The Synanon Fix: How Did the Infamous Organization Attract Members?

Charles Dederich, founder of Synanon, and wife Betty lead a wedding parade at the Synanon Wedding Festival August 6, 1972. (Photo Credit: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers | Getty Images)
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HBO recently premiered a documentary series titled The Synanon Fix, which showcased the exploits of an organization called Synanon. Initially, this organization offered revolutionary drug rehabilitation programs, however, as time went by, people began considering it a cult.

The Synanon Fix narrates Synanon’s story from the point of view of its ex-members. According to TIME Magazine, it was founded by Charles Dederich in 1958. Dederich himself was an ex-alcoholic who recovered after attending AA meetings. However, he believed that it was not enough for addicts because they didn’t open up completely. His organization aimed to take recovery from addiction a step further. Furthermore, Synanon flourished due to a Heroin addiction that ravaged the United States in the 50s.

By the time the 60s arrived, Synanon went from a treatment facility to a communal living experiment. Reports suggest that Dederich built a three-story building for the members. Furthermore, they participated in mass weddings and were encouraged to start families. Gradually, people began looking at this organization as a full-blown cult. According to TIME Magazine, Synanon attracted lonely people and yearned for a community. This era was when the public lost trust in the government due to the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Since Synanon did not discriminate among races, people considered it a progressive organization.

Per IMDb, the synopsis of The Synanon Fix reads, “Explores the rise and fall of the Synanon organization through the eyes of the members who lived it, from its early days as a groundbreaking drug rehabilitation program to its later descent into what many consider a cult.”

This docuseries’ second, third, and final episodes will air on April 8, 15, and 22 respectively.

When and how did Synanon decline?

Synanon implemented a confrontational group therapy method called the “Synanon game.” In this method, participants would scream what they thought of each other. Furthermore, the process would conclude after they hugged in the end. The University of California’s Donald Cressey described this organization as “the most significant attempt to keep addicts off drugs that has ever been made.”

According to Deadline, the writer and producer of The Synanon Fix, Mark Bailey, called its founder, Charles Dederich, a complicated and genius person. He stated, ” [Synanon founder Chuck] Dederich, who was a complicated and brilliant guy, sort of changed along with [the movement]. And in that way, it kind of becomes the cautionary tale of unchecked power and a community that’s really built around the cult of personality and one individual. And when that individual sort of starts to drift, the community following with.”

However, this organization’s downfall began in the late 1970s. Reports suggest that Charles Dederich began drinking once again after his wife died in 1977. He soon remarried and decided everyone in Synanon should follow in his footsteps. He told the members to remarry and swap wives, and so they did. Soon, there were several divorces and a remarriage.

The organization also declined due to negative press and several lawsuits. An ex-member, Mike Gimbel, stated, “Synanon saved my life, but screwed it up too.”

Synanon disbanded in 1991, and Charles Dederich died in 1997. According to The New York Times, he died at the age of 83 in Kaweah Delta Hospital in Visalia, California.

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