Reflections on “American Rehab”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. She is working on a dissertation titled, “‘Dope Hope’: The Synanon Foundation, Grassroots Recovery Activism, and the Postwar Struggle over Addiction Rehabilitation, 1945-1980.”

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Synanon ad poster plastered in New York City subway stations, 1960s

When my grandfather moved into Synanon in Santa Monica in 1968, the organization had already inspired a Hollywood film, a jazz LP, numerous bomb threats and eviction notices, and kudos from the Kennedy administration. In the decade after his arrival, Synanon founded a multi-million-dollar enterprise, registered as a religion, and made headlines for placing a live rattlesnake in the mailbox of a rival attorney, who nearly died from its bite. By 1978—the year of the Jonestown massacre and the first federal charges brought against Church of Scientology leaders—Synanon had cemented its place in the ranks of America’s numerous bizarre and violent cults. 

Now, when my grandfather sat on a bench in Synanon’s Santa Monica clubhouse lobby, he didn’t know any of this. A few days earlier, his father had found him sitting in a street gutter in the Bronx, nodding off from recent heroin use. He asked his son if he would get on a plane to go to Synanon in California—the best place, everyone in their neighborhood said, for a heroin addict to get clean. So, my grandfather went. Before landing in Los Angeles, he shot up in the airplane bathroom with some supplies that he had smuggled onboard. After six years of heroin addiction, this would be the last time he ever used. He stayed in Synanon, along with his wife—my grandmother—and hundreds of others until its dissolution in 1990. 

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Synanon’s Santa Monica House, an old National Guard armory, circa 1962.

To tell just the story of Synanon—let alone its impact on addiction treatment and American society—is no straightforward task. This summer, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal team has taken on this endeavor with its new podcast series, “American Rehab.”  After uncovering the exploitative labor practices of modern-day rehab facilities, Reveal traced the roots of those programs back to the Synanon Foundation. (Full disclosure: Reveal reporter Ike Sriskandarajah interviewed me in the fall of 2019 while he was conducting research for the podcast.) In the three episodes currently available, Reveal ties Cenikor, a contemporary rehab that uses its members as “an unpaid, shadow workforce,” directly to Synanon’s confrontational style, work-based rehabilitative model, and corrupt leadership. The CIR team credit Synanon and its leader, Charles “Chuck” E. Dederich, with laying the foundation for today’s addiction treatment industry—but also with sowing their toxic seeds within every organization that came after. “When Synanon died,” says Sriskandarajah, “the model didn’t die with it… It had children, direct descendants spread to all corners of the country, and they were just coming into their own as Synanon had its last breath.” 

It is true that today’s “tough love” rehabs and teen boot camps stem from Synanon’s deep roots. Historian (and former Points editor) Claire D. Clark recently wrote a book on this very subject: The Recovery Revolution: The Battle Over Addiction Treatment in the United States. Nearly every exposé of the latest horrors taking place in a contemporary rehab also traces them back to Synanon’s doorstep. Reveal looks to shift the story by asserting that the organization hadn’t just become a “violent cult” by the late 1970s, but a full-scale enterprise that made lots of money for those at the top by working the residents hard for little pay. The third episode closes with Paul Morantz, the lawyer whom Synanon lackeys nearly murdered by rattlesnake bite, comparing Synanon to the early Roman empire—as they were both “based upon slaves.” 

By working backwards from the facts of Cenikor’s current corruption and abuse, “American Rehab” tries to contain the messiness of Synanon (and its contemporaries, like Daytop Village) within pre-determined and ahistorical boundaries. In this framework, then, a radically experimental society run on functionally communist principles is basically the same thing as a court-ordered rehab facility that rents out recovering addicts to Exxon-Mobil. 

“American Rehab” refers to larger historical trends, but it doesn’t linger in any place or time for too long. There are important things that the podcast gets right: the grim pessimism of many in 1950s America who believed “once an addict, always an addict” to be true, as well as the almost total lack of treatment options for people struggling with addiction. However, it detaches Synanon from the broader questions with which many Americans were struggling throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s: if mainstream society itself was sick, then where could treatment be found? Was it perhaps the outcasts—the “dope fiends,” say—who held the answers about how to create a new, better society? Prominent figures in sociology, criminology, psychology, and social movements looked to and collaborated with Synanon residents when imagining possible new configurations of the relationship between the individual and the group, the layperson and the expert, the marginalized and the powerful. 

Take the Synanon Game, for instance. In “Chapter 2: Miracle on the Beach,” Sriskandarajah explains that, “by Chuck’s own account, his need to yell and curse, accuse and ridicule, to release all his bottled up hostility” is what “grew into the Game, this un-moderated group therapy.” A former Synanon resident, Kandy Latson, explains that the Game wasn’t a “violent argument,” like most people think it is, but the living practice of Synanon’s principle that “you’re as sick as your secrets—so you’re trying to pop that secret, like a boil.” Sriskandarajah closes the segment on the Game, however, by citing “four decades of research” showing that “confrontational therapies” have no “scientific evidence base” and “cause more harm than good.” Ominously, the methods are “still alive today” in places like Cenikor. The listener comes away with a picture of the Game as a pseudo-scientific projection of Chuck’s emotional baggage, now debunked by professionals who know better. Moreover, Reveal’s rendering of the Game—along with most other journalistic and scholarly accounts—portrays the method as a brainwashing tool that breaks down individual personalities, making them more pliable and submissive. 

Backed by modern science this interpretation may be, but it doesn’t illuminate the social and cultural resonance of the Game in the years it was developed. In 1965, renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow credited the Game with helping Synanon achieve the status of “eupsychia,” or a perfectly psychologically healthy society, that should serve as a model for American society. Whereas his academic training taught him to “treat [people] as if they were like brittle china that would break easily,” Synanon’s “‘no-crap therapy’” suggested that human beings needed to “clean out the defenses, the rationalizations, the veils, the evasions and politenesses of the world.” Maslow (and many others) studied Synanon as an exercise in building “a little Utopia, a place out of the world where you can get real straightforwardness, real honesty and the respect that is implied by honesty.” Throughout the 1960s, Synanon Game Clubs proliferated across the United States, with tens of thousands of members participating, including college students, CEOs, Black Panthers, and Oakland police officers. 

Furthermore, the Game was part of a larger tendency in postwar America to defy social niceties and shatter prevailing norms, often by saying things that had been forbidden before. While Chuck was keen to take credit for big ideas, Synanon was not alone in its experimentation. One can see fellow travelers during the 1950s in the Beats’ raw, stream-of-consciousness style, the social critics of mass culture and sub/urban alienation, and even the early academic proponents of LSD. (In fact, Chuck participated in UCLA’s LSD trials for alcoholics in the mid-1950s.) In the early 1960s—a time when comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested and tried for obscenity—“square” (non-addict) participants in the Games were frightened and excited by residents’ casual use of “motherfucker”; for many, simply cussing in public was a freeing experience.  Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Synanon Game shared conceptual (and at times physical) space with feminist consciousness-raising circles, Criticism/Self-Criticism sessions in New Left organizations, and outgrowths of the human potential movement like EST. Like the others, the Game could be brutal and divisive, but it also served as glue for holding alternative solidarities and loyalties, which often felt threatening to outside observers. 

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Synanon Game, late 1960s; feminist consciousness-raising circle, early 1970s

The question about labor inside of Synanon can’t be untethered from the difficulty of creating a self-supporting, autonomous, and at times antagonistic community within the United States, a society structured upon entirely different economic principles. For the first fifteen years or so of Synanon’s existence, the organization’s socio-economic structure can only be called communist. The Synanon Board of Directors—made up of ex-addicts and Chuck, an ex-alcoholic—received no salaries or, by the late 1960s, meager sums. The money and goods—even when it numbered in the millions—derived from donations, and residents’ labor (Synanon did not accept government funding until the mid-1970s) went back into the community pot. In the earliest days, it paid for residents’ legal fees and applications to renew their drivers’ licenses, as well as plane tickets to bring newcomers across the country. As the organization grew into a full-scale intentional community, the money paid for the meals, cigarettes, housing, education, transportation, clothes, musical instruments, motorcycles, laundry, books, and other stuff of living. To describe Synanon residents’ labor as “unpaid” makes sense only if one measures value by individual wages alone, a criterion which misunderstands the nature of the community that Synanon was trying to form. 

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Synanon Food Service, 1960s

The dark chapters in Synanon’s story—the beatings of “splittees,” stockpiling of guns, corruption, and suppression of internal dissent—coincided with major changes within the organization. By the time that Chuck took a $500,000 “bonus” in late 1977, every single “dope fiend” who had started the organization with him—including his wife and Synanon co-president, Betty Dederich—had died or left, run out by Chuck’s megalomania. “Squares” occupied nearly every position of power. By 1978, in the wake of the rattlesnake attack, many residents felt that Synanon’s time had run out. It seems clear that Chuck chose to flee with whatever money he could get his hands on; that year, Chuck and some members from his inner circle flew to Italy, where Chuck began drinking again. When he returned to the United States some months later, he was arrested for conspiracy to commit murder, to which he pleaded no contest. Synanon remained, mostly out of the headlines, until about 1990. Chuck stayed in the background, drinking bottles of Crown Royale in his trailer while other people managed day-to-day operations. 

I believe that the demise of Synanon demands a closer look at historical context, too—though this is the aspect of its story that most frequently gets told like a made-for-TV movie about crazy cults. (To be fair, this is easy to do given all that went down.) To Reveal’s credit, the third episode notes that the “golden era of experimental societies” of the 1960s and 1970s had come to an ignominious end by 1980, with plenty of intentional communities mirroring Synanon’s fate. What “American Rehab” doesn’t explore, however, is why that might be. Those same years saw the gradual decline of a robust, community-organized Left and an expansive politics that called for large-scale social change to end poverty, militarism, racism, sexism, environmental destruction, and mental illness and addiction. Cemented by Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election was the dominance of a governing class that gutted social services, paramilitarized drug enforcement squads and police departments, and heralded the omniscient magic of the private sector. This, in the end, is also the soil in which modern-day rehabs like Cenikor blossomed. It makes perfect sense that Reagan publicly commended Cenikor in 1983 for proving that treatment facilities could operate without government funding and provide a place for drug offenders to be confined and put to work as mass incarceration swelled prison populations. 

By isolating the story of Synanon from the story of postwar American society and politics is to miss out on the chance to ask critical questions about why institutions and movements take shape the way they do, and how people in the past have tried (and, yes, failed) to carve out alternative paths. It also misses an opportunity to connect the history of drugs, addiction, and recovery to the broader narratives of American history—its intellectual trends, protest movements, political realignments, governing structures, and changing ideas about mental health and illness. Particularly in the United States, with its long history of radical communal experiments, a “cult” like Synanon really isn’t all that far away from the center of America. 

1 thought on “Reflections on “American Rehab”

  1. Dwelling too pointedly on the “cult”-like aspects of Synanon or Matrix House on the grounds of the Lexington Narcotic Farm (see my Points posts on the latter with Luke Walden and JP Olson), or other Houses of Coercive Persuasion (ahistorical though it may be, I have an abiding discomfort at the power-and-control that TCs exert over people who are precarious and vulnerable in all kinds of ways), misses the investment of these systems in exploiting, and in many cases selling, coerced labor. We should all read sociologist Erin Hatton’s incredible new book, Coerced, which draws connections between prisoner laborers, graduate students, welfare workers, and college athletes. She could well have included the Cenikors of this world–where people in recovery work unprotected, often barely remunerated, and under constant threat of punishment.

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