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Syanon: Rehabilitation Center Turned Cult: Background information when reading Hollywood Park

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Hollywood Park

by Mikel Jollett

Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett X
Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett
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  • First Published:
    May 2020, 384 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2022, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Catherine M Andronik
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About this Book

Syanon: Rehabilitation Center Turned Cult

This article relates to Hollywood Park

Print Review

Syanon movie posterMikel Jollett and his older brother Tony were just two of the hundreds of children that grew up in the bizarre environs of Synanon, an infamous California cult in the 1970s.

Synanon began in Santa Monica in 1958, the brainchild of Charles (Chuck) Dederich, a recovering alcoholic seeking to extend the Alcoholics Anonymous program that had helped him to those addicted to other drugs beyond alcohol. At first, residents and visitors alike, especially from the nearby film and music industries, reported success: an engaging and positive atmosphere in which former drug addicts earned acceptance while learning social skills that would help them function, clean and sober, in the outside world. Since it was so close to Hollywood, speakers at the rehab center included Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling and even LSD guru Timothy Leary. Hollywood denizens were welcomed onsite to film a movie named after the program (the tag line: "where only the damned want in") starring Edmond O'Brien as Dederich and Chuck Connors as the drug addict whose life Synanon saves. Afterwards, satellite Synanon sites began to spring up, including one in Tomales Bay, California, where Mikel Jollett's mother sought help.

Dederich required addicts entering Synanon to quit drugs, painfully, cold turkey. They then submitted periodically to The Game, something Jollett mentions several times in his memoir. In its earliest form, it was a sort of group therapy session performed by untrained but well-meaning leaders. By the time the young Jolletts became aware of it, The Game had morphed into two-day-long antagonistic, verbally abusive shouting matches among adult residents.

For a while, Synanon accepted non-addicts attracted by the lifestyle of togetherness. That ended in the late 1960s, around the time Chuck Dederich made it clear that once you were in Synanon, you were in for life. Functioning sober in the outside world was no longer the goal. What began as a rehabilitation program was now a utopian cult. And, as in many cults, children were separated from their parents. Mikel Jollett, born in 1974, was taken from his mother Gerry at six months old and raised in a separate compound (where, thankfully, nurturing Bonnie, eventually his father's life partner, became his caretaker; some infants were not so fortunate).

As his power over his followers grew, Dederich began advocating the use of LSD but no other drug (which explains the Timothy Leary visit). Sessions of The Game became more and more heated, even violent. Members shaved their heads. Dederich ordered pregnant women to have abortions, especially if they already had one child in the program; men faced vasectomies. Synanon tried, and failed, to gain church status for tax purposes. When Chuck's wife Betty died, he declared all existing marriages dissolved, then created new unions among Synanon's men and women. The results were mixed, but few if any of these relationships were desired beyond the one Dederich chose for himself. It became more and more difficult for members to leave or for concerned parents to retrieve the teenage children they had sent to Synanon for substance abuse treatment. Escapees and reporters writing negative articles about the cult were tracked down and severely beaten. Syanon members placed a rattlesnake into one attorney's mailbox. Dederich, implicated in multiple counts of violence including the rattlesnake incident, accepted a plea deal to escape jail time, but had to step down as Synanon's leader. Synanon disbanded in the early 1990s; Dederich died in 1997.

A handful of adults went on to write books and articles about their experiences at Synanon. Mikel Jollett is not the first to write from a child survivor's perspective (C. A. Wittman wrote Synanon Kid and Synanon Kid Grows Up, independently published in 2017 and 2018, respectively), but his name and band are perhaps the most recognizable, and Hollywood Park is sure to find a wide audience. (The audiobook edition is narrated by Jollett himself.) Equally exciting for fans of Jollett's band the Airborne Toxic Event, their new album (with its accompanying tour) is being billed as a soundtrack to the book.

Syanon movie poster, courtesy of IMDB

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

This "beyond the book article" relates to Hollywood Park. It originally ran in June 2020 and has been updated for the March 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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