Synanon Foundation Inc.
by Dayla Hepting, December 4, 2013
The Delmar Club
Santa Monica, 1972 — No matter what happened in the life stream of my time in Santa Monica, I still can smell that light breeze bringing the fog in as the daylight fades over the beach. This is one of those places where the sheer beauty of the earth weighs in more heavily than the daily maelstrom of human endeavor.
Charles E. Dederich
We lived in a building called the Delmar Club. The Delmar Club sits at the base of Santa Monica Boulevard. It was once a private beach club boasting an all white clientele including Ronald Reagan. No Jews at the Delmar Club. Synanon gleefully smashed that claim to fame, filling the Delmar with hordes of black, Puerto Rican, Mexican, New Jersey street Italians and Brooklyn Jew dopefiends. Whores, thieves and murderers poured through the doors to the dismay of the Santa Monicans. But by the time Synanon bought the Delmar Club, the City of Santa Monica had already learned the consequences of picking a fight with Chuck Dederich.
The City of Santa Monica actually put Synanon on the national map when it arrested him for running a hospital without a license. It was a ludicrous charge. Synanon did not resemble a hospital in any way but the charge was all the dimwits at City Hall could drum up. They felt compelled to do something. After all, this was Santa Monica, bastion of conservatism. And suddenly they found this fat guy with half his face paralyzed (from a bout with meningitis) down on the beach actually inviting, in fact, importing bottom feeders from the East Coast to the beach in Santa Monica. Italian hoods. Ex-cons. Right on the beach. But they had no idea what kind of man they were taking on. Chuck Dederich was an ex-alcoholic, ex-AA guy, ex-Standard Oil executive who had more charisma in his one good eye than all those assholes put together.
The Santa Monica Outlook (a notch up from the Ukiah Daily Journal in all directions — more pages, more conservative, more underhanded, more money) was on the lookout for just this kind of menace. They started the ball rolling. Soon the community was in a state of uproar. These people lived in Santa Monica so they wouldn’t have to be around those people who were now moving in down below the palisades on the Beach, the prettiest part of Santa Monica, for Christ’s sake! They got some movie star yahoos like Brian Keith to join the fight to give it some credibility and they went after the guy we called “The Old Man.” Chuck must have been all of 50 years old. But the median age of the average heroin addict is about 20. Few live to be 30 years old. So to us he was the Old Man.
The jailing of Dederich made Time magazine. It gave Synanon instant good guy status, catapulting us to instant fame. The net result was a bulge on the balance sheet, a great inflow of money and dopefiends to the foundation. Dederich did his time instead of accepting a conditional release if he agreed to have nothing to do with Synanon. Every day he served resulted in more recognition, more money for Synanon. He was released on the steps of the Santa Monica jail surrounded by reporters and photographers. He was a celebrity, the darling of the national press. The hero of this little story. The man who fought city hall. The man who took the dregs of society, the walking dead, and transformed them into hopeful, hardworking, bright-eyed, ambitious young men and women. He was all of that and more. Of course he had a dark side that eventually would bring him down. But you couldn’t see it in those days. He was on his way up.
The fact that he won this battle only made the Outlook and the City of Santa Monica hate him more. But they were unable to find any grounds for retaliation, until Chuck bought the Delmar Club with the money they had helped him generate. That was too much for them. Their indignation got the better of them. Here were all these nasty dopefiends down there lounging around on this private beach — which was actually rented from the City on a 99-year lease wangled many years ago by the original Delmar Club and passed on in the sale. That is as far as we knew it was. The language in the lease clearly said that it was transferable. It was in fact like giving a 99-year deed to the beach to the builders of the Delmar Club. But of course the City wanted them there. They would have done almost anything to make them happy. And they did. They gave them a lease to a piece of the most beautiful beach in America. Nobody had that. Nobody but the Delmar Club. And now Synanon had it. So on a Sunday morning they sent city workers in with bulldozers and razed it. Totally rude. They knocked down the beach cabanas, chairs, tables and anything else they could find, sweeping it all into a pile of debris to be loaded into city garbage trucks. We are talking thousands of dollars in personal property here.
We saw a great promotional opportunity coming our way. I was there that morning. The news went through the sleeping facility like lightening. We got up and dressed instantly. “The City is invading Synanon! Get out of bed. Onto the beach!” We piled out of the building and jumped in front of the bulldozers in an instant protest. The City had every available paddywagon standing by in anticipation of this so they handcuffed every junky they could get a hold of and took them off to jail. We were astounded by their stupidity but elated with our good luck.
Once again Santa Monica took a beating in the national press. Chuck was a natural in self-promotion. The City of Santa Monica was run by a pack of senile Lions Clubbers.
The cabanas were back up by Monday. Synanon was all over the national news. Chuck was David fighting Goliath. The glory of it was that they made their swoop on Sunday. Not just time and a half but double time for the gaggle of city workers out there fighting to clean the beach of riffraff and debris. About 50 city workers and cops. All kinds of vehicles and equipment down at the beach for several hours at the taxpayer’s expense. You can imagine how that played on the evening news. Lawyers tied up our phone lines volunteering to defend our little beach for free. In fact, pay us to defend it. Donate some money. Get involved.
One thing about Chuck Dederich, he knew the importance of cultivating lawyers. We had lawyers coming out our ears even in the old days before things started getting weird.
I realize there are those of you out there who are saying, “Who the hell is she talking about? Why should I care about the difficulties of some obscure drug program back in the sixties?” And that is just the point. It was a drug program. It was the first drug program.
At that time heroin addiction was considered untreatable. You got caught doing it, you went to jail on what was called a 99. That meant you had an unending sentence. You went to Corona. After a while you got released. You were given surprise Nalene tests. If you didn’t pass you went back to Corona. Once you got into that system that is how you spent your life, short as your life might have been. The average time a junkie spent on the streets before the trip back to Corona was six months. It was an untreatable, incurable disease. The accepted precept was that if you stuck a needle in your arm that was it. You would never be able to stop because heroin was so strong and so addictive nobody could break that habit. In truth, cigarettes beat heroin all to hell in addictiveness, but that’s another point.
So Chuck Dederich who was an alcoholic who screwed his life ’til he was 40ish was over there in Venice getting sick of all the religious shit in AA plus he thought they babied drunks by never confronting them with reality. He spent a month reading R.W. Emerson. Liked him a lot and decided to start his own AA based on Emerson rather than God. “When the doctrine of love whines and pules then the doctrine of rude truth must be preached and with vengeance.” (That is a paraphrase of Emerson but it is essentially the notion that caught Dederich’s attention. To him AA was bullshit. He pulled a splinter group of drunks from AA and started his own meetings. Somebody brought a junkie in, then another. It turned out the drunks did not do well with hearing the truth so they disappeared, but the dopefiends thrived. Soon there were no drunks at all. Synanon was born. The first donor was a guy named Izzy Cohen who made bagels. Synanon was fueled on bagels and coffee. The dopefiends, of course, had no place to live so they rented a store front in Venice and it was suddenly the first live-in drug program in the world run by ex-addicts. Nobody noticed for a while. It was actually illegal for a junkie on 99 in California to associate with another junkie, so dope fiends who were clean for the first time in their adult lives, because they were in Synanon, were jerked out and sent back to prison for parole violation. Some of them never came back. Some of them died.
Why would the State do that when the addict was clean, which obviously should have been the goal? Because Chuck refused to suck up to the State. Refused to allow them in the door to inspect the distance between the beds in the dorm. Because he put up a sign at the door saying that if you were from the State you weren’t welcome. Because he had some of his New Jersey dopefiend boys pick these little bureaucrats up and gently deposit them out on the sidewalk when the came around in their official capacity. They hated him. They wanted him shut down. Chuck was quick to point out how much money was in the dopefiend business. If a dopefiend stopped shooting dope that cost the State money and jobs. Maybe it was in State’s best interest to not cure addicts, he pointed out. But he wanted to save lives. Synanon was in the business of saving lives.
So that’s why you should know who Chuck Dederich is. Because he saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people by designing the first treatment modality that actually worked for drug addiction. Because he fought the battles with the State to make it legally possibly for drug addicts to get help outside of the system that was systematically steam rolling them. Because he turned public opinion 180 degrees and made the ex-dopefiend into an innocent, young, bright-eyed hero fighting the corrupt, mean-spirited, government bureaucrats in polyester business suits.
So you wonder why you don’t know about this man if he did all that? You wonder why if you go to Delancy Street in San Francisco (biggest private program on the West Coast) you will not find his name in any of their literature? Why you won’t hear his name cross Mimi Silbert’s lips? When the founder of Delancy Street (her ex-husband), John Maher, cloned Delancy Street straight from Synanon?
When I walked in the doors of the big Synanon warehouse on the waterfront under North Beach in San Francisco in 1964, John Maher was Chuck Dederich’s shining young man. Five years later he left, taking all he learned from the Old Man and started Delancy Street. To this day it is almost a complete clone of Synanon, 1968. It works. It is the best. But no credit will ever be given to the source of their success. Oh yes, John Maher gets a little credit, but no mention is made of his being in Synanon.
The same holds true for Phoenix House in NYC started by Frank Natale, another Synanon golden boy. Phoenix House is the biggest private program on the East Coast. Another Synanon clone. Again you will not see any mention of Chuck Dederich or Synanon in their literature.
In fact, all these little rinky-dink programs run by the State are diluted versions of Synanon. I worked briefly several years ago for R House in Ukiah, and as watered down as it is, you can still see the structure of Synanon in it. They will deny that fervently, those few who even know what you’re talking about.
So why then does this man not get the credit he deserves? Why is this man who saved so many lives; whose ideas continue to save lives today, completely unacknowledged?
First because he refused to buy into the system. He could not be bought. He would not make even the smallest concession to the mega State/Federal social services system. He would not pay them lip service. He would not yes sir ’em. He in fact went out of his way to provoke them. He delighted in poking a stick into the snake’s lair and stirring them up. He had utter and complete contempt for them and he made sure they knew it. He confounded them. They offered money, lots of money, in an effort to gain control of him and Synanon. And he said no. We are talking millions of dollars here. He said no. Not interested.
They retaliated by pulling all parolees out of Synanon. He retaliated by putting 500-plus Synanon members on TV shaving their heads in protest of the State of California tearing two parolees out of the place where they were trying to turn their lives around and throwing them back in prison to rot. The State looked petty and malicious. Chuck won. They lost. They hated him. When he went nuts they stood up in their chairs and applauded. They sniggered behind their hands. They chortled in the urinals of social services. They gloated over white bread and tuna in the lunchroom. And they quickly turned the page. Chuck Dederich was the invisible man. He never happened. He did nothing. They, themselves, must have figured out how to treat drug addiction. In fact, they had always known it. It was a given.
Yes he did go crazy. Without a doubt. He self-destructed. It started while I was still there. Exactly what day I could not say. Exactly which event was the precipitating event in the long slide over the cliff and into oblivion I can not say. I know that in 1964 when I arrived, Synanon was a glorious, exciting, vibrant place — full of hope and energy. Ideas raced all through the air. Excitement. New concepts. We stayed up all night talking philosophy. We were going to change the world. The Old Man was on the floor then. He was talking to new comers like me. He was running ten-hour seminars that never got boring for a minute. He was running groups. Dropping in on anything that was happening. Turning a boring group into an exciting event by taking a chair in the circle. And there was always a chair left open for him. He was simply in the business of saving dope fiends then.
He is the only person I know who went off the deep end on philosophy instead of emotion. I mean he was thinking along real fine. Then all the sudden he took the wrong turn and from then on we were lost. We just didn’t know it for awhile. Oh, we knew something was going wrong. I even knew what it was, I thought, was wrong. It was when he said that Synanon was not just for dopefiends. It was a social movement. It was the model for the 21st century. Everybody would have to live like us or all was lost, or the ills of society would continue to escalate unabated.
So it boiled down to this. I think he got bored with junkies. He thought he could do more. He said Synanon was not about rehabilitating dopefiends. It was a social movement. It made me uneasy. He invited non-dopefiends into Synanon. After telling us we had to earn our way he gave them privileges the dopefiends had to fight to get. Resentments began to brew. Of course these people had money. He could hardly start them out washing dishes, but it put a crack in the foundation of Synanon. The dopefiends took note, as they always do, of hypocrisy.
He did not want people to leave Synanon. For awhile he took it as a personal betrayal when any of the old timers left, especially if they started a spin-off program, which many of them did: They had no other skills. They shot dope, then they came to Synanon. Synanon people were in great demand so they did the only thing they knew how to do. They set up programs. Phoenix House in NYC and Delancy Street in San Francisco, the most successful and long standing.
There was a book called The True Believer by Eric Hoffer. That book was big with the Old Man. It said that if you took people like the dopefiend and you could hook them into something and turn them around they make the best true believers. They will become the most devoted followers of a cult or a social movement. I think Chuck thought that was true for awhile. Then he found that it was 180 degrees off. Dopefiends don’t believe anything, really. Not deeply. They’ll give you a good rap on it but when all is said and done they will follow their own path. They are the outsiders. What you need for a true believer is someone who wants to fit in so bad they will do anything. The Old Man found that in the end, that was the straight residents.
I talked to people who lived in Synanon for five years and had never been to Zucky’s Jewish Deli up the street because they believed in the concept of “containment.” Containment meant this: The only way to make something emerge in Synanon is not to go out and get it. Push for it to become a part of Synanon. In other words if you want a pastrami on dark rye don’t walk a few blocks to Zucky’s and buy one. If you do that we will never get our own deli in Synanon. That is containment. Now certainly, I too believed in the truth of that concept. But like all the other ex-dopefiends, I still planned to go to Zucky’s because I knew that some people already had their pastrami on rye in Synanon. The people at the top. So containment was working for them. I was not willing to wait for the trickle down. But these new true-believer, non-addict types that were running around with fervent expressions on their pale faces; they were just sitting there like chumps waiting for containment to fulfill itself.
We became the bad guys. Eventually we were hounded and badgered until we left. We were called dinosaurs. We were extinct. We could not make the leap into the 21st century. The truth is that we were the backbone of Synanon. We were what made it work. We truly loved the Old Man. But we knew he was nuts. We went along on the surface with his wild ideas but we never bought into the bullshit. Not the way the non-addicts did. None of us wanted to leave Synanon really. We felt it was our home. We felt that we had built it. We had planned to live our lives there. But he wouldn’t have it. He felt betrayed by us. He wanted only the few who proved complete devotion to him. He set up test after test. He pushed harder and harder. He ran people out the door. It became common to hear that so-and-so had been run out the door. These were people who had given 10- 15 years of their lives to Synanon. Run out the door. Worthless dinosaur freeloader that he was. Synanon turned upon itself, eating its tail. It continued tearing away at its own body until there was nothing left.
Oh there was something left. Money. There must have been millions of dollars. Where did that money go? I know that about ten years before Chuck died (February 1996, Badger, California) he made the papers for trying to launder money out of the country, because if the Foundation was defunct, then all that money belonged to the State of California. It would have been very hard for him to let go of that money.
This was after the real crazy stuff. In the mid-70s his wife died. I had heard several old timers say that Betty Dederich stopped him from crossing the line. His ideas tumbled from his great flat skull like boulders. They crashed into lives, changing those lives permanently. Sometimes for the good; sometimes not so good. But Betty was the balancing. Suddenly Betty was gone. She died of Cancer. I had left by then.
Chuck discontinued all the marriages in Synanon. He had everyone change partners. Some people left. Chuck decided that every male in Synanon should have a vasectomy; there were too many unwanted children in the world. Synanon would raise those children, not create more. Many people left. Chuck said no smoking. People left. Chuck said no fat people. Everyone goes on a diet. A weight goal is established for each person. Enforced exercise. Enforced diet. Many people left. Chuck says Synanon will no longer turn the other cheek. No more non-violence. You can expect retaliation (after Synanon members were beat up in Marin County). He trained an army. He started armed patrols of the properties. He armed these people. He demanded that teams get up at all hours of the night to do drills in the dark. People left. If they tried to take their children, he called it kidnapping and sent goon squads after them. They smashed a guy’s skull in Berkeley and put him in the hospital with meningitis.
Ex-Synanon people started having meetings. We were becoming alarmed. The Old Man was out of his fucking mind. He was after his enemies. Anybody who said anything negative about Synanon publicly was his enemy. He didn’t have to even order these zealots to hurt people. They wanted to hurt people just to please him. Then he went several steps too far. Stan Kenton’s son put a rattlesnake in the mailbox of a lawyer who was fighting to take a child out of Synanon (one parent out/one in). Dederich was charged with attempted murder. About the same time the Chronicle’s TV station in the San Francisco did an exposé on the Tomales Bay facility where the little army had taken shape.
I don’t know the timing on all this mess. It seemed to happen rather quickly. Time magazine did a story. Dederich threatened the lives of Time magazine executives and their families. He claimed that he had so many devoted followers he could not control them. They might do harm to news people, news people who deserved harm to come to them. This from a tape of him talking over what was called The Wire (an internal news network broadcasting eerily 24 hours a day in every Synanon facility).
So he was now completely over the edge. Crashing towards insanity. Rumor had it that he and a small group of groupies were in Italy drunk. Synanon’s basic premise was: no drugs or alcohol. Chuck said, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”
The only way they kept him out of jail on the rattlesnake deal was by declaring him incompetent and making his daughter, Jady, his guardian. By that time no one was going into Synanon. No one would send a junky to them. There were plenty of good programs out there, Synanon clones run by ex-Synanon people, but very competent programs. Dederich had completely discredited himself.
They sold all the properties in Marin, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Connecticut and New York. All that was left was the facility at Badger, California, his family, a few residents stayed around to serve table, I suppose, and all that money. And then he died a few years back. I saw it in the Chronicle. They gave him a small paragraph. I was surprised that they did that much considering that he sued them and sued them and sued them, costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees and settlements over the Marin story. They must have hated him like the plague.
Eventually the ex-Synanon people disappeared from the drug programs as well. Ex-addicts, they found, were often more trouble than they were worth. Deeply moralistic people. Judgmental. Troublemakers. People who won’t go along to get along. Nobody needs that. So now the programs have social workers (professionals as they are called) running things. Just the way it ought to be. Don’t you think? ¥¥