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Opinion & Essays - Feb, 1995 Issue #32 


(A Three-Part Series)
by: Linda Shaffer, Educational Consultant
Sandpoint, Idaho

(Note: In this issue of Woodbury Reports, and the succeeding April and June issues, we will be looking at the history, influence and contributions of the 60's Synanon movement and counseling style to today's emotional growth schools and programs. Articles on the history and influences of the EST Movement, Lifespring, and the traditional mental health field will follow the Synanon series.)


Synanon centered around a man named Charles E. Chuck Dederick, a layman, who in 1958 began a new social movement. A man of creativity, Dederick began Synanon -- a community/family/home for individuals voluntarily assisting one another through the experience of drug withdrawal and rehabilitation. Many had extensive histories of crime, imprisonment, and failure to cease drug use via the route of traditional mental health services. 

Synanon was a highly controversial therapeutic community and counseling style, and remained such throughout it's history. Its confrontive counseling style, back then called attack therapy, had its believers and its critics both in and out of the traditional mental health community. 

The name Synanon is a combination of the words symposium and seminar. The story goes that a new resident in the first days of the organization said he wanted to get into one of those group sessions (later called synanons). Seems he mixed together the words symposium and seminar and came up with synanon. 

In 1965, a sociologist named Lewis Yablonsky, who was well- acquainted with Synanon, said the following about this community. Synanon is more than symposiums and seminars. It is a new kind of group therapy; an effective approach to racial integration; a humane solution to some facets of bureaucratic organization; a different way of being religious; a new method of attack therapy; an unusual kind of communication, and an exciting, fresh approach to the cultural arts and philosophy. 

With a $33 unemployment check and hitting rock bottom@ financially, it is said, Dederich founded Synanon in 1958 and by 1963 the organization had spent $200,000 in cash and used an estimated $800,000 in goods and services. Donations from private individuals and foundations all around the country basically supported the million-dollar enterprise that appeared to be reaping many more successes regarding life-long addiction patterns than the traditional mental health field had been able to document. 

Synanon acquired over time various living quarters, buildings, warehouses and vehicles -- beginning with an old beach house in Santa Monica, California, and later progressing to a large five-story redbrick armory type building. As the word of addiction successes spread, so also did financial and emotional support. During Synanon's growth in the late 50's and into the 70's, many outsiders came to visit this new seeming-to-be-working social experiment. And Synanon members spoke at numerous meetings in churches, high schools, and at colleges and universities. 

Open meetings between Synanon members and squares (outsiders), drew the curious and therapeutically-inclined as Synanon took on a major role in the educating of the public about the problems of narcotics and addiction. 

While Synanon reaped much support from some public and well-known Hollywood and other celebrities, not everyone was so inclined. Some of the citizens and government officials of the communities in which Synanon had housing were fearful of criminals and addicts living in their communities. The concept of former addicts treating recently-arrived addicts did not fit some of society's view of the professional hospital environment. Many efforts were made by cities, through zoning ordinances, to remove Synanon. Representatives of the traditional mental health community who came to the open meetings were equally horrified and amazed -- especially by the attack therapy and the language and volume it involved. 

Individuals wanting to have a chance to change their lives at Synanon were invited to join the organization if they were willing to live by the house agreements which were basically no drugs and no socially embarrassing or inappropriate behavior. Synanon did not consider its residents to be sick, and let them know that from the start -- that they had within themselves what it would take to quit cold turkey, go through the four or five days of withdrawal misery, and start to make different choices, all with the support of the community. 

Different choices during a day had lots of different meanings at Synanon House. First, druggie-type talk was out. In, instead, was philosophical discussions coming out of studies and classes centered around Freud, Plato, Thoreau, Buddha, St. Thomas, Catholicism, Lao-tse, Emerson, etc. Physical work was a part of everyone's day -- beginning with dusting and basic cleaning and moving on to more responsible jobs as time went on. 

Chuck Dederich, history indicates, was somewhat looking for his own way and life's meaning (when he started Synanon) after a variety of jobs and marriages. Dederich left Notre Dame as a sophomore and later became a junior executive in the Gulf Oil Company, and still later an employee of Douglas Aircraft in California before starting Synanon. Dederich had also been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for a number of years. Finally his differences with AA, desire to have his own input into an organization, and AA's desire to work solely with alcoholics and unthreatened by the presence of narcotics users, led to Dederich' s departure and the founding of Synanon. 

Group sessions at Synanon began with Wednesday night free-association discussion groups, and were, according to Yablonsky, Aloud, boisterous, attacking, defending, with psychoanalytic language mixed with ten-year-old-kid talk. Dederich believed a hard-hitting counseling approach would get through the walls built up by a narcotics user over many years. And for many it did when years of the mental health and prison systems had failed. 

At Synanon House a somewhat autocratic family structure, it appeared, bought time for a recovering addict. This time was used to bring into the addict's awareness carefully selected philosophy such as that in Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, Self Reliance and Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. Members were urged to read from the classics. 

The Synanon philosophy was based a lot on the concepts of Emerson's essay on Self Reliance. That there comes a time in everyone's life when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must accept himself for better or for worse as is his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. 

Synanon's emphasis on self-help and self reliance is one of the major areas of contrast between Synanon and Alcoholics Anonymous. AA is built upon a person's reliance upon a higher power. Synanon was established upon the basis of self-help and actualization. Although no formal religion was practiced at Synanon, Dederich said Here at Synanon we try to practice the Golden Rule. Synanon was established upon the basis of self-help and actualization. Although no formal religion was practiced at Synanon, Dederich said Here at Synanon we try to practice the Golden Rule. Synanon emphasized being a giver rather than a receiver, being honest and truthful, assuming responsibility, and having trust and faith.

END NOTE: Part Two will be published in the April issue. TOPICS TO COME: pressures to succumb to the traditional mental health community; attack therapy; continued Synanon history; and today's modifications. Continued bibliography will stem from THE TUNNEL BACK: SYNANON, by Lewis Yablonsky, 1965, The Macmillan Company, New York; and The American Self-Help Residential Therapeutic Community, by Thomas E. Bratter, Ernest A. Collabolletta, Allen J. Fossbender, Matthew C. Pennacchia, and John R. Rubel, ALCOHOLISM AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE; STRATEGIES FOR CLINICAL INTERVENTION, by T.E. Bratter & G.G. Forrest, New York, Free Press, 1985, pp. 461-505. 

Copyright 1995, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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