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Taking Liberties

Cults and capitalism

Like the slow-motion collapse of most empires, the end of Chuck Dederich’s sprawling rehabilitation-cum-alternative lifestyle community, Synanon, began with an unforgivable—and some say uncharacteristic—act of hypocrisy. Dederich was playing The Game, the confrontational group therapy method that he’d devised in the late 1950s, which involved twelve or more people, their chairs in a circle, taking cracks at one another for hours on end. The rules of The Game were simple: anything went—yelling, foul language, accusations, insinuations, and other verbal abuse—except physical violence. “Talk dirty and live clean,” Dederich said. Only in 1973, when Dederich was treated to too much of his own talking cure, he snapped, and the once high-flying Synanon experiment sank into the standard script of scandal-battered culthood. Apostate members publicized charges of psychological abuse, financial impropriety, a string of violent assaults, and unhinged guru megalomania. The media, ever attuned to stories of spiritual hubris run amok, made Synanon a byword for faddish West Coast New Age nuttery.

In reality, though, Synanon represented a pivotal moment in America’s restless quest for spiritual self-understanding: the juncture at which the promise of psychic liberation dead-ended into abject rites of submission before the delusions of a charismatic leader—or if you prefer, when Keynesian optimism bowed to neoliberal protocols of behavioral control.

Dederich’s Game, in its way, was a perfect exercise in austere self-discipline in an age of mounting psychic and economic squalor. The focused, personalized vitriol, the way it tore down all participants until they were emotionally resigned, the belief that lashing out in session would prevent doing so in life—these boot-camp-style rituals of self-reflection were the key to Synanon’s success. Synanon grew up alongside several kindred movements seeking to systematize enlightenment via heightened personal self-control, from Scientology and est (a.k.a. Erhard Seminar Training) to the secessionist, authoritarian spiritual communities run by Dederich-lite figures such as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Frederick Lenz (a.k.a. Rama or Atmananda). With its browbeating swagger, Synanon quickly attracted a following—recovering junkies, along with hippies, disillusioned middle-class moms, unfulfilled professionals, and splashy celebrities—who came like the pious to Mass.

And like other movements peddling the promise of a wholly revamped inner life, Synanon had a scrappy, against-the-odds success story of its own to underline its unique transformative power. Dederich developed The Game after Alcoholics Anonymous dried him up and spat him out into rough-and-tumble Ocean Park, California. He was a white man of forty-five, unemployed, twice divorced, and disfigured by meningitis, the right side of his face sagging like an old couch—a cross between Tiresias and a beefy mob boss. And he was as zealous about staying clean as any new convert, badgering whoever wandered into his shabby flat, most often hopeless junkies, into accepting the “tough love” therapeutic approach he was pioneering. He called it the Tender Loving Care club, and later, with a new facility in Santa Monica and an increasing number of believers with nowhere else to go, Synanon. 

Learning the Game

The Game became the basis of the Synanon empire, which by 1973 had grown from a meager group of down-and-outers, sustained by Dederich’s monthly $33 unemployment check, into a multimillion-dollar, multi-compound, multimedia sensation. There were around 1,500 residents in more than four states, a jazz album named for the group, and even a 1965 movie starring Eartha Kitt (playing Dederich’s third wife, Bettye, who was African American; the organization was adamantly interracial). Celebrities like Milton Berle, Jane Fonda, Buckminster Fuller, and labor activist Cesar Chavez all stopped by. Transfixed by the promise of ruined lives turned upstandingly productive, corporate philanthropists sent donations rolling in like perfect barrel waves on the sunny Santa Monica beach. In 1968 Synanon was grossing a little more than $1 million a year; by 1976 annual profits had grown to more than $8 million, and the organization’s total assets were valued at roughly $30 million.

It’s no surprise that Dederich’s seemingly democratic self-help methods became increasingly hierarchical over the years. Residents who relapsed into drug use were routinely punished with shaved heads. Later, baldness was the style of all members. Children of Synanon followers were shuffled off to a separate secure facility, often kept from their parents for weeks at a time. When Dederich declared all Synanon facilities smoke-free—thereby banishing the one respectable addiction that recovering drunks and junkies could still pursue—150 members fled. And then, while playing The Game, a female Synanonite began insulting Dederich—supposedly fair game. But this time, incensed, Dederich rose from his chair, walked across the circle, and dumped a root beer on her head. Everyone gasped. Synanon’s commitment to nonviolence was over, and the “longest-lasting utopian community constructed in the twentieth-century,” as Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth called Dederich’s project, began to buckle.

Save Yourselves!

Dederich’s particular method of seeking self-liberation through self-examination is wedged smack into the middle of the evolutionary trajectory of our current therapeutic culture. The modern American saga of better living through self-discovery stretches roughly from the turn of the twentieth century until today. Of course, the deeper roots of self-cultivation reach back to European soil—the liberalization of the Catholic Church; the rapid spread of Protestantism, mysticism, and evangelicalism; and the rise of science-based rationalism and mind-body dualism. But their manifestation in the crowded spiritual marketplace of the postwar world is what Timothy Aubry and Trysh Travis call, in their 2015 book, Rethinking Therapeutic Culture, “an especially American phenomenon.”

Self-improvement, self-reliance, and the pursuit of happiness, we’ve come to believe, are not only American rights, but every citizen’s obligation. Only with attention and effort can we improve our emotional, physical, interpersonal, and economic selves—the conventional limits of genetics, family influences, ethnic loyalties, and social class be damned. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and countless other founding apostles of self-made spiritual repose made the new republic over in this singularly hopeful image. Modern capitalism refined their handiwork into a marketplace of just-in-time self-reinvention, which, significantly, caught on in American mass culture at a moment when more traditional forms of solidarity in the workplace, the university, and the conduct of national politics were sputtering to a halt in the so-called age of stagflation.

The ground for the cult efflorescence of the seventies had been prepared by various antinomian psychic pioneers earlier in the twentieth century. During the early 1900s, mystical movements—theosophy and Mind Cure, for instance—were scorned by traditional denominations even as they themselves turned “away from a stern and demanding God the Father and towards a personal and loving Jesus,” as Aubry and Travis observe. Economic abundance and the anxieties of urbanization primed Americans’ sense of mental health for the arrival of Freuds psychotherapy. By the time World War II veterans returned from Europe, “mental hygiene” was a national concern; the National Institute of Mental Health was founded, right on schedule, in 1949. “Shell-shocked combat veterans, neurotic housewives, and maladjusted youth alike sought help from—or were remanded to—the newly legitimate counseling professions,” Aubry and Travis write. Our psychological health seemed “elusive yet achievable.”

Out of this indefatigable quest emerged the liberation movements of the 1960s and ’70s, with minority populations loudly advocating for new social orders that supported individual rights, equality, and freedom. The self was at the very center of this new social construct—and Americans were obligated to peer deep inside. But as communes, New Age practices, and other alternative lifestyle groups commanded a growing share of cultural influence, a backlash was brewing. “The interior, inner life—for which the home served as both metaphor and sanctuary—thus acquired a heightened value, even as perceived threats from the outside created a sense of its fragility,” Aubry and Travis note. “In a reinforcing loop, the perception of the domestic/interior as besieged increased its relative importance, both to the individuals and to the culture writ large.” Even as some religious groups denounced this version of self-liberation, they presided over an elaboration of it, focusing on personal relationships with Jesus, an ethos of therapeutic psychic repair, and promises of happiness and financial well-being. Any failure to live up to the spiritual values of their faith community meant that believers were failing to see their true selves—and as a result, failing their God, their families, and their nation.

Synanon quickly attracted a following who came like the pious to Mass.

The legacy of this backlash, which found its most potent expression in the “family values” platform and legislation that now enjoys widespread rhetorical influence on both the left and the right, is a continued nostalgia for a family unit that never really was: a powerful lingering desire for “God the Father” to be on top. Nonetheless, the “reinforcing loop,” our adherence to fictitious, sacralized family structure, hasn’t stopped therapeutic self-care from becoming the patriotic duty of every responsible citizen. Even Mad Men’s Don Draper went to the mountain.

Today, with the glut of self-help books, social media confessions, illusory tabloid intimacy, and self-care methods and advice, it may seem that the therapeutic need has always been with us. But not so. “These beliefs . . . may pass as ‘natural,’” but “they are in fact historically specific and therefore neither eternal nor inescapable,” write Aubry and Travis. We are conditioned to treat our psyche’s “improper functioning as the primary source of society’s ills and see its balance and well-being as the ultimate goal of our strivings on this earth.”

Dederich wasnt the only guru of the seventies brandishing a playbook of therapeutic buzzwords and the promise of utopian freedom; the decade abounded with “cults,” alternative lifestyle groups, and rehabilitation communities. Synanon served in many respects as the results-driven poster community for this scene. Its appearance of overwhelming rehabilitation success afforded a rare (if fleeting) vision of therapeutic self-care in perfect harmony with the broader market culture. Not only were these kids recovering—they were working! But Dederich’s increasingly erratic and violent behavior soon squandered much of the public’s good will. Close observers of Synanon’s sprawling communities were growing alarmed. Strangely, though, the money continued to roll in. And increasingly, juvenile courts were sending troubled kids to Dederich’s gates.

The Kids Aren’t All Right

For more than two decades, Synanon had worked its life-changing magic on recovering addicts and other lost souls without recourse to violence. But Dederich’s soda-dumping incident, internal tensions, and an influx of young kids signaled the advent of a new, harsher era of in-house discipline. Keeping the kids in line proved easier when you smacked them around. Writes George Pendle at Cabinet, “Unlike the other residents, many of these children had no wish to change their ways, and in the past, this ‘Punk Squad,’ as they became known, would have proved impossible to control. But unfortunately for them, Dederich had shown that the gloves were now off.”

Synanon’s posture of extreme austerity also extended to the procreative. Dederich, with his hands on the purse strings, decided that members’ children were too expensive; revenue was king, and compound-bred bambinos weren’t subsidized like the punks that wrung-out parents and witless courts were dropping off. He declared it was time for all males to undergo vasectomies and all pregnant women to get abortions. Some members accepted readily, while others had to be “gamed into” compliance, worn down by the emotional battering of Dederich’s model of group coercion. When his wife Bettye died in 1977, Dederich began accepting applications for a new one. He liked this ingenious arrangement and decided that all Synanon couples should separate every three years and switch partners. Any residual pretense of nonviolence was permanently retired when Dederich organized the “Imperial Marines,” a militia-like group that intimidated Synanon’s neighbors and local officials, and armed them with $300,000 worth of guns and ammo. Dederich was listing into full crackpot mode.

When a self-styled cult-buster, Paul Morantz—a California lawyer who’d made a career out of suing shady organizations like the Moonies, est, and Scientology—won a $300,000 judgment against Synanon in a civil suit alleging the group had kidnapped and brainwashed a young woman, Dederich went berserk. Shortly after, Morantz opened his mailbox and discovered a four-foot-long de-rattled rattlesnake, which bit him. He almost died. A former Synanon board member’s dog was found dead, swinging from a rope. Then, a tiny local newspaper, the Point Reyes Light, won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of columns on Synanon’s alarming drift into violence, thuggery, and authoritarian lunacy. Dederich’s power unraveled. In 1978, when news broke that nine hundred members of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple had killed themselves in Jonestown, Guyana, a veil was lifted from the public’s eyes. Police soon raided Synanon’s compounds, and Dederich’s gig was finally up.

Dederich, who died at the age of eighty-three in 1997, may have been forever discredited, but his controlling vision and his methods have lived on, in part because of our persistent belief that discipline delivers reform, in part because Dederich’s methods have proven lucrative, and lastly because the prior two reasons have stifled any innovative social services that might otherwise have developed. The use of punishment as therapy is “widespread among the hundreds of ‘emotional growth boarding schools,’ wilderness camps, and ‘tough love’ antidrug programs that make up the billion-dollar teen residential treatment industry,” journalist Maia Szalavitz writes. Szalavitz has traced the genealogy of Synanon, which opened its first teen boot camps in the mid-seventies, in the operational DNA of countless organizations still active today, many of which have been accused of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. “Creating situations in which the severe treatment of powerless people is rewarded inevitably yields abuse,” Szalavitz writes. “This is especially true when punishment is viewed as a healing process.”

The People Business

For all the freak-show coercion and physical violence Dederich unleashed on thousands of members, Synanon is still best understood not as a perversion of religious ideology (a cult) but as a calculated and successful business model—an example of savvy modern capitalism. “The image of Synanon that reached the public was of a poverty-stricken courageous group of individuals who were freeing themselves from the horror of drug addiction through new therapeutic techniques and self-help,” Richard Ofshe wrote in 1976. While this image brought in celebrity participants and countless donations from sympathizers, “doing good things for people” was only one part of the Synanon empire. In a book chapter titled “Synanon: The People Business,” Ofshe noted that the work of the Synanon Foundation, getting heroin users clean and into The Game, was only possible because of Synanon Industries, the organization’s business arm, which operated gas stations, manufactured and distributed merchandise (such as Synanon-branded pens, rulers, and T-shirts), and begged and bartered for tax-deductible goods.

Synanon Industries also gave the Foundation’s reformed addicts a productive role: they were dedicated workers, and many were sent out into society as salespeople spreading the Synanon mission. All members were required to hold full-time jobs, either in the compounds, in Synanon manufacturing areas, or outside the organization (these “life-stylers,” who held non-Synanon jobs, were required to dump much of their earnings back into the group). Synanon Industries, a profit-generating powerhouse, was the second-largest promotional merchandise distribution company in the United States in the seventies. As George Pendle writes, “Founded to get people off junk, Synanon was now creating it.”

There was never egalitarianism in Synanon, despite the communal living and the free-for-all tenor of the group’s therapy sessions. Dederich was in charge, and he and his handpicked leadership caste decided who played what roles in the organization—decisions that had far-reaching practical and material ramifications for each group member. “Synanon’s therapeutic ideology focuses on behavior rather than underlying cognitive structures,” Ofshe wrote. Translated into the prerogatives of the company-as-cult model pioneered by Dederich, acceptable behavior always and everywhere meant rising from the sloughs of addiction into service as a productive member of society.

How did we get from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” to Oprah Winfrey’s “spiritual capitalism”?

This ingenious melding of self-administered personal redemption and the marketing directives of modern capitalism marks Synanon as an instructional missing link in the American therapeutic narrative. How did we get from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” to Oprah Winfrey’s “spiritual capitalism”? On the face of things, the 1970s offered seemingly innovative ways for disaffected believers to escape the pressures of modern capitalism, but these same movements also provided extreme and dangerous examples that reinforced and normalized the coercions of capitalism. Just as Synanon became one of the nation’s largest hubs of promotional merchandise, Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, known for importing ginseng tea and trinkets, bulked up into a financial and media empire bestriding the globe. Similarly, the Church of Scientology has exploited both its tax-exempt status as a religious nonprofit and a far-flung corps of de facto slave laborers to create a model of capitalist enterprise free of taxation and labor costs.

Meanwhile, the belief that the inner workings of the market economy are a font of holy saving mysteries has migrated from the shambolic beachfront flats of Synanon into the cultural mainstream. Yesterday’s shaved heads are today’s scented candles. As Kathryn Lofton writes in Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, “Every product of Winfrey’s empire combines spiritual counsel with practical encouragement, inner awakening with capitalist pragmatism.” Somewhere, the excitable ghost of Chuck Dederich is looking down and smiling.

Sucking Out of the Seventies

For several decades, practical wisdom—and a procession of academics like Robert Bellah and Christopher Lasch—has been telling us that therapeutic culture has made us a sniveling, navel-gazing, neurotic, and narcissistic populace, too preoccupied with our own mental self-inventories and material wealth to fulfill our national promise or obligations. “Narcissism is inescapably part of the critique of therapeutic culture,” writes academic Elizabeth Lunbeck. She summarizes Lasch’s 1978 book, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, and the popular analysis at the time, thusly:

Self-indulgence had displaced self-control, nurturing “a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.” The ascendancy of a commitment to “psychic self-improvement”—evident in the appearance and flourishing of a range of new consciousness movements and their allied therapies—was tearing apart a once robust social fabric, prompting a mass retreat to interiority and what journalist Tom Wolfe, in an essay that christened the 1970s the “Me Decade,” skewered as a culturally sanctioned, unceasing “analysis of self.”

This critique of seventies-era cultural excess and therapy-inclined capitalism has continued to this day. The castigation of narcissism, however, has done little to wrest the yoga mats and herbal teapots from our tremulous hands. Nor has it convinced us to put down our self-chronicling digital devices.

However, there’s another way to consider the history of the self-help cults of Synanons era. Rather than trace the triumph of the therapeutic back to crumbling religions—namely, the Protestant work ethic that, in Oprah’s parlance, teaches us to “behave our way to success”—we might well descry the strange discipline of self-reinvention in the founding ethos of modern capitalism. As any day trader will tell you, it’s a myth that economic forces are data-driven, rational vectors of a triumphant secularism that has delivered us beyond the pale of ghosts, spirits, and the numinous. It’s likewise a secular wish-fulfillment fantasy that the unscientific specters of belief are outmoded primitive superstitions, all smartly dispatched by cresting modernity.

To rethink the realignment of belief systems that has given rise to modern capitalism, sociologist Courtney Bender has argued, we need to look again at Max Weber’s celebrated 1905 essay “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Before the modern era, Weber tells us, very few Western souls were possessed by the spirit of capitalism: i.e., the love of money for its own sake and the self-justifying pursuit of all things profitable. And until the early modern era, Protestants were too humble to practice what we would call conspicuous consumption. The accumulation of wealth wasn’t what the early Protestants, like the Lutherans and Calvinists, were about. But the “sacralization of work” certainly was.

In an otherwise radically unknowable scheme of individual salvation, humility and diligent labor proved that one was “worthy of God’s grace.” But once Protestants’ “deferred gratification” and “self-monitoring” got applied to money practices—“accounting measures in the counting house, the shop floor, and (not incidentally) the pew,” Bender writes—the calculating and soulless conduct of capitalism got a new, more spiritual lease on life. “Once these conditions had solidified, the spirit of capitalism was effectively unleashed on everyone,” Bender observes. “The Protestant ethic was no longer needed to keep it going . . . the aberrant and occasional spirit of capitalism had become the spirit of the system. It came to possess all men by virtue of their participation within capitalism.”

It’s only reasonable to ask: Just what, if not the Protestant ethic, is the spirit that now animates our devoted efforts to buy our way into keener therapeutic insights? What propels New York Times columnist David Brooks’s focus on self-reliance and doomsday warnings about the sad decline of the American character, or pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell’s prescriptive litany of success mantras and market-expanding behaviors? In short, it’s the robust spirit of capitalism that represents the next phase in postmodernism’s quest for a reenchanted world.

What compelled Dederich’s followers to make themselves better through Synanon’s contrived regimen of ritual self-inspection? A lack of other options, certainly. A dearth of affordable and nonjudgmental health services, definitely. Community-oriented systems of mutual care, like mental health services and adequate financial support for those outside the workforce, were woefully inadequate (and still are). But this, too, compelled the seekers of the 1970s: the suddenly crisis-prone profile of capitalism conspired to transport Americans into an exceptionally nonfunctional vision of Weber’s “iron cage” of bureaucracy—one that was fast shedding the vital material compensations of job security, union protections, and welfare-state income supports. As a result, many lost souls who were desperate to find freedom outside the iron cage’s confines were sucked into experimental communities like Synanon.

“This is the first day of the rest of your life,” Dederich constantly, enthusiastically reminded his huddled junkie masses and world-weary groupies yearning to be free. But Dederich’s ambitions quickly devolved into a coercive trap, proffering neither true liberation nor true rehabilitation. Today, a multibillion-dollar battery of talk shows, infomercials, rehab facilities, self-help seminars, and prosperity preachers offers a softer-focus version of the Synanon gospel. And we can’t yet fully intuit just what captivity narrative will spring into place after its own market failure becomes too obvious to ignore.