HBO’s The Synanon Fix Explores How a Rehab Program Became a Cult-Like Group

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What happens when a rehab program that is supposed to cure addictions becomes addictive itself?

That’s the story of Synanon, an organization that went from providing revolutionary therapy to becoming “a kooky cult,” as TIME put it in 1977. The HBO docu-series The Synanon Fix, out April 1 and streaming on Max, traces the rise and fall of the organization in the 1960s and 1970s through interviews former members, as well as some of the children who lived in its housing. The filmmakers also obtained footage from residents who were amateur filmmakers and photographers from their time with Synanon.

Charles Dederich, a former alcoholic who had gotten sober through Alcoholics Anonymous, started Synanon in 1958, during a heroin epidemic in the U.S. Dederich had felt that people didn’t open up enough in AA and aimed to take it further with Synanon. The cornerstone of Synanon’s approach was a kind of confrontational group therapy called “the Synanon game,” in which participants would scream what they really thought of one another—and then hug it out afterwards. Donald Cressey, University of California at Los Angeles sociologist, described Synanon to TIME in 1961 as “the most significant attempt to keep addicts off drugs that has ever been made.”

Even after people got sober, they stuck around. Some had burned too many bridges back home, and stories of people relapsing also made some afraid to leave. By the 1960s, Synanon had become not only a treatment facility, but a communal living experiment, taking over a three-story building in Santa Monica. Mass weddings were performed. Members were encouraged to start families and took turns watching over each other’s kids. Most of the residents hung out in communal spaces, but could reserve a private room with candles for sex by putting their names down on a sign-up sheet. Many shaved their heads.

Over four episodes, The Synanon Fix explores what happened at the organization and how it affected the residents. The former members who share their experiences in the docu-series all emphasize how lonely they were when they joined the organization, something director Rory Kennedy (Bobby Kennedy’s daughter) hopes audiences will see as a kind of warning.

“When there’s a feeling of living through unsettled times, there’s an attraction to alternative lifestyles,” Kennedy says. “Given where we are with social media and AI and the threats of climate change, many people are anxious, and they want to tether themselves to something that is grounding.”

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