A rattlesnake in the mailbox.
July 21, 2015 9:26 PM   Subscribe

The transformation of Synanon, founded by Charles E. Dederich, from drug rehabilitation program to wealthy, violent cult. Stripped of its tax exempt status and formally disbanded in 1991 (Dederich himself died in 1997), the downward spiral began in 1978 when two members of Synanon's "Imperial Marines" were charged with the attempted murder of attorney Paul Morantz -- via a rattlesnake in his mailbox.

Synanon's legacy lives on in its practices:
The Game consisted of a dozen or so addicts sitting in a circle. One player would start talking about the appearance or behavior of another, picking out their defects and criticizing their character. But as soon as the subject of the attack tried to defend him-or herself, other players would join the barrage, unleashing a no-holds-barred verbal onslaught. Vulgarity was encouraged—“talk dirty and live clean,” said Dederich—and so the other members would accuse the defendant of real and imagined crimes, of being selfish, unthinking, of being a no-good, ugly, diseased cocksucker who was too weak to go straight and was too much of an asshole, junkie, cry-baby motherfucker to admit it. Faced with this unrelenting group assault, the recipient would eventually have little choice but to admit their wrongdoing and promise to mend their ways. Then the group would turn to the next person and begin all over again.

“The first time it hits you, it absolutely destroys you,” remembered a former Game player. “No matter how loud you scream, they can scream louder,” recalled another, “and no matter how long you talk, when you run out of breath they’re there to start raving again at you. And laughing.” Emotional catharsis was the aim. There were only two rules: no drugs, and no physical violence. It was vicious, but it actually seemed to work. “One cannot get up,” remarked Dederich, “until he’s knocked down.”
 

But by the mid-70s, adherence to such rules were no longer strict. Juvenile courts had begun to send "troubled children" to Synanon, where they were beaten:
Amazingly, this entire time, children were being sent to Synanon by local courts that believed Synanon was just the kind of tough love camp that at-risk youth needed. When kids would escape to the houses of neighbors on local ranches, the abuse inside was made pretty clear. But too often those kids would simply be returned to Synanon, to be abused again and again.

One woman, Doris Gambonini, who comforted Synanon refugees passed away earlier this month at the age of 80. Her husband Alvin was viciously attacked by Synanites in 1975. His crime in Dederich's eyes? Alerting authorities to the stories of abused teenagers and buying the kids bus tickets home when he could.
Not all of the runaways made it home. According to Mother Jones, many "emotional growth boarding schools," wilderness camps, and "tough love" antidrug programs can trace their treatment philosophy, directly or indirectly to Synanon (warning: comments section contains more explicit details of abuse).

Also check out the FBI file on the Synanon Foundation, Inc., 1963-1985, released in 2008 under the Freedom of Information Act.

In their own words (some of which may be disturbing):
  • Synanon -- The People Business. "This site is devoted to Synanon nostalgia -- for a way of life now gone which was by turns joyful and terrifying, but which none of us can ever forget." Member discussions appear to be private, but there is a "museum" open to the public.
  • Synanon Archive Collection. "These oral histories are a project of The Synanon Archive Trust. The goal of this project is to preserve a representation of individuals stories that make up the larger story of the Synanon community and organization, which began in 1958 and was formally disbanded in 1993."
  • Peoples Temple and Synanon – Modern Communities: The Role of Women. Article by Laura Johnston Kohl, former resident of both the Peoples Temple and Synanon.
posted by automatic cabinet (40 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is an excellent post, automatic cabinet. As someone who carries addiction close to their heart (and veins) and has long been fascinated by the various cure-cults that've sprung up in the last century, I look forward to delving into these links.
posted by item at 9:33 PM on July 21, 2015


A Synanon Darkly.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:36 PM on July 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


As the first link mentions, Cesar Chavez was fascinated by Synanon, and eventually brought The Game to United Farm Workers.

As recently as last year (...and probably still) UFW and several of their AFL-CIO affiliates were using it as a tool to indoctrinate their organizers. It disillusioned several friends of mine into changing careers, and really made me depressed about the future of the labor movement in the U.S.
posted by Anoplura at 11:03 PM on July 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


former resident of both the Peoples Temple and Synanon

Wow. I can't wait to read this.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:16 AM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


In 1972, Philip K. Dick, after his OD/suicide attempt in Vancouver was dumped into X-Kalay, a Synanon offshoot meant for ex-cons. Somewhere, in one of the intros to his short stories (I think), he did a breakdown of The Game which was a very incisive indictment of the process. X-Kalay was the model for New Path in A Scanner Darkley.
posted by CCBC at 12:32 AM on July 22, 2015 [14 favorites]


I did a bit of a search for the Dick comments on The Game and could only come up with a letter quoted in Divine Invasions, the Sutin biography. Maybe that's what I recall. Full disclosure: I knew a little about X-Kalay back in 1972, so I could have picked it up somewhere else, though, at the time, I did not know Dick was in the program.
posted by CCBC at 1:00 AM on July 22, 2015


I had an anthro prof who described Chuck Dederich as the "single most charismatic individual" he had ever met. As a 60's burnout, I sort of inwardly rolled my eyes, as by then, "charisma" was more of a euphemism for Manson-like as opposed to Christ-like for me.
posted by Chitownfats at 1:04 AM on July 22, 2015


One of my friends first got sober through a Synanon spin-off. He's positively wistful about it, remembering fondly how he was the best at the Game out of all the people at his rehab. He recognizes it was evil, but for a queer punk rock junkie kid, that evil was the best motivation in the world.
posted by klangklangston at 1:33 AM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


In 1972, Philip K. Dick, after his OD/suicide attempt in Vancouver was dumped into X-Kalay, a Synanon offshoot meant for ex-cons. Somewhere, in one of the intros to his short stories (I think), he did a breakdown of The Game which was a very incisive indictment of the process.

I think it's mentioned in the first pages of Valis, though possibly not by name. IIRC a former girlfriend goes in for help, they immediately start giving her negative criticism and she ends up committing suicide.
posted by Dr Dracator at 3:09 AM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


There's quite a bit about this place in Art Pepper's autobiography Straight Life.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:19 AM on July 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


As recently as last year (...and probably still) UFW and several of their AFL-CIO affiliates were using it as a tool to indoctrinate their organizers. It disillusioned several friends of mine into changing careers, and really made me depressed about the future of the labor movement in the U.S.
posted by Anoplura at 11:03 PM on July 21 [2 favorites +] [!]


People also forget that Chavez was a big fan of Ferdinand Marcos, and thought his vicious Catholic dictatorship was a model for how the U.S. should be run.

...as by then, "charisma" was more of a euphemism for Manson-like as opposed to Christ-like for me.
posted by Chitownfats at 1:04 AM on July 22 [+] [!]


What's the difference?
posted by Avenger at 5:48 AM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's important to note that a large portion of America's addiction treatment system *today* still uses methods from this cult. Phoenix House, Daytop, Delancey House— anything that calls itself a residential "therapeutic community"— and lasts at least 6 months was either founded by a member of Synanon, modeled directly on Synanon or modeled on programs modeled on Synanon or created by employees trained by those people. Phoenix House has backed off the attack therapy, but many others have not. And these methods even sneak into 12-step based rehabs regularly.

And that's even though, as my article linked above says, a study done in the 70s found that around 9% of normal college students exposed to its methods had lasting psychological damage— and that was not people who were forced to live in a setting designed to enforce it and could not leave because of court orders.

Synanon is sadly very much with us now. I still hear from people who are made to wear abusive signs, put in a corner for hours, made to dress like homeless people or prostitutes, scrub floors with toothbrushes and do other meaningless labor and otherwise attacked and degraded in addiction treatment.

No study has ever shown that this crap works better than treating people kindly— in fact, the opposite is true
posted by Maias at 5:59 AM on July 22, 2015 [22 favorites]


My first (and only) front-page MetaFilter post was on this topic, back in 2009. It's really a national scandal that schools using these abusive methods still exist. Too bad we don't care enough to do anything about it.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:07 AM on July 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


One player would start talking about the appearance or behavior of another, picking out their defects and criticizing their character. But as soon as the subject of the attack tried to defend him-or herself, other players would join the barrage, unleashing a no-holds-barred verbal onslaught.

They invented the internet?

I'm old enough to vaguely remember Synanon. Synanon, the Moonies, the Manson Family, the People's Temple, SLA: there's a part of my childhood which was weirdly preoccupied by cults and a fear of cults. I don't know if that's a social dynamic which passed or if it simply became an accepted part of ordinary life, but to me cults are as characteristic of the 1970's as avocado green appliances.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:16 AM on July 22, 2015 [6 favorites]


In my copy of Toward a Psychology of Being by Abraham Maslow (the maslow pyramid maslow) on p 239 in an appendix titled Eupsychian Network he has:

Synanon
Director Chuck Dederich
1351 Pacific Coast Highway
Santa Monica, CA

It is the second edition printed in 1968.

In the BBC Eagles Hotel California documentary somebody said everything changed after everybody got a coke habit. And the Manson murders.

On google streetview the strip mall at 1351 PCH has definitely been renovated or more probably freshly constructed since 1968.
posted by bukvich at 6:23 AM on July 22, 2015


It's important to note that a large portion of America's addiction treatment system *today* still uses methods from this cult. Phoenix House, Daytop, Delancey House— anything that calls itself a residential "therapeutic community"— and lasts at least 6 months was either founded by a member of Synanon, modeled directly on Synanon or modeled on programs modeled on Synanon or created by employees trained by those people.

(Hello, I totally missed this was yours! Obviously.)

Yeah, your article was by far the most chilling one to me; that combined with finding the other two former members of Synanon sites and understanding that those that hadn't left are still perpetuating this stuff and are "nostalgic" about it. I had also read a decent amount about abusive organizations for minors (thanks for the link, Kutsuwamushi) but didn't realize these methods could be traced to one source, and a cult at that.


Wow. I can't wait to read this.
From an outside perspective, it's like, "you survived Jonestown and went from there to Synanon? Holy shit" but the focus of the article means this doesn't really get addressed. I haven't read any of her other articles on Jonestown because this one disturbed me a little. She's written a book, I think, but again...
posted by automatic cabinet at 7:12 AM on July 22, 2015


God the 70s.

I find this history so fucking depressing. All these 70s cults and activists-turned-cults. Reading about some of the shit that the Black Panthers and former Panthers were doing in the 70s is equally or more grim. These were really idealistic people who wanted to make the world better! I know a lot of what became of these groups can be attributed to direct efforts on the part of our government, like Cointelpro, to destroy these people, but maybe the bulk of the lesson is just in power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

It's really sad.

And yeah, the long-arm of Synanon is that so many of our current drug treatment programs still borrow from this model.
posted by latkes at 8:28 AM on July 22, 2015


On a personal note: I work in a sort of case management, largely with people dealing with "substance use disorder" (the current less stigma-laden medicalized term), and agree with all the critiques Maias and others articulate about Synanon-influenced programs. But I find myself susceptible to the nostalgia about these programs, specifically Delancy Street which has this aura of idealism that I feel attached to. There's a lot I admire in the residential model and, in it's positive aspects, the peer support and collective effort involved. Plus I have a friend who was transformed in a very positive way while there. Plus they appear from the outside to be better than a lot of the even worse, totally un-evidence-based "treatment programs" available to poor people here in the SF Bay Area. But I think it's even more important that I keep a very critical eye about them becuase it's easy to just believe the mythos and not look at the reality.

The problem for me is, there is just so little out there in terms of treatment that actually is evidence-based and compassionate, and that is available to the people I work with.

It's actually horrible how bad things are out there for people dealing with substance dependence and also struggling with other social and economic challenges. I think for anyone outside of the world of addiction and poverty, well, people have no idea how few options there are. I can see why people turned to Synanon and it's offspring.
posted by latkes at 8:44 AM on July 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


The organization was running up against troubles with the IRS and had realized, much like other self-help cults of the 20th century, that being recognized as a religion could help it maintain tax-exempt status.

HOW TERRIBLY COY, WHOEVER COULD THIS BE REFERRING TO?
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:50 AM on July 22, 2015


HOW TERRIBLY COY, WHOEVER COULD THIS BE REFERRING TO?

I don't think they're just talking about Scientology here: there were lots of self help cults of the 20th Century, many of which had this same strategy.
posted by latkes at 8:58 AM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


The problem for me is, there is just so little out there in terms of treatment that actually is evidence-based and compassionate, and that is available to the people I work with.


Every person with "substance use disorder" that I have ever known has died from the addiction or addiction-related syndromes.

I think that in coming decades -- barring some kind of pharmaceutical or technological "wonder drug/treatment" -- long-term drug addiction will be considered, essentially, a terminal illness, and treated with palliative methods, rather than curative therapies.
posted by Avenger at 9:00 AM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Every person with "substance use disorder" that I have ever known has died from the addiction or addiction-related syndromes.

This is so far from my personal experience and from the available data! Lots of people reduce or stop using drugs and alcohol. Just in my inner circle I can think of two people who had severe substance use issues to two potentially deadly substances (alcohol and heroin), one of whom has been abstinent for about 10 years and the other who has dramatically reduced his use to a level that does not threaten his health.

Think about all the people who have quit smoking cigarettes, one of the most addictive drugs out there!
posted by latkes at 9:11 AM on July 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


I actually have a friend, Ron Edwards, who spent time in Synanon in his teenage years. He wrote about it in passing, in his blog about comics and roleplaying games, in the context of comic-book "cults."
posted by edheil at 9:25 AM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Every person with "substance use disorder" that I have ever known has died from the addiction or addiction-related syndromes.

This is so far from my personal experience and from the available data!


Yeah, this statement is cruelly fatalistic and counterfactual. Not only is there plenty of research data that contradicts it, just about everybody knows someone personally who provides a counterexample.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:10 AM on July 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Jazz guitarist Joe Pass spent some time in Synanon to get over a heroin addiction and even recorded an album, Sounds of Synanon in 1962. This was the early days before things got too crazy.
posted by tommasz at 10:37 AM on July 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


This reminds me a lot of the techniques used during the Cultural Revolution in China, which had roots going back to the Land Reform movement in '47-'52, and, before that, to Stalin's internal Party purges in the USSR in the '30s. (And how much further back than that?) It wasn't enough just to kill the sinners; they had to be made to feel that they were sinners, and the community had to work themselves into a frenzy condemning and out-shouting them.
Mao thought that peasants who killed landlords with their bare hands would become permanently linked to the revolutionary process in a way that passive spectators could not be.
I wonder... are all these movements tied together directly somehow, and maybe tied somehow to Synanon, the way that Synanon is tied to so many offspring organizations that are still around? But with each iteration, it gets toned down a bit - from killing, to physical violence, to verbal violence only. It makes me think, somewhat fancifully, of the way that some viruses get less infectious with each evolutionary go-round.
posted by clawsoon at 10:45 AM on July 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


Great post! Synanon pops up from time to time in the media, never very prominently or for very long. Can't wait to dig in.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:10 AM on July 22, 2015


"I wonder... are all these movements tied together directly somehow, and maybe tied somehow to Synanon, the way that Synanon is tied to so many offspring organizations that are still around?"

The "self criticism" circles that were popular in revolutionary leftist circles in the '70s (Bill Ayers talks about them as one of the things that pushed the radicalism of the Weathermen) definitely had some overlap with Synanon folks.
posted by klangklangston at 11:31 AM on July 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


Yes, "self-criticism" is the term my brain was trying to remember but couldn't. Thank you!
posted by clawsoon at 11:58 AM on July 22, 2015


It sounds like the whole Game thing sprung out of the (very dubious IMHO) AA concept that addicts are uniquely afflicted with giant egos and need to become humble.
posted by thelonius at 12:03 PM on July 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Even in the present e-era you still have to open your USPS (or whomever) physical mailbox and extract all the physical paper unk-J for the recycling bin.

Is there anybody in the universe who doesn't do this carefully? Having found a new and active wasp nest in there once and a new and active ant nest another time, I sure do. I REALLY don't think I would overlook a live rattlesnake before I stuck my hand in, or even have my face so close to the mailbox door so that it could have a chance to strike and bite me in the cheek, even if it were poised and ready. More likely (even if it were poised and ready, and did its best) it would end up with half its length hanging out of the box and egg on its face and soon all of itself tumbling to the sidewalk. By which time the distance between it and me would be fifty feet and increasing exponentially.
posted by jfuller at 12:57 PM on July 22, 2015


"On October 10, 1978, [Morantz] opened his mailbox and stuck his hand inside, believing that what he couldn't quite see inside was a package of some sort. [...] A rattlesnake seems like a difficult thing to hide, but two men had removed the rattle from a snake before placing it inside Morantz's mailbox."
posted by automatic cabinet at 1:11 PM on July 22, 2015


Hi. My name is De, and I did time in a syn-based "wilderness" camp in 1980-81ish. I recommend against it. The only reason I got out is because I ran away to another state, and because I wasn't there for anything criminal, and because I started procedures to become an emancipated minor as soon as I got to Texas, there was no state obligation to try and extradite me. If they had, I would have gone to Europe via Mexico and disappeared.

One girl I was in camp with had a full blown psychotic breakdown, while on a canoe trip, hundreds of miles from help, because the camp counselors didn't administer her drugs, claiming they were a crutch. The camp "counselors" literally, LITERALLY bound her hand and foot and tied her into a canoe, that we then had to try and navigate rapids, with her squirming and screaming and crying. She was in my tent, and my canoe, and I was terrified that if we flipped the canoe, she would die, because there was no way I could get her out of the ropes before she would drown. Her mom later sued Eckerds, lost, but won on appeal, and I don't know how the case turned out after that. Another girl died when we were forced to dig latrine pits, and it collapsed on top of her. They also wouldn't administer my asthma medicine, claiming that my asthma was just a way to get attention. You have no idea what it's like to be struggling for air, and have adults surround you screaming at you, telling you it's all your own fault, and that you deserve to suffer because "you hurt your mom's feelings". (I was there because I ran away from home any time I got bored. Which, as it turns out, was pretty often.)

These were some fucked up places, y'all. I still carry scars and anger and it's been over 35 years. Fuck those people, and the cult they rode in on. Jack Eckerd made millions and millions of dollars on the backs of abused children, and his foundation is still sucking at the state teat and taking children into custody. Fuck them all.
posted by dejah420 at 1:40 PM on July 22, 2015 [22 favorites]


I wonder... are all these movements tied together directly somehow, and maybe tied somehow to Synanon, the way that Synanon is tied to so many offspring organizations that are still around? But with each iteration, it gets toned down a bit - from killing, to physical violence, to verbal violence only. It makes me think, somewhat fancifully, of the way that some viruses get less infectious with each evolutionary go-round.

Nope, it's just that there are a limited number of ways to create an environment of coercive persuasion that reliably produces compliance and leaves little obvious physical damage, the military, the Chinese, the Koreans, the U.S. torturers, cults and many others repeatedly converge on them.

Robert J. Lifton's Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism describes it well. But basically, food deprivation, sleep deprivation, constant meaningless, tiring activity, confession, brutal emotional attacks, repetitive rituals, total control over a person's environment and isolating the victim from outside influences will do it.
posted by Maias at 4:57 PM on July 22, 2015 [8 favorites]


Back when I was in graduate school in sociology at UC Berkeley, one of the professors was Richard Ofshe, who had previously won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Synanon. Rumor had it around the department that his Porsche was paid out of settlement money he got after getting the same "rattlesnake in the mailbox" that Paul Morantz got.
posted by jonp72 at 6:48 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


the problem for me is, there is just so little out there in terms of treatment that actually is evidence-based and compassionate, and that is available to the people I work with.

I also work with substance users and OMG THIS a million times! It is frustrating and heartbreaking as hell when you allow yourself to take a hard long look at the "treatment" provided at some of the places available to the average substance user in the Bay Area (I would suspect it's even worse in other areas). But what the hell do you tell the homeless guy who just got out of detox and is highly motivated to make some real changes?

This is such a great post! Thanks for posting!
posted by the lake is above, the water below at 8:30 PM on July 22, 2015


Oh yeah, regarding The Game and self-criticism sessions: I remember reading an intense chapter in Tinisma about a self-criticism session the main character underwent. Also, wasn't there a self-crit scene in The Killing Fields where the character essentially beats herself bloody for supposed "reactionary bourgeois" thoughts? Spooky stuff.
posted by the lake is above, the water below at 8:41 PM on July 22, 2015


"Nope, it's just that there are a limited number of ways to create an environment of coercive persuasion that reliably produces compliance and leaves little obvious physical damage, the military, the Chinese, the Koreans, the U.S. torturers, cults and many others repeatedly converge on them."

God knows you're the expert on this, but totalizing philosophies aren't ignorant of each other — Jim Jones approvingly cited Mao's Little Red Book and only moved away from the Communist Party after it started to repudiate Stalin. He was almost certainly familiar with self-criticism from Leninism. Likewise, Charles Dederich was familiar with the brainwashing methods of Mao and North Korea, including self-criticism, because he explicitly said that Synanon was moving past it.

Convergence is some of it, but both the People's Temple and Synanon were directly influenced by the Maoist and Leninist use of self-criticism and other social coercion techniques.
posted by klangklangston at 9:44 AM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


I vaguely remember someone saying that Communist self-criticism was reminiscent of group confessionals in France (?) during the Wars of Religion (?), but I'll be damned if I can dig up the link. The author may have been exceptionally friendly to the Chinese Communists, though, perhaps someone like William Hinton.
posted by clawsoon at 1:21 PM on July 24, 2015


I'm not saying there's no influence of these kinds of groups on each other, just that the same things have been repeatedly, independently discovered as ways to force compliance and create trauma bonds. Boot camps have been repeatedly converged on by military trainers, for example— and yes, they have also directly influenced each other, but again, there aren't that many ways to do this that work with any reliability. Harsh fraternity initiations are another example: there's a reason they are hard to eliminate.

But coercive persuasion, even with the "best" techniques fails a great deal of the time— it's just that cults wind up being made up of people for whom it "succeeded." For the vast majority of people, the behavior change wears off once the environmental controls are no longer there, though the bonds may remain.
posted by Maias at 2:47 PM on July 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


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