Previous | Next

Fall 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 2 · pp. 239–40 

Book Review

The Rise and Fall of Synanon: A California Utopia

Rod Janzen. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 300 pages.

Reviewed by Richard Kyle

Just what to call Synanon is a problem. It has been described as a commune, a church, a cult, a social movement, and more. It existed from 1958 to 1991. Perhaps Synanon can best be seen as an innovative communal society with therapeutic and religious characteristics. Rod Janzen, a professor at Fresno Pacific University, has written a history of this movement from its origins to its demise. In doing so, he recalls the good with the bad and presents a balanced view of this movement—not the cult stereotype often projected by some Evangelicals and the news media. Janzen is no stranger to communal movements, having authored a previous book on the Hutterites and serving as editor of the journal, Communal Societies.

As indicated by the book’s title, Synanon was not a static movement. Rather, it experienced many changes, which the author recounts. Started as a self-help organization for alcoholics and drug abusers by Chuck Dederich, an alcoholic with a charismatic personality, the movement began under inauspicious circumstances and through the years gained and lost 25,000 members. Central to Synanon’s program—and close to achieving a sacramental status—were encounter sessions known as “the Game.” The Game consisted of confrontational techniques designed to strip down a person’s defense mechanisms and uncover the real person. According to Janzen, Dederich based his game on Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance.” Participants were encouraged to be brutally honest, spouting “indictments” to attack hypocrisy and fraud as their fellow members “ran their stories.”

Confronted with high rates of recidivism and the need to restructure the movement, in the mid-1960s Dederich began allowing nonaddicted outsiders or “squares” to live in the Synanon community. These outsiders were ordinary people who gravitated to Synanon, not for its reputation for rehabilitating addicts, but for its communal, nonviolent, ordered lifestyle. But as Synanon still continued to lose members, Dederich introduced even more changes—some intrusive enough to further alienate the Synanites. The community began to incorporate violence against abusive outsiders and insiders who wished to defect from the {240} community. A ban on smoking did not sit well with the “dopefiends” who felt they “deserved this one last addiction.”

On the bizarre side, members were required to surrender the right to bear children. Many vasectomies were performed. In addition, Synanites swapped spouses and participated in physical fitness programs, including karate. As Synanon failed to substantiate its therapeutic mission, it acquired more of a religious character, and increasingly Dederich took upon himself the complexion of a religious leader. By the 1980s, even its more committed members began to defect until the community was disbanded in 1991.

Janzen presents a balanced account of Synanon, noting both its positive and negative aspects. So often neglected were its successes. At its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, Synanon rehabilitated many people, donated millions of dollars in goods to charitable organizations, and its “Game” inspired similar sessions across the country. But the author does not spare Synanon, noting the bizarre excesses that eventually lead to its demise.

Janzen’s scholarship is sound. Living in the area where Synanon rose and fell, he utilizes many primary sources including personal interviews. He also connects Synanon with its historical and social context, namely, with other communal groups through American history and with the social developments of the 60s and 70s.

However, more emphasis might have been placed on societal developments related to Synanon. For example, seven of the eight reasons listed for the decline of Synanon were internal. This may be correct, but the 60s and 70s were different than the 80s. Along with Synanon, other alternative religions and groups had difficulty in making the transition from the counterculture years to the 80s and 90s. Also, despite Dederich’s distaste for therapy, Synanon was a self-help group. How was Synanon similar to some noncommunal self-help groups existing at that time? While not necessarily communal, other groups also employed rough and tumble encounter sessions. Having said this, The Rise and Fall of Synanon is a well-written book that makes a significant contribution to our understanding of a prominent communal and self-help group and the culture that spawned such groups.

Richard Kyle
Professor of History and Religion
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

Previous | Next