Asklepieion and the Transformation of Therapeutic Communities in a Time of Duress

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Kerwin Kaye. Kaye is Associate Professor of Sociology, American Studies, and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He is the author of the recent publication, Enforcing Freedom: Drug Courts, Therapeutic Communities, and the Intimacies of the State, from Columbia University Press.

Setting the Scene

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Dr. Kerwin Kaye

Most of those who study the history of drug treatment are probably already aware of the troubled story of Synanon, the first therapeutic community (or TC) for the treatment of drug addiction. Initially founded in 1958 in Santa Monica, California, Synanon was led by Chuck Dederich, a charismatic if sometimes abrasive figure by all accounts. While Synanon enjoyed approximately a decade of favorable media coverage (including praise from the California governor, a U.S. Senator, and a made-for-TV movie that valorized its approach), by the 1970s, press coverage turned decidedly negative. Dederich ordered all of the residents within Synanon to change their romantic partners, and decided upon the new pairings himself. Dederich also created an armed wing within Synanon called the Imperial Marines, and ordered those within the unit to prevent any of the residents from leaving. When one woman successfully fled and managed to get a lawyer to aid her legal case against the organization, that lawyer found himself the victim of a rattlesnake that had been placed in his mailbox on Dederich’s orders. Dederich was forced to step down from his leadership position within Synanon, but — as Time Magazine put it in 1977 — the organization was now seen as “a kooky cult.”[1]

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