(Robin Marshall/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)
By Veronika Lee Claghorn
Established in 1958 by Charles Diedrich, a former alcoholic, Synanon was designed to assist individuals struggling with drug addiction. It was the first in-patient rehabilitation center designed for people suffering from dependency issues. Director Rory Kennedy (Downfall: The Case Against Boeing, 2022 Sundance) explores the inner machinations of Diedrich’s originally hopeful organization in the docuseries The Synanon Fix.
The first two episodes of the four-part series were screened Sunday, January 21, at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.
At the Q&A following the premiere, screenwriter and producer Mark Bailey explains how he and Kennedy came across the history of the cult that developed from Diedrich’s originally altruistic organization: “We were looking at communities and charismatic leadership and why people flock to these [places] and why these kind of people come together.” The duo came to the story through a memoir called “Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper.”
Diedrich was among the first to try to have drug addicts help each other instead of relying on therapists or medications. (Diedrich had cleaned up from alcohol addiction via Alcoholics Anonymous, which gave him a blueprint for his residential idea, which began in Santa Monica, California.)
“Synanon was in a storefront. The building was full of old couches, and when an addict came in, they were put on a couch and not left alone until they kicked,” says Terry Hurst in the first episode. Hurst sought out Deidrich’s program as a way of helping her husband, who was injecting heroin in the 1960s. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, Synanon was cruising toward the netherworld in the left lane.
“What drove me to make this film is knowing that this program started as this incredible drug treatment program that was forward and visionary and taking this forward swing,” shares Kennedy at the premiere. “The pillar was no drugs and alcohol and violence, then 20 or 30 years later, they had bought more firearms than any organization in the history of California and had an open bar. ”
Synanon metastasized into a “nonprofit” with over $30 million in assets, including communal properties and farms in California. Members were encouraged to participate in the “Synanon Game,” which was a sort of violent attack therapy. Children were isolated from their parents and raised by caregivers with the notion that they would be stronger and smarter for being reared by a village and not just two parental units. The series explores how all of this led to the formation of a cult.
Kennedy and Bailey brought individuals from the film to the Sundance stage — some who had never seen the docuseries they had participated in.
Former member Judi Ehrlich compared being in the organization to the boiling frog syndrome hypothesis, where if you put a frog in lukewarm water and slowly boil it, it won’t be aware of what is happening until it is too late.
“I felt the boiling water, I was that frog trying to jump out for a long time,” adds Rebekah Crawford, through tears. “I was a child and I had no choice but to be there, so my experience was very different. Thank you for that [analogy].”
“I was one of the first kids in Synanon and my reality was that it saved my mom’s life and she recently passed away… This is immense on so many levels. It saved my life,” adds Bill Goodson, also speaking through tears.
“[This film is] very timely,” says Rod Mullen. “We have an epidemic of loneliness right now. What comes across in this is the longing for community and authenticity in relationships… For a while, this was wonderful and magical. The other thing we should learn from this at this moment is, we have another charismatic leader, and I just hope a lot of frogs get out of the damn water.”
To see more from the 2024 Festival, click here.