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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Witness Seminar: HIV/AIDS Prison Policy in England and Wales, 1980s-1990s

Editor’s Note: Recently Drs. Janet Weston and (current ADHS president) Virginia Berridge hosted a witness seminar, a method of oral history collection through group recollections, on the development of prison policy regarding HIV/AIDS since the early 1980s at LSHTM’S Centre for History in Public Health. Below is a more thorough description of the event that may be of interest Points readers. Contact Dr. Weston for more information at janet.weston@lshtm.ac.uk.

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The seminar in progress

As part of the Prisoners, Medical Care, and Entitlement to Health project, we organised a witness seminar in May 2017 as an opportunity for key individuals to discuss their experiences and memories of the development of prison policy around HIV/AIDS. Continue reading →

Teaching Points—Preparing for “Addiction in American Life”

It’s that transitional time of the semester: even as final paper due dates are looming for the fall, spring book orders are coming (or past) due and new course preparation demands increasing attention. In this installment of “Teaching Points,” contributing editor Kyle Bridge shares his experience crafting a course in oral histories of addiction. 

I have long held academic interests in oral history and drug history—though I suppose around here the latter should go without saying. I also enjoy teaching, so I was thrilled to learn that in spring 2015 I will be co-teaching a course titled “Addiction in American Life” through the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP). Actually, the course theme changes each semester with the interests of rotating instructors, and the idea was conceived as I was allowed to pick the topic this time around. My students will be history undergrads completing internships through SPOHP; the addiction angle is a vehicle for teaching oral history techniques and methods.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Amund Tallaksen

Editor’s note: Our commentary to accompany yesterday’s excerpt from Addicts Who Survived comes from Amund Tallaksen (NB: if you’ve missed any of the series, please check out the series introduction, the first excerpt, and Eric Schneider’s commentary).  Amund is a doctoral candidate in history at Carnegie Mellon University, presently working on a dissertation examining drugs and drug control on post-World War Two New Orleans.  He has graciously taken some time away from the archives in Louisiana to offer these reflections on Willis Butler’s oral history. 

Shreveport, Louisiana, is a city most Americans know very little about. Close to the Texas and Arkansas borders, Shreveport is the largest urban area in northern Louisiana, the majority-Protestant and more culturally “southern” part of the state (as opposed to the majority-Catholic, geographically southern half). Americans with an interest in drug history, however, have an almost intimate knowledge of what happened in Shreveport in the early 1920s. This is largely because of one man, Willis P. Butler, who ran the narcotic dispensary in the city from 1919 to 1923, providing legal access to morphine for addicts in need. The Shreveport clinic was the longest functioning of all the narcotic clinics in the country (most of which were located in the Northeast) and when Willis P. Butler was forced to shut his operation down in 1923 it unequivocally marked the end of the clinic era.

Willis Butler, at the age of remembering

Willis Butler, at the age of remembering

The clinics were largely forgotten by mid-century, yet when methadone became increasingly available to American opiate addicts in the late 1960s, it created a renewed interest in the clinic system of the 1920s. Willis P. Butler was essentially “rediscovered” in the fall of 1971. One academic managed to get in touch with Butler in early October 1971, and the word quickly spread – the late Yale historian David F. Musto, for example, was among the earliest to get in touch with Butler, only a few weeks later. When interviewed by David Courtwright in 1978, Butler was over ninety years old and among the very few alive to tell the story of the clinics from personal experience. Butler was born in 1888, and graduated from Vanderbilt Medical School in 1911. After finishing his degree, Butler moved to Shreveport and was elected to the role of parish (county) physician and coroner of Caddo parish, a role which included tending to the needs of addicts.

Shreveport, 1919

Shreveport, 1919

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Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Willis Butler’s Narrative

Editor’s note: Not every interview conducted for Addicts Who Survived was of an addict.  The work includes some fascinating oral histories of individuals with notable roles in the modern history of addiction and the drug war.  Among these, Dr. Willis Butler, who operated one of the most notable narcotic maintenance clinics opened around the time of the Harrison Act and closed soon thereafter.  We’ll have commentary to Dr. Butler’s oral history tomorrow.

WILLIS BUTLER

Willis Pollard Butler was the most celebrated and controversial of all the early clinic doctors. Born in modest circumstances in Gibsland, Louisiana, in 1888, Butler moved with his family to Shreveport in 1899, where he took a summer job as a drugstore delivery boy. (Ironically, his chores included the delivery of dram bottles of morphine to the local addicts.) He eventually worked his way through Vanderbilt Medical School, graduating in 1911. Returning home, he applied his talents as chemist and bacteriologist for the Shreveport Board of Health, until he was elected parish physician and coroner in 1916. He served in that capacity for no fewer than forty-eight years. When interviewed in 1978, he was over ninety years old.1

            Butler was above all else a superb politician. He was handsome, charming, articulate, and on a first-name basis with everyone who counted in Shreveport. That, together with the efficient and discriminating manner in which his clinic was run, assured local support and temporarily frustrated the designs of interloping federal agents.

            Although Butler’s memory was phenomenal for a man of his years, it should be borne in mind that his is only one side of the story, that the agents who hounded him and the doctors who turned on him can make no rebuttal. As Butler himself observed, “I don’t know anybody connected with it—top, bottom, or middle—still living except me.For the sake of confidentiality, the names of addicts mentioned by Butler have been changed, as have the names of those who may have violated the law.

I was health officer, medical examiner for this district, and parish physician. One day—it was the third of May, 1919—Dr. Oscar Dowling, president of the state board of health, came to Shreveport. As usual, he called me, because I was representing the state board of health up in northern Louisiana. He asked me down to the hotel to make a culture of his throat—he had a sore throat. I went down there to see him and, as we walked out of the hotel, he said, “Butler, you having any problem up here with addicts?” I said, “Yes. I don’t know about particular problems, but we got a lot of them. I’m having trouble with them in jail, and there’s an awful lot of thievery and that sort of thing going on, and the police say that a lot of them are responsible.” He said, “Well, we have opened up a clinic down in New Orleans, under Dr. Marion Swords. I suggest that you come down there and see how it’s being done, because we have the approval of the government and the Treasury Department Narcotic Division. Maybe you could start the same thing up here.”

Well, I went to New Orleans. I knew Dr. Swords quite well; he was secretary-treasurer of the state board of health. He had this clinic right across from the courthouse on the corner of Conti Street; it looked like a little alley down in the French Quarter. What I saw was a bunch of derelicts coming in, and they were giving them a little vial—it looked like it might hold 15 or 20 cc. He said that they were putting morphine in there, a certain amount according to what they wanted them to start with. The next day, they would put in a little less, but the same amount of water. They were going to get them off of it by reduction. I said, “You don’t know much about addicts if you think that you can fool them as to whether they’re suffering or not.” I said I’d have nothing to do with that sort of thing at all, and I told Dr. Dowling that I did not want to assume any such responsibility. Continue reading →

Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Eric Schneider

Editor’s Note: Our series of reflections on Addicts Who Survived continues today with Eric Schneider discussing Teddy’s narrative, posted yesterday.

How did heroin become a drug used largely by African Americans after World
War Two, when it had been a primarily white drug in the previous decades? What were
the social settings that nurtured this new wave of heroin use? How did young people,
primarily males, become the postwar generation of heroin sellers and users?
David Courtwright locates the transition from white to black heroin use in the
Great Migration, the movement of African American southerners into northern cities,
where a primarily rural people encountered not only problems of social dislocation but
also a racism as overt and virulent as the one they left behind. But urban life was also
different, and while hemmed in by a color line that shaped residence, education, and
employment, African Americans were freer to act within these bounded spaces. Here
African Americans developed a language and a style of cultural resistance, an infra
politics of daily life, a zoot-suited, bebop-inflected assertion of self that emerged most
clearly in the social settings of entertainment and vice districts that police effectively
zoned into black residential neighborhoods. Illicit off-the-books economic activity
mingled with outright criminality and ordinary working class street life, and the drug use
of gamblers, pimps, prostitutes and hustlers inevitably seeped into daily life.
How do we understand the process by which heroin use spread? There are some autobiographies, most notably Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, that
testify to the spread of heroin within teenage peer groups. Investigations by reporters,

Heroin and history--what's your source?

Heroin and history–what’s your source?

local police or the Federal Bureau of Narcotics tracked down the sources of the new
upsurge in heroin use that had caught them completely by surprise after the heroin
drought during World War Two. Court records reveal the outlines of trafficking schemes
as heroin made its way from city to city, and Congressional, state and municipal hearings
featured heroin users who explained before television audiences how they got “hooked.”
These records, while useful, all have limitations. Autobiographies are artfully designed
and can rarely be taken at face value, prosecutorial records are focused on proving a
particular version of events, and investigators in public hearings prepare their witnesses
and agree on the presentation of a narrative. Of course oral histories also suffer from
limitations, especially selective memory, and depend on the knowledge and the rapport
established by the interviewer, but they provide first-person insight into the
circumstances and the choices made by ordinary individuals whose experiences might
otherwise be lost. Addicts Who Survived is the best collection of interviews with opiate
users that I know. Continue reading →

Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Teddy’s Narrative

Editor’s note: After introducing the series last week, I’m pleased to present the first of the excerpts from Addicts Who Survived chosen by our guest bloggers.  Eric Schneider made extensive use of the oral histories collected by Courtwright, Joseph, and Des Jarlais in his 2011 book, Smack: Heroin and the American City.  Asked to choose one particular passage from Addicts Who Survived, Eric has recommended the recounting by “Teddy” of his teenage experiences with the world of illicit enterprise.  Tomorrow, Eric will offer his own reflections.–Joe Spillane

TEDDY

Teddy was born of black parents in Savannah, Georgia, in 1927. His family life was extremely unstable. His absentee father drank himself to death, and his mother tried repeatedly to foist Teddy on other relatives: “ I was like a burden to her.” Eventually she ran away to New York City, but he found her and joined her in the mid-1930s.

When I was a youngster Harlem was alive. You could hear laughter. The streets would be full of people. Lenox Avenue, Seventh Avenue, all had businesses: there wasn’t an empty store front along there. Seventh Avenue was like Broadway downtown. There was dope in Harlem, and crime, but it wasn’t like it is now: people weren’t getting mugged. Sure, there were fights, but it was basically just fights.

Harlem, 1943

Harlem, 1943

The section I lived in was integrated. There were white people living right down the block on 132nd Street, and on 134th. I went to school with white kids. We even had gangs or clubs with the white kids in them. The people who owned the stores, most of them were Jews or Italians; they used to bring their kids there in the morning, and the kids would go to school with us to grammar school. When they’d complete grammar school, they’d go someplace else. I went to P.S. 89: it was the first school I’d gone to. I didn’t go all that much down South-there wasn’t nobody to make you go down there; it was left to your family. It wasn’t compulsory to go to school the way it was here in New York. So my mother had to take me to school. I went as far as the eighth grade. I started ninth grade but I was just going, if you know what I mean: I went when I wanted. There was no one there to guide me; there was never no one home. My mother worked as a maid on Long Island. She would leave in the morning to go to work, or whatever, and she might come home two days later. So I’d be runnin’ around on the streets and stealing. At that time you could go to all the five-and-ten-cent stores, where they’d have cookies and candies just laying on the shelves. I’d go and pick them up and eat them. It was like a picnic. Everything was in the open-it wasn’t like it is now, where everything is in cases.

I had run-ins with the police, like for stealing cases of soda off of trucks. See, back then the police had a different system. The police knew just about everybody on their beat: all the kids, where they lived, who their mothers were, and their fathers. This way, if something happened in the neighborhood—if someone said, “Why, them kids stole so-and-so” —he’d round up all the kids in the block and find out who it was. Most of the time they’d take you home. But if your mother wasn’t home, they’d take you to the precinct, slap you around, beat you up, and send you on home. Then they’d notify your parents and say, “Listen, Teddy did this, this, and this.” That’s when I was getting to be about thirteen, fourteen years old.

The first time that I actually got arrested was for cuttin’ a guy. I was in a teenager’s gang; maybe I was about fifteen. It was a territory thing:  we’ve got this block, this is our block, and you can’t come in this block unless you’ve got permission from us. We were fighting, but we weren’t fighting really to kill one another, even though we had sticks and knives.  You had to carry this stuff. If you stuck somebody, it made you a big guy.  If you stuck so-and-so, they’d give you a name like “Ice Pick Slim” or “Killer Ray.” You’d try to get a nickname for yourself. The police would take us in, and line up all the clubs, and ask, “Who did this?” So you’d say, “I stuck the guy,” right? It was a thing where, if you did it, you told them. You did it because it looked good-you’d get a name for yourself, you know. People would say, “Teddy sticked that guy, yeah,” or “Teddy’ll kill ya,” or “Don’t mess with Teddy, ’cause he’s a bad guy.”‘This is how you started to get that rep, or that bad-guy image. Continue reading →