The Dark Legacy of a Rehab Cult
The head-shaving recovery cult of “Synanon” was a substance-abuse treatment pioneer—and a model for some more recent deviant AA groups.
The notorious West Coast rehab center known as Synanon flourished during the open-minded 1960s and bad-trip 1970s, when it seemingly was about nothing more than helping bottom-of-the-barrel addicts recover from alcohol and narcotics abuse.
Not only was it influential in the treatment of addiction, it also serves as a spiritual touchstone—and a cautionary example—for modern-day AA meetings that have been branded as cults, including both exposed and more-or-less definitive examples (Washington, DC’s Midtown Group) and those that are much more open to debate (LA’s Pacific Group).
Synanon was founded in 1958 by Chuck Dederich, a former salesman for the oil and aerospace industries with a knack for publicity and sloganeering. Armed with catchphrases of his own creation like “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” Dederich developed an early version of the group called the “Tender Loving Care Club” in the down-at-heel LA beachfront burg of Ocean Park. He soon renamed it Synanon, a neologism combining togetherness (“syn”) with the unknown (“anon”). The organization would later move into a massive, hotel-like structure on the sands of Santa Monica, with rooms for addicts to recover from whatever substances plagued them. (This and other key details are taken from Paul Morantz’s definitive history, The Story of Synanon.)
The main thing Synanon offered its addicts was talk—the humbling testimony of fellow group members about the trials and temptations of using, and the slow struggle to recover from a life of addiction. Synanon was different from Alcoholics Anonymous in that it explicitly catered to drug-users as well as to drinkers. But as a former member of AA, Dederich was happy to adapt a number of the fellowship’s methods—removing the addict from baleful influences, confessional testimony, group cohesion—as the therapeutic core of Synanon. To this end Dederich would say, “Who needs alcohol? … Here we can get drunk with ideas.”
"Despite the egalitarian veneer of Synanon, founder Charles Dederich was always the father figure, Big Kahuna, Boss of Bosses."
And in the early years his group produced salutary results, being instrumental in helping popularize what we would now call “tough love.” Synanon’s take on this was to make house residents participate in “The Game,” calling out one another’s bad behavior through a particularly aggressive form of group therapy. This type of approach—forcing users to acknowledge their culpability through direct verbal attack—paved the way for later programs such as rehab boot camps, some of which employ similarly controversial (and debatably effective) tactics.
In addition to its success in getting addicts clean, Dederich’s garrulous, street-smart attitude made for good copy in the local press, and he maintained strong ties to the Hollywood social scene. Curious, non-addicted celebrities like James Mason, Jane Fonda, Milton Berle, Leonard Nimoy and Natalie Wood might be found dropping by the house; Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling gave lectures on site, and the Synanon Combo appeared on the Steve Allen TV show Jazz Scene USA. A 1965 Hollywood movie, Synanon, even dramatized the organization through the ham-fisted acting of Edmond O’Brien channeling Chuck Dederich. Indeed, throughout the 1960s Dederich was able to harness the power of the media and his Tinseltown pals to help him build his organization and keep doubters at bay.
The approach for new arrivals varied over the years, but mostly followed a familiar template: on arriving at Synanon, addicts would have to part with $1,000 for “membership” in the private club, as well as contributing labor to the operation of the house—washing dishes, scrubbing floors, etc.—and being assigned same-sex buddies to help them stay sober.
Reflecting on his six months there in 1967, during which he stayed at the center as a “square”—or non-addicted—member, journalist and novelist Charles Alverson, in an interview with The Fix, recalls the early focus on putting users “in the position of helping others and belonging to an organization of which [they] could be proud … enabling the addicts to move out of Synanon and to live responsible lives.” Even at that time, however, darker strains were evident, as Alverson relates:
“I recall being rooted out of bed about midnight to witness a long-term member sitting in a garbage can with his head shaved because he had been caught using. This was quite common, and an indication that some of the cured weren’t quite so cured. Despite the egalitarian veneer of Synanon, Dederich was always the father figure, Big Kahuna, Boss of Bosses … At mass meetings, new Synanon triumphs were announced and new enemies were denounced. Such techniques kept the wagons circled.”