I Am a Cultist, Two Times Over

by Laura Johnston Kohl

Chuck Dederich
Chuck Dederich

Beginning in March of 1970, I lived in two different communal groups. My time with Peoples Temple ended in November 1978 with the deaths in Jonestown, a tragedy I survived by being in Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown that day. Some time after I returned to San Francisco, I moved into Synanon Residential Drug Treatment Program, not as a drug addict, but as a traumatized person seeking refuge. The two experiences – each lasting about a decade – put me in the unique position to compare and contrast the two leaders, Jim Jones of Peoples Temple and Charles E. Dederich (Chuck) of Synanon, although I should note that much of what I have learned about them, especially in regard to Peoples Temple, has been in retrospect.

Part of what attracted me to both groups is that I am a communalist; this also colors my perspective and my reflections on them. And while I found living in community the most fascinating time of my life, I would never return to either of these particular cults.

A community does not have to be a cult. A cult goes beyond being a community because it requires such obedience and submission to either the “greater good” or the whim of leadership. Living communally is an effort to participate in an inclusive society with people from all racial and socio-economic backgrounds. As communalists, we certainly did have programs to take care of physically and socially disabled members who made their home in a community where they were accepted and assisted. As we devolved, we became more cult-like and everyone was affected. Communities have great potential as caretakers, because there is interest and commitment. Just as it does take a village to raise a child, it sometimes takes a community to accommodate certain special needs.

 

Background of Peoples Temple and Synanon

Peoples Temple was founded in 1955, under the name Wings of Deliverance, by Jim Jones in Indianapolis, Indiana. Even though the Temple eventually became affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, and its leader Jim Jones became an ordained pastor in the denomination, he challenged the status quo of both his parishioners and of the larger community, and insisted on integrating the congregation immediately and for the duration. My personal opinion is that he was never driven by religious fervor, but rather, early in his life, he saw the power and respect given to ministers, and that determined his future occupation. In the mid-1960s, Jim led a caravan of about 100 cars from Indiana to Northern California. The group settled in Redwood Valley in Mendocino County. For about seven years, that was the home church. It was also the church I joined in 1970.

In the early 1970s, we started traveling around to other cities on the West Coast, from Seattle to Los Angeles, and in 1972, we established additional churches in San Francisco and Los Angeles. A year later, with most of the Temple’s activities increasingly centered in San Francisco, Jim moved the center of the church operations there. While there was never a definitive count of the Temple’s membership, most estimates suggest that at least 20,000 people passed through the church’s doorways. In addition, there are about 5000 membership photos on file at the California Historical Society in San Francisco, indicating some degree of commitment from those people.

In 1975, we began research into establishing Jonestown, in a remote area of Guyana 24 hours by boat from Georgetown. Guyana is on the northeast coast of South America. It is an English-speaking, diverse, independent country that had a socialist government at that time. It responded positively to our request to emigrate there, partially because we negotiated for an area of disputed territory with Venezuela. By November of 1978, about 1000 Peoples Temple members were living in Guyana; once most of the Temple’s leadership left the U.S., the membership numbers in the California churches dwindled to a few hundred.

On November 18, 1978, 918 people in Guyana died in a mass murder-suicide, coerced and orchestrated by Jim. Among the dead was Congressman Leo Ryan, who had visited Jonestown to inquire into the well-being of numerous residents. Nearly everyone in Jonestown that day died from drinking poison, although two died by gunshot. This was the greatest number of non-military Americans to lose their lives in one occurrence in United States history before September 11, 2001.

The Synanon Residential Drug Treatment Program was the second cult I lived in throughout the 1980’s. Chuck Dederich was a lifelong alcoholic, and at times during Synanon’s existence – and from about 1985 on – he resumed drinking. While the Synanon Game was considered the “Great Equalizer,” Chuck rose to a position of being above the game, became corrupted by the power he had accumulated, and made dangerous and lousy decisions. Several members were sent to prison for putting a rattlesnake in the mailbox of a prosecuting attorney. Synanon was sued for kidnapping and shaving the heads of some people who came on the property to harass us. When our members were nearly run off the road near our community, Synanon vigilantes went out to beat up the offenders.

Chuck had participated in Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization which has existed for over 80 years and has helped – and continues to help – millions of alcoholics and drug addicts. AA was begun by the Oxford Group, a religious movement that practiced self-improvement and self-assessment which is part of the AA “Twelve Step” Program, a sort of “clean up your own mess” response so alcoholics can tidy up and move forward. Chuck thought that, as strong as AA might be, it still lacked a full-fledged program, so he opened Synanon in Santa Monica, California as a residential care drug program. He did it for himself, and for many others.

Much of the time, from the 1960s until 1985, the population of “squares” (non-addicts) and “dope fiends” (any addiction, drugs or alcohol) was about 50/50. The center of the Synanon was the Synanon Game, which required all residents to follow three basic rules:

  1. No physical violence
  2. No threat of physical violence
  3. What goes on in the Game stays in the Game

This very loud, confrontational, deep conversation made Synanon. People resolved issues, rubbed off rough edges, got to know each other in the most intimate ways, and strengthened the community. Even Chuck had the Game played with him, but you had to be prepared, because he was fierce! Since everyone played the Game several times a week, you got to know people and had more meaningful interactions. Dope fiends and Squares were all confronted and held accountable.

But all of Synanon’s drama happened in the Game. Outside of it, people acted as if things were perfect and worked their asses off for the community at large.

At first the Game was all harsh push-and-pull and loud confrontation. When Chuck married Betty Coleman (a former dope fiend), she brought “Betty’s Game” to address needs that were not handled by loud confrontation. These were quieter, compassionate games that considered loss of a parent, or illness, or other tragedy. The Game had evolved into meeting the needs of all in the community. There were also less frequent longer Games, the Trips, and 100-hour Dissapation.

Synanon was self-sufficient. The residents did all the jobs, and were paid in free housing, free health care, free meals, free cars for trips, motorcycles, swimming pools, tennis courts, and more. In many ways, it was like a Club Med. Everything was provided. You even got a small allowance!

Chuck was sophisticated in his search for meaning. He often referred to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to W. Edwards Deming, to Buckminster Fuller, and to current visionaries and brightest intellectuals. Many residents of Synanon were highly educated and intellectually curious. We spent much time in “Reaches” and “Unicept Drills” and all kinds of expansive practices, as well as aerobics five times a week, and a few more down-to-earth requirements.

In the 1980s, Synanon began a shift away from Rehabilitation and towards making a profit. We had a sales team that became wildly successful in the advertising specialties business, and the group started making money. This created the two issues that eventually led to its demise. First, people making money wanted to keep some of that money. A decent, comfortable lifestyle was not enough. Second, once we moved away from rehab and started to be for-profit, the Internal Revenue Service challenged our “non-profit” status. Eventually, the IRS sued for back taxes which required Synanon to sell off properties to pay the debt, and the group closed its doors in 1991.

Nevertheless, there continues to be a Synanon House in Germany, and many other drug programs – including Delancey Street, Amity House, and others – were started by former Synanon residents. Drug rehabilitation programs use structures that were part of both Alcoholics Anonymous and Synanon to this day.

As with Peoples Temple, Synanon members, who had been slowly moving out in 1989 and 1990, still stay in contact with other former members. While not living communally, they kept up frequent contacts both in business and in friendships which last to this day.

* * * * *

I have studied both Jim Jones and Chuck Dederich in a Venn diagram format, two circles overlapping, with the similarities in that overlapping area. The areas of the two circles that do not overlap are their distinctive individual characteristics.

There are more differences than similarities between the two leaders. They were both brilliant white men, married with children, well-read, and inspiring. Chuck was born in 1913, and started Synanon in 1958 (at about 45). Jim was born in 1931, and started his first ministry in 1955 (at about 25). In other words, despite the difference of 18 years between them, both found their stride in the mid-1950s. Chuck was an alcoholic, sometimes in “recovery,” sometimes not. Jim’s problem was with drugs, a habit that increased and intensified to the end of his life. Both Jim and Chuck were highly emotional leaders, who could be calm or nearly hysterical in different settings. One Synanon resident mentioned that being around Chuck was like living in an alcoholic home, with a reactive parent. The same could be said about Jim. Both felt that they were in a position to react however they wished, because they were in charge.

Neither man was enamored with the trappings of wealth and money. Instead, the power they sought was over people, over egos, over the membership of their organizations. While the public persona of each leader was nonviolent and above the fray, in reality, both bullied and threatened people. Jim focused on those within Peoples Temple, confronting and disciplining disobedient members, and threatening those who left or even tried to leave Peoples Temple. Chuck was more apt to target outsiders trying to confront Synanon members; within Synanon, he loved sparring with others with strong egos in the “Synanon Game.” He was delighted by verbal interchange. But, more than once, when neighbors came onto Synanon property, they were met with violence orchestrated by Chuck.

 

Leadership Styles

Jim’s style of leadership was definitely top down. Although the Temple had many layers of organization, Jim was involved in all aspects of it and always made the final decision. We often called it an “onion” type of leadership, with each layer having a specific role. For instance, Jim had a group of mostly young, white secretaries and mistresses who did his bidding day and night, shared his bed, shared his secrets, and completed his more clandestine work. They were highly protective of his time and attention. Jim made sure to play up individual rivalry by pitting them against each other. One of his most effective management tools was “divide and conquer” with all Peoples Temple membership, from the top down. He often told us that those he trusted most (and would give the most responsibility and respect to) were those who did not have the distraction of a partner. The truth was, he never wanted to be in competition for a member’s attention or dedication.

Jim’s preference was to be surrounded by women. Even if men did highly skilled and important work in the work of Peoples Temple, they were the minority around Jim. While he had handfuls of women scurrying about, he had a few select men. And those few had to put up with regular criticism.

Another level of leadership was the Assistant Pastor. Jim would allow an Assistant Pastor take over some meetings when he was elsewhere, but he always made an effort to discredit the person upon his return. He was never going to acknowledge a job well done. The efforts of the Assistant Pastors – no matter what they preached in Jim’s absence, no matter how strong the offering they collected – were never going to be good enough. No one could get over-confident about standing in for Jim. He did not want the church membership to forget that he was the leader, the only leader.

That was the experience of the money handlers as well, primarily his most faithful members who had traveled with Jim from Indiana in the mid-1960s. He was always a hands-on manager, but he was particularly careful and controlling with the monies of Peoples Temple. Nevertheless, these long-time members totally backed and respected Jim, all the way to the end.

Chuck’s leadership in Synanon was very different. He surrounded himself with others – mostly men – who could shout and harangue along with him in the Synanon Game. He would gladly delegate responsibility, although those who took it on did so knowing they would be held 100% accountable. Chuck looked forward to seeing how they did. He was not threatened or intimidated by smarter or more talented people. Instead, he drew them to him. He loved discussing and practicing new theories and philosophical investigations. He did it himself whenever possible and inspired others; as a result, he drew artists, architects, philosophers, educators, and inventors to him. Synanon was rich with handmade furniture, wonderful art and music, and other exotic (and sometimes impractical) creations. It seemed that the highlight of his week would be the Synanon Game, and the time spent afterwards for the “Out of the Game.” He expected everyone to “Speak up, God Damn It.”

 

What Part Did Sex Play in Leadership?

Jim Jones was married to the former Marceline Baldwin, and had a large family with her, mostly of adopted children. His other significant relationship was with Carolyn Layton, a decade-long mistress with whom he had a child.

But Jim also had sex with numerous other people, both men and women, usually as a way to manipulate them. It seemed always to be his strategy to compromise a sexual partner, in order to keep the person off-balance. Sex was a control, a way to insert a wedge between two people in a relationship, a strategem to manipulate someone else in the family or an intimate friend. Although he had frequent sex with multiple partners, I think he was just willing to try whatever he thought might work at manipulating them.

Chuck was married twice early in his life and had two children. Both of those marriages ended in divorce. Betty, his third wife, was a very beloved and strong presence in Synanon. When she died of cancer, Chuck married Ginny Schorin, a former teacher. They remained married until Chuck’s death in 1997.

Chuck never strayed outside of his marriage, but he did play with the marriages of Synanon residents. He organized a “Changing Partners” when any of the couples in Synanon separated and found new partners. He quipped that it was because he had heard enough of their “gaming” in the Synanon Game. He just lived vicariously through the changes others went through. Some in Synanon refused, some others went back to their previous spouses, and some remarried and moved on. Chuck liked experimentation and didn’t see boundaries.

Chuck also agreed to hold “nude weigh-ins” when Synanon residents went on diets to be “lean normal.” Each week, there were weigh-ins. If people hadn’t lost enough, or had gained weight, they would be confronted in the Game. I think Chuck was delighted by the nude part of the weigh-ins.

Psychologists who have studied Jim have written that he seemed to have a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, that he always had to be the center of attention. Outside of public settings, he created chaos or continually brought attention back to himself. He surrounded himself with very bright and creative people, and then used their ideas to impress others. He picked the quiet geniuses so he could adopt their ideas and present them as his own.

Chuck always wanted to have fun and have his intellect challenged. He wanted to be engaged in life. He watched everything, and responded. He made Synanon a rich and fun place to live, and wanted everyone to have that lifestyle. He personally would play the Game with Game Department heads or Supervisors who had let their employees live in awkward or difficult situations. He wanted things to run smoothly and have all people taken care of. He surrounded himself with Type A personalities. He liked the flash of strong emotions.

 

Staying and Leaving

There was a huge difference between Jim and Chuck in addressing the issue of people wanting to leave the groups. Jim never wanted anyone to leave, no matter what. He felt both personal betrayal, and I think a personal failure, that he could not somehow keep everyone in Peoples Temple. He could not accept that individuals were not committed to his theological or political stance. He just didn’t understand that someone would opt to make a different choice. From early on, in Redwood Valley, he would rage when someone left, calling them counter-revolutionaries and traitors, a rage that would contribute to Jonestown’s final day in Jonestown.

Even after they left, former members were often visited and bullied by Temple loyalists. If they couldn’t be bullied to come back, they were at least bullied into being quiet about anything they saw or heard in Peoples Temple.

Chuck was at the opposite end. If Chuck felt someone did not fit in Synanon, he would just kick them out. If someone did something he didn’t like, he would send them out to work until they could earn the privilege of returning to the community. If a dope fiend wanted to leave, he’d open the door. He did have a strategy in place, however, for dope fiends. He might say, “Why don’t you wait until you get your weekly WAM (Walking Around Money) so you will have something to buy food or get home?” Often, by the next day, the dope fiend would be calmer and not leave. There were certain strategies for running the successful drug rehabilitation program that we had. Still, everyone knew you could walk out the door.

Living in Synanon was a daily commitment for everyone. For an addict, just as you had to come in the door knowing that you needed to get off of drugs, you had to remind yourself on a daily basis that you have the option of leaving and returning to that old life.

 

Transparency

In both groups, people tired of the endless flow of talk. Jim spoke at length during his services in the United States, and he spoke at length in our gatherings in Jonestown. In addition, he would read the world news over the Jonestown loudspeakers, and then – because he had simultaneously recorded his readings – would replay what he had just read. It was his conversation, and his stream-of-consciousness speech, and it was continuous. It interrupted any quiet moments we might have had to reflect or contemplate about our lives. He ran interference between us and our pause-time. I have heard a lot of the survivors speak about this, but somehow, I just tuned him out because I have always needed that silent time. Unfortunately, it didn’t lead me to any great insights or hone my observation skills.

All of this talk was political dogma, interpreting world news through his own paranoia, or adding his own spin to events taking place. This was never personal to Jim or the community. Since he felt the isolation of Jonestown, where people were working too hard to give him the same reverence he had felt in the United States, he needed a forum to share his thoughts. In all likelihood, his secretaries never told him that no one was paying much attention to him. He may have felt that his words would continue to inspire us, and he was never told anything different.

Chuck was the total opposite. If he held a Synanon Game, he would put it out on the Synanon radio station. The “Wire” was a full-time radio station that played recorded Synanon Games, Reaches, and other learning tools. We had special telephones with the dials taken off. The only control was loud and off. Whenever there was a “Big Shot” Game, it was played on the Wire. We even had a closed television channel, where the Game was filmed and played on the air. Nothing was secret or sacred. Everything was public, and people not at the Game could watch or listen to the gaming. Chuck would make everything public, and dare you to challenge him, but he surrounded himself with people who were delighted to take him on. Watching a Game was far more interesting than any regular television program. With general Synanon business, there was public discussion and Gaming.

That is not to say that Chuck didn’t have secrets. He did work with the Synanon Law Office and others to keep out of the deepest trouble.

* * * * *

Jim had a public persona that he used 24-hours a day. With his dyed, well-cut hair, sunglasses, and neat appearance, he worked to look striking and memorable. His private side was saved for his partner, Carolyn Layton, and somewhat for his personal secretaries and mistresses. At no time was he interested in showing any break in his shell, or in looking disheveled. He worked hard not to disclose any mistake or inadequacy. His job and his presence were geared to impress. With help from his leadership team, Jim had convinced himself that Peoples Temple could not survive without him. He refused to hear any other opinions, if there were any. In his final year of life in Jonestown – seeing himself in failing health, becoming increasingly addicted to drugs, fearing that he would lose the battle with U.S. governmental agencies and his opponents who were behind them, stymied in his efforts to find a workable alternative in another country that would allow him to retain total control – he assumed that he was so essential that Jonestown could not exist if he was not at the helm. So, he killed the dream that Jonestown could have been.

Chuck was comfortable to let his true self speak for itself, and then you could take it or leave it. He was a big man, overweight, with a patchy beard and sort of stringy hair. He most often dressed in worn overalls or a robe. He appeared to have had a stroke, and his face was somewhat damaged. He was direct and vocal. When he stumbled and fell back into alcoholism, there were other leaders at the top who would not let Synanon implode on itself. They stepped in to keep Synanon and all its possibilities going for a while. They ultimately failed in that effort, but they stayed around and were there to shut it down. They didn’t lose a beat.

Both Peoples Temple and Synanon somehow collected wonderful members. Those of us who chose to live communally learned how to collaborate, how to have fun, how to determine what we need and what we don’t need around us in our lives. We learned frightful lessons as well. We learned that trust and critical thinking must go hand-in-hand, and I think we all commit to never allowing a corrupted leadership to go unchecked and unchallenged. We have learned hard lessons. We have learned about ourselves – the good and the bad – and we made intimate friends who love us still in spite of those deficits.

(Laura Johnston Kohl is a regular contributor to this site. Her other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are Who is the Voice of Peoples Temple?; Was Jonestown a “Millennial Intentional Community”?; Kwayana Book Captures Guyana – and Worldwide – Perspective; and A Memorial to John F. Heneka. Her collected works may be found here. Laura may be reached at ljohnstonkohl@gmail.com.)

Last modified on October 21st, 2016.
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