The Synanon Foundation, founded in 1958 as a therapeutic group for alcohol and drug addicts, slowly evolved into a communal religious group that formally recognized its new status in 1975 with a change in its charter and five years later with the adoption of a new name, the Synanon Church. In its early stage, Synanon drew on the model of Alcoholics Anonymous in its efforts to assist drug addicts to drop their use of a range of illegal narcotics and controlled substances. Through the 1960s, under the leadership of founder Charles Dederich (1914–1997), its work expanded rapidly, and Synanon facilities opened along the American West Coast. In 1968, headquarters moved to rural Marin County, California, near the town of Marshal.
Like alcoholism, Synanon defined addiction as a permanent problem for former addicts, and many participants in the program moved into Synanon facilities for ongoing help. Facility residents organized themselves as a communal society and developed businesses that provided an economic base for their life together.
As with Alcoholics Anonymous, a spiritual/religious theme was integral to Synanon's approach, but only in the 1970s did a self-conscious theological perspective emerge. Synanon adopted a vague mystical worldview that drew elements from both Eastern (Buddhist/Hindu) and Western (metaphysical) sources. The basic desire for cosmic, social, and individual unity was ideally expressed in the communal life and made operational in the Synanon Game, the group's primary ritual activity. The game had begun as an encounter group but became increasingly intense as a religious practice. People participated in the game on a regular basis. They were expected to be completely open and honest and receive the group's critique as a catalyst for confession, repentance, and ablution.
Synanon quickly became controversial for its aggressive approach to individuals, but found many supporters for its undeniable success with ridding people of their drug dependence and destructive habits. However, the group ran into significant trouble in 1978, when an attorney who had won a judgment against, the group was bitten by a rattlesnake that had been placed in his mailbox. Dederich and two others charged in the case pleaded no contest. Dederich avoided a jail sentence but was forced to resign as the group's leader. Soon afterward he admitted to a recurrence of the alcoholism that had been a major reason for starting Synanon.
Dederich's trial occurred in the hostile atmosphere generated by the deaths at Jonestown. It was followed by a series of hostile press articles; a book-length exposé; a set of new lawsuits, some by former members who had rejected what they saw as an increasingly harsh, dictatorial life within the group; and a period of intense government scrutiny of the group's expanding business interests. The combined attack eventually resulted in the Internal Revenue Service's denying Synanon tax-exempt status in 1991. The resulting damage to their economic base forced the church to disband soon afterward, though remnants of the community survived through the 1990s.
Garfield, Howard M. The SynanonReligion. 1978.
Mitchell, Dave, Cathy Mitchell, and Richard Ofshe. The Lighton Synanon. 1980.
J. Gordon Melton