AA, Synanon and Cults in Recovery
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AA, Synanon and Cults in Recovery

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This post was originally published on April 22, 2014.

Getting sober and staying sober are usually feats associated with, well, good things—improved levels of positivity, faith and overall self-improvement are typical by-products for some lucky recovering folks. But that would not be the case for a big, bizarro cult called Synanon, as profiled in this crazy piece in Gizmodo.

The Beginnings of Synanon

Here’s the gist: In 1956, a drunken wanderer named Charles E. Dederich tried Alcoholics Anonymous. The program helped him immensely, but the org was still pretty new and in a state of flux and it bothered him that AA, in its then-current incarnation, wouldn’t allow other types of addicts into the group. So in ’58, Dederich decided to start up his own program for recovering addicts and alcoholics. He dubbed it the Tender Loving Care club but soon after renamed it Synanon and allowed in all kinds of addicted people.

He was seen as a sort of “drug rehab guru” at first, using tough love to help addicts go totally cold turkey off drugs at his center in Santa Monica. But his quest soon expanded—he wanted nothing short of a “total revolution game” and envisioned his program existing on the same plane as the world’s greatest religions. This wasn’t, like, a huge deal or anything until it was and things started getting…a little cult-y.

No Group Hugs Here

He created a controversial and confrontational new form of group therapy treatment called The Game. In this “game,” people “sat in a circle to express (and often shout) their frustrations at each other.” This particular approach was a way to spew out everything that bothered you about the other folks in group. Reportedly, the Game would often start with a loaded question like “The most boring person in this circle is ____?”

Anyway, go read the article for lots more juicy details about Synanon and its decline. It’s fascinating stuff and what the story touched on for me was the pervasive idea that recovery programs—especially 12-step ones—are, in fact, cults brainwashing their members. It’s a notion that many recovering people discuss and one that lots of “normies” accept as gospel. The question is: Is it true? What qualifies something as a cult? That question is more subjective than you might believe, and if you ask 10 people you see at a 12-step meeting, you’d probably get a range of answers.

AA: The Non-Cult

Does AA get rich off members’ money? Uh, no. Throwing a dollar in the basket a few times per week generally isn’t going to make or break one’s financial life. Does AA have some vested interest in brainwashing its members? None that I can deduce; there’s no guru and no “leader” in AA. Still, does the 12-step thing sometimes feel a bit…weird, what with all the sayings and the slogans and the customs and the praying in a room full of people regardless of your official personal belief—or lack thereof—in God? Yep, it does. At least for me.

Culty or not, though, AA does legitimately help thousands of former drunks get and stay sober; Synanon it’s not. Which may be good enough for me.

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About Author

Laura Barcella is a documentary researcher, author, freelance writer and ghostwriter from Washington, DC. Her writing has also appeared in TIME, Marie Claire, Salon, Esquire, Elle, Refinery29, AlterNet, The Village Voice, Cosmopolitan, The Chicago Sun-Times, Time Out New York, BUST, ELLE Girl, NYLON and CNN.com. Her book credits include Know Your Rights: A Modern Kid's Guide to the American Constitution, Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World, Popular: The Ups and Downs of Online Dating from the Most Popular Girl in New York City, Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop and The End: 50 Apocalyptic Visions From Pop Culture That You Should Know About…Before It’s Too Late.