A California rehabilitation foundation for people addicted to heroin transformed into a “communal living experiment” with cult-like tendencies in the 1950s, according to a new documentary series.

Charles Diedrich, a former alcoholic, initially founded his storefront rehabilitation center in Santa Monica that would become known as the Synanon Foundation in 1958. 

By 1978, the center had amassed thousands of members and tens of millions of dollars in assets, including its headquarters located in a historic, private beach club hotel called Club Casa del Mar that remains in business today under its original name.

Diedrich is believed to have coined the popular phrase, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” according to a 1999 article by The Mercury News.

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Directed and produced by Rory Kennedy, and co-produced by her husband Mark Bailey, “The Synanon Fix” features interviews with former members of the communal living experiment, including Diedrich’s daughter, who helped lead the cult-like program.

As the center grew thanks to Diedrich’s success with a type of verbal therapy called “The Game,” in which people can say anything in an effort to deter someone from using substances, non-addicts began to show interest in joining the recovery group that was supposed to be a two-year residential program. 

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A sign that reads, 'The Game' and 'Synanon Government'

These members became known as “lifestylers,” who were in search of a community more than help with managing addiction, a press release for the new HBO series called “The Synanon Fix” states.

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Charles Diederich surrounded by his books

Diedrich opened multiple locations in California and on the East Coast, including one in Westport, Connecticut, and a boarding school in Poland, Maine.

By the 1970s, Synanon had built a reputation as a utopia and a model for society with its own farm, school and various businesses. The foundation was also temporarily tax-exempt until 1977, due to its charitable and religious nature, according to the documentary.

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”Crime is stupid, delinquency is stupid and the use of narcotics is stupid,” Mr. Diedrich once said, The New York Times reported after his death in 1997. ”What Synanon is dealing with is addiction to stupidity.”

“Crime is stupid, delinquency is stupid and the use of narcotics is stupid.”

— Chuck Dederich

But as its popularity increased and more power fell into Diedrich’s hands – he began to take on the role of a more dictatorial figure, forcing members to shave their heads and separate themselves from their children – problems began to arise from the self-sustaining, cult-like community.

A group of Synanon members wearing the same uniforms march in straight lines

In 1972, about 75 couples who were part of Synanon were encouraged to renew their wedding vows in a mass ceremony.

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“But as the years went on, the radical therapies became increasingly extreme, degenerating into paranoid behavior and cult-like mandates from Chuck, and culminating in charges of child abuse, assault, and even attempted murder,” the press release says.

By 1977, Diedrich lost a settlement case brought forth by Frances Winn, who said Synanon abducted her for nine days. 

Diedrich was sentenced to serve five years probation and fell back into alcoholism and was diagnosed with mental illness. He died in a nursing home at age 83.

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