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Docuseries: Born in Synanon

This Drug Rehab Center Turned Into a Violent Cult
A new Paramount+ docuseries, “Born in Synanon,” investigates the California cult’s history of abuse, sexual coercion, and murder-for-hire plots.

Born in Synanon is the story of Cassidy Arkin’s history with California’s Synanon cult—or as she describes it in footage from 2001, “alternative community.” Arkin is not just the subject of director Geeta Gandbhir’s four-part Paramount+ docuseries (Dec. 12) but also its guide, and the series is cast as her personal journey into a past that she thinks had a tremendous, beneficial impact on her life. At the same time, though, Arkin only faintly recalls this formative era because, as it turns out, she left Synanon at the age of 6. As a result, she’s the definition of an unreliable narrator, driven to celebrate the organization for the positives it ostensibly championed, and yet feigning surprise about revelations—of wanton abuse, exploitation, and homicidal insanity—that have been so highly publicized over the last four decades that there’s zero chance she didn’t already know about them.

Born in Synanon wants to depict both the light and dark of Synanon, an outfit founded by Chuck Dederich as a treatment center for addicts that morphed into a prototypical cult led by a messianic leader. Such even-handedness is the byproduct of the fact that Arkin and virtually everyone else interviewed (including, most notably, her mother Sandra Rogers-Hare) were former members, and consequently believed—and, in some cases, still believe—in Synanon’s founding principles and the supposed good it (initially) did. Those perspectives are potentially valuable components of a comprehensive overview. Unfortunately, by almost exclusively relying on them, Gandbhir and Arkin wind up painting an excessively rosy portrait, especially during an early going that barely utters a disparaging word about Synanon or Dederich.

If you’re looking for juicy details about the cult—be it child abuse, sexual coercion, mass head-shavings and castrations, forced abortions, and murder-for-hire plots (the last of which were carried out with a lethal rattlesnake!)—you’ll have to stick with Born in Synanon until the end, as its first two episodes are largely concerned with the venture’s allegedly noble beginnings and halcyon days providing support for the marginalized, suffering, and alienated. Arkin describes Synanon as “a very highly, highly structured community created by really gifted people who had a lot to say and created something with that.” Much of the ensuing action is designed to reinforce that outlook, no matter Arkin’s repeated admission that her recollections are limited and that she’s therefore on a sleuthing quest to uncover the truth—a preposterous notion that suggests she’s ignorant about herself, her family, and this topic, even though the docuseries’s 2001-2002 material proves that she’s been investigating it for 20 years.

Born in Synanon’s framework resonates from the get-go as counterfeit, and the same goes for its lovey-dovey snapshot of Synanon’s origins. Invented by former boozehound Dederich in the ’60s as a system to help people kick drugs and alcohol, it made waves for “The Game,” a quasi-therapeutic practice in which participants sat in a circle and verbally confronted each other—invariably by yelling and cursing—for hours on end. It was a safe space for candidly and cathartically letting loose, and its marriage of uninhibited expressiveness and tough love earned Synanon considerable media coverage and lots of followers, some of whom were addicts (known as “dope fiends”) and others (dubbed “squares”) who merely liked the idea of creating a new type of open, inclusive society.

As with all cult stories, the good times weren’t to last, since Synanon’s social justice mission was simply a cover for Dederich’s megalomania, which was emboldened by the numerous lost, broken, and arrogantly idealistic people who were convinced that he’d devised a new and superior mode of communal existence. Those included Sandra and the additional ex-members featured in Born in Synanon. The majority of them talk about their involvement with Synanon either glowingly or wistfully, at least until the conversation turns to the rampant corporal punishment and abuse directed at the enclave’s children, who were forced to live in de facto on-site orphanages to free their parents to perform manual labor, and who endured all manner of physical and emotional hardships at the hands of their caretakers.

Throughout, Arkin and her mother highlight Synanon’s commendable aspects and then affect shock and dismay upon “learning” that things were nightmarishly cult-y. Only those who invested their hearts and souls (and life savings, and children) into Synanon could possibly think it was anything more than a hippie mirage doomed to devolve into madness. Devolve it most certainly did, complete with Dederich stockpiling weapons for a battle against his enemies, pressuring women to go bald and men to get sterilized, forcing couples to swap partners, and generally behaving like a raving lunatic. He also tried to have lawyer Paul Morantz killed by ambushing him with a rattlesnake, for which he received probation and which ultimately drove many of his disciples away.

Dederich adhered to a standard cult playbook that involved manipulating those in desperate straits with violence and shame, isolating his flock, destroying people’s individuality and demanding conformity, and pretending that his goal was utopia when it was really about making money and satisfying his own urges. In its back half, Born in Synanon demonstrates this through details about Synanon’s tax-exemption ruses (big surprise that Dederich transformed Synanon into a religion) as well as the testimony of those who grew up in Synanon. Yet director Gandbhir sabotages her critique by constantly providing counterbalancing opinions from ex-members who have a vested psychological interest in continuing to celebrate Synanon’s core values and drug-treatment successes. In that regard, Arkin and her mom are the guiltiest culprits, waxing nostalgic in a way that suggests their deprogramming is far from complete.

Born in Synanon peddles unpersuasive both-sides-ism rather than recognizing that cults frequently start off by professing honorable intentions, but that those don’t mitigate the horrors they perpetrate. By treating Synanon as a mixed-bag enterprise instead of an evil entity, it misleads when it should be revealing, and seems primarily designed to let Arkin feel OK about the childhood she herself confesses she scarcely remembers.

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Date

Déc 12 2023
Expired!

Time

All Day

Local Time

  • Timezone: America/New_York
  • Date: Déc 12 2023
  • Time: All Day
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