Point Reyes article

By Tim Henry

Synanon and the man who got the snakebite

“As I moved left out of the corner of my eye I saw something dark and elongated through the grill of my mailbox that seemed to be taking up all the space. The box was dark and through the grill white envelopes were hard to see without stooping up close… Perhaps, I thought, a long scarf someone found and stuffed inside. An odd-shaped package? I am always amazed I never considered it might be a bomb…
As I turned back to head for my room I lifted the mailbox grill with my right hand and nonchalantly grabbed hold of its contents with my left. Never dreaming I was pulling out its body, I saw its head dart out, mouth open, its fangs sink into my left wrist. Startled, I screamed, let go and watched the fallen snake, all four feet plus of it, recoil on the floor.”
— Paul Morantz

Over 30 years ago, the Synanon Foundation had meager a beginning as a drug rehabilitation program inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous. Later it would become a multi-million dollar corporation with a residential facility on Tomales Bay.
Its increasingly zealous leader, Charles Dederich, was charged with conspiracy to commit murder in 1980. Synanon closed its doors in 1991.
Paul Morantz was the lawyer who, one afternoon in 1978, reached his hand into his mailbox to find a rattlesnake inside. Morantz, a terminal cancer, patient, spent last summer summing up his encounter with Synanon from his Los Angeles home.
He hopes the lessons of Synanon, as he sees them, will live on after his death.
“Synanon was one of the great stories of the twentieth century. But now, people don’t even remember it existed,” said Morantz, who began his legal career fighting elder abuse and Medicare schemes. In 1977, a family friend was placed in Synanon’s Santa Monica facility; twoman’s head was shaved and she was forbidden from talking with her husband. Morantz sued the foundation for kidnapping, brainwashing and false imprisonment and was awarded $300,000.
It was the first of six Synanon cases Morantz would prosecute. A national story that attracted the attention of the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine, the evolution of Synanon was the source of a yearlong investigation that won the Point Reyes Light a Pulitzer Prize for public service.
Morantz served as a primary source for Dave Mitchell, longtime publisher of the Light, who admired the attorney’s endurance. “I just remember his ‘people ought to know about this attitude.’ I think he recognized that he was doing good things, and that he was out and out heroic,” Mitchell said.
And at one time, Synanon members felt the same way. “Synanon was once a beautiful and productive community, which strived to be held in high esteem by its neighbors,” said Benjamin Parks, a former member and friend of Morantz. “The place felt as if it was as near to a paradise as I’d ever seen. And then it began to go totally insane.”
The name Synanon was the slurring of the words symposium and seminar. It was the concept of Charles Dederich, an alcoholic who began attending AA meetings in his 30s. Dederich modeled Synanon around the twelve-step program but departed from the conventional model of AA with a confrontational therapy technique called “The Game”—the only rule of which was no violence or threats of violence.
“If you listened to a session you’d think a fight was about to ensue. It’s attack therapy. The whole goal of group therapy is to use the peer pressure to change people and call you out on every inconsistency. It does work,” said Mark Dowie, who worked with Synanon in the 1980s.
“They treated you like you acted,” Parks said. “If you acted like a crazy person, they treated you that way. If you wanted to help them build a community, then they treated you like that. The intentions were more or less benign, but they were doing classic thought reform—and when you do that, you’re playing with dynamite.”
But Synanon had charmed the public. Then governor Ronald Regan praised the group, and after the Marin Civil Grand Jury toured the Tomales facility in 1976 it gave a glowing report, which even criticized the county probation department for not enrolling more local juvenile delinquents in the program.
Mitchell, too, had a positive experience on his first tour. “Mostly I was impressed by what I saw: happy, articulate people seemingly living productive lives,” he said.
But the following year, the Grand Jury gave a grim appraisal of Synanon, citing irrational statements from Dederich, a runaway problem among youths and altercations with neighbors in Marshall. “The people of West Marin are worried and uneasy. They don’t like having as neighbors an organization that has changed from a benevolent group of rehabilitated addicts, who presented a low profile in the community, to an autocracy, which refuses to observe the rules of the very society it proposes to help,” the Grand Jury wrote.
Synanon was also found to be in violation of zoning regulations. The Marshall facility was designated agricultural, while the Synanon Foundation Incorporated had a division called Advertising Gifts and Premiums, or ADGAPS, a pen, pencil and knick-knack distributorship worth $11 million a year. Many buildings, an airstrip and health facilities were unpermitted. Synanon soon changed its legal status to that of a religion, which afforded the corporation tax-free charitable status and legal protection from persecution.
Mitchell began to change his view, claiming that Synanon exploited its members, many of whom turned over their personal wealth, worked for extremely low pay and left the organization with nothing.
Charles Dederich’s wife, Betty, was diagnosed with a terminal cancer in late 1976, and passed away four months later. Former members say that Betty was Dederich’s balance. “[Dederich] would go off on a rant, and Betty would just say, ‘Shut up, you old drunk.’ When she got sick, she could barely speak—but she leaned over to me and said, ‘Watch Chuck. Watch out for him,’” Parks said. “When she died he became totally unglued. He lost it. I mean, he really lost it. He started drinking again. He got more and more isolated and grumpy and crazy. He sank further into alcoholism.”
Parks recalls the time when Dederich threw a cup of root beer at a member during a heated discussion. “That’s when they started to physically discipline the juveniles. We started to take a more aggressive stance toward intruders. All of the sudden, we had enemies. And we had lost perspective on how weird it looked to the rest of the world, with shaved heads and overalls,” Parks said.
Paranoia set in among Synanon’s upper ranks. The group horded thousands of dollars worth of guns. Synanon taught a type of martial arts called Syndo, and had an armed security force called the Imperial Marines.
Morantz details 88 separate acts of violence on his website. “They would bring them on stage and publically beat them up, to teach other people to respect and listen,” he wrote. There were several beatings in West Marin, and a former member was nearly beaten to death in Berkeley. “No one realizes how close they were to being like the Charles Manson gang,” Morantz said.
Farnsworth believes that in a community populated by criminals, violent behavior was likely to happen. “I didn’t see violence, but I know it happened. It was mostly behind the scenes. People were taking [Dederich’s] instructions literally, which he may have not meant it at all, or meant it metaphorically,” he said.
Mitchell continued to probe Synanon in the Light. “People were always telling Cathy and me to be careful. They became increasingly arrogant,” he said. Synanon attorneys counseled their clients on how to perpetrate violence, Mitchell said. “One of the lawyers advised to not pick someone up in a truck and beat them up, because that was kidnapping. They said, ‘Just beat the guy up where you find him instead.’”
Farnsworth said he was instructed by Synanon lawyers—48 strong—to purge various records of speeches in the database he designed. Among these transcripts was a discussion of a rattlesnake attack on a lawyer in Los Angeles.
Morantz was already looking over his shoulder in the fall of 1978—he’d met with the Los Angeles Police Department about Synanon’s threats of an attempt on his life. “My pattern at that moment in time would be to get down and search my car before I drove, or to not go in my house unless I heard my dogs.”
But Morantz was not thinking about the mailbox. “I just stuck my hand inside. It was like having your hand in a vice and having someone cranking it.” A rattlesnake had been planted by two Synanon Imperial Marines. Dederich pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit murder a few years later.
Members of Synanon who still praise what was achieved by the organization say they saw the slow collapse of a sliver of utopia. The Jonestown massacre was a turning point for many members. “In 1977, we lost upwards of 750 to 800 people—Jonestown was very sobering,” Parks said.
The State Attorney General set up a multi-agency task force after the attempted murder of Morantz, and the Department of Justice began an investigation into Synanon’s tax evasion. The foundation shut its doors for good in 1991.
Morantz continued to try cases against cults. Diagnosed twice for post-traumatic stress disorder, he said the fear of being targeted for murder has never left him. And his choice to put himself in danger has been both fulfilling and difficult to live with. “At one point I realized that I was bound to Synanon for who knows for how long, and I started to cry. But I said to myself, ‘This is what your life is now, so go back and do your job.’”

You can read more at paulmorantz.com, or read The Light on Synanon, by Dave Mitchell, available at the Point Reyes Light office.