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'The Synanon Fix' HBO docuseries exposes the rehab program turned dangerous cult

"I wouldn’t be sitting here if there had not been a Synanon game," docuseries participant Lena Lindsey says in the series

A new four part HBO documentary series (on Crave in Canada), The Synanon Fix, explores the rehab program that began in California in the 1950s.

When founder Charles "Chuck" Dederich gained more money, success and power, it started being called a cult.

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As filmmakers Rory Kennedy and Mark Bailey present, many people in the series remember Synanon as an innovative and inclusive place that helped people get clean, but ultimately, things changed when more behaviours were mandated, and violence was introduced.

The Synanon Fix: Charles
The Synanon Fix: Charles "Chuck" Dederich, Founder of Synanon (Bruce Levine/HBO)

What is Synanon?

The Synanon Fix begins by taking us back to Los Angeles, California in 1958, when Synanon began.

As a number of former dope fiends and Synanon members explain, they thought they were never going to move beyond their addiction.

That was until they discovered Dederich, someone who had been addicted to alcohol, and created a residential space for alcoholics and drug addicts to get clean, at no cost to them. The residential program was largely considered the first of its kind.

There were two "golden rules" in Synanon: No violence and no drugs.

A core element of this rehabilitation was "the Synanon game," a confrontational therapy where everyone has a no holds barred verbal exchange with each other, yelling and criticizing, and the concept is that they release all their feelings and emotions, leading to change and accountability.

"The Synanon game taught us to look at our own truth," Lena Lindsey says in The Synanon Fix. "I wouldn’t be sitting here if there had not been a Synanon game."

The Synanon Fix (Bruce Levine/HBO)
The Synanon Fix (Bruce Levine/HBO)

As Synanon began getting more attention, it moved to a larger space in Santa Monica, with about 60 people living there at that time. The rent was US$500 a month and Dederich knew they needed some way to make money.

Synanon became registered as a nonprofit organization, with all the tax benefits that came with that, and the "hustling" business started. People staying at Synanon would go around asking for donations, which included Christmas trees, soap, a Cadillac and cattle. Synanon also eventually had gas stations and owned apartment buildings.

As time went on, the recovering addicted believed that if anyone left Synanon, they would "die," so they all stayed and eventually were able to bring their children into the residence as well.

This was the start of a sort of communal parenting/caretaking model for the group.

As we get into the mid-1960s, Synanon began having game clubs and allowing non-residents to participate in exercises, which appealed to many who were going through experiences like depression and divorce.

Continuing to expand into the late '60s, Synanon was a way for people who felt lonely to connect. They felt they were part of buidling a community that was for anyone and everyone, which was particularly appealing as disparities in the U.S. were magnified by tragedies like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

"Lifestylers" were Synanon members who were not addicts, but were part of the group and would often donate significant amounts of money. Eventually, it seemed as though Dederich was more invested in the Lifestylers than the addicts in Synanon.

(Original Caption) 2/27/1975-Oakland, CA- More than 500 women from Synanon communities throughout California went prematurely bald, shaving their heads in a demonstration of women's liberation. The shaved heads symbolize Synanon women's acceptance of an equal responsibility--with Synanon men--for the management and operation of the foundation which re-educates drug addicts, juvenile delinquints and other character-disordered people. Here, some 200 Synanon women dance during a press conference.

Dangerous conditions for children

As The Synanon Fix progresses, you see the docuseries participants, including Dederich's daughter Jady Dederich Montgomery, document moments when the group's leader started seeking out more control through a variety of mandates. This included Dederich's idea to build a city, really creating their own society, which led the group to Tomales Bay.

There was also the wire, so as Synanon expanded across the U.S., there was a communication channel between each facility.

By the time we get to the 1970s some of the added layers of control included physical changes, like everyone having to shave their head, and mandated weigh-ins with a diet and fitness routine to follow.

But some of the most alarming claims in The Synanon Fix come from how children were treated, living away from their parents as part of this communal caretaking model.

By 1975, a group was created in Synanon as a form of discipline for kids with behaviour problems, but as The Synanon Fix explains, that was largely done through adults physically abusing children, hitting them with paddles, while some still question whether that was entirely wrong.

SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 21: (L-R) Judi Ehrlich, guest, Lance Kenton, Mark Bailey, Rory Kennedy, Bill Goodson, Elena Broslovsky and guest attend the Los Angeles Premiere of
SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 21: (L-R) Judi Ehrlich, guest, Lance Kenton, Mark Bailey, Rory Kennedy, Bill Goodson, Elena Broslovsky and guest attend the Los Angeles Premiere of "The Synanon Fix" on March 21, 2024 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for HBO)

But the Synanon problem with that is it directly goes against Dederich's original rules for Synanon, no drugs and no violence.

A more militant form of discipline was extended to all children at Synanon, being woken up in the early hours, forced to run, not given breakfast if they didn't make their bed properly. There was also a moment when Dederich believed there should be no more children at Synanon, mandating that all men get vasectomies.

As journalists and the public had more questions about what was happening at Synanon, Dederich's paranoia seemingly increased, with things taking a particularly dark turn as he completely abandons the initial foundation of Synanon's creation.

The Synanon Fix highlights many who still aren't particularly critical of their time in Synanon, while the adults who were children in what Time famously called a "kooky cult" provide a particularly disturbing retelling of events.

Episode 1 of The Synanon Fix is available to stream on Crave in Canada, with weekly episodes airing Mondays at 9:00 p.m. ET.