Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer

We bring you the facts about COVID-19

Support Reveal
Jul 4, 2020

American Rehab Chapter 2: Miracle on the Beach

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Reveal’s American Rehab exposes how a treatment for drug addiction has turned tens of thousands of people into an unpaid shadow workforce.

In this chapter, Cenikor’s bizarre form of rehab has its roots in Synanon: a group that started on a beach in California in the 1950s and mesmerized the nation by claiming that recovery from heroin addiction is possible. 

Dig Deeper

• Listen: The American Rehab podcast series
• Read: Reveal’s reporting on All Work, No Pay.
• Learn: American Rehab resources

Credits

Shoshana Walter: lead reporter

Laura Starecheski: reporter, series producer

Ike Sriskandarajah: reporter,  producer

Brett Myers: series editor

Kevin Sullivan: executive producer

Jim Briggs: original score, mix, sound design 

Fernando Arruda:  original score, mix, sound design 

Katharine Mieszkowski: contributing producer

Amy Julia Harris: contributing reporter

Al Letson: host

Najib Aminy: associate producer, additional mix

Amy Mostafa: production assistant, additional mix

Rosemarie Ho: fact-checker

Matt Thompson: editor in chief

Esther Kaplan: editor

Andy Donohue: editor

Amanda Pike: executive producer for tv and documentary

Narda Zacchino: text story editor

Gabe Hongsdusit: art direction and layout design  

Sarah Mirk: art direction and web producing  

Erin K. Wilson: original art

Claire Mullen: mix and production help 

Hannah Young: director of audience

Byard Duncan: engagement reporter

David Rodriguez: community engagement

Original art by Eren K. Wilson

Special thanks to WHYY in Philadelphia. Recording help from Chris Harland Dunaway, additional archival audio from Coby McDonald, research help from Claire Clark and David Herzberg; and excerpts from “David,” a 1961 film, played with permission from Drew Associates. Bay Area Video Coalition digitized old reel recordings of Synanon.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. This is chapter two of American Rehab: Miracle on the Beach. If you haven't heard chapter one, stop right now. Go back and listen. I'll wait for you. Okay, you good? Let's go. For years, Reveal's Shoshana Walter has been investigating drug rehabs that send people to work for free and keep all their pay. The deeper she dug, the more questions that came up.
SHOSHANA WALTER: One of my biggest questions, where does this work-based rehab come from? As I've learned from talking to hundreds and hundreds of people who've gone through these types of programs, I kept hearing it wasn't just about work. It also relies on a host of strange rules, punishments, and quote-unquote therapies.
Speaker 3: There's 17 different types of punishments you can get. I've had all 17 of them. I've been to all three Cenikors.
SHOSHANA WALTER: Some of the punishments seemed like they were designed to be humiliating.
Speaker 4: The first thing they did was they shaved my head. They strip you down, kind of take away everything that you think defines you.
SHOSHANA WALTER: In some cases, when people break a rule, they have to yell at themselves in the mirror.
Speaker 5: I can't see what he's doing, what he's looking at, but he's hollering. He's screaming. "You can't say that such and such," and then he'd say, "Thank you!" The man is standing in front of the mirror, and he's screaming at his own self. Mirror therapy.
SHOSHANA WALTER: There are all these ways that basically break people down into submission.
Speaker 3: And they're like, "Who do you think you are coming here and trying to tempt us?" In my face. Guys yelling at me like this.
Al Letson: Yelling in people's faces, mirror therapy, these are techniques used by Cenikor, the rehab we talked about in the last chapter.
Speaker 4: They are trying to brainwash you. You're not a individual. You're just part of Cenikor.
SHOSHANA WALTER: Cenikor uses these techniques and so do a lot of other programs. We wanted to understand where this kind of therapy came from, so we followed the bread crumbs, we traced it back decades until we landed on a beach in Santa Monica, California right outside L.A.
Al Letson: This story is so big, we've had a team of reporters investigating it. Today, our colleague, Ike Sriskandarajah, follows those bread crumbs back 50 years.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Let me take you back to 1958 when a revolutionary, first of its kind, rehab was born. It was called Synanon.
Speaker 7: An instant guide to Synanon.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: And it's not just Cenikor that modeled itself after this place. In fact, much of the rehab industry in the United States can trace its origins back to this one program that started right here.
Speaker 8: Who started Synanon?
Speaker 7: Synanon Foundation was started in 1958 by ex-alcoholic, Charles E. Dederich.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: To understand the world of rehab options that exist in America today, why they are the way that they are, we have to go back in time to this place, Synanon. A place that made really slick explainer videos.
Speaker 8: What is Synanon's cure rate?
Speaker 7: Synanon has no way of keeping track of what people do after they leave. For the people who stay in Synanon, the cure rate is 100%.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: I wanted to find people who were there at birth of Synanon, or as close to the beginning as possible. And I was surprised to find anyone who's addicted to heroin in the 1950s who's still alive today. So I'm very happy I get to introduce you to:
Kandy Latson: Kandy with a K, K-A-N-D-Y. Not no fucking C.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: By the way, Kandy swears a lot.
Kandy Latson: Last name is Latson, L-A-T-S-O-N.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Kandy Latson.
Kandy Latson: I entered Synanon 7/14/1960.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Kandy was 83 when we spoke, living in Santa Monica in an apartment that's not far from where Synanon was founded. Synanon helped Kandy get off drugs. The Korean War is how he got on them.
Kandy Latson: When we landed at Incheon off the boat, and we was running because the Koreans was up on top of the hill shooting 50 caliber machine guns with tracer bullets, and tracer bullets light up. And them tracers was hitting the sand and lighting up, so if you ran, they could get a flash of where you was.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Kandy was born in Raccoon Bend, Texas, a small town with not a lot going on. So when he was just 15 years old, he lied about his age and joined the U.S. Army. Not long after that, he was on that beach at Incheon outside of Seoul dodging tracer bullets.
Kandy Latson: Then I looked at my left, and it was a boy from Georgia named "Country," who shot crooked dice but he told good jokes. So, he'd tell you a good joke and have you laughing, but he'd be cheating you out your fucking money. And I saw a bullet hit Country right in the middle of his head, his forehead, and the blood skeeted in the air. So, I didn't want to get shot in my face.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: It wasn't only the Korean People's Army that was trying to kill Kandy. By his account, his newly integrated platoon wanted him dead, too. Kandy says a group of white soldiers with Confederate tattoos abandoned him behind enemy lines. He was stuck alone in enemy territory. Scared, he looked into a tree where he thought the North Koreans were hiding and he begged them to shoot him anywhere but his face. 10 hours later he found the tire tracks in the mud from army Jeeps and he followed them all the way back to his camp.
Kandy Latson: So look, when I had gotten back from the field, so I've been weary from World War Two, they said, "Young blood, where you been?" I told them. He said, "Here." He said, "Take this. This'll calm you down." Because I was shaking. And it was a cigarette. And it was twisted at the end. And I lit it and smoked it, and it was china white heroin, like pure opium. And that's how I started using drugs. I had never had a drug in my life before. That's how I started.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: When he was discharged, Kandy came home from Korea, bounced around for a little while. By 1956, he landed in L.A.
Kandy Latson: And that's where I start shooting dope, shooting heroin. It was in L.A.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: The second person I want you to meet is John Stallone.
John Stallone: One time I was in Florida when I was 15 and me and my friend Nicky, we would go down there and be gigolos.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: I meet him in his garden apartment in Petaluma, California. He's 79 years old. A big guy, with long hair, he's hunched, but strong. He kind of has a flower-power meets Hells Angels vibe.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: When you were 15, you were...
John Stallone: Yeah, we'd be gigolos, man. We had a big shoebox full of pot. And we're going to go down there, because all the...
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Maybe I don't know what a gigolo is. I thought that was a male prostitute.
John Stallone: It is!
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Oh, it is?
John Stallone: Yeah.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: We talk like this for about an hour before I got in a single question about Synanon.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: If you can introduce yourself and say the years you spent at Synanon.
John Stallone: I spent about seven and a half years in Synanon.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Just like Kandy, he also started using as a kid in the '50s, in his hometown, Brooklyn, New York. John got kicked out of high school for throwing a pie in his principal's face. Sounds kind of funny, but he still feels bad about it. And eventually a neighborhood guy introduced him to heroin.
John Stallone: It was this warm, caressing feeling and that's it, I was off to the races. I fell in love, man.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: After that, he bounced around doing odd jobs like attempting to keep mature women company in South Florida. And some of that time, John was shooting heroin.
John Stallone: But we knew we weren't going to be fucking dope fiends.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: By the way, John swears a lot, too.
John Stallone: We weren't going to be junkies, man. They were the pariahs of the neighborhood in those days.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: It was just something to do. One that seemed to pair with John's other growing interest: jazz. At that point, John was just a teenager penciling in mustaches and sneaking into clubs in the village.
John Stallone: And there I am sitting at the bar trying to make out with some woman and here's Monk 10 feet away playing on the piano, man.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Thelonious Monk. John Coltrane. Sonny Rollins. John's there for all of it. Kind of.
John Stallone: I was so out of it, man. I didn't even realize, man. I was by such greatness. You're in your own world, and now you got somebody improvising on his instrument. He's taking you to all different places.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: John's hobby was turning into a habit.
John Stallone: Before you know it, we were shooting junk every day.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: How long does that last?
John Stallone: Until I went to Synanon.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Right now in the U.S. we're in the middle of an opioid epidemic. The last one started after World War Two. Increased international trade also brought more heroin into big port cities like New York and L.A., setting off alarms.
Speaker 11: This is an alarm sounding in a police station somewhere in the United States. The alarm is meant for you. It's a warning to wake up, to shake loose from the grip of the nation's nightmare.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: There are roughly two million people addicted to opioids in the U.S. today. But back then, the nation's nightmare was much, much smaller.
Speaker 11: How many drug addicts are there?
Speaker 12: Well, no one really knows.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: In the 1950s, the government estimated 50,000 Americans were addicted to heroin. And the one person in charge of stomping out the problem back then was Harry J. Anslinger.
Speaker 13: The battle against this country's illegal drug trade is being fought by the United States Narcotics Bureau. Harry J. Anslinger, who has served as U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics since the post was created by congress 27 years ago.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Harry Anslinger's career tracks alongside America's addiction scares. He battled Rum Runners during Prohibition, helped stoke Reefer Madness, riding manufactured fears to more and more power. Eventually, he became America's top drug cop. He served as Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962 under five different presidents. And Anslinger blamed the addiction epidemic on people who were addicted.
Harry J. Anslin...: One of the answers, and there's very slow movement, is to quarantine the addict and stop him from addicting others, because he contaminates others.
Speaker 15: Is the assumption that an addict has a weak character a true one?
Harry J. Anslin...: Oh, yes. It is true. Any little emotional disturbance will put them right back on drugs.
Kandy Latson: Harry Anslinger, head of Narcotics Commission made a statement on the radio one night, and he said, "Once an addict, always an addict. There is no cure."
IKE SRISKANDARA...: I couldn't find Anslinger actually saying, "Once an addict, always an addict." But during the time he was in charge, that idea took hold.
Kandy Latson: And everybody in the society believed it, and the dope fiends believed it.
John Stallone: No, I'm committed, man. I'm believing all the bullshit hype. And all the bullshit hype from Anslinger, judges, lawyers, doctors, they all said, "Once a junkie, always a junkie. Once a junkie, always a junkie. Once a junkie, always a junkie."
IKE SRISKANDARA...: If you can picture it, there was no such thing as a narcotics rehab back in the '50s. If you were addicted to drugs, your options were: jail, hospital psych wards, and two federal prisons. If you were west of the Mississippi, you went to Fort Worth, Texas. And if you were East, you went to Lexington, Kentucky to a place called the Narcotic Farm. When Harry Anslinger was challenged about the way he handled the addiction crisis, he held up Lexington as a model.
Speaker 16: How sympathetic are you to the addict? Now, you're...
Harry J. Anslin...: Why, I'm talking in very stern terms. [crosstalk].
Speaker 16: [inaudible] becomes a liar and a thief without much benevolence in your voice.
Harry J. Anslin...: No, no, no. [crosstalk]. I've sent more addicts to Lexington than any person in this country. I send them every day, and I see to it that they go to the hospital instead of going to jail. That's why I'm for compulsory hospitalization.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: What Anslinger described as a "compulsory hospital" was also a federal prison. One where inmates were given heroin by government researchers. That's where John went. He got caught with drugs, and his lawyer struck a deal with the prosecutor, so instead of going to Rikers, he went to Lexington.
John Stallone: And when I got to Lexington, one of the programs that they had was they would get guys and they'd give them as much heroin as they want and they would lock them in a room and observe them, "Oh, interesting." You know? "He's vomiting. Yeah, yeah. Diarrhea." It was such an atrocity of using human beings as experimental animals.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Word didn't get out until the mid 1970s. But when it did, people were outraged. Congress launched an investigation.
Speaker 17: Why did you participate in the testing program?
Speaker 18: For the simple reason that there was some drugs and I wanted them.
Speaker 19: Now, after you completed the testing program, did they give you any drugs?
Speaker 20: The payoff wasn't drugs.
Speaker 21: After completing the test, you got so many milligrams of morphine if you liked it.
Speaker 22: You had a choice of earning days on the time that you were doing there, or you could get paid off in narcotics. I choose narcotics.
Speaker 23: What did most of the other patients choose? Narcotics, or time off?
Speaker 22: The majority of them choose narcotics. You were dealing with drug addicts. I mean, that's what they wanted. Mostly.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: So, the so-called hospital that was supposed to get people off drugs was paying people in drugs.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: And you're one of the last people from that?
John Stallone: Yeah, alive today.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: I spoke to historians who told me that some good research did come out of the Lexington Narcotic Farm. Prisoners were treated more like collaborators and it was much safer for them than using out in the streets. But as a rehab, it was pretty much a failure. According to one study, 90% of people who left Lexington started using again within six months. For John, it was much sooner. As soon as he's back in New York, he's using.
John Stallone: I'm not going to shoot dope, I'm not going to shoot dope, I'm not going to shoot dope. Willpower is willpower. Eventually something would happen and I'd start using again.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: On the other side of the country, Kandy had been on a bender, shooting dope for 18 straight months. He'd lost his job as a janitor, ran out of money, and that's when he heard, from a fellow user about this program on the beach in Santa Monica. And on a summer day in 1960, deep in the pangs of withdrawal, Kandy walked up the front steps of Synanon.
Kandy Latson: I just wanted to get well, to stop hurting. To stop throwing up, man. I'm still vomiting, and I'm walking. And I open that door and went in there.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: It was a three story red brick building that used to be a U.S. Armor. The front looked out over Highway One, and the back opened onto the Pacific. This was home base for a small gang of people fighting their addictions.
Kandy Latson: Synanon wanted you to come sick. They didn't want you to come well, because you would split, you wouldn't stay. But if your ass came sick, you got a couch, they put you on the couch, give you a blanket, a roll of toilet tissue, and a bucket. And you'd quite cold turkey.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: This is the place that inspired a generation of rehabs and created a model that continues to exist today. The guy who dreamed it all up was a larger than life figure who'd never actually been addicted to narcotics. We heard about him in those Synanon promotional videos earlier. His name is Charles E. Dederich.
Charles E. Dede...: I want to tell you a little story.
Kandy Latson: When I first met Charles Dederich, I hated Charles Dederich.
Charles E. Dede...: I was an extremely popular and charming drunk. I would come to your home and puke on your floor and you would love me. Of course, I didn't love you.
Kandy Latson: What'd he look like? He weighed about 280 pounds. He had a big belly. He had a big fucking head. I mean a big fucking head. And he never wore shoes. He wore flip flops. And he came to California to die.
Charles E. Dede...: It seems only yesterday when the only thing that existed in life for me was the possibility and the reality of escape. Of escape from life.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Chuck Dederich chronically abused alcohol. His life was in shambles. He'd lost his job, his wife. He was living off a $33 a month unemployment check in a gritty apartment in Santa Monica. And he was down to just a suitcase of belongings including a copy of Emerson's essay on self-reliance. Around that time he started going to Alcoholics Anonymous.
Charles E. Dede...: And there was a meeting going on. And I suddenly realized that people were making speeches up there, that there were people listening to them, so I leap to my feet and kind of rushed up to the podium and broke into some kind of a religious diatribe. I have the vaguest idea of the content, but it got a terrific hand. And everybody laughed, and so I said, "This is for me."
Kandy Latson: The meeting house was just here in Santa Monica on 26th and Broadway.
Charles E. Dede...: On 26th and Broadway, there's a very old AA club.
Kandy Latson: I still go down there sometimes.
Charles E. Dede...: Which is kind of my home club.
Kandy Latson: And I'll be sitting there thinking, "This is where it all started."
Charles E. Dede...: And I became very, very frantic and fanatical Alcoholics Anonymous fellow.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: He loved AA, the support and the stage it gave him, but...
John Stallone: The one thing he don't like about AA is that he sees guys getting up there and saying, "My name is John Stallone, and I'm clean five years." When he knows John Stallone is full of shit, because he saw John Stallone drinking in a fucking bar a week ago. But he can't do that. You don't confront it in AA.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: So one night after a meeting, he invites some of the folks from AA back to his place to keep the conversation going. But this time without any of those pesky AA rules about waiting your turn or biting your tongue. And nothing was off limits.
Kandy Latson: Charles could give seminars on Laozi, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad, you name it. He'd break that shit down on your ass.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: They'd debate politics, religion, sex, late into the night. It was heated, loud, and they'd fill every ashtray in Chuck's tiny apartment. There were only two rules: no violence, and nobody can be under the influence.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Chuck's place keeps filling up, and eventually they need more room. So they get a little money together and rent a storefront.
Charles E. Dede...: [inaudible]. Oh, I'm sorry. She's no longer [inaudible]. That's why he walked here, he was an addict.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: The story goes, a spring day in 1958 Chuck's gang from his AA club was having a lively discussion. And a guy named Whitey Walker came in. He was Synanon's first drug user. He liked the conversation enough that he stayed. And, for a while anyway, stayed off drugs.
Kandy Latson: That was unheard of. So when he got clean, the word spread to the street, "Hey man, there's a place down at the beach where addicts is getting clean." And that's when the addicts start coming in.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: And suddenly there was this question, who was this group for?
John Stallone: So the alcoholics all said, "Hey, fuck that. We don't want no fucking junkies in our group."
Kandy Latson: The alcoholics say, "Yeah, I ain't like you. You stick that fucking needle in your arm." And the addicts said, "I ain't like you. You piss your pants and put a bottle in your pocket with a overcoat on in the wintertime."
IKE SRISKANDARA...: The scales tipped towards the drug users.
John Stallone: So little by little all the alcoholics left, and now you're stuck with all these dope fiends.
Charles E. Dede...: And quite a gang began to gather. And the addicts all began to hear about it and began to come down to the beach and we would somehow scramble around.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Scramble around and find places for people to stay. This ragtag group was becoming a residential program. Chuck knew he was on to something, so he got a lawyer friend from AA to help him incorporate. He wanted to call it "The Tender Loving Care Club," but the name was taken. Then the group slurred their way into a word that meant nothing, but was somehow a better fit.
Kandy Latson: The word came from some guy who was announcing that 12 o'clock for the seminar. And instead of saying that, he said, "synanon," and Chuck heard it. So he grabbed that word. And it had no meaning.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: So on September 18th, 1958, Synanon Foundation Incorporated was born. But its spiritual birth, that came a little after.
Charles E. Dede...: The real beginning of Synanon. The real beginning of Synanon.
John Stallone: So what happens is somebody gets loaded. And they're trying to throw him out. And he's saying, "Fuck you, I'm not leaving, man." He says, "Bullshit, you're loaded, man. Get the fuck out."
Charles E. Dede...: It was an explosion of a group of people.
John Stallone: Somebody turned around and said, "Hey, you know what? Why don't you shut the fuck up. Because you were getting loaded with me a week ago." And now the guy shuts up and he looks at him, "What the fuck?" And then somebody else says, "Well, you know what, I was using, too. I smoked some weed the other day." Somebody else says, "You know what? I drank the other day."
Charles E. Dede...: And everybody began to confess their sins. They began to [inaudible], and it gathered tremendous momentum. Before we went to bed, people came to me and said, "You know, something's changed. I'm going to go for this. I'm going to stay clean. I'm going to stay clean."
IKE SRISKANDARA...: They called this: "The Night of the Great Cop Out." And it became as central to Synanon's origin story as Independence Day.
Charles E. Dede...: Synanon was born that night. I'm thoroughly convinced of the importance of legend, ritual, and song. These things reinforce and create. A very important thing for an organization, the people in it, and they make a tremendous contribution, they give people a sense of history. They tie us up with the past, and it's the past, you see, that reaches up into the future.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: This is the moment that reaches into the future and is the reason we're telling you this story. So many of the rehabs that will follow were inspired by the events of this night and this idea of confrontation, candor, and people with drug addictions holding each other accountable.
Al Letson: In just a few short years, Synanon will go from an ad hoc group on the beach to a national non-profit with outposts around the country. Its growth is propelled by a powerful idea: that people addicted to heroin can stop using.
John Stallone: Back in New York, I'm not seeing anybody clean. They go to the penitentiary for five years, as soon as they come out they're fixin'. Nobody's getting clean. The experts are saying, "You're all going to be a dope fiend for the rest of your life." Now here's these dope fiends in California saying, "Bullshit."
Al Letson: Ike will be back with the rest of that story as chapter two of American Rehab continues. You're listening to Reveal.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We continue with chapter two of American Rehab: Miracle on the Beach. Through the early '60s, Synanon grows from basically a dorm full of people in California with a common goal to a treatment program with an urgent purpose.
Speaker 25: What exactly is the foundation's purpose?
Charles E. Dede...: Synanon's first order of business is to reeducate drug addicts, alcoholics, delinquents, and other people who find themselves unable to function responsibly in the larger society.
Al Letson: More people start hearing about the program and Synanon expands. They pool together donations and set up shop in the San Francisco Bay area, and even open a place in Connecticut.
Speaker 26: Where do your residents come from?
Charles E. Dede...: From all over the United States.
Al Letson: It was becoming a national program. And with the Eastern outpost, Synanon could reach one of America's largest concentrations of heroin users, which, in the early '60s, was in New York. That's how John Stallone in Brooklyn first found out about it. Reveal's Ike Sriskandarajah picks it up from here.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: After John gets back from the Narcotic Farm, that part prison, part hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, he's using again. That place that was supposed to treat addiction only kept John from using heroin for about as long as the train ride home. Then he scored again. Eventually, John and his friend who he gets high with need more money to keep up their habit. So they bought an old gun.
John Stallone: We bought a P38. We had enough money to buy a P38. I think it was about five or 10 bucks. It had Nazi insignias all over it.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: They get their hands on this pistol that's probably haunted. And once they have it, they start robbing drugstores.
John Stallone: We just want the opioids. Morphine, Dilaudid, [inaudible].
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Back then, the government estimated that nearly half, half of all narcotics users in the United States lived in New York City. And robberies like this were on the rise. It all came to a head one day when John says another stick-up gang in another part of New York did a robbery that went really wrong.
John Stallone: Apparently some fucking idiots, man, stuck up a drugstore in Queens and they killed the fucking pharmacist, man. They shot him with a shotgun.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: After that, John says the NYPD started cracking down. And that's when John ran into a guy from his old neighborhood.
John Stallone: So he's sitting on a bench, so we get closer, and his whole face is all beat up and purple and I said, "What the fuck happened, Eddie?" He said, "Man, you got to get out of here." He's all swollen. I said, "What's up?" He said, "Oh, fucking [inaudible] looking for you, man." This detective was looking for us.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: And when John and his partner were trying to find a place to hide out, they remembered another guy from their neighborhood. He disappeared for a while and had recently returned.
John Stallone: He was gone for over a year. We thought he was in a penitentiary. He said, "No, man. I was out in this program," he says, "This place out in L.A. on a beach," he says, "They got a program for dope fiends on the beach," he said. I said, "Really?" He said, "Yeah." He says, "You just go out." I said, "What do you do there?" He says, "You just go out and you lay on a beach all day, get a tan, go in the ocean," he said. He said, "They feed you. They clothe you, man. Movie actors come. Pick you up, take you home, fuck you. Bring you back." I said, "Get out of here, man." He said, "Yeah, man!" I said, "What actresses?" He says, "Oh, not big name actresses. But actresses."
John Stallone: "Get out of here, you're full of shit." And he says, "No, man." I says, "What do you got to do to get in this place?" He says, "Nothing, man. You just got to tell them you're a dope fiend."
IKE SRISKANDARA...: John's friend wasn't totally messing with him. If you followed Synanon's rules, you could go stay in a place that would help you get sober, which is really an incredible thing. Even now. No insurance, no fees, and walk-ins were always welcome, which is what brought John into a Synanon intake center in Connecticut in 1965. He got accepted and was sent to Synanon in San Francisco. Free airfare, too.
Speaker 27: What are Synanon's rules?
Charles E. Dede...: No psychic modifiers. That's no drugs or alcohol. And no physical violence or the threat of physical violence.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: But when John gets there, he's high. And this violates one of Synanon's cardinal rules. When John finally cops to it, they boot him from the program. Eventually though, they allow John to crawl his way back in with a few bizarre punishments.
John Stallone: "You shave your head." I said, "Shave it?" They said, "Shave it." I said, "Okay." They said, "We're going to dress you in some funny clothes and put a funny sign on you, and you're going to work your ass off if they accept you back in the house." I said, "Okay."
IKE SRISKANDARA...: They shave his head, put him in a dress and galoshes, and hang a sign around his neck.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: What did the sign, what kind of clothes do they make you wear?
John Stallone: Sign said, "Please help me. I tried to kill my family."
IKE SRISKANDARA...: These punishments, the head shaving, the strange costumes, the demeaning signs, they were making it up as they went along. They didn't know it, but the residents at Synanon were writing the rule book for an entire corner of what would become a multi-billion dollar rehab industry. They didn't know it back then, because how could they?
John Stallone: [inaudible].
IKE SRISKANDARA...: In 1965, Synanon was still very much a scrappy cash strapped non-profit.
John Stallone: 50 man dorm. 50 men lived in one dorm. The beds were like this far apart, enough for you to just walk in. One man's bathroom, one woman's bathroom. Gang shower, four heads.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: And how do you feed a dorm full of people?
John Stallone: The guys would go out hustling in the morning. We called them hustlers. They would go to different places, grocery stores, outdated milk, outdated cottage cheese, vegetables that you wilting, we'll take them. Half rotten tomatoes, we'll take them. And you could write them off full price. Because we're a non-profit.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Their tax free status would become really important to Synanon's growth. But for now it was just a way to collect some nearly rotting dairy.
John Stallone: My job was dairy sniffer. So I would take a container of milk, open it up, sniff it, if it smelled good, I put it in my milk crate over here. If it smells sour, I threw it in the trash can.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Everyone in Synanon had a job, it was part of the program, everybody worked. Down at the house on the beach in Santa Montica, one of Kandy Latson's first jobs was night watchman, which sometimes meant answering the door for desperate, strung out people. Kandy remembers this one night in particular.
Kandy Latson: I hear this knock on the side of the door: ba, ba, ba, ba, ba. So I said, "What is it, man?" "Is this the place that have addicts?" I said, "Yeah." So I said, "Come here, man." So he come in and I close the door and lock the door. "Stand right here." I went upstairs, I woke Charles Dederich up. "Charles."
Kandy Latson: "What is it?" He called you lad. "What is it, lad?" I said, "Charles, there's a dope fiend down there, he really need help. What can we do?" Chuck said, "What do you think?" I said, "I think we ought to take him." "Well, take him!"
IKE SRISKANDARA...: They took him. And he kicked cold turkey on a couch with a bucket.
Kandy Latson: After he kicked, we was getting ready to eat lunch. And there was a guitar in the corner with two strings on it. And he was sitting on the couch with his legs crossed. He reached over and picked up the guitar, and he had two licks and the whole room stopped. Like what the fuck is this? His name was Joe Passalaqua. But he shortened it to Joe Pass, the third greatest guitar that ever lived. That's the way he was.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Back then, the jazz scene was somewhat notorious for heroin use. And when some of them were trying to kick, they'd end up at one of Synanon's houses, or would at least pass through.
Kandy Latson: Miles Davis would send his group down whenever they came to town.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Whenever Miles Davis came to San Francisco he would send his band to...?
Kandy Latson: Yeah, but he didn't come, because he was using. He had respect. But he would send the rest of the band to come down and play for us in the afternoon.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: So it was only natural that this rehab grew a jazz band of its own.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Okay, this is a record I just bought on eBay: The Sounds of Synanon. Featuring Joe Pass on guitar. Side one: CED. Charles E. Dederich.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: And Joe Pass played on The Sounds of Synanon when that album came out.
Kandy Latson: Yeah! I played on The Sounds of Synanon with him!
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Oh, is that right? What did you play?
Kandy Latson: I played the conga drums! Look on the label. You'll see my name, Kandy Latson.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: How about that! Okay.
Kandy Latson: Yeah, brother.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: The record helped grow Synanon's profile and even made them a little money.
Kandy Latson: We didn't get paid for it. The money went to Synanon.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Were you okay with that?
Kandy Latson: Yeah! Hell yeah. I was eating and sleeping good and golden, son. Hell yeah I was okay with it. We were a family, man. Synanon was a family.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Synanon was unlike a lot of families at the time. For one, it was diverse. When Kandy joined, black and white people living together would've been illegal in many parts of the country. And the proud dad of this unlikely family? Chuck Dederich.
Charles E. Dede...: That's the way Synanon was in the first five years of its existence. And of course we hurdled into the public consciousness.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Hurdling into the public consciousness meant catching the attention of some big names in Hollywood. Celebrities were coming just to hang out. Lucille Ball from I Love Lucy, Rod Sterling, from The Twilight Zone, Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy. The vibe at Synanon was raw and alive.
Charles E. Dede...: We were incredible, we were genuine and everything else.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: In 1965, the rehab got the full Hollywood treatment.
Speaker 28: Synanon is a real corporation. Its business is junkies. Chuck Dederich is the ex-drunk who dreamed it up and fights to keep it from becoming a nightmare.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Synanon, where only the damned want in. That was one of the movie's taglines, starring Eartha Kitt as Chuck's wife, Betty Dederich.
Speaker 29: Betty bought her kicks the hard way, two bucks at a time.
Betty Dederich: I was what they call a swinger. I did nothing but get high.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: And the glittery endorsements helped make it a sensation. Life Magazine called Synanon, "A tunnel back to the human race." A Connecticut senator on the floor of congress said to President Kennedy, "There is indeed a miracle on the beach of Santa Monica, a man-made miracle that I feel can benefit thousands of drug addicts." And at the center of this miracle is an unorthodox therapy called, "The Game."
Speaker 31: Game. G-A-M-E. In the Synanon Game, anybody can say anything he wants to say to produce any kind of an effect he wants to make.
Speaker 32: Will you please tell me what is the Synanon Game?
IKE SRISKANDARA...: By Chuck's own account, his need to yell and curse, accuse and ridicule, to release all his bottled up hostility, that's what grew into The Game. This un-moderated group therapy. It starts with a group of people sitting in a circle.
Charles E. Dede...: Now the group singles out one person at a time, attacks that person, and shatters his defenses. And then the game switches to the next person and so on it goes. There's no professional direction.
Speaker 33: Everything I say, you will not do!
Speaker 34: Really?
Speaker 33: Like a little baby.
Speaker 34: Really?
Speaker 33: I want, I want, I want! [crosstalk]. You're not a man, [inaudible].
Kandy Latson: So it ain't just people sitting around like, "Yeah, man." No, that's group therapy. This is the Synanon Game. It looks like group therapy, but it's a lot that's going on in there.
Speaker 35: Could you take an order? [crosstalk]. [inaudible].
Speaker 36: That's what I'm doing about it!
Speaker 37: What are you doing about it?
Speaker 36: I took it into [inaudible], I think [inaudible].
Speaker 37: No you didn't, we asked you a question.
Kandy Latson: And I'll tell it to you like this, at Synanon they say you're as sick as your secrets. So you're trying to pop that secret, it's like a boil. You're trying to pop that poison out of there. Drain some of it out.
Speaker 38: You're a low life creep. You know that? You're a no class bastard, that's what you are. A no class bastard. That's all you'll ever be.
Kandy Latson: You're trying to, what Chuck calls, not an explosion, but an implosion. That's inside the person, inside the game that pop that shit out of there.
Speaker 39: You say hello to people, but that's it. Or maybe [inaudible].
Karen: I'm not here to show you, you stupid bitch.
Speaker 39: Yeah, no I guess you are, Karen.
Karen: You're wrong!
Speaker 39: I'm wrong? You should die.
John Stallone: First of all, Ralph Waldo Emerson has a lot to do with this.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Emerson was one of Chuck's gods. From the earliest days of Synanon, he always kept The Great Transcendentalist close.
John Stallone: Okay, "A few times in my life," this is Ralph Waldo Emerson, Social Aims. "A few times in my life, it has happened to me to meet persons of so good a nature and so good breeding that every topic was open and discussed without possibility of offense. Persons who could not be shocked."
IKE SRISKANDARA...: The Game is still around today. In fact, it's been central to so many drug rehabs, including Cenikor, where participants tell us they still play the game at least once a week. I wanted to hear what this revolutionary therapy sounded like at its inception. The earliest recording I could find of The Game is from an out of print documentary from 1961 called David. It's black and white and '60s cool with a tune by Miles Davis.
Speaker 41: This is a story of a struggle by the sea. 60 people fighting for their lives by fighting to stay together.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: I showed it to Kandy because he was there around that same time.
Kandy Latson: I never saw this film, uh-uh. I don't know how you got a hold of that, man. God damn, that's almost the beginning.
Speaker 41: The largest group of clean dope addicts freely gathered anywhere in the world.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: In the film, around a dozen people sit in a circle. The women are in dresses, and the men are all wearing button downs and slacks. And everyone is constantly smoking. Kandy knows most of them.
Kandy Latson: There's Joe Pass! The guitar player. That's the one I was telling you I took in that night.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Then one guy starts calling off a list of names.
Speaker 42: The following people in the living room: David, Coleman, [inaudible].
IKE SRISKANDARA...: And one of the people in that group is a young black man who's lean and tall and spells his name with a K.
Kandy Latson: Kandy.
Kandy Latson: Is that me? Yeah! I be a mother fucker with my ugly hat. Yeah, that's me. Good lord, how'd you do this, man? You, boy, playin'! How did you do this? That's incredible. I mean, you got the early group. A group by the sea, they sat in that sand on the beach. I remember that shit.
Speaker 41: This will be a Synanon session. A strange and violent group argument.
Kandy Latson: Oh, that's bullshit. He think it's a violent argument. These are tools for this group, man.
Speaker 41: No psychologist has been able to explain [inaudible] Synanon. But many believe it is the reason why more addicts have stayed off dope longer here than anywhere else in the world.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: The game starts with Joe Pass complaining about David. He's a trumpet player and has been skipping rehearsals.
David: I have a cut on my lip and it's not healed.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: They go back and forth about who whines more.
David: A complainer, a whiner, and a baby, you know?
Joe Pass: You whine more in one day about my whining than I whine in a month.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: And then Kandy starts going after David.
Kandy Latson: [inaudible].
David: She's been here three times now.
Kandy Latson: Oh, I see. But do you think she's [inaudible]?
David: Uh, no.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: This goes on for another couple minutes. David saying he loves his wife and son and gets strength from being around them. And the others in the group, they all pile on him, asking, "How long have you known your wife? How well do you know your wife? Isn't your marriage based on a lie?" Kandy leads the charge.
Kandy Latson: [inaudible]. Because she married a dope fiend, she got to be a bigger nut than the dope fiend.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: So I asked Kandy, how does stopping David from seeing his family help him stay off heroin?
Kandy Latson: Because he's going back to the same thing that produced him. He ain't ready yet. It don't mean he can't live with all that, but you ain't ready to go back now. [inaudible].
Joe Pass: If you want to try to help yourself, don't talk so much. Do what you're told for a while. Go through the motions of accepting everything that people tell you. Don't defend or nothing. Just go through the motions of being just another slob in here. Not anything else but another slob.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: In this early session, we start to see what would later become a much more serious criticism about Synanon and its methods. Were people in vulnerable emotional states being coerced to do things against their will? In other words, was Synanon brainwashing people?
Kandy Latson: We used to tell people, "Yeah, we brainwash them because they brain is dirty." And it is. It's with heroin and morphine. And wine, and whiskey, and cigarettes, and lying, and cheating, and stealing. Yeah, we brainwash them.
IKE SRISKANDARA...: That has a positive connotation to you?
Kandy Latson: Yeah!
IKE SRISKANDARA...: Lots of studies have looked at these methods and the use of confrontational therapy to treat addiction. And the findings are pretty consistent. One paper summed it up this way: four decades of research show, "There is not and never has been a scientific evidence base for the use of confrontational therapies." In fact, researchers say these tough love tactics cause more harm than good. But that doesn't mean we've moved on from them. The methods Synanon started are still alive today. They're used by other rehabs inspired by Synanon. Rehabs like Cenikor.
Al Letson: Synanon had created something that offered hope to people who didn't have a lot of it. It gained a reputation for that, for helping people get off and stay off drugs. But it was also going to change.
John Stallone: The minute they started drinking and the minute they started wearing guns, it wasn't Synanon anymore.
Al Letson: Chuck Dederich wanted Synanon to do more and be more. And also, importantly, make more money.
Speaker 45: The asshole that's doing all the work of course doesn't get any of the pay. That's the way it is all over the world.
Al Letson: How America's first national drug rehab became a lucrative business by turning its participants into an unpaid workforce.
Speaker 46: That's too bad, I'm violent, the world is full of such assholes. It leaves more for me, because the world can't support all the assholes the way I want to be supported.
Al Letson: Next up on American Rehab:
Speaker 47: They were planning on vasectomies that following weekend.
Kandy Latson: And that's when it got all fucked up.
John Stallone: I didn't know it was going to turn into what they did. Going out and beating up on people and rattlesnakes in mailboxes.
Kandy Latson: Okay, okay, okay. Now I'm going to tell you how Synanon ended. (singing).
Al Letson: The American Rehab reporting team is Shoshana Walter, Laura Starecheski, and Ike Sriskandarajah. Brett Myers is our Editor. This chapter was reported and produced by Ike. Laura is our Lead Producer. Amy Julia Harris helped us report the story from the beginning and launched this project. We had additional editorial support from Narda Zacchino, Andy Donohue, and Esther Kaplan. Production support from WHYY in Philadelphia. Research help from Claire Clark and David Hertzberg. Recording help from Chris Harland-Dunaway, and excerpts from David, a 1961 film played with permission from Drew Associates. Bay Area Video Coalition digitized old, real recordings of Synanon. Fact checking by Rosemarie Ho. Victoria Baranetsky is our General Counsel. Our Production Manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Our production team includes Najib Aminy, Katharine Mieszkowski, and Amy Mostafa. Our theme song is Lifelong by Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They composed and performed all the music for American Rehab. Our CEO is Krista Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our Editor in Chief. Our Executive Producer is Kevin Sullivan. Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The Heising-Simons Foundation, The Democracy Fund, and The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Al Letson: Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.