Opinion & Essays
- Dec, 1995 Issue #37
SYNANON'S HISTORY & INFLUENCE IN THERAPEUTIC COMMUNITIES and EMOTIONAL GROWTH SCHOOLS -
by: Linda Shaffer, Educational Consultant
Emotional Growth Schools and Programs
(The February and August 1995 issues of Woodbury Reports carried the first two articles
of a three part series about the history and influence of the 60's Synanon movement and counseling style in therapeutic communities
and emotional growth schools and programs. This is the third and final part in this series. The series was intended to scratch the
surface of the many books and articles written about Synanon and to provide a quickly readable "short version" centered mainly around
the positive contributions to education from a most controversial movement.)
Whatever happened to Synanon, the controversial drug treatment residential community begun
in the late 50's, to its founder Chuck Dederich, and to its numerous residents, supporters and challengers? And, what of Synanon is
visible today in therapeutic communities and emotional growth schools?
First, the Synanon community no longer exists today as it did in the late 1950's, and as
it evolved through the 60's and 70's.
The highly publicized, highly productive-appearing Synanon I of drug treatment gave way
to Synanon II, III, and IV which were described as a new community and living style, a sanctuary or new community that was to be an
example to the rest of the world of truly caring living. It's residents would not only be recovering addicts, but also "squares" who
had never been addicted to drugs, but desired to help build this new way of living. It's history has been told through many books,
television and radio broadcasts and newspapers, magazine articles, and a positive feature film about Synanon. History shows that as
it evolved, "The Plan" took on a very powerful decision-making role over its residents. Many felt it took control of areas of life
that some called "over the boundaryline." Others claimed it reduced personal growth "for the good of the community."
Synanon II, III and IV became less the drug treatment program that Synanon I had been. Numerous
controversies erupted around media-covered lawsuits about Synanon's alleged influence over its residents' marriage arrangements and
child raising. There were reports of physical violence. Allegations were publicized in a grand jury case, and in a little community
newspaper expose that won the Pulitzer Prize. There were public controversies involving a snake left in a mailbox, and Synanon's corporate,
business, financial and legal problems.
In the early 80's, Diederich and a smaller group of Synanon residents moved from southern
California to a wooded setting in northern California to begin the building of Synanon City. There the movement's major negative media-attention-
getting continued. Today, Dederich, in his 80's, resides in central California.
As time went on, the ideal of communal living at Synanon slipped away when members gradually
left the community, openly or quietly. Verbal and legal battles emerged when some member's empowerment within Synanon ran up against
the power of the leadership. New residents in the early days of Synanon knew full well they were not joining a democracy when they
asked to live at Synanon. Some came to the opinion later, however, that too often Synanon's counseling style had been abusive, guilt-enhancing,
and an affront to one's personal dignity.
Others would forever support the progressive or controversial, (depending on one's opinion),
approach as the life-saving, unorthodox "style" that had been needed to crash through their thinking and addictions. This was at a
time when the only other options were hospitalization or prison. But, other former residents later accused Synanon of diligently convincing
them that personal humiliation was needed in order to take in the well-meaning feedback from one's peers.
Looking back from the 90's, just what of Synanon's "style" and practices, modified for adolescents,
does one see today in visiting an emotional growth school or therapeutic community? In general, one will see and feel in emotional
growth schools and therapeutic communities a building of trust through an attitude of we're all in this together that is reminiscent
of what was done at Synanon.
Direct, often confrontive, peer group therapy of the early Synanon days is now a tool of several emotional growth schools. The counseling
style ranges from its original, attack, no- language barred style to a considerably modified, no profanity allowed approach. The counseling
process is further enhanced in some schools with experiential personal growth workshops reflective of psychoanalyst and professor
Erik Erikson's "8 ages of man in the developmental process."
Synanon's no allowance for "drug-talk" war stories continues on in the general day to day
living policies of emotional growth schools -- except as this material comes up in group sessions.
Elimination of image and cliques through a back to a more basic dress code defines both
Synanon and emotional growth schools efforts at lessening intimidation through physical appearance. Overalls were a standard at Synanon.
Schools today appear a little more J. C. Penney's Levi's and pullovers, Patagonia, Land's End, Eddie Bauer-like and conservative dress
up for special occasions.
Development of a physical work ethic at Synanon by starting out dusting and cleaning bathrooms
can be seen in a variety of forms in the therapeutic schools and emotional growth schools and programs as adolescents get acquainted
with brooms and mops and sponges and expert bed-making.
As Synanon residents agreed to isolation from their old lives, so is the life of a student
in therapeutic and emotional growth schools somewhat isolated -- with, however, telephone calls, letter writing, family visits and
parent workshops, as earned and is timely.
Philosophical discussions centered around Emerson, Thoreau, Gibran, etc. have been woven
into the fabric of many emotional growth schools as they were at Synanon.
A life flooded with culture, the performing and fine arts and service engulfed the lives
of both Synanon residents and today's emotional growth and therapeutic school students.
Synanon's Class System lingers on in today's emotional growth and therapeutic schools in
various, modified degrees and forms clearly indicating status based upon one's accomplishments within the community, one's decision-making
power, and an individual's earned personal opportunities and responsibilities.
The role-model counseling style of Synanon lives on today in many schools with some schools'
formats considerably modified from the original "everyone lay it ALL on the table" Synanon style.
Synanon's self help/self reliance group sessions appear in many of the schools. Many also
present the 12-step model and disease/biochemistry "reasons" for some alcohol addiction struggles, the potential chemical "timebomb"
Enhanced self esteem through continuing one's academic education at Synanon is addressed
in a variety of ways in therapeutic and emotional growth schools today. Some delay academics during the first 3 to 6 months until
a student wants it and earns the opportunity, while others offer both the experiential classroom and traditional academic college
prep classes from the start. Not all, but most, therapeutic and emotional growth schools -- for student self esteem reasons -- have
kept all their students, (learning differences or not), under one roof with no labeling or highlighting of academic differences.
Physical health and athletic activity was a part of the basics in Synanon and is, as well,
today in emotional growth and therapeutic schools.
Synanon's philosophy that it's residents were not sick, but were in a struggle is a common
approach in today's healing-oriented schools. Some also have added the addiction disease and recovery model.
The no specific religion approach to "spiritual growth" at Synanon remains the same in some
therapeutic and emotional growth schools today with some schools, however, offering chapel, services and reflection time.
Clean, tidy, orderly living spaces were the basics at Synanon and are in emotional growth
and therapeutic schools today.
So, it would appear that some of Synanon's "STYLE" was a major inspiration for such therapeutic
communities as Daytop, Marathon House and Phoenix House, for starters. Synanon's influence served as the roots, as well, of many therapeutic
and emotional growth schools, each one modifying processes, bringing in new ideas, and moving on to create their own visions and versions.
Parents and professionals visiting therapeutic and emotional growth schools and programs
and being toured by students or admissions and marketing staff might not be aware of it, but they will be hearing and seeing some
"It was an incredible time in my life." "It was the hardest thing I've ever done." "My life
is totally different today because of it." Synanon grad? Or emotional growth school or therapeutic community grad? Their assessments
of this life experience come up overall sounding pretty similar. First, NONE have indicated to me that they want to repeat the process.
Second, ALL feel very good about their courage in not ducking the emotional challenge. And third, all are GRATEFUL: -- to have been
there, -- AND grateful now to be on the other side, a graduate "out in the world" productively and joyously getting reacquainted with
freedom, opportunity, and feeling truly ALIVE!
It seems that some of the best from Synanon has survived in therapeutic and emotional growth
schools and programs, and elsewhere. Progress -- learning from old experiments, and moving on.
Casriel, M.D., Daniel, SO FAIR A HOUSE: THE STORY OF SYNANON, Prentice-Hall, Inc., N.J., 1963.
Casriel, M.D., David and Amen, Grover. DAYTOP - THREE ADDICTS AND THEIR CURE. N.Y.:Hill
& Wang, 1971.
Casriel, M.D., Daniel. A SCREAM AWAY FROM HAPPINESS. N.Y.:Grosset & Dunlap, Inc. 1972.
Erikson, Erik H., CHILDHOOD AND SOCIETY, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London, 1963.
Gerstel, David U., PARADISE INCORPORATED: SYNANON, Presidio Press, Novato, CA, 1982.
Mitchell, Dave, Mitchell, Cathy, and Ofshe, Richard, THE LIGHT ON SYNANON, Seaview Books,
Olin, William ESCAPE FROM UTOPIA, Olin, William, 1980.
Casriel, M.D., David and Amen, Grover, DAYTOP - THREE ADDICTS AND THEIR CURE, Hill and Wang,
Sugarman, Barry, DAYTOP VILLAGE, A THERAPEUTIC COMMUNITY, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.,
New York, Chicago, San Francisco, 1974.
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.)