In a cavernous California mountain lodge, some 40 smiling people, their shiny, shaved heads reflecting the dancing flames of a roaring fire, oohed, ahed and applauded.
A lawyer had just pledged to file ten divorces for the ten highest bidders at a fund-raising auction on New Year’s Eve. At a wooden table a grizzled, gruff man who wears a cap emblazoned with the message I’M THE MEANEST S.O.B. IN THE VALLEY nodded his approval. Charles (Chuck) Dederich, 64, was adding another ritual to his famed commune Synanon: wife swapping.
That is quite a reach for a 19-year-old organization that was once widely admired and imitated as a seemingly successful program for rehabilitating alcoholics and drug addicts. Dederich established a nononsense, self-help program that included the “game,” a rugged encounter session in which participants acted out their inmost hostilities.
Learning the truth about themselves supposedly helped them stay off drugs or booze. But in recent years, Dederich has had more grandiose ambitions and transformed Synanon into a religious cult with himself as high priest and prophet. It now attracts fewer addicts and more middle-class eccentrics in search of new adventures in living.
Since its shoestring beginning in an Ocean Park, Calif., garage, Synanon has done very well by itself. The taxexempt, nonprofit organization has 883 adults and 300 children living in luxury on two ranches in the Sierra foothills, beach-front property in Santa Monica and Tomales Bay and in a converted San Francisco paint factory.
Most members pay a minimum $400 a month for room, board and uplift, but some contribute much more. One woman has donated more than $1 million. Synanon’s assets, including ten aircraft and 400 cars, trucks and motorcycles, total almost $30 million. Its advertising and specialty-gifts business netted $2.4 million last year; donations and other income amounted to another $5.5 million. Dederich draws an annual salary of $100,000 and pays his top corporate officers from $30,000 to $50,000. “A lot of guys could do this thing from an old Ford roadster and sit on an orange crate,” he says, while munching on powdered lettuce from a silver bowl. “They’re holy men; I’m not. I need a $17,000 Cadillac. We are in the people business just exactly as if we were building Chevrolet axles.”
Indeed, the people at Synanon are treated much as if they were interchangeable automobile parts, and Dederich is certainly in the driver’s seat. He makes the rules as he goes along, and the members never know what is coming next. “Chuck is marvelous,” says Terri Haberman, 30, who has lived at Synanon for nine years. “He has this amazing quality of being able to articulate what we want to do before we even know what it is we want.”
In 1970 Dederich decided that because he was giving up smoking, everybody else would too. In 1975 the women at Synanon began shaving their heads. Any that refused were ostracized. When Dederich’s wife Betty went on a diet in 1976, all the other members had to cut down on the vittles. That same year Dederich concluded that Synanon had too many kids. So all the men were pressured into having vasectomies, except Dederich. “I am not bound by the rules,” he says. “I make them.”
This year Betty Dederich died. Dederich found another woman and soon decided that everyone would benefit by taking a new mate. Couples who had been married for as long as 30 years are now in the process of divorcing and remarrying. “I didn’t know whom to marry,” confesses Linda Buonaiuto, 32. “I asked my girlfriends to make the decision for me. I ended up with Walter,” she adds with a tentative glance at her new husband, “and it’s just great.” Another member philosophizes: “Wife swapping used to be thought of as a vice. But we take a vice and turn it into a virtue. It’s been an exhilarating experience.”
Not, of course, for everybody. While Synanon has moved in new, provocative directions, its membership has dropped from a peak of 1,800 in 1972 to 1,183 today. Among those to leave was Dederich’s brother William, who did not want to break up his marriage of 37 years. Those who stay at Synanon seem to be as hooked on the place as any junkie on his drugs. “They want somebody to tell them what to do,” says Sydney Fischer, who left the commune in 1976 after living there for four years. “It’s like having a big daddy.”
Former residents as well as outsiders have begun to question whether the new, swinging Synanon should be spared paying taxes since it currently devotes much less time to rehabilitation. The California department of health is showing interest in Synanon, and the Marin County grand jury is investigating reports of child abuse. Some 132 children, who have been sent to Synanon by courts, probation officers and distraught parents across the country, are housed in a separate compound and designated the “punk squad.”
Dederich says he is not worried, but admits he is toying with the idea of giving up the rehabilitation business and moving to Washington to start an operation that will distribute distressed merchandise, such as mislabeled canned food and slightly flawed clothing, to the needy. “It’s a bigger notion than Synanon is now,” Dederich says. “I have the normal desire to get my name in the newspapers and history books.”