A Serpentine Memorial
“Ding dong, the witch is dead, which old witch, the wicked witch” or “Tireless Warrior against the Tyranny of cults is gone”—Paul Morantz is dead. My condolences to his friends and family. I began this website so PM wouldn’t be the last word on Synanon. It started with me trying to correct the Wikipedia page which clearly came from someone gleaning what they could from his take on our place (A.K.A. one of America’s most violent cults). I made changes, corrections if you will, I denied nothing, just made a few counterpoints and every bit of my hard work changed back within five days. I then went from thinking Wikipedia was a great idea to thinking that I hated it. The only thing I will look up there will be if I need to know when John Travolta was born since I will never need to know that I’m safe.
I found out a couple of years ago that I had lived in a “cult.” The cult is the new bugaboo, the new commie pinko threat, the precursor to the zombie apocalypse, a thing so dangerous that you must take steps to make sure that your children are not sucked into one. So, you make a mental note not to get sucked into one yourself, but you are pretty sure that couldn’t happen to you—you’re too smart and savvy for that sort of thing. Then you wake up one morning and find that you had submitted to being branded in submission to a little short-waisted nebbish à la NXIVM. Or, that you have shaved your head in obeisance to a fat old man with a lopsided face and a gravelly voice. Or whatever. I never got branded, but I shaved my head—and I thought it was my idea.
I never saw Synanon as a cult—it was my family of choice, a social movement. These days, I think of it as my tribe because there are so many of us out there, still alive, sharing what I’ve come to call The Good, The Beautiful, The Bad, and The Ugly. (Imagine that the Ennio Morricone riff from one of Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns” is playing in the background.) If it ever was a cult, it isn’t anymore, so what are we doing here?
Beautiful and Ugly. For me, shaving my head was fun just to do it. But when it was announced, “Hey we should keep our heads shaved,” that was not fun. It moved from fun to weird…trying to wrap my newly skinned head around the idea that I had to go out in the world with a shaved head while wearing a woman’s business suit and pantyhose and high heels (I really resented the pantyhose). So, what was the philosophy behind that (keeping our heads shaved, not the pantyhose)? It had to do with our in-house megalomaniac founder’s belief that not only could Synanon save the dope fiends, but we could also fucking change the world. “Anything less than changing the world is Mickey Mouse to me,” he said. Honestly, that is a ridiculous pronouncement because Mickey might have been a mouse—not even a real one but a reel one—and he did kind of change the world. For sure he changed copyright laws, and then there is Disneyland. That is a digression and, like most everything anyone ever says about Synanon, it is true. I didn’t feel ugly with my shaved head. I wore big earrings, more makeup, and went along to get along. Some days I felt pretty, and other days, usually around my period, I thought I was a grotesque gargoyle—just like I felt when I had hair. Periods are no longer an issue. I just realized that my Synanon years match up with my childbearing years.
What Is True? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yes, but even more confounding is that Truth is in the mind of the beholder. So, when I check out a Synanon Facebook page and hear the laments of someone who has a bone to pick with their Synanon experience, 99% of the time they are telling the truth—their bad, ugly truth. I would say maybe one or two times while reading 200 screeds against Synanon, I’ve been compelled to say, “That did not happen at least not the way they are saying.” Good and Beauty follow the same rule. For example, for many years there was a framed silk-screened piece of art that hung on a Synanon wall somewhere stating, “There is Nothing Good or Bad but Thinking Makes it So” CED. I’m thinking he was quoted speaking to two newcomer dopefiends; you may remember them as Rosenkranz and Guildenstern. Two Jewish guys from the Bronx.
There is also the issue of perception, especially with younger people who bear witness to some incredible injustice that turns out just to be the youthful reaction that many people have toward their parents. Like the time my youngest daughter (who was raised outside of Synanon) burst into inconsolable tears because I told her under no circumstances would I be purchasing a kid-sized Barbie Car for her. I did get her the car-sized for Barbie, but I drew the line there. As for my oldest daughter, I’ll admit her childhood was pretty messed up inside the devolving Synanon milieu. It was a little worse than the broken alcoholic family in which I was raised. I never say to her, “That did not happen.” It is ALL true.
Some more truth: Chuck Dederich is dead, Paul Morantz is dead, I just read on Wikipedia that Rosenkranz and Guildenstern are dead per Tom Stoppard, and we will all be dead soon enough. We won’t know who “won” for 250 years—if winning equals being remembered. I collect the details of death and remembrance: Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, El Greco, Vivaldi. I recently went to an event in which thousands of people roamed around oohing and aahing at projected images originally created by that one-eared whack job…Van Gogh. In one of my former incarnations, I walked to the other side of the street when I saw him coming my way. Dead, forgotten, and then remembered way past any time that they would care if they were remembered. I am not dancing on any graves, just musing and wondering “to be or not to be” and considering that we don’t really have a choice.
Now it is all about the TC (Therapeutic Community). I move on from Exodus 1:9, “stranger in a strange land” to Ecclesiastes 2:22, “There is nothing new under the sun.” I think human beings figured out tribes a long time ago. Maybe the problem in our atomized world is that we forgot, and thanks to the concept of the therapeutic community, we are remembering that we do better in small, concentrated groups—but not too concentrated because that is the tipping point when community becomes cult, which brings on a whole other set of problems. I would know.
Funny thing: Paul was kind of part of Synanon, and he longed to be so much more part of it, even to the point of considering attending a Synanon reunion at one point. I feel uncomfortable posting this memorial, but he belongs here.
PS: John Travolta was born on February 18, 1954
To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep, No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep; To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub: For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause—there's the respect That makes calamity of so long life. For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of th'unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscovere'd country, from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pith and moment With this regard their currents turn awry And lose the name of action.
Yes, odd as it may seem, Paul wanted to somehow be part of the community. Personally, I think he was in his way and that he should be honored as an important member. He fought to stop Dederich when he needed stopping — for his own sake as well as the community’s. That’s a task that other people better positioned to do the job did not try to do. Or somehow could not accomplish for whatever sad or understandable reason – whether it be lack of time, or energy or courage or power or knowledge or just because of confusion or longing that the troubles would go away and their community and enterprise somehow would re-center itself. Had more among us tried or tried harder to put Dederich out to pasture when his creative work was done and his talent and egomania had degraded into psychopathy and brutality, maybe he could have been saved from himself. Maybe the community and its enterprise would have been saved from demolition. What might Synanon then have become? Maybe an energizing international headquarters and conference center for therapeutic and intentional communities? Maybe a model of a more environmentally considerate way to live?
But the job of stopping Dederich was left to Paul and other outsiders. Whose tools were more limited. Who had only wrecking balls. And in Paul’s case, courage. He knew an attack was coming. But he went ahead anyhow. The guy was not a huge talent. But he had guts and staying power. He paid a price for his persistence. For the remainder of his life after the rattlesnake attack, he had to get a shot every couple of weeks to allay the effects of that huge snake’s venom.
For all that, and despite the fact that Paul deserves respect and even gratitude, he gets too much credit. He wanted to give himself all the credit and to be lionized as the cult slayer. He longed to be injected with recognition over and over. Documentarians who tried to work with him found him impossibly difficult. So needy! Truth is, the FBI and the IRS never paid that much attention to Paul. It was other voices that held their attention — Jim Jones to start with, by the way.
Here’s wishing a good 2023 to all,
Thank you, Cory — you clarify things. One thing I know is that, had it survived PM and the IRS, the tribe would be living in a very different community than the one we remember with so much nostalgia. It was not a model that could have made it into the 21st century. The thing I regret the most is that we were deprived of the adventure of making living in community relevant for this brave new century when that knowledge is so desperately needed. We had tried and true ideas, talented people, youth and energy. And now we have Facebook and our memoires.
Love this soooo much. You know why. 💕. Well done!!
I do not know who wrote that piece of writing and then added Shakespeare- I loved every word. Thank you!
Hi Shirl, greatly flattered love Cory
Wonderful writing and reflection. Thank you!
Great article and I got news for you: the “cult” is alive and well but we just don’t live in such close proximity to each other – by in large. It’s all about perspective isn’t it? I like to think that the family is still taking great care of each other mentally and spiritually. The web can make it all better or worse – thinking makes it so.
Good read, thank you. Although never in Synanon I’m a dope fiend that’s clean and love most things about it.
I’m looking forward to the HBO doc.