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This article is about the organization. For the film, see Synanon (film).
Genre new religious movement
Founded 1958
Founder Charles Dederich, Sr.
Defunct 1991
Headquarters Santa Monica, California
Key people
Charles Dederich, Sr.
Products drug rehabilitation
Subsidiaries Synanon Branch, Germany

The Synanon organization, initially a drug rehabilitation program, was founded by Charles E. "Chuck" Dederich, Sr., (1913–1997) in 1958 in Santa Monica, California, United States. By the early 1960s, Synanon had also become an alternative community, attracting people with its emphasis on living a self-examined life, as aided by group truth-telling sessions that came to be known as the "Synanon Game." Synanon ultimately became the Church of Synanon in the 1970s, and disbanded permanently in 1991 [1] due to many criminal activities, including attempted murder of which members were convicted, and civil legal problems, including losing its tax free status retroactively with the Internal Revenue Service due to financial misdeeds, destruction of evidence and terrorism.[2][3][4] It has been called one of the "most dangerous and violent cults America had ever seen." [3]


Charles Dederich, a reformed alcoholic and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), was said to be an admired speaker at A.A. meetings. Those suffering from addictions to illegal drugs, besides alcohol, were considered to be significantly different from alcoholics, and therefore were not accepted into A.A. Dederich, after taking LSD,[3] decided to create his own program to respond to their needs. He was said to have coined the phrase "today is the first day of the rest of your life."[5][6] After his small group, called "Tender Loving Care," gained a significant following, Dederich incorporated the organization in to the Synanon Foundation in 1958.[7]

Synanon began as a two-year residential program, but Dederich soon concluded that its members could never graduate, because a full recovery was impossible. The Synanon organization also developed a business that sold promotional items. This became a successful enterprise that for a time generated roughly $10 million per year.

In 1959, Synanon moved from their small storefront to an armory on the beach. In 1967, Synanon purchased the Club Casa del Mar, a large beachside hotel in Santa Monica, and this was used as its headquarters and as a dormitory for those undergoing anti-drug treatment. Later on, Synanon acquired a large industrial building, which had been the home of the Oakland Athletic Club, in Oakland, California, and then transformed it into a residential facility for Synanon's members.[8] Outsiders were permitted to attend the "Synanon Game" there as well. Children were reared communally in the Synanon School, and juveniles were often ordered to enroll in Synanon by California's courts.

Professionals, even those without drug addictions, were invited to join Synanon. The New York psychiatrist Daniel Casriel M.D., founder of AREBA (today the oldest surviving private addiction treatment centre in the United States) and cofounder of Daytop Village (one of the world’s largest therapeutic communities) visited in 1962 and lived there in 1963 and wrote a book about his experiences.[9] Control over members occurred through the "Game." The "Game" could have been considered to be a therapeutic tool, likened to a form of group therapy; or else to a form of a "social control", in which members humiliated one another and encouraged the exposure of one another's innermost weaknesses, or maybe both of these.[10] Beginning in the mid-1970s, women in Synanon were required to shave their heads, and married couples were made to break up and take new partners. Men were given forced vasectomies, and a few pregnant women were forced to have abortions.[11][12]

The film director George Lucas needed a large group of people with shaved heads for the filming of his movie THX 1138, and so he hired some of his extras from Synanon.[13] Robert Altman hired members of Synanon to be extras for the gambling scenes in his movie California Split.[14]


Entrance into the Synanon community required a strong initial commitment. Newcomers were first interviewed by Synanon leadership to gain entrance into the community.[8] Upon their arrival, those newcomers are forced to quit using drugs cold turkey, going through withdrawal within the first few days in the community.[15] Furthermore, for their first ninety days in the community, members were expected to cease contact with outside friends and family.[8]

During its first decade, Synanon members entered into a 1-2 year program in three stages aimed at preparing members to reenter greater society. During the first stage, members did community and housekeeping labor. During the second stage, members worked outside of the community but still resided within the community. Finally, during the third stage, members both worked and lived outside of the community, but still attended regular meetings.[15] However, after Synanon's transition into an alternate society in 1968, this program changed to a "lifetime rehabilitation" program, with the premise that drug addicts would never be fully healed enough to return to society.[7]

One of the most distinguishing practices of the Synanon community was a therapeutic practice commonly referred to as "The Game." The game was a session during which one member would talk about themselves and then endure violent criticism by their peers.[16] During this practice, members were encouraged to be critical of everything, using critical and profane language.[8] However, despite the very aggressive nature of The Game, outside of The Game, members were required to act civilly to each other. While in The Game, members criticized each other, but left as friends and supportive community members.[16] The Game served not only as Synanon's most prominent form of therapy and personal change, but also worked as a way for leaders to collect the opinions of community members. Because there was no hierarchy in The Game, members could freely criticize Synanon's highest leadership, who would then take member concerns into consideration when deciding policy.[8][16]

The game turned into a 72-hour version and was admitted by Dederich and author Lewis Yablonsky to be brainwashing. See Yablonsky book The Tunnel Back. The game was eventually used to pressure people at Dederich's will, to abort pregnancies, have vasectomies and commit violence.[3]

Lifetime rehabilitation concept[edit]

Beginning in 1964,[17] the legal authorities began to investigate Synanon's practices. The concept of "lifetime rehabilitation" did not agree with therapeutic norms, and it was alleged that the Synanon group was running an unauthorized medical clinic. Furthermore, it was alleged that on remote properties in California such as at Tomales Bay in Marin County and in Badger, Tulare County, Synanon had erected buildings without the legally-required permits, had created a trash dump, and built an airstrip. Taxation issues also arose. In response to these accusations, Dederich declared that Synanon was a tax exempt religious organization, the "Church of Synanon."

Legal problems continued, despite this change. Children who had been assigned to Synanon began running away, and an "underground railroad" had been created in the area that sought to help them return to their parents. Beatings of Synanon's opponents and its ex-members, "splittees", occurred across California. Beatings occurred in Synanon basements.[3] A state Grand Jury in Marin County issued a scathing report in 1978 that attacked Synanon for the very strong evidence of its child abuse, and also for the monetary profits that flowed to Dederich. The Grand Jury report also rebuked the governmental authorities involved for their lack of oversight, although it stopped short of directly interceding in the Synanon situation.

Though many San Francisco area newspapers and broadcasters covered the Synanon case, they were largely silenced by legal action from Synanon's lawyers, who made claims of libel. These lawsuits ultimately turned out to be a large part of Synanon's undoing, by giving journalists access to Synanon's own internal documents.

Criminal activity and collapse[edit]

On March 20, 1978, a former member of Synanon was severely beaten (for being a "splittee") during his honeymoon when he took his bride to show her where he had once lived at the Walker Creek Ranch.[citation needed][18]

Synanon is heavily implicated in the late-1972 or early-1973 disappearance of Rose Lena Cole, who was ordered by a court to enroll in Synanon before she disappeared. She has not been seen or heard from since.[19]

During the summer of 1978, the NBC Nightly News produced a news segment on the controversies surrounding Synanon. Following this broadcast, several executives of the NBC network and its corporate chairman allegedly received hundreds of threats from Synanon members and supporters.[20] However, NBC continued with a series of reports on the Synanon situation on the NBC Nightly News.

On September 21, 1978, ex-Synanon member Phil Ritter was severely beaten by two Synanon members, which fractured his skull and caused him to fall into a coma with a near-fatal case of bacterial meningitis.[21]

Several weeks later, on October 10, 1978, two Synanon members placed a de-rattled rattlesnake in the mailbox of attorney Paul Morantz of Pacific Palisades, California.[22] Morantz had successfully brought suit on behalf of a woman abducted by Synanon. The snake bit him, and he was hospitalized for six days.[3][23]

Six weeks later, the Los Angeles Police Department performed a search of the ranch in Badger that found a recorded speech by Dederich in which he said, "We're not going to mess with the old-time, turn-the-other-cheek religious postures...our religious posture is: Don't mess with us. You can get killed dead, literally dead...these are real threats," he snarled. "They are draining life's blood from us, and expecting us to play by their silly rules. We will make the rules. I see nothing frightening about it...I am quite willing to break some lawyer's legs, and next break his wife's legs, and threaten to cut their child's arm off. That is the end of that lawyer. That is a very satisfactory, humane way of transmitting information. I really do want an ear in a glass of alcohol on my desk."[21]

Dederich was arrested while drunk on December 2, 1978. The two other Synanon residents, one of whom was Lance Kenton, the son of the musician Stan Kenton, pleaded "no contest" to charges of assault, and also conspiracy to commit murder. While his associates went to jail, Dederich got probation because doctors said due to illness he would die in jail. As part of probation he could not take part in running Synanon.[24]

Much of the violence by Synanon had been carried out by a group within Synanon called the "Imperial Marines."[25] Over 80 violent acts were committed including mass beatings that hospitalized teenagers and ranchers who were beaten in front of their families.[18]

The Point Reyes Light, a small-circulation weekly newspaper in Marin County, received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1979 in recognition of its coverage of Synanon when other news agencies avoided reporting on it.

Synanon struggled to survive without its leader, and also with a severely tarnished reputation. The Internal Revenue Service sued for $17 million in back taxes, and all of its properties were confiscated and sold.[when?] Synanon formally dissolved in 1991.[26]

Synanon's influence in the behavior-modification field[edit]

Mel Wasserman, influenced by his Synanon experience, founded CEDU Education. CEDU's schools used the confrontation model of Synanon.[27] The CEDU model was widely influential on the development of parent-choice, private-pay residential programs. People originally inspired by their CEDU experience developed or strongly influenced a significant number of the schools in the Therapeutic boarding school industry.[28]

Father William B. O’Brien, the founder of New York's Daytop Village, included Synanon's group encounters and confrontational approach in his research into addiction treatment methods.[29]

Author, journalist and activist Maia Szalavitz claims to chart the influence of Synanon in other programs including Phoenix House and Boot Camps in addition to those mentioned above.[30]


Despite its controversies and its downfall, the Synanon program is credited with curing some people of their addictions. For example, Synanon was credited with curing, at least temporarily, the heroin-addicted jazz musicians Frank Rehak, Joe Pass, and Art Pepper (Pepper discussed his Synanon experiences at length in his autobiography Straight Life), and the actor Matthew "Stymie" Beard. In 1962, Pass formed a band made up of Synanon patients who recorded an album titled Sounds of Synanon.[31] The Synanon organization was praised by the motivational speaker Florrie Fisher in her speeches to high school students, and she credited Synanon with curing her of her heroin addiction. Synanon also inspired the creation of successful programs such as the Delancey Street Foundation, co-founded by John Maher, a former Synanon member. Many former members still value what they see as the positive aspects of Synanon, primarily its strong sense of community and remain in close contact, in person or through on-line chat groups, and have gone into business together.

A branch of Synanon that was founded in Germany in 1971 is still in operation.[32]

Popular depictions[edit]

The 1965 Columbia Pictures movie Synanon, directed by Richard Quine, was set at (and filmed in) Synanon; it starred Edmond O'Brien as Chuck Dederich, as well as Chuck Connors, Stella Stevens, Richard Conte, and Eartha Kitt.

Jazz saxophonist Art Pepper wrote extensively about his stay at Synanon in his autobiography Straight Life.

Synanon is referred to in Bob Dylan's song "Lenny Bruce", from his album Shot of Love (Bruce "never made it to Synanon."). It is also referred to in the song "Opening Doors" from Stephen Sondheim's musical Merrily We Roll Along, which mentions it as a hypothetical song title in a satirical revue of the 1960s.

The 1993 science fiction TV series Babylon 5 included a version of the Synanon Game in the episodes "Signs and Portents" and "Comes the Inquisitor."

The "New-Path" drug treatment centers in science fiction writer Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly bear numerous similarities to Synanon. Dick's 1981 novel VALIS begins with the initial romantic interest committing suicide off of the tenth floor of the Synanon building in Oakland, California.

In Charles Alverson's 1977 novel Not Sleeping, Just Dead, private eye Joe Goodey attempts to solve a suspected murder at The Institute, an organization that bears more than a passing resemblance to Synanon. (Alverson had lived in Synanon for six months in 1967 as a straight, or non-addicted, resident.)

Synanon is mentioned in Joan Didion's 1979 essay "The White Album".

Many of the extras in the 1971 George Lucas movie THX 1138 were brought in from the San Francisco-area Synanon chapters. Lucas explains in the DVD commentary, "we were attracted to them simply because everyone who joined this program had to shave their head and we needed hundreds of people with shaved heads for some of the larger scenes in the film." Synanon is thus thanked in the end credits of the movie.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Cult That Spawned the Tough-Love Teen Industry, Mother Jones, September/October 2007
  2. ^ Matt Novak. "Synanon's Sober Utopia: How a Drug Rehab Program Became a Violent Cult". Paleofuture. Gawker Media. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Longform: The Man Who Fought the Synanon Cult and Won by Matt Novak". Longform. 
  4. ^ "synanon - Buscar con Google". 
  5. ^ Her life with "One Big Brother", San Jose Mercury News, March 19, 1999, Michael D. Clark
  6. ^ One big dysfunctional family: A former member of the Synanon cult recalls the "alternative lifestyle" that shaped her, for better and worse, Salon Magazine, March 29, 1999, Fiona Morgan
  7. ^ a b Ofshe, Richard. "The Social Development of the Synanon Cult." Sociological Analysis 41.2 (1980): 109-27. Web.
  8. ^ a b c d e Janzen, Rod A. The Rise and Fall of Synanon: A California Utopia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. Print.
  9. ^ "So Fair A House: The story of Synanon" New York: Prentice-Hall. 1963
  10. ^ Where did it come from?, Synanon Church and the medical basis for the $traights, or Hoopla in Lake Havasu, by Wes Fager (c) 2000
  11. ^ "Stephen A. Kent" (PDF). 
  12. ^ Kids of El Paso, Timeline 1958-2003 and present-day litigation information.
  13. ^ Pollock, Dale (1999). Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas (p.100). Da Capo. ISBN 0-306-80904-4. 
  14. ^ Reid, Max (October 1974). "The Making of California Split: An Interview with Robert Altman". Filmmakers Newsletter. p. 26. 
  15. ^ a b Sternberg, David. "Synanon House--A Consideration for Its Implications on American Correction." Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 54.4 (1963): n. pag. Print.
  16. ^ a b c "Synanon: Toward Building a Humanistic Organization." Journal of Humanistic Psychology 18.3 (1978): 3-20. Web.
  17. ^ [1], PDF of FBI file at
  18. ^ a b "The True History of Synanon Violence and How it Started". 
  19. ^ Rose Cole's entry on The Charley Project, accessed 20 May 2009
  20. ^ Jack Anderson, "NBC Cancelled Jonestown Story", March 20, 1981
  21. ^ a b Light to celebrate 25th anniversary of its Pulitzer, The Point Reyes Light, April 15, 2004, By Dave Mitchell
  22. ^ Janzen, Rod A. The Rise and Fall of Synanon, A California Utopia, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, p.214
  23. ^
  24. ^ "Snake Plot: Dederich Sentenced". The Spokesman-Review. 1980-09-03. Retrieved 2015-11-21. 
  25. ^ "Synanon Sequel". Time Magazine. 1980-07-28. Retrieved 2011-05-23. 
  26. ^ Szalavitz, Maia, Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids, Riverhead Books, 2006, p.33.
  27. ^ Ever unconventional, long controversial, By Keith Chu, The Bend Bulletin, November 15, 2009
  28. ^ "Out Of The Sixties - Essays". 
  29. ^ Daytop History, Daytop Homepage, retrieved 3/25/2010
  30. ^ Szalavitz, Maia (2007-08-20). "The Cult That Spawned the Tough-Love Teen Industry". Mother Jones. Retrieved 2007-09-19. 
  31. ^ "Joe Pass Guitar Licks". 
  32. ^ "Stiftung Synanon - Suchtselbsthilfe Suchthilfegemeinschaft Hilfe bei Suchtproblemen - SYNANON". 

Escape: My Life Long War against Cults (2012) by Paul Morantx and Hal Lancaster From Miracle to Madness by Paul Morantz

External links[edit]