The Best Synanon Documentary?

Creating a Synanon documentary is all the buzz these days.

Paramount+ releases “Born in Synanon” December 12, 2023. And Variety reports that HBO Max is working on its unnamed Synanon doc to be directed by the talented Rory Kennedy.

And cult doc fans are demanding that Netflix put something out (350 people per month search the term “synanon documentary netflix”!).

And even Robert Downey Jr. is getting in the game (see below).

I’m guilty as well: have you read my article: “The Top 29 Cult Documentaries”. Yeah, I LOVE cult docs too!

Synanon (originally called “Tender Love and Care”) was a rehab group-turned-cult led by the persuasive leader Chuck Dederich. Followers shaved their heads (Dederich demanded them to). They allegedly tried to murder an attorney investigating them (with a rattlesnake!).

The amazing Synanon story starts with their initial helpfulness but ends with alleged crime and murder. While Synanon no longer exists, you will see from below that its spirit/philosophy are still alive.

I’m starting a list here of all the Synanon docs I know about. I’ll re-rank the list once the Paramount+ and HBO ones come out.

As usual, ping me if I missed anything.

Here ya go!:

1) Born in Synanon

Above is the trailer for the Synanon documentary coming to Paramount+ on December 12, 2023. Based on the trailer, this looks like it will be the best Synanon doc out there.

Here’s a summary based on Paramount’s press release:

Directed by Geeta Gandbhir, the four-part docuseries recounts Cassidy Arkin’s memories of Synanon as a child and contrasts them with harsher recollections from her peers.

The doc follows Cassidy Arkin’s search for truth on the Synanon group she was born into. What began as an upbeat rehab center became an abusive cult in the 1970s under leader Chuck Dederich.

Dederich’s unchecked rule and substance issues fueled its descent into dark extremism.

Cassidy and her mom Sandra reconnect with ex-members and cull archives. Accounts emerge of endured trauma – enforced uniforms, split partners, stockpiled arms. Cassidy’s rosy childhood views now clash with peers’ hardship.

The series delves into rarely seen records and testimony. It unveils how Dederich’s once idealistic mission corrupted into ego-driven harm.

Cassidy attempts to reconcile fond nostalgia with proof of control that stunned many contemporaries.

Watch it on Paramount+ here: (release date: December 12, 2023)

2) The Sunshine Place (audio documentary)

“The Sunshine Place” is executive produced by Robert Downey Jr. It’s narrated by Sari Crawford whose father, Bill Crawford, was among the first dozen to reside there (in joining in 1959).

After leaving, Bill found himself on a hit list.

The podcast episode features a dialogue with Sari and her mother Sylvia Rogers-Hare

They discuss the phases Synanon went through – starting as a positive therapy group helping drug addicts in the 1960s, becoming an integrated communal society focused on education and self-improvement.

There was 15 years where Synanon “saved lives”, Sari says.

But, Synanon then descended into authoritarian violence and criminality in the late 1970s. This was all under the increasingly unstable leader Chuck Dederich.

Synanon became a “terrifying” cult manipulating members.

Both she and Sari assert that the lack of checks on Dederich’s power and mental decline corrupted its original mission.

They praise the children raised in Synanon for becoming well-adjusted, contributing adults despite often losing childhoods.

The podcast conversation explores unique qualities of Synanon such as:

  • induction methods
  • members’ experiences in intense therapy games involving screaming confrontations
  • the perpetual wire radio broadcasts that isolated followers
  • forced vasectomies.

Here are the 8 episodes:

  • E1: The Kidsnatchers – Introduces Synanon, impacting Celena and Mike’s lives.
  • E2: The Miracle on the Beach – Chronicles Chuck Dederich’s struggle with alcoholism in 1958, Los Angeles.
  • E3: The Trip – Explores Chuck’s use of LSD and other experiments on Synanon members.
  • E4: The Punk Squad – Describes Chuck breaking Synanon’s non-violence rule, starting with young members.
  • E5: The Breeders – Focuses on Chuck’s ban on childbirth in Synanon, enforcing it strictly.
  • E6: Changing Partners – Follows Chuck’s personal changes and mandates on relationships among followers.
  • E7: The Holy War – Delves into Chuck’s paranoia and the resulting violence in Synanon.
  • E8: The First Day of the Rest of Your Life – Concludes Chuck Dederich’s story, leaving Synanon’s fate open-ended.

You can listen to this audio documentary podcast series (8 episodes) called “The Sunshine Place” (on Apple and Spotify).

3) Deadly Cults

The “Deadly Cults” episode on Synanon, aired on June 14, 2020.

The highlight is a shocking incident where a Los Angeles lawyer is attacked by a poisonous rattlesnake, leading investigators to Synanon.

The episode uncovers the group’s descent into authoritarian control under Chuck Dederich.

Synanon’s members, initially seeking help for addiction, became blind followers willing to commit extreme acts at their leader’s behest, including murder.

Watch it on NBC, Oxygen, Fubo and others. Check here for details:

4) Oral History of Paul Morantz

The 2 interviews above are with attorney and investigative journalist Paul Morantz.

Morantz made a career of targeting groups he alleged as unethical, particularly for brainwashing and sexual misconduct practices.

His prosecution Synanon for holding a woman against her will brought violent retaliation.

Morantz worked to expose the coercion and violence emerging under Dederich’s dictatorship.

After winning a major lawsuit against Synanon in 1978 for a woman’s unlawful confinement, Morantz survived a rattlesnake attack orchestrated by Synanon members seeking revenge.

Only a tourniquet and quick medical care saved his life after a venomous snake was planted in his mailbox.

The assassination attempt became emblematic of Synanon’s descent into violence and lawlessness.

Morantz continued investigating fringe groups he deemed harmful, though he ultimately passed away in 2022.

But the shocking rattlesnake incident remains an infamous symbol of when an altruistic community crossed to the dark side.

Watch part 1 of the oral history here: and part 2 here:

Unnamed Synanon Documentary (by HBO)

Variety reported (on August 7, 2022) that HBO has a Synanon documentary in the works.

Variety shared a few nuggets:

  • Overall — the doc will trace the decades-long path of the once-lauded Synanon rehab’s descent into a cult ending in crime. How, at first, the center won wide acclaim and elite devotees with its fresh approach (e.g. as portrayed in the Synanon movie I mentioned in the intro). But, how Synanon slowly morphed into a church, then a commune marked by fringe conduct, ultimately attempting murder just before its end.
  • Rarely Seen New Footage — Includes rarely seen records and firsthand memories,.
  • The Director is Rory Kennedy — She’s known for the well-regarded “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib ” documentary (I haven’t seen it but it’s 7.7 on IMDB and users rarte it 91/100 on Rotten Tomatoes)

Watch it on HBO Max (no word yet on when it comes out!)

Thanks for reading!

-Rob Kelly

ps: I’m a documentary guy (can you tell?). I prefer fact over fiction where possible.

But there is also a movie on Synanon. The drama is called “Synanon” and was made in 1965. Here’s an old trailer I found for it:

Maybe Netflix will opt to do an updated biopic version of the movie!

Also, as I was writing this, the reporter (David Mitchell) who broke the story on Synanon, passed away.

His tiny California newspaper (The Point Reyes Light) won a Pulitzer Prize for its exposé of Synanon.