My Dad Grew Up in a Cult. Now He’s a Famous Scientist.

The story of how he wound up in a dangerous compound—and how he escaped

Two vintage photographs of my dad and his sisters
My dad and his sisters, in the 1960s and 1980s, just before and after Synanon.
vintage Synanon poster
vintage Synanon poster

Like all toxic authorities, destructive cults tend to have at least a grain of positivity to offer, or else no one would join or stay.

Synanon (pronounced SIN-uh-non) was founded about a decade earlier as a rehabilitation center for drug addicts (labeled “dope fiends”), but later extended to accommodate “lifestylers,” like Conrad, who joined voluntarily as a countercultural experiment. The rules and protocols in Synanon were manifold and bizarre, which my dad, thus far raised in Manhattan’s school of hard knocks, clocked immediately. Among them: Children had to live in dismal barracks miles from their parents and weren’t allowed to go to school on the outside; followers shaved their heads, dressed alike, and went on extreme diets; and at one point, married couples were separated and assigned new spouses.

Synanon members with shaved heads
Synanon members with shaved heads
Newspaper article: Synanon rattlesnake crime
Newspaper article: Synanon rattlesnake crime

To some degree, we’re all playing The Game.

Growing up on my dad’s Synanon stories instilled in me a lifelong fascination with extreme beliefs and group behaviors. My whole life, I’ve noticed glimmers of cult influence everywhere — not just in socio-spiritual fringes, but in my high school theater program, the beauty magazine where I used to work, my social media feeds. Cultish influence doesn’t just look like a circle of “lifestylers” on a rural compound; it’s right under our noses and thumbs. To some degree, we’re all playing The Game.

‘Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism,‘ (Harper Wave, June 2021)

Los Angeles writer / Author of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism & Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language https://tinyurl.com/34886sec

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