Synanon was founded by Charles E. “Chuck” Dederich Sr. as a drug rehabilitation program. Dederich was an alcoholic high school dropout who was inspired by utopian notions put forth by Henry David Thoreau and BF Skinner. In Synanon, members were required to take part in a practice known as “The Game.” The Game is what is commonly seen as the beginnings of “attack therapy” – where one member would be forced to talk about themselves and endure harsh criticisms by their peers. Members were encouraged to be critical of everything about each other and use harsh language during these attack therapy sessions. The game eventually turned into 72-hour sessions that Dederich himself would later admit was brainwashing. The Game was often used to pressure members to submit to Dederich’s will – including having members abort pregnancies, undergoing vasectomies, and commit violence.
Dederich also performed weekend retreats that non-Synanon members would pay to attend. These retreats were called “The Trip” which was referred to as a “combination of group psychotherapy, mass hypnosis, and mysticism with a dash of old-fashioned spiritual revival.” These weekend retreats would use experience Game players to turn on various “Trippers” to force them to confess their tales of drugs, rape, crime, etc. These members were pushed harder and harder to disclose more and more. After the day’s sessions, these “Trippers” were given homework that would keep them awake for most of the night in order to complete. This would leave them disoriented and sleep-deprived for the next day’s activities. If they completed the homework, this would also give the conductors of “The Trip” ammunition to use in The Game. Napping and sleep during this retreat were discouraged so the fatigue would wear down the member’s defenses. Music, guided mediation, sleep deprivation, and The Game was used throughout the weekend retreat to break people down. These retreats were enormously successful for Synanon and netted over $500,000 in their second year of running them. The processes used in these retreats were later duplicated and used in popular self-help training by groups such as Erhard Seminars Training (EST), Lifespring, and troubled teen industry programs such as CEDU, The World Wide Association of Speciality Programs (WWASP), and various TTI spinoffs.
Synanon also created schools for their member’s children where the children were separated from their parents, required to live a regimented lifestyle, and engage in Synanon activities geared towards children. Children were required to play a version of The Game known as “Complaint Meetings.”
Although Synanon fell out of favor in the public eye and was disbanded, there were several spin-off troubled teen programs that were created before it closed:
- Daytop Village
- Phoenix House
- Cenikor Foundation