Header Image Source: Photo by Úrsula Madariaga from Pexels
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Cult of Synanon group shot from Bettmann/Getty Images via LAmag.com
Richard Grotsley of the LAPD holds the rattlesnake that bit Paul Morantz PHOTO FROM BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES via LAmag.com
Synanon founder Charles Dederich from GETTY IMAGES via LAmag.com
"The Synanon organization, initially a drug rehabilitation program, was founded by Charles E. "Chuck" Dederich, Sr., (1913–1997) in 1958 in Santa Monica, California. By the early 1960s, Synanon had also become an alternative community, attracting people with its emphasis on living a self-examined life, as aided by group truth-telling sessions that came to be known as the "Synanon Game." Synanon ultimately became the Church of Synanon in the 1970s, and disbanded permanently in 1991 due to many criminal activities, including attempted murder of which members were convicted, and legal problems, including losing its tax free status retroactively with the Internal Revenue Service due to financial misdeeds, destruction of evidence and terrorism. It has been called one of the "most dangerous and violent cults America had ever seen."
Charles Dederich, a reformed alcoholic and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), was said to be an admired speaker at A.A. meetings. Those suffering from addictions to illegal drugs, besides alcohol, were considered to be significantly different from alcoholics, and therefore were not accepted into A.A. Dederich, after taking LSD, decided to create his own program to respond to their needs. He was said to have coined the phrase "today is the first day of the rest of your life." After his small group, called "Tender Loving Care," gained a significant following, Dederich incorporated the organization in to the Synanon Foundation in 1958. Synanon is a word of his own invention integrating togetherness (“syn”) with the unknown (“anon”).
Synanon began as a two-year residential program, but Dederich soon concluded that its members could never graduate, because a full recovery was impossible. The program was based on testimony of fellow group members about their tribulations and urges of relapsing, and the journey to recovery. Synanon differed from Alcoholics Anonymous in that it aided both drug-users and drinkers.The Synanon organization also developed a business that sold promotional items. This became a successful enterprise that for a time generated roughly $10 million per year.
In 1959, Synanon moved from their small storefront to an armory on the beach. In the early 1960s Charles was able to utilize the media and his Hollywood associates to promote his organization. In 1967, Synanon purchased the Club Casa del Mar, a large beachside hotel in Santa Monica, and this was used as its headquarters and as a dormitory for those undergoing anti-drug treatment. Later on, Synanon acquired a large building that had been the home of the Athens Athletic Club, in Oakland, California, and then transformed it into a residential facility for Synanon's members. Outsiders were permitted to attend the "Synanon Game" there as well. Children were reared communally in the Synanon School, and juveniles were often ordered to enroll in Synanon by California's courts.
Professionals, even those without drug addictions, were invited to join Synanon. The New York psychiatrist Daniel Casriel M.D., founder of AREBA (today the oldest surviving private addiction treatment centre in the United States) and cofounder of Daytop Village (one of the world’s largest therapeutic communities) visited in 1962 and lived there in 1963 and wrote a book about his experiences. Control over members occurred through the "Game." The "Game" could have been considered to be a therapeutic tool, likened to a form of group therapy; or else to a form of a "social control", in which members humiliated one another and encouraged the exposure of one another's innermost weaknesses, or maybe both of these. Beginning in the mid-1970s, women in Synanon were required to shave their heads, and married couples were made to break up and take new partners. Men were given forced vasectomies, and a few pregnant women were forced to have abortions.
The film director George Lucas needed a large group of people with shaved heads for the filming of his movie THX 1138, and so he hired some of his extras from Synanon. Robert Altman hired members of Synanon to be extras for the gambling scenes in his movie California Split.
Entrance into the Synanon community required a strong initial commitment. Newcomers were first interviewed by Synanon leadership to gain entrance into the community. Upon their arrival, those newcomers are forced to quit using drugs cold turkey, going through withdrawal within the first few days in the community. Furthermore, for their first ninety days in the community, members were expected to cease contact with outside friends and family.
During its first decade, Synanon members entered into a 1-2 year program in three stages aimed at preparing members to reenter greater society. During the first stage, members did community and housekeeping labor. During the second stage, members worked outside of the community but still resided within the community. Finally, during the third stage, members both worked and lived outside of the community, but still attended regular meetings. However, after Synanon's transition into an alternate society in 1968, this program changed to a "lifetime rehabilitation" program, with the premise that drug addicts would never be fully healed enough to return to society.
One of the most distinguishing practices of the Synanon community was a therapeutic practice commonly referred to as "The Game." The game was a session during which one member would talk about themselves and then endure violent criticism by their peers. During this practice, members were encouraged to be critical of everything, using critical and profane language. However, despite the very aggressive nature of The Game, outside of The Game, members were required to act civilly to each other. While in The Game, members criticized each other, but left as friends and supportive community members. The Game served not only as Synanon's most prominent form of therapy and personal change, but also worked as a way for leaders to collect the opinions of community members. Because there was no hierarchy in The Game, members could freely criticize Synanon's highest leadership, who would then take member concerns into consideration when deciding policy.
The game turned into a 72-hour version and was admitted by Dederich to be brainwashing. The game was eventually used to pressure people to Dederich's will, to abort pregnancies, have vasectomies and commit violence.
Chuck Dederich eventually changed his way of thinking about Synanon, and morphed it partially towards a human progressive group. Synanon moved to create schooling for members, and Dederich wanted the members to mentally change for the better of society on the outside. The school was headed by Al Bauman, which believed in innovative philosophy, and aimed to teach children in the same manner to think differently. The school attracted lawyers, screenwriters, business executives, all wanting to educate their children in a progressive environment.
Beginning in 1964, the legal authorities began to investigate Synanon's practices. The concept of "lifetime rehabilitation" did not agree with therapeutic norms, and it was alleged that the Synanon group was running an unauthorized medical clinic. Synanon expanded an old Trans-Pacific Marconi RCA radio station in Tomales Bay now Marconi Conference Center State Historical Park. Furthermore, it was alleged that on remote properties in California such as at Marshall in Marin County and in Badger, Tulare County, Synanon had erected buildings without the legally-required permits, had created a trash dump, and built an airstrip. Taxation issues also arose. In response to these accusations, Dederich declared that Synanon was a tax exempt religious organization, the "Church of Synanon."
Legal problems continued, despite this change. Children who had been assigned to Synanon began running away, and an "underground railroad" had been created in the area that sought to help them return to their parents. Beatings of Synanon's opponents and its ex-members, "splittees", occurred across California. Beatings occurred in Synanon basements. A state Grand Jury in Marin County issued a scathing report in 1978 that attacked Synanon for the very strong evidence of its child abuse, and also for the monetary profits that flowed to Dederich. The Grand Jury report also rebuked the governmental authorities involved for their lack of oversight, although it stopped short of directly interceding in the Synanon situation.
Though many San Francisco area newspapers and broadcasters covered the Synanon case, they were largely silenced by legal action from Synanon's lawyers, who made claims of libel. These lawsuits ultimately turned out to be a large part of Synanon's undoing, by giving journalists access to Synanon's own internal documents.
Synanon has been credited as being involved with several criminal activities, such as the disappearance of Rose Lena Cole around late-1972 or early-1973. Cole had received a court order to enroll in Synanon before she disappeared. She has not been seen or heard from since. Initially Synanon did not support violence, however Dederich later changed the rules to only use violence when needed. Much of the violence by Synanon had been carried out by a group within Synanon called the "Imperial Marines." Over 80 violent acts were committed including mass beatings that hospitalized teenagers and ranchers who were beaten in front of their families. People who left the organization were at risk of physical violence for being a "splittee" and one ex-member, Phil Ritter, was beaten so severely that his skull was fractured and he fell into a coma with a near-fatal case of bacterial meningitis.
During the summer of 1978, the NBC Nightly News produced a news segment on the controversies surrounding Synanon. Following this broadcast, several executives of the NBC network and its corporate chairman allegedly received hundreds of threats from Synanon members and supporters. However, NBC continued with a series of reports on the Synanon situation on the NBC Nightly News. The Point Reyes Light, a small-circulation weekly newspaper in Marin County, would later receive the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their covering Synanon at a time when other news agencies avoided reporting. Several weeks after NBC began receiving threats, on October 10, 1978, two Synanon members placed a de-rattled rattlesnake in the mailbox of attorney Paul Morantz of Pacific Palisades, California. Morantz had successfully brought suit on behalf of people who were being held against their will by Synanon. The snake bit him, and he was hospitalized for six days. This incident, along with the press coverage, prompted an investigation by the law and government into Synanon.
Six weeks later, the Los Angeles Police Department performed a search of the ranch in Badger that found a recorded speech by Dederich in which he said, "We're not going to mess with the old-time, turn-the-other-cheek religious postures... Our religious posture is: Don't mess with us. You can get killed dead, literally dead... These are real threats," he snarled. "They are draining life's blood from us, and expecting us to play by their silly rules. We will make the rules. I see nothing frightening about it... I am quite willing to break some lawyer's legs, and next break his wife's legs, and threaten to cut their child's arm off. That is the end of that lawyer. That is a very satisfactory, humane way of transmitting information. I really do want an ear in a glass of alcohol on my desk." During the investigations searchers also came across multiple lawsuits and arrests against Synanon members.
Dederich was arrested while drunk on December 2, 1978. The two other Synanon residents, one of whom was Lance Kenton, the son of the musician Stan Kenton, pleaded "no contest" to charges of assault, and also conspiracy to commit murder. While his associates went to jail, Dederich got probation because doctors said due to illness he would die in jail. As part of probation he could not take part in running Synanon.
Synanon struggled to survive without its leader, and also with a severely tarnished reputation. The Internal Revenue Service revoked the organization's tax-exempt status and ordered them to pay $17 million in back taxes, which bankrupted Synanon, which formally dissolved in 1991..."
— Source: Synanon Wikipedia
Header Image Source: Photo by Ondrej Machart on Unsplash
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The Observer, 15 February 1981 article from TheGuardian.com
Michael Chamberlain and Lindy Chamberlain photo from RUSSEL MCPHEDRAN/REUTERS via Telegraph.co.uk
Lindy Chamberlain and her daughter Azaria at Uluru campsite in Australia in 1980 from Reddit
"Azaria Chamberlain (11 June 1980 – 17 August 1980) was an Australian 2-month-old baby girl who was killed by a dingo on the night of 17 August 1980 on a family camping trip to Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock) in the Northern Territory. Her body was never found. Her parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, reported that she had been taken from their tent by a dingo. Lindy Chamberlain was, however, tried for murder and spent more than three years in prison. She was released when a piece of Azaria's clothing was found near a dingo lair, and new inquests were opened. In 2012, 32 years after Azaria's death, the Chamberlains' version of events was officially supported by a coroner.
An initial inquest held in Alice Springs supported the parents' claim and was highly critical of the police investigation. The findings of the inquest were broadcast live on television—a first in Australia. Subsequently, after a further investigation and a second inquest held in Darwin, Lindy Chamberlain was tried for murder, convicted on 29 October 1982 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Azaria's father, Michael Chamberlain, was convicted as an accessory after the fact and given a suspended sentence. The media focus for the trial was unusually intense and aroused accusations of sensationalism, while the trial itself was criticized for being unprofessional and biased. The Chamberlains made several unsuccessful appeals, including the final High Court appeal.
After all legal options had been exhausted, the chance discovery in 1986 of a piece of Azaria's clothing in an area with numerous dingo lairs led to Lindy Chamberlain's release from prison. On 15 September 1988, the Northern Territory Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously overturned all convictions against Lindy and Michael Chamberlain. A third inquest was conducted in 1995, which resulted in an "open" finding. At a fourth inquest held on 12 June 2012, Coroner Elizabeth Morris delivered her findings that Azaria Chamberlain had been taken and killed by a dingo. After being released, Lindy Chamberlain was paid $1.3 million for false imprisonment and an amended death certificate was issued immediately.
Numerous books have been written about the case. The story has been made into a TV movie, a feature film, Evil Angels (released outside Australia and New Zealand as A Cry in the Dark), a TV miniseries, a play by Brooke Pierce, a concept album by Australian band The Paradise Motel and an opera, Lindy, by Moya Henderson.
The initial coronial inquest into the disappearance was opened in Alice Springs on 15 December 1980 before magistrate Denis Barritt. On 20 February 1981, in the first live telecast of Australian court proceedings, Barritt ruled that the likely cause was a dingo attack. In addition to this finding, Barritt also concluded that, subsequent to the attack, "the body of Azaria was taken from the possession of the dingo, and disposed of by an unknown method, by a person or persons, name unknown".
The Northern Territory Police and prosecutors were dissatisfied with this finding. Investigations continued, leading to a second inquest in Darwin in September 1981. Based on ultraviolet photographs of Azaria's jumpsuit, James Cameron of the London Hospital Medical College alleged that "there was an incised wound around the neck of the jumpsuit—in other words, a cut throat" and that there was an imprint of the hand of a small adult on the jumpsuit, visible in the photographs. Following this and other findings, the Chamberlains were charged with Azaria's murder.
In 1995, a third inquest was conducted which failed to determine a cause of death, resulting in an "open" finding.
The Crown alleged that Lindy Chamberlain had cut Azaria's throat in the front seat of the family car, hiding the baby's body in a large camera case. She then, according to the proposed reconstruction of the crime, rejoined the group of campers around a campfire and fed one of her sons a can of baked beans, before going to the tent and raising the cry that a dingo had taken the baby. It was alleged that at a later time, while other people from the campsite were searching, she disposed of the body.
The key evidence supporting this allegation was the jumpsuit, as well as a highly contentious forensic report claiming to have found evidence of foetal haemoglobin in stains on the front seat of the Chamberlains' 1977 Torana hatchback. Foetal haemoglobin is present in infants six months and younger; Azaria was nine weeks old at the time of her disappearance.
Lindy Chamberlain was questioned about the garments that Azaria was wearing. She claimed that Azaria was wearing a matinee jacket over the jumpsuit, but the jacket was not present when the garments were found. She was questioned about the fact that Azaria's singlet, which was inside the jumpsuit, was inside out. She insisted that she never put a singlet on her babies inside out and that she was most particular about this. The statement conflicted with the state of the garments when they were collected as evidence. The garments had been arranged by the investigating officer for a photograph.
In her defense, eyewitness evidence was presented of dingoes having been seen in the area on the evening of 17 August 1980. All witnesses claimed to believe the Chamberlains' story. One witness, a nurse, also reported having heard a baby's cry after the time when the prosecution alleged Azaria had been murdered. Evidence was also presented that adult blood also passed the test used for foetal haemoglobin, and that other organic compounds can produce similar results on that particular test, including mucus from the nose and chocolate milkshakes, both of which had been present in the vehicle where Azaria was allegedly murdered.
Engineer Les Harris, who had conducted dingo research for over a decade, said that, contrary to Cameron's findings, a dingo's carnassial teeth can shear through material as tough as motor vehicle seat belts. He also cited an example of a captive female dingo removing a bundle of meat from its wrapping paper and leaving the paper intact. Evidence was also presented to the effect that a dingo was strong enough to carry a kangaroo and a report of the removal of a three-year-old girl by a dingo from the back seat of a tourist's motor vehicle at the camping area just weeks before, an event witnessed by the parents.
The defense's case was rejected by the jury. Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of murder on 29 October 1982 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Michael Chamberlain was found guilty as an accessory after the fact and was given an 18-month suspended sentence.
An unsuccessful appeal was made to the Federal Court in April 1983. Subsequently, the High Court of Australia were asked to quash the convictions on the ground that the verdicts were unsafe and unsatisfactory. However, in February 1984 the court refused the appeal by majority
The final resolution of the case was triggered by a chance discovery. In early 1986, English tourist David Brett fell to his death from Uluru during an evening climb. Because of the vast size of the rock and the scrubby nature of the surrounding terrain, it was eight days before Brett's remains were discovered, lying below the bluff where he had lost his footing and in an area full of dingo lairs. As police searched the area, looking for missing bones that might have been carried off by dingoes, they discovered a small item of clothing. It was quickly identified as the crucial missing piece of evidence from the Chamberlain case: Azaria's missing matinee jacket.
The Chief Minister of the Northern Territory ordered Lindy Chamberlain's immediate release and the case was reopened. On 15 September 1988, the Northern Territory Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously overturned all convictions against Lindy and Michael Chamberlain. The exoneration was based on a rejection of two key points of the prosecution's case and of biased and invalid assumptions made during the initial trial.
The questionable nature of the forensic evidence in the Chamberlain trial, and the weight given to it, raised concerns about such procedures and about expert testimony in criminal cases. The prosecution had successfully argued that the pivotal haemoglobin tests indicated the presence of foetal haemoglobin in the Chamberlains' car and it was a significant factor in the original conviction. But it was later shown that these tests were highly unreliable and that similar tests, conducted on a "sound deadener" sprayed on during the manufacture of the car, had yielded virtually identical results.
Two years after they were exonerated, the Chamberlains were awarded $1.3 million in compensation for wrongful imprisonment, a sum that covered less than one third of their legal expenses.
The findings of the third coroner's inquest were released on 13 December 1995; the coroner found "the cause and manner of death as unknown."
In December 2011 the Northern Territory coroner, Elizabeth Morris, announced that a fourth inquest would be held in February 2012. On 12 June 2012 at a fourth coronial inquest into the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, Morris ruled that a dingo was responsible for her death in 1980. Morris made the finding in the light of subsequent reports of dingo attacks on humans causing injury and death. She stated, "Azaria Chamberlain died at Ayers Rock, on 17 August 1980. The cause of her death was as a result of being attacked and taken by a dingo." Morris offered her condolences to the parents and brothers of Azaria Chamberlain "on the death of [their] special and dearly loved daughter and sister" and stated that a death certificate with the cause of death had been registered.
The Chamberlain trial was the most publicized in Australian history. Given that most of the evidence presented in the case against Lindy Chamberlain was later rejected, the case is now used as an example of how media and bias can adversely affect a trial.
Public and media opinion during the trial was polarized, with "fanciful rumours and sickening jokes" and many cartoons. In particular, antagonism was directed towards Lindy Chamberlain for reportedly not behaving like a "stereotypical" grieving mother. Much was made of the Chamberlains' Seventh-day Adventist religion, including false allegations that the church was actually a cult that killed infants as part of bizarre religious ceremonies, that the family took a newborn baby to a remote desert location, and that Lindy Chamberlain showed little emotion during the proceedings.
One anonymous tip was received from a man, falsely claiming to be Azaria's doctor in Mount Isa, that the name "Azaria" meant "sacrifice in the wilderness" (it actually means "God helped"). Others claimed that Lindy Chamberlain was a witch.
The press appeared to seize upon any point that could be sensationalized. For example, it was reported that Lindy Chamberlain dressed her baby in a black dress. This provoked negative opinion, despite the trends of the early 1980s, during which black and navy cotton girls' dresses were in fashion, often trimmed with brightly coloured ribbon, or printed with brightly coloured sprigs of flowers.
Since the Chamberlain case, proven cases of attacks on humans by dingoes have been discussed in the public domain, in particular dingo attacks on Fraser Island (off the Queensland coast), the last refuge in Australia for isolated pure-bred wild dingoes. In the wake of these attacks, it emerged that there had been at least 400 documented dingo attacks on Fraser Island. Most were against children, but at least two were on adults. For example, in April 1998, a 13-month-old girl was attacked by a dingo and dragged for about one metre (3 ft) from a picnic blanket at the Waddy Point camping area. The child was dropped when her father intervened.
In July 2004, Frank Cole, a Melbourne pensioner, claimed that he had shot a dingo in 1980 and found a baby in its mouth. After interviewing Cole on the matter, police decided not to reopen the case. He claimed to have the ribbons from the jacket which Azaria had been wearing when she disappeared as proof of his involvement. However, Lindy Chamberlain claimed that the jacket had no ribbons on it. Cole's credibility was further damaged when it was revealed he had made unsubstantiated claims about another case.
In August 2005, a 25-year-old woman named Erin Horsburgh claimed that she was Azaria Chamberlain, but her claims were rejected by the authorities and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Media Watch program, which stated that none of the reports linking Horsburgh to the Chamberlain case had any substance.
In 2008, the Holden Torana car that was tested for Azaria's blood in the original court case was used in the wedding of Aidan Chamberlain, Azaria's brother, who was six when his sister disappeared. His bride arrived at the ceremony in the car and his father, Michael Chamberlain, said that he was proud the couple had chosen to use the car which was the centerpiece of the case.
The Chamberlains divorced in 1991 and both remarried other people. Lindy and her second husband lived for a time in the United States and New Zealand but have since returned to Australia.
Michael Chamberlain died after a long battle with leukaemia on 9 January 2017, aged 72.
The National Museum of Australia has in its collection more than 250 items related to the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, which Lindy Chamberlain has helped document. Items include courtroom sketches by artists Jo Darbyshire and Veronica O'Leary, camping equipment, a piece of the dashboard from the Chamberlain family's car, outfits worn by Lindy Chamberlain, the number from her prison door, and the black dress worn by Azaria. The National Library of Australia has a small collection of items relating to Azaria, such as her birth records and her hospital identification bracelet, as well as a manuscript collection which includes around 20,000 documents including some of the Chamberlain family's correspondence and a large number of letters from the general public..."
— Source: The Death of Azaria Chamerlain Wikipedia
I’m slightly embarrassed about this. My therapist told me I needed to listen to Chandra Rymes ‘The Year of Yes’ and I walked out angry. I ended up listening to it and it’s so fucking good. I already have intense respect for Chandra Rymes and the hours of television she has on TV, she’s an insane badass. Just listen to it. Especially if you feel stuck, or you feel like your life isn’t what you want it to be, or you’re trying to find balance and you don’t know how to do it — it’s amazing.
I’m gonna break a rule and say something that I want to do in the next week. I want to go yoga class or go to the gym because I feel so shitty and bad about myself and I’m not sleeping. I don’t feel healthy...it’s all these fucking things that I know I’ll feel better after I go to the gym or a yoga class.