Children of Synanon

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Synanon's rise and failure are testament to an organization where there were no external controls to keep its founder and charismatic leader Charles Dederich from running amok.

Synanon evolved from a handful of drunks living in Dederich's apartment to a $10 million-a-year business with more than 2,000 members. Dederich and his followers repeatedly clashed with government authorities over issues ranging from zoning, child care, education, taxes and ultimately beatings and attempted murder.

Synanon finally collapsed after the Internal Revenue Service revoked its tax-exempt status with the help of Arbiter, Mullen and Fleishman.

But that action came years after the future managers of Amity were loyal, devoted members of Synanon.

The movement, which its own attorney described as a cult, started out quietly enough.

Dederich founded Synanon in 1958 in Santa Monica, California, first as a dry-out tank for alcoholics and later as a commune to help heroin addicts kick the drug.

In 1967, Dederich expanded the role of Synanon to include nonaddicts who wanted to participate in the racially and economically integrated community.

Those joining the community donated their personal assets to Synanon in exchange for having all personal needs ranging from housing to education to health care to transportation and employment provided by Synanon.

By 1970, all three of Amity's future managers had become active Synanon members.

Mullen joined Synanon in 1967 and remained a member for 13 years where he was a director at Synanon's communal school. He donated $60,000 when he joined Synanon after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley where he studied political science.

Arbiter spent ten years at Synanon, entering the program after being arrested on drug-transportation charges as a teenager in 1970. Arbiter says she became a close friend of Dederich's daughter, who later became chairman of Synanon.

Fleishman, who remains as Amity's executive director, spent 12 years at Synanon, joining the commune the day after she graduated from Hollywood High School in 1968. The daughter of a prominent Los Angeles First Amendment attorney who assisted Synanon in a successful libel suit against the San Francisco Examiner, Fleishman donated her college-tuition funds to Synanon.

While at Synanon, Fleishman says she "apprenticed" herself to Dederich's late wife, Betty, who was a primary contributor to Synanon's philosophy and about the only check on her husband's power, which was primarily maintained by the game.

"Anything important had to be said in the game," says Richard Ofshe, a University of California sociology professor who shared in the 1979 Pulitzer Prize with Mitchell. "If you felt reservations or were opposed to what was going down in Synanon, you couldn't talk about that outside of the game.

"If you started to do that, you were being negative and needed additional education. It was your friends' obligation to rat you out. The friend would accuse you of dumping your stuff outside the game."

But raising concerns about Synanon's direction or policies in the game was also a dangerous tactic.

"The only time it is legitimate to express opposition is in a setting where the rest of the rules are designed to beat the hell out of you," Ofshe says.

Dederich frequently imposed, without warning, strict mandates that all Synanon members were required to adopt. Those who didn't were humiliated during the game or forced to leave the community. The mandates started with an edict banning cigarettes and requiring all members to shave their heads.

Before long, Dederich demanded regular aerobic exercise and elimination of sugar and white flour from members' diets and his nonstop series of self-help lectures was piped into every Synanon member's room via radio. The demands increased, including a requirement that all men who lived in Synanon for more than five years have vasectomies and for pregnant women to have abortions.

Soon after Dederich's wife died in 1977, he imposed his most drastic demand.
Dederich, who had remarried, ordered all married members of the community to switch spouses. The command, known as "changing partners," was met with resistance but, remarkably, several hundred married couples agreed to the switch.

With a loyal base of supporters that he continually tested, Dederich set about building a community that he believed would be a model for the rest of the world to follow. To do this, he needed money.

Synanon raised money by hustling donations from the government and corporations using a sales pitch that emphasized the organization's service to saving junkies. The pitch worked. Millions of dollars' worth of materials and real estate flowed to Synanon.

The nonprofit Synanon also began selling pens, papers and other office supplies to Fortune 500 companies that could be used as promotional materials. That soon turned into a multimillion-dollar-a-year operation.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty