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Cults of personality

Synanon was a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center and movement-turned-cult in California that existed from 1958 to 1991. It was known for communal living, practices such as group "truth-telling" sessions they called "The Game", requiring married couples to split and take new partners and female members to shave their heads. It originally grew out of an Alcoholics Anonymous group led by Chuck Dederich, who felt that more extreme methods than AA could cure such things as heroin addiction.[1]

The Synanon "Game" remained the centerpiece of its practice throughout its history. The Game was a kind of group attack therapy or criticism/self-criticism session, in which members were encouraged to subject others to intense grilling over perceived personality flaws and wrongdoing; its original function — to keep ex-addicts scared straight — seemingly lost as the Game was played for its own sake, no matter how psychologically damaging, or as a control mechanism over members.

Synanon was the subject of a 1965 film of the same name,[2] at a time when Synanon was regarded as a more promising movement than subsequent events would come to prove. At the time, it was thought of by the then-influential humanistic psychology movement as just an extreme version of encounter group therapy with its methods perhaps necessary in the context of treating drug addiction; Carl Rogers gave it a cautious but not-exactly-negative discussion in his writings on encounter groups,[3] as did George Leonard,[4] while Abraham Maslow outright endorsed it.[5]

Why Synanon ever held any attraction at all for the humanistic psychology movement is a mystery; typical of Dederich's teachings was this choice quote:

Synanon came into existence because our society is composed of mama's boys and daddy's little girls who have been innundated by attempts to produce nothing but agreeable sensations in them. Character disorders, quite simply, are people who had too strong a dose of "mother love" and were never properly housebroken by fathers.

The attraction of Synanon to the humanistic psychology movement, and to elements of the counterculture of the 1960s, is best explained by the "radical chic" factor. Synanon gave large donations of extra food and other donations to such groups as the Black Panther Party, the United Farm Workers, and even to the People's Temple, proclaimed they were building a utopian society incorporating teachings from Ralph Waldo Emerson to B.F. Skinner, and adopted a stance of nonviolence, which they later abandoned.[7][8] Synanon was also strongly committed to racial integration — Chuck Dederich was white, his wife Betty was black, and many interracial couples came together at Synanon.[9]

But Synanon never could demonstrate any effectiveness in effecting a cure for addiction. Those who had come to Synanon for treatment soon returned to drug addiction once they left the center, so Synanon began teaching that full recovery from addiction was never possible and that for rehabilitation, it was necessary to stay within Synanon for life.

Increasingly taking on the nature of a cult, Synanon also began attracting people who joined without needing any treatment for addiction, instituted a large group awareness training course called "The Trip", required children of members to be taken from parents and raised communally where they were taught to revere Chuck Dederich, and broadcast 24 hours a day of paranoid speeches by Dederich over an internal public address system.[10]

Starting in 1974, authorities and media began investigating the group as a cult; Synanon countered by proclaiming themselves the "Church of Synanon" and claiming tax-exempt status as a religion. Going further, Synanon formed a paramilitary force, the "Imperial Marines", in response to perceived outside "enemies" out to "get" Synanon.[10]

In 1978, there was a series of events in which former Synanon members who had fled the group were beaten by members, and reporters and attorneys investigating the group subjected to harassment — including the famous incident where a rattlesnake was placed in the mailbox of an attorney who had sued Synanon.[11] The rattlesnake incident couldn't have come at a more inopportune time, a little over a month before the mass suicide at the Jim Jones cult in Guyana threw cults in general into disrepute, with Synanon at or near the top of the list. The tiny Point Reyes Light weekly newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for its work exposing the group,[12] which became the basis for another film about the group, Attack on Fear.[13]

After the arrest of Synanon leader Chuck Dederich and two of his associates at the end of 1978 and continuing trouble with the IRS, the group fell on hard times, and officially folded in 1991. Dederich died in 1997.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Morantz, Paul: "Synanon - The Early Years",
  2. Synanon at the Internet Movie Database
  3. Rogers, Carl: Carl Rogers On Encounter Groups, Harpercollins, 1970
  6. Synanon Museum: Quotes
  7. Janzen, Rod: The Rise and Fall of Synanon: A California Utopia, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001
  8. Bruce Shapiro, writing in Nation magazine in 1992 about Social Therapy — in which he compared Social Therapy to Synanon and est: "The left has rarely confronted the dangers posed by psychological totalitarians in the human potential movement...we're nonetheless inclined to view their presence with the polite if grumbling tolerance of neighbors on the same avenue of opposition culture."
  10. 10.0 10.1 Morantz, Paul: "The History of Synanon and Charles Dederich",
  11. Morantz, Paul: "The True Story of the Rattlesnake in the Mailbox",
  12. Mitchell, Dave: "Light to Celebrate 25th Anniversary of Its Pulitzer", The Point Reyes Light, April 15, 2004
  13. Attack on Fear at the Internet Movie Database