Mother and daughter Sandra Rogers-Hare and Cassidy Arkin are the executive producers of the new Paramount+ Original documentary series, “Born in Synanon.” Arkin was born in the cult and Rogers-Hare was a member. Stream the series on Paramount+.
Synanon was my home, the place where I was born. While I remember it as a utopia — originally created as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation community in Santa Monica, California, in 1958 — by 1975, outsiders referred to us as a cult.
Children born inside Synanon were raised communally. Our parents would come and go when they wanted to see us. To me, it was normal. I was led to believe the outside world was an unequal society whose many imperfections had been restored by the group known as Synanon.
It wasn’t until I moved out at age 6 that I recognized that the way I was raised was very different. I was unaware of the disturbing behaviors and increasing paranoia of the community’s founder, Charles Dederich.
In his mid-40s, Dederich, a former member of Alcoholics Anonymous, was inspired to create his own rehabilitation community for addicts and experimented with different methods of treatment. Synanon, which started as a well-respected and successful nonprofit, attracted thousands of members over the years.
But slowly, as the organization became more powerful and popular, the organization started to shift.
I remember everyone having shaved heads, but I wanted to be like the kids on the outside who had long hair. I remember reciting the Synanon prayer; the marching and the overalls — the official “uniform” of Synanon.
Synanon’s culture was always changing, but Dederich quickly began making erratic and extreme decisions including requiring vasectomies, breaking up marriages, and swapping partners and stockpiling a large cache of weapons to protect the community. They assembled a small paramilitary group to protect Dederich. Under the tension of a number of lawsuits, Synanon became more and more isolated from the outside world.
It wasn’t until high school, with my mother’s support, that I started on a journey to discover the truth about Synanon. I wanted to understand why my mother would give up everything to move into this counterculture that others called a violent cult.
To my mom, Synanon was a movement: Everyone, no matter your race, was accepted. And since Synanon was all I knew, I assumed my childhood was as joyous and peaceful as any other child’s.
But in the course of my research on the community, I quickly came to see that life in Synanon — the conformity and the beliefs — was typical of a cult.
To those who were on the inside, though, there were still parts of Synanon that were beautiful and magical. Without getting the full picture of Synanon, you’ll never be able to capture the essence of what it was beyond the cult.
My mother, Sandra Rogers-Hare explained, “Accepting the implicit contradiction that Synanon was a cult, it was also a dream. It was a business, and a dope fiend rehab. It was a lifestyle, and it was a regimen. I accept what I loved about Synanon and the power it had for me. I would do it all over again.”
For over 20 years, while working as a TV producer in New York City, I’ve been gathering information from former members, building a tapestry of stories about how Synanon flourished for decades, but sadly failed.
Synanon’s downfall began in 1980 when Dederich admitted that he and two other Synanon members conspired to commit murder. He was barred from returning to the organization. By the mid-1980s, the group declared itself a religion but eventually lost its tax exempt status and disbanded in 1991 after declaring bankruptcy.
In the new Paramount+ docuseries, “Born in Synanon,” my mother and I take you on a quest to discover the truth, capturing powerful stories of the people, culture and places of Synanon. Through these parallel journeys, we address the question asked from both inside and outside: Was Synanon a utopia or an actual cult?
However Synanon started, it ended undeniably a cult.
Paramount+ is owned by Paramount Global, which is also the parent company of CBS.
Watch the official trailer for “Born in Synanon” below: