From books and docu-series to podcasts and bigscreen thrillers, true-crime tales are everywhere. Much of it is thinly researched retreads of well-worn cases and subjects that feel exploitative in the end.
“Born in Synanon” is none of those things. The four-part documentary, directed by Geeta Gandbhir, that premiered in December on Paramount+ with Showtime is a richly detailed look at the evolution of the California-based cult from the 1960s through its demise in the early 1990s. The storytelling is enhanced by a wealth of high-quality film footage of the inner workings of a group that began as a sober-living program but descended into the madness of a cult. And the perspective could not be more intimate. “Born in Synanon” follows Cassidy Arkin, whose parents were prominent members of the group when she was born in 1974, as she tries to make sense of the strange world that she lived in for the first six years of her life. It’s based in part on the 2015 memoir “Little Brown Girl” that Arkin wrote with her mother, Sandra Rogers-Hare.
For Gandbhir, Arkin’s story had it all – including the fact that the story of the rise and fall of Synanon and its leader Chuck Dederich hasn’t been explored as much as others in the tragedy/scandal/serial killer et al canon of hits. It didn’t hurt that the earnest soldiers of Synanon seemingly filmed everything, from group marches around outdoor fields at compounds in the Tomales Bay and Badger, in Northern and Central California, respectively, to indoor screaming matches held regularly part of the Dederich’s confessional therapy system dubbed “the Game,” in which members were encouraged to confront one another.
“Born in Synanon” has all the spooky mind-control elements of the cult subgenre of true crime. But it also has an emotional heart and the uplifting elements of survivor stories as Arkin and Rogers-Hare reconcile with their troubled past, as do other former members interviewed for the doc.
“It’s a mother-daughter story,” Gandbhir says. “And the access we had to the community that is still very intact today was because [Arkin and Rogers-Hare] were insiders in the community. It was incredible.”
Gandbhir was struck by the strength of the ties that Synanon survivor maintain. And she noted with sensitivity how much some still believe in the promise of a community rooted in Synanon’s stated ideals of elimating bias hated and hypocrisy through the sharing of radical truths and massive doses of self-discipline – from forced vasectomies and head-shaving parties to cruel corporal punishment for children and teenagers.
“Even though they ultimately left Synanon and it fell apart, that dream of what it was and what they believe in connects them,” Gandbhir says. Across the four episodes, Arkin gains understanding of how children were treated in the last days of Synanon. Multiple survivors, male and female, describe in the doc a horrific atmosphere of young kids being separated from their parents and forced into strange rituals and other pressures at group homes. In the end, it was the disturbing examples of child abuse and other violent acts that ended Synanon’s run as a respected nonprofit organization by the late 1970s.
“Children were the greatest experiment they conducted,” one former Synanon youth observes in the docu-series.
Arkin, now a New York-based producer, documentarian and author, has been collecting interviews and other materials on Synanon for more than 20 years. She first met Bandbhir more than two decades ago when both worked in production jobs at what was then-independent cabler Oxygen Media, now owned by NBCUniversal. Arkin told Gandbhir back then of her vision for a docu-series about her unconventional early years in Northern California in the mid to late 1970s. She vowed to work with with Gandbhir if she ever got the chance. The door finally opened a few years ago after “Little Brown Girl” caught the attention of longtime CBS News producer Susan Zirinsky. Zirinsky, who also served as president of CBS News from 2018 to 2021, championed “Born in Synanon” through her See It Now Productions.
“She let us run with it,” Gandbhir says of Zirinsky. “It was a good experience.”
As depicted in “Born in Synanon,” it took Arkin and her mother a long time of processing their experiences and memories before they could address the reality of those formative years. And to do so in interviews with longtime and loved ones.
“People only wanted to share the great memories. There’s a lot of shame and pain and bravery in coming out with the terrible things happened,” Gandbhir says. “It’s really hard and really painful and frightening to go on camera and talk. It took incredible trust.”
What’s more, the earnest members of Synanon seemingly filmed everything, sometimes with sophisticated camera set-ups. The group’s archives were overseen by a number of former members after its dissolution in the early 1990s and are now housed at UCLA.
There’s been a burst of activity around the legend of Synanon in recent years. In 2022 the eight-part podcast “The Sunshine Place,” produced by Team Downey, explored the cult’s story from the perspective of a young woman whose parents were wrapped up in the movement. HBO has an upcoming documentary from Rory Kennedy, “The Synanon Fix,” which premiered last month at the Sundance Film Festival.
“Born in Synanon” sets a high bar.
“We are the first to have access to the material” held at UCLA, Gandbhir says. Arkin and Gandbhir also drew from local TV and print news coverage from the day. Gandbhir gives a nod to former KCBS-TV Los Angeles anchor Connie Chung “as a saving grace to us” for her investigative interviews with Dederich as he became increasingly erratic and faced legal trouble in the 1970s. “The context her reporting gave us was so helpful,” Gandbhir says.
Now that “Born in Synanon” has launched into the streaming universe, the director-producer is focusing attention on a documentary production venture she co-founded with famed director Sam Pollard and producer Lisa Payne. “We started a year ago. We were like, ‘This is a great time to do this,’ ” Gandbhir says. Gandbhir also has a solo production banner, Message Pictures.
After devoting herself for nearly two years to producing a docu-series about a cult of personality, Gandbhir takes away a lot of lessons about how hundreds of people could fall under the sway of a charismatic narcissist with a gift for self-help double speak. And she sees patterns in history and culture that mirror the upheaval of contemporary times.
“What is so interesting about Synanon and a lot of the alternative communities that sprouted up at that time is that they came out of the turmoil in our community. The Vietnam war, the children of the ‘60s against the older generation. The Berkeley kids wanted a rainbow nation,” Gandbhir says. “They had a deep desire for something else that the felt was more aligned with their politics and their world views. A community that felt safe and inclusive was really important to them.”