Archives for posts with tag: Synanon

Throughout this post, I refer to Synanon. Synanon was a drug and alcohol rehab community which turned into a commune and later into something more militaristic and cult-like. The years I lived there were in between these latter two phases. I have friends who were there much later and have very different feelings and memories of the place. These recollections are entirely my own.

By the time I was seven years old, I’d lived in four places: the apartment on Balboa Island where my parents lived when I was born; the house in Fullerton they bought shortly after; an apartment, also in Fullerton, where my mom moved with me and my sister after leaving my father; an apartment in Santa Monica close to the one my father had taken. By the middle of second grade, I’d attended at least three different schools. And then my father moved into Synanon with me.

And that was my world turned upside down. I already knew one boy in Synanon, but I hadn’t spent any time in the community the way my parents had, given that they were both members of the Synanon Game Club. (One explanation of the game can be found here. It’s not great, but it’s a start.) Over the first year and a half I lived there, I saw my mother not much more than six or seven times that I recall. I moved in in November, 1974 but my mother and sister didn’t move in until the following February. She met my stepfather and they married in November, 1975 and left the community the following July. I think. I conflate hearing that they’d left with Bicentennial-related information. After they left, I recall maybe two visits of four or five days each to stay with them in Santa Monica.

My father and stepmother married in the big Synanon wedding in 1976 and stayed through September or October, 1977. I’m not sure how precisely it happened, but my mother succeeded in gaining custody of my sister and me. My father and stepmother left so they’d be able to see us.

The thing is, my stepmother had been in Synanon a lot longer than my dad or mom. My parents had only been away from friends and family for two or three years. I’m pretty sure my stepmother had lived in Synanon for about ten. She didn’t have, as far as I can recall, any real connections outside. Her dad lived in Monterey, I think, but I never met him. Leaving, I think, must have been at least as big a shock for her as going in was for me. I go through periods sometimes of trying to figure out what happened to all of us at the time. I was only ten when we left, and in the year before, there had been a couple of serious traumas. My father’s father had died in New York. I don’t remember if he was able to attend the funeral. He and my stepmother had a daughter who was born with a some major congenital defects and died at the age of 8 months. That would have been Spring, 1977. I think.

Synanon had a really strange relationship to both children and to emotions that weren’t sanctioned anger. (Anger that was sanctioned included the Game, but wasn’t limited to it.) I don’t think either my father or stepmother were able to work through what they experienced in such a way that would lead to healing, as we define it now. And once outside of Synanon, my stepmother didn’t have the support network that was the Synanon family, dysfunctional as it was.

Synanon’s successes in the rehab sphere had a lot to do with emotional abuse. For addicts, a scared straight way of life proved very effective. Later on, the powers that be in Synanon thought this would be an equally effective toolbox for childrearing, to the point that the person who led the school for two of my three years learned what he knew as a drill sergeant in the army. Most of the abuse I suffered there was emotional. Some was physical. What might have been the defining moment of my time in Synanon wasn’t meant to be either, I don’t think. The property the school was located on had a reservoir with a deck. Note: Teachers in Synanon didn’t actually have a pedagogical background. Synanon prided itself on employing people in areas outside of their fields of expertise. Unless your field was lucrative. My father continued to work as an attorney. Doctors continued to work as doctors.) On a visit to the reservoir, one of the teachers asked why I wasn’t swimming. At age 9 or so, I’d never learned. He picked me up to throw me in the water. It was not shallow and I screamed blue murder. He put me down after what seemed a very long time.

Having my butt paddled in front of my schoolmates for being tardy, which happened quite a few times, was not as hard for me to deal with at the time as those minutes at the reservoir. I don’t remember anything else about that day.

Most of what happened after in my immediate family relationships resonates from those jolts of moving into and out of the commune and the various forms of grief we were never able to experience.

In the eight years after Synanon, I lived in four places before moving to San Francisco for university. Each of the four years at San Francisco State, I lived in a different place. I moved nine times between 22 and 35 (and was also married and divorced). At 35, I moved to Prague.

I don’t know if all my moving about was a conscious or unconscious effort to take control of where I was at any given time. The downside (I learned after the eight-year relationship of my first marriage which included six different residences) is that moving puts a huge strain on a person and more on a couple. I lived in three different places in my five-plus years in Prague – the last for nearly four years. It was the longest I’d ever lived in one place. Since moving to the Netherlands, we’ve lived in two places. The first for almost five years before we bought this house just over eight years ago. The future is hard to read these days, but I plan on living here for rather a long time if I can.

And last summer, at the age of 52, I finally learned how to swim.

Guinevere Turner writes in the May 6, 2019 New Yorker about growing up in a commune and discusses the differences between communes and cults. ‘(Leader Mel) Lyman never ordered his followers to kill anyone the way Charles Manson did, but if Lyman had asked, I’m pretty sure that they would have complied.’ (The Others)

That said, I spent some formative years in a commune/cult and not long after my family left, the leader of this cult did ask two of his followers to attempt murder.

Lance Kenton was about 21 (and the one thing said about him in every article on this subject is that he was the son of big band leader Stan Kenton) and Joe Musico, a damaged Vietnam war veteran aged about 28, under the direction of Synanon’s leader, Charles Diederich, used the rather ingenious method of cutting the rattles off of a rattlesnake before putting the snake into the mailbox of attorney Paul Morantz. They were found guilty and each served a prison sentence and probation time.

My family had all left Synanon by the close of 1977 and the snake incident didn’t occur until about a year later. (I should verify, but in my memory the Morantz attack, the People’s Temple mass suicide and the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone all ran together in the news. So perhaps by this definition, Synanon counts as a cult, or at least it did by that point. I have vague memories of an increased focus on self defense while I was still there, but that might be an amalgam of readings and memories and discussions that happened later.

From certain points of view, there might be objective assessments of the whole situation but 40 plus years later, I’m generally unwilling to dig into them. I don’t get much out of the subjective assessment either, given that it took me 25 of those 40 years to get to the other side of my own Synanon experience.

The death of Paul Morantz in 1978 would only have benefitted Chuck Diederich. Morantz had made something of a name representing individuals who had cases against Synanon and other such places based on mistreatment. And he’d won some pricey verdicts as well. It’s not as though there weren’t other lawyers going up against Synanon at the time, but Morantz had been successful and was showing no signs of stopping.

CED, according to one very biased account that insists on referring to Synanon members as ‘Synanites’ (a term we never would have used), spent a lot of time on the Wire, the closed-circuit radio network demonizing Morantz and calling on followers to do something about him.

Anyway, this brings me to the cult at the heart of the executive branch of the US government. The president’s fixer has just started a prison term for crimes that only benefitted the president. Diederich’s call for someone inside to to his dirty work sounds eerily like what we’ve heard from Trump and specifically from Cohen’s defense of his own actions. (Fall Guy – Michael Cohen’s Last Days of Freedom by Jeffrey Toobin in the same issue of the New Yorker.)

Mel Lyman’s Family organization – the cult to which Guinevere Turner belonged from birth to the age of about 12 afforded her a great deal of security and was home in a way that Synanon wasn’t really for me. Noting that I have friends who were there much longer than I was and who saw the other end of a period of distinct cruelty against those of us in the school. Their attitudes about the place are very different than mine or my parents’. For a period, the school was run by a guy who had no pedagogical background. This wasn’t uncommon – most people worked jobs inside that had no relationship to whatever training they may have brought in. Unless it was lucrative. My father was a patent lawyer and he continued doing the same work and gave most of his income back to the community. If not all. The fact that the person in charge of the school, Chris Benton, had not educational background didn’t set him apart from anyone else teaching us. His background however was as a drill sergeant. And corporal punishment wasn’t outside of his remit. (This despite the fact that Synanon had strict policies against physical violence, threatening physical violence, not to mention swearing and drug, alcohol, and tobacco use.)

I left at the age of 10 1/2 when my father and stepmother left in September of 1977 (my mother and stepfather had left in mid-‘76. The story behind all of the relationships is complex and for another blog entry), almost three years after entering. It took a long time for me to come to terms with the place. Psychoanalysis in the wake of my divorce helped, I suppose. And simply getting to middle age and that point where there’s no longer any profit to be had from carrying the baggage.

Turner made a certain kind of peace with her experiences on a return visit at the age of 18 – the casual sexism with which the men their expected to be waited on put paid to her longing to return to The Family’s way of life. She makes an interesting point about the probable profusion of cults in America:

If you haven’t heard of a cult, it’s because it didn’t go down in flames. Its members are just quietly doing what they do, which means that there are many more active cults today than we are aware of.

Manson and David Koresh’s group in the 90s (for another example) and Synanon went down in flames. Folks like Lyman’s group laid low. I’d suggest that the probability a cult will go down in flames is directly proportional to the degree it goes head to head with existing power structures. Synanon got under the skins of nearby residents no matter where it set up (for a variety of reasons – the fact that it sold itself as a drug rehab organization harking back to its roots is one) and there was a certain amount of that antagonism built into Chuck’s messiah complex.

The issue we’re running into here is that Manson, Koresh and Diederich, and let’s add Philadelphia’s MOVE commune to the list, all in their own ways got the goat of the power structures (and the media). Outright murder got Manson on the map. The others? Different in their different ways.

What do we get, though, with the Cult of Trump in which the leader is the power structure? Increasingly there seems to be no way of stopping him short of something that turns the rest of the structure against him. That has historically taken a long and very difficult time.