Name: Synanon Church
Founder: Charles E. Dederich
Date of Birth and Death: b. March 22, 1913 – d. March 5, 1997
Birth Place: Toledo, Ohio
Year Founded: Synanon was first formed in 1958 but did not officially declare it a religion until August 1974. 1
Sacred or Revered Texts: The Synanon Philosophy was read every Saturday night before evening events. The statement contains some elements of Synanon religious beliefs. There is also a prayer that is read every morning. 2
Size of Group: In 1972 the group reached its peak with almost 1700 members, up from 1000 members in 1968. In 1988, the church cited membership numbers at 860 with two communities in Badger, California. Synanon’s economic base received a blow in 1991, when the Internal Revenue Service denied Synanon’s tax-exempt status. As a result, the Church soon dissolved, though remnants survived through the 1990s. 4
Charles Dederich Sr., was born on March 22, 1913 into a German Catholic family in Toledo, Ohio. He attended Notre Dame for a short time and went through two marriages before ending up in California in the 1950s. 5 By this time Dederich was broke and had been battling alcoholism on and off for 20 years. He had been involved with Alcoholics Anonymous for two years and although it seemed to be working, he found it very limiting. 6 As a result, he began holding meetings in his apartment for himself and the circle of friends he had met at Alcoholics Anonymous. Several months later, Dederich rented a storefront using his $33 unemployment check. The group named the club the “TLC” for Tender Loving Care. Meetings were now held at the TLC and it also provided a place for people to stay who had nowhere else to go. In the following months, the composition of the group shifted from primarily alcoholics to narcotic addicts. Due to a dispute, Dederich’s group soon split with A.A. and eventually became incorporated. 7
The history of Synanon (the word is a result of an addict’s attempt to say “symposium” and “seminar” 8 ) can be broken into three eras: (1) from 1958 until 1968, it served as a therapeutic society, (2) between 1969 and 1975, Synanon became a social movement and alternate society, and (3) from 1975 until present, the group has sought to serve religious purposes. 9
1958 – 1968: Therapeutic Society
In 1959, Synanon moved from the TLC club in Ocean Park into an old national guard armory in Santa Monica. In these years, Synanon used reeducation and rehabilitation in order to return ex-addicts to a society in which they had been unable to live. 10 The program established at Synanon during its therapeutic years was a two year recovery process. The patient began by going through detoxification by quitting “cold turkey” and then he slowly gained more and more responsibility, with the ultimate goal being either an outside residence and job (rehabilitation) or a position within the organization (absorption).
From its development, the Synanon program was praised and claimed by the media to be the answer to drug addiction. The program was applauded in books, magazines and newspapers throughout the country. It was even called “a man-made miracle on the beach of Santa Monica” by the United States Senate. However, all of the media praise may have been given without warrant.
Most people who completed it were absorbed rather than rehabilitated, and this has led to considerable debate as to the meaning of successfulness. Berkeley sociologist Richard Ofshe claims that of the 6,000 to 10,000 residents of Synanon between 1958 and 1968, only 65 people were ever rehabilitated by choosing to live and work outside of the community independently. 11 Dederich once stated that he believed “a person with this fatal disease will have to live here all of his life” 12 Within the community there was a recognized idea (the rule of containment) that a member’s time and energy was to be reinvested within the organization rather than in the outside world. In general, life was oriented inward with residents all knowing each other intimately. 13 In 1966, Synanon opened game clubs for non-residents to experience the encounter groups and by 1968, Synanon reported club membership to have been at 3,400 members. 14
1969 – 1975: Social Movement and Alternative Society
The transition from therapeutic society to alternate society was initiated by two key decisions made in late 1968 and early 1969. The first move was to eradicate rehabilitation to the outside world and to instead expect ex-addicts to stay at Synanon forever. The second decision implemented was to allow members of the game clubs to join the community and experience the lifestyle. They were thus called “lifestylers” and donated several hundred dollars or more a month for this privilege.
It was during this era when much of the organization’s expansion occurred. It developed into a “hustling” operation in which it solicited donations from businesses or individuals across the nation. Synanon also began to acquire substantial real estate holdings in Oakland, San Francisco and Badger, California and was successful in the business of distributing advertising gifts and specialties. 15 In 1968, Dederich moved the headquarters from Santa Monica to Marshall.
1975 – Present: Religious Purpose
In late 1974, the Board of Directors passed a declaration proclaiming Synanon a religion and in late 1975, the Articles of Incorporation were changed to state that one of the primary purposes of the organization was to operate a church. 16 But it was not until October of 1979 that Synanon amended the Articles of Incorporation once again, to declare that the primary purpose of the organization was religious. 17
It was during this stage in Synanon’s history that the community began to observe unique living practices. In the mid-1970s, Dederich began to implement strict rules involving how one should live, children and partner switches among others (see below in “III. Beliefs and Practices”). Also during this era was the creation of the “Imperial Marines,” the community’s new armed forces. Synanon becoming increasingly shut off from the world and became more controlling of its members. In February of 1976, Dederich decided to decrease the size of the organization in order to “shake off the uncommitted, nonproducing members.” In less than three years, Synanon lost about a third of its members and was at less than 1,000 members in March of 1978. 18
In the late 1970s, Dederich and two church members were charged in relation to an incident where a 4 1/2 foot diamond back rattlesnake was found in attorney Paul Morantz’s mailbox. Morantz had just won a $300,000 settlement for a married couple against Synanon. By this time Dederich’s health was failing and in order to avoid jail time, he agreed to discontinue serving as an officer and director of Synanon. 19
In 1980, the owners of the Point Reyes Light, Dave and Cathy Mitchell along with Richard Ofshe, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, combined efforts to report on Synanon and what was happening inside of the community which was now located in Marin County north of San Francisco. Their articles in this tiny newspaper brought national attention to Synanon and earned all three Pulitzer Prizes for their coverage. The loss of their charismatic leader, unfavorable media coverage and the Internal Revenue Service’s denial of their tax exempt status were all key factors in the decline of Synanon. The Church was forced to disband, leaving only remnants of the community to survive through the 1990s.
Dominant in Synanon’s way of life for both the individual and for the group was the desire to achieve oneness. 20 Dederich, claimed his thought had been influenced by such philosophers and theologians as Freud, Thoreau, Lao-Tse, St. Thomas Aquinas, Plato, and Emerson. Members were urged to read of Jesus, Lao-Tse, Buddha, etc., as an open mind was thought to help an addict find himself. 21 Dederich strove to create a “family-like atmosphere” through the collective use of the facilities. They ate in dining halls, many lived in dorms and some shared apartments. 22 Also central to the social life at Synanon was the feature of encounter groups.
There were different types of encounter groups, the most regular and influential one being “The Game.” Listed and briefly described below are various types of encounter groups and living practices.
Encounter Groups have less stigma than orthodox psychotherapy because they emphasize the idea of perfecting oneself rather than solving problems. Synanon therapeutic ideology focuses on behavior not the fundamental cognitive structure. 23
The Game was group psychotherapy for the whole community and served as a way to discuss organizational change. 24 Members were grouped by a Synamaster, usually an older member tried to achieve a balance of female-male participants and a varying range of Synanon membership seniority. A basic game consisted of ten to fifteen members and a Synanist to facilitate the activity. 25 The Synanist was someone who had shown the ability to either control the symptoms of his addiction for a considerable time or seemed to be progressing at a faster rate than his peers. 26
The Game was an emotional and aggressive group meeting in which members attacked each other verbally. It was an open arena for voicing and airing problems with one another en route to finding a solution. Members were free and encouraged to be honest with their feelings and frustrations. The “attack” was seen as an expression of love. 27 It presumably helped people to see themselves as others do and compelled them to examine their own thoughts and actions. The Synanist acted as moderator and tried to help the participants find themselves and would use such tactics as ridicule, cross-examination and hostile attack to further the session. 28 It was estimated that the typical resident participated in three to four three-hour games per week. 29
Role-joining was a very important aspect of the Game and was used to progress the session. Role-joining was an agreement between two or more game members to combine their efforts to place an individual on the “hot seat.” Once the plan was evident to the other members, they supported and aided in the scheme. Role-joining was essentially like joining a bandwagon and would result in all the session members joining forces against one of their own. 30
The Game was also the cornerstone around which the Synanon community was formed. 31 It was key to Synanon government and created an in and out of game dichotomy. When “in the game,” one was expected to criticize others and reveal any personal conflicts one might have with whoever was in the “hot seat.” On the other hand, when “out of the game,” one was supposed to portray a happy, pleasant, and helpful manner. 32
Members were also expected to follow the rules and standards established during Game sessions. Compliance to the norms expressed was rewarded by material and social goods such as personal prestige or occupational mobility. Wealth and status symbols were regulated by the small group. 33
“Dissipation” was an encounter for resident and non-resident leaders lasting between 36 and 72 hours. Participants experience hallucinations, euphoria and indiscriminate love as they relived their childhood. The Ouija board played an important part in the experience and there were accounts of contact with famous dead people who informed Synanon about its mission and importance. There were often quasi-hallucinations of Dederich as the Savior and Father and Synanon as the ultimate way of life.
The “Trip” was a 48 hour encounter group involving groups of 50-60 residents and non-residents. This experience included all the elements of a “dissipation” along with special rituals and a small staff to help manage the encounter. As fatigue and confusion increased, Trippers were encouraged to have greater integrity, honesty, self-reliance and self-exploration. At the end of the encounter, suggestions for a personal commitment to Synanon were given.
The “Stew” was an on-going encounter group in which participants rotated in and out. A member’s first experience lasted up to 84 hours, with two six-hour breaks. Following experiences lasted for up to 24 hours 34 .
As Synanon developed, the rules for living became increasingly controlled. Here is a brief description of the transformation from living by the “Golden Rule” to extremely controlled behavioral expectations.
The Golden Rule
Helping others was a rule all Synanon residents tried to follow. ‘Doing unto others what you would have them do unto you’ was an important theme. 35 It was also thought that if a person was helped, it benefitted the helper too because they were a part of the same community and “individuals evolve as they contribute to the community.” Resocialization of a neighbor was related to one’s own personal well being. 36
Synanon stressed self help with an emphasis on self-reliance. Whereas Alcoholics Anonymous works with an individual’s reliance on a higher being, Synanon dealt with a person’s ability and desire to help themselves . It was believed that “God helps those who help themselves.” This principle was embodied in the following prayer that was read every day at the morning meeting:
Please let me first and always examine myself.
Let me be honest and truthful.
Let me seek and assume responsibility.
Let me have trust and faith in myself and my fellow man.
Let me love rather than be loved.
Let me give rather than receive.
Let me understand rather than be understood. 37
For the noontime seminars, residents were divided into two groups. For one group, a concept or quotation was placed on the board and then everyone discussed it. The second half met for a “public speaking seminar” where different people were randomly chosen to stand up and give impromptu speeches on various topics. 38
Initially Dederich preached only three rules: no drugs, alcohol or violence. 39 By the mid 1970s, Synanon required abstinence from sugar, smoking, alcoholic beverages, use of psychic modifiers and from “violence or threats of physical violence among members of the community.” Residents were also required to engage in physical exercise four times a week. 40
Beginning in the mid 1970s, Synanon began implementing new social order innovations. Children were separated from their parents at the age of six months and were placed in a dormitory setting along with other children. Synanon created a private school system and modified traditional hours of work. 41
Stance on Violence
Although non-violence had been one of the community’s founding principles, around 1975, Synanon adopted a new aggressive stance and changed its position on violence. Violence became permissible in order to ensure loyalty or punish the opposition. Weapons were purchased and members dubbed the “Imperial Marines” were trained in the martial arts. In September 1977, Dederich was quoted as saying, “Don’t fuck with Synanon — in any way –…I think that is our — is the new religious posture.” 42
On January 1, 1977, Dederich declared that from then on Synanon would care for the abused children of the world. Men would have to give up their right to have children and those who had been members for five or more years were required to have vasectomies. 43
In October of 1977, Dederich announced that couples should end their relationship with their current spouse and switch with other members for three years at a time. He advised that this be done at the peak of the relationship rather than in the depths. Dederich began the experiment with his daughter and her husband, and the then president of the Synanon foundation and his wife. 44
Over the course of twenty years, Synanon grew from a $33 unemployment check into a multi-million dollar operation. One man’s idea developed into communities throughout the state of California and hundreds more non-resident members. Charles Dederich’s innovative idea of participating in open encounter groups as a means of perfecting one’s self was lauded as a potential cure for drug addicts and received much attention and praise from the media.
Between 1958, when it was founded, to the mid-1970s, Synanon’s mission and beliefs changed substantially. Synanon was created in 1958 with the idea of being a community in which alcohol and drug addicts could come to be rehabilitated and then be returned to the outside world as responsible and contributing members. This was often not the result, as many recovered addicts were absorbed back into the organization.
The purpose of the community as a recovery program soon changed into Synanon serving more as an alternative community. Both resident members and non-resident members contributed time and money to building the society and its prominence. Synanon at this time resembled a business, with people paying to experience the lifestyle that was so famous.
During the late 1970s, Synanon began to be more exclusive. Dederich began to implement rules which governed the members’ lives. The community and its members began to become more isolated from the outside world and even created its own armed forces to handle the opposition or dissention. Perhaps it was during this period of self inflicted isolation that Synanon’s identification as a cult became most apparent. The community and the lifestyles of its members were often criticized in the media, resulting in several slander cases being brought to court by Synanon. The community was, in essence, imploding into itself while at the same time engaging in heightened levels of tension with the outside world.
In October 1977, following a legal judgment against Synanon, the group planted a rattlesnake in the mailbox of the prosecuting attorney. This incident was the beginning of the downfall of Synanon. Dederich plea bargained and escaped likely imprisonment. Synanon pursued aggressive slander suits for several years, but was not successful. During this period the government actively investigated the organizations business interests. In 1991 Synanon lost its tax-exempt status as a church and shortly thereafter Synanon disbanded. J. Gordon Melton recently reports that “remnants of the community [have] survived throughout the 1990s.
With the exception of the brief period of time during which Synanon was seen as a miracle strategy for dealing with addictions, the group seemed constantly to be in conflict with the community around it and with the media. What follows is a partial timeline for Synanon’s legal conflicts between 1962 and 1984:
1962-1964: Synanon came into conflict with the Santa Monica community. The town did not want the group there, so Synanon tried to move to Malibu but again met opposition.
October 1972: Synanon sued Hearst Corporation for $40 million because of two articles printed in a Hearst affiliate, The San Francisco Examiner. One article described Synanon as “the racket of the century.” 45
July 1976: The Hearst Corporation settles out of court for $600,000 46 .
January 1978: Synanon sued Time Publishing for $76 million for the “kooky cult” article published on December 26, 1977. 47
October 1977: Attorney Paul Morantz, who had just won a case against Synanon for $300,000, was bitten by a 4 1/2 foot diamond back rattlesnake found in his mailbox. Synanon members Lance Kenton, 20 (son of bandleader Stan Kenton), and Joseph Musico, 28, were booked for investigation into the incident. Dederich, along with two other community members, pleaded no contest to the charges. As a result of a plea bargain, Dederich must resign as Synanon’s director and leader. 48
October 1979: A superior court in California dismissed 41 of the 44 charges in Synanon’s suit against Time. 49
January 1980: Synanon filed slander suits against Dave and Cathy Mitchell and Richard Ofshe for their articles on Synanon in the Point Reyes Light newspaper. The Mitchells and Ofshe had worked together to write exposes on Synanon, for which they earned Pulitzer Prizes. 50
February 1980: Synanon dropped its $76 million suit against Time. 51
June 1982: A settlement outside of court was reached between Synanon and an ABC affiliated TV station. 52
November 1984: Synanon lost two appeals in a suit against Reader’s Digest, the Mitchells, and two other people for an article published in July of 1981. 53
Gerstel, David U. 1982. Paradise Incorporated. Novato, CA: Presidio Press.
Mitchell, Dave and Cathy Mitchell and Richard Ofshe. 1980. The Light on Synanon. New York, NY: Seaview Books.
Olin, William. 1980. Escape from Utopia, My Ten Years at Synanon. Santa Cruz, CA: Unity Press.
Yablonsli, Lewis. 1967. Synanon: The Tunnel Back. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books.
Green, F. Brentwood. 1978. “Mainlining Synanon: Notes from the Game.” Wisconsin Sociologist: 27-42.
Melton, J. Gordon. 1999. “Synanon.” Unpublished article received through personal correspondence. (April 30).
Melton, J. Gordon, ed. 1996. “The Synanon Church.” Encyclopedia of American Religions, 5th edition. New York, NY: Gale Research. 616-617.
Ofshe, Richard. 1976. “Synanon: The People Business,” in Charles Y. Glock and Robert Bellah, eds. The New Religious Consciousness. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 116-137.
Ofshe, Richard. 1980. “The Social Development of the Synanon Cult: The Managerial Strategy of Organizational Transformation.” Sociological Analysis 41: 109-127.
Ofshe, Richard, et. al. 1974. “Social Structure and Social Control in Synanon.” Journal of Voluntary Action Research: 67-76.
Simon, Steven. 1978. “Synanon: Toward Building a Humanistic Organization.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology: 3-19.
Stark, Rodney and William Bainbridge. 1979. “Of Churches, Sects, and Cults. Preliminary Concepts for a Theory of Religious Movements.” Journal For Scientific Study of Religion. 18(2): 117-133.
Time. July 28, 1980. “Synanon Sequel.” Time. v. 116: 41.
1 Ofshe, Richard. The Social Development of the Synanon Cult: The Managerial Strategy of Organizational Transformation (1980)., p109 and p.120
2 Yablonsli, Lewis. Synanon: The Tunnel Back., p87
3 Stark, Rodney and William Bainbridge. Of Churches, Cults and Sects., p
4 Melton, J. Gordon. Synanon., p2
5 Jackson, Phill. Phill Jackson on Synanon., http://morrock.com/synanon.htm
6 Yablonsli, p49
7 Ofshe (1980), p110
8 Yablonsli, pvii-viii
10 Simon, Steven. Synanon: Toward Building a Humanistic Organization.
11 Ofshe (1980), p110
12 Ofshe (1980), p111
13 Ofshe, Richard. Synanon: The People Business (1976), p130
14 Ofshe (1980), p111
15 Ofshe (1980), p112
16 Ofshe (1980), p113
17 Ofshe (1980), p120
18 Ofshe (1980), p115
19 Synanon Sequel, p41
20 Melton, J. Gordon. The Synanon Church., p616
21 Yablonsli, p48
22 Ofshe (1976), p129
23 Ofshe (1976), p126
24 Green, F. Brentwood Mainlining Synanon: Notes from the Game, p27
25 Yablonsli, p138-9
26 Yablonsli, p57
27 Yablonsli, p138
28 Yablonsli, p58
29 Yablonsli, p139
30 Green, p29
31 Green, p27
32 Ofshe (1976), p130
33 Ofshe, Richard Social Structure and Social Control in Synanon (1974), p68
34 Ofshe (1980), p118
35 Yablonsli, p89
36 Ofshe (1980), p114
37 Yablonsli, p88
38 Yablonsli, p104
39 Charles Dederich Sr. Founded Group for Drug Rehab that became Cult http://nrstg2p.djnr.com/cgi-bin/DJInteract…=&Highlight=on&DocType=TextOnly&View=View1
40 Ofshe (1980), p114
41 Ofshe (1980), p113
42 Ofshe (1980), p120-1; Charles Dederich Sr. Founded Group for Drug Rehab that became Cult
43 Ofshe (1980), p122
44 Ofshe (1980), p122-3
45 Mitchell Dave, et. al.. The Light on Synanon (1980), p 62
46 New York Times, 7/2/76. Pg. 11, Col. 1 Found on the Dow Jones Interactive Publications Library.
47 Mitchell, p 62.
48 The Globe and Mail, 10/14/78. Pg. 14. Found on the Dow Jones Interactive Publications Library.
49 New York Times, 10/18/79. Pg. 16, Col. 6 Found on the Dow Jones Interactive Publications Library.
50 New York Times, 1/1/80. Pg. 40, Col. 6 Found on the Dow Jones Interactive Publications Library.
51 New York Times, 2/5/80. Pg. 14, Col. 5 Found on the Dow Jones Interactive Publications Library.
52 New York Times, 6/4/80. Pg. 21, Col. 5 Found on the Dow Jones Interactive Publications Library.
53 The San Diego Union-Tribune, 11/21/84. Pg. A-3 Found on the Dow Jones Interactive Publications Library.
Created by Teresa Nguyen
Soc 257: New Religious Movements
Spring Term, 1999
University of Virginia
Last updated: 07/24/01