Aftermath, The Children of Synanon – – the Susan Richardson report

Aftermath, The Children of Synanon – – the Susan Richardson report

by Paul Morantz
(C) Oct. 2012

A couple of years ago, the United States stopped the adoption of Russian children because too many that were raised in orphanages lacked sufficient parental contact at early ages and were showing signs of sexual abuse of siblings and other out right antisocial behavior. This does not occur in every case of childhood abandoment, but some problems generally assert, such as narcissism, anxiety, low self esteem and difficulties with human relationships. Some adoptive parents sent kids back to Russia.

In Synanon, children eventually were raised in a hatchery and considered community children since 1966 with parental contact forever discouraged. This is an experiment, giving public knowledge today, not likely to ever be tried again except in cults where children are desired to be kept away in order to lower costs and less interfere with the adult service and bonding to the community. Many Synanon children also witnessed “changing partners” where they saw their parents end their relationships and start new one with strangers, as well as child-hating through vasectomies and abortions.

Starting in 2000, former member Susan Richardson, as a requirement of obtaining her bachelors degree in humanities, wrote a paper called “Growing Up In Synanon,” aided in part by Tom Quinn who had earlier written in his own Synanon paper that was reasonably accurate. Although perhaps missing the big picture, as explained below, her findings and paper appear well written, despite some reliance on Ted Dibble and Rod Janzen who for reasons of their own choose to be in denial. Dibble insists at glorifying the place no matter how many were intentionally brutalized. Janzen, a Christian and Utopian leader without investigative skills, has the distinction of writing what may be the only factual inaccurate work on Synanon and took no efforts to find the truth, but affirmative actions to avoid it. Despite her own involvement in Synanon, and participating in the Synanon school from 1970 to 1975, when abuse was high, Ms. Richardson appears to have proceeded with few preconceptions while interviewing 23 adults who as children spent time in Synanon from which she took her statistics.

She also noted the children were exposed to a course of severe punitive practices like shaved heads, forced confessions, humiliations and other aspects applied from Synanon’s failed drug rehab (any success Synanon had, and there was some success — it is submitted here– was based upon each members decision to reform upon entry and the friendships, community, jobs, mates provided, all establishing self-esteem, training and meeting social needs — and not the Synanon abuse system which in fact was counterproductive and drove many out).

Of interest, Ms. Richardson was not an addict, but saw the Synanon game as a way of therapeutically dealing with her own personal background. I call this interesting, because Synanon’s only exemption from licensing was to allow people to kick addiction cold turkey, using the game for any psychological purpose was illegal (that is why Dederich dropped the psychotherapy terms and called it a a game). Second, it is possible her experiences can be equated with a lack of parental bonds and probably has given her a first hand understanding of attachment syndrome (discussed below).

Ms. Richardson says she chose the infant program because she felt those involved were dedicated to developing a superior way to raise and educate children, and that it is probably true in the early days, but most were unaware that the program was really an outgrowth of Charles Dederich’s hatred of nuclear family forming from his own childhood experiences and blaming his mother for his addiction.

Ms. Richardson acknowledged that eventually– she understood Dederich was motivated by saving money and belief that the nuclear family had created his own personal problems. She stated because of her personal involvement it was not possible to be completely objective, but her paper actually suggests she accomplished reasonable impartiality in searching for the truth. She also did a lot of research. She did buy in to the concept, however, that Dederich was an inventor of a highly successful model for live-in therapeutic communities, quoting Dr. Lewis Yablonsky. But the latter’s book published in 1965 had Dederich and others admitting Synanon was brainwashing as defined by Dr. Robert Jay Lifton. And scholars denounced Yablonsky for being unable to see the horror of what he wrote and buying into Dederich “enemies” conspiracy.

As will be explained in another “aftermath” her belief is that Synanon trained former addicts with criminal backgrounds to be effective therapists was its most positive contribution of Synanon to society, again citing Yablonsky. Not only did this turn out to be a non-truth, but the adaptation of the Synanon methods to the teen-age wilderness programs resulted in 30 years of extreme child abuse and countless deaths of young participants. Most successful drug rehabs while keeping some of Synanon’s methods, do not employ the harshness of the game, and it is generally recognized that the systems of punishment are counterproductive. And while former addicts are used, they work under licensed therapists.

However, once that overstatement is cleared, it is true that it is helpful to have someone formally in the same position you are in talk about paths back and model that one can change. In fact, this is a key factor in most brainwashing regimes. The problem with brainwashing regimes is that regardless of the potential to change behavior, they generally cease to work without reinforcement. Dederich realized this by 1967 and thus eliminated the concept of graduation. Future drug rehabs, and AA, keep a follow-up program. Synanon never did, did not keep statistics, but outsiders who attempted to follow splitees by 1964 concluded that those who left Synanon had the same failure rate as Lexington Hospital. However, despite those findings, I believe the more long-term residents remained clean, and many, despite some having setbacks, did free themselves of drugs, more then Dederich realized, who in the end said, “I don’t know how to cure an addict, I never did.”

The other problem with the system is there was no guarantee that your self-awareness was nothing more than what others had chosen for you All that being said, my disagreements with her statements have little to do with methodology she used which appear accurate in assisting the evaluation of the effects of the Synanon experiment in child rearing.

Today, such an experiment would send people into shock. Attachment syndrome has since been well defined in setting forth the damages of early separation from parents leading to a hoist of pathological problems, ranging from increased anxiety attacks to budding serial antisocial offenders.

Keeping my own tabs on Synanon children, particularly as I was responsible for removing many, I observed what I first suspected to be highly improbable–former Synanon children had an unusually large period of experimentation with illegal drugs, some that did not end. At first one might suspect that this would be the least likely event to occur, but when you are forced into a position, it is not unusual for a child to break away when given the opportunity. The first hit on a marijuana joint may have made Synanon appear as liars, and lead the way for other things. For some it may have been just the typical way of dealing with anxiety and depression, facing a New World. Others may have acted out in typical teen age rebellion.

However, as Richardson notes, as a whole her Synanon children had well developed IQs and many went on to successful and creative careers. I suspect that the bonds developed between the children, and a general interest of many in the community, which if you were in right place had a healthy fun and farm like atmosphere, creating a world far superior then a child raised in an orphanage. There were horses, tennis courts, dirt bikes, sports and a giant nature backyard. Richardson compared it to be raised like rich kids. She reported further that Synanon children were happy to have spent time with people from all walks of life, race and backgrounds from addicts to famous musicians. But it was a story that changed in 1974 if merged into the punk squad. What may be lacking in the Richardson report is a division of study based upon what year the child left and her subjects are the more successful, they do not include those who have had troubled lives, but these would be hard to locate and probably less likely to talk.

Number one negative Ms. Richardson reports is that in April of 1977 Betty died and altered the balance of power that led to harsher corporal punishment which was introduced in 1975. She is wrong. This is part of the myth perpetuated by Synanon people in order to create explanations for the ultimate Synanon horrors and get sympathy for Dederich. The slugging of children was actually introduced in 1974 when Betty was very much alive. Charles Dederich’s approval of physical attacks on outside enemies also began in 1974. Betty herself wrote a poem about a new militant Synanon and attended Her Majesties Imperial Marines training camps in Depot Flats in 1977. Whatever greatness this woman had in the 60s, she had succumbed to Dederich’s madness, as did so many in Synanon, before she died.

However, I do not find it surprising that the Synanon children interviewed by authorities listed these violent changes as the number one negative occurrence. From reading reports of runaways, including even Charles Dederich’s grandson and Dr. Doug Robson’s son, they, too, reported the same thing, as did kids who I helped get out. It seems that while the adults mostly went along with the craziness, most of the children did not. Lance Kenton was the clearest exception, but then at the early age of 18 he was placed in the Imperial Marines. His role in security, training and participating in secret covert violent missions gave him a high position in the Synanon hierarchy and respect at an early age.

Ms. Richardson did report one woman saying that witnessing a public spanking so severe it frightened her when she was no more than 8 years old and left children with the terror of doing something wrong. Again this was part of the Synanon dope fiend business, where Dederich would make punishments public so they would have a “carom shot”and effect the behavior of all. Notably it was reported that these changes took place within the school staff. But while being its motivated conformity behavior in the adults, good and bad, per Ms. Richardson’s findings, the children were more motivated to lie and conceal from adults and protect each other by remaining silent as to the actions of their peers; while adults followed the Synanon practice of making public any wrong doings of any adult members– what Dederich called “breaking contracts” to protect another.

Also reported by Ms. Richardson, which I also found in other cults I litigated against, the children were helpless to seek the support of their parents who would support Synanon, not them. This led to running away. For years, while the Marin Sheriff was a special friend of Charles Dederich and Dan Garrett, runaways were immediately returned and then subjected to more punishment. It was only after the sheriff lost the election in 1978 did Marin Juvenile, lead by Jeannette Prandi, start protecting runaways.

Ms. Richardson pointed out these changes attributed to some of the children having a mistrust and aversion to authority. She reported not surprisingly that the children who had parents in the highest positions felt the less support and I believe correctly concluded the parents were more concerned with their political status. Synanon at its best used a military type of discipline, with little nurturing.

Ms. Richardson reported unanimity in the children saying they would never use negative reinforcement in raising children. In affect, per my own observations as well as reading of report, they all rejected the Dederich Father Principle and the idea that Synanon successfully operated on hate. Per her paper, many reported still having anger towards their parents for their upbringing in Synanon. Most reported superficial parental relationships, and felt rejected, raised without a real family. Some remained forever alienated.

In other cults I was involved with, I worked with the children in understanding what was done to their parents and they should not be held so responsible for following the edicts of the community; they needed to understand the pressures that were applied upon their parents and to forgive. With Synanon kids, I was successful with some, but not all. In other groups I was generally always successful.

The 2nd element of disapproval, according to Ms. Richardson. was the constant changes in Synanon. I am not surprised. In my view, the adults had been trained to believe this was a positive i.e., they were laboratory rats to improve the world, which Dederich proclaimed any less goal was Mickey Mouse. Synanon which was drug, alcohol and cigarette free with a history of nonviolence ultimately went to drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, beatings and eventually attempted murders. The children were aware of these things because they were spoken about on the Wire (broadcasting system). Synanon went from a celebration of marriage to breaking partners. Chuck Dederich supposedly loved Betty but wasted little time in having young Synanon women interview for the position of his 4th wife. Children watched as their puppet parents divorced each other on instructions and then like Dederich took strangers for partners. Worse, children were classified as unwanted.

Ms. Richards reports that some of the children in the 70s when Synanon was trying to blackmail Marin with increasing their costs, were sent to public schools only later to be brought back. She reports many had problems adjusting to public education and were attracted to the kids who used drugs and/or cut classes. I had been aware of the many kids post Synanon who had turned to drugs, but this report was the first I heard that any of the Synanon kids were taking drugs while in Synanon. My suspicion as to the reason many turned to drugs is actually reaffirmed by this information, i.e, a lot of it was a reaction to being controlled all their lives and feeling they were propagandized, along with expected anxiety at adopting to the New World. Also, in the 70s, much of society still believed that many drugs were no big deal.

Some kids, Ms. Richardson noted, enjoyed the freedom of public schools and when eventually brought back ran away or broke rules that would place them with relatives outside Synanon. Also the Synanon school had greatly diminished in quality. From my view, at first it had innovators like Al Bauman and Jerry Newmark, who both left over the brainwashing and violence. The school then became a lack of importance, and children were pulled out to be put to work, common in most cults. Most of the education was in teaching how to do things that would service Synanon. Math, science and other major studies, Ms. Richardson adds, dropped off for lack of qualified teachers.

For those children who did extremely well when they left, I assume the younger they left and earlier they were exposed to public schools probably the better were their opportunities, but even as to some who stayed later, they at least learned to learn, and probably appreciated public education much more then kids not raised in Synanon. Those who left before the public beatings probably did best. Further, homework I had observed in 1978 reflected children being taught that Chuck Dederich can tell 1000 people what to do, Changing Partners was a religious experience, those who are oppose are to be dumped in ditches and they were all going to learn Syndo to fight the holy war. I think the essays were less examples of what the children were actually thinking, then examples of how they would lie and say what the adults wanted to hear in order to avoid their wrath, as Ms. Richardson reported.

Another complaint, per Richardson, was too many people having the power to give them instructions, not all of which was consistent. And typical of all cults, marriages would end if one wanted to leave and the other stayed, just ask Tom Cruise. When the switching of partners occurred, children had to adjust to strangers as stepparents, and Ms. Richardson, probably correctly, correlated this with the fact that most females she interviewed had objections to the idea of marriage, while the males did not. Ms. Richardson hypothesizes that the boys may have had more nurturing from female staff at the school while the girls had less father figures. However, it is standard psychology that females with nonexistent father relationships often become obsessed with finding a mate in order to fulfill what they lacked as a child. Although it may affect having a healthy relationship, it can create the fantasy of wanting a marriage and complete family that heretofore had not existed. Ms. Richardson acknowledges this phenomenon, too, but points out that it also creates a person who sees himself as superior and feels no need for intimacy. Apparently both are commonly observed by researchers, and Ms. Richardson attest to observing both results in observing Synanon children-grown up behavior. Also some women reported they had been so hurt they became control freaks in any relationship.

Ms. Richardson also suspects that the results are closer to today’s society in which women, having been so long denied, are more interested in career commitments. There is a lot to be said for that concept as today there has been a reversal since the 50’s where now men may be more romance- seeking then women.

But I believe she hits the point most accurately when she cites attachment theory which today is considered to be a major source of extreme pathology including sociopath behavior. Although while loss of attachment had occurred at Synanon, sociopath behavior did not appear to have happened to any large degree in her subjects. But then psychological testing was not used. And a few Synanon children have ended up, to my knowledge, with extreme pathology. Where children are raised without proper parent – child relationships it is expected that each will fail to develop the constructs necessary to form give-and-take relationships.

As often said child abuse begets child abuse. Per Ms. Richards interviews it appears that most Synanon kids probably make very good parents, knowing not what to do, and the importance of affection and attention. Those who stated to her fear of ever having children appear to have expressed views, in my opinion, from what she wrote, similar to Charles Dederich’s arguments for not having children.

This may be due to the children exposed to the Dederich anti-children speeches on the Wire and in available transcripts in which he said children were not worth the cost of raising, adults should live free lives not burdened with child caring and being witnesses to the male 5 year or more members pushed to having vasectomies or leaving. Ms. Richardson concluded most children attitudes about parenthood were probably affected by this, and while some probably were, as I stated above, I believe the children saw through what was happening much more than their parents, and probably for some it was motivation to have children and do it right.

Ms. Richardson concluded that all she interviewed had learned some self-reliance, were self-directed learners and tolerant of diversity which probably stems from the early Synanon school when creative teachers taught creative methods and made learning interesting. But at the same time, she concludes, the majority failed in area of human love, trust for self and others, which she contends occurred due to alienation from parents, the overuse of negative reinforcement and the unpredictability of Synanon.

The cited self-reliance is interesting. Often you hear in cults the proclamation that we are teaching you to think for yourselves, when in fact the contrary is true. And the lack of self trust is an oxymoron to self reliance. Dederich’s legend was that while on a work trip pre-Synanon he became paranoid and wouldn’t leave his room, found and read a copy of Emerson’s Self – Reliance and decided to use the principles to cure addiction.

Self-reliance became a common term used in early Synanon and part of the philosophy. But from its history it was both true and untrue in the Synanon context. Addicts rose to jobs where indeed they had become more self reliant, yet at the same time they could not exercise any discretion contrary to Synanon policy. The allowance of self-reliance diminished in Synanon with age. The concept of “Act as if” was that trying to think for themselves got them there so just trust and do as told, don’t try to understand it—“Trust is another way of knowing.” Still, many adults in Synanon were largely more self-reliant when they left in terms of ability to work, then when they entered. The reverse may be true as to other forms of socialization.

It would follow, in the early days of the school, children were clearly taught to be learners, but for those who stayed too long, the changes were capable of mashing their egos and self-reliance.

Ms. Richardson did not interview some Synanon children I am aware of who can hardly function.

I would just say, all children need parents. The ability to learn to succeed was never really the issue, but the needs in order to develop complete mental wiring. As stated, I would expect the most successful were those they got out early enough to enter public schools, because in the end schooling at Synanon was replaced by training to serve Synanon, not for life in the outside world, and certainly there was no encouragement for any college. The best thing for all Synanon children was that they got out and that Synanon finally ended in 1991.

Ms. Richardson’s report finally concludes that if Synanon had not instituted corporal punishment and other punitive methods, had not commenced a policy of separating children from their biological parents, but pushed a positive partnership between school staff and parents in a communal context it would have enriched the lives of everyone involved. This has obviously some truth, there is an old saying, “it takes a village….”

But I think a positive outcome would require a lot more–not just a balance, but a proper balance, with ultimate decision-making in the parents hands, a far reduction in the brutality of the Synanon game and a complete elimination of it as a tool by management to demand conformity. Loyalty test (notions) to squeeze people out as rotten fruit would also have had to be eliminated. Finally, containment would have had to end; it had to allow splitees to be respected, and have welcomed visits. Last, and most important, there could have been no Synanon Imperial Marines and violence, a factor which Ms. Richardson really does not heavily consider; perhaps she really didn’t know how severe it was, but most children I spoke to clearly did. I believe such omission exist to a great degree in former Synanon members, both adult and child, because it allows them to focus on their personal experiences and have good memories, without feeling guilty for participating in what could ultimately be compared to a holocaust wherein even teenagers were beaten savagely and hospitalized with broken bones and lost teeth.

The not considering the effect of the children being exposed to Synanon attacking, even attempting to murder, anyone who spoke out against it is the most observable omission in the report that needed to be considered. Children were encouraged to participate in writing hate and threatening mail to officials of Time Magazine and NBC and participate in demonstrations. The first person to warn me that they were going to kill me was a 15-year-old boy.

I would add something that Ms. Richardson did not discuss at all. Some of the children are so bound to each other as to be possessive of their experiences and place their special experience over and without concern to all the lives Synanon set out to destroy and in fact did destroy or harmed. It is comparable, as stated, to celebrating the good times in Nazi Germany with little or no concern as to what might have happened at Auschwitz. Their experiences are only what count. Has Ted Dibble ever apologized to Phil Ritter? Does Janzen say why Ron Eidson and Ritter are not in his book or he wrote that there was no violence inside Synanon when everyone knows there was?

I have had some e-mail from former children who still see me as the devil and in one case a well-educated Prof. found herself unable to return a telephone contact with me, more than likely afraid of what she might learn, preferring to keep her memories unchallenged. I consider that a pathology itself– an outgrowth of the Synanon system. But there are also many children, particularly those who were there in the late 70s, and were teens when they left, who to me have expressed as their greatest anger, the Synanon policy of physically attacking its perceived enemies. And some who I got out to this day stay in contact.

Still, considering her role as a participant and as a loyal member who had followed the party line, Ms. Richardson’s paper remains surprisingly objective and her work is an important contribution to the science of child rearing.


Jukie Moncharsh for me penned her famous declaration:

” They were always hitting children. In 1974, September, three boys tried to run away from Tomales Bay. After they were caught, they were beaten. Two of them. . . were slammed against a metal building over and over . . . The third boy. . . was punched in the stomach. He screamed that he was hurt real bad but they punched him again. We were told that this would happen to us if we tried to run away.

“I was always being hit. If I didn’t run in ‘basic training,’ I was hit. If I didn’t stand up straight I was hit. If I did an exercise wrong or changed my sheets I was hit. Once I was taken in front of a classroom with another girl. . . and was hit.” Julie declared that she had run away from Synanon in January 1976, only to be brought back to Synanon by the police “since my mother was in Synanon.” Yet she declared she had not seen her mother since March 1975. “When I returned,” she declared, “I was given a ‘contract’ for trying to escape. I was made to wear large gas station attendant’s clothes and made to eat standing up when they allowed me to eat and given only three hours’ sleep. I was not allowed showers and I was made to work cleaning up pig feces with carrot sticks putting the feces in cups. . . Initially when I came back, they had a demonstration in front of the other kids where they punched me in the stomach and slammed me against the wall.

“Such activities were common. I saw this happen numerous times to children other than myself when they tried to run away. They have slapped children in the face, thrown them across the floor and punched them in the stomach.”
Julie declared that she ran away again later that month, but decided to come back and steal some money so that, “this time I could make it.” But her plan was discovered. “I was taken outside by (a man) and repeatedly punched in the face with his fist. I cried for him to stop, but he kept hitting me. . .”

This was the Synanon that would spark decades and nightmares for its members and for those who ended up in the clones for decades. But as I said above, most Synanon children were more aware, that in the adults, and therefore did not have to live with the guilt of their fanaticism. Some could still focus on the good relationships.

Therefore necessary to the discourse is the post of Denise Patton in 1999 in response to one made by Julie. She was in Synanon, entering in 1975, not very good year, but at 17 far capable of living without constant parental contact. She left in 1984 after things had calmed and as a young woman of 26. She had dreams of Synanon for years (I still do) sometimes just missing the Synanon cruiser which would allow her to leave. She says she is thought of as an articulate person, but has trouble articulating what it was like to live in Synanon and it is something most of her friends do not know occurred.

In her own experience, Synanon was safe, integrated and inclusive, where one was judged on how one worked and to do the hard work of self examination (although I doubt she realized how outer directed that was). At times Synanon was simply fun and I expect that a lot of which she escaped that Julie did not was because of the Dederich arrest and media scrutiny since 1979.

And while Synanon claimed it was a place where character was “the only rank” and “let me be honest and truthful” she had to acknowledge the Synanon hierarchy was deceitful as to decisions and events that were made behind closed doors. And it was also a place where she often felt worthless, humiliated, afraid and excluded; experiencing some of her most depressed times in her life.

She acknowledges that it is difficult to explain how these experiences in Synanon’s coexisted simultaneous, yet that is what happens in all cults. She did not live in the Synanon of Julie, but she knew it existed. No one’s experience was exactly the same but they share a kinship with all who were in Synanon, whether they met them or not. She sometimes feels resentment against the Kooky Cult, but at the same time affection and love of the people; times of homesickness although she would never go back. After seeing Debra Swisher’s Synaon play, Denise and Deborah, said they were shaped by the good and bad and would not trade that. She concluded she had a husband, a son and a great life.

For Denise, as stated, she was fortunate she was 17 when she entered, spared the hatchery, and while still subject to much of the humiliation aspects, was enamored at growing with some good people who wanted to do good. A pretty honest report it sheds light on how important how old you were when you entered, left, and what years you were there. Her good and bad relates to her treatment; she makes no comment on the treatment of the adults in Synanon and of violence that was happening to the enemies. Were these events of no importance, did she have a way of blocking them or with time were they just discarded so as not to interfere? Those answers would tell us a lot of human nature.

Yet I, like Denise, have my collections of memorabilia also, often a gift… A bowl, in ADGAP pen, cigarette lighter, photos, poster, etc., all which one day will go to U.S.C. Even copies of the Synanon Prayer and Philosophy. And there is no way to explain it.