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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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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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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