Synanon started as a drug rehabilitation program in the late 1950s but evolved over the following decades into a controversial and, by many accounts, destructive cult. Founded by Charles E. “Chuck” Dederich in 1958 in Santa Monica, California, Synanon initially drew attention for its novel approach to drug rehabilitation and its early successes.
Evolution from Rehab to Commune
Early Days: In its initial years, Synanon distinguished itself from other rehabilitation programs by having former addicts lead group therapy sessions, a practice not common at the time. Instead of medical or psychiatric interventions, peer confrontation was used as a primary method of treatment.
Expansion: As Synanon grew, it began to attract not only drug addicts but also people looking for purpose, direction, or a sense of community. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, it had transformed into a communal society. Members, called “Lifestylers,” gave up their previous lives, possessions, and often custody of their children to live in and contribute to the community.
Transformation into a Cult: Under Dederich’s leadership, Synanon’s practices and beliefs became increasingly authoritarian and extreme. The organization began to believe that it held the key to societal reform, not just drug rehabilitation. Dederich introduced more controversial practices, such as the “Game,” where members would participate in aggressive and confrontational group sessions, and forced vasectomies and abortions to control population growth within the community.
Controversies and Legal Battles
By the mid-1970s, reports of violence, child abuse, and other illegal activities within Synanon began to surface. The group became increasingly insular and hostile to outsiders, especially to those who criticized them or posed a threat. In 1978, members of Synanon were involved in an incident where they placed a rattlesnake in the mailbox of attorney Paul Morantz, who had successfully litigated against the organization. The act led to Dederich’s arrest and subsequent removal from leadership.
Decline and Legacy
The legal battles, negative publicity, and internal issues precipitated Synanon’s decline in the early 1980s. By 1991, the organization had dissolved, its properties were sold, and Synanon ceased to exist as a communal society.
While Synanon was undoubtedly influential in the evolution of drug rehabilitation techniques, especially in its early years, its legacy is marred by its later activities and transformation into a cult. Books like “The Light on Synanon” by Dave Mitchell, Cathy Mitchell, and Richard Ofshe provide a detailed account of the group’s rise, transformation, and eventual downfall, emphasizing the dangers of unchecked power and authority in closed communities.