Medical Whistleblower Advocacy Network

Human Rights Defenders

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

 Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 1




Synanon therapeutic model

Charles E. “Chuck” Dederich, Sr., a reformed alcoholic and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), created his own program, Synanon, to treat persons with addictions.  Professionals, even those without drug addictions, were invited to join Synanon. The Synanon program became the model for substance abuse treatment.

[1] [2]  The New York Psychiatrist, Daniel Casriel M.D., founder of AREBA[3] (today the oldest surviving private addiction treatment centre in the United States) and cofounder of Daytop Village [4] wrote a book about his experiences at Synanon.[5]  In the Synanon therapeutic model, control was exerted over members by in group sessions having members humiliate one another and encouraging clients to expose one-another’s innermost weaknesses.[6] [7] [8] These group session confrontations were called “the Game”.[9]  This kind of group peer pressure sessions, using confrontational therapy methods, had been used before by the military and other groups. [10] [11] [12]

In 1974, the legal authorities began to question Synanon's promises and practices.  Many persons, who turn to substance abuse, do so because they are attempting to escape some trauma in their personal life.  Clients may be dealing with physically, emotionally or sexually abusive situations, dealing with tragedy or loss or even have been a victim of crime. These methods of coercive psychological control can lead to physical abuse and even human rights violations.  Thus the use of degrading and humiliating techniques of mind control utilized by Synanon and CEDU/Brown Schools constituted psychologically abusive treatment. 

The concept of "lifetime rehabilitation" did not agree with therapeutic norms, and it was alleged that the Synanon group was running an unauthorized medical clinic. To avoid regulation and investigation Chuck Dederich declared that Synanon was a tax exempt religious organization, the "Church of Synanon."  Children who had been placed in Synanon began running away and an “underground railroad” established to help return them to their parents.  There was physical abuse of clients and in 1978 a state Grand Jury in Marin County issued a scathing report about child abuse at Synanon and the lack of oversight by governmental authorities.  The child abuse at Synanon was widely covered by San Francisco area newspapers and broadcasters but they were largely silenced by lawsuits from Synanon lawyers, who made libel claims. [13] These lawsuits ultimately turned out to be a large part of Synanon's undoing, by giving journalists access to Synanon's own internal documents.  The small Point Reyes Light newspaper, a weekly in Marin County, received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1979 in recognition of its coverage of Synanon when other news agencies avoided reporting on it. 

[1] “Where did it come from?, Synanon Church and the medical basis for the $traights, or Hoopla in Lake Havasu,” by Wes Fager (c) 2000,,


[2] Szalavitz, Maia "The Cult That Spawned the Tough-Love Teen Industry,”  Mother Jones, August 20, 2007.   Maia Szalavitz claims to charts the influence of Synanon in other programs including Phoenix House and Boot Camps.


[3] ACI describes itself as a wholistic healthcare organization made up of physicians and a wide variety of healthcare professionals experts in the field of healing addiction.


[4] Daytop History, Daytop Homepage, Father William B. O’Brien who founded New York's Daytop Village included Synanon's group encounters and confrontational approach in his research into addiction treatment methods.


[5] So Fair A House: The story of Synanon, New York, Prentice-Hall (1963).


[6]  Morgan, Fiona, “One big dysfunctional family: A former member of the Synanon cult recalls the "alternative lifestyle" that shaped her, for better and worse,” Salon Magazine, March 29, 1999,


[7] Synanon at the Internet Movie Database,,


[8] Clark, Michael D.,  “Her life with ‘One Big Brother,’ ” San Jose Mercury News, March 19, 1999,


[9] Gerstel, D. U., Paradise, incorporated: Synanon, Novato, CA, Presidio Press, (1982).


[10] Vorrath, Barry H., and Brendtro, Larry K., Positive Peer Culture,  Transaction Publishers, 1985,  also in 2008 Second edition copyright © 1985 Harry H. Vorrath and Larry K. Brendtro.   Group peer pressure sessions, using confrontational therapy methods, were used, by the Department of Defense for the purpose of returning AWOL and malingering soldiers back to active duty on the WW II battlefield (early 1940s).  Lloyd McCorkle helped develop many of the concepts of Group Peer Pressure which eventually gave rise to Positive Peer Culture.  Harry Vorrath was the principle originator of Positive Peer Culture and worked under McCorkle in the 1950’s.  


[11] Harrison, T. and Clarke D., “The Northfield Experiments,” The British Journal of Psychiatry (1992) 160: 698-708 doi: 10.1192/bjp.160.5.698.  In Britain a similar program occurred in a military psych hospital in 1939 and 1942 (The Northfield experiments). 


[12] Gottfredson, Gary D., Peer Group Interventions to Reduce the Risk of Delinquent Behavior: A Selective Review and a New Evaluation; 25 Criminology 671 (1987),


[13] Jack Anderson, "NBC Cancelled Jonestown Story,”  March 20, 1981,

Abusive techniques continued at CEDU & Brown Schools


In spite of mounting evidence that the Synanon therapeutic model of confrontation therapy was ineffective and abusive, it was copied by others, including Mel Wasserman who founded CEDU Education.  CEDU Education was a chain of parent-choice private-pay residential programs.[1]  The CEDU model of therapy influenced a growing number of facilities in the in the therapeutic boarding school industry.[2]  A Synanon center was even established in Germany.[3] Dederich was arrested while drunk on December 2, 1978.  The two Synanon residents pleaded “no contest” to charges of assault, and also conspiracy to commit murder.  While his associates went to jail, Dederich himself avoided imprisonment by formally stepping down as the chairman of Synanon.  The Internal Revenue Service revoked Synanon's Federal tax exemption, and all of its properties were confiscated and sold.  By the mid-1990s, Synanon was no longer in operation but confrontational therapy had become the norm in residential substance abuse treatment.


Matrix House

Matrix House was a self-help therapeutic community which was established in the Clinical Research Center in the National Center for Mental Health in Lexington, Kentucky.  Matrix House was an official aftercare agency under the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act (NARA) of 1966.  Participants were under civil commitment.  [4] The Matrix House was the first unit of the center which was completely operated and administrated by ex-addicts.  In group sessions Matrix participants used “the Game” of confrontation which was patterned after Synanon.



[1]  Chu, Keith, “Ever unconventional, long controversial,”  The Bend Bulletin, November 15, 2009,


[2] Struggling Teens, went online as a referral website for information about the many schools and programs available for “troubled teens”. The website states that it “lists news and articles as a resource for both parents and professionals, as well as anyone interested in helping troubled teens find successful paths to adulthood.”,


[3] A German offshoot of Synanon, website in German.


[4]  R. S. Weppner, “Matrix House.  Its first year at Lexington, KY,” HSMHA Health Rep. 1971 September; 86(9): 761–768, PMCID: PMC1937175,,


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