Does Synanon Still Exist After Appearing In The Program?

The 20th-century cult was a blueprint for much of the troubled teen industry.

Bustle/March 5, 2024

By Grace Wehniainen

Netflix’s The Program explores the troubled teen industry from the perspective of someone who went through it. Filmmaker Katherine Kubler spent 15 months at The Academy at Ivy Ridge, and uses the new docuseries to connect with fellow former students and share experiences from the since-shuttered school.

Throughout the three-part series, which dropped on March 5, participants open up about alleged abuse at the institution, such as regular “seminars,” which Kubler describes as “pseudopsychological, emotionally abusive, and humiliating.”

Several participants recall being forced to repeat a chant and accompanying hand motion for 8 uninterrupted hours at one seminar, for example. Kubler also describes hearing music that was used to promote a “trance-like state,” while teens were made to hit the floor and scream personal, upsetting details about their life. “That’s what they would use to break you.”

Continuing Cult History

As Kubler notes in The Program, these practices weren’t unique to The Academy at Ivy Ridge or other World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS) like it. Rather, she cites a cult that began in 1958, called Synanon, as a forebearer to the troubled teen industry.

In The Program, journalist Maia Szalavitz describes what Synanon’s “attack therapy” entailed. “You would basically find somebody’s weak points, zero in on them, and attack them,” she says. “This could go on for 24 hours — even longer — and people would just wail on people until they’d be completely broken.”

This practice, Szalavitz explains, would cause participants to become anxious and less capable of logical thinking, making them “vulnerable” to assuming the beliefs of their leaders.

Where Is Synanon Today?

As the new docuseries notes, the cult disbanded in 1991, well before the events of The Program. Decrying its corporate policy of “terror and violence,” the government revoked Synanon’s tax-exempt status, and the organization collapsed soon after, per The New York Times.

But other programs were modeled after Synanon, Kubler notes. Szalavitz wrote about several such organizations in a 2007 article for Mother Jones. There was The Seed, for example, which reportedly used Synanon practices on teenagers who used substances — or were suspected of it. A similar program, Straight Inc., was endorsed by Nancy Reagan as part of her “Just Say No” campaign in the 1980s. Features of this program reportedly included “beatings and kidnapping of adult participants,” according to Szalavitz.

Neither organization operates rehabilitation programs today, but as Szalavitz explains, the “tough love” approach popularized by Synanon and its descendants can be found in several programs that do still exist.

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