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.
Photographs on these pages were taken from the actual film of the documentary.
There are six Synanon communities in the States, accommodating in all more than 500 ex-drug addicts. The headquarters of the movement – and the only one I visited – is housed in a large and ugly redbrick building on the beach in Santa Monica, California. It was built as an Armoury and it looks like one, which makes it distinctly out of place among the trim white bungalows that fringe the excellent beach. According to some of the local ratepayers, Synanon itself is out of place. There have been court battles over such things as zoning ordinances. A few years ago the founder of Synanon, Chuck Dederich, spent some weeks in jail accused of running ‘a hospital’ without the proper licence. Emotive words like drugs, sex, crime and violence are linked in the public mind, so that, understandably, householders fear the worst when they hear that a crowd of drug addicts (whether ex or not) are coming to live in the neighbourhood. This sort of trouble has occurred in nearly every place where Synanon has settled (the honourable exception is San Diego). One newspaper headline seemed to sum the position up neatly: ‘Curing Drug Addicts is Fine, But Not Around Here’.
The fact, too, that Synanon is a completely integrated community, with all shades of religious opinion represented and where whites, negroes, Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans live together, does not necessarily allay people’s fears. A sociologist told me that he had attended a number of anti-Synanon public meetings and that in fact it was ‘the quality of the hatred displayed there’ that first got him really interested in the work that Synanon was doing.
When I arrived in California to get ready for the filming, I knew virtually nothing about Synanon. I had read an article about it in an American magazine and that was all. As a film-maker, I suppose I was expecting something a bit sensational, something on the lines of ‘The Man With The Golden Arm’, but when I got to the reception desk and stared round at what appeared to be either a rapidly expanding business or the fraternity house of a small university, I sensed that capital ‘D’ Drama was something Synanon didn’t go in for. As it turned out, the reception clerk was an ex-dope fiend and a hoodlum, but there was no way of telling unless you noticed (and I didn’t) the long white tracks on his arm.
My sense of anti-climax was confirmed in the next few days. It was difficult to believe that some of the people I was eating with and talking to were ex-gangsters and ex-prostitutes, and it was even more difficult to believe that some of them were at that moment ‘kicking cold turkey’ – suffering the pangs of withdrawal from drugs. Some years before, I had made a film about a drug addict in Chicago. He had told me with most convincing, and I think truthful, detail about the agony and the screaming when he was put in jail and couldn’t get dope. Yet in Synanon there was no trace of this – just a man staring out to sea, or lying down on a couch with the symptoms of mild ’flu.
The residents assemble before their names are called out to form groups for the Synanon Game. Then the whole group verbally attacks one of its members who tries to defend his beliefs or his actions as well as he can (right).
I didn’t really enjoy my first week in Synanon. I was of course impressed by their achievement for I was told that never before in history had a crowd of addicts lived drug-free with no bolts or bars to stop them leaving. Yet I found myself rather put off by the whole atmosphere of the place. It struck me as being autocratic, authoritarian and altogether too much like my old boarding school: and I didn’t take too much to Chuck Dederich either. And if you don’t take to Chuck you don’t take to Synanon – they are one and the same thing.
Undeniably, Chuck is an autocrat. He says: ‘Emotionally, a dope fiend is an inadequate stupid child. Crime is stupid, narcotics are stupid and what Synanon is dealing with is addiction to stupidity. We deal with dope fiends by giving them direction, telling them what to do, just like children.’
One distinguished critic of Synanon has written this about their methods: ‘What Synanon tries to do, and I am sure successfully accomplishes, is rather more thorough than brainwashing. By treating their sick and frightened “prospects” like bad babies, they induce them to permit Dederich and his staff to throw their old self out with the bath-water. But this, after all, is the only self they had: the wraith that tries to grow in its place is often a local spectre, bound to Synanon House.’
I think this is what I myself felt about Synanon at first sight. But as time went on, and I got to know some of the members personally, I changed my opinion. I saw no sign that they were brainwashed ‘wraiths’ of their old selves – they seemed to me to be strongly individual, lively and interesting. I finished up by liking and admiring Synanon very much indeed – I saw it as a social movement of considerable potential importance, and one that might well spread throughout the world.
Chuck Dederich founded Synanon seven years ago. He was born in Toledo, Ohio. His parents were Roman Catholic. Nothing went right for him in early life – his father was killed in a car crash when he was a child, a brother died, his mother married a man he hated. He was thrown out of Notre Dame College. He became an alcoholic, what he calls ‘a rolling-round drunk’. He cured himself by getting deeply involved in other people’s troubles – in the troubles of the alcoholics and junkies who surrounded him: and he found himself willy-nilly as the father-figure and tribal patriarch of an ever-growing number of people.
Dederich is really a most extraordinary man, one of the strongest and strangest I have ever met. I finished up by thinking he was one of the most likeable, too. He looks Germanic and bullet-headed, a bit like Erich von Stroheim. He is a non-stop talker. One of his closest friends calls him an egomaniac. He has the appearance of a bully but is highly intuitive and gentle. The walls of Synanon are covered with quotations from people like Emerson, Kafka and Shakespeare. Chuck’s favourite is one from Lao-tse:
‘By enabling man to go right, disabling him to go wrong.’