Column: Cults

by Laura Kohl

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Synanon members involved in “The Reach” —a learning technique in which a small group discussed an idea, theory, or natural law in great depth until it was understood by all, circa 1976. Image courtesy Synanon.org. Copyrighted © 1994-2013 by George Farnsworth. 

Column: Cults

Up the River, Not Across the Tracks

I joined Synanon in the late 1970s. Created by Charles (Chuck) Dederich, Synanon initially opened as a residential recovery center for alcoholics.

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 Through his genius, Dederich drew in thousands of residents over the years, both recovering addicts and young communalists (oft referred to as “lifestylers” or “squares”).  To this day, many of the former residents are successful entrepreneurs in various types of businesses, as well as rehabilitation efforts. But in the years just prior to the deaths in Jonestown in 1978, Synanon had its share of calamities.

The escapades of Dederich and his fellow Synanon residents were exposed in many California newspapers.2 By the late 1970s, Dederich had shown himself to be imperfect.3 His position in Synanon was compromised and he became the figurehead while others took over the hands-on management. Dederich, who loved to get into great philosophical and visionary arguments, had surrounded himself with people with enormous egos and egoistic strength.4 When he was in declining health, other competent managers stepped in.

During Dederich’s downfall, I was a member of the Peoples Temple and living in Guyana. I had no knowledge of any of the events transpiring at Synanon.  It was Dederich’s fall from fame that allowed me to come into Synanon after surviving the Jonestown massacre. I could not have moved into a community with a strong, unrealistically revered leader; I had already been burned by that situation.

Before joining the Peoples Temple, and later Synanon, I was already living a life at risk. In the 1960s I was a teenager transitioning to adulthood. The transition coincided with what I believe were the worst ten years in recent American history, with the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers. When the Civil Rights Act was passed in ’64, and the federal government finally struck down segregation, I felt change could occur. But by the end of the decade, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and the U.S. made a commitment to a full-fledged war in Vietnam. My response to the national shame and horror was fierce. In the late ’60s, I demonstrated against the war, in New York and in Washington. I was tear-gassed while walking down the streets of New York, and I was outraged.

I stayed politically active, got married briefly, went to Woodstock, and then joined the Black Panthers. I was searching for a way to stop the murders, and to make a difference in the world.  But, I was too naïve to handle some of the situations on my own.

In early 1970, as an optimistic 22-year-old, I moved to San Francisco to join my older sister. That same week, she accompanied me on the two-hour trip north to Redwood Valley to attend Jim Jones’ service. With Jones I saw an inclusive family man, obviously worshipped by his wife, his family, and the extended family of a few hundred people who made up the congregation. As an atheist I was not as interested in the message of “faith” as I was the message of taking care of your fellow man. The biggest attraction for me was that he associated with my heroes—Angela Davis, Dennis Banks, and Cesar Chavez, to name a few. I felt that by joining Peoples Temple, I would have a loud voice to respond to injustice and racism in a safe environment.

I spent 1970 to 1978 in Peoples Temple in both California and in Guyana.  I was passionate, committed to furthering the humanitarian work, and I saw endless good work done—a soup kitchen for hungry seniors; free legal, medical, and welfare counseling; safe homes for the many children who were raised by grandparents whose parents were dead or in prison; and more. The uncertainty that had been part of my life before I joined was gone.

In 1977, Jones sent me to work in Georgetown, Guyana. We were building an agricultural project—we thought of it as a utopian community—a “Promised Land.” I lived in Georgetown and Jonestown for the next 20 months. I loved it and would never have left.

Behind the scenes, both in the United States and in Guyana, Jones was increasingly addicted to drugs and was deteriorating mentally. Until November 18, 1978, the day of the massacre, the overwhelming majority of people in Jonestown had no idea of his collapse into paranoia and addiction.

When I returned to the United States, I tried for about a year to adjust, to keep going, to regain some normalcy. I lived in San Francisco, got a job, went to work, lived with fellow survivors, and plodded on. A few of the survivors living in the U.S. had been Peoples Temple “contact” people with Synanon. Synanon had donated some clothing and other things to Peoples Temple over the years, with some of it ending up in Jonestown. These members who had stayed on in the U.S. introduced me to Synanon and the Synanon Game.

The Synanon Game was a group of eight to ten people, usually, sitting in a circle and saying the unsay-able, confronting others without regard to Synanon position or status.5 We were all equal in the game. You could laugh, cry, confront, ignore, or have any other emotion. It was a safe place. The only rules were no violence, and no threat of violence. I would cry through my first years. Eventually, I was able to listen to conflicts voiced by others in the Game, and it put me into a more normal mode. It helped me survive the trauma of Jonestown. I was able to talk about it, cry about it, and be surrounded by friends who had an understanding of my communal experience.

I started playing the Game in mid-1979. My friends and family were distraught. One friend recently reminded me about how she screamed at me to never move into another community. But, I saw myself every day, putting myself in jeopardy—riding buses home late at night, not paying attention to where I was going, really undecided if I even wanted to keep going.  The Game and the Synanon community saved my life.

Synanon closed in about 1990 when it was shut down by the IRS.6 It was determined that it could not be a tax-exempt organization.7 My Synanon husband, my son, born while we lived in Synanon,8 and I have moved from surviving to thriving. I am now a bilingual teacher, an author, a Quaker, and an Occupy Escondido member.

I have always been the greatest risk to myself—from choosing my own behavior and involvement to choosing which dynamic but unorthodox group to align myself with. The gamble was not so much in the group as in me. I have put myself in dangerous situations, hoping to gain a clear conscience. I don’t have that now—too much has happened in my life. But, I have gotten close, I have seen glimpses of what we can do, and I have not lost my motivation to urge us in that direction.

1 Editor’s Note: It was later declared by Dederich, a former drug addict, that Synanon was a religion. Rather than focusing solely on addiction recovery, the community’s original intent, Synanon began appealing to those who wanted to find community and utopia.

2 This included Dederich asking everyone to shave their heads in solidarity; forcing members to divorce their current spouses; re-assigning marriages between members; requiring vasectomies among the male members, ordering abortions for women who were already pregnant; and banning smoking.

3 Also, by the late 1970s, lawyer Paul Morantz represented ex-members in lawsuits against Synanon.  One couple received $300,000, claiming they had been held captive and brainwashed. As a result of this lawsuit, Dederich and other members attempted to murder Morantz by placing a rattlesnake in his mailbox.

4 Synanon and its practices were exposed in an article in the Point Reyes Light newspaper in 1979. The article, which won a Pulitzer Prize, led to Synanon’s eventual downfall. Prior to this, the community had already been portrayed on film in the 1965 movie Synanon, with Edmond O’Brien as Dederich and Eartha Kitt as his third wife, Bettye.

5 The Game was a form of ‘psychology’ developed by Dederich.

6 By 1980, Synanon had compiled assets of up to $30 to $50 million becoming, in the words of California officials, “a wealthy authoritarian cult.”

7 Dederich died not too long after in 1997 from cardiorespiratory failure at Kaweah Delta Hospital in Visalia, Calif. Coincidentally, but not remotely relevant to this story, is the fact that this is the same hospital where the editor behind all these editor’s notes was born.

8 Children growing up in Synanon wore mandatory outfits: solid dark blue, or blue and white pinstriped denim Osh Kosh overalls, light brown leather work boots with leather laces, long sleeve gingham button up shirts (red for girls, blue for boys), and red or dark blue bandanas folded into neckerchiefs.