Josh Millstein

Where am I and Why am I here?

I was delivered to a locked ward, wrists and ankles strapped, and shot full of enough Thorazine to stop a train. It was April fourth, 1968 I heard Wilbur, Betty D.’s brother and Jack Hurst, President of Synanon, floating like ghosts outside the barred window. They spoke to me calmly while figuring out how to spring me from a locked room on the fourth floor. They didn’t figure it out; I woke up on April fifth in a wet bed.

The day room was like any in the movies, just not as lively: patients pacing, patients nodding out, TV bolted to the ceiling, a kid my age banging his head on the wall. Thorazine was deliberately scheduled to thwart any hint of coming up for air. That’s the script for abruptly halting mania—keep them dozing.

The previous October, just shy of my eighteenth birthday, I fell out of CCNY (“dropped out” implies volition). Halfway through the Spanish midterm, blank blue book on the desk, I bolted. When my mother came home from work, I was on the sofa—stock still, billowing and snapping like a windsock at twenty-six mph. Famously stoic, she ignored my disquiet, cooked dinner, locked her door and fell asleep with Johnny Carson. In the morning, chocked full of nuts, she locked her door (to protect her color tv), told me everything would work out and left for the office.


Everything did not work out. When she returned, I was choking with dread and whipping around like a fifteen-foot Gumby outside a tire store. For the next week, it was take-your-agitated- kid-to-work day. Sitting by her desk steadied me just enough so Saint Ruth could work her connections to get us out of this jam.

What was this jam? If you don’t know that your first manic episode is a manic episode, then you are equally unprepared a few weeks later for the quicksand terror of its partner—full-blown depressive psychosis. (The DSM-II then classified the condition as manic-depressive insanity.) Might it trace back to my only ever acid trip a year earlier? Seemed unlikely: that adventure felt the same as any dreary night in a drab apartment with my two closest, equally drab and dreary, Bronx Science friends. There was no high, no revelatory visions, no sped-up carousel of vivid colors or music. Maybe it wasn’t acid. Maybe we got beat. Maybe it was Pepto Bismol.


As a big macher sportswear buyer, my mother dealt with dozens of garmentos. One of them, the lovely Sam Simon, had lamented that he could not persuade his junkie kid to go to Synanon. This could be an out. I was no addict. I smoked pot and took some Dexamyl (who didn’t?). Maybe they’d take me anyway.


Ruth and I checked out the Synanon outpost, a Riverside Drive townhouse that served as an intake center for New York addicts desperate to get clean. The ten men and women (some married) who lived and worked there had been clean for a couple or more years. Inveterate, incompetent liars, dope fiends couldn’t slip anything by them—you can’t bullshit a bullshitter: “You came here loaded?; you’re wasting our time. We don’t need you; you need us. Come back when you’re straight, and we’ll talk to you.” Even fogged in, I saw a spark: these people were pretty hip.


Half the hypes in Pelham Bay came through Riverside Drive. Their parents or girlfriends or husbands or… put them on a plane to L.A. and waited for the plane to pull away from the gate before heading home. And my mother offered me a choice of no choice—Bellevue or Synanon. She was done. She watched me board a Greyhound and stood there until the bus left Port Authority.

After a couple of stops at Synanon houses in the Catskills, and Detroit, I piled into a station wagon with five other newcomers and two oldtimers—stone-faced George (I’m not protecting his identity. I just can’t remember his last name) and the charming Jim Rohanna—who drove us to California. I got the brass ring: the last row with whiny Jerry Pozner facing backward for 22OO miles. The first night we hit snow outside Chicago and slept in the car. We stayed overnight once in Flagstaff. The six of us in one room with vending machine dinner; George and Jim next door.

In 1967 Synanon’s flagship was the formerly luxe Del Mar Beach Club in Santa Monica. Come for the postcard, stay for the cure; come for the cure, stay for the postcard.

(One of my first jobs was sifting the sand to remove cigarette butts.)

Bare Bones

Before Synanon was founded in 1958 by Charles E. Dederich, heroin addicts were hope-to-die dope fiends. An ex-addict was a rarity. Once a junkie, always a junkie. John Stallone understood this. Before he joined Synanon in the early sixties, he did a bit at the federal government’s Lexington Kentucky Narcotic Farm. (If you got busted, you could go to the penitentiary or Lexington.) He said in a podcast produced by the Science History Institute:

Everything I read, everything I heard was once a junkie always a junkie, once a dopefiend, always a dopefiend. That was from doctors, psychiatrists . . . psychologists, the whole medical field, lawyers, judges…They all said the same thing . . . They had a psychiatrist talk to you, and they wanted you to talk about your mother. I mean, here I am from Brooklyn. I’m going to tell this stranger about my mother? I want to get up and smack him. . . You were treated . . . like a chimp in an experimental lab. That’s the feeling I got from the [staff at] Lexington.

John Stallone

Chuck Dederich was a flamboyant, bumptious, magnetic, restive member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Like many drunks, Chuck collided with his bottom and tripped headfirst into AA. He showed up at his first meeting after…“a weekend bender that wouldn’t stop . . . for about a month. I wound up a real gibbering idiot. I was totally out of it. I was burning up and rattling . . . I suddenly realized that people were making speeches and that people were listening to them. So I leaped to my feet, rushed to the podium and broke into some kind of religious diatribe. I hadn’t the vaguest idea of the content, but it got a terrific hand. I probably cried. . . And so I said, ‘This is for me!’”

Few people are more annoying than the newly sober. Chuck, with his burly mania and charisma, was unbearable. “When I got into AA, I became . . . completely compulsive about it. I went to a meeting every goddamn day. . . I threw myself . . . into the whole AA mechanism . . . I could be very funny. I could play on peoples’ emotions . . . make them cry, make them laugh . . . I would be an evangelist or a philosopher, a psychologist . . . I may have set the whole movement back five years.” In 1957, unemployed, Chuck camped out at the AA office to help “individual drunks. I took every call that came in . . . I loaded my apartment with guys who would call in.”


At AA, people speak one at a time: “My name is Jojo, and I’m an alcoholic…Hi, Jojo.” When Jojo finishes, people clap politely. “Thank you for sharing, JoJo.” Feedback, if any, is muted, supportive. AA was too decorous for Chuck Dederich; he began hosting his own combative meetings—everyone hollering at everyone at once. The weekly gatherings rocked his ratty apartment: “I began to yell and curse and accuse and ridicule: I talked to everyone in the room as if he had a tail. Boy, I felt great, and everyone else loved it too. The next week they all came back. That was the birth of the Synanon Game, which basically hasn’t changed at all since 1958.”


A brief explainer: the game is about a dozen people sitting in a circle for a couple hours. There is no leader. You can say anything to anyone, in any way: your boss, your boyfriend, your rivals, your elders, even Chuck. No subject is off-limits, and no one’s vested status counts for anything. The game is, by turns, the untethered id, the engaged mind, and the bleeding heart. It is one-third high-decibel hollering, anger, envy, insult, rage, and hatred within a flood of profanity. The second third is a mix of humor, farce, satire, ridicule, pants-pissing laughs, self-aggrandizement, and gross exaggeration. The rest is a blend of pop psychology, the pearls of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the pearls of Fritz Perls, wisdom from the Erichs— Fromm and Hoffer— and Khalil Gibran. There is valiant weeping, truth-telling, painful secrets revealed, projection, and identifying. Adept players can steer the action through their experience, theatrics, humor, legitimacy in the community, verbal skill, and empathy.


Ordinarily, a game begins with an indictment. Someone has a beef, likely superficial, sometimes dire, with another person in the circle. Other players support the charge, bringing the heat. If the game is on you, you’re defensive. Half the time, you will try to brazen it out with a fierce counterattack; you might respond humbly to deflect the noise. Depending on how receptive or skilled you are, if the charge is valid, you will probably field it in dozens of games. An intractable character flaw can dog you repeatedly.


The first line of the following clip, from an early documentary, House on the Beach, is verbatim. The rest is reconstructed. These guys, Andy Cretella and Tony Daddio are from the Bronx. Andy is Tony’s boss on a construction job. They disagree about an incident that occurred on a job site.

ANDY. [I said:] Tony, please take it easy—and BANG! you broke the fucking window.
TONY. You broke the fucking window

ANDY. No, asshole, you broke the fucking window.

TONY. (appealing for help) Pete, you were there. You saw him break the goddam thing.
PETE. You both broke the fucking window.

JIMMY T. (a fireplug, also from the Bronx, runs the Construction Dept.) Tony, let’s say you broke the window ‘cause you probably did, you dumb douche. Just cop to it. Here’s what I know: we’re out an expensive fucking window. I could give a shit why you did it. All I know is if you did it, cop out or you’re gonna feel like shit until you split. I’ll drop you at Loser’s Corner myself.

TONY. Go fuck yourself, asshole. When I knew you on the street, you were a punk. I 
spilled more dope than you ever shot.

JIMMY T. (turning to Andy) Hey, Andy. You’re running the job. The fuck’s wrong with you? You got enough WAM [walk around money] to pay for it?

ANDY, TONY, and PETE. Fuck you, Jimmy. And on and on and on…

Often, after a withering assault, someone, usually an oldtimer (the strength or the glue), identifies with Tony. He tells him how he ran a forklift through a wall in the warehouse. He’s picking Tony up before the game turns on someone else. On reflection, Andy and Tony might agree with the bromide, “We’re not attacking you; we’re attacking your behavior.” This is true half the time, but it’s not a bad idea to act as if it’s true.

NIMBY

Chuck drifted from AA and, with a $33.00 unemployment check, rented a shabby storefront/clubhouse in Ocean Park, California. He called it the TLC Club. Word spread on the street, and a few heroin addicts joined the meetings. Some moved in. They figured it might help them stop using. (Most of the drunks, who disdained junkies, fell away.) When Chuck incorporated as a foundation in 1958, he learned that TLC (Tender Loving Care Club) was taken (whew). He chose Synanon, a malaprop uttered by a member garbling the words seminar and symposium. Dederich, a one-time Gulf Oil sales executive, thought, “Synanon [would look good] on the side of a truck.”

Within a few years, the unorthodox enterprise was widely recognized as the one place where hardcore addicts, if they stuck with it for two or three years, stayed clean—with few exceptions, permanently.


Chuck Eschewed government money; doing business with the government is like doing business with your family. And no doctors, no meds—Lexington and prison were dismal failures. Most days, a few new residents were kicking on couches in the living room with other members on owl watch. Kicking a habit is not The Man with the Golden Arm. Cold turkey is three or four days of bad flu, vomit, and whining. “Big deal, you kicked a habit. Billions of people in the world don’t shoot dope. You’ve kicked, what, four, five times? We could drop you from a plane anywhere in the world, and you’d score in twenty minutes. You’re not addicted to dope; you’re addicted to stupidity. The only hard fast rules were no violence, no threat of violence and no dope.


By the end of 1959, needing more space, the group of some seventy people moved to a fixer-upper, a former National Guard Armory on tony Santa Monica Beach. Predictably, the Welcome Wagon was less than welcoming: “[A hastily formed] Beach Front Property Owners Association . . . trembled when they heard of this invasion by dangerous ‘felons.’. .. [The] owners association circulated a petition for the removal of Synanon . . . [They warned of] potential atrocities . . . Synanon has eighteen Negro members . . . [At the] City Council [citizens] . . . asked that Synanon be removed to protect their homes, lives, and property values from the criminal addicts who had already been ‘menacing’ the beach . . . The Santa Monica Chief of Police [stated] . . . ‘We don’t like the type of people it attracts here, he told [The Santa Monica] Outlook. The place attracts felons and narco’s [sic].’” “The Outlook” published several articles and editorials to heat up the volk. One opponent generously conceded: “Synanon may even be ‘good’ but make them do it somewhere else.’”

Synanon Turns on Itself

By now, you have googled us. I neither can set the record straight nor do I wish to. Since you weren’t there and I was for twenty-two years, it is fair for you to assume I have the whole Synanon story. I do not. Consider the ancient Hindu fable of The Blind Men and the Elephant. Six intellectually curious blind men encounter an elephant, a creature they have never seen. Each examines a different part of the elephant and, in turn, confidently declares that the elephant is a wall (side), a spear (tusk), a snake (trunk), a tree (knee), a fan (ear), a rope (tail). As a one-eyed elephant man, my field of vision is thirty degrees tops. Hence, I am not the final authority.


Around 1972, Synanon’s upward narrative arc dropped like a plummeting Acme safe about to flatten Wile E. Coyote. It went from Senator Dodd’s “Miracle on the Beach” to pariah, included in dozens of top ten lists of cults. A web search brings up roughly one hundred twenty thousand results. Most will include some of these words: cult, violent cult, kooky cult, Imperial Marines, brainwashing, guns, lavish executive pay and perks, vasectomies, changing partners, bald heads, coercion, abuse, and the rattlesnake in the mailbox. The first sentence in Wikipedia is: “The Synanon organization was a violent cult, initially a drug rehabilitation program . . .”


Since 2019, amid a surging appetite for conspiracies and cult exposés, Synanon has been featured in outlets ranging from The Center for Investigative Reporting, Netflix, Oxygen TV, two doctoral dissertations, a memoir, and four or five podcasts. My favorites are Cults and Coffee and Let’s Talk About Sects. I haven’t listened to them; it would spoil the joke.

I tell my story; I dine out on it. I can tell you how Synanon ticked for me: It saved my life and saved most of my friends with whom I am still tight. The return on investment is unknown, unknowable, and unmeasurable.

For good and ill, Synanon pops in my head daily. You had to be there. I was there. I am here in school because I was there.

Thirty years after Synanon: Josh Millstein, Tommy Williams, and Warren Katz (who seems to pop up everywhere). Photo taken at the home Josh shares with his wife Sande in Sag Harbor, NY. Josh is currently in a master’s program at CUNY. This piece is part of a class he is taking on memoir writing

7 replies »

  1. Your Bare Bones history of the place is a superb short history. This piece takes you up to the front door, and not quite the Bench. I trust those are further chapters?

  2. Really appreciated learning about your history and reading your thoughtful personal take on Synanon. Well-written and engaging. Judging by this piece, your memoir writing class seems worth any support provided!

  3. I like the riff. Good feel for that time but not enough and you kinda want more. I’m interested about the transition from being out of your mind to being somewhere in the proper zip code of your right mind and how long that took you to realize it had happened and when did your parents believe you? The more stories the merrier.

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