Synanon Fix
Charles "Chuck" Dederich pictured in The Synanon Fix. Photograph by Bruce Levine/HBO

Rory Kennedy and Mark Bailey’s new HBO docuseries The Synanon Fix documents the dramatic rise and fall of Synanon, a drug rehabilitation program turned extreme religious group founded by Charles “Chuck” Dederich in the 1950s.

It tells the “harrowing, tragic” story of how a noble mission can turn into something sinister, Bailey, who wrote and executive produced the docuseries, told MovieMaker.

But he and Kennedy, the married couple and filmmaking duo behind The Synanon Fix as well as HBO’s Ethel Kennedy documentary Ethel and Downfall: The Case Against Boeing, are hesitant to label Synanon as a cult.

“While it’s still a debate as to whether Synanon is a cult or not, it definitely has some cult-like characteristics,” said Kennedy, who directed and executive produced the docuseries.

The Making of The Synanon Fix

However, Bailey does liken Dederich’s intense leadership style over the group to the “cult of personality,” or the idea of a group’s hero worship converging around one charismatic leader. Such was the case with Dederich, who amassed a huge and dedicated following as the leader of Synanon from the 1950s until the group dissolved in the early 1990s. The docuseries sheds light on how it grew to such heights — and where it all went wrong.

“Even though it’s a story that took place starting in 1958 through to 1991 and it’s historical in nature, there’s so much happening in the world today that makes it feel like it’s current — questions about the cult of personality. One of the themes in the series is about loneliness, and how lonely people are, and how this place Synanon was really this kind of connection to community and to other people in a very deep and meaningful way.”

But where there’s a desperate need to belonging, there is also a willingness to exploit that.

“If you look out at kind of the landscape today, there is a sense, as Rory’s saying, of a kind of loneliness or alienation, whether that comes from sort of the post COVID, or living in a digital world or working in the remote offices or not having institutions that bring people together organically,” Bailey says. “So you find there is this human need for connection and community, and I think we see a lot of people kind of attaching themselves to sort of what we might call charismatic leadership — people who bring communities together around certain ideologies or ideas.”

A still from The Synanon Fix. Photograph by Bruce Levine/HBO

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“In the first episode, you see Chuck Dederich, who founded Synanon, and he’s a wonderfully charismatic, innovative, well intended, committed leader. And as you watch the series — and Synanon goes on this incredible journey that ends up in a quite harrowing, tragic place — it really mirrors Chuck in his own wellness and his own mental health,” he adds. “So in that way, it’s this cautionary tale of what happens when you pin your own interests to that… because, a point’s made in the documentary, charismatic leaders are inherently unstable, and the same energy that gives them a rise almost always brings them down.”

Kennedy also wanted the series to walk viewers through how the group went through such intense changes over the course of its existence.

“If you looked at the founding principles of Synanon, in the early years, the pillars were… basically, no alcohol and drugs, and no violence. And by the end, they had bought more firearms than anybody in the history of California, and they had an open bar in the facility,” she says.

The challenge was “tracking how it goes from one extreme to the other” over the course of the four-episode series,” Kennedy adds.

“I mean, when you see it on paper, it’s like, ‘Wow, how did that happen?’ But when you experience it, you can kind of see how it builds.”

Something else that was important to Bailey was that audiences understand why it was so hard for Synanon members to leave during the years when the group got more violent.

“Part of that, I think, is communicating the appeal, which I think in that first episode, you see. It’s not just, ‘how did this happen?’ But it’s sort of like, ‘Well, why didn’t they leave? Why did they let this happen? Why did they let this happen to themselves?’ And hopefully, it gives you an understanding of community and connection, and also of living in a world where your housing, your job, your friendships, your children, you know, your partner, everybody is contained in this world,” he says.

“To separate yourself and leave to remove yourself from it feels really, I think, frightening. And that’s part of what keeps people there and keeps people in line, and I suppose, making the decisions that they wish they hadn’t made.”

Episode 1 of The Synanon Fix is now streaming on HBO, with the next three episodes dropping weekly on Mondays.

Main Image: Charles “Chuck” Dederich pictured in The Synanon Fix. Photograph by Bruce Levine/HBO