Book Review of Escape by Santa monica Daily Press

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Book Review: Developing a cult following

By Jack Neworth on October 29, 2013 in Life

For Pacific Palisades attorney and freelance writer Paul Morantz 1978 was looking to be the best of years. And yet, at 32, 1978 was almost his last.

In February, Paul’s teleplay “Deadman’s Curve,” based on the lives of surf singers Jan and Dean, aired as a TV movie. It was a big success and Paul’s future was filled with plans of marriage and a rewarding writing career. But you know what they say, “Tell God your plans and make Him laugh.”

By Oct. 10, Paul was meeting with LAPD intelligence and a deputy state attorney general seeking protection from Synanon, a drug rehab facility in Santa Monica. Now a self-proclaimed religion, they were out to get Paul for his having exposed them in the media for frequently beating their “enemies” and keeping residents afraid to leave.

The police agreed they would devise a protection plan for Paul in the immediate future. It wouldn’t be immediate enough. Morantz, a lifelong sports junkie, drove home eager to forget the danger he was in and just watch the Dodgers play the Yankees in the World Series.

Synanon originated in 1958, perhaps with good intentions, but had evolved into a dangerous and violent cult. By mid-1978, Paul had given up writing and was suing Synanon full time in court on behalf of clients desperate to get their loved ones free. In return he was informed he was at the top of Synanon’s “hit list.”

A believer in non-violence, Paul was forced to buy a shotgun, which he kept in the house during the day and in bed when he slept. (That is when he was able to sleep.) Other precautions included always checking under his car for a possible bomb.

Entering his house on that warm early evening Paul was happily greeted by his two border collies who provided companionship and much needed protection. He was on his way to the bedroom to watch the baseball game but decided to check his mail first.

When Paul nonchalantly opened the mail slot by the front door, he experienced the most frightening moment of his life. Instantly he was bitten by a giant rattlesnake, which had been planted on the orders of Synanon founder Chuck Dederich, and carried out by two of Synanon’s “Imperial Marines.”

All three men would eventually plead “no contest” to conspiracy to murder and Morantz, after a 14-year battle, would help sue Synanon out of existence. In fact, just a few months ago Paul received a commendation from the city of Santa Monica. (That he jokes, “But for a little luck, could have been posthumous.”)

The snake’s rattles had been removed so Paul wouldn’t get any warning of the attack. As for the “luck,” Paul’s neighbor had just completed the snakebite portion of a CPR course. It may have saved Paul’s life.

After a touch-and-go hospital stay, Paul survived, but his life was forever changed. He would spend the next 30 years in a remarkable legal career battling almost every well-known cult and charlatan guru in courts throughout the state.

He documents this journey in his book “Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults,” a thrilling read that’s also educational. It links half a century of mental manipulation, violence, and legal warfare waged by controversial totalistic movements.

Chapter after chapter details the similarities of cults and their megalomaniacal leaders. It’s revealing to see the same elements in Charles Manson’s “family,” the Symbionese Liberation Army, Synanon, Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, Werner Erhard’s est, the Unification Church, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s commune and even Scientology.

Many of these cults have their own version of forced abortions, extreme hours with little to no pay, sleep deprivation, and constant ego-smashing abuse combined with praise and reassurance. Also common are disconnection from families, and diabolical legal strategies intended to ruin reputations and cripple outside interference.

But Paul’s heroics have come at a steep price. In 1978, his fiancé left him out of fear for her children. And then 10 years ago, Paul was diagnosed with a serious blood disorder linked to rattlesnake venom. Paul’s forced to live on bi-monthly transfusions. (He jokes, “I’ve developed simpatico with Dracula.”)

In “Escape” Morantz skillfully traces Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung’s theories of brainwashing he used on his own people and also on American POWs during the Korean War. Paul lays the groundwork for showing how many controversial groups here at home, particularly those coming out of the 1960s human potential movement, shared the same ideas, methods and, all too often, the same tragic results.

“Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults” is available at Jack can be reached at, or via e-mail at