Greetings! This is the first of several posts I intend to write chronicling the history of Synanon and it’s impact on the modern theraputic
community. My interest in this subject is both professional and personal. I grew up in Southern California, where Synanon was founded, and find it
interesting that there are practically no operating theraputic communities in California. However, I have worked as a substance abuse counselor
within a theraputic community in Texas for nearly two years.
For those of you unfamiliar with the therapeutic community, I have to explain a few key concepts before addressing Synanon. Substance abuse is a
personal and societal problem that has been attributed to several contributing factors. Many competing and opposing “models” have been formed to
explain drug and alcohol addiction, and for the sake of brevity I’ll list only a few: the medical model, disease model, psychological model, the
moral model, and the social model. Each off these models have spawned a plethora of treatment methods with the same goal: to irradiate use in the
The theraputic community is one of the oldest methods of substance abuse treatment. However, when compared to other modalities it has an intriguing
and sordid history. Synanon was the first theraputic community in the United States. It was founded in 1958 by Charles Diedrich. Although for many
decades Synanon was held in high esteem as a revolutionary method of cleaning up addicts, it is now universally viewed as a fanatic cult. However,
the TC model is still used in hundreds of treatment facilities around the world, and Synanon is still regarded as the primary archetype for the TC.
I cannot emphasize this enough, according to the modern “cult” view of Synanon, this is like having hundreds of organizations still operating
by the rules that existed in Jonestown, or by the Branch Dividians in Waco.
How and why this came to be is my fascination, and what I hope to
discover. I am also earnestly hoping to reach out to any former members of Synanon that may stumble across this most. I would love to speak to
anyone with first hand experience and hear their story.
The 1950’s: Fertile Ground
The history of Synanon is really the history of one man: Charles “Chuck” Diedrich. Diedrich was an active member of AA in the Los Angeles area
during the late 1950’s. He was renown for his speaking ability in meetings, and was a popular figure in the recovery community. Drug use was
increasing during this time, and many addicts who sought recovery in AA meetings were unwelcome. NA had an operating branch in California, but they
were largely unorganized. Diedrich seized this as an opportunity and ventured to create his own treatment program that did not discriminate among
addicts. In 1958, he incorporated Synanon.
The 1960’s: “The Game”
Synanon was originally founded as a two year residential rehab-like program (ironically, the rehab programI work at is exactly two years in length for
clients). Many individuals were attracted to Synonon, and membership boomed during early years. It was in the early 1960’s that the structural
groundwork for Synanon (and by proxy, all modern TC’s) was created by Diedrich and his cohorts. It was during this time that Diedrich came up with
the concept for The Synanon Game.
Diedrich developed a belief system that everything in modern life was a game, people woke up and played the game of family and then the game of
business/work. To Diedrich it was the products of the game that mattered. For instance, an individual who takes up tennis or football often doesn't
play for the express goal of becoming healthy, they became heathy as an added benefit of playing. Diedrich understood that pain and difficulty often
wrought better results than anything easy or cheap, especially for addicts. “The Game began with an idea I had of getting people together in a room
to pursue a conversation with a "line of no line." I began to yell and curse and accuse and ridicule: I talked to everyone in the room as if he had a
tail. Boy I felt great, and everyone else loved it too. The next week they all came back. That was the birth of the Synanon Game, which basically
hasn't changed at all since 1958.” Therefore, the synanon game became a small group of people who met to discuss any and all issues that may
These were the favored techniques of a Synanon game: 1) Defend vigorously; 2) Indict everybody; 3) Employ theatrics; 4) Tap into your own prejudices;
5) Use metaphor; 6) Exaggerate; 7) Lie; 8) Bring up old indictments; 9) Ridicule; 10) Allude to authority; 11) Allege subversion; 12) Involve several
people in indictment; 13) Carrom shot.
Games were meant to be chaotic, over-the-top, and bizarre. Individuals were encouraged to indict and berate other game members regardless of
validity. When the game ended, members of Synanon were expected to act civilly and cordially to one another, but when the game started, the only rule
that applied was no physical violence. How, you might ask, does the help a recovering addict? Diedrich and the other founding members of Synanon
developed what has been called the “red dot theory.” This theory asserts that all individuals have positive and negative thoughts and believes
within their general schema of life. Addicts, however, have more negative thoughts than positive (negative thoughts: red dots, positive thoughts:
white dots). Therefore addicts have a fundamental need to “purge” this inherent negativity through some means, and the game became an alternative
means of achieving this without using. The game was the cornerstone of all life at Synanon. It dictated everything.
In 1967 Synanon purchased the Casa de La Mar, a beachfront hotel in Santa Monica. This became their primary base of operations. However, they also
purchased other properties. Married couples lived at Synanon and children were reared within the community. During the late 1960’s, Diedrich
changes his original concept of a two year program to a lifetime program, since an addict could not fully recovery. Synanon received a lot of
positive press in the 1960’s, attracting even more desolate addicts to their doorstep. Soon, even non addicts became interested in their
alternative way of life. Many high profile individuals from the era visited Synanon, including Ray Bradbury and even Timothy Leary. In 1970, George
Lucas even utilized Syanon members as extras in his film THX 1138. He did so because many Synanon members had taken to the practice of shaving their
heads (a particularly brutal address in a game was known as a verbal haircut, and some members took this literally as a sign of loyalty.)
The 1970’s: Along came a snake
Synanon was self-sustaining, and remained so through several business and vocational endeavors. The most prominent of these were promotional items
(you know, the pens your company may order with their name on it). In 1976 Synanon was grossing $8.7 million, with estimated assets of over $30
million. This allowed Synanon to continue with little to no government regulations or oversight.
edit on 23-5-2016 by MarlboroRedCowgirl because: spellcheck
edit on 23-5-2016 by MarlboroRedCowgirl because: (no reason