The Cult That Spawned the Tough-Love Teen Industry - 2007-08-20
No fewer than 50 programs (though not the Rotenberg Center) can trace their treatment philosophy, directly or indirectly, to an antidrug cult called Synanon. Founded in 1958, Synanon sold itself as a cure for hardcore heroin addicts who could help each other by "breaking" new initiates with isolation, humiliation, hard labor, and sleep deprivation.
Today, troubled-teen programs use Synanon-like tactics, advertising themselves to parents as solutions for everything from poor study habits to substance misuse. However, there is little evidence that harsh behavior-modification techniques can solve these problems. Studies found that Synanon's "encounter groups" could produce lasting psychological harm and that only 10 to 15 percent of the addicts who participated in them recovered. And as the classic 1971 Stanford prison experiment demonstrated, creating situations in which the severe treatment of powerless people is rewarded inevitably yields abuse. This is especially true when punishment is viewed as a healing process. Synanon was discredited in the late 1970s and 1980s as its violent record was exposed. (The group is now remembered for an incident in which a member placed a live rattlesnake—rattle removed—in the mailbox of a lawyer who'd successfully sued it.) Yet by the time Synanon shut down in 1991, its model had already been widely copied.