Headsuckers on the Ponderosa and young Kenton

Headsuckers on the Ponderosa and young Kenton
by Paul Morantz
(c) May 2011

By January of l971 no-smoking had reduced the character disorder population by 350 while the square population increased by 171. With them came another 50 children.

And in January Synanon again added to its Marin holdings by purchasing for $450,000 an adjacent 1,740 acres of inland property from Boyd Stewart dubbed Walker Creek for the stream running through it. Synanon City had grown from its initial l964 purchase of 42 acres to a total of 3,302 acres, encompassing a combined five square miles. Walker Creek, unlike the Magetti Ranch, came without major buildings, only a few small shacks and sheds. Synanon’s labor force immediately began renovating. Tents were cut from canvases of big tops donated by traveling circuses and placed upon wooden platforms. Asphalt was laid for roads. Metal warehouses –tin tents– were erected. One became a schoolhouse.

Chuck’s son, Dede, was made the Marin manager. He wasn’t much for general meetings and was a quiet game player. For this, knowing he wasn’t throwing his dad’s weight around, he was extremely well liked.

All this would not be seen by Reid Kimball, considered by some the noblest Synanite of all. On January 4, l971, at the age of 52, Kimball, after living at the Ranch, passed away of an apparent heart attack while in a San Francisco hospital.

All of Synanon mourned but the construction did not stop. By September of 1971 a village was established around the old New England house on the Home Ranch. The combined Marin property buildings were valued at 5 million. The headquarters moved from the Bay to the Ranch. Stables were completed for a string of horses. Livestock was solicited from ranchers in Texas. Workdays began at 6:30 a.m. as former Academy Stewdents–now managers– road on motorcycles, ala CED, as Dederich was called in print, back and forth along the roads barking orders. They were, said Dederich, true pioneers.

When Synanon first moved to Marin in l964 the County Supervisors suggested it apply for a permit to run a rehabilitation house. Dederich said they didn’t have to and Hurst publicly announced Synanon would not. When the Board of Supervisors then voted to abate Synanon’s operation, the Foundation applied and in 1965 the Board granted Synanon a special permit to continue rehabilitation but limited to 200 residents. Now Synanon’s growth concerned the community. It seemed to many that something else was being built all without permits and not per code. The property was all zoned for agriculture but over the next two years caves would spring up to support 422 residents on the two ranches without public hearings or landscaping required of the previous owners leaving large warehouses as an eyesore to locals committed to Marin beauty. Some locals referred to the Shed as “Stalag 17.” Prior county approved plans were modified without permission. In l970 inspectors found 10,000 square feet slated for landscaping was covered instead by black-topping. Synanon was supposed to submit to Marin a master plan to indicate future intentions but Synanon said it could not do so as its growth could take off and change was the basis of the Foundation.

More people were arriving than appeared necessary for agriculture. If the population reached 500 by state law Synanon could incorporate as a city, create its own zoning ordinances and exempt itself from county planning. As it expanded its voting block it could elect Synanites to Marin public offices. The locals remembered Dederich’s earlier boasts of a population of 5,000 when Synanon first arrived in l964. In l966 Synanon tried quieting these fears by advising Marin it would be years before its Tomales Bay population, then at 80, reached 200. But in l967 talk was heard of a future Communiversity of 1000 to 1500 people and in 1969 plans for an incorporated city of 20,000 to 25,000 people. The citizens of West Marin worried. But they were not yet as scared as they would become.

Dederich gave instructions for cover-up’s when applying for building permits. Erected residential buildings in Marin were called agriculture buildings to get around restrictions on the number of residential units in agriculture zoned land. As tents were temporary structures they did not list them. Each held 16 occupants. Dederich suggested first kissing up to officials, as they did with ADGAP customers and corporate donors, using words that suggest compliance, but if all else fails he didn’t mind taking advantage of Synanon’s intimidation factor. Synanon, Dederich said, was like Bonanza’s Ponderosa and nobody messed with Ben Cartwright and his family. And unlike the one in the television show running since l959, this Ponderosa had 12 million dollars in assets.


When big shots got too lofty, Chuck was known to bust them into warehouse workers. At anytime it could be Death of Superstars. No one was safe. Not even favorite son Jack Hurst, president of Synanon. Dederich had him flown in from Santa Monica and gamed him in a stew for big shotitus because residents under his watch in Santa Monica e cursed others outside the game, including a square who had donated $50,000. Dederich threatened to put him out to pasture. “This sniveling punk,” gamed Dederich, “showed up more dead than alive 10 years ago wanting a ham sandwich and we took him in and held his filthy hand while he kicked his habit. Now, he bites us in the ass. Like they all do.”

To Hurst he continued, “You have forgotten where you came from. ..You’ve grown too big for your britches. It was I who transformed you from a piece of human garbage to a top executive of a multimillion dollar corporation which I created…Which I created. Got that…It is I who permitted you to enjoy the illusions and trappings of power while you shout “Look, Daddy, I’m driving…” I put clothes on your back, thoughts in your head, food and words in your mouth and a woman in your bed. I propped you up with silly titles like Regent di-rec-tor and President to make your pecker hard..

“You have pushed too far with your arrogance. One more, Jack, and boom, I’ll bust you to the pot sink. In a hot second — — just like that! If you think I’m kidding just go on and try me. I made you, Buster, and by Jesus Christ, I can break you to.”

Dederich then left the stew and let the others continue the attack. Hurst response was, “I have never yet told Chuck I love him. But I do.”

In June of l971 Dederich took it a step further calling Santa Monica old timers and a few top squares taking the best of donated goods racketeering. He selected Twenty four members–The Dirty Double Dozen– to report to by jitney to the Tomales Bay Cliffhouse conference room where Dederich in a game attended by Betty, Garrett, Hurst and other elite gamed the message that it was better to give rather than receive. CED reminded them he was working for them long ago when they were still trying to shoot poison in their bodies. He had nursed them, made them proprietors and now they were ruining the Foundation. Dederich would cleanse them. He called his shot like Babe Ruth pointing at center field. Through humiliation they would receive humility. As Dederich per-planned with other players the game turned on each of the old timers urging them to change and break contracts, confess their crimes or be replaced with any of the competent squares seeking admission. All 24 had their heads shaved including Steve Simon, the Harvard graduate psychologist who came to study Synanon but remained.

Although they were ordered to swap their ocean side apartments for dormitory bunks and take new jobs doing pots and pans, at the end of the game Dederich lined them against the wall and encouraged them to go back to Santa Monica and earn back their dignity and status by doing to those down south as had just been done to them.


Synanon found children being removed from their mothers to live in the school at age one were suffering too much from the loss. By that age, they learned, the child’s bond to his/her mother had strongly developed. Dederich wanted this separation as he believed children could not learn to take care of themselves until they got away from their mothers. This was considered even more valid if the mother had been a dope fiend. It was better to have children raised by those trained for the task. Dederich said children reared in a nuclear family were like “animals raised in the zoo.”

Dederich, of course, hadn’t really participated in the raising of his own children until they were adults. And lodged in his psyche was still the terrible responsibility and frustration he had suffered when at age four he was assigned that task as to his two younger brothers and then one died when Chuck was just 8. He admitted now he didn’t want children around him, commenting that they make “disgusting noises and smell bad.”

So the age for the transference to the 24 hour school was lowered to 6 months in effort to prevent full mother-child bonding. The Hatchery was born. All pregnant women now lived together through birth here until their babies were old enough–6 months– to be taken from them to the infant school deprived of parents replaced by supervisors– selected personal– who took their job seriously but were counseled not to be the type who goes “goo-goo” to a child. They were to respect the children rather than to squeal with delight, clutch and hug. By day in a room permanently set at 67 degrees the children would be left to their own devices, to interact and roam the school’s floor filled with leathered ramps and objects they could climb or play with, such as mobiles and a large inner tube hanging from the ceiling, most designed to increase curiosity and develop motor functioing,.

Supervising adults stayed in the background respecting the children’s territory. The children spent most of their time together absent any obtrusive guardian. Synanon believed they were better off with peers than being second class citizens to adults. Mothers who wanted to see their children were called headsuckers. Rather than a single parent passing on a concept of life, it would be the community that does so. If a child woke up from a bad dream he or she yelled for the Night Man. Terms “mother”and “father” were rarely used. Instead kids were encouraged to call their parents by their first names when they saw them.

At three years kids were moved to the Lower School. At age four they would participate in workshops that provided education through work services to the Foundation. They participated in Peabody language classes and fundamental math. At age 5 all were required to play the game, listening to solemn music before each game started. Basics began at age four, cleaning, caring for clothes, making beds and repairing and servicing equipment. They would go on to Upper School and then High School. They participated in massive doses and learned Emerson. The focus of the school was not so much on learning information but teaching wisdom. Sometimes classes were halted for a spontaneous game. At age 10 children join specific work crews. At 16 the child leaves school and goes to work for the community. As an option he may take Synanon’s version on college courses or seek vocational training through apprenticeship.

Lifestyler and Los Angeles Times staff writer Skip Ferdeber wrote a feature on the school in the local newspaper calling it the possible future school of society, one of many stories he would write glorifying the organization.


In February, a hustler contacted Dutch Boy Paint to score some gallons of paint. His “save a life” pitch so impressed National Land Industries, which owned Dutch Boy, that it ultimately donated to Synanon a warehouse a square block long in Santa Francisco Potreo Hill area. It was appraised at 1.4 million. Synanon immediately remade it into a residential facility and storage warehouse. The state’s governor, Ronald Reagan, along with Oakland’s Mayor John H. Reading, publicly congratulated Synanon for the restoration.

In the summer Detroit Mayor Roman Griss declared July 11-17 Synanon Week and urged all citizens to support the Foundation.

In October the drive continued for an eventual population increase in Synanon City. A new center was opened at 338 W, 84th St. in New York. The goal of Operation Synanon was to recruit 2000 drug addicts and ship them to California. Two hundred were recruited right away. Each had to get his own plane fare. Synanon argued New York should pay the airfare since if successful New York could save 70 million but the city refused and soon after the center closed. It was never considered what the cost would be to California as to the unsuccessful who would split and not go home. Efforts were made in New Jersey to recruit another 500.

In December plans for a second Synanon City began with the purchase for $120,000 of 400 acres of land in Badger, a small mountain community located at an elevation of 3030′ by Highway 245 near the Highway 180 junction near Kings Canyon National park in the Sierra Mountains. It was part of Tulare County close to the city of Visalia which was about 185 miles north of Los Angeles, 220 miles south of San Francisco and 60 miles from Fresno. The city, like the towns of Marin, was based on agriculture, was founded in l852 and incorporated in 1874. Dederich liked the climate, warm and dry in the summer, mild in the winter with low humidity. He had a plaque erected on the land in honor of the late W.H. Bill Hart who originally homesteaded the property in l897.

A new sign went up over what was once the rich-patronized Pacific Coast Equestrian Riding School stating “Anything less than changing the world is Mickey Mouse.” 48 Synanon members arrived, 26 of high school age. Rod Mullen was now the director of education and the school was christened Camp Badger. School in Synanon was a privilege not a right. Kids were subject to the doctrine “No work No eat.” As in Marin, the emphasis of the school would not be courses like mathematics or English but how to grow organic vegetables and animal husbandry. Synanon prize livestock was entered in local fairs.

The standout student at Camp Badger was young Lance Kenton. His Synanon attitude made him a young role model. He had tremendous outdoors skills. Over the years he would become a legend in Synanon catching trout in streams with bare hands and doing the same on ground with rattlesnakes.


A London Times l971 feature story on Synanon proclaimed it the United States largest and most successful commune. Yablonsky published on Synanon again, this time with the help of psychiatrist Curte Batiste. Their pro-Synanon piece in California Medicine acknowledged Synanon could produce fanatics but said the Foundation itself put them down, jokingly calling them Nazi’s. While they so wrote Dederich distributed an in-house recommendation list for reading and tape listening called “How to become a Synanon Fanatic.”

Hollywood discovered Synanon again. George Lucas used Synanites who had bald heads as extras in his first movie, sci-fi THX-38 and Robert Altman used them similarly in a film ironically titled California Split.

I n July of 1971 Dr. Irvin D. Yalom, a psychiatrist at the Stanford medical school and Dr. Morton A. Lieberman from the University of Chicago department of Psychiatry published “Encounter Group Casualties” in the American Psychiatric Association Journal. For their study 209 university students entered 18 different encounter groups for a total of 30 hours each. Sixteen subjects were considered casualties, defined as enduring a significant negative outcome caused by the group participation. Most vulnerable were individuals with low self-concept and unrealistically high expectations of change. The study found the most reliable method identifying casualties was to solicit the opinion of other group members; that the group leaders were not a valuable judge of casualty. Several casualties, as had victims of Chineese thought reform, had psychotic episodes. Some had become to disturbed to cooperate in post research. One participant committed suicide.

The groups causing almost one half of the casualties were the ones most directive, challenging, attacking and had charismatic leaders who were not shy in revealing their own feelings and values. These leaders focused upon individuals rather than the group and sought firm control over the participants. If a participant did not cry out, give testimonials or breakdown the leader increased the pressure. They treated everyone as having the same needs and having to accomplish the same thing. They also had a religious aura and this was determined to lead to their failure to discriminate between the needs of the various individuals but instead to imbue them all with the same value system. If a member resisted the aggressive group leaders tended to accuse the member of being too infantile to take responsibility to change. Describing it as “unfreezing,” the term Schein coined for the Chinese methods of wiping away existing beliefs, they said the process applied to a person with pre-existing significant disturbance can easily lead to casualty. Negative results also were connected to rejection by the leaders, group pressure, input overload and failure to attain unrealistic goals.

Two of the attacking groups were led by Synanon members. The study particularly noted that the Synanon leaders seemed guided by the hand of Charles Dederich and had distinct ceremonial and ritualized overtones. The Synanon groups also had the highest drop-out rate, 43 percent.

Yalom and Lieberman had in essence predicted what would happen to Terri Raines six years from the report.

I graduated USC in l971 and spent the summer studying for the bar exam living in a single on the beach at Playa Del Rey. The area, which bordered Los Angeles International Airport to the north, was then the rockbed of beach volleyball. Other than breaks to play my life was organized around studying and bar review courses.

I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be a lawyer. The Los Angeles Times had contacted me about sports writing but that didn’t seem a career I wanted. It wasn’t just the relative low pay but when I was fifty I did not want to make a living interviewing rich 20-year olds. I thought about writing for TV. Either fiction or news. While I had no great legal ambitions I knew that I didn’t want to take this exam a second time. So organized and committed I became that I made a decision I have long regretted and longed to make up for.

I rolled out of my bed at 3:13 a.m. at the sounds of gun shots. To this day I still remember the exact time, still see the clock on my desk from the angle of being prone on the floor as I heard the screeching of tires and saw bright lights go by my sliding glass door as first one, then a second car sped by. I waited until it seemed calm and secure enough to go outside. Playa Del Rey along the ocean was not a heavily populated area. My building with about 12 units was all that existed on the ocean side of this street. Beyond it to the north the street transformed to sand and a creek. Across was a halfway house for young addicts, modeled. coincidentally by the grandaddy of such houses and the subject of this book. To the south were several other apartment complexes. As I walked the street I found nothing and noticed no lights on anywhere. It seemed I was the only one awoken and that unlikelihood for a moment made me doubt what I perceived.

I went inside to call the police but did not. I realized by the time they got there and I gave a report it would be morning and my study schedule would be burdened by lack of sleep. I had gone too far in my regiment to interrupt it just as the exam was approaching. I hadn’t found anything. Maybe some kids had just tossed firecrackers from a speeding car window to scare the ex-addicts at the halfway house. I went back to bed.

Two days later my studying was interrupted by knocking on my glass door. Two police detectives asked me if I had heard anything that night. They explained that a woman had arrived at LAX at midnight and then disappeared. A young man at the halfway house yesterday had found her purse in an adjacent field. I told them what I heard and then they confided that another tenant had also heard the shots.

The next day I was disturbed by loud honking and screaming. A man in a convertible wanted everyone on the block outside. He demanded someone tell him what happened to his sister. I watched his hysteria from my glass door. I realized my decision had been selfish. Wrong. To this day I don’t know what happened. I was never contacted by the police again. But at that moment I wondered if I had called the police could that woman have been saved. It was doubtful I assumed. If this was a robbery and she was shot and driven off chances were she was dead when I wandered the street. Still, I made a promise to myself. I would never make a decision like that again for self interest. I would do the right thing.


After the convictions, the sentencing portion of the Charlie Manson trial commenced in January of 1971. Leslie Van Houten’s new attorney, Maxwell Keith, put on the stand Dr. Joel Fort who compared what Manson did to the peer group techniques the army uses to instill patriotism and program soldiers in time of war. He also produced Dr. Keith Ditman, the same psychiatrist who gave Charles Dederich his LSD dose in Ditman’s experiments.

Despite objections of Van Houten—“ Your honor, all he is trying to do is drop the load on (Manson),” Ditman testified as to the possible effects of LSD on her. The drug, Dr. Ditman said, could make the Family more susceptible to influence. This, combined with Manson’s rituals and teachings could induce them to murder.

Ditman testified it was common for LSD to cause a marked change in beliefs, values and goals, often turning people towards a new religion or intellectual belief or assumed insight into the universe, a sense of all-knowing. Takers may develop a psychosis and/or become dramatic in their determination on certain viewpoints irrational as they may be. Some may have confusion of identity or develop a mental illness. The effect of the drugs is partially determined by the past and current environment of the taker.

Again from her table Van Houten argued with the expert who was trying to save her life, crying out, “I was influenced by the war of Vietnam and TV. This is all such a big lie.”

Under LSD, Dtiman continued, one can become highly suggestible and the immediate environment influences them as they experience an accompanying euphoria along with feelings of depersonalization (loss of self), that each can become somebody else are some other thing. Many will seek union with other users. Ditman said the drug also interferes with homeostatic mechanism which control behavior and the
perseveratory ability to stop repetitive action when it is no longer useful allowing action to continue solely for the sake of being repetitive.

One’s life guidelines, he said, can change and by changing what they believe people do things they would not do otherwise. A person could go from being agnostic to religious to believing reality is nothing but a smokescreen. Facts and fantasy merge. Even some well-trained investigators themselves, he testified, have become victims of LSD, turning to a whole new way of life and belief. One such victim, he stated was the man I had listened to and feared years earlier—Dr. Timothy O’Leary.

On cross-examination Ditman was asked if there were such risks how could he give the drug to people in his experiments. Ditman explained that a controlled laboratory environment minimized such risks and from same change could be good, though risks still exist. Lower doses can help a person experience his feelings and past memories thus helpful therefore in psychotherapy. Some doctors were giving LSD to terminal cancer patients to provide a “chemical Christianity” to better accept the idea of dying. But at the higher doses, above 200 or so micrograms, it becomes psychedelic therapy. More can alter consciousness and can result in a bad trip.

Then without a question pending Ditman spoke of his experiments over a decade ago where he gave LSD to alcoholics. It had proven a failure, he admitted, the effects wearing off in about 90 days and all returning to drinking, although many three to five years later spoke of the experience in profound admiration.

He paused again as a memory took hold, still no question before him, then reminisced with pride about a few of the alcoholics who had not been drinking at the time of his experiment. Some, he said, not to see for many years the irony of his statement with the very nature of the trial events to which he was testifying, had gone on to “do some remarkable things for other alcoholics and drug addicts.

“ In fact, Synanon is one of the things that grew out of one of our LSD research projects.”


In my last undergraduate semester at USC I took a course on “Groups.” We learned problem solving through groups and practiced them as well. The idea was to be able to use a group beneficially but not to become submerged by it. I thought it was a great class.

My father had produced a secure middle class living for our family by getting up at 4:30 in the morning and returning from work at the slaughter house in Vernon at 7 or 8 night. He worked Saturday mornings. Once in the early sixties he had been offered a million dollars for his business but now things had changed. Unions were raising the cost allowing other states to import meat at a cheaper price. The industry was losing money and laws against price fixing prevented any hope. Eventually, my father, who was once President of the Meat Packers Association, sold his business. He was like Jack Lemon in movie Save the Tiger, but to honest to ever save himself by burning his plant. I saw his disappointment whenever I came home, he had built his business for his sons. Even though he got a top job at another slaughter house, the same pressures were effecting that plant. And I could see it effecting my father’s health.