This Drug Rehab Center Turned Into a Violent Cult

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Born in Synanon is the story of Cassidy Arkin’s history with California’s Synanon cult—or as she describes it in footage from 2001, “alternative community.” Arkin is not just the subject of director Geeta Gandbhir’s four-part Paramount+ docuseries (Dec. 12) but also its guide, and the series is cast as her personal journey into a past that she thinks had a tremendous, beneficial impact on her life. At the same time, though, Arkin only faintly recalls this formative era because, as it turns out, she left Synanon at the age of 6. As a result, she’s the definition of an unreliable narrator, driven to celebrate the organization for the positives it ostensibly championed, and yet feigning surprise about revelations—of wanton abuse, exploitation, and homicidal insanity—that have been so highly publicized over the last four decades that there’s zero chance she didn’t already know about them.

Born in Synanon wants to depict both the light and dark of Synanon, an outfit founded by Chuck Dederich as a treatment center for addicts that morphed into a prototypical cult led by a messianic leader. Such even-handedness is the byproduct of the fact that Arkin and virtually everyone else interviewed (including, most notably, her mother Sandra Rogers-Hare) were former members, and consequently believed—and, in some cases, still believe—in Synanon’s founding principles and the supposed good it (initially) did. Those perspectives are potentially valuable components of a comprehensive overview. Unfortunately, by almost exclusively relying on them, Gandbhir and Arkin wind up painting an excessively rosy portrait, especially during an early going that barely utters a disparaging word about Synanon or Dederich.

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