Rod was a member of Synanon for twelve years. He left in 1979 because he saw that the organization had departed from its’ original principles. He believes that methods developed in Synanon are responsible for saving millions of lives He is president of the Amity Foundation.
I was born in the middle of the 2nd World War—a time of existential crisis for the world when the outcome was very much in doubt. There were two potential futures, one with a vision for prosperity and individual freedom in societies ruled by their citizens, the other the world living under repressive authoritarian regimes where people lived in fear, and “enemies” of the state would live in gulags or be exterminated in a continuation of the holocaust. Of course, I learned about all this much later—but in some ways today here we are again with our 2020 existential crisis.
I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family—my father was a plumber and steamfitter, working class Irish; my mother a teacher and social worker, but who suffered from mental illness and repeated hospitalizations throughout her life and her five unsuccessful marriages. Needless to say being raised for the first ten years by a paranoid schizophrenic meant my early years were pretty chaotic. At 10 I went to live with my father. When my father died in a boating accident overseas when I was seventeen, I returned to the United States, first attending the University of Idaho, then transferring to the University of California at Berkeley in 1963. There I had my political awakening, participating in civil rights demonstrations, being arrested in the 1964 Free Speech Movement, and participating in both the first, and later many other Anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. Because of a serious eye disease, I was not drafted for the war—but would have been a conscientious objector had I been called. Many of my fellow “free speechers” went to Europe on vacation during the trial in 1965—a lesson for me about who was serious, and who wasn’t.
Due to my interest in photography, something that still brings me great satisfaction, and through a series of serendipitous events after graduating from UC Berkeley, I attended the San Francisco Art Institute, and spent that year working in West Oakland in an all-black neighborhood—taking photographs, but having an immersion in the realities of poverty, the effects of institutional racism, and—to my surprise—a genuine experience of community. This is also where I got it that being white, I had inherited many unearned advantages that up to then I had been completely unaware of. This was a seminal year—the Black Panthers formed in Oakland, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered—and reacting as most black people felt after King’s assassination, Bobby Hutton and Eldridge Cleaver made an unapproved and ill-advised attack on the Oakland Police, who had been harassing black Oaklanders for decades. In the police retaliation for this incident, 17 year old unarmed Hutton was murdered in cold blood, Cleaver fled to Algeria, and the killing and annihilation of the Panthers began, orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover, along with the mantra of “law and order” and the beginnings of mass incarceration of black and brown men and women. The recent book by Ibram X Kendi “How to be an Antiracist” is a moving story of how these and other events affected him and his own evolution in thinking about race in America.
Through another series of serendipitous events, I was introduced to Synanon, which had a facility in San Francisco. Simultaneously the school next to my house in Oakland was bombed in a racially motivated attack. This increased my desire to have my children grow up in an environment not subject to racism and violence, and I saw in Synanon an organization, a mini society where black, white, and brown, rich and poor were living together with dignity, and with a vision of racial equality and social justice which inspired me.
I donated my inheritance from my father to Synanon (to the horror of both my then wife and the investment firm which handled the funds) and then “moved in” to Synanon with my wife and two small children as one of the first “squares” (non-addicts) in this rambunctious society of ex-addicts (later a large group of “squares” joined Synanon, many enhancing Synanon’s culture, and some detracting from it.). During the next twelve years I grew up in many ways and had experiences which could fill a book or two. I met and worked with a man who is still my best friend, Buddy Jones. I learned the basics of community, and both observed and participated in the power of a healing, inclusive, generous community. These were powerful lessons that I learned, internalized and have practiced for the past 40 years. But as time went on, I also saw the dark side of the organization. Benjamin Zablocki wrote a book “Alienation and Charisma: A Study of Contemporary American Communes”, that proposed that charismatic leaders, like Chuck Dederich, have the explosive energy needed to create something entirely new, and to attract people to that new idea or organization—but they all go a bit crazy at about 20-25 years; that was certainly the case with Dederich. Nonetheless, in those dark days Bill Pepper (who had been MLKjr’s lawyer), Ralph Abernathy, Florence Kennedy, Cesar Chavez and many others all came to Chuck’s aid—they recognized that he had strayed from the path, but that the path itself was noble and needed to be defended.
So, I learned how even well educated, thoughtful people could become co-opted into actions that they would have considered unthinkable under normal circumstances. That phenomenon is found in Annie Applebaum’s current book, “The Twilight of Democracy”—the phenomenon of people who know better giving up their principles, their reason, and collaborating with the leader who now represents everything they once found repugnant. Synanon, which had eschewed violence from the beginning bought guns, threatened people, and physically attacked those labeled as “enemies.”
There is, perhaps, no more powerful and meaningful experience than witnessing the disintegration of a once noble and compassionate institution for one’s future reference. (see Arthur Koestler’s article, “The God That Failed”, and Phillip Zimbardo’s “The Lucifer Effect”) So I received that gift, and another by meeting and marrying my life partner, Naya Arbiter—this is our 43rd year of marriage and she has been the most important person in my life, lover, friend, partner, colleague, moral compass, teacher, and inspiration.
It was painful leaving Synanon, it had been for me the fulfillment of a dream, and my very closest friends and relationships were there, but my explanation to myself was that I was not leaving but rather Synanon had left all of its principles, leaving me and Naya no option. Later, as Synanon continued to deteriorate, we testified against the organization. Synanon as a result lost its non-profit status, which ended the organization. For most in the United States Synanon’s entire story is encapsulated in the “snake in the mailbox” incident. In two recent NPR broadcasts the characterization of Synanon goes like this… “Notably, his earliest years were spent at Synanon, a drug rehabilitation program that devolved into a notoriously violent cult.” What’s missing is that Synanon inspired the therapeutic community (TC) movement throughout the world—every continent except Antarctica has an association of TCs, hundreds of thousands of people have benefited from the “community as method” approach pioneered by Synanon. These generations of organizations inspired by Synanon took the good and left the bad.
Leaving Synanon, Naya and I came to Tucson, Arizona and began an odyssey which continues to this day. Naya applied for and was chosen as the Director of a very small and extremely troubled residential drug program called Amity House, part of a larger (but still very small) organization called Tucson Awareness House. She was given 90 days to either close Amity or get it up and running. She got it running—a year later I joined her, and that’s what we have been doing since 1981. To describe this journey would take another book or two at least, but we have tried to take the best of what we learned at Synanon, continue to innovate, and leave the aspects of Synanon that resulted in its demise behind. From the beginning, we wanted Amity to be inclusive and safe—a place where everyone felt that they could say their truth without repercussions, and be accepted, supported, and inspired to not just make marginal changes but to transform their lives in ways that they had previously thought (and had been told repeatedly) were impossible.
We also wanted Amity to take on issues and populations that others had ignored, to show the efficacy of those initiatives, and to inspire others to replicate our successes when we had them. We have had our share of successes (last week I posted a piece on FB about the 30 year anniversary of our efforts to use the teaching and therapeutic community methodology in prisons to reform corrections and mass incarceration) and certainly our share of disappointments and failures as well, but what an incredible journey it has been, and continues to be.
Just before my 75th birthday, two years ago, I stepped down from the position of Chief Executive Officer after 34 years, handing that over to our protégé Doug Bond. Naya and I, along with many of our friends and colleagues continue to work full time to help Amity continue along the path that we have trod for the last decades, and to deal with today’s challenges, the Covid-19 pandemic being the most urgent at the moment.
Today, of course, we are all facing an unprecedented situation in our world—the global pandemic of the coronavirus, the worst economic crisis in our lifetimes, the frightening challenges to democratic governments and principles, and behind it all the looming challenge to all life on the planet: the climate crisis, which demands dramatic and immediate action for the preservation of human existence.
For those of you who have persevered to the end of this very long missive, I want to recommend two books that I have found very worthwhile.
The “Twilight of Democracy”, just published, describes the author’s experience with the move from democracy to authoritarianism in Eastern Europe—with profound lessons for us in this age when here in the United States the clear intent of the President is to replicate that transition in our country, and the crucial test of whether that will be successful is less than 3 months from today. The second book, “The Future We Choose” written by the architects of the Paris Climate Accord of 2015, eloquently spells out where we are today, and the two very real and stark futures we face—one which in which we “go along to get along” and the planet heads toward being uninhabitable for human beings, the other requiring a massive paradigm shift and dramatic action now.
I have no idea how long I will live—every day in this pandemic carries the risk of infection and death for those in my age group. This grim reality is one which I (and I hope everyone who reads this) will avoid. I started this year by getting arrested for a protest in Washington DC against the fossil fuel industry. I will spend my remaining years continuing to support the teaching and therapeutic community, which I believe is an antidote to many of the social ills that we humans face in this time, but also to speak out and act on the threat to our democracy here in the US and elsewhere, and to put every effort to be part of the solution to address the looming climate crisis—this for my children and grandchildren, for all the world’s children, grandchildren, future generations and to avoid or at least significantly mitigate the terrible, unendurable global suffering that will result from not acting.
These things are tied together, the attitude that exploits black and brown people is the same attitude that exploits women and girls, and is the same that exploits the earth, and the same that veers towards authoritarianism—which exploits everything and everybody. For all of its flaws, the United States has been many times a moral leader for the world, and if we fall into authoritarianism, we will be unable to provide the moral and practical leadership for the world to face the climate crisis—so this is all one movement, and the time for action is now. Everyone must come out of the bleachers and get on the playing field; we can have no bystanders or observers.
Categories: Amity Foundation
Thank you Rod for such eloquent words I thoroughly enjoyed how you articulated exactly what I think most of us feel and believe about Synanon. Love to both you and Nya I remember both of you fondly.
Dear rod thank you for your service to Humanity and the planet Earth I’m sure you don’t remember me I was a newcomer in Santa Monica in 1971 as a heroin addict the place we know as synanon had everything I needed to be Reborn I sucked on the nectar that synanon had to offer obviously you did too and went on to do great things I’m so glad we had that experience to share you are the man
Frankie, you are the BEST. I love “Reborn, I sucked on the nectar that synanon had to offer.” I had forgotten that both you and Pete were trained by Izzy, and the patience and kindness you needed to call on in that situation. You are one of a very few people trained in the fine art of making a real NY water bagel among your many other talents. I miss you and your positive glow. Hope you and Annie are well.