From Miracle To Madness: True Story of Charles Dederich and Synanon

Below is book’s Introduction

This is the story of Charles Dederich and his length and shadow—Synanon—the first
ever self-help drug rehabilitation center once dubbed the “Miracle on the Beach,” but later condemned as a violent, militaristic cult; it is the story of a meteoric rise and cataclysmic fall. Was Dederich just another sociopathic cult leader, or was he a true Jedi Knight seduced by the Dark Side? At his best, he gave hope to drug addicts– they could be cured at a time when most doubted it. At his worst, he created a community steeped in paranoia, violence and fear, converted to terrorists.

Dederich’s own recovery from alcoholism—through Alcoholics Anonymous—led to an obsession with addiction counseling and eventually to the creation of Synanon in a ramshackle Venice, Calif. storefront. In its infancy, it scraped by on meager donations, money raised by collecting empty Coke bottles on the beach and stale sandwiches hustled from a nearby catering truck. But through Dederich’spersonality—once described as a “herd of one elephant”—it eventually grew into a rich, alternative lifestyle community with several compounds throughout
California, possessing a fleet of vehicles, motorcycles, airplanes, a mini-armada
of boats, real estate holdings and a thriving merchandising arm. With a minimum of $33 million in assets by the mid-1970s, it became history’s richest communal organization.

It overcame prejudice, societal doubters and its own missteps, legal and otherwise,
to gain wide public acceptance and admiration. Books praised the Synanon“cure.” Life Magazine ran a major 14-page photo retrospective on the organization. State and federal agencies saluted its
successes, and Columbia Pictures celebrated Synanon in a flattering movie.

But Dederich wanted more. Like so many seekers before him, he wanted Utopia. So he transformed Synanon into a massive social experiment intended to guide human behavior into the 21st century. Its creed: To be a community of scholars where everyone learns and no one is
learned. Why else are we here, Dederich demanded, if not to turn earth into the jewel of the solar system?

In the end, that majestic dream crumbled to dust. Success and fame, and the power that comes
with them, can be powerful aphrodisiacs; addictive to a leader like Dederich,who suffered from deep-rooted childhood insecurities. He imbued Synanon with his paranoia and bitterness and eventually withdrew it from the world, cutting off contact with outsiders, including family and friends, and forming a cradle-to-grave, self-contained community.

As it spiraled into an Orwellian society, Dederich imposed his societal vision on his followers—complete with mass vasectomies, forced abortions and mandatory mate-swapping. Surrounded by conformists and yes-men, Dederich could no longer distinguish between prejudice and constructive criticism and began punishing those who exhibited “deviant” thoughts.

With his paranoia growing, Dederich began training his own paramilitary group—dubbed
the Imperial Marines—and stockpiling a massive amount of weapons and ammunition. Inevitably, he launched a so-called “holy war” against outsiders and nonbelievers, which eventually led to an attempt on my life by the Imperial Marines, who placed a rattlesnake in my mailbox. That act, and a host of other violent encounters, focused a national spotlight on the organization and eventually led it down the path to its own self-destruction.

* * * * *

The purpose of this book is to finally set down the complete, accurate history of Synanon—from its birth to its demise—in order to preserve the lessons learned from this tumultuous era and add to our understanding of human behavior and how it can be manipulated to serve the pathology of its leaders.

I admit that I am partially motivated by the terrible job done by a book by Rod Janzen, a Synanon apologist masquerading as a historian. Prior to the publication of his book The Rise and Fall of Synanon in 2001, Janzen contacted me, but only to confirm a minor detail. How could he write a book about Synanon without interviewing the man who fought it for over a decade? I asked. I even offered him access to the internal Synanon documents that filled my garage. He declined the offer, saying he had interviewed Synanon leaders and residents—most of whom had participated in the violence that permeated the community—and had access to Synanon documents stored at University of California, Los Angeles. Those documents, however, had been provided by Synanon, which naturally withheld damning information.

Janzen was a devout Christian and a believer in Utopian communities; he wasn’t going to let the facts dissuade him from what he wanted people to believe. He interviewed sociologist Richard Ofshe, then dismissed his discourse on the use of brainwashing at Synanon as interesting, but not applicable. But he admitted to me he didn’t know what brainwashing was. He also didn’t want to
hear about violence at Synanon. While he was forced to acknowledge the attempt on my life, he never mentioned the brutal assaults on Phil Ritter, an ex-member, and Ron Eidson, who lived near a Synanon compound, and he insisted that the media had exaggerated the extent of the violence. I later sent him a document detailing more than 80 violent incidents. I never heard from him again.

Janzen wasn’t the first seduced by Synanon’s brave new world. In Synanon’s early days, sociologist Lewis Yablonsky had declared with its game–a confrontational therapy group in which
peers counseled peers without doctors present– Synanon had finally found the long-elusive cure for crime/addiction. Like Yablonsky, Janzen blindly accepted the dream of Synanon; he refused to acknowledge the mountain of evidence that proved the dream had turned into a nightmare.

The events detailed herein are supported by voluminous Synanon documents, dating
back to the group’s inception. I have key Synanon tapes, transcripts, board meeting minutes and internal memoranda that the organization fought to keep out of public view for years. I also possess what I believe to be the most complete collection of books, newspaper and magazine articles, broadcast news recordings and transcripts relating to Dederich and Synanon. Of course, I also
have enough court and other legal documents to fill a law library, many of them, naturally, related to my cases involving Synanon.

Together, they tell a tale of an organization whose then-novel concept of using fellow criminals/addicts to counsel their peers—without the supervision of licensed doctors—should have raised regulatory concerns and did in some circles. But the powers-that-be accepted Synanon’s
contention that since government had failed to combat addiction, they should now step aside and allow Synanon to find its way without government interference.

Those experts who jumped on the Synanon bandwagon too quickly—denouncing those who
counseled caution as “bigots”—failed to recognize that giving authority over drug treatment to ex-criminals/addicts, many of whom were sociopaths without a conscious regard for others, made the system ripe for abuse. Within the controlled environment of early Synanon, many of them had obeyed the rules and lived good lives. But when the rules changed and the atmosphere inside Synanon turned hostile, many simply saw it as a return to the good old days on the streets and eagerly adapted. Even the “squares,” or non-addicts—basically good people seeking a new lifestyle—went along, feeling the need to prove themselves as tough as the so-called “dope fiends.”

So why write this book now, ages after Synanon has faded from our collective consciousness? I could just say there has been a public clamor for it since my first book gave a 55-page taste.

But it is, of course, an important part of our history and an intriguing study in
how the benign can turn malevolent. There are also lessons that can inform us on current issues. For example, the Synanon experience should have taught us the wisdom of licensing laws, which protect the ill and the vulnerable from abuse. Their care should never be entrusted to unlicensed, unsupervised amateurs without some guarantees of safety. Sadly, such programs continue to flourish despite failed efforts by some knowledgeable legislators to put an end to them.

The Synanon story also illustrates what happens when a self-contained community, populated with volatile people, becomes messianic and, in its view, omnipotent, and disavows government involvement or rule. In this, Synanon wasn’t unique. Like many would-be Utopian fever dreams, it followed a pattern: Confine a group of dependent followers within a totalistic
environment controlled by a charismatic, narcissistic leader, use coercive persuasion tactics to convince they are on a sacred mission and instill in them an irrational fear of outsiders.

This simple formula has yielded horrors in the past, from the murder spree of the Manson family to 9/11—and could threaten us in the future, as enemies in totalistic environments such as Al-Qaeda, Isis and North Korea grow ever more hostile.

Sometimes I wish we hadn’t ended Synanon. I’ve had the nagging feeling many critics,
myself included, may have ignored the possibility that a reformed Synanon sans Dederich and the game might have returned to its mission of public service.

Many groups once denounced as cults survived the perilous journey from sacred mission to reviled cult and evolved into society’s mainstream, including the Catholic Church and the Mormons. For more than a decade, many good people within Synanon tried to follow the path to
redemption, but eventually failed, in no small part because of my efforts. In writing this book, I learned how hard many of them worked to save Synanon. But to be absorbed into the mainstream, the leaders of Synanon had to confess their transgressions, and ultimately, that was something they could not do.

This book isn’t a retrospective on all American cults or a tell-all memoir. I’ve
done that with the 2013 publication of Escape:My Lifelong War Against Cults, available on To those who have read Escape, which included a chapter detailing my more than decade-long battle with Synanon, I apologize in advance for you must endure some unavoidable duplication of detail here. But if you plunge on, I believe you will be rewarded for your effort with a much more complete and revealing account, one that explores the complex social and legal
issues presented by this grand experiment and the damage caused by the easy,but often wrong assumptions made by politicians and judges confronted by a difficult subject they didn’t fully understood and still don’t.

—Paul Morantz