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
I was so young when my dad started telling me his cult stories that I don’t think I even knew what a cult was. In a way, I still don’t. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how unique it was to have a father who regaled his young daughter with vivid narratives from his early life, much less one who survived an adolescence as gripping and gut-wrenching as his.
Now 65, my dad doesn’t look like the stereotype of a traumatized ex-cultist who came of age under the baleful reign of a charismatic leader. Today, Dr. Craig Montell is a world-renowned neuroscientist with a litany of awards, honorary doctorates, and publications across prestigious journals like Science and Cell. He wears argyle pullovers and rimless glasses when he teaches his undergrads and plugs away at his grants from a corner office, where he runs an oceanfront research laboratory at the University of California, Santa Barbara. You would never guess to look at him that my dad spent his teenage years in a notorious cult called Synanon.
My dad never told me his Synanon stories in chronological order—after all, he was just piecing together all that had happened himself. Later, I’d gather that I was probably the first person ever to hear those stories, on long car rides to the beach or in waiting rooms to pass the time. Speaking them aloud, even to an elementary schooler, probably felt like a form of therapy for him, or at least a catharsis, and I was a consistently rapt audience, always ready with follow-up questions: “And then what happened?” “Why couldn’t you just run away?” “Where was Grandpa through all this?” It was good practice for my future career as a journalist and undoubtedly what drove me to write a book on the social science of cults, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, which comes out this June.
I’ve pieced together that the story starts in 1969—the same year as the Manson Family murders. My father was 14 when he was forced to pack up his few belongings and move onto a remote socialist commune in the Bay Area. Eleven years before, when my dad was three, his father—a card-carrying communist named Conrad, with razor-sharp cheekbones and a merciless vagabond spirit—left my dad’s severely mentally ill mother in their roach-infested studio apartment in New York’s Spanish Harlem to care for my dad alone (or not, as it turned out).
My grandmother was never able to hold down a job or even get out of bed most mornings. So my dad raised himself — Matilda-style, as I like to say — weathering all that Manhattan in the 1960s had to offer, from rats and muggings to endless solitary hours in the free public libraries and museums. But by age 13, he concluded it was time to try for a better life, so my dad moved across the country to live with his father and new replacement family: a stepmother and two toddler-age half-sisters. Life, for once, seemed normal—until the following year, when Conrad decided he was bored with nuclear family life and wanted in on the blossoming “alternative lifestyle” movement. With nowhere else to go, my dad followed Conrad and the family to Synanon.
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.
But the focal point of Synanon was a ritual called “The Game.”
The Game was a nightly activity where members were divided into circles and forced to vilify each other with brutal ad hominem criticism. For instance, one person might start by singling out another: “Hey, Amanda, you lazy little bitch. Why do you constantly have such an ugly frown on your face? You’ve got a place to sleep and clothes on your back, and for what? Skulking around the kitchen, making the nastiest food I’ve ever eaten in my life? You better learn to slap on a smile and pull your weight around here before I throw up all over you.” Then others in the circle would join in on the vitriol.
The Game was so crucial to Synanon’s ethos that life there was split into two rhetorical categories: “in The Game” and “out of The Game.” The Game was painted as a form of group therapy, but really it was a means of social control. There was nothing “fun” about the practice, which could be malicious and mortifying (though Conrad apparently loved it, finding it “intellectually stimulating”); still, it was described as something you “played.” (During my book research, I’d learn that this type of intense group “truth-telling” is found in many cultish environments: Jim Jones hosted comparable events called “Family Meetings.” Some pyramid schemers have organized recruitment rituals similar to The Game. Even Amazon employees are coerced to disparage one another’s ideas in meetings, not unlike something you’d see in Synanon.)
But by far my favorite Synanon story was the one about the lab. Synanon members wanted to avoid mainstream hospitals whenever possible, so they had their own small microbiology facility. At age 15, my dad met the scientist who ran the place, and after some tenacious coaxing, convinced the guy to let him take over running it all by himself. While kids on the outside were worrying about geometry homework and what to wear to the homecoming dance, my teenage father was culturing cult followers’ throat swabs and stool samples. (He has a guffaw-worthy anecdote about one time when an unfortunate chemical explosion caused a petri dish of feces to literally hit the ceiling fan above him.)
For my dad, the lab was a holy space, the only 50 square feet on Synanon’s campus where anything made sense. When he had inquiries or doubts, he wasn’t shamed or gaslit; instead, he’d conduct an experiment. Among his microscopes and beakers, questions were welcomed, not silenced. There, everything stood up to scrutiny. Ironically, this rational corner of an irrational compound was where my dad fell in love with laboratory science.
Meanwhile, hell-bent on getting an education beyond Synanon’s quack school—and desperate for a real diploma that would allow him to apply for college—my dad hitched a ride into San Francisco every day with a Synanoner who worked in town, where my dad attended an accredited high school. Receiving a mainstream education was totally against the rules, and my dad was the only Synanon kid to do so, but he lay low, and higher-ups looked the other way, largely because Conrad was a devoutly loyal follower—and donor—so they wanted to keep him around.
My dad had friends his age in Synanon whose parents also made them join against their will and who rolled their eyes just as hard at the place at first, but eventually, after enough Synanon “schooling” (grooming and conditioning), they were converted. Years later, those friends would have a much harder time leaving — and far more complicated feelings about their experience. After all, no cult is 100% evil. 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. But the whispers of goodness were never enough to win over my dad. He kept his eyes down and his chin up and patiently awaited graduation.
Speaking of toxic authorities, Synanon, like most cults, had an opportunistic, narcissistic, megalomaniacal leader: Chuck Dederich. As a rule, Synanon wasn’t a violent place while my dad was there, but over time, Dederich grew crueler and more deranged. By the late 1970s, he’d formed a small army called the Imperial Marines, which committed dozens of heinous crimes, like mass beatings against defectors, whom Dederich called “splittees.” Synanon’s most infamous scandal took place in 1978, just a few weeks before the Jonestown massacre, when the Imperial Marines deposited a rattlesnake in the mailbox of a lawyer named Paul Morantz, who’d helped a few splittees sue Dederich. The snake bit him, Dederich was arrested and went bankrupt, and by the early 1980s, Synanon was bound for collapse.
But back during Synanon’s heyday, when my dad finally earned his high school diploma, in 1973, he didn’t have anyone to help him figure out where to go to college. He had no clue which schools were prestigious for an aspiring scientist. So, knowing nothing, my dad decided to enroll at the first of two local colleges to accept his application. Lucky for him, it was UC Berkeley. Over the following decade, my dad obtained his PhD in microbiology and began his career in neuroscience. Now, my dad’s very job is to ask difficult questions, seek proof, and, when things don’t turn out as hypothesized, move on to the next idea.
The road wasn’t smooth, of course. With a mother 3,000 miles away who couldn’t even help herself and a dad entrenched in one of history’s most ill-famed cults, my father had zero support system. But when I was a kid, as he told these heartbreaking stories of isolation and abuse, I never sensed a drop of bitterness. He narrated with a sense of wide-eyed curiosity and pluckiness — the very qualities that allowed him to survive and escape all those years ago. A friend of mine once asked my dad how he made it out of Synanon so seemingly unscathed — what kept him going then and how is he doing so well now? The question caught my dad by surprise, and it’s one I had never thought to ask, because the answer was always so clear: “I’m a very optimistic person,” he responded. “I don’t want to be held hostage to the past.”
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.
Even so, as cult-sensitive as I am, I don’t think we humans beneﬁt from refusing to let our guards down in order to participate or believe in things. We are communal by nature. And as much as excess idealism can make a person more susceptible to pernicious inﬂuence, in the right quantities, it can also elevate someone out of a truly dismal situation. Skepticism and optimism don’t have to be in conflict. With the right amount of judicious scrutiny, remembering never to ignore our rational thoughts or emotional instincts, which are there for a purpose, we can make sure we stay tethered to ourselves through anything from an exploitative job to a sketchy online “community” to an oppressive commune in the tawny brown hills of Northern California. Then, one day, we’ll be able to tell the stories. Like my dad. To have the last word. And that, in my opinion, is real power.