Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Cult that went Hollywood

Synanon, initially a drug rehabilitation program, was founded by Charles "Chuck" Dederich Sr. in 1958 in Santa Monica, California.

After a cathartic LSD clinical trial, Dederich split from AA and started The Tender Loving Care Club in Venice. He is said to have coined the phrase "today is the first day of the rest of your life." He created his own program to address the needs of hard drug users. By the early 1960s it had also become an alternative community located in the empty National Guard building in Santa Monica , attracting people with its emphasis on living a self-examined life, as aided by group truth-telling sessions known as the "Synanon Game."

LIFE magazine did a 1961 fourteen-page photo spread on this swingin' new self-help community on the beach:

In 1967, Synanon purchased the Club Casa del Mar, a large beachside 1926 hotel in Santa Monica, and used it as a headquarters and dormitory for drug treatment.

Control over members occurred through the "Synanon Game." The "Game" could be considered a therapeutic tool, likened to group therapy; or a social control, in which members humiliated one another and encouraged the exposure of one's innermost weaknesses, or both.

Columbia Pictures produced Synanon (1965), directed by Richard Quine, starring Edmond O'Brien as Chuck Dederich, with Chuck Connors, Stella Stevens, Richard Conte, and Eartha Kitt.

By the mid-1970s, Synanon was attracting fewer addicts and more middle-class eccentrics in search of new adventures in living. Most "Synanites" paid a minimum $400 a month for room, board and uplift, but some contributed much more. One woman donated more than $1 million. Dederich made an annual salary of $100,000 and payed his top corporate officers from $30,000 to $50,000. Synanon's novelty business that made and distributed gifts items like pen and pencil sets for General Motors and monogram handbags for the airlines, actually helped Synanon accumulate over $30 million dollars in assets - including ten aircraft, and 400 cars, trucks and motorcycles.

Dederich had also gone into cult leader mode. He decided that because he was giving up smoking, everybody else would too. In 1975 the women at Synanon began shaving their heads. Any that refused were ostracized. When Dederich's wife Betty went on a diet in 1976, all the other members had to count the calories. That same year Dederich concluded that Synanon had too many kids. So all the men were pressured into having vasectomies, except Dederich. "I am not bound by the rules," he said, "I make them."

George Lucas needed many people with shaved heads for his film THX 1138, so he hired some of his extras from Synanon. Robert Altman hired members of Synanon as extras for gambling scenes in his 1974 film California Split.

Synanon ultimately tried to become "The Church of Synanon" in the late 1970s (it didn't work).

Paul Michael Glaser starred in a 1984 TV-movie called Attack on Fear (The Light on Synanon) about the pair of married journalists (Dave & Cathy Mitchell) from Point Reyes, CA that exposed the controversial Synanon organization forcing a government investigation and winning their small-town newspaper a Pulitzer Prize.

In 1989, Synanon's core group had disbanded permanently due to difficulties with the Internal Revenue Service which removed Synanon's tax-exempt status, and forced the org into bankruptcy and liquidation by 1991.

Six years later in 1997, Charles Dederich died of cardio-respiratory failure at age 83.

In 1999, Strangers with Candy debuted on Comedy Central featuring Amy Sedaris as "Jerri Blank" - a character based on Florrie Fisher, Synanon's most famous cheerleader, who traveled to highschools to motivate teens to avoid the drug-fueled path to addiction and prostitution. Her star-quality can be enjoyed in the short-film "The Trip Back".

Post a Comment