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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.

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For a generation of drug addicts, Synanon was much more than just a bad movie—
and its spiritual sequels continue to crop up today. Photo via

By J.D. Dickey

05/09/12

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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.”

Almost from the outset, the organization fostered an us-versus-them mentality, firing up members’ already sensitive and often damaged psyches with paranoid fears of the outside world. As ex-con and group stalwart Charlie Hamer put it in Morantz’s history, “While drugs are an enemy, there’s a bigger enemy at our door trying to smash our right to live clean … The shits are trying to kill us but instead have given us an esprit de corps.” If residents gave in to “the enemy” by relapsing, Dederich would subject them to public ridicule and torment—“verbal haircuts,” to go along with the actual head-shavings doled out as physical punishment. 

The focus on the group’s founder naturally led to a cult of personality, and by the end of the 1960s the organization was evolving into something beyond a treatment center for junkies, opening a second facility in Oakland and even a Synanon school. This transformation overshadowed Synanon’s rehab successes, until by the mid-1970s the group had attained all the hallmarks of an actual cult: Dederich was the xenophobic guru; members were treated more like inmates than residents (two-year stays morphed into the Orwellian “treatment for life”); and group tactics came to involve head-shaving for all women, assigned marriages and estrangement from friends and family.

The focus on Synanon's founder naturally led to a cult of personality, and by the mid-1970s the group had attained all the hallmarks of an actual cult.

Ultimately—like a certain other LA–based syndicate which shall not be named—Synanon became a church. Around the same time, its members began to be implicated in all manner of criminal activity. Much of the trouble came from the increasingly delusional mind of Dederich, who organized a troop of “Imperial Marines” to do much of his dirty work, which included threats against ex-members or those who wanted out, and various forms of violence and intimidation against perceived enemies. As a lawyer and investigative journalist who exposed some of the organization’s misdeeds, Morantz himself was targeted by Dederich’s goon squad, who attempted to kill him with a rattlesnake in his mailbox. Racking up a string of arrests and convictions for assault, attempted murder and kidnapping, Synanon was faced with legal trouble on all sides—including a formidable IRS investigation for tax evasion. Dederich stepped down as its head in 1978 as part of a court settlement, and the organization slowly declined until it closed its doors for good in 1991.

Its three decades of fame and infamy should have made Synanon into little more than a historical curiosity, an object lesson in rehab gone awry, larded with all the now-clichéd excesses of the 1960s and ‘70s. Instead, the organization has gone on to function as a perverse sort of model for the ways in which Alcoholics Anonymous’s original approach can be corrupted and misused.

The problem derives from AA’s own bottom-up structure, or “benign anarchy” as founder Bill W. put it, in which individual branches are largely self-governing and don't have to report back to the home office on their exact methods of treatment. Synanon was decidedly not a branch of AA, but its example can be seen in the evolution of deviant AA chapters, in which the presence of a strongman or guru, institutionalized paranoia and member abuse are hallmarks, resulting in the rise of entities which call themselves AA meetings, but function more like cults. The irony is that the stated reason for AA’s adoption of its famously decentralized, leaderless approach was specifically to prevent cults of personality.

In 2007, in a brief burst of media attention, the Midtown Group of AA, just outside Washington, DC, was exposed as a haven for illicit behavior under the guiding hand of one Michael Quinones, or “Mike Q.” Under his system, teenage female addicts were paired off with predatory middle-aged male sponsors. Women who spoke out against or wanted to leave the chapter were humiliated at the hands of older male members, many of whom had long since beaten their drug addictions and were staying in the group simply to score with girls young enough to be their daughters. Along with being assigned sponsors who functioned more as sexual partners (a particularly reprehensible form of what’s known as “13th-Stepping”), members might be encouraged to break off contact with friends and family outside of the group and to quit using all drugs—even prescription meds needed to fight, say, depression or schizophrenia. The allegations were all quite sensational, but were largely treated as a one-off aberration by the mainstream media—and were more or less forgotten when Mike Q. died a few months after the story broke. Although the Midtown Group no longer operates in DC, it still holds itinerant meetings in Northern Virginia, and its members have learned to avoid the glare of outside inquiry. Perhaps the most salient point of the whole affair, however, was the inability of AA HQ to do anything about the rogue group.

Indeed, AA has a policy of not addressing allegations involving individual chapters—much less monitoring their actions—following Bill W.’s anarchic credo. One of the few comments the home office did make (via an anonymous staff member in the Washington Post) about Midtown was that “groups that did not follow the [AA] traditions and concepts would fall away” and, citing the Second Tradition, that the organization’s national leaders “are but trusted servants ... They do not govern.” Indeed, the home office typically refuses to comment on, or at best makes vague generalizations about, the actions of its chapters, however much they depart from the organization’s mission and practices.

With AA having little such oversight, it’s difficult to get a read on how widespread these perverted groups may be. Given AA's generally solid reputation, and since the police and press have little interest in uncovering therapy cults that likely operate within the fringe of the law, most testimonials about cult-like AA groups come from, as you might expect, comments on blogs and websites.

The AA home office typically refuses to comment on the actions of its chapters, however much they depart from the organization’s mission and practices.

Though not quite up to the standards accepted by mainstream journalism, the stories amassed by sites such as orange-papers.org, aacultwatch.co.uk, xsteppers.multiply.com and stinkin-thinkin.com are often as compelling as they are depressing. Here we learn that Clancy Imislund, a famed addiction expert who managed to get celebrities such as Anthony Hopkins clean while operating an LA rehab program for the homeless, is the driving force behind the Pacific Group, also based in Los Angeles and one of the country’s largest AA chapters. Some allege that the Pacific Group has adopted many of Synanon’s former methods, including claims of guru status for “Clancy I.,” sexual exploitation and various forms of behavioral control. Imislund himself seems to be a somewhat of a globetrotter, advising other AA chapters around the country and the world, expanding the presence of the Pacific Group with spin-off meetings and giving countless speeches about personal empowerment and beating the demon of addiction. (Interestingly, when asked about the Midtown Group scandal, Imislund responded in the Washington Post that “there probably have been some excesses, but they have helped more sober alcoholics in Washington than any other group by far.”)

Of course, one person’s David Koresh might be another’s Billy Graham. Because for all the fiery denunciations of figures like Imislund that you can find online (most written by people who denounce AA in general, it should be noted), you can also read about his compelling and successful battle against the bottle, uncover glowing odes to his decency in getting both the richest and the poorest members of society off drugs and see attractive photos of him hobnobbing with Hollywood stars like Craig Ferguson and Carrie Fisher. Indeed, if Imislund is in fact the new Big Kahuna, the Boss of Bosses, of the LA 12-Step scene, he’s at least a modern sort of guru—an active and enterprising CEO-type figure—in contrast to Dederich’s scowling and bitter patriarch.

And he’s not the only one: From Dallas to Anaheim, from Phoenix to Bainbridge Island, Wash., you can read online about larger-than-life men—and they are almost always men—who have transformed their own little chapters of AA into personality cults based on their own interpretation of the 12-Step gospel. Here, age-inappropriate sex might masquerade as sponsorship; rejection of friends and family might go hand-in-hand with rejection of pushers and enablers; and using medications to control your blood pressure might be viewed as negatively as popping pills to get high. 

It’s a fairly grim alternate universe—but how much of it can be proven or even substantiated is mostly unknown. Aside from press reports of the now infamous Midtown Group, few above-board analyses of AA cults even exist, leading skeptics to wonder if they aren’t just figments of disillusioned former members’ imaginations. 

Taking the middle view, in 2003 the reputable Journal of Addictions Nursing published a study that analyzed certain AA chapters, and found that more than half of all female respondents had experienced “13th-Stepping” and other forms of abusive behavior within them. The report concluded that “vulnerable women, such as those with histories of sexual abuse, should be referred to female-only groups when possible.” Unfortunately, this is one of very few such credible studies conducted within the last decade. Since that time, the Midtown Group story broke, countless unsubstantiated claims have been made online—and the central office of AA has remained silent. 

In the face of such shadowy claims, it remains up to the reader to determine his or her own truth about how widespread or exceptional deviant AA chapters really are, and whether the organization’s intentionally anarchic policies may too easily allow self-proclaimed gurus and sexual predators a foothold within them. Between a lack of accountability to the home office on the one hand, and potentially repressive policing by a centralized authority on the other, a third way for AA to deal with this threat is certainly called for—if not an approach that gives it policing power over its members, then at least a method by which the gurus and strongmen can be exposed and kept from preying on the vulnerable. In the end, despite being defunct for more than 20 years, the specter of Synanon continues to haunt AA.

J.D. Dickey is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. A longtime author for Penguin Group/Rough Guides, his work has appeared in The Daily Telegraph and The Independent, as well as online journals and magazines.

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