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  • Writer's pictureRachel Ulatowski

'Born in Synanon' Casts Cult Victims in a New Light by Capturing Synanon’s Mixed Legacy

Synanon members marching in footage from Born in Synanon

Born in Synanon offers a compassionate perspective of cult victims by exploring the mixed legacy of the cult known as Synanon. The documentary challenges viewers to see cult members primarily as victims by arguing that some Synanon members may have had good, albeit misguided, intentions.

The documentary follows Cassidy Arkin on her mission to understand the cult. Arkin was born into Synanon because her parents, Sandra Rogers-Hare and Ed Arkin, became members before her birth. By the time she was six, her father had already departed the cult, and the deterioration of its leader, Chuck Dederich, prompted her mother to flee.

Growing up, Arkin only had her earliest childhood memories and accounts from her mother to shape her opinion of Synanon. However, she realized that her perspective that her time with her mother in Synanon was "beautiful" contrasted with Synanon's notorious legacy as a cult. Hence, through speaking with former members and compiling documents and audio and visual recordings, she set out to find what Synanon's truth was.

Her hesitation to condemn Synanon initially made me skeptical. It is often referred to as one of the most dangerous and violent cults in America, and there were several incidents to support these labels. As the documentary proceeded, though, Arkin proved she wasn't biased toward Synanon. She listened compassionately and emotionally to those with experiences that differed from hers and wasn't afraid to uncover and publicize several ugly truths that the cult buried during its time.

In addition to reconciling her perspective with the facts, she challenged viewers to reconsider their stances. This is because Synanon's legacy is surprisingly convoluted.

What was Synanon?

Synanon members shaving their heads in Born in Synanon

After watching Born in Synanon, Arkin's mixed feelings are very understandable because Synanon may not so easily meet our definition of a cult. Recent documentaries on cults leave viewers with little sympathy for the cult itself. All of these cults started as scams or with someone falling down a rabbit hole of conspiracies, and none of them contributed anything more than pain to society.

Then, there's Synanon. On the surface, it's no different than every other cult. The documentary delves into the most well-known horrors of Synanon, including the members carrying out multiple attempted murders, abusing children, and forcing members to swap partners and undergo vasectomies and abortions.

It's hard to imagine that Synanon and its members were ever anything but pure evil to partake in or go along with these things. As unbelievable as it sounds, though, Born in Synanon shows that Synanon wasn't always like this. Was it always a scam, and did Dedrich always have ill intentions? Maybe. However, there was a part of Synanon that was actually ahead of its time. The cult was at its height in the 1960s and '70s, which was a time when racism was still rampant. From the onset, though, Synanon encouraged racial integration. Dederich set an example for the members by marrying a Black woman, Betty Coleman, at a time when biracial marriages were still illegal in several states. It wasn't long before Synanon boasted numerous biracial marriages within its small community.

Meanwhile, the system of racial integration in Synanon seemingly worked simply by normalizing equality and biracial marriages. The community lived together, shared everything, and was strictly against violence. Although "The Game" is now considered a form of attack therapy, back in the 60s, it was seen as the resolution of racial division. Everyone of all races and classes was allowed to participate in The Game and could essentially say whatever they wanted to each other without the threat of violence. There was equality in every aspect of Synanon—living, working, and playing The Game. Arkin and former Synanon member Carina Ray stated that they never experienced racism in Synanon and didn't even know what it was until they left the community.

This peaceful and equal community was sort of Synanon's secondary goal. Its first goal was to treat drug and alcohol addiction. Synanon always had dangerous views on drug rehabilitation, including the belief that people with a substance use disorder could never be rehabilitated and, thus, had to stay in Synanon forever. However, once again, Synanon introduced a wholly new concept at a time when drug addiction treatment was practically non-existent. While Synanon's program was pretty extreme with The Game and having residents quit drugs cold turkey, it did work for a time. In Born in Synanon, one former member who experienced abuse in the cult even admitted that its one merit was that the only time he ever saw his father sober was in Synanon.

What really happened to Synanon?

Viewers will be left with many questions at the end of Born in Synanon. How did a community that treated all races and classes equally and that sought to help people with substance use disorders deteriorate into a violent cult? Arkin and her mother expressed the idea that Synanon was a beautiful community with members who genuinely believed they were building a utopia. However, they suggest its fall was mainly Dederich's fault. Dederich was always overly controlling, and his intentions from the start are questionable. After the loss of his wife, though, he began spiraling. When he founded Synanon, he was a recovered alcoholic himself. By Synanon's end, he had started drinking excessively again, and his mental health began deteriorating.

He was the one who began plotting against attorneys and journalists who tried to expose Synanon and who was ultimately charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Like many other cult leaders, he used his control and influence to persuade his followers to go along with his abusive and dangerous tactics. There's no excuse for what Dederich did nor for those who did his dirty work. However, Born in Synanon highlights that many of the cult members, like Arkin and her mother, were victims.

They did believe in what they were doing, and they did want to create a world without racism, class, or addiction. They weren't unhinged conspiracy theorists who bizarrely worshipped Dederich, and many of them likely wouldn't have hurt anyone if he directed them to do so. After all, when the violence started was when many members, including Arkin's mother, grabbed their children and ran. Born in Synanon is hard to watch because the empathy one may experience almost feels dangerous. Surely, we shouldn't be giving a cult and its members the benefit of the doubt. Surely, no cult could ever have beliefs that are anything but dangerous.

However, if we want to understand cults and their victims, we must acknowledge those that don't fit neatly into our understanding of this phenomenon. We need to remember that many cult members are victims. While we shouldn't defend any members found guilty of abuse and other crimes, there are going to be members of certain cults who have a genuine desire to help others and make the world a better place. It's easy to assume that cults just prey on things like naivety, loneliness, or paranoia, but what Synanon largely preyed on was people who wanted to better themselves and society. Perhaps it's when we recognize that truly anyone can become a cult victim or that any idea could become a cult because of human corruption; it can help us identify where these things might develop and how to help better victims escape and recognize their situation.

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