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The Synanon organization, initially a drug rehabilitation program, was founded by Charles E. "Chuck" Dederich, Sr., (1913–1997) in 1958, in Santa Monica, California, United States. By the early 1960s, Synanon had also become an alternative community, attracting people with its emphasis on living a self-examined life, as aided by group truth-telling sessions that came to be known as the "Synanon Game". Synanon ultimately became the cultish Church of Synanon in the 1970s, and Synanon disbanded permanently in 1989 due to many criminal activities, including murder and attempted murder, and civil legal problems, including Federal tax-evasion problems with the Internal Revenue Service.


Dederich, a reformed alcoholic and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), was said to be an admired speaker at A.A. meetings. Those suffering from addictions to illegal drugs, besides alcohol, were considered to be significantly different than alcoholics, and therefore were not accepted into A.A. Dederich 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"[1][2] During 1965, the Columbia Pictures company produced the movie, Synanon, which was directed by Richard Quine, and starred Edmond O'Brien as Chuck Dederich, and also Chuck Connors, Stella Stevens, Richard Conte, and Eartha Kitt.[3]

Synanon began as a two-year residential program, but Dederich soon concluded that its members could never graduate, because a full recovery was never possible. 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.

Synanon purchased the Club Casa del Mar, a large beachside 1926 hotel in Santa Monica, and this was used as its headquarters and as a dormitory for those undergoing anti-drug treatment. Later on, Synanon acquired a large industrial building, which had been the home of the Oakland 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, and juveniles were often sent to 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 and lived there in 1963 and wrote a book about his experiences [4]. Control over members occurred through the "Game". The "Game" could have been considered to be a therapeutic tool, likened to a form of group therapy; or else to a form of a "social control", in which members humiliated one another and encouraged the exposure of one-another's innermost weaknesses, or maybe both of these.[5] 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.[6][7]

The film director George Lucas needed a large group of people with shaved heads for the filming of his movie THX 1138, and so he 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.

Lifetime rehabilitation concept

Beginning in 1974, the legal authorities began to question Synanon's promises and 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. Furthermore, it was alleged that on remote properties in California such as at Tomales Bay 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, naturally. 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. 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.

Remarkably, those same authorities refused to intercede in the Synanon situation. Though the San Francisco area newspapers and broadcasters covered the Synanon case, they were largely silenced by lawsuits from Synanon lawyers, who made libel claims. These lawsuits ultimately turned out to be a large part of Synanon's undoing, by giving journalists access to Synanon's own internal documents.

Synanon's Lasting Influence on the Behavior Modification field

Mel Wasserman, influenced by his Synanon experience, founded CEDU Education. The schools used the confrontation model of Synanon.[8]. The history of CEDU is largely the history of the development of parent-choice, private-pay residential programs. A significant number of the schools in the Therapeutic boarding school industry were developed or strongly influenced by people who were originally inspired by their CEDU experience.[9]

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.[10]

Author, journalist and activist Maia Szalavitz claims to charts the influence of Synanon in other programs including Phoenix House and Boot Camps in addition to those mentioned above. [11].

Criminal behavior

On March 20, 1978, a former member of Synanon was severely beaten (for being a "splittee") during his honeymoon when he took his bride to show her where he had once lived at the Walker Creek Ranch.

Synanon is heavily implicated in the late-1972 or early-1973 disappearance of Rose Lena Cole, who was ordered by a court to enroll in Synanon before she disappeared. She has not been seen or heard from since.[12]

During the summer of 1978, NBC-TV produced a "hard hitting" news segment on the evil of Synanon. Following this broadcast, several executives of the NBC network and its corporate chairman received hundreds of threats from Synanon members and supporters, including letters that said, "Your actions place you in legal and physical peril," and "We are going to teach you a lesson you will never forget."[13] NBC continued with a series of reports on the Synanon situation on the NBC Nightly News.

On September 21, 1978, the ex-Synanon member Phil Ritter, was severely beaten by two Synanon members, which caused him to fall into a coma for a week. Fluid leaked into his spinal column, which caused a near-fatal case of spinal meningitis.

Several weeks later, on October 11, 1978, two Synanon members placed a de-rattled rattlesnake in the mailbox of the attorney Paul Morantz of Pacific Palisades, California. Morantz had successfully brought suit on behalf of a woman abducted by Synanon. The snake bit and injured Mr. Morantz, but did not kill him.

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."[14]

Dederich was arrested while drunken on December 2, 1978. The two other Synanon residents, one of whom was Lance Kenton, the son of the musician Stan Kenton, pleaded "no contest" to charges of assault, and also conspiracy to commit murder. While his associates went to jail, Dederich himself avoided imprisonment by formally stepping down as the chairman of Synanon.

Much of the violence by Synanon had been carried out by a group within Synanon called the "Imperial Marines."

The small Point Reyes Light newspaper, a weekly in Marin County, received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1979 in recognition of its coverage of Synanon when other news agencies avoided reporting on it.

Synanon struggled to survive without its leader, and also with a severely-tarnished reputation. The Internal Revenue Service revoked Synanon's Federal tax exemption, and all of its properties were confiscated and sold. By the mid-1990s, Synanon had essentially vanished.


Despite fatal criminal faults that developed, the Synanon program had worked for some people. For example, Synanon was credited with curing, at least temporarily, the heroin-addicted jazz musicians Frank Rehak, Joe Pass, and Art Pepper (Pepper discussed his Synanon experiences at length in his autobiography Straight Life), and the actor Matthew "Stymie" Beard. In 1962, Pass formed a band, made up of Synanon patients, who recorded an album titled, The Sounds of Synanon. [15] The Synanon organization was touted 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 more moderate, successful programs such as the Delancey Street Foundation, co-founded by John Maher, a former Synanon member. Many former members still value 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.

Popular depictions

Synanon is referred to in Bob Dylan's song "Lenny Bruce", from his album Shot of Love.

The TV producer/ writer J. Michael Straczynski used a version of the Synanon Game in his science-fiction TV series Babylon 5, in the episodes "Signs and Portents" and "Comes the Inquisitor".

The New-Path drug treatment centers in the science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick's novel A Scanner Darkly bear numerous similarities to Synanon. Dick's novel VALIS also makes reference to the Synanon building in Oakland, California.

In his 1977 novel. ‘Not sleeping, Just Dead,’ Charles Alverson, who lived in Synanon for six months in 1967 as a ‘straight’ or non-addicted resident, sends his private eye Joe Goodey to solve a suspected murder at The Institute, an organization that bears more than a passing resemblance to Synanon.

See also


  1. Her life with "One Big Brother", San Jose Mercury News, March 19, 1999, Michael D. Clark
  2. One big dysfunctional family: A former member of the Synanon cult recalls the "alternative lifestyle" that shaped her, for better and worse, Salon Magazine, March 29, 1999, Fiona Morgan
  3. Synanon at the Internet Movie Database.
  4. "So Fair A House: The story of Synanon" New York: Prentice-Hall. 1963
  5. Where did it come from?, Synanon Church and the medical basis for the $traights, or Hoopla in Lake Havasu, by Wes Fager (c) 2000
  6. Cults and Families, Doni Whitsett, Ph.D., Stephen A. Kent, Ph.D., University of Alberta
  7. Kids of El Paso, Timeline 1958-2003 and present-day litigation information.
  8. Ever unconventional, long controversial, By Keith Chu, The Bend Bulletin, November 15, 2009
  10. Daytop History, Daytop Homepage, retrieved 3/25/2010
  11. Szalavitz, Maia (2007-08-20). "The Cult That Spawned the Tough-Love Teen Industry". Mother Jones. Retrieved 2007-09-19.
  12. Rose Cole's entry on The Charley Project, accessed 20 May 2009
  13. Jack Anderson, "NBC Cancelled Jonestown Story", March 20, 1981
  14. Light to celebrate 25th anniversary of its Pulitzer, The Point Reyes Light, April 15, 2004, By Dave Mitchell
  15. Guitar Tablature - Jazz Guitar : Joe Pass Licks

External links

de:Synanon ru:Синанон sv:Synanon

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