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. 

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How the Drug User Became a Junkie

Today’s post comes from new contributing editor Jordan Mylet. Mylet is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. Her dissertation examines the emergence of addiction recovery communes in post-World War II United States, and centers the political activism of self-identified ex-addicts in the national struggles over the possibilities and boundaries of radical participatory democracy in the long 1960s. Welcome to Points, Jordan!

Screenshot 2019-10-10 at 8.36.11 AMFour years before William Burroughs’ Junkie was published, Norma Lee Browning, a reporter for the Chicago Daily Tribune, described how a middle-aged housewife had gone from a “pretty woman” to “an old time incurable junkie.”[1] Browning’s casual use of “junkie” reflects her mainstream audience’s likely familiarity with the term, whose usage in popular media to describe drug addicts (to use another loaded term) had skyrocketed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The term was a type of shorthand for inevitable physical and moral devastation. To be a “junkie” or involved in “dope peddling” was to “descend into unimaginable levels of baseness” before death, if she was “unable to break the hold of drugs.”[2] Today, the word has the connotation of a slur, a dehumanizing epithet that paints a person as wild and dangerous. 

Yet a look at the term’s genealogy, along with its close associate, “dope,” reveals surprising conceptual and practical links to an industrializing Gilded Age and Progressive United States, a time when the most familiar “junkie” was the “junk man” who worked in the flourishing trade of old and discarded items, as American consumers and producers piled up more trash than ever before. Traces of this lineage appear even today, like in the character Bubbles from the famous HBO show The Wire, depicted as a “junkie” in both senses. 

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