Thoughts on Synanon’s History

A Brief History of Synanon With a Broad Brush by Margo Macartney

This is an excerpt from a book Margo is writing about her years in Synanon.

Synanon started in a place and time when the “professionals” had washed their hands of addicts, and consigned them to the heap of discarded people; it was a place and time when addicts had no place to go except state mental hospitals if they wanted to clean up. Addicts knew that. Lexington, KY had an addict clean up in its mental hospital. It was a popular place for people to routinely cycle, clean up, then return to the streets to shoot more heroin. It was like going to Mecca every year or two. A ritual for addicts. And that’s what many did.

Synanon had no name when it inadvertently sprouted up in a rundown place on the beach in a seedy
Ocean Beach, California in the mid-1950s. Hard to imagine now, in this pricey Southern California dreamland real estate, affordable now to only the very wealthy. Then, the residents were drunks and addicts lolling about the streets strewn with garbage and litter, hanging out in doorways with their bottles and little bags and folded papers of heroin.

Synanon grew out of a conversation. The early members called it “the great conversation,” and involved no alcohol and no drugs. The two rules, no drugs or alcohol, and no physical violence were the only rules. They were effective. In those early years, there was coffee and there were cigarettes. It was talking. It was a crash pad. A bunch of mostly guys, mostly drunks, initially. One or two were addicts, who realized they stopped shooting dope. They smoked cigarettes and drank coffee. And they talked. Chuck, who seemed to be the boss, and who evolved into Synanon’s founder, called it “a line of no line,” that conversation. That was the beginning.

Chuck, a dry drunk in his forties, stocky, cocky, with a crooked face from an ear infection, was a AA dropout. He looked around his Ocean Beach crash pad one day and realized that dope fiends were not shooting dope because they were talking. They were involved in a real conversation about life, about philosophy, about religion, and they weren’t shooting dope.

He had undergone an LSD experience under the guidance of Dr. Sidney Cohen in 1957 a year after Bill W, founder of AA, had done the same thing. Chuck had been sober for a year. He was smart. After his LSD experience, he somehow found himself on a mission to clean up other drunks, and it began to extend to heroin addicts who started drifting into his crash pad in the trashy neighborhood. They called it the TLC (Tender Loving Care) Club.

That’s the very beginning of what became Synanon. It was nothing more than a conversation. It was an accident. Books and books have been written about the details. I’m just giving a sketch. Anyone wanting more detail can reference lots of other writers. I’ve listed those I can find at the end. Some of them I’ve referenced in this writing.

In a couple of years, the group needed more space, and moved into another storefront, this time in
Venice, CA, adjacent to Ocean Beach. The group continued to grow. Eventually, they rented the old
National Guard Armory on the beach in Santa Monica.

Building in Santa Monica
The Armory on Santa Monica Beach

The Armory had three floors, a big industrial kitchen, and a basement. The group took over the building in August of 1959. On September 18, 1959, a lawyer alcoholic (or addict) who had sobered up there took papers to the California Corporation Committee to file for a non-profit corporation, named The TLC Club. Chuck went with him. It was a big deal. Standing there, they discovered they couldn’t use that name because there was already a TLC Club. Casting around for another name, they came up with Synanon, a mispronunciation of the word symposium or seminar, or a combination of those words used by one of the people who lived there to describe the talking circles. The word Synanon had no meaning.

Other people have told other stories about where the word Synanon came from, but that’s the story Chuck told when I was new in Synanon, and that’s always been my understanding. The people with other stories didn’t hear it from Chuck, and it was his baby.

It was that year, 1959 when that the little band of TLC Club members became Synanon members and other addicts began to join them. Somehow the formalization had an impact on everyone. The initial group included Chuck Dederich, Vince Cavanaugh, George Antarr, Bill Crawford, Greg Dykes, Jimmy Georgelas, Jack Hurst, Sunny Koretsky, Lena Beckham, Arline Hepner, Jesse Pratt, Carole Seaman, Portie Walker, and one child. By the time I arrived in 1963, all but George Antarr were still part of Synanon. Some of them became my friends. Some are still my friends. By now, some have died.

In the early 1960s, Paul Coates, a Los Angeles-based columnist, had discovered the group and began writing stories in the Los Angeles newspapers, reporting on the junkies who stopped shooting dope. “Life Magazine” did a long feature on what some began to call the “miracle on the beach” of Santa Monica where addicts were staying clean by themselves, without doctors. That’s how I initially heard about Synanon.

he move to Santa Monica was not without controversy. While Paul Coates and a number of Hollywood personalities thought Synanon was terrific, the City of Santa Monica and the County of Los Angeles took a much dimmer view, as did the citizens of Santa Monica. It was one thing, down in the slums of Ocean Beach, for a bunch of addicts and alcoholics to live together, and quite another to bring them all to the fine community of Santa Monica. The law became involved. Chuck was arrested and spent thirty days in the Los Angeles County Jail for operating a medical facility without a license.

Eventually, Chuck persuaded the authorities that Synanon was not a hospital, and the county agreed to re-categorize Synanon as a “place of aid,” ending that skirmish. When I came into Synanon, we were still viewed with skepticism. One of the first things I remember having to do was to go down to Santa Monica City Hall and register as an addict. That was in 1963. I don’t know how long that requirement lasted, or when it eventually ended, but it did end.

Legal cases continued to hound Synanon. The realization that over fifty former addicts and alcoholics all lived together, essentially under one roof, was too unnerving for authorities to ignore. They didn’t know what we were “up to.”

What we were “up to” was the simple matter of going about life. We worked at jobs, we ate together, we attended seminars, and sat in the Synanon talking circles, shouting, screaming, crying and laughing and just plain talking; we played volleyball on the beach, swam in the ocean, played chess, read, and did what most people do. What we did was pretty ordinary. And nobody used alcohol or drugs while doing these things. That set us apart from most of American society.

I remember a guy named Gil Faucette was pulled out of Synanon because he was on probation or parole and was not allowed to even be in contact with other addicts. The fact that the “addicts” he was living within Synanon were not using drugs, and were trying to turn their lives around, did not change the facts for the California authorities. It required more court hearings and more arguments to judges before parolees and probationers were allowed to live in Synanon. But eventually, that worked out.

When I arrived, fifty people constituted the population of the Santa Monica house, and that included families and girls dorms sprinkled around the city. A graduate of Synanon, Jake Ross, had moved to New York and worked for Doubleday book Publishing. At the time he was an editor. He began interviewing young addicts and their parents, who began flying their addict offspring to Synanon in Santa Monica. It was not long before Synanon rented a house in Westport Connecticut for these interviews, and the house was staffed with Synanon residents from Santa Monica.

A Nevada Congresswoman, Flora Dungan, had heard of Synanon, and managed to obtain funding and persuade the Nevada State Prison in Carson City to establish a wing in the prison dedicated solely to house prisoners who wanted to be involved with Synanon. A two-story house had been rented in Reno, in a beautiful setting by the Truckee River, and a few people were sent there to work with the Synanon people in prison, both men and women.

Over the years, Synanon continued to expand.

My views of Synanon have changed from when I was 26, just another Southern California white girl, who being blonde, was designated as dumb and having been an addict most likely a whore. I was so frightened back then. Hindsight and other experiences tend to sharpen our views. However, one crucial aspect of Synanon that I believe contributed to its’ success was that it created a deep sense of community. It operated in a manner a bit like a monastery where monks and nuns lived, except Synanon was for men and women, with rules that considered those differences. Men and women lived separately unless married.

Eating, working, and living together over a period of time dissolves the differences between strangers. It was most important for those first ninety days. We would have conversations with newcomers about the “ninety-day hump,” that people had to get through. Some people left; we weren’t locked in. And sometimes those people came back. I was one of those people. Synanon did not represent a success story for all.

It was the living, eating, working with strangers that affected people deeply. Doing this turns strangers into friends who begin to support one another. Getting clean from drugs was not and never is a solo act. We helped one another. Someone would talk with me if I began whining about things I didn’t like, expressing my wanting to leave. That conversation would give me reasons to stay, and of course that person was giving him or herself a reason to stay, while talking with me. I did the same with other people. We reinforced our decisions to move ahead in life through Synanon.

In the process of all this living together, we also created a totally integrated society. Every race, religion, and age was represented. People who began as strangers came from different backgrounds. I knew nothing about the black culture or food, or jokes until I lived in Synanon. I had known black people, but they had all been musicians and were tied to my drug use. I didn’t know their parents or siblings, or how their families lived. I had known Jewish people, but I knew nothing about their culture. I didn’t actually think they were different from me, other than their religion, which I knew little about. …to be continued

3 responses to “Thoughts on Synanon’s History”

  1. Tobi Manicom (Oringer Gutierre) Avatar
    Tobi Manicom (Oringer Gutierre)

    Very touched to see my Mothers name , maiden name mentioned Arline Hepner, as one of the initial group. She surely turned her life around and helped many addicts get clean. Also to see mentioned in this article the Reno prison project where my Dad, Gary Gutierre, worked and in July 1964 when my Mom, eight months pregnant went to visit my Dad in Reno I was born there. Would love to learn more about the Reno Prision project. Thank you to all who write and share their personal stories about this unique time we shared in Synanon History

    1. Tobi, When I get more info, I’ll make sure to put it up on the website. If you ever have any stories to share, please feel free to share them with the site. Thank you for commenting. Cory

    2. I just added some more photos of your mom to the “faces” section of the website. One question, I see you and Margo spell her name Arline – just making sure that is correct! It looks like her first name was often misspelled in Synanon!

Leave a Reply