Treating America’s Opioid Addiction
Part 2: Synanon and the Tunnel Back to the Human Race.
Treating America’s Opioid Addiction: Part 2: Synanon and the Tunnel Back to the Human Race. by Distillations: Science + Culture + History
Our current devastating opioid crisis is unprecedented in its reach and deadliness, but it’s not the first such epidemic the United States has experienced or tried to treat. In fact, it’s the third.
Treating America’s Opioid Addiction is a three-part series that investigates how we’ve understood and treated opioid addiction over more than a century. Through the years we’ve categorized opioid addiction as some combination of a moral failure, a mental illness, a biological disease, or a crime. And though we’ve desperately wanted the problem to be something science alone can solve, the more we look, the more complicated we learn it is.
Part 2 focuses on a controversial rehabilitation program called Synanon, which became the first significant therapeutic community for opioid addiction. From the time it opened its doors in 1958, it seemed to do what no other hospital, prison, or sanitarium had done before: cure the supposedly incurable heroin addict. But over the years its changing methods became increasingly questionable, and the controversy would ultimately lead to its demise. Despite its faults Synanon had a profound influence on subsequent generations of drug treatment programs—many of which still exist today.
CORRECTIONS: In the original episode we said that by the time John Stallone joined Synanon in 1965, stages two and three had been eliminated—meaning that there was no timeline for him to ever leave. In fact, the phasing out of those stages took longer to implement, and they were still in place when he arrived. This statement has been edited out of the updated audio version.
In the original version David Deitch told Distillations that he found his dog hanging by a noose outside his house, and he believed that a member of Synanon was responsible. However, this story did not happen to David Deitch but to another former Synanon member named Jack Hurst. This story has been edited out of the updated audio version. All other statements made by David Deitch have been corroborated by other sources.
The original episode suggested that John Stallone left Synanon after the group's leaders started endorsing violence against children, but he left before years before the violence started. The original script read, "John left in 1972 because Dederich was asking parents to live separately from their children, to essentially turn them over to Synanon, and John and his wife didn’t want to do that to their son. And they made the right decision." John Stallone: They started physically abusing the kids. They started using corporal punishment with the kids. They started hitting them and whatnot. It didn't turn out good at all." The audio version has been edited to replace "And they made the right decision" with "And years later something happened that made it clear they had made the right decision."
Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago
Reporter: Mariel Carr with additional reporting by Meir Rinde
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Audio Engineer: James Morrison
Photo illustration by Jay Muhlin
Our theme music was composed by Zach Young.
Additional music courtesy of the Audio Network.
Claire Clark, author of The Recovery Revolution: The Battle over Addiction Treatment in the United States.
Nancy Campbell, historian and director of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
John Stallone, former Synanon member.
David Deitch, former Synanon member, clinical and social psychologist, and emeritus professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego.
Claire Clark. The Recovery Revolution: The Battle over Addiction Treatment in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.
Synanon Foundation records, Online Archive of California, oac.cdlib.org/.
Synanon Foundation Oral Histories, UCLA Library, Center for Oral History Research, Los Angeles.
David Deitch. “Conversation with David Deitch.” Addiction X (May 3, 2002), 791-800.
Hillel Aron. “The Story of This Drug-Rehab-Turned-Violent Cult Is Wild, Wild, Country-Caliber Bizarre.” Los Angeles Magazine, April 23, 2018.
Matt Novak. “Synanon’s Sober Utopia: How a Drug Rehab Program Became a Violent Cult.” Gizmodo, Paleofuture, April 15, 2014.
Film excerpts from:
The Distant Drummer: Flower of Darkness. Washington, DC: Airlie Foundation and George Washington University Department of Medical and Public Affairs, 1972.
David, 1961, Drew Associates.
Instant Guide to Synanon: A Compilation of the Most Frequently Asked Questions about Our Foundation. Synanon, 1973.
The House on the Beach. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1965. YouTube, posted on February 29, 2008.
Synanon. Richard Quine, director. Columbia Pictures, 1965.
Treating America’s Opioid Addiction
Part Two: Synanon and the Tunnel Back to the Human Race John Stallone: I mean, I had no intentions of stopping.
Mariel: I’m Mariel Carr, and that was John Stallone, telling me how he felt about quitting Heroin when he was 18 years old. And this was after he arrested and sent to a federal prison hospital called the Narcotic Farm, in Lexington Kentucky. When it opened in 1935 it promised to find a cure for heroin addiction, but two decades in, it still hadn’t. John spent about five months there in 1958.
John Stallone: I got kicked out just before Christmas. On the train back to New York, of course there were a couple other guys that had gotten released. One of the guys, this guy, Bunny, was from uptown. We shot up at his house. Then we all went back to our own neighborhoods, and that was the end of that. I didn't even wait to get back to my neighborhood to use. We used right there in Manhattan.
Mariel: John kept using heroin for years after that. But eventually he really did want to get clean.
John Stallone. You know it’s kind of a boring life. Hustling every day. I would work and try to stay clean for a while, but it never lasted. One time I came out of my house, and the stoop right next to my house, this guy says, "Hey, how you doing?" It was this guy Chancy, and I was clean, and he said, "You want to get off?" I said, "Yeah, of course." I jumped over the little fence there and went up to his house, and I started using again. There were no programs.
Mariel: John finally found out about a program at a particularly low point in his life.
Stallone: Well, me and my partner, we used to stick up drug stores for dope. We were coming back from robbing a drug store out in Long Island, and I started getting real sick. I said, "Man, I'm sick."
Mariel: They pulled off the Long Island Expressway and stopped at an old friend’s house. Unannounced and with a bag of drugs.
Stallone: He sent his wife to bed, and we sat up and shot dope all night. While we were doing that we said, "Where were you, man? We haven't seen you in about a year." He said, "Oh, I was out in this great place out in California. It's a place, [00:23:30] a bunch of dope fiends got a place on the beach. That’s how I ended up going to Synanon.
Stallone: Everything I read, everything I heard was once a junkie always a junkie, once a dope fiend, always a dope fiend. You can't cure a dope fiend. Then I heard about this little ragtag outfit out in California that was a bunch of junkies keeping themselves clean. That made sense to me. That was interesting.
Alexis: Hello and welcome to Distillations. I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago.
Alexis: And this is the second installment of our three-‐part series on the history of opioid addiction treatment in the United States.
Lisa: Part one was called The Narcotic Farm and the Promise of Salvation, and we told you about the first wave of opioid addiction treatment in the U.S., which began after the Civil War. It was a response to an epidemic that started with physicians’ prescriptions—just like our epidemic today.
Alexis: We also talked about the Narcotic Farm in Lexington Kentucky, which was one of two federal prison-‐hospitals that tried to treat inmates with opioid addictions. They also studied drug addiction more extensively than had ever been done before throughout the world.
Lisa: When the Narcotic Farm opened its doors, doctors were optimistic that science would deliver a cure for drug addiction. But it was all ultimately an experiment—with people like John Stallone as its subjects. And that experiment eventually failed. By the 1960s a sense of futility had set in, and a void was created.
Alexis: This void was filled by an unconventional treatment community, run by an eccentric leader. And this, my friends, is where our senior producer Mariel Carr is going to take over.
Lisa: Chapter Two: Synanon’s Beginnings.
Mariel: Today’s opioid addiction treatment landscape basically boils down to two very different models: One is medically-‐assisted maintenance treatment—which is taking a daily dose of methadone or buprenorphine to stave off cravings and prevent withdrawal symptoms. The second option is what’s known as the therapeutic community or TC model. The term therapeutic community actually comes 19th century England, and not from addiction treatment but mental health. The idea focused on two things: an environment that supported recovery, outside of someone’s everyday life, and the idea of mutual aid—where someone with a condition helps someone else with the same condition. In their purest form, people in TCs for drug addiction participate in peer therapy, live together, and completely abstain from drugs. Today some programs combine both models. But that therapeutic community, or TC model has contributed to nearly every residential drug treatment program in the U.S. today. It probably doesn’t sound new to you. But nothing like it existed for opioid addiction until 1958, when a group called Synanon opened its doors just down the coast from Santa Monica, California.
An instant guide to Synanon…
What exactly is the foundations purpose?
Synanons first order of business is to reeducate drug addicts and alcoholics delinquents and others who are unable to function responsibly in society.
Mariel: Synanon began almost by accident, but it quickly filled a very big void. This is Claire Clark, a behavioral scientist and historian of medicine. She’s also the author The Recovery Revolution: The Battle over Addiction Treatment in the United States.
Claire Clark: I think there just were so few other alternatives, and there are certainly fewer alternatives that were sort of governed by, they called themselves ex-‐addicts for ex-‐addicts. There's a saying in AA that the program is the kind of like last house on the street. [00:17:30] That the only alternative to 12-‐step for people is, "It's prisons, institutions, or death." Synanon claimed to offer a novel alternative to those options when there were very few available.
Who started synanon?
The synanon foundation was started in 1958 by ex-‐alcoholic Charles E. Dederich. And today Chuck is chairman of the board of directors.
Mariel: Before he started Synanon Charles Dederich, or Chuck, as he was called, stayed sober by going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every day. He loved it. He loved talking at the meetings, and he often took them over. He once said he’d talk all night unless they stopped him. One thing bothered him though: he thought AA members were too easy on each another. Here’s John Stallone.
John Stallone: If there was somebody that got up and said, "Hi, my name is so and so, and I'm an alcoholic, and I've been clean for two years now," he couldn't get up and say, "You're full of [expletive]. I saw you in a bar last week." There is no feedback in AA. You can't do that. He wanted a much more honest communication. He started inviting guys up to his room, he had a room, not an apartment, a room. They would sit around his bedroom and he'd have these two rules, no physical violence, no threats of physical violence, and nobody loaded, and you could say anything you want. Guys loved it.
Mariel: The gatherings got too big for Chuck’s bedroom, so he used a thirty-‐three dollar unemployment check to rent a storefront in Ocean Park, right between Santa Monica and Venice Beach. The meetings were loud and confrontational, and they kept growing. One day a man showed up who wasn’t an alcoholic—he was addicted to heroin. But he was intrigued, and he came back with friends.
John Stallone: Then the alcoholics got pissed off, and they told Chuck, "Hey, we don't want these dope fiends in our group. Throw them out." Chuck said, "I'm not throwing anybody out." Eventually, the alcoholics said, "Well, if you don't, we'll leave." He said, "Hey, I can't tell you what to do." They all left and here he is, he's stuck with all these dope fiends. He didn't know [expletive] about dope fiends, he was a rich kid from Toldedo, Ohio.
Mariel: Pretty soon these so-‐called “dope fiends” were living in the storefront, and Dederich—who was not a heroin addict—started assigning them jobs. He saw something in them. The seeds of communal life had been sown.
John Stallone: He said, "Okay, does anybody know how to cook?" Some guy says, "Yeah, I know how to cook." He said, "Okay, you're the cook." He says, "You got a good mouth, you talk good. You go out to all these little grocery stores and you ask them if they've got anything they can donate. Tell them your story and how you're staying clean." That's how it started.
Mariel: They formalized their group as a non-‐profit and settled on the name Synanon.
Claire Clark: The name has a bunch of different origin stories, but the most plausible to me was always that it was short for sin anonymous. Synanon members claimed that their communal, peer-‐led approach to treatment could do the, then it was impossible, unthinkable, right? To cure the supposedly incurable heroin addict.
Mariel: Synanon grew quickly and started to attract a lot of attention. Within a year it had moved to Santa Monica proper and soon became known as “The miracle on the beach.” In 1962 Life Magazine published a sweeping photo essay about them called “A Tunnel Back to the Human Race,” borrowing a phrase Synanon used to describe itself. In 1965 a feature film called “Synanon” brought the growing sensation to the big screen.
Joanie, doll-‐face, with a deadly expensive appetite. “What are you my nurse? Nope, just another dope-‐fiend.”
Mariel: When I first learned about Synanon it sounded familiar. It had some elements of AA, some hippies, a commune—I felt like I’d seen it before. There’s a documentary from 1961 about Synanon called “David” by Drew Associates. It was also filmed at the Synanon house in Santa Monica, and it follows several Synanon members as they get and then try to stay clean.
Synanon house begins a day of crisis. Three of its members are in danger. Margarita and Jimmy McDee are in agony, desperate to leave and end the pain with heroin.
Mariel: When I watched the film I realized—these people aren’t hippies. They’re wearing tailored pants and collared shirts, some of the women have curled and set their hair. There’s even a scene where Margarita, fresh out of withdrawal, is ironing clothes right in the middle of the living room. So Synanon was ahead of its time in many ways.
Alexis: Chapter three. Life at Synanon
Mariel: John Stallone went to Synanon in 1965, and ten years into using heroin. John is 78 now, and when we interviewed him he had long white hair, a white beard, and was wearing a multi-‐colored knit hat. He was straight out of The Sopranos via Northern California. But in a photograph of him from 1966 his hair is short and neatly combed and he’s wearing a collared shirt underneath a cardigan. He looks straight as an arrow. By the time John got to Synanon they had expanded beyond Santa Monica and had a new center in a warehouse in San Francisco.
Stallone: And the house at that time was an old, condemned warehouse. It was the oldest warehouse that was still in existence from the ‘06 earthquake. It so old that the side of the building was leaning out, and they had these big metal straps around the building to hold the wall up. All wood floors, and a 50-‐man dorm. And one bathroom, two bathrooms…one for women one for men. One big giant open area and some other enclosed areas. It was so old, at night the fog would come in in the windows like, but it wasn't pleasant. It wasn't nice. It was tough times. The food was all donations. Powdered milk from the government. They had gotten a huge donation of Bonita Flakes. I'll never forget that. Bonita Flakes are like the worst, the worst, the worst of tuna fish that you can get. I think they make cat food out of it. My first job there, I'll show you how bad we were, my first job was dairy sniffer. I would sit on a milk crate, and I'd have a big pile of dairy on one side, and I'd open up a container of milk and I'd smell it. That was how we survived. But it was all dope fiends. There were guys there like myself. I said you know what, and I saw guys that were clean one and two years. I said, [expletive], if he can do it, I can do it. That's what kept me there.
Mariel: People who came to Synanon left every part of their old lives at the door—from their drug habits to their relationships. They were all starting over. And the lure of this “miracle on the beach” in California was a big part of the draw. But a crucial element of Synanon was having the time and space to work on being sober. This is another clip from Drew Associates' 1961 documentary, David.
Since coming to Synanon I’ve found out that there’s one thing very necessary for a person to release himself from the terrible compulsion of using drugs, and that is the
ability to live in a situation, in an environment, and a setting, where he might have the time and the facilities and the understanding to gain some insight into why he uses drugs. Because the mere fact of cleaning up from drugs in a state hospital under any auspices like that, has really nothing whatever to do with the problem. I have invariably returned to drugs within twenty-‐four hours after being completely clean under any of these auspices.
Just how does a drug addict kick his habit in Synanon?
A drug addict kicks his habit cold turkey. That is without the use of drugs of any kind. Most addicts overcome the physiological effects of drug addiction in a few days. The psychological effects are another problem and are worked out through the Synanon game.
Uh, will you please tell me just what is the Synanon game?
Mariel: All Synanon members had to participate in group therapy sessions known as the Synanon game. They evolved from those confrontational sessions in Ocean Park.
Stallone: You sat there for an hour and a half, and as long as you sat in your chair, you could say anything you want.
Mariel: The sessions were provocative and often hostile. Members were encouraged to criticize and even humiliate each other. The goal was for everyone to confront their sins and defects—which were considered the underlying causes of their addiction. This is another clip from Drew Associates 1961 Documentary, David.
David…Coleman…Jimmy DeGree…Frank…Esther…Candy….Trudy….This will be a Synanon Session. A strange and violent group argument, in which the members blurt out their thoughts without restraint. No psychologist has been able to explain a Synanon, but many believe it is the reason why more addicts have stayed off dope longer here than anywhere else in the world.”
You talk about these sick needs and growing up, why don’t you try and find out about the sick needs. You’re just a kid. You start whining and complaining when you don’t get enough attention, you’re complaining all the time.
Mariel: That session was mild compared to how aggressive they good get, like in this clip from another film called The House on the Beach.
Synanon members playing the Synanon “game,” shouting at each other, angry confrontations.
John Stallone: It was pretty confrontational. I was used to that, being from New York, it wasn’t a big deal. A lot of people got intimidated by it. All in all, as far as I was concerned, it was one of the best tool...it was the best tool in communicating that I ever knew of, and till this day. I miss
it very much, the ability to do that, to tell somebody exactly what you think of them with no holding back.
Mariel: I think it’s important to note that Synanon, and specifically the Synanon Game worked for a lot of people, but not everyone. John Stallone was a tough white guy from Brooklyn and as such the tough love approach resonated with him. But Synanon wasn’t just made up of people like John. There were people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, people of color and women. This is Nancy Campbell, a historian of drug addiction.
Nancy Campbell: So therapeutic communities can be very helpful for some people. But there was an intense feminist critique of therapeutic communities, because so many women who are involved in alcohol and drugs were traumatized as children. There was a fair amount of sexual abuse. Those rates are fairly high in the addicted population. So they experienced some of these therapeutic communities as retraumatizing, and they were.
Mariel: Chuck Dederich was not for the faint of heart. Some Synanon members hated him, some loved him, and a lot of them seemed to love and hate him.
He’s 52 years old, deaf in one ear, he’s an egomaniac, but one of the wisest persons that I’ve ever met In my life.
Like everything I’d see him do before I’d laugh, I’d applaud. I thought he was great. And then it all turned around and everything I saw I just hated. I just hated Chuck Dederich.
Mariel: He was brash and very sure of himself and he thought that total character reformation was the only solution to getting off heroin for good. He believed that addicts weren’t fully-‐formed adults—that they were like children, and they needed to be treated accordingly. This is him in The House on the Beach.
When a person comes in to Synanon, we do not have on our hands a potentially violent person or a rebel at all, we have then a person that is looking for boundaries. He then is looking with someone to tell him what to do.
Mariel: Synanon’s early members were often seen as young and hip, and the organization radiated a new and radical departure from former treatment systems. But not all of it was new.
Claire Clark: It's not an interpretive leap to say that Synanon had this Neo-‐Victorian kind of ideology, because it's actually explicitly stated in their promotional material from like a speech that Dederich gives to probation officers. To, they have promo films that actually put a psychedelic soundtrack over Victorian imagery. He linked the AA brand to this older Victorian notion of inebriety. That idea that all forms of addiction were associated with each other, and with moral failings on the part of the addicted person.
Mariel: Synanon’s leaders might have leaned on older ideas about addiction, but they did plenty that was different too. One major thing that separated Synanon from every opioid treatment system that came before it was not using any direct medical oversight.
John Stallone: In Synanon, nobody was staff, everybody was a resident, everybody lived there.
Because Synanon is new and unique: a house for addicts, run without doctors, by former addicts, some authorities cannot understand or approve its unorthodox ways. Synanon keeps a catalog of its tragic losses. Members ordered to leave by well-‐meaning agencies. Most of those pulled out by force have gone back to dope. Many are in prison and some are dead.
Mariel: Synanon was open to being studied in a qualitative way, but they rejected the scientific method. The organization radiated an aura of success, and they didn’t want real numbers to squash it. Was it dishonest? Seems like it. But it also had a placebo effect. People were actually more likely to succeed because they had an expectation that they would succeed. A sign on the wall at Synanon read: “Attitudes are more important than facts.”
Um how does synanon measure its success?
Uh by the number clean man days that it provides. What is a clean man day?
It is one man or woman living in synanon doing an honest days work at a meaningful job, without using drugs or alcohol. One man or one woman, clean for one more day.
What is synanon cure rate?
Synanon has no way of keeping track of what people do after they leave so we don’t know how many of these people remain free from dependency on drugs or alcohol.
Mariel: Still, for years Synanon was one of only very few alternatives to prison for people dealing with opioid addiction. And it was respected from people in high up places. They had a literal seat at the table.
Claire Clark: They got invited or invited themselves to a commission that was convened by the Kennedy Administration to explore alternative approaches to treating drug addiction. Synanon members were actually the only treatment consumers with a seat at the table. This was an era of, of optimism, of hope and change, and they presented themselves as having a solution to this problem that was really seen as previously intractable.
Mariel: In 1966 Congress passed the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act or NARA. And this law took drug treatment out of the hands of the federal government and passed it on to individual states. It required each city and town dealing with drug addiction to figure out how to address the problem locally. And the first step was finding contractors to deliver services.
Nancy Campbell: It could be the Salvation Army. It could be a faith-‐based provider. They had to find some organization. It could be a therapeutic community that wanted to set up in that town who were willing to contract with the federal government to deliver drug treatment.
Mariel: There was a moment when Synanon could have been one of these contractors. They had an early seat at the table, but because they wouldn’t allow themselves be studied in any scientific way, or any quantifiable way they remained a solo organization. They did it all on their own. Still, on its own, Synanon helped a lot of people get off heroin for good. Including John Stallone.
Mariel: Why do you think it worked?
John: There was a lot of support. You had other people, they were role models that were there that you saw did the right thing. Taught me how to live. Taught me how to work. Taught me how to be responsible. Taught me how to be honest.
Mariel: John, once you got there, did you ever do drugs after you were there, or were you just done?
John: Nope, that's the last time I ever shot heroin.
Mariel: John Stallone was a member of Synanon from 1965 to 1972. A few months after he arrived he started counseling inmates in a Synanon program in a prison Reno, Nevada. And he would keep working as a drug counselor for the next several decades. During his eight years at Synanon he lived in San Francisco, Reno, Oakland, and Santa Monica. And he says his years there were some of the best of his life.
John Stallone: Got married there. My son was born there. As the years went on, it got better and better and better.
Do children live in synanon?
Oh by all means yes. There are over 260 children under the age of 18. Many of them are the offspring of former addicts.
John Stallone: I mean, it didn't turn into like the insane ... Synanon happened way later on where it turned into a cult and got real stupid. Before that, it was like a wonderful place.
Lisa: Chapter 4: Synanon’s Fall
CBS News, January 25, 1978
Walter Cronkite: Synanon is one of the oldest drug and alcoholism rehabilitation centers, long respected and considered enormously successful. But lately there have been changes at Synanon that have alarmed many observers.
Terry Drinkwater: The group, begun 20 years ago to help alcoholics and drug addicts, has been attacked by former members who charged it’s evolved into a bizarre, violent cult, given to shaved heads and wife-‐swapping.
Mariel: That was Walter Cronkite and Terry Drinkwater on CBS news in 1978. By then, just six years after John left, Synanon had changed drastically. But months later came the final blow. The one that would ultimately bring Synanon down.
CBS News, December 12 1978
Walter Cronkite: In its early days the organization called Synanon was regarded by experts as a revolutionary therapeutic community. But in recent months it has sought to silence critics by lawsuits and intimidation. And today in Los Angeles police are looking into a charge that is bizarre—even by cult standards. Terry Drinkwater reports.
Terry Drinkwater: It was, police said, a case of attempted murder. The weapon: a rattlesnake placed in this mailbox at the home of Los Angeles lawyer Paul Morantz. Just last month Morantz had won a $300,000 court judgement on behalf of a woman who claimed she was kidnapped and brainwashed by members of Synanon.
Mariel: The shift from respected recovery community to wacky cult didn’t happen overnight. And looking back it seems like the beginning of the end sort of happened…near the beginning. When Synanon started it was meant to be a temporary residential rehabilitation community, with three stages of recovery.
David Deitch: So, stage one is you live in, work in. Then stage two is you live in but work out. Stage three is you live out, work out, and participate in meetings on an ongoing basis.
Mariel: This is David Deitch. He’s an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego, with a focus on addiction and criminality. He spent many years actively addicted to heroin and like John Stallone he spent time at the Narcotic Farm in Lexington Kentucky. He was also a member of Synanon from 1961 to 1964. When he arrived in 1961 people generally spent no more than six months living at Synanon.
David Deitch: Then around 1962, it gets changed to it's no less than a year of living in before you can move out.
Mariel: Why did that change?
David Deitch: Because people were relapsing. And Dederich has the miracle on the beach. He doesn't want to get that concept and that myth eroded, so what's needed is obviously longer care. But somewhere by 1963, early 1964, he decides that stages two and three will be eliminated.
Mariel: Ending the so-‐called “graduation” from Synanon wouldn’t be publicly announced until later in the decade. But internally it’s already a done deal by the mid-‐sixties. That means that when John Stallone first got to Synanon in 1965 there was no timeline for him to leave, and there was an understanding that he would probably relapse if he did.
They literally trapped me into walking enough steps until—it’s what Thomas Wolf said. You begin walking and you can’t go home anymore.
Mariel: When you heard years later about the rattlesnake, for example, were you shocked? Did you say, I saw that coming? Was it a slow progression, or…?
David Deitch: No, I think it was a slow progression.
Mariel: First there was the never leaving part. And then there was the money.
David Deitch: Once it took over and was no longer just for subsistence, maintaining food, gas, heating. When it went beyond and began to become a profit making mega, was one thing.
Mariel: Chuck Dederich wasn’t shy about admitting that Synanon wasn’t just in it for curing addicts-‐they were in it for money. They had a business selling promotional items and at one point generated millions of dollars per year. They also continued begging for goods just like they did in 1958, but their requests got bigger and more frivolous. In 1964 David Deitch was ordered to find a Cadillac for Dederich.
David Deitch: Going out to try to hustle corporations for tools, nails, cement, electric wiring, et cetera, to build a facility for treatment was not a problem to me, but having to beg for a brand new car for the founder because of how important he is, really put my teeth in peculiar positions.
Mariel: After leaving Synanon was no longer a goal, the organization redefined itself as a utopian community instead of a rehabilitation program. And so called “squares”—or people without substance abuse problems—joined the group. Then, in 1974 Synanon declared itself a religion. Partly for the tax advantage, but also because it helped get around the fact that Synanon was not licensed to do anything remotely medical and this was causing some problems. The Synanon board loved the idea of becoming a religion, but one member wrote a note on the proposal asking “who will be god?” So there was the so-‐ called lifetime rehabilitation concept, and the money, and then the religion. And then there were the kids and the violence. John left in 1972 because Dederich was asking parents to live separately from their children, to essentially turn them over to Synanon, and John and his wife didn’t want to do that to their son. And years later something happened that made it clear they made the right decision.
John Stallone: They started physically abusing the kids. They started using corporal punishment with the kids. They started hitting them and whatnot. It didn't turn out good at all.
David Deitch: And then they created another group that is in to military action, military practice, drills, marching drills, attack drills, defense drills. And that small group is the one responsible for the snake.
Mariel: For every cult, it seems, there’s a rite of passage that is the taking up of arms. And Synanon was no different. This is a CBS news segment from 1978, where Connie Chung interviews Chuck Dederich.
CBS News, January 25, 1978
Connie Chung: This man is Chuck Dederich, the founder of Synanon, a former alcoholic who 19 years ago created a no drugs, no alcohol, no violence rehabilitation center. But
the atmosphere at Synanon headquarters on a sprawling ranch in the Sierra foothills has changed. Some residents are heavily armed, wearing Synanon security uniforms. They stand guard, constantly protecting Chuck Dederich.
Chuck Dederich: I have to be very careful, what I say. You know I’ve become a little wary. I really have. Because not too long ago some media people put my children, and my grandchildren and I in real serious physical danger. You know I’m concerned about that.
Connie Chung: Is that why you have the security forces around?
Chuck Dederich: You’re damn right.
David Deitch: They're spiraling at this point. They're spiraling down into a very ugly place. So what began with promise and potential, and because it was monolithic, no accountability and a very ego-‐driven leader, that has nobody that he has to be accountable to.
Mariel: Both John Stallone and David Deitch say that the final turning point was in 1977—a year before the rattlesnake incident. Something horrible happened in Dederich’s life—his wife died.
John Stallone: From what I understand, from what everybody that stood there, friends of mine, he went off the deep end when she died. Of course, he relapsed and he started drinking. Like a dysfunctional family, rather than do something about it, they try to hide it, and so now you got a drunk at the helm, so the place got really [expletive] up.
Mariel: So the leader of group whose original sole purpose was to keep people sober was himself not sober. The therapeutic community model that Dederich pioneered was completely devoted to abstinence. And I have to wonder what would have happened if he had allowed space for relapsing. Claire Clark sees this as a crucial element in how we think about addiction recovery.
Claire Clark: It has to do with the mindset of whether we're going to allow ourselves to think that people might relapse. Whether that is something that we can permit to be permitted to have as a part of the recovery process, which some people are still of a sort of zero-‐tolerance mindset.
Mariel: When we were getting deeper into the cult part of the Synanon story our producer Rigo Hernandez suggested I search for a “cult checklist” so I literally googled the phrase and clicked on the first result. It was a list of characteristics cults share and it was long, so I’m not going to share the whole thing. But Synanon checked every single box. There’s a whole list of upsetting and bizarre things that happened at Synanon that I haven’t even mentioned: in the 1970s Chuck Dederich pressured members to divorce their spouses, get vasectomies and abortions, shave their heads, quick smoking, and wear overalls. Also, remember the Synanon game? A lot of people have speculated over the years that these often brutal sessions established a foundation for the abuse and control that came later. Synanon wouldn’t be the only therapeutic community to devolve into cult territory. And both Claire Clark and Nancy Campbell have some ideas why.
Claire Clark: TCs had a really tough initiating process, in order to get in. They demanded that residents disavow a lot of aspects of their previous selves, and their lives as junkies, they often
had charismatic leaders. They had a hierarchical structure. They had an authoritarian governance. Those are all things that cults also tend to have.
Nancy Campbell: Oftentimes over time, these kinds of places can really change into places that are, themselves, pathological. And that’s what happened at Matrix House.
Mariel: Matrix house was another TC, founded in the spirit of Synanon, that would eventually become violent. But Nancy’s description fits Synanon too. In 1964, just a couple of years into his time at Synanon David Deitch was pushed out. “Banished” in his words. By then he’d become sort of like the Chuck Dederich of the east coast, heading a Synanon center in Connecticut. And after Chuck wanted to eliminate stages two and three—when he decided the goal was no longer for members to ever leave— David ignored his orders and continued graduating members when he thought were ready to go. This act of defiance got him kicked out. It soured him on Synanon, but the experience didn’t turn him off the idea of Synanon. Somehow he still had faith in the promise of therapeutic communities. He still believed in the model.
Some of 15,000 men and women have come to synanon, participated in its program and have left. And remember the knowledge that there is a better way to live. Many of them have gone on to staff more than than 2,200 drug rehabilitation program that have emerged since synanon first proved that that drug addicts can be rehabilitated.
Mariel: David Deitch went on lead a new therapeutic community called DATOP, which later became Daytop Village. It started as a TC for people on probation struggling with substance abuse. In fact, the name was an acronym that stood for Drug Addicts Treated on Probation.
Daytop Village is typical of the halfway house concept. Where the addict is slowly eased back into society. One step at a time.
Mariel: Daytop would become just one TC in a whole second generation of therapeutic communities for drug abuse, including Delancey Street, Phoenix House, and Amity—which all still exist. Daytop was also just one TC run by a former Synanon member. David Deitch brought some of what he experienced at Synanon to Daytop, and left out or adapted the problematic stuff. Including the Synanon game. It’s a strange thing, and not one you can say about most professions, but David Deitch had to actively work to not let Daytop fall into cult territory.
Mariel: Okay. Are you talking about you couldn't become a charismatic leader yourself?
David Deitch: Sure.
Mariel: Or you were but you could have used that power for nefarious reasons.
David Deitch: Absolutely.
Mariel: So what did you do about it?
David Deitch: I just tried my hardest to contain it. To not be seduced by it.
Mariel: Did you ever feel like you were seduced by it?
David Deitch: Oh absolutely. There were many times of really vulnerability to the seduction of power. No question about it.
Mariel: Despite the risk of the TC model, David Deitch believes that they’re uniquely able to help people with substance abuse problems achieve a crucial part of recovery.
Mariel: Do you think that setting a new identity, reforming of one's narrative is the most important thing?
David Deitch: I do, I do. I do. I do. Particularly for people who began their drug careers as most do, early in life. The movement into the socialization, the values, the language, the music, the people, etc. all associated with drug use and crime is a very stunting life style. If that can get altered by something meaningful, then we're doing something right.
Mariel: Synanon ended metaphorically in flames. There’s no question about it. After the rattlesnake incident Chuck Dederich was implicated in the attempted murder of Paul Morantz, and even though he didn’t go to jail, he was forced to step down as head of Synanon. Then the IRS revoked the group’s tax-‐ exempt status and ordered it to pay 17 million dollars in back taxes. Synanon went bankrupt, and formally dissolved in 1991. Still, Synanon isn’t just a wacky footnote in history. It hurt many people, yes, but it also helped a lot of them. Including John Stallone. And subsequent generations of therapeutic communities have learned from their mistakes. The core of Synanon’s original philosophy—addicts helping other addicts—has continued to help many people struggling with opioid addiction to this day.
Lisa: In modern-‐day Philadelphia people struggling with opioid dependence are helping each other in a way that seems to echo Synanon’s early days in Ocean Park.
Alexis: In the final part of our story we’ll meet Chris Marshall, a man recovering from heroin abuse. He’s was the director of the Last Stop—an addiction treatment center in the heart of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis
Chris Marshall: As soon as you come down the steps of this EL platform: drugs, all the drugs in the world.
Lisa: We’ll examine the status of opioid addiction treatment today, including TC-‐inspired rehabilitation programs.
Dr. Joseph Garbaley: Acceptance by a group is crucial, because there's a lot of shame and guilt that comes with the disease of addiction and to look across the room and see people that have the same disease that they do is extremely helpful.
Alexis: And we’ll also go deep into maintenance treatment.
Nancy Campbell: In this country we’ve had great faith that science is going to solve the addiction problem. And the one way that that has come true, frankly, is buprenorphine.
Lisa: And finally, we’ll get a little philosophical.
Nancy Campbell: Why are people using these drugs? Have we perhaps created an unlivable world? Do we have work that satisfies people, that allows them to create the lives that they want?
David Deitch: It has meaning attached to it. It’s not just being an ex-‐addict. You are more than what you are not.
Alexis: Tune into part three on October 16th.
Alexis: Distillations is more than a podcast. We’re also a multimedia magazine.
Lisa: You can find our videos, our blog, and our print stories at Distillations DOT org.
Alexis: And you can also follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Lisa: This episode was reported by Mariel Carr, with additional reporting by Meir Rinde.
Alexis: And it was produced by Mariel Carr and Rigo Hernandez.
Lisa: This show was mixed by James Morrison and our theme music was composed by Zach Young.
Lisa: While we’ve been working on this episode about the history of opioid addiction treatment, Distillations magazine has been working on a story about how we arrived at our current crisis. So make sure to check it out at Distillations DOT org. And, please subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts!
Lisa: For Distillations I’m Lisa Berry Drago.
Alexis: And I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Alexis and Lisa: Thanks for listening!