could be said that a major disaster along the lines of Waco
had been narrowly avoided; yet Synanon did have a very positive impact on drug treatment techniques. Ironically, Dederich told a district court in 1982 that he never had any idea how to cure drug abusers: "I don't know how to cure a dope fiend. I never did."