The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping – What is Synanon?

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Forget murders, Netflix‘s latest hot doc is about schools. Only they’re not really schools, they are prisons, they make millions of dollars and destroy thousands of lives, and the bigwigs at the top of these horrific establishments keep getting away with it…

This is The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping which focuses on troubled teen programs set up at facilities claiming to offer help to young people through therapy and activities. In reality teens were often forcibly removed from their homes, not allowed to speak, look out of the window, smile at their classmates, and in fact had to get permission to even fart. They were ill fed, tortured, brainwashed and kept away from their families, often for years. And the families paid thousands of dollars for the service.

The Program is a wonderful documentary, in no small part because the filmmaker Katherine Kublar was a victim of one of these establishments herself. Kublar reunites with other survivors to investigate and expose what happened to them. We talk about the importance of putting the victims at the front and center of true crime documentaries – these survivors are telling their own stories in their own way and striving to make those responsible accountable. It’s all the more powerful for that, and less a victim story than a method of healing and even revenge.

Kublar attended the Academy at Ivy Ridge for 15 months from age 16. Her father and stepmother signed her up after she was excluded from a private Christian boarding school for drinking hard lemonade. But rather than coming home, Kathering was taken by representatives of the academy to Ivy Ridge where she was told she couldn’t leave and wasn’t allowed to talk. That was just the beginning of Ivy Ridge’s attempts to indoctrinate her and the other ‘students’ through physical abuse, intimidation, humiliation, coercion and brainwashing.

The program, utilized by Ivy Ridge and many other “schools” for troubled teens, used tried and tested techniques to break the inmates. And as the documentary points out, the root of many of these programs was something called Synanon.

This was a religious group, turned cult, founded in 1958 by Charles Dederich Sr. Dederich was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous which he thought was not tough enough, so he set up his own facility which would take in those with drug as well as alcohol addictions. Synanon (the origins of the word aren’t clear – Syndication-Anonymous? Symposium-Anonymous?) was residential, and Dederich developed his own program, which he insisted you could never complete. Much of his technique was based on Attack Therapy, which essentially involves identifying people’s weaknesses and screaming in their faces during group sessions (we paraphrase). The idea is to break the patient down so much that they start to believe they can rebuild themselves and change their own lives. It’s a practice which encourages patients to attack and humiliate each other in group sessions which can last for days at a time. Later Synanon added further controlling policies including requiring female members to shave their heads, male members to get vasectomies, and married couples in the program to split up.

Eventually Synanon got involved in a schooling program which had a view to educate children in such a way as to improve society as a whole. Of course, the organization became increasingly violent and abusive, committed financial crimes, and members were convicted of attempted murder (two members put a rattlesnake in the mailbox of a lawyer who brought a case against Synanon!). Though it was disbanded in the ‘90s Synanon influenced ‘tough love’ treatments ever after.

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