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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