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Synanon: Self-Help Through Shame and Berating


In 1958, a recovering alcoholic named Chuck Dietrich discovered he had a talent for public speaking.  He was always a big hit at his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, so he figured he’d take his talents and his $33 monthly unemployment check and try to give back to society.  Dietrich found he’d benefited greatly from A.A., but he was concerned about drug addicts, who weren’t admitted to the organization, because, as A.A. says, drug addiction is fundamentally different from alcohol addiction, and thus would require wholly different kinds of treatment.  Dietrich set out to help drug addicts and anyone else who needed support and organization in their lives.  That’s why he founded a two-year program called Synanon.

The idea behind Synanon was to hold nothing back, because your chemical dependency was probably a symptom of your repressed emotions.  Synanon’s main activity was something Dietrich called The Game, which was designed to release these emotions.  To play The Game, all you did was sit in a circle and say what you felt about anything, about anyone, about the others in the room, about yourself.  You were to hold nothing back, no matter how cruel and abusive you might get.  You could get as verbally abusive as you wanted, but physical violence was strictly forbidden.  So were drugs and alcohol, of course.  “Talk dirty and live clean” was an oft-repeated mantra of Dietrich’s.

Dietrich’s vision of a two-year program didn’t last long.  Before too long, he came to think that no one could ever recover from their needs, from their emotions, so once you were in, playing The Game, it was permanent.  Dietrich zealously believed in his vision, and he could sell it to prospects by using his own story.  By age 45, Dietrich had been divorced twice, an alcoholic, and chronically unemployed, but The Game turned his life around!  Junkies and others at the end of their ropes, looking for something to believe in, tended to find their way to the small storefront in run-down Ocean Park, California where Synanon promised it could help them, too.

It certainly helped Dietrich.  Within a couple of years, he was a rich man, and by 1967 he had enough money to buy a resort hotel in Santa Monica, where he was pulling down over $10 million a year.  The West Coast had plenty of New Age cults like this—often religious in nature, but not necessarily—and Synanon was one of the best known ones.  It even attracted celebrities like Milton Berle, Eartha Kitt, Jane Fonda, Buckminster Fuller and Cesar Chavez.  Directors George Lucas and Robert Altman even hired Synanon members to act as extras in some of their films.

Berating others was viewed by Dietrich as therapeutic, though no therapist, then or now, would agree with the value of this method.  Dietrich (not a psychologist himself by any definition of the word) claimed that by tearing people down and exposing their innermost weaknesses, they would be built up stronger.  This, of course, is Brainwashing 101, and it was effective.  This cult was billed as the “longest-running utopian community in America founded on non-violence”, and that much was true.  It was true until 1976, when a session of The Game, played in Santa Monica and in Synanon branches that reached out over four different states, went awry.  A female member of Synanon started berating Dietrich himself.  This was fair game, according to the rules of The Game, but Dietrich apparently didn’t like what he heard.  He got up out of his chair, walked over to the woman, and poured a bottle of root beer on her head.  The era of non-violence was over.

California lawyer Paul Morantz might have been why Dietrich was under such stress.  Morantz won a $300,000 lawsuit against Synanon, claiming that they’d kidnapped and brainwashed a young woman.  Morantz had built his career around investigating and suing groups like Synanon, and the Moonies, and the Church of Scientology, so he likely wasn’t through.  Soon after the lawsuit, Morantz was bitten by a rattlesnake someone had placed in his mailbox and nearly died.  The writing was on the wall.

And here's a copy of the home game.
Things were getting nervous over at the Synanon compound.  Since the non-violence taboo had been broken, disciplinary methods started to change.  Children on the Synanon compound started to feel free to act out as much as they wanted, and cult members decided that kids who were acting out were easier to control if you fell back on the age-old child-rearing strategy of smacking them around.

The wheels really started to come off in 1977, when Dietrich’s wife died and he decided to arm the place to the hilt.  He formed what he called the “Imperial Marines”, stockpiling guns and ammo, and using an implicit threat of violence to intimidate the neighbors.  The Point Reyes Light, a small local paper, won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of columns exposing the escalating violence that was going on in and around the Synanon compound.  In 1978, the Jonestown massacre in French Guyana occurred, where over 900 followers of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple cult famously drank poisoned Kool-Aid and died en masse.  This tragedy alarmed America, and soon after, police raided the Synanon compounds, and The Game was over.  Dietrich was found and arrested.  He was drunk at the time of arrest.  His lawyers pleaded for probation for Dietrich, asserting that he would die in jail if sent there, and won.  Dietrich died a free man, with all his Synanon money, in 1997.  Synanon itself evaporated after the raid, though there’s still a small chapter of it that’s been operating in Germany since 1971.

Journalist Maria Szivalitz, who has researched and written extensively about Synanon and other such “tough love” programs, observed, “Creating situations in which the severe treatment of powerless people is rewarded inevitably yields abuse.  This is especially true when punishment is viewed as a healing process.”  There is such a thing as “tough love”, but you should probably approach anyone who suggests it with a dash of preëmptive skepticism.

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