Monday, December 23, 2013

Synanon & The Game

In many ways, the roots of the Troubled Teen Industry can be found in Synanon, the California community that started in 1959 as a rehabilitation program for drug addicts.  Over several decades, Synanon evolved into a huge, cultish network with thousands of members.

At the center of the Synanon program was a practice called The Game, wherein community members would meet in a large circle to confront and berate each other on perceived shortcomings.  The Game could be a cathartic process of purging negative feelings - it could also be a powerful tool for social control through public humiliation.  The Game was played three times a week (a pattern very similar to TTI programs such as CEDU) in sessions lasting several hours.  Games were recorded and could then be reviewed at listening stations.  Apparently, certain Games (or edited versions of them) became classics and would be listened to and studied over and over.  Later in the evolution of Synanon, Games were broadcast over a low-watt radio station called The Wire and could be tuned in from various places throughout the commune.  The Game became a bonding exercise, communication tool, therapy, psychodrama and entertainment all in one.  It was the defining feature of the Synanon experience and it had a huge impact on community members.  When former members left to start their own programs, they brought The Game with them.

There is one fundamental difference between the use of The Game at Synanon and in the TTI, however.  Despite the cultish, manipulative atmosphere of Synanon, members were there by choice and more or less free to leave at any time.  Teens in TTI programs have been coerced, tricked and often outright kidnapped.  They are not free to leave, and they are not free to opt out of Game-like "Raps", confrontation therapy sessions, traumatic reenactment therapies, etc.  While the Game was never an exercise in honesty (creative exaggeration and hyperbole was an aspect of successful "play"), similar practices in the TTI encourage and even enforce false confessions.  Ever more extreme "truth telling" is required to demonstrate enthusiastic participation (and therefore movement through the levels and eventual freedom).  This severely compromises the essential structure of the group exchange.

Because of the extreme containment of TTI programs, along with the psychological manipulations of sleep deprivation, nutritional deprivation, solitary confinement, etc, the "reality" within programs becomes extremely malleable.  Teens find themselves trapped within the enforced Double Bind of "playing at not playing", creating an atmosphere where one begins to believe one's own lies.  The TTI uses these techniques to create the illness which it then proposes to treat.

Despite having read many accounts of The Game, the specific dynamics of play are still obscure to me.  I'm considering a trip to UCLA to access the Synanon archives that are held there.  In order to understand the coercive application of group "therapies" in the TTI, I need to better understand the social experiment of The Game.

To read about Synanon in more depth, I would recommend starting with this insider account or this balanced but largely sympathetic study.

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