One big dysfunctional family

A former member of the Synanon cult recalls the "alternative lifestyle" that shaped her, for better and worse

Salon Magazine, March 29, 1999
By Fiona Morgan

Young Deborah Swisher was too much for the public school staff to handle. A highly creative and boisterous child, she couldn't submit to the traditional teaching structure and erupted every time she had to leave art class. Her Jewish mother had divorced Swisher's African-American father (Swisher and her sister hardly saw him, thanks to his alcoholism and his family's refusal to accept a white daughter-in-law) and found she wasn't suited to mainstream life and hourly wage jobs. She was drawn to an "alternative lifestyle" community called Synanon that had started in San Francisco. After attending several meetings on her own, Swisher's mother decided to bring her two daughters to live in one of Synanon's group homes. There, Swisher learned to read in two weeks and to nourish her creative streak while her mother gave up smoking and joined a group where she truly fit in, a racially integrated commune where her biracial daughters could be protected from the complications of the outside world.

Thus began Swisher's long experience in the cult that coined the phrase "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." From age 7 until the day she walked out the door at 18 to pursue a college education, it seemed normal to Swisher to live on donated food, clothing and books; abstain from all controlled substances, including alcohol; and move from campus to campus as the group's elders dictated, even when that meant long-term separation from her mother and sister. And when everyone in the community shaved their heads in solidarity with Synanon's founder, young Swisher shaved hers, too.

Today, Swisher is an actress and stand-up comic in New York City. Her new show, "Hundreds of Sisters and One Big Brother," is based on her experience at Synanon. She plays all of the characters, from her chain-smoking, well-meaning mother to the "demonstrator" who taught school, to the buffoonish first lover the community foisted on her as part of a hilariously public coming-of-age rite.

In her portrayal of Synanon (referred to as "The Group" in the show), Swisher looks at the successes and perversions of a new-age social experiment through the eyes of a sharp-witted child. And despite the painful separations from her family, mandated by the Group's insistence on communal rather than nuclear-family bonds, Swisher's tale makes clear that the Group is indeed still her kin -- one big dysfunctional family.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Synanon life was a ritual called "the game," a no-holds-barred forum for expressing feelings no matter how negative or critical. "The game" was the center of Group life, used to instill discipline, increase morale and teach members selflessness. But one day the teenage Swisher found herself the target of "the game." In a cruel effort designed to break the spirits of the high school's unruly students, a Synanon member who regularly worked on the rehabilitation of junkies and ex-cons into the group's society singled out Swisher as an example of "damaged goods," claiming her spirit had been polluted by a negative attitude. The mentally brutalized Swisher began to see the dark side of Synanon. Later, she would learn more about the group's founder, Charles Dederich, who pleaded no contest to charges that he conspired to murder a lawyer who was suing the organization by putting a rattlesnake in his mailbox. She would learn that the former drug addicts who tried to leave Synanon to get a fix were often physically coerced to stay.

Still, Swisher's link to the group remains strong. Even after both of her daughters had left Synanon, Swisher's mother stayed on for another 10 years. As a result, Swisher's perspective goes beyond the standard critique of cults and their followers to a positive, if realistic, appraisal of the ideals and practices of the community that shaped her. In a recent visit to Salon's offices, Swisher discussed her experience and its lasting impact on her family.

You start and end the show with phone calls you get from people who are worried about you whenever something goes wrong with a cult, like when the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, were killed in the standoff with federal agents.

I hate getting those calls. I hate that they feel like they have to call me to check in to see if I'm OK, like I'm some patient who might go off their medicine five years later. But then I also hate that it's happening. I am angry when I see the government aggressively try to close down a cult. I might not even know what the business of the cult is, it could be bad and should be closed, but I just hate the way I have seen it happen over and over again in society. Like the MOVE organization [a radical Afrocentric group in Philadelphia whose building was bombed by police] -- brutal. This movie on Waco that was nominated for an Oscar last year ["Waco: The Rules of Engagement"] uncovered a huge government coverup about how this thing was apparently pretty much an ordered massacre. I'll never know the truth, but when I saw that film, a lot of things made sense. It's just an overall prejudice. Cults might not ultimately be good, but there are good cults. But you don't even hear about them because that's not going to make headlines.

Living in Synanon, we started to get slanderous media. We were called a cult. That was such a horrible word. And when they told us what it meant, it just didn't sound like us. Really? That's what I am, a cult follower? It felt like an insult. When you grow up in a community, you think that the things that it is doing are right and are helping the world. You don't have the big picture of what's not working in your lifestyle. So you think that the media is going to say, "Hey, great, you're doing a great job," and when they say, "You're doing crazy things in there, you're a kooky cult, you guys are out of control, you're hitting people," it's shocking. I can't speak for a lot of stuff that happened in Synanon because I was a child and didn't see it. A lot of stuff was revealed to me years after I left.

  • You talked about how you were able to learn to read in six weeks at the Synanon schools but you hadn't been able to do that in two years at the public schools. What was it about the Synanon schools that were so much better for you?

The regular public school system just wasn't working for me. I was just one of those high-maintenance children with an agenda, and a really creative flair. The thing I just couldn't get used to in public schools was the rigid period bell. Ring -- that bell goes off and everyone darts out of the classroom. When I was in art class, I would just start to get going and that bell would go off and I would just lose it. And the following class was reading, and I would be in such a bad mood that I would refuse to read. So they thought there was something really wrong with me. I would throw these huge fits. If I was going to stay in public school, I was going to be in Special Ed the next year, because they just didn't know what to do with me.

Synanon was like summer school, it seemed too fun. There were bean bags and a pet rat or a snake. We'd study the growth of an embryo. We had a whole science lab. What really helped me learn to read was they encouraged my creative side and rewarded good behavior. Somehow my artistic qualities were combined with a reading game, and that ended up being very fun, because I loved to tell stories and draw pictures. We played a game with 3-by-5 cards that had a word on every card -- these people called "demonstrators" would sit down and say, "So what kind of story do you want to tell? " And I'd say, "I want to tell a story about a mermaid, who comes out of the water." So OK, "mermaid," let's find the card for mermaid. Then I would be writing this story. I loved it! Then you read it at the end in front of the class. I was a creator, and I was learning to read. Whatever problems I was having in public school were cleared up that quickly.

I went into the high school when I was about 12 and a half. They wanted to make sure we knew about the outside world, so every student in high school had to have a subscription to Time magazine and each week we had to read it cover to cover as part of our curriculum. I remember skimming through some stuff because it didn't apply to my immediate life and it bored me. I'm 12 years old, I don't want to read about the Vietnam War.

  • The scene in which you are singled out for this mind game exercise designed to break your will is chilling. That really happened to you. Why do you think they singled you out?

Russian roulette. It was an ambush. I think they wanted to make an example that would frighten all of us beyond anything that we were feeling comfortable with. Then, I thought I was really messed up; I thought it was me. Looking at it now, I think they just wanted to single out a child who thinks that her shit don't stink and make a point . They were trying to get us spiritually cleansed. We were just sour, bratty high school kids like anywhere else. But in Synanon this was not acceptable to have kids with attitude problems. The past reputation of this high school was kids who score above average on aptitude tests and kids who are learning trades and working hard and understanding what it is to be grateful. At the same time, I guess, they're missing the elements of childhood. Synanon's standards were high for our upbringing. But the general attitude of the school had started to slip.

I can't speak for the people who did what they did to me and why they did it. I think they did that experiment to me because they thought it was for my own good. People do things to you and think they're doing it for your better character and they do it out of love, which is the weirdest, most shocking thing. Did you see that movie "Shine"? You see how the father repressed his son and said, "You're not going away from the home. We were in Auschwitz, the home is where the family is. I can't allow you to go away to music school." Just beat him down, brutally. But there was another side to it: The father thought he was doing the best thing for his child, to keep the family together that came out of a concentration camp.

Am I angry with some of these people? Sure. And I know that what they did wasn't right. But I can understand in a bigger sense, looking back at the big picture, why they thought they were doing something good, to get me in shape and get me working hard and wanting to take care of other kids and look at myself, examine myself.

In the show it was clear that this group was definitely your family, and you couldn't walk away from them. But you had mixed feelings about the group, because you were trying to maintain your bonds with your sister and your mother, and the group separated you from them.

That was very hard to get used to, because I was used to having my way and having my mom. It was easier for children who were born in Synanon, as a lot of children were. They were raised with the idea that they would have other mothers and would get to see their biological mother sometimes. But when you're separated midstream, it's brutal. When I moved in, I wanted to be on my best behavior because it was a new place. As I got used to it, my bratty elements came out.

Once I got in trouble and I was banned from being with my mother for maybe a month. I don't even know how to describe it. It was awful. Sometimes a child who was complaining and whining about wanting his parents too much was put on a ban from his parents. They tried to soften it for the "banned" kids, I guess, by making sure that on the weekends, when a parent would take his own kid out, the kid would have to bring a buddy, another child whose parents were somewhere else. So that other kids would get a chance to go out.

  • What were the marriage bonds like? The founder at one point proclaimed that married couples should split up and find new partners. And in the show, there's a scene where the founder says the Group is the "third partner in the first position" in any marriage. How did that change people's expectations of marriage?

When the founder decided that everyone would "change partners" as he called it, his philosophy behind it was that he felt that this was a community that never gets too comfortable. We never want to be too comfortable. He felt that since we're always about people taking care of people, that we should continue to challenge what courtship really means, and if you're comfy with one partner, why don't you try the exercise of courtship? Why don't you try to challenge yourself and try it with somebody new? And this changing partners didn't happen again for about three years, I recall, because there were a lot of people who just did not re-match up. I remember that people left after that. It was perhaps the last straw for some people. Other people just remarried and re-courted. But I don't remember anybody holding any gun to anybody's head and telling them to get in bed with a person.

As a child, I thought it was a good thing. I mean, when you're inside a community that has done so many things that you believe are right, you've been ingrained to believe are right, you don't really question the system. You see it as another challenge to improve your character.

  • How do you feel about the founder now?

He's no longer living. It's not like I had that much contact with him. It's like if Bill Clinton came to town and you saw him parade down the street with 85 security guards and they move him off to this hotel. You're like, "There he goes." And he was kind of like the celebrity at the Synanon place. He was around the elders a lot. If I got near him, I felt like I was near a celebrity. I was just a kid. His passing has been a kind of closing for a lot of people.

  • What's your relationship with your mom like now?

It's really good. We communicate and that became so important in the aftermath of Synanon. I feel so lucky, because she's so communicative. We talk about everything this process has been, the hard stuff, the stuff she didn't know about, things that came out as I was evolving this play that she didn't know happened to me at school. A lot of parents trusted the school system. That's true everywhere. The kid's getting A's? OK, it's a good school. Kids are brutal to each other. Shit happens in the play area all the time. She's very much my hero, because she's lived through 10 more years of this than I have. She's devoted a large part of her life to this community and has a whole different experience. I have a great relationship with her that we've worked on. I couldn't ask for a better mom. Same with my sister.

  • When your mother first brought you there, part of the reason that she wanted to be there was that you and your sister were biracial, and she wanted to protect you from the prejudices of the outside world. But that also seems to be something that they hung over your head in a very hypocritical way, telling you that you wouldn't be able to handle it outside. Was the fear and anticipation they instilled in you worse than what you experienced when you left?

It was like a thought crime. From the time I was 7 years old, I'm seeing dope fiends saying, "I can't go out there 'cause I'll die. You've got to take me back. I can't make it out there." A 7-year-old child isn't going to differentiate between, that's a dope fiend and I'm a good kid. No. I started to believe. The outside world became a smaller and smaller and smaller ideal to me. I started to think that this is what happens to everybody when they leave here. So the biggest battle was internal. Other people have different stories of why leaving was difficult for them. I just know that it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that there was an outside world, there was a larger society. I thought we were the larger society, and you were the offset.

The other thing is they say, "You can go, but you can't come back. It's a one-way door. We would not have you back; you'd be altered forever." It's like you can only be a virgin once. You'll never be what you were, brought up in this environment away from violence, hate, drugs, crime, racism. It's like you go out there and you get this skin coating or something. Because I didn't really have a sense of the outside world, it was a hard decision to make. You think it's a semi-suicidal risk you're taking.

  • Did you go to New York City first, when you left? That seems like one of the harshest places that you could start out.

I did. You're really naive when you come out, it's really true. I left doors unlocked, cars unlocked. Got robbed in the first month. I'd leave my purse on the bench and come back and not understand why it wasn't there -- 'cause I lived in a place where people didn't steal. Everything was unlocked. Part of coming to the outside world was really culture shock and sad. There is violence out here, and there is hate and there is racial prejudice. There are a lot of things that I was protected from, that I saw once I came out here. There was also freedom, though; there was good and bad. I am really free. I can do what I want to do, I can stay out late. I can go to a nightclub -- I'd never done that. I'd never had a lot of money and I didn't know that I needed a checkbook or whatever, driving, things that people do in everyday life were very big to me. To be able to go to college was a really big deal. To make friends.

  • When you finally got back to San Francisco and you talked to your sister, who was the first of your family to leave the commune, what did she tell you about leaving? While you were at Synanon, you had tried to connect with her and she was really resistant. Did she explain why she had been so aloof?

She had pushed me away because she was under pressure around these other kids. It hurt her that she had to say, "Don't try to defend me in a game, hang out with other kids, we can't look like we're hanging out all the time."

She was a totally different person when I was ready to come out of Synanon. She was this raging punk rocker and she was wild, colored her hair and starting fights at clubs on Broadway and Columbus. And I did think, "They're right. Synanon's right: You become violent and crazy and you're probably a dope fiend. You probably are a prostitute to support your habit. Aren't you?" We had kind of a blowout. And it's just because of the ideology. You come out with such a tight agenda of how you're not going to get. In the eyes of the community, you want to show them that you're not going to fail and you're not going to touch drugs and you're never going to touch wine. All the things about living this pure life that they scare into you, saying you're eventually going to become "damaged goods." You're extra anal when you leave. My sister was already rebelling and having a good time. She was going out and she was like, "Listen, some stuff is going to be shocking to you. I have fun. I do smoke pot sometimes. Just don't ever tell me what to do, 'cause I will tell you to fuck off."

It was very shocking. But then I began my own little rebellion and had my own fun and started making friends and going to parties and clubs and living life a little bit. Gradually. I had my first glass of wine at some party, but it took a few years.

It's a sensation that I will never be able to repeat in my life -- coming into society for the first time in my life at 18, and how special it was to go to the first restaurant, the first bar, and make my first friend, who I still remember, and how much of an impression she had on me. The first time I figured out how to use a checkbook. All these simple things in life were so big to me. First time on the freeway in California in my sister's car. It was like taking the jungle boy out of the jungle, you know. Everything was enormous and it meant a lot. Bigger than life, to me.

  • Did you encounter racism when you came out?

The racial prejudice I've experienced is more reverse prejudice. The whole light skin/dark skin thing. That, I have experienced, and that was sad to me and depressing. I still sometimes deal with that.

  • Does it have to do with you being biracial, a disapproval of your parents' getting together?

It doesn't go even that far. It's about vanity. I'll get flack from dark-skinned women who are heavier set and maybe have short, kinkier hair than me. It comes out in very subtle ways and it's hard to pinpoint, but it will be an attitude. When I went to college I'd get flack from black guys, like, "Oh yo, you probably date white men," that whole thing. Which I do. I date white men, yellow men, red men, I date whatever I want.

I feel lucky that I grew up sheltered from that kind of hate or that kind of judgment. I do miss that, that I was in a totally free, raceless environment where everyone was kind of considered beautiful and their background counted. There was a lot of interraciality and it was all good. So I'm nostalgic for that. Because I see it out here and it bothers me a lot.

  • How do Synanon's values show up in the way you live now?

One of the strongest things I got from that community was how important communication is, that social tool we have, the Game. While the Game isn't the end-all to how people should confront each other and try to talk, neither is living in society and knowing that your boss hates your guts and is going to fire you because you can't have a simple sit-down meeting and go, "Look. Your attitude sucks. And I've had it." In college, I got fired from a job and I hadn't gotten any feedback up to that time that I needed to improve my office skills or anything. And I would have gotten that in Synanon. I would have been gamed for it. I would have been told, "Shape up or you're going to be fired. These are the things that are wrong." I think the biggest element that I miss is communicating. And sometimes I open my mouth way too much, but I can't stand to sit on something that I want to say. You find out where people will allow it and where people won't.

I miss living life honestly. I did come out here and learn to lie, a lot. Because we all do, about everything: "Oh everything's great." I never lied in Synanon. It's such a crime; it's so bad for your character. I didn't know what personal privacy was like, but it's such a double-edged sword. It's too bad you can't go tell your boss, "You treat me like shit," without getting fired. Being able to talk to somebody without feeling threatened. That's what I miss.

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