Cults of the World: Synanon

*Post written by James Wethington, senior library assistant of the University Archives and Special Collections.

The Synanon Story. Volume 4, Issue 1. January, 1976. A bewildered Vietnamese orphan is comforted by Synanon doctor Mario Milch upon the child's arrival at Travis California after a flight across the Pacific. Over 100 Synanon residents plus the Foundation's staff of six physicians made the trip to Travis last spring to accompany the children to the Army Presidio in San Francisco and to provide them with medical attention.

The Synanon Story brochure, 1976. Source: CS 563, Synanon collection.

In part four of “Cults of the World”, some communal groups begin with good intentions. Charles Dederich wanted to help others with substance abuse, after he successfully overcome his alcohol addiction with his community, Synanon.

Synanon began in 1958 by Charles Dederich, as “… a residential recovery community for ‘dope-friends’” in California (Miller, p. 42). The name, Synanon, is a combination of “seminar” and “symposium”; moreover, Dederich used Alcohol Anonymous’ (AA) model without using religion; however, the structure of Synanon focused on being “… a tough, disciplined, drug-free environment with a dash of tender loving care” (Gelder, 1997).

In the mid-1960’s, Synanon grew tremendously. Addicts and non-addicts were welcomed to join the community and joined by the thousands; however, Synanon changed in the 1970’s (Gelder, 1997). In 1974, Synanon “… reorganized itself as a church” and membership numbers began to drop (Miller, 2001). This trend continued through up to the 1980’s and 1990’s.

The Synanon Prayer: Please let me first and always examine myself. Let Me be honest and truthful. Let me seek and assume responsibility. Let me understand rather than be understood. Let me trust and have faith in myself and my fellow man. Let me love rather than be loved. Let me give rather than receive.

The Synanon Prayer, n.d. Source: CS 563, Synanon collection.

By the late 1970’s and 1980’s, there was serious charges against Synanon and Dederich, leading to the community’s demise. Dederich, a recovering alcoholic, fell back into alcohol in 1978 and allegations came out against him and the community (Miller, p. 42). In 1980, Dederich faced charges of conspiracy of murder with two of his security force.  They were accused of trying to kill a lawyer who was suing them because they placed a rattlesnake in the lawyer’s mailbox. Gelder (1997) stated there were reports of violence such as “… forced vasectomies[,] mandatory abortions[, and] divorces”. Soon after the allegations, Dederich was stripped of his power in 1987 and Synanon disbanded in 1991, after losing their tax-exempt status; however, Dederich passed away in 1997 (Miller, p.43; Gelder, 1997).

In the University Archives and Special Collections, there are over six hundred and fifty collections relating to communal studies from the Center for Communal Studies. The finding aid inventory for Synanon is available for viewing on the online digital gallery. To view this collection, please email for more information.


Gelder, L. V. (1997, March 4). Charles Dederich, 83, Synanon founder, dies. Retrieved from

Miller, A. X. (2001). Community values. Nation, 273(21), 40-44. Retrieved from

This entry was posted in American history, Communal Studies, Cult, Murder. Bookmark the permalink.

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