Friday, February 16, 2007

The Light on Synanon

A little cult awareness is always timely, and a conversation yesterday about Synanon, the controversial drug treatment center which grew into an admitted cult, prompted me to revisit The Sounds of Synanon, a jazz LP recorded by musicians in the program. I also started leafing through Dave Mitchell, Cathy Mitchell, and Richard Ofshe’s The Light on Synanon, a nonfiction account of the battle a California weekly paper waged to expose the organization’s abuses.

The album still sounds quite good. By the liner notes, it appears to be originally intended as a showcase for pianist Arnold Ross, but it was guitarist Joe Pass whose career would take off as a result. The Dowbeat editorial reprinted on the cover does not hold up as well, sounding uncomfortably defensive: “Jazz and narcotics are unfairly linked in the public mind. Addiction is rare among jazzmen and, reportedly, actually runs lower than in the medical profession.”

Early in its history Synanon is thought to have done passably well cleaning up some musicians, at least temporarily, including Pass and Art Pepper. Tragically, a jazz family would figure in Synanon’s violent downfall. Big bandleader Stan Kenton had been encouraged board his children at Synanon and stayed there a short time himself. His son Lance was essentially raised there, becoming very involved with the organization. In 1980, he and two co-defendants would plead no contest to an attempted murder charge, for stuffing a rattle snake in the mailbox of a Synanon critic. The Mitchells and Ofshe quote a disillusioned Synanon associate who saw the younger Kenton as another cult victim:

“‘Here is a kid who grew up in Synanon, one of the most bright and able.’ How can you take a young man like him, Hurst asked, and train him in violence? Now he’s charged as a would-be ‘killer’!” (p. 200)

I have yet to read Light (too much to review here), but a number of things jumped out while thumbing through. To be non-partisan, Barbara Boxer was one of the few local officials consistently willing to stand-up to the organization. Arguably, this was particularly risky for her politically given the instances cited by the authors where the organization was able to make alliances with leftwing pressure groups. Most notable were two brief but intriguing references to the United Farm Workers:

“Cathy, Richard, Art, and I met at The Light with the special agent from the Organized Crime Bureau. The night before, I had typed up a list of violent incidents involving Synanon. We had already published stories on most of them; we needed more information on the others before we could cover them in The Light. Also included were lists of Synanon attempts at intimidation and of Synanon ties to other organizations, such as Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers.” (p. 183)

The next reference details a press conference, where the group tried to circle the wagons:

“the purpose of the conference was to build opposition to efforts then under way to extradite [founder Charles] Dederich from Arizona to California for trial. Cesar Chavez, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, militant black lawyer Flo Kennedy, and other celebrities friendly to Synanon had been assembled to denounce extradition, claiming it would probably kill Dederich in his weakened condition . . . Chavez, while disagreeing with Synanon’s gun purchases, commented, ‘That doesn’t mean we disagree with Chuck’s right to health.” (p. 243)

There do seem to be some lingering questions about the extent of the group’s influence. While Synanon is pretty thoroughly discredited now, there seems to be organized remnants on the web. Currently, The Light on Synanon is out of print and The Sounds of Synanon is only available as a Japanese import, if you can find it.

(Citations from The Light on Synanon. Seaview Books, New York: 1980)