Fusion: the game that saves lives

Rediffusion London’s house magazine, Fusion, on ‘The House on the Beach’

Intertel is a project for international understanding through television which this year (1965) won a Peabody Award, America’s premier television trophy, for its concept of international communications. The full title is the International Television Federation. Its members are National Educational Television and the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company of America, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Rediffusion Television Ltd.

From 'Fusion', the house magazine of Rediffusion London, issue 40 from Autumn 1965

Photographs on these pages were taken from the actual film of the documentary.

Chuck Dederich
Chuck Dederich, founder of Synanon.

‘He’s the most inspiring person I’ve ever met’ . . . ‘He’s definitely a great man’ . . . ‘For the first 18 months I was in Synanon I was terrified of him.’

These are some of the things the residents of Synanon at Santa Monica, California, have to say about the man who runs it and who founded it, Chuck Dederich. Synanon is a home for drug addicts, a house on the beach facing the Pacific. Almost all the residents have pasts which include drug addiction or crime, or both. Chuck Dederich is the exception but he had various executive jobs before he started drinking too much.

He cured himself and now some of the lessons he learnt from helping himself are the basis of the treatment at Synanon.

The 190 residents have all entered voluntarily in an attempt to change their behaviour. There are no doctors, no psychiatrists, no psychologists, just self-help. Chuck Dederich says: ‘When a person comes into Synanon we do not have on our hands a potentially violent person or a rebel at all. We have a person who is looking for boundaries. People say that our dope fiends will sack the city. Instead they are rather gentle; they want to be told what to do, just like children. They want the security of some sensible boundaries.’

A dining queue
Synanon food time.

An admirer of Synanon is Dr Lewis Yablonsky, a sociologist at Valley State College, who worked on the problem of drug addiction for 15 years. Then he heard of Synanon and that 50 addicts there had stopped using drugs. ‘This was startling to me as I never knew any addicts that quit using drugs.’

He recalls meeting a woman resident and asking her on his first night in the club: ‘Where would you be now without Synanon?’ ‘Dead,’ she replied. She is now his wife. Dr Yablonsky says: ‘At the heart of the matter is the “we-they” situation which exists in most institutions. Most criminals, and addicts, who wind up in jail are fighting authority – they. They did this to me and so forth. He’s denuded of that rationalisation in Synanon because they are him‘.

There are two basic rules – no chemicals of any kind, including alcohol, and no physical violence. Anybody who gets out of hand is dealt with by verbal attack, during which a group will attack the culprit with words – scathing, sarcastic, rude, anything to jolt him out of his ways.

This verbal attack is developed into what is known as the Synanon Game. Here eight or 10 people gather in one room to form the ‘game’ . . . there may be other ‘games’ going on in 20 other rooms at the same time. The group singles out one person at a time, attacks that person and shatters his or her defences. Then the game switches to the next person. There is no professional direction. No word is prohibited. They of the outside world are them.

Feelings fly during the Synanon Game.

All the work is done by Synanon people from the basic cleaning all the way up to some major construction. Synanon is a non-profit corporation with Chuck Dederich as chairman. The admission costs vary according to the person. It might be 13 cents or it might be 800 or 900 dollars. It costs about three dollars a head a day to operate since the residents do most things themselves, while goods and services are donated by the people in the local community. An addict running loose in the streets steals roughly 75 to 100 dollars a day to support his habit. If he’s caught, he is put into jail and it costs another 25 dollars a day to keep him there. Newcomers work for about three hours a day. This might not sound much, but when it is remembered they have been taking dope and stealing all their lives, have never had to be anywhere on time and have never done anything with any consistency, it is a good start.

Relaxing, arguing, listening and defining . . . four facets of Synanon life.

‘The House on the Beach’ shows the residents at work and play. Their voices tell their stories . . . ‘I ended up by slashing my wrists and attempting to kill my mother’ . . . ‘I’ve just got to stay. There’s no other way. There’s either a penitentiary, or life, so I’m staying.’

Joanne’s parents were both scholars of distinction. They expected their daughter to be brilliant as well. But she never lived up to their assessment of her capabilities. At 12 she started taking psychic energisers to do better. ‘I never developed any self-confidence. My confidence was always in the drugs I was taking.’

Bernyce, a negress, found out after three months that the man she was living with was a drug taker. She threw away some of his drugs. Then he and a friend held her while they gave her an injection. ‘I was ill but two days later I was ready to experience the whole thing over again.’ For 15 years she took drugs and stole, then she went to Synanon.

The residents relax in much the same was as people of their own age all over the world.

They also have jobs to do, thereby contributing to the funds.

Betty was a drug addict, a drug pedlar, a prostitute and a hairdresser. When on probation, she occasionally held down a legitimate job for a while, then she’d go back to drugs. After three years in Synanon she was made a director. Shortly after that, she and Chuck Dederich got married. Lena was a drug pedlar on the streets. Wilbur was a stick-up man and a dope pedlar. Now they, too, are married.

In the seven years of its existence, 1,180 drug addicts have come to Synanon. About 40 per cent of these people have ‘split’ – that is, left the community and almost certainly returned to drugs. But there are at the moment more than 500 people living without drugs in the six branches of Synanon – a remarkable and surely unique achievement in the long tragic story of addiction.

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