Carina Ray Story on Children of Synanon

Has society forgotten some important early lesson in racial harmony delivered by Synanon?

These days, few people remember Synanon at all, a once-hailed first drug rehabilitation program in the 1960s and 1970s that evolved into a dangerous cult. But Carina Ray does. In her Apr. 21 2012 article, Ms. Ray, an assistant professor of African History at Fordham University, recalls living in the the organization as a bold experiment in racial integration that could be instructive to a new generation continuing to struggle with racial issues. Her view is informed by her own experience as a child of Synanon, born to a mixed-race couple who met and married there. But she was 8 year old when she left

Her article is still accurate, but, unfortunately, misses the target. Limited to 700 words she only briefly acknowledges in a sentence her experiences were before something bad happened in Synanon but doesn’t say what it was mistakenly believing that anyone in the public audience today knows,; most never heard the word Synanon let alone really knows what happened in Synanon. Most people today don’t know who Patty Hearst was or know about a mass suicide of 900 people in Jonestown. The finality that she refers to is not described but it was Synanon developing a hit force called the Imperial Marines and from 1974 to 1978 Synanon members committed over 80 incidences of violence, and ultimately two murder attempts that a man who married her mother was involved in.

It is true that Synanon pioneered a creative concept in drug rehabilitation by building what founder Chuck Dederich saw as a new society in which people of all colors and creeds would live together in peace, bound by their common goal of fighting addiction. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean that his “new society” succeeded in abolishing bigotry. But it did, as other communes of the time did, show interracial group living could exist without cross hatred. It was not a bold new experiment in communal living but did become the richest and largest of its time, building actually four complete cities in 4 different locations. Despite my commenting on her age, her experiences and positive memories are real and true and had been stated to me separately by other former Synanon kids and adults and I have seen enough in photographs and film to know this Shangri-La once existed but that environment ended when Synanon changed in 1974 when it became a religion and Dederich instituted violence first against the children in Synanon and then against adults that misbehaved and then to the “enemies” allegedly conspiring to destroy Synanon that existed in the the outside world. Fortunately I am not limited to 700 words. In the end bigotry did grow in Synanon greater than outer society, Members bonded together not on color, but by identifying as members of the Synanon race and then went to war against the “Ungodly” outsiders.

Ms. Ray is of the opinion that the Synanon initial success of having children raised by entire community was a great experience and the result of the Synanon model which she calls the first therapeutic community which it was far from (It was first no doctor rehab) but clearly the one that became credibly (though some disagree) the most successful. What Ms. Ray who at age 8 when she left does not report is the horrible pressures that was being applied to the good people of Synanon including the discouragement of contact of kids with actual parents and another to allow no contact with the world.

Further she had no experience in racial free environments (which there were many) that also include personal freedom to compare it to. Nor at age 8 did she understand, nor yet understand, that while she was there freedom of thought was taken away from those hard working people by the man she fondly remembers with “the whiskers” in l967 when founder Charles Dederich changed it from a drug rehab into an experimental society where he alone conducted the experiments. His wife Betty was something special, but in the end she knew of the Imperial Marines training, their purpose, the violence and went along with it as all did under Dederich’s control. Take away the totalitarianism and isolation from parents away and other Synanom brainwashing interventions a lot could be said for growing up on farmland with a bonafide school and a lot of concerned adults. But a lot that had to do with those initial great Synanon early days she describes is that initially it was the — the 60’s with Civil Rights Movement at its peak and kids all over the country were wanting to be part of it and marching for racial equality, even dying for it, but unlike in Synanon they were not taught they were being raised in a superior society and to hate non-members. I saw 1978 school work which described how evil and bad kids were outside Synanon and how great those were inside because of the Synanon environment they lived in. So like in all cults they endured everything believing they were still lucky and fortunate to be there.

Nor does Ms. Ray seem aware eventually education stopped in Synanon at 13 and and further even the idea of having kids. If she had not been removed at age 8 today she would not be a college professor but had a career milking cows and mending fences.

The truth was racial equality existed as much in my high school as it did in Synanon and it was existing everywhere. That Ms. Ray even believes Synanon civil rights attitude was different than most of say Los Angeles kids of the 60’s suggest she still buys what she was taught. She might do well to read newspapers from the 60’s because she grew up in a community where you only read what Synanon printed.

The “happiness” had to less to do with Synanon concepts, although some of it in the early days were indeed excellent, as it did the nature of the adults who came to Synanon. Everyone who came there came for help or to give it. They were special people and gave love to all the children, but that is probably true of every commune then, and there was quite a lot of them in existence in the 60s and 70’s.

The addicts that stayed were taught that if they left they would go back to addiction so they stayed and imitated or truly adopted the Synanon values, appreciating they could not obtain such care in their prior lives, and appreciating in the early days of Synanon there were a lot good values taught. These addicts themselves became role models, but there were several warnings; one sociologist warned Synanon by its verbal attacks and punishments was creating a dangerous mind set addicted to Synanon and a psychologist who was allowed to participate in the early 60s said that the former addicts that were living reformed lives were still testing antisocial. From this he construed that many were parroting, i.e., conforming to community pressure, but not changing internally. It’s founder Charles Dederich concluded himself Synanon a failure by 1967 as it seemed all who left went back to drugs, so he shut the doors of Synanon, said no one should ever leave and had them live separate and have no contact with the outside world. This decision altered its course of growth, and led to the eventual mass hatred of the outside world. It allowed the founder to become God and the community treating him as such destroyed him. One former member who left following 1967 and wrote a book describing the brainwashing used in what was called the Synanon Trip and in the game as Synaon moved from its original premise all dogma was bull to Synanon dogma was unchallengeable. With that, he concluded, the dream had died.

Personally, even all thought reform literature states forced changes by peer pressures evaporate when pressures removed, I think there were more individual successes than Dederich would acknowledge. I know ex criminals and drug dealers who truly became transformed into great people but first had to be pulled out and recover from fact they participated in all the Synanon violence. In the end, all these people whose lives were saved by Synanon had to come forward and testify in order to end it.

But the “bold experiment,” as Ms. Ray calls it, revealed some positive ideas but in the end not only was it a failure, but a predictable one as bonding was based on being taught superiority, the same method of Hitler and other fanatical leaders and by a leader who was an extreme egotist and typically of most cult leaders, totally paranoid and obsessed with his place in history and fear of spies.

Once the decision was made in 1967 to be a lifetime self-contained community, Dederich realized he needed non-addicts, called “squares,” to to run the business’s which did not have to pay taxes because of its charitable status. The people who chose to come or were seduced by Dederich were a special class of individuals, but this make-up generally filled all communes of the times. They were dissatisfied generally with society, were lonely and had utopian dreams of living in a small society where everyone cared about everyone else and where they could have purpose. With exception of a few who came for power, these were people with high values and big dreams who would form a special caring environment for the young, and both old and the young came to love their life environment and their special comradeship as did those in Jonestown. So truly Carina and other kids growing up at that time had around them the best of people who certainly created for them at that time a pretty fun environment. But that did not include Dederich who wanted kids taken from their parents and by l971 said they make “disgusting noises and smell bad.” Eventually he outlawed child birth.

Like many other failed dreamers before him, Dederich set out to create a utopian community believing as he would later say that he had the magic to be one of those people who could run the world and tell others how to live and then came within an inch of actually pulling it off. But somewhere along the way, he became dangerously unhinged and morphed into a tyrant who sought to control everyone and everything in his purview. Some of it made sense, as initially his “notions” to eliminate smoking and the excessive consumption of sugar and to promote physical fitness were before their time. But notions were forced, choice eliminated and Dederich attempted to control every aspect of his followers’ lives and it eventually led to the demise of his dream. The perfect environment always had two flaws. By cutting off contact with the outside world 9 years after it begun there was never any information thereafter to contrast what Dederich declared or Synanon taught the members. 2nd was its belief in the Holiness of the “game” adults and children both had to to play– an encounter group with no rules other than no violence (and later that rule dissolved) where people could say anything to anyone else positive or negative, truthful or false, to create an effect on the others. Whatever its early benefits might have been by 1967 Dederich rigged the adult games to verbally attack anyone who was not complying with Dederich’s wishes and to have followers shun those outside the game who resisted new ideas until they finally complied or left. And with that the Synanon dream did die and the book 1984 came to be a Synanon reality by 1974 when its religious status started and a Big Brother communication system came into existence broadcasting its successful physical attacks on their neighbors. Screenwriter Berry Orringer actually wrote as early as l972 “Power and dissent” wherein he stated dissent was no longer possible in Synanon and tried to warn of the change. Even then, he could feel the stirrings of violence.

From my perspective, having read many Marin County juvenile Department interviews with children leaving around late 70’s to early 80’s most kids talked of when it was fun and were sad when the fun was replaced by a military state of mind and instead of prior being “gamed” for negative behavior children were physically struck in community demonstrations to get the word out you don’t misbehave. All the kids I know reported this change when the loving adults suddenly could strike you in the face. One who was was particular gung ho was the leader of the school, who had no such attitudes until Dederich instilled them, just as Dederich made a physician head of the Imperial Marines. Dederich’s own grandson ran away at 13.

As stated, as it was fashionable for the youths and the many communes that formed in the 60s , Synanon was part of the civil rights movement in those days and certainly the joint living of multi-races in Synanon had a positive effect against racism not only in Synanon but on people outside, and one that seems to have endured for its members post Synanon. When I see Synanon people meet none have ever shown any sign of caring what color anyone is. And except for a few, I’m not sure if there were many kids who bought into the violence but the homework papers that I’ve read certainly stated they were mouthing getting the enemies in return for getting good grades for so stating. Thus as a model, Synanon system installed beliefs by coercive methods, and is a model that must never be repeated. All models must keep choices voluntary. But one can say from Synanon if all are treated equally and goods role models abound there is a lesser chance for bigotry to occur, and for good values to be instilled, although some experts today pessimistically say it is human nature to join with a tribe and then find enemies to conquer and share in that common bonding experience. Whether that is true or not, in the end it was true in Synanon. Dederich one stated “alcoholics anonymous is based on love, we are based on hate, hate works better.” In the end the role model in Synanon was all about hate, bigotry and violence.

I agree with Ms. Ray that Chuck Dederich was an impact in the 60’s by his taking as his bride a former black prostitute and while some suspect it was political statement I don’t agree. Without a doubt he helped to push the idea not only to Synanon members but the greater society. Yet at the same time if he was sociopathic, and the evidence suggests he was, the same means but he can only love himself and he stated he never missed anyone who left.

The Ciivl Rights movement had its own inertia and was not propelled by Synanon. And the key point Ms. Ray’s limited piece omits is that Synanon’s attitudes were only what Dederich decided they should be. And when his ideas became crazy by the same pressure system they were equally adopted– ordering of mass vasectomies, abortions and swapping mates, violence– by the community that was just as compliant to whatever it was asked. The system of coercion worked equally well no matter what concept was injected–even breaking bones and eventually the idea of killing enemies. Thus if you ever enter a therapeutic community where something like the game is played… run don’t walk. What is injected might be good that day but you won’t know it if something goes wrong. AA was and remains successful despite some similar attitudes, because its charter insures no one person can seize control and its founder was smart enough to avoid personal gain and set it up so no one could take advantage of it. Today, rehabs may use similar methods but people “graduate.” There is no lifestyle experiment using powerful forces of addiction change to make people act and do what one person wants forever that in the end was not a tragedy.

Ms. Ray I have no doubt has valid fond memories and experienced much kindness there, but she should be more happy she got out at age 8 and avoided what otherwise a different fate, as I assume she too would have eventually become exposed to being a violent terrorist as all the good intention squares morphed into as this new direction was laid out by the founder.

And it was done through the use of the “game” that Ms. Ray fondly remembers, it was the game that became the main instrument of brainwashing, generally seen by the participants as a Peak experience, it became a tool guided by Dederich to manipulate compliance or “squeeze out” those who do not obey. He admitted such at deposition.

Maybe in the beginning there was some truth to her remembrance of the game but whether there was such a time when control was not intended, it ended by 1967 and I doubt many experts would defend youngsters being subject to brutal verbal attacks by peers in their formative years now said that does not end until age 25. None would support keeping children from their parents and raising them in a “Hatchery.” In reality, the game was used to manipulate and control; verbal attacks weren’t just allowed, they were encouraged, including racial epithets. Participants were told the goal was catharsis and that any hostility was to be left in the game room. Actually, the goal was to badger and sometimes brutalize participants in order to tear down their identities and then rebuild them in Synanon’s image. A study done on encounter groups in the 1970s identified the Synanon game as the form most brutal and likely to cause casualties in its participants. And as stated, Dederich admitted that he used brainwashing techniques to accomplish his goal and in particular he used the game to change the beliefs of others. Inside Synanon, status was achieved by how well you performed as a Synanon person; those who fell short or resisted were met with bigotry–harsh punishment and humiliation, including job demotions, verbal and physical abuse in games and occasionally banishment from the community, an act, Dederich reasoned, that would keep others in line. Dederich’s obsession with controlling his followers’ lives extended to the matrimonial bed. One of his “notions,” for example, was that couples should split up every three years and find new partners so as to avoid the inevitable emotional damage caused by death and divorce. But anyone who considered this “notion” a mere suggestion soon found out otherwise. If you would not change partners, you were tossed out. One couple being driven out at gunpoint wasdumped in a ditch. This occurred in 1977. Ms. Ray was there but maybe at age 8 it all seemed like a good idea. She makes no mention of it. Since Joe Musico was married to her mother in 1978, I assume it was a product of “Changing Partners.”

Having donated their life savings in order to join Synanon, Dan and Marion Ross were left penniless when they were thrown out for resisting Dederich’s order to split up. Long-time mates Ben Parks and Dortothy Reiss, an interracial couple, were the ones dumped into a ditch at gunpoint when they refused.

Joseph Musico was perhaps Synanon’s saddest victim. Musico was an ex-Vietnam veteran who cut off the ears of fallen enemies for necklaces, and was an addict and drug dealer when he came to Synanon. He seemed to be turning his life around in Synanon until Dederich, noting his violent past, tapped him for his paramilitary Imperial Marines unit, which was organized to combat Synanon’s enemies. And in the increasingly demented mind of Chuck Dederich, that included nearly everyone outside of Synanon’s cloistered walls. On September 19, 1978, Musico and another Imperial Marine, attempted to murder former member Phil Ritter who was trying to get his daughter out by beating him with clubs. Three weeks later, Musico and another Marine, put in Synanon at age 10, now 20, at the direction of Dederich, attempted to murder me by placing a 4 1/2 foot rattlesnake in my mailbox with the rattles removed so I couldn’t hear it. It took 11 vials of anti-venom to counteract the snake’s toxic bite but is source today for illnesses . Musico ordered out of Synanon after serving time for attempted murder was killed in 2000, when a rival drug dealer threw him off the roof of a building. Joe had come for help in the community and found it, but at Dederich’s direction, all those utopian dreamers cheered Joe as a hero for falling back to his old ways to defend an organization that did not need to be defended.

Dederich’s own bigotry even extended to children. He had never been close to any, including his own (he abandoned his son when he left Ohio as a middle aged man and moved to Santa Monica). This was most likely the result of a troubled childhood, but that’s another story. As a result of his own parental problems, he later ordered that babies were to be separated from their parents and raised by strangers in a building called “The Hatchery” because parents harm their children. They belonged to Synanon, he declared, and not their parents, who were discouraged from spending significant time with their kids or even acknowledging them when passing by. By 1976, again when Ms. Ray was probably too young to realize it, Dederich decided that children were an uneconomical investment and banned his followers from creating any new ones. Males who had lived at Synanon for more than five years were ordered to undergo vasectomies; pregnant women were bullied into abortions. Free of the slavery of raising children, he surmised, women would be happier. Childbirth, he said, was nothing more than “crapping a football.”

By as early as 1974 when Synanon declared itself a religion, it became permissible to beat and kick children, often in public demonstrations meant to serve as warnings to other possible miscreants. Most of this was done to “punks” –kids sent thereby unknowing court systems as an alternative to juvenile Hall and who had no parents present; ultimately it carried over to all children if they acted out. By 1975 children were running away in Marin County to a rancher who would get them bus fare home. Eventually Synanon physically attacked the rancher.

As criticism of Synanon’s new direction grew, so did Dederich’s paranoia and anger towards outsiders. They were non-believers, so they were enemies. They were all opposed, he said, to the concept of people from different races living peacefully together. In a xenophobic lather, Dederich ordered a more aggressive stance with outsiders and Synanon’s violence and bigotry began to spread. Synanon records and police reports document more than 80 incidents of Synanon attacks. In 1978, the organization purchased more than $300,000 worth of weapons and began target shooting at human silhouettes. Again all this while 8 years olds like Carina played.

In the end, the Synanon experiment in creating a bigotry-free society failed miserably. The same coercive powers Dederich used to enforce racial equality within its walls were also used to foster an environment of hatred aimed at outsiders—the residents of neighboring communities, the media, lawyers and anyone else who didn’t adhere to the World According to Chuck. By brainwashing his followers into believing they were superior to the nonbelievers, and they would be inferior if they left, he was able to induce them to perform acts of violence that for most would have been unthinkable before they entered Synanon.

And what could be more bigoted than that?

However, it is good to see that out of the chaos youngsters exposed to Synanon are unlikely to pass along racial prejudice. Whether they pass along what they learned from their adults concerning physically attacking those that oppose, is a more concerned question. Some kids did join attacks on outsiders and/ or demonstrations. I saw a film in 78 of Synanon kids running with adults chasing off a film crew after first blocking the crew from leaving neighboring property. I doubt any long term effects, and if anything I expect anger at the violence, as exist with most ex adult members. But such exposure on a youth who didn’t get sufficient adult bonds at early age in Synanon could be a lethal combination. And they were given a terrible lesson on how to get even.

Ms. Ray has informed me that many of her peers went on to colleges and to very professional careers. They were she believes not damaged by raised in a hatchery. They still remain connected as they were grown up as if they were all brothers and sisters and that is envious for us who had strong friendships and bonds that are often missing as one grows older. A report by a former member 10 years ago who conducted a study on Synanon children all grown up noted the same thing, but added the majority suffered in esteem and relationships, similar to kids raised an orphanage.

It is good to know the success of many of the children of Synanon that she reports but that is because they were removed and able o grow up in public with a public education. By 1978 none in Synanon had gone to college and skills taught were limited to the needs of the community.

There are good things to say about Synanon, in its early time, but most of it was truly based upon the nature of the type of persons that were coming, and their goals; Ms. Ray’s happy memories are of a beautiful country environment and caring people, but she has no idea what was going on and that the man she had admired had started ordering violence as early as 1974 and was training the Imperial Marines as a hit squad in 1977. Dederich’s only goal was to control them and get rich, eventually takng large sums iin l977 and stealing money from the charitable trust in 1978 through a private corporation he started in Lake Havesu. In the end it is a very sad story as those loving adults who came for a utopian society were turned by Dederich into a terrorists who supported injuring or killing Synanon enemies right before the eyes of a child who lived there until she was 8 and somehow today is a college professor who is clueless.

But for Synanon’s system none were likely to have ever wanted to hurt anyone. It is system not to copy, but to examine why it evolved as it did.

In Synanon’s case, Ms. Ray’s fonding for her memories of when she was 8 are when it is doubtful she understood the reasons for her parents divorce. Nor did the adults. Kids like her can only thank their lucky stars they were separated from Synanon as early as they were before they experienced beatings as a victim or witnessed same and before drafted into Dederich’s holy war. Some of those who were did not do well as adults. Countless children in the mid 70s in Synanon were beaten and one girl who was made to pick up pig poop with a carrot stick. And all the 18 to 19-year-old kids in the 70s outside of Synanon who were physically attacked and hospitalized if today as adults they read Ms. Ray surely are glad it all ended, even if the college professor has fond memories of her play time.

In the end Synanon’s lesson is that any group that cuts off from society completely is in danger of developing in this manner. They might have made it but for “containment ” and it had not been a totalitarian society.

And if you have only 700 words to describe Synanon to people who never heard of it this is the story that needs to be told –how people with a dream and good intentions were taught to hate, maim and kill. I believe Synanon is the most important forgotten story of the 20th Century. Having corresponded with Ms. Ray I don’t think she wants to acknowledge what was really going on, and is somewhat like the 3 blind mice; all children while she was there heard Dederich’s constant broadcasts to go out and and physically attack the enemies, even kill them. But she may have been young enough not to pay attention while playing with the other kids and the horses.

Actually, I had the same experiences she did, never experiencing racism through my first 16 years. At 17 in the Army, I experienced it aimed at me for being Jewish. And at U.S.C. I saw black athletes from all-black areas and white students from Orange County who did not really no how to communicate with each other but back then U.S.C. was still stuck in the 50s. I don’t think this existed in the UC schools. But that does not make me believe that there was anything special about my high school other than there was a opportunity to know at a young age that all kids were equal and that was what the civil rights movement was teaching us.

But I definitely agree that the earlier children are exposed to each other the more likely they are to grow up without prejudice as long as avoid environments that teach it. In 1968 while in my first year of law school I worked as a playground supervisor at a nearby all-black elementary school. I knew for the kids I might be the first white they were exposed to, and based on that responsibility I tied through example to show all were not bad assuming many were told contrary at home.

One day while at the school Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and I had 3 blocks to walk to my car. I was scared as I approached the gate but waiting for me was a large group of 5th and 6th graders who told me they were going to walk me to my car and then formed a circle around me and held hands with me. Thus in one sense I have had my own experience which would validate Ms. Ray’s premise. But the answer in my view really is education. And certainly the earlier you get it the better. And certainly exposure helps. And it greatly helps if the education begins in home which is one of the good things that did happen in Synanon

If her article had been limited to that I would have no criticism. But her efforts to credit it to Dederich is so greatly misplaced. Dr. Robert Lifton who studied what happened to the prisoners of war in Korea wrote his book on brainwashing in 1962 (admitted by Dederich he read it in the 1965 book on Synanon “The Tunnel Back”) and therein stated that upon release from such controls the first stage is anger and hatred, but the final stage is to re-create memories in order to be at peace with the past and reminisce of the times they had comrades and had joined purposes. Certainly I have seen this pattern with Ex Synanon members I had known since 1977, going from testifying against the organization to wistfully wishing they were back. But most have a pretty good understanding. But they lived it as adults, not from 0-to- 8-years old.

I had never been able to forget my experiences with Synanon, and have spent 10 years writing its history from basically its own documents which can be found on my website Paul So anyone can study it and a Chapter on Synanon is available in my book Escape which iis available on Amazon. Why such devotion to an organization that tried to kill you? Because while all that was the biggest media story, to me the real story was the conversion of good people into bad and to try to understand why what started as a beautiful dream ended as such a hideous nightmare.

And I share with Ms. Ray her good feelings about her peers. For I too ended up with a lot former Synanon members as friends And as a group they rate at the top of people I have known.

But Jim Jones was the first in Indianapolis to adopt a black child. And he had greater mixed numbers than CED. But that’s not hos story either. Want to find someone with true contribution exaine the art and works of Sidney Poitier.