Act As If

Act as IF
by Paul Morantz
(c) April 2011

With 383 members, plus 26 children, they were, said Dederich, the largest group of abstaining addicts living behind open doors on the planet. And by the end of 1964, Synanon graduated 50 non-users. In contrast, thirteen addicts died of heroin overdoses in Los Angeles that summer.

The trial and error period Dederich stated Synanon had to go through without outside interference had settled into a rigid program by the mid-sixties. It was a process he entitled A Tunnel Back into the Human Race. The goal was not to make one choose not to shoot dope, but to reeducate to the point that it would become impossible to make any other choice. “There is nothing,” Dederich said, “more charming, nothing more satisfying to me than watching people toss away their blinders and begin to live.”

Newcomers, Dederich said, had what psychologists labeled as character disorders. Dederich preferred calling it undeveloped personality. Psychotherapy, Dederich explained, was based on the principle that if you changed a person’s inner self he would change his behavior. Synanon took the reverse position. If behavior is changed the inner person will change. To accomplish this the environment had to be changed. As the old one had resulted in addiction, so may a new surroundings eliminate it. Drug addicts were infants in need of re-education. They needed to be told what to do. Their problem was not illness but stupidity and Synanon’s job was to re-educate them into functioning moral adults who would become inner-directed (self reliant) as opposed to outer-directed (molded by authority). Emerson had said, “imitation was suicide” but in Synanon it was viewed as a necessary temporary first step. One was to hop aboard justified by Emerson’s Compensation and balance of “Give and Take”. For everything obtained there was a price to be paid. In Synanon that was a loss of freedom that one could earn back by growing up. “Free choice,” said Dederich, “to a dope fiend is like putting a gun in the hands of a baby.”


The conversion process began even before admission. The newcomer was given an appointment time and it was up to him to get there. No one would come get him. If he was late he was told to come back another day on time. If his arrival was prompt he was made to wait for considerable time on the bench, a symbol of pending rebirth. The initial interview was harsh, often hostile, mixed with a folk hero history of Dederich. Ex-dope fiends sometimes lined up behind the interviewers, staring at the prospect. Many times the newcomer had to beg his way in, promising to obey all rules and admit that without Synanon’s help he will die. He was told failure to obey would result in being sent back to the streets regardless of the dire consequences. Several newcomers wanted to establish they were “bad”, a reputation worthy of status on the streets. Hurst and Kimball were experts at jumping on anyone who came in with such street “tough guy” image that got them status in prisons. When someone talked of the pleasure of beating a guy with his fists, the point was quickly got across that this was not appropriate behavior and did not impress in Synanon.

Usually $1,000 was asked from a newcomer as it was reasoned that if he had such money and did not hand it over he would spend it on narcotics anyway. Sometimes money was sought from relatives, it being explained that they would end up spending more money than that eventually on bail and/or lawyers if Synanon didn’t take the addict in. Moreover, Synanon explained, without admission the addict will die. Synanon would take what money it could and if the newcomer split the money was not returned. If the newcomer was in dire need and/or persistent he/she would be admitted even if he came up with no funds. Space was tight and Dederich noticed that as new people entered sometimes it squeezed someone out.

The newcomer, sometimes called Momma’s boy, was given a short haircut and facial hair removed as a symbol of the death of the prior self-image and to identify with his new family. All personal items were taken, watches, electric shavers, anything that Synanon could pawn. In place the admittee was given khaki pants, a wool shirt and flip-flops obtained at the Synanon General Store. Any status he had was left at the door. A surgeon, said Dederich, would get “dishpan hands” and the craftiest thief will “specialize in removing toilet bowl stains.” But they will find, said Dederich, a life intensified to the nth degree with only two escape routes: Out the door to certain death or on to health through Synanon.

The admittee was to be an infant, stripped of his past, unaware of reality and totally dependent on Synanon for guidance and growth. He was told if he didn’t shut-up when told to he could be thrown out. A ninety-day ban against contacting his old family and friends was in effect. Isolation was considered necessary to re-education. Past associations with family, teachers and friends had not done anybody any good, Dederich proclaimed. And with good cause he observed such contacts might reinforce past behavior patterns. He added it might also interfere with the “necessary attachment to Synanon.” A newcomer was assigned a buddy to watch and guard against such contacts. Contact would not be allowed until the person got his head screwed on right. After three months one could sign out to leave the property but usually only in the company of someone else.


Cold-turkey kicking was not as bad as portrayed in the movies. And at Synanon a hi-fi played while the dope fiend laid on a couch on the second floor living room, receiving massages and eggnog. Sheets covered the couches and close by was a wastebasket with a plastic liner. As newcomers sweated they could watch the ocean through large picture windows and people inside eating at the dining room extension, a view of a life now possible. People stopped by to chat, letting the newcomer know he had friends, at the same time seeing a reminder of where they came from. Once having “kicked” the addict was not applauded. The belief was that shooting dope was so stupid there should be no reward for stopping. That would only come when the newcomer proved himself as a person.

The secret to growing up was to Act as If. Dederich explained to newcomers that all the people they see “making movies, raising money, entertaining Newsweek, and so on…” all were once like them. And they, too, could become something different if they trusted and did what they were told. Dederich said Trust was another way of knowing. What they were getting, Dederich said, “was perhaps the only therapy that works more often than not on narcotic addicts; this is what you get.” He went to Westport and New York and gave speeches to potential recruits, who, to Santa Monica’s worst fears, were to be shipped west. With his 240-pounds, accented by short legs, amazing raspy gravel-like voice, charismatic rhythm and his expressed sincere desire for their well-being, Dederich explained what was required–Act as If–and single-handedly instilled a confidence and hope most had never experienced.

“You came from all over the country, because, you know, you’re in trouble. You, you haven’t turned out so well. What you know, or what you think you know, and how you feel about things hasn’t worked very well. So you say ‘my ideas, attitude, my posture, of confronting life has brought me here. I got nothing. I got no dough. I got no this. I got no that.’

“Act as if you are here to do something about your problem of being a foul-up. Now, we know a lot of you didn’t. We know this. But we act as if that’s why you’re here. We — — we know naturally that some of you came in here because things are a little too warm on the streets. Some of you came in here because Mama sent you here. Some of you are here because Mama or Papa threw you out.

“We know that’s some of you are here to use Synanon as a kick factory. It’s not designed to be a kick factory at all. You want a kick factory, go to Lexington or some hospitals where they detoxify and cut your habit down for a week or something like that.

“We know that none of you came in here with a real gut level realization that you don’t have to be a dope fiend anymore. We know that none of you came in with that feeling. You see. Because >once a hype, always to hype’ is deep in our language and it is deeper in yours then it is in a person who never used drugs. You see.

“So, I don’t care what reasons brought you to our door. We assume — — we act as if you came here to stop being a drug addict. And we will act that way as long as you act that way. You act as if…we act as if, and pretty soon these things come true. These things come true. You see.

“I can’t explain it to you what it is like to be a grown up human being with a grown up body and brain. It would be like trying to explain how a chocolate soda taste to an Eskimo who’s been eating whale blubber for 30 years.

“So, what are you going to do? Why don’t you ‘Act as If?’ You lived a life that didn’t work out so well and you’re going to start another one. Now, you don’t know yet how to live a life, I guess, because it ended here. It ended many other times, periodically, in jail or screwed up or broke or with loss of job or all the things that happened to nuts like you and me. You see.

“So you take the position, ‘I don’t know too much about how things work because here I am.’ Open up your mind. Listen. Try it. Try it and see what happens to you. There’s nothing very mysterious about what we are doing here. Really. It’s so simple that it seems mysterious.

“It took God knows how long many million years to invent the wheel, for heaven’s sake. You know. Four hundred years ago on this continent the Indians had built Pueblos and they could make bows and arrows and bring down a deer at 200 yards. And they hadn’t thought of the wheel. You know. They hooked horses up to sticks and hooked squaws up to sticks, and they dragged their loads across the ground. They never thought of the wheel.

“Now, what we’re doing is pretty darn simple. We say to a person, ‘We’re going to tell you what to do. You don’t know how to live or you couldn’t be here. We’re going to tell you what to do. Act as if you believe it. Act as if you believe it.’

Doing what they were told, Dederich explained, was the way to becoming an adult; how an Indian can become a Chief. He told them of his own plight, his last drunken binge that cost him his second wife, second child, home, job, bank account and friends. “I bloodied my head, fouled up my environment and screwed everything up in a real boss way. I conned people out of more money than all of you put together.” Then, he told them, he was ready to listen, to ask a “Dad” what to do and when asked to jump to ask how far. He reminded them of their nights on dark corners, waiting to score, prostituting, pimping, thievery, fearing the police and of days “locked up in cages like parrots.” Many he was speaking too, he predicted, would soon return to such a life, stupidly running out the door the first time they were yelled at. “If you are nuts, if you are totally insane, you will run out the door like children do and fall down an open manhole … That’s what you will do.” Two out of ten, he predicted, will be “gone in 30 days and strung out in six months…within a year in a playpen or dead.” But for those who stayed he offered a great promise based on hard work and commitment.

“And surprise, you walked into Synanon and somebody said, ‘I’ll tell you what to do. For the next year, you go over there and you get in front of the dishpan. You wash dishes 12 hours a day, seven days a week. You see. Just do that and at the end of 365 days I guarantee you, you’ll never go to jail again. You’ll never be in the position where anybody talks bad to you. You’ll never be humiliated again as long as you live. You’ll never have any worries about where you are going to eat or live or sleep. You won’t be rained on and there will be plenty of cigarettes. You have a nice place to live and we don’t go around trying to examine your broken home background.

“Ok, now we can get you out of this mess, if you do it exactly our way. We insist on this, first for the Synanon Foundation, and secondly, always remember that, secondly, for the salvation of your soul. We’ve only got one Foundation.”