Synanon: The Beginning of the Troubled Teen Industry

How Did Today’s Troubled Teen Industry Come to Be?

Synanon – The Beginnings of an Industry

Before reading the history of Synanon, I encourage you to visit The Synanon Museum. The online “Museum” offers a unique view into life at Synanon.

In 1958, Charles E. “Chuck” Dederich, Sr, a well-respected member of the Alcoholics Anonymous community, decided to fill a need for those who were previously denied entry into the A.A. system. At that time, A.A. only accepted those addicted solely to alcohol. Noting the need for effective treatment for drug users, Dederich formed Synanon. What began as a two-year residential program primarily focused on heroin addiction would later become something much larger, eventually forming into the “Church of Synanon.”

As his two-year program flourished, Dederich began to form a theory that treatment for drug addiction was never complete. Rather, it was a life-long process that required constant participation in Synanon’s programs. He first developed a series of supplemental materials for use outside of the program, an industry that at one point generated approximately $10 million annually. As time went on, Dederich began to feel that this wasn’t enough. Life-long residential care became Dederich’s primary focus.

Synanon then purchased the Club Casa del Mar, a former 1920’s beachside hotel in Santa Monica, California and formed a “lifelong recovery center” for Synanon members. There members of Synanon lived with their families communally raising children and forming a cult-like society for lifelong recovery. Not only did the community admit drug addicts, they also admitted those who did not use or who had never used, following what would later become known as the “Dry Addict Philosophy.”

Treatment was based on what was called “The Synanon Game.” This “game” formed the beginnings of what would later be called “attack therapy,” a method of treatment that still exists in behavior modification centers today.

Dederich is quoted as stating, “The Synanon 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. Before the days of Synanon nobody had ever told addicts to stop using drugs. People tried to love them out of it, reason them out of it, and motivate them out of it. We said to them: “Hey, KNOCK THAT OFF! If you shoot dope here we’ll throw your ass out. Synanon came into existence because our society is composed of mama’s boys and daddy’s little girls who have been innundated by attempts to produce nothing but agreeable sensations in them. Character disorders, quite simply, are people who had too strong a dose of “mother love” and were never properly housebroken by fathers. The childish idea that money can accomplish something without people is rampant in our society. At the top, its always the manipulation of people — the people business — that makes for success or failure. I am proposing a counter-philosophy, a rather old-fashioned, commonsense approach to things: ‘Good boys and good girls get good things — bad boys and bad girls get bad things.’ This idea is the very basis of Synanon. We are a father principle phenomenon which rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior.”

By the 1970’s, Synanon had grown into a multi-million dollar empire.

A 1977 article in People Magazine details that, “The number of people who have undergone the Synanon experience recently passed 15,000. About a third of the 1,300 currently in residence are so-called “squares” who are there not because they have drug problems but because they like the communal, highly structured way of life….Adult members’ time is divided into two periods: seven six-hour days of “motion,” or work such as maintenance and construction, and seven days of “growth,” when they are free to rest, read and pursue hobbies. Children at Synanon attend school for three weeks, then work as apprentice carpenters or scullery maids for three weeks. “Everybody teaches,” Dederich says, “secretaries, prostitutes, ex-drug addicts.” Discipline is harsh. “When kids get out of line they are knocked on their asses. That treatment turns them into woolly lambs in about a week.” The system seems to work. Synanon children have been given national achievement tests and score well above average.”

Outside of round-the-clock drug treatment & discipline, life at Synanon required many other strange things of it’s members. Should a woman become pregnant, she was forced to live in “the Hatchery” beginning in the seventh month of pregnancy until the child was six month’s old. In the same 1977 People Magazine article, Dederich is quoted as stating, “It removes the father from some unpleasant aspects, like getting up for the 2 o’clock feeding. We don’t know if it’s a good idea or not, but we’re trying it. Nothing is sacred just because it’s been done for a million years.”

According to a Time Magazine article , “In 1970 Dederich 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 cut down on the vittles. That same year Dederich concluded that Synanon had too many kids. So all the men were pressured into having vasectomies. This year [1977, sic] Betty Dederich died. Dederich found another woman and soon decided that everyone would benefit by taking a new mate. Couples who had been married for as long as 30 years are now in the process of divorcing and remarrying.” Eventually women were “encouraged” to have abortions against their will as Dederich felt childbirth was no more important than squeezing out a football.

In order to help protect their tax-exempt status, Dederich began to seek the placement of troubled youth into his facilities. Teens were sent to Synanon by state and Federal organizations, but were housed in separate facilities. They were referred to as “The Punk Squad.” According to a 2008 article by Paul Morantz, “As these juveniles did not want to be there, Synanon methods failed. Violence was then permitted upon them, breaking for first time Synanon’s “non violent rule.” Children were struck across the face, knocked down, otherwise punished and then “gamed.” Soon the OK on violence would spread to “splitees,” suspected thieves and perceived spies and enemies.”

As Synanon’s methods became more widely criticized, the “Church of Synanon” was formed to help establish itself as a religious institution, thus devoid of tax regulations. In addition, Dederich helped to organize the “Imperial Marines,” a group of members dedicated to protecting the institution and fighting those who criticized or threatened its existence. As Synanon began to fail, the Imperial Marines began to beat and even kill splitees, news anchors who reported on Synanon’s abuses, and family members of “patients” who were trying to escape. An underground railroad had formed outside of the main compound which helped to return kids to their families as they ran away from the program. Participants were met with severe violence.

In 1991, Synanon finally came to its end, though it still operates abroad in Germany.

How Did Synanon Shape the Troubled Teen Industry?

In 1967, Mel Wasserman – influenced by his participation in Synanon – formed CEDU Education. CEDU was the first of many programs influenced by former Synanon members. It was also the first parent-choice, private-pay adolescent behavior modification center.

Like Synanon, participants in the program were not treated by psychologists or trained staff. Therapy was much like the Synanon game, however it was referred to as “Raps.” While Raps were a slightly watered down version of the original game, they still used attack therapy as a model and relied on verbal assault to help modify children’s behavior.

According to a Wikipedia article, “The average time a student spent at a CEDU school was 2½ years. The school year was year-round. The original CEDU program did not believe in use of psychological medicine. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 1pm to 5pm (sometimes 6pm) students were required to attend group therapy sessions called Raps. In this CEDU period, Raps were highly confrontational, at any given moment in a Rap there were could be between 1 to 15 students screaming at other students or, with their head pointed towards the floor, screaming at their own ’emotional issues’ and/or crying uncontrollably. Approximately 95% of the faculty had no accreditation or training specific to intensive Gestalt based ‘group therapy’ which was very popular during this time period.”

CEDU also began to implement large group awareness therapy, something that would persist throughout future troubled teen programs. Wasserman created a seven-part series of 20-24 hour seminars titled “Propheets.” Each Propheet focused on a different topic, all inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet.” In addition to the Propheets, students were acquired to attend two workshops. The “I & ME Workshop” and “The Summit Workshop.” The workshops were based on the Lifespring program, which now has developed into Landmark Education. These seminars were highly confrontational and utilized a variety of games, tactics, and large-group therapy to change children’s thought patterns.

A full breakdown of the Propheets and seminars is found on this Wikipedia article.

CEDU operated from 1967-1998, when it was purchased by Brown Schools. Brown Schools went bankrupt in 2005, marking the end for CEDU. Three of the programs, however, were purchased and reopened by Universal Health Services and are still currently operating today.

Today’s Troubled Teen Industry

Behavior Modification Centers, Bootcamps, Wilderness Therapy Programs, Residential Treatment Facilities, and Christian Treatment Facilities have flourished in recent years.

The majority of these programs utilize the same methods employed by Synanon and CEDU, including attack therapy, large group awareness training, levels and point systems, strict authoritarian leadership, and harsh punishments. In 2008, there were an estimated 650 private, nongovernmental residential treatment programs in the US alone.

Some of the most notable offspring from the Synanon movement are The Elan School, Straight Inc, The Seed, Kids Inc, The Pathway Center, and the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP).

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4 Responses to “Synanon: The Beginning of the Troubled Teen Industry” Subscribe

  1. Siobhan Patricia Lynch October 17, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

    Synanon’s legacy is scary – there are many who think that Synanon and the a”therapeutic community” are perfectly fine… in fact Jeni – my girlfriend is in a class where the professor seems to think that TC’s are Gods gift to drug treatment.

    She got up on her soapbox and started to tell him (and the class) about Synanon and the MkUltra program, and its followups … and what it did to teenagers – you see, this man seems to only concentrate on the consensual side of things, but when you get into nonconsensually imprisoning teenagers and young adults, and children, you get into something completely different – you look at things like The SEED, and Straight Inc. and CEDU, which turned then into KIDS and AARC, and WWASP and Aspen…. so seriously, you can have as many Daytops and Phoenix Houses as you want that consensually treat adults like shit and get them off drugs, and adults can talk about how it “saved their lives” – but when people 20 years later after being abused as kids can’t get their lives together because they were misdiagnosed and never actually had a drug problem – they had Aspergers Syndrome, or ADHD, or an Eating Disorder, or some kind of treatable psychiatric disorder, but these places professed to “cure” them with an abusive treatment modality with no informed consent and brainwashing…. then you’ve got an issue.

    And the so-called “success” of the “adult” programs just hurts us when it comes to proving that Synanon based TC’s are bad when it comes to “treating” adolescents, if it really truly is any good at “treating” adults, or whether they’ll come back in 20 years and tell us they’re traumatized as well too…..


  1. The Politics of the Troubled Teen Industry | The WWASP Diaries - July 5, 2012

    […] Synanon was the first doctor-free drug treatment facility to exist in America.  Founded in 1958, the program began its first facility in California.  Over the next several decades, Synanon grew into what is now considered to have been both a cult and a quasi-religion.   Synanon’s methods involved the Synanon Game, a highly confrontational method of treatment.  In “the game,” addicts were forced to endure hours of harsh criticism and attack therapy in order to gain self-awareness.  Eventually, graduation from Synanon was no longer an option.  Members and their children lived communally within the program, attracting the attention of celebrities and non-users seeking an alternative way of life.  Within the program, Dederich created a series of seminars that would eventually develop into EST training.  These seminars were designed to produce personal break-downs followed by mass euphoria.  Inside the Synanon community, Dederich led as both a patriarchal figure and a sort of semi-god.  His followers obeyed his every command.  Shaved heads, strange styles of dress, forced abortions and vasectomies, open marriages, and lack of contact with children became the norm for those living within Synanon.  Though Synanon stopped all operations in the 1990′s, the methods  developed within the program and the influence Dederich held over his followers still has repercussions on the industry today. […]

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