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Opinion & Essays - Aug, 1995 Issue #35 


by: Linda Shaffer, Educational Consultant
Sandpoint, Idaho

(The February 95 issue of Woodbury Reports carried the first of three articles viewing the history and influence of the 60's Synanon movement and counseling style in emotional growth schools and programs. The third article will be published in a future issue of WR. Subsequent articles will follow regarding the influences of the EST Movement, Lifespring and the traditional mental health field.) 

Chuck Dederich, founder of Synanon in the 60's, drew considerable attention from curious squares, (Synanon language for someone who had never been an addict), and numerous professionals in the mental health community who were intrigued by the daily life and activities of this volunteer, addiction-addressing home. 

The word about Synanon's approach, controversial as it was, reached those outside Synanon via public noon SEMINARS and Saturday night MEETINGS. These meetings accomplished two objectives. It became a way for the residents to mix with the larger society outside their home. And, the squares had an opportunity to learn more about a new approach to dealing with addiction. One of Dederich's talks, for example, presented some concepts related to lifestyles of taking (the child), sharing (the adolescent), and giving (the adult), explaining his view that addicts take too much, share not enough, and give way too little -- actions that needed to change to promote personal growth. And, thus, another discussion night took off at Synanon. 

The CULTURAL ARTS were another of the new experiences for a resident of Synanon -- except for some, now and then, who had been professionals earlier in their lives. Film production was a major creative outlet as was dance, playing musical instruments and drawing and painting. By entertaining each other, the inhibitions of many slowly disappeared, replaced by new skills, new-found self- esteem and confidence. A new definition of self slowly emerged for each resident who chose to stay on. And purposely, residents were kept busy with these new activities so there would be no time left for the old life of drugs and crime. TIME away from the other life was an important ingredient. Synanon claimed no quick fix. 

The SYNANON, the therapeutic group session held three times a week, was the heart of the organization. In addition to problems of the day to day type groups -- about being unorganized, prejudiced, having a poor work ethic, and unmet educational objectives -- were those heated, emotional intensive discussions of personal and group issues. 

The no holds or statements barred style was the approach in the Synanons. The VERBAL-ATTACK THERAPY method involved blowing issues up out of proportion at times and raising the volume to make sure one's attention was present in the circle of 10 or 12 participants. Residents were asked to view the attack therapy as a method delivered from care that would help them see their problems rather than to feel their dignity had been personally assaulted. 

On some occasions, individuals put forth requests to be in a Synanon with particular individuals in order to work at resolving particular issues. Group composition was different all the time to keep persons from setting up a contract not to confront each other. In other instances, louder, more confrontive residents were mixed in with the more quiet ones in order to elevate the energy of the group. And employer-employee problems were handled, as well, in the Synanon. 

"Squares" and mental health professionals sitting in on the Synanons departed with several views of the attacking, loud, psychoanalytical language mixed with ten-year- old-kid talk. Impressed. Horrified. Unorthodox. Shocking. Destructive. A brutal hotseat. Questioning the attack style. And amazed that so many residents chose to remain in the environment under these conditions. 

Facilitators of Synanons were not set apart from the confrontation or excused from having to speak from their own experiences as well. On the contrary, the role-model style of counseling was used to enable the new resident to see a light at the end of the tunnel exemplified by the facilitator's life. Also, residents could hear an observation from such a guide, as opposed to some earlier resistance to being psychoanalyzed by a professional therapist who remained outside of the process and may not have been there. For many mental health professionals, this style was considered totally unprofessional. Synanon saw this approach as one of the KEYS to its success. 

The most controversial result of the Synanon community was its belief that people can help each other without the need for Aprofessional therapists as was the same belief in Alcoholics Anonymous. Many professionals believed only psychoanalysis and their professional training could cure an addict. Synanon saw its members as educators rather than therapists. Dederich saw Synanon as a new counseling method and social structure, administered by a new breed of professional people. Sociologist Lewis Yablonsky, well acquainted with Synanon in the 60's stated, the professional, the average layman, and even the patient's have been convinced on a deep emotional level that only the properly schooled  professional is qualified to understand and help people.

One former observer resident of Synanon, Winslow Walker -- author of The Menninger Story and If a Man Be Mad -- wrote in a professional article, A Lesson from History about his prediction that Synanon would one day feel the pressure to SUCCUMB TO THE TRADITIONAL MENTAL HEALTH COMMUNITY. His quote reads:

Sooner or later in the life of any new and advancing organization some authority studiously dusts off a tired cliche and announces that it has reached the crossroads. Usually this prefaces a suggestion that the time has come to embrace some sort of institutional respectability that can only be reached through accredited conformity. Such a day will come for Synanon Foundation, if it has not come already. At such a point it is to be expected that the status- and degree-seekers, bureaucrats who have piloted the failures in the same field, foundation men, representatives of project-hungry seats of learning, and the like, will be invited to crawl on board. Such crossroads are in fact but loading terminals for people who can bring in some money and status, or the promise of it, in exchange for an authority they can earn in no other way.

....To be continued in the third and concluding article of this series in the next issue of WR, covering: Synanon's change of focus; and specific Synanon-like practices carried on in today's therapeutic communities and emotional growth schools. 

Bratter, Thomas E., Ernest A. Collabolletta, Allen J. Fossbender, Matthew C. Pennacchia, and John R. Rubel. AThe American Self- Help Residential Therapeutic Community@ in ALCOHOLISM AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE; Strategies for Clinical Intervention. New York: New York Free Press, 1985.. Pp. 461-505. Yablonsky, Lewis. THE TUNNEL BACK: Synanon. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1965

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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