THOUGH NEARLY FORGOTTEN today, Synanon--the first organization to claim to have a drug-free cure for heroin addiction--had an enormous impact on American culture. At the peak of the drug war of the 1980s and early '90s, at least half of all publicly funded addiction treatment was based on its model of communal and intensely confrontational living.
Synanon was founded in 1958 by Chuck Dederich, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous who felt that A.A. wasn't tough enough. (Dederich claims to have coined the popular self-help phrase, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life.") By the mid-1960s, it had evolved into a California-based commune widely celebrated as the counterculture's antidote to drugs, and populated by hipsters, Hollywood stars, and jazz musicians. In those days it was lionized by Life magazine, the major TV networks, and even a 1965 Columbia Pictures film; Milton Berle, Jack Lemmon, and other celebrities promoted it.
But then came word--and later proof--of child abuse and beatings for non-compliance of both adults and children. Dederich decided that members' children were a drain on the community, so he pressured men into having vasectomies performed by Synanon doctors on the spot and ordered women to get abortions or be forced out. "Marathon" groups extended for days without food or bathroom breaks, featuring sadistic emotional attacks on those who were seen as backsliding or disloyal.
To the extent that it is remembered now, Synanon is probably best known for having put a four-and-a-half-foot-long de-rattled rattlesnake in the mailbox of an attorney who was starting to win legal cases against it. Among journalists it also has the notoriety of winning the largest libel judgment in history, after Time called the group a cult in 1977. Only later was the truth about the organization fully established, thanks to the courageous reporting of the small-town Point Reyes Light, which won a Pulitzer for its exposes in 1979.
Claire Clark's The Recovery Revolution prefers to emphasize the positive. The book doesn't even mention that snake attack, nor the fact that Dederich was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder as a result of it.
Perhaps the author wanted to avoid covering familiar ground. But by failing to explore how Dederich and Synanon set the precedent for the abuses she chronicles in later programs based on it--and by failing to wrestle with how those harms stemmed directly from its structure and practices--she undermines...