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One of the Scariest Cults You've Never Heard of: Synanon

Written by: Jenae

Source material:

Trigger warning: drug use, addiction, mental health


A phrase we often hear told to addicts in recovery when they begin their journey towards sobriety is “today is the first day of the rest of your life”. This phrase was coined by former alcoholic, Charles Dederich. Charles Dederich was formerly a member of AA and became an admired speaker, but wanted to do more to assist alcoholics and addicts. The group he created to further those goals would later come to be known as one of the most dangerous and violent cults in American history.

Chuck, the leader and founder of Synanon

Charles or Chuck as he was known by friends and family, was born in Ohio in 1913. Charles led a childhood marred by the death of his father and youngest brother. At 12, Chuck’s mother remarried and, in an act of teenage jealousy and rebellion, he began to drink heavily. This drinking caused him to flunk out of school and ruined the first marriage that he was in. He also contracted meningitis in the 40s, but was saved by the discovery of penicillin, however this did leave him with a facial tick. After this, he moved to the coast, Santa Monica, CA to be exact. He married while in CA, but the marriage also ended because of his drinking. At this point, he turned to AA. He became immersed in AA, attending meeting daily and speaking at meetings as a favored speaker. Soon after this, he quit his job at a local hardware store and decided to devote his life to helping other addicts.

Upon making this choice, he also had volunteered for an LSD experiment. He claimed he had a breakthrough that helped him better understand the good and bad in the world and how they could exist at the same time. After this trip, he went through his speeches that used at AA meetings and changed them from a religious undertone to one more based in psychology and philosophy. From his speeches, he has gained a bit of a following that would meet in apartments to have groups where all addicts were welcome.

The group that he started began with the name “the Tender Loving Care Club”. Similar to AA or NA, addicts would meet to discuss the difficulties they were facing, however there was a twist. One of the methods that was used was something called the “game”. The game involved complete freedom to say whatever you want about another person, true or not. The only reaction that was not allowed was violence or threats of violence. Soon, Chuck was able to secure a storefront in an area that had many addicts and changed the name to Synanon. Soon after the creation of Synanon, Chuck was also able to create a residential program. It was two years long. The program was based entirely on the testimony of other addicts in the program and the difficulties that come with addiction. They began making lots of money, up to $10 million

In 1962, the Synanon group moved from their space on Venice Beach to a building on Santa Monica. Local residents were unhappy with this new business moving into their neighborhood for fear of addicts committing crimes in the nearby area. At this time, Chuck was even arrested for operating without a health license. The options were to shut down the group or go to jail, Chuck choose jail because he believed in his cause so strongly. This made him a hero to the group. The local governor even signed a bill saving Synanon from being shut down, making them exempt from rules around licensing. The medical board was even supposed to create rules for Synanon to follow and never did. Later on, they even got a larger building in Oakland, CA that was also used for residential care.

Soon, folks were able to come to Synanon and pay a fee just to play the game on people in the program. These people didn’t have to be seeking services there or even be an addict. Famous people even got in on the action, including the likes of Leonard Nimoy and Robert Wagner. Many professionals were invited to join Synanon. Some came and wrote about their experiences. Synanon was revered as a group that was saving addicts.

Members of Synanon

The Game was thought of as a useful tool similar to group therapy for awhile then a new use emerged. Through the use of the Game, members began to be brainwashed. Members would humiliate other members and expose their innermost secrets/insecurities. The behaviors in the addict’s past were attacked in this game. Many members were told that “their life depending on staying in Synanon”. They also used a system of rewards and punishments during the game. Members were critical of each other, they were outright aggressive with their words. Eventually, the Game turned into a 72-hour version.

The leader even acknowledged that this practice was brainwashing and didn’t see a problem with it because “freedom to a dope addict is like a gun to a baby” and this process helped them “wash their dirty brains”. Eventually, the practice was used to convince people to do things like abort pregnancies, get vasectomies, and commit crimes/violence.

Upon joining Synanon, a person had to prove they had a strong commitment. When they arrived, addicts would be required to quit their drug of choice cold turkey and complete withdrawal, with no medical professionals in sight (for some drugs, this is okay. for things like alcohol, this is incredibly dangerous for some alcoholics, depending on many factors) By the end of their first 90 days in the program, members were expected to have cut off communication with all those outside Synanon.

In the beginning, the treatment was between one-two years and worked towards the successful reintegration into society. There were three different stages of treatment at this time. One, addicts in the program worked and lived within the community. Two, addicts in the program were able to work outside the community but still lived in the community. And finally three, addicts in the program would live and work outside of the community, but still attend regular meetings. The transition to a cult began in 1968, when Chuck decided that the program would become a “lifelong rehab” as drug addicts could never successfully re-enter society because of their addiction.

Later on, (1970) all members were required to shave their heads upon joining Synanon.

Starting in 1964, Synanon began to have legal issues. This included issues with permitting. To help this, Chuck eventually claimed Synanon was a church and deserved tax exempt status. This would do nothing because the problems kept coming. Part of the issues also came from the lifelong rehab concept, as this goes wildly against the norms of treatment and many professionals didn’t agree with this method. Also, the group had put up buildings with no permits, dumped mass amounts of trash, and even built an airstrip at one point.

Then it gets worse. Synanon lost some of the young people assigned to their care (courts used to appoint this place for court-ordered rehab, crazy). Most of them ran from the group and there was even a group in the area who would help return people escaping to their families. Members of Synanon would give beatings to both people who tried to leave and those who criticized the group. Yes, this included claims of child abuse. The media and local government was concerned with how Synanon operated, but Synanon had money and power on their side as they had powerful lawyers who threatened to sue for libel each time someone was publicly critical of the group. They actually did file many of these lawsuits and what was found in the documents during these lawsuits would lead to the downfall of the group. When the media did decide to cover stories on Synanon, executives and reporters from the networks received threats from Synanon and their members. In 1978, NBC ran a story on Synanon and won journalism awards for these.

Synanon was even involved in pretty heinous crimes including the involvement with the disappearance of Rose Lena Cole in 1972-1973 (no one is sure on the exact time of disappearance). Rose was one of the many who had been assigned to Synanon for drug and alcohol treatment. The evidence points to Rose running away from Synanon, at which time she sent her family two letters. These letters were to tell her family she was fine, but she was living on the streets of San Francisco and that she wouldn’t write them again until after she was 18 as she was scared of Synanon members finding her and taking her back to the ranch. After this point, no one saw or heard from her again. She’s still missing and foul play was not suspected in this case.

As you’ll remember, Chuck was against the use of violence in the beginning. However, this changed later on to being okay with violence that as “needed”. The group that carried out the violence was called the “Imperial Marines”. There were a variety of acts of violence committed by the group (over 80 to be exact). These included mass beating of teenagers and ranchers in the area near the ranch, these always happen in front of their families. Members who left Synanon (called splittees) were also attacked and incredibly brutally. In one case, the case of Phil Ritter, his skull was fractured and he ended up in a coma.

In 1978, members tracked down one Paul Morantz, a lawyer who had brought a lawsuit against the group on behalf of members being held at the ranch against their will. He won this suit and the group was forced to release these people. After the suit, members of the Imperial Marines placed a de-rattled rattlesnake in his mailbox. He was bitten and hospitalized for six days. After this, the government finally took some action and began proper investigations into Synanon.

The nightmare of Synanon fell apart at the end of 1978, when Chuck, former alcoholic, was arrested while drunk in public. Two of his associates were brought on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and assault, as was he. He was granted probation because his lawyer argued “he’d die in jail”. A condition of his probation was that he was not allowed in any leadership roles in the group. Without their leader and surrounded by bad press, the group struggled to maintain the organization. The IRS took away their tax exempt status and asked for $17 million in back taxes. The group formally dissolved in the US by 1991. However, there is an active branch to this day in Germany. The German branch still follows some of the same rules i.e. no contact with the outside after 90 days and two-three long treatment.

In the end, Synanon did help a few people get clean and stay clean, but at an insane cost.

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