Stories of Synanon, Part One

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet. Mylet is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. This is the first of a series of oral histories Mylet is working on with former members of Synanon. More will run on Points in the future. 

When Synanon is remembered at all today, it is as a “vindictive” and “violent cult,” whose methods still lie at the heart of destructive “tough love” programs for recovering drug addicts and problem teens. These exposés detail how Charles (“Chuck”) Dederich, who founded the group for alcoholics and addicts in 1958, forced his followers to shave their heads, switch romantic partners, and verbally abuse one another in a form of attack therapy called the “Synanon Game”—all of which, depending on your perspective, is one hundred percent true.

Nonetheless, supporters of Synanon throughout the 1950s and 1960s—among them senators and congressmen, famous movie stars and authors, renowned criminologists and psychologists, corporate leaders, and civil rights groups—would have been shocked by the way Synanon has been both forgotten and vilified. By the early 1970s, the organization had expanded to tens of thousands of members (including “dope fiends” and non-using “squares,” in Synanon lingo), partnered with state governments to manage semi-autonomous Synanon prison wings, produced a jazz LP, and donated truckloads of food and supplies to the United Farm Workers and Black Panthers. 

This summer, I interviewed one of the organization’s earliest members as part of an ongoing oral history project to capture the complexity of the Synanon story. Lena Lindsay moved into Synanon House in December 1959, when the group was operating out of an abandoned National Guard armory on the beach in Los Angeles. Much attention had been paid to drug addiction in California during the years before Lindsay joined Synanon. State lawmakers, responding to public outcry, introduced hundreds of narcotics bills, many of which recommended the first mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. In the mid-1950s, Camarillo State Hospital began publicizing its facilities to addicts, while the state’s Department of Corrections initiated plans to build facilities specifically for narcotics violators. Community resources for people struggling with drug addiction were basically nonexistent. 

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Synanon House, circa 1962

In this interview, Lindsay describes her experiences in and out of California institutions in the 1950s and her life in Synanon until she left in 1974, disillusioned and frustrated by the changes that Dederich was making in the organization. 

How did you find out about Synanon?

I was sitting in the house one night, loaded, and the newscaster came on. There was some bongo playing, and he started talking about this place on the beach that was supposed to be helping dope fiends. He didn’t know what he was talking about, but he did the best that he could—because Synanon was very new, right. And [he] said a little bit about it, and I stuck it in the back of my head: “I’m gonna try that place one day.” I wasn’t ready right then [laughs], but I was gonna try that place one day. I guess it was maybe five, six months later… There were three of us—me, my sister, and another girl. We used to run around together, and she had disappeared for a while, and we didn’t know where she was. Maybe she’s in jail for a few days, or something like that. Then when she did come home, she told us she had been at this place on the beach called Synanon. They give you cigarettes. They feed you. [She told us] a little bit about what it was then, which wasn’t a lot, but dope fiends started gathering there, having conversations… 

I said, “Oh, yeah, I heard about that place.” Said I was gonna try it one day. It was interesting, because about a month later… my mother heard about it on one of the talk shows at that time. She mentioned it to me… and she said, “I’ll take you there if you wanna go.” I said, “Okay. I’ll go.” ‘Cause I wanted to go, because I had it in the back of my mind. I had a bit of common sense—didn’t use it, like most dope fiends. I had two kids by that time, and I knew in the back of my head that there was no way for me to raise anything else, other than something that I was. And I didn’t want that, but there was no place for us to go. I had gone to Camarillo [State Hospital], which was a nuthouse at that time. I had gone to jail, you know. There was no place else. 

How did you get into Camarillo? 

My dad took me to court because I wanted to go somewhere… I was old enough to admit myself, but my dad was with me. It wasn’t like anybody forced me to go anywhere… You had to go to court, unless somebody put you in there, ‘cause you were a nut. [You] had to go to court to be sentenced or admitted to it, and that’s what I did. It was for ninety days.

I didn’t think it was a rehab place. I just thought it was a place for me to get clean. That’s where my mind was… I just wanted to get clean. Camarillo was fine. I think I stayed loaded more than [anything else]. They kept me on the admitting ward. I helped with the new people that would come in. To me, it was a nuthouse. I had no expectations, I’ll put it that way. 

What was the treatment program like?

There was no program! [Laughs] I helped them with the other patients. Remember, I was on the admitting ward, and I helped them with the other patients. I helped them give shock treatment… I did stay loaded while I was there. 

From the drugs they gave you?

No! My boyfriend would come to visit. After thirty days, you could have visits, and my boyfriend would come—me and another girl, we were on the ward together. Our boyfriends would sneak us drugs.

… I didn’t think they [the staff] knew what they were doing… It was different than being in jail, that’s for sure. There was no place. In my time, there was no place for drug addicts. None at all. There was no place for it.

How was jail different from Camarillo?

Jail was jail. You went to jail, you worked, you got up, you ate, you went back to your cell. I didn’t have a hard time in jail, unless it was when I first went in and I was kicking my habit… There was nothing [in terms of treatment.] It was probably better off than it is now. 

What were your first impressions of Synanon?

When I first got to Synanon, I had no idea what I was getting into. I just heard that there was a rehab place. Which I wanted to be a part of—but I was looking for something. Must’ve been, if I’d gone to Camarillo. Must’ve been looking for something. Didn’t know what. 

I took my suitcase [to Synanon] with a few little clothes in it and some things… I had seventeen cents in my pocket, but I was loaded. I made sure I got a fix that morning. So, I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I knew that I was looking for some place, and I was gonna try it. I had no idea what to look for, or look forward to, other than what my girlfriend had told me. I knew I could still smoke. They would give you cigarettes. You could eat peanut butter and jelly, or whatever they had. I didn’t know what to expect. When I first got there—I found out after—when people came to Synanon, we would always see how important it was for them, so we would tell them to go and come back. To see how important it was for them to get their lives straightened out. That’s what they were gonna have me do. 

But I knew if I left, no way was I gonna come back. Maybe somewhere down the line, if I lived long enough. The assistant [Jesse Pratt] was another dope fiend that had been there a long time—we used to call him the black Chuck Dederich, ‘cause he was so much like him. He said, “Wait, let me go and talk with Chuck.” He ran upstairs and talked with Chuck, knowing I was downstairs. He said, “Bring her up here.” That was my initiation to Synanon. I went up there, and Chuck told him, “Let her mom go home. We’re keeping her.” And, of course, when I got there, I was the only black girl there, for a while. 

How was it being the only black woman there?

It never bothered me. I was the pet around there, you know. Chuck Dederich was like my father figure. Jesse took care of me. I would play games—hot and heavy games, when we got in that room and got in that circle. But otherwise everybody just took care of me. 

What did you think about the Synanon Game? 

Scared the shit out of me. [Laughs]. “I wanna get out of here!” [Laughs]. All that yelling and talking. Jesse Pratt used to run the female [games], and he was ugly and nasty and talk about us like we had tails. But everybody did that. We did that to each other, after a while.

But I’d say, “Oh, shit. What did I get myself into?” But I sat there and I took it. ‘Cause a lot of the things that were said were true… But like I said, I didn’t like it… It was uncomfortable. But like I say, a lot of the things were true. You know, being a streetwalker. Being a whore. Whatever you wanna call it. Taking people’s money—that wasn’t a part of me, because I didn’t believe in it…  But there were a lot of things that were just true, and what do you do? You run out of the game and leave? Of course, we defended like mad. “Well, I didn’t do blah blah.” That’s a bunch of bulls–t. 

It was in the game that I started learning how to tell the truth. Because us drug addicts, we believed our own bulls–t. In order to do what we did, and live the lifestyle, I guess we had to believe the mess that we told ourselves… It was after one of our games, big heavy games. I went to my room, I went to bed, and I started thinking about what they talked to me about in the game, and how I defended it. And I was lying. And that’s when I start learning how to tell the truth. To myself. “To thy own self be truthful.” That was one of my favorite concepts the old man [Dederich] gave me. “To thy own self be truthful.” When I was in my bed, by myself, I copped to myself what a liar I was. And in my next game, I copped out on myself. That started me to telling the truth. I didn’t tell the truth all the time. It had to get to be a habit, you know.  

What was daily life like in Synanon?

When I first went in, Synanon was nice. It was comfortable. Everybody was nice to me. We ate peanut butter and jelly and coffee. That’s what we had, constantly—was always on the table, so we always had something to eat. Wasn’t what we wanted. The guy that used to go up and down the boardwalk with his sandwiches, when he would get through, he would give them to us. We’d take the meat out of it and make soup. And that’s what we would eat until we got one car that ran backwards. Then we started hustling, going out and begging for food from different businesses, and sort of building Synanon up. 

We used to stay up late at night, as [Chuck] was on the board, giving us concepts and giving us wisdom and stuff, which we all loved. 

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Charles Dederich giving a seminar, 1960s

At 9 o’clock, there was morning meeting. 12 o’clock was our lunch, and at 1 o’clock, we had our seminars, and then we relaxed for an hour or two, and then come back to our jobs. After that, we had dinner. Usually in the evening, there was some kind of meeting. Three days a week—Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—of course, we all played games… Either that, or we had a speaker. Or instead of seminars, we might have had a speaker like [Abraham] Maslow, or somebody, big philosopher, somebody, come in and talk to us… It was just constant, consistent movement. And the squares would move in and donate and donate their time—either work at the front desk, work at the kitchen, work in the dining room, babysit, whatever we needed them to do. They would take us to different places that we’d never been before. And these were people that we would have never met! 

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Henry Miller talking at a Synanon seminar, 1962

Was Synanon part of the 60s—social movements, counterculture, etc?

We were our own social movement… learning how to be responsible. Learning how to understand each other. There was no such thing as prejudice. If it was—it didn’t belong there. We’d talk about it in a group [Synanon Game]. We were our own social movement, not a part of what was going on. We didn’t want to be a part of it. 

Why not? 

Because it was destructive—with the fires and the people killing people. And the hippies. We didn’t want to be a part of that. We wanted to be something else. We were so sure that if we could get all these people that’s up there, supposed to be running this country, [if] we could get them in a group where they could talk to each other about their problems…. maybe everything would be okay.

How did Synanon change?

Chuck, to me, allowed the squares to seduce him with their money. And all of us drug addicts that helped him build the place, he cut us loose. And that was the beginning of it. We all saw it. And, of course, we were all hurt. He was a sick man. But we didn’t know that until further on down the line… He was a very smart, intelligent man. Very, very charismatic. And very good at his words. And what he was saying was true. We had no way to disprove him. ‘Cause everything he told us, you know, we practiced it, and here some of us are, you know? 

Without that old man, I would probably be dead or in the penitentiary somewhere. And that’s where most of us would be, if we hadn’t had him, and if we had not followed him, to a certain extent… I always remember another one of his concepts. He always said, “No matter what I do, you get your life together. If I jump off a bridge, you don’t have to.” But—the paradox. He said, “If you leave here, you’re gonna step down a manhole!” [Laughs] “You’re gonna fall down a manhole!” Some of ‘em went for that. I didn’t go for that. 

Why did Synanon “work,” for those addicts that it worked for? 

Because we were ready to do something about our lives. Remember, I said I was looking for something, but I didn’t know what, and there was no place to tell me, “Hey, you’re a nut. You need some help.” Common sense told me, “I know that. What do I do?” Get together and make a family. Practice makes perfect. You get up and just say, “There ain’t no magic pill. You just don’t shoot dope that day.” One day at a time. And I ended up with fifty some odd years now. One day at a time, you just don’t use drugs. And it sounds real simple. But it’s not, when you’re hurting. 

We didn’t know that we had enough sense to know that we were hurting, or why we were hurting. All of this stuff came out in groups, as we were playing the group and yelling at each other, but yet identifying with what was going on with that person… That lessened the hurt. And [you] find out a lot of it was nothing to hurt about. Unnecessary guilt. Feeling guilty over something you had no control over. It would’ve happened anyway. All of these little things. A whole lot of them. We used each other. We bounced off of each other. We identified with each other’s hurt.

I wouldn’t have changed anything, other than not going for the money… I wanted it to be just what it was. Just the place that I thought I would stay in for the rest of our lives. That’s what we were promised, and that’s what we looked forward to. This is my home. This is what I want to build. This is what I want to be, where I want to be for the rest of my life. 

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Lena, far right, dancing at a Synanon party, 1960s

What was Synanon’s influence in the larger culture?

It opened up a lot of rehab places. I hate to say this, but it did—it made the government open its eyes and put money into it. But I’m so glad that Chuck had sense enough to not take the government’s money. ‘Cause once you take their money, you have to do what they said. The old man was one that had sense enough not to do that.