Paul Morantz knew Synanon would try to kill him. He just didn’t know how or when.
You probably don’t know the name Paul Morantz. That’s a shame. And if you know about Morantz at all it’s likely because of what was done to him rather than what he accomplished in his career as a cult-busting lawyer; in the autumn of 1978, he was nearly killed when members of the Synanon cult placed a rattlesnake (with the rattle removed) in his mailbox.
Much like Morantz himself, the rehab facility-cum-cult known as Synanon is largely forgotten today. But throughout the second half of the 20th century, it was one of most dangerous and violent cults America had ever seen, led by a larger than life character named Charles Dederich.
Paul Morantz helped bring Synanon down, the cost of which was a bizarre assassination attempt that very nearly succeeded. And I felt like I’d done a great disservice to readers by not going to meet with the largely housebound Morantz before publishing my brief history of Synanon’s rise and fall back in April. I recently remedied that bout of laziness by driving up the Pacific Coast Highway to pay Morantz a visit.
Paul Morantz, 69, at his Pacific Palisades home in August 2014 by Matt Novak
“I like your Mickey Mouse collection,” I half-shout to Paul Morantz from the living room of his home in the Pacific Palisades. He has an enormous display case filled with antique figurines and toys. Mostly Disney, and mostly Mickey Mouse.
“Yeah, a lot of them are from the 1930s,” he replies from the kitchen as he makes us both some tea in the microwave.
Morantz moves slowly and is almost immediately apologetic about his appearance. For much of his life, he could boast of looking much younger than he actually was. Now, at 69, and in failing health, he’s very clearly uncomfortable that he’s not the athletic, dashing man seen on the back cover of his book, Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults.
I spent about five hours talking with Morantz at his home in the Pacific Palisades, a community just north of Los Angeles proper. He calls L.A. the cult capital of the world, and I learn about his “double life” as the quintessential Angeleno, juggling beach bum sports and quirky hobbies with professional success and idealistic causes. And I learn about Morantz the optimist, the man looking for his own personal version of utopia.
Morantz is an incredibly driven man, whose professional passions (journalism and law) both required a kind of deep obsession. Once on a case, whether it was Synanon, or later against groups like est, the Moonies, Scientology, or psychotherapists abusing their patients, it consumed his life entirely.
I couldn’t help but think of the obvious parallels to Charles Dederich, the founder of Synanon and Morantz’s longtime adversary. It’s a similar kind of obsession that drives people to create experimental communities like Synanon; a fixation on perfection, the quest to build a more fantastic world with like-minded people. And the desire for control. If not of other people’s lives, then at least the control of your own.
Morantz’s first true love was journalism, and he was determined to make a lucrative career out of telling untold stories. But he was encouraged by his father to pursue law, and seeing it as a kind of back-up, he went to law school and passed the bar exam.
Perhaps if he hadn’t pursued law he would’ve continued writing freelance articles for local newspapers and the odd Rolling Stone profile here and there, as he had in the early 70s. But as a series of events would unfold during the mid-1970s, there was no question that Morantz had fallen into a niche for which he was particularly adept: busting people out of cults. It just happened to be a specialty that ran a particularly high risk of getting oneself killed.
Paul Morantz in the 1970s, photo supplied by Paul Morantz
Morantz’s foray into advocacy for the powerless started in 1974, when he took on the case of Skid Row alcoholics who had been picked up off the street in downtown L.A. and effectively sold to mental institutions. They were kept drugged up to the point of incoherence so that the facilities could fraudulently bill Medicare. He spent over two years building his case, and ultimately won a tidy settlement for the victims.
At the same time, Morantz was also building his career as a writer and had no real intention of continuing to be a crusader for the vulnerable. But another case would come along just a couple of years later that he simply couldn’t turn down.
In 1977, a woman in Venice, California who we’ll call Terry (not her real name) was struggling with some very serious mental health issues. Suffering severe bouts of depression and paranoia, she went to a family planning clinic in search of a tranquilizer to calm herself down. Since it was just a family planning facility, they couldn’t really help her, but one of the women working there had some experience with a group called Synanon and referred her to them. Terry took a taxi up from the Venice clinic to Synanon’s Santa Monica compound.
When Terry arrived, the Synanites asked her three questions. First, if she’d ever used drugs before. Since she’d smoked marijuana in the past, Terry replied yes. Next, if she wanted their help. She again replied yes. And lastly, they asked if she would obey Synanon’s rules. She said yes.
With that, Synanon considered Terry its latest recruit.
“They shaved off all her hair and then took her by the wrist and put her in an apartment building under lock and key across the street,” Morantz tells me. From the beginning of Synanon in 1958, new male recruits to the drug rehab program would get very short haircuts as punishment. By the 1960s, some Synanites were shaving their heads voluntarily as a sign of solidarity. By the mid-70s it was mandatory—as were the vasectomies, abortions, and forced divorces imposed upon members after the death of Dederich’s wife in 1977.
After learning where she’d gone, Terry’s husband Ted traveled to the Santa Monica facility to find her, only to be told by Synanon members that he wasn’t allowed to see or speak with her. He returned the next morning and discovered that she’d already been placed on a bus heading for a different Synanon compound north of San Francisco. He went to the local police, who said there was nothing they could do since she was an adult who had seemingly entered Synanon under her own free will.
Ted tried to see his wife again after making a trip to Synanon’s Marin County compound but was again denied the right to see her. All the while, Terry was being told by Synanon that her husband didn’t want to see her anymore, and that she was better off with Synanon. In turn, her captors told Ted that Terry didn’t want anything to do with him.
Ted, desperate to get his wife back, began writing letters to local politicians, police, anybody in a position of power who he thought might be able to help. None of them did. And then, by chance, Ted met a guy who had been neighbor of Paul Morantz in Culver City, back when he had freed the Skid Row alcoholics from their nursing home prisons. This neighbor thought that maybe Morantz could help.
“At this time, I felt I had done my two and a half years of public service on the nursing home case,” Morantz tells me. “I was engaged to be married, I had gotten a law office, I had sold a TV movie of the week that had gone into production. I thought that I was actually going to leave law and go full time into writing which was my number one love, and that I would never do some crusade like that again.”
But this particular case that required some amount of experience with the politics and legalese of coercion and control, something for which Morantz was uniquely qualified. A distraught Ted told Morantz as much while crying over the phone. “I’ll get her back,” Morantz told him. “I promise you I’ll get her back.”
Morantz assumed that it would take little more than a phone call to the health department to get Terry released from Synanon’s facilities. He was surprised to find, instead, that not only was Synanon not licensed to operate as a mental health or drug rehab facility, but that all attempts that had been made for government inspection had been rebuffed. Apparently no agency had really pushed the matter, and Synanon simply operated as it pleased without any state or local oversight of its methods.
“When I hung up, I just knew something was really wrong,” Morantz said. “I didn’t know what, but I knew something was really wrong. And I just had the sense that everything in my 31 years up until that point had happened for this moment... and that this was my moment.”
Morantz pauses for maybe 10 seconds, clearly reflecting on some non-existent alternate timeline of his own path, “And that was the end of the life that I thought I was going to live.”
Former Synanon HQ in Santa Monica (now a hotel) photographed in 2014 by Matt Novak
As it turns out, Morantz had already encountered Synanon over a decade earlier.
“My first memory [of Synanon] was my high school graduate party in ‘63 and we happened to be on the beach behind what was the National Guard Armory, which they were in. I got rip roaring drunk and I wandered off and got near the building. There was this large screaming coming from the building and I sort of stopped in my tracks,” Morantz says.
What Morantz heard that night could have been the beating of a Synanite in the basement for some unknown infraction of the cult’s code. Or it could have simply been a particularly loud session of The Game, Synanon’s confrontational therapy sessions. Morantz recalls that a friend had explained at the time, “That’s Synanon. They cure drug addicts.”
“And I think I said ‘good’ but I was just scared,” Morantz tells me, clearly still shaken by the sound of the screams he’d heard half a century ago. Untold numbers of people would be beaten and abused in the basement of the Santa Monica building that Synanon would eventually purchase nearby in 1967, now a swanky beachfront hotel. “I don’t think I heard the word Synanon again until 1977,” Morantz tells me.
Synanon promotional pamphlet photographed by Matt Novak
“Terry had gone completely psychotic,” Morantz tells me about his rescue mission in 1977. “One of the reasons I was able to get her out was that they really didn’t want her anymore.” The cult had gotten really good at separating new recruits from their money. But it was in no way equipped to deal with real mental illness. By the late 1970s, Synanon was only interested in die-hard devotees who could actively contribute to their warped community in some way.
Synanon was ready to rid itself of Terry, but didn’t want to be held accountable for any damages, should Terry or her husband sue. So the group demanded assurances in writing before she would be released. Morantz offered to write up the waiver, but pulled a clever bait and switch.
“What I [wrote in the waiver] was that it released them of all liability… for taking her out,” Morantz says with a chuckle. All parties signed it, and Terry was released. “And this really pissed Dederich off.”
Morantz sued Synanon on behalf of Terry and Ted and won $300,000 for them. Aside from the financial blow, Morantz’s tactics had embarrassed the organization at a time when they were already becoming infamous in the press for physical violence against their neighbors. More importantly for Morantz was the earned reputation that he was the guy who could get things done, especially when it came to cults. He also earned an enemy for life.
In one of the worst attacks on an outsider, Synanon members viciously beat a trucker in Badger, California on November 11, 1977 after a benign road rage incident where the trucker supposedly cut off a car full of Synanites on the highway. Dederich reportedly shamed the four Synanon men involved for not physically attacking the trucker in retaliation. They remedied the situation by roaming the town with guns looking for the man, who turned out to be a guy named Ron Eidsen.
Once they found Eidsen, the group pistol-whipped him to a pulp in his own front yard, screaming that they were going to kill him. Eidsen’s wife and five children could only watch on in horror. The Synanite thugs threatened to come back for his family if he ever messed with the cult again. Morantz knew that Synanon would not be above coming after him.
“[Dederich] was so much on the Wire [Synanon’s internal radio system] about me that when people left they came to see me. So I was getting stories right off the bat,” Morantz tells me. These communications were often recorded so that devotees could listen to them later, but this naturally came back to bite the organization in future litigation.
“I’ll never forget the first person who came in and told me about the Imperial Marines and everything. When she left, I went to the head of the office and told them ‘boy they’ve really got some nuts in there. You should hear the tale I was just told,’” brushing off the threats on his physical safety as outlandish, probably as a kind of coping mechanism. The Imperial Marines was Synanon’s private fighting force, trained inside the organization and heavily armed.
“But it wasn’t too long before I knew it was true,” Morantz says. He had outsmarted Synanon and its team of lawyers. And Synanon, which is to say Dederich, was not happy about being made to look foolish.
Aerial view of one Synanon compound circa 1978 via Synanon.org
The following months, Synanon would escalate its intimidation and reign of assaults on people outside of their organization. The group had always manipulated and abused many members inside, but by the 1970s they were circling the wagons for a full scale attack on outsiders. They had purchased a large cache of weapons; over $300,000 worth, by the FBI’s 1978 estimates. And they had periodically beaten ranchers in Marin County with property adjacent to their headquarters.
Amazingly, this entire time, children were being sent to Synanon by local courts that believed Synanon was just the kind of tough love camp that at-risk youth needed. When kids would escape to the houses of neighbors on local ranches, the abuse inside was made pretty clear. But too often those kids would simply be returned to Synanon, to be abused again and again.
One woman, Doris Gambonini, who comforted Synanon refugees passed away earlier this month at the age of 80. Her husband Alvin was viciously attacked by Synanites in 1975. His crime in Dederich’s eyes? Alerting authorities to the stories of abused teenagers and buying the kids bus tickets home when he could.
(It should be noted that I’ve reached out to people who were members of the organization in the 1970s and critical of my first blog post on Synanon. If you had experience with Synanon and would like to tell about your experiences, please email me.)
The Point Reyes Light, a weekly local newspaper composed of crusading journalists punching well above their weight, took up the cause of exposing Synanon’s violence. Their story is told in the fascinating book The Light on Synanon (1980) by Dave Mitchell, Cathy Mitchell and Richard Ofshe. The Light would eventually win a Pulitzer for its coverage of Synanon, but just as Morantz’s warnings about the organization were being ignored in southern California, so too were The Light’s warnings to the north.
But maybe “ignored” isn’t the right word. Some of the local police in Marin County were corrupt, and at least two deputies were Synanon members. Down in L.A., politicians had embraced Synanon early on in the 1960s, and once the 1970s rolled around they often refused to believe that there was anything shady going on. The Light’s Pulitzer and Morantz’s near-death experience would help make Synanon a national issue, but not before a lot more people were injured and a lot more people’s lives were ruined.
One of those casualties was Phil Ritter, a former member who tried to get his young daughter out of the cult and engaged in a custody battle with his wife, who remained in the organization and fled to Detroit. Ritter sued, arguing that the cult was not a safe place for the child. So on September 19, 1978, members of Synanon tried to murder Phil Ritter in his own driveway. He spent a week in a coma and doctors thought he might not survive. Ritter eventually recovered, but no one was ever charged for the attempt on his life.
“When they did Phil Ritter, I knew that it was inevitable that they were coming for me. That was the hardest two weeks of my life,” Morantz tells me.
When the attempt on Morantz’s life did come, the method was a complete surprise. On October 10, 1978, the anti-cult crusader opened his mailbox and stuck his hand inside, believing that what he couldn’t quite see inside was a package of some sort. It was, in fact, a rattlesnake. The snake bit him. He ran shouting to his neighbors for help.
A rattlesnake seems like a difficult thing to hide, but two men had removed the rattle from a snake before placing it inside Morantz’s mailbox. Neighbors later reported seeing a car circling the block, but had believed it to be police checking up on Morantz’s house; he had recently warned his neighbors to look out for anything suspicious, and earlier that day had met with the police department to ask for special protection because he felt his life was in danger.
The two men who planted the snake, 20-year-old Lance Kenton and 28-year-old Joseph Musico, each received jail time. Dederich, who had called for the attempt on Morantz’s life, escaped with just five years probation.
Paul Morantz in his hospital bed during a press conference after the snake attack (1978)
Interestingly, Morantz dedicates his Synanon book to Dederich because of his decision to use Synanon’s Imperial Marines in the attempt on his life. You see, Dederich was too cheap to hire a proper hitman. When confronted with the $10,000 price tag for a professional killer, Dederich reportedly wondered aloud why they needed to hire someone at all when they had such competent men amongst their ranks. They had assembled and trained their own militia, the Imperial Marines, for just such missions.
Morantz says that Dederich being a “cheap bastard” saved his life. “You don’t survive a hitman, so…” he trails off.
Morantz shows me a box of cassette tapes of Dederich’s recordings. They’re largely off-the-cuff ramblings of a narcissist commanding his flock. But some contain the screams of people being beaten—a warning for all Synanites to hear. Others directly call for violence against outsiders like Morantz, even giving out his address in the Pacific Palisades. And these are just the recordings that have survived.
Morantz has listened to nearly all of the tapes. I ask about what it’s like to hear someone like that making threats against you and the people you love.
“I definitely have PTSD,” Morantz says. “And in writing the book, when I got to the point of the violence, or I get to the point when my ex-fiancee comes to the hospital, I usually break out in tears.”
But it’s not just in the recordings nor in the newspaper clippings that he has to confront the emotional and physical terrorism that was thrust upon him by a sadistic cult. Hollywood has borrowed from and co-opted his story in so many ways throughout the years, recycling some of the most painful memories of his life for popular entertainment.
“There was a stupid Bruce Willis movie called Color of Night, and he opens his mailbox and a rattlesnake jumps out,” Morantz says. Unfamiliar with the movie, I assume that he’s talking about some distant memory from the 80s or 90s, but Morantz explains that he saw the movie on TV just two nights ago. The flick originally came out in 1994.
“The Player did it too,” he said to my disbelief. The 1992 Robert Altman movie starring Tim Robbins (and nearly all of Hollywood’s who’s who in the early 90s making cameos) features a scene where someone tries to kill a Hollywood producer by placing a rattlesnake in his car. I’m slightly embarrassed that I’d forgotten that scene entirely, but even though it doesn’t have a mailbox, it’s clearly borrowing from Morantz’s horrifying experience.
Aside from Hollywood’s borrowing of the snake in a mailbox story (an episode of ABC’s Lost was even called “Rattlesnake in a Mailbox”) there have been several aborted attempts at making TV movies about Synanon. One of the first was a movie intended for ABC in 1982, but Synanon scared that project off with threats of litigation following some rather unflattering news reports. There was also a Showtime movie that was stuck in development hell for years and never got produced.
So far, Synanon’s story hasn’t been told properly on TV in documentary or fictionalized form. But it’s not hard to imagine using the cult and its strange evolution from rehab facility to violent cult as the basis for a series. That is, if history doesn’t forget it altogether.
Screenshot from the 1992 Robert Altman film The Player
“I listened to so many of his tape recordings that I had a hard time getting his voice out of my head,” Morantz says. “Sometimes I found myself thinking like him, and I would sort of have to catch myself.”
The only time that Morantz found himself in the same room with Dederich was when he took his deposition for the civil trial over the attempt on Morantz’s life. Morantz represented himself in his civil suit, putting him face-to-face with the cult leader who had called for his death.
“It was strange taking his deposition,” Morantz says. They were marathon sessions, with Morantz setting traps for Dederich to contradict himself. Dederich was a cunning sociopath, but Morantz would catch him in moments claiming that he had absolutely no control over what a few bad apples in the organization might do, while just earlier claiming that nothing done in Synanon would happen without his approval.
“Dederich was an unusual circumstance in that he wanted to tell me everything,” Morantz says. “He wanted me to know, yet he had to do it in a way that he couldn’t create liability, but he did.”
“The sum total of his testimony was: nothing happened in Synanon unless I approved it. What did I approve? I really don’t remember.”
“It was strange. I don’t know how many people have deposed somebody who’ve ordered you murdered. It was a unique experience,” Morantz says.
What’s perhaps so strange about the violence at Synanon was that most of the proof that showed up in court didn’t come from police reports. Most of the evidence of violence within Synanon was from their own internal memos and recordings.
One of the recordings that would come back to haunt Synanon was labeled “New Religious Posture — Don’t Fuck With Synanon.” On that tape was Dederich’s booming voice saying, “Don’t mess with us. You can get killed dead. Physically dead.” Not much nuance there, of course.
Left: Santa Monica Synanites in 1975 with shaved hair; Right: Charles Dederich in 1979
For all that he did to undermine Synanon, Morantz ended up watching its rapid downfall from the sidelines as he moved on to other cases. While the attempts on the lives of its enemies in 1977 and 1978 contributed to its unraveling, perhaps the group’s biggest misstep wouldn’t come until it tried to make a name for itself in Washington, D.C.
It started innocently enough, with Synanon making friends with Jimmy Carter’s sister and other people close to political power. The group then leased office space in the nation’s capital, planning to set up full-scale lobbying efforts. But Dederich had grown arrogant. And out of this arrogance came sloppiness. Unlike California in the 1960s and 70s, where alternative living communities and their strange ways had a deeper history, the establishment forces in the East didn’t have time for hippy dippy bullshit. Especially hippy dippy bullshit that came with a side of thuggishness.
Once Synanon secured office space in D.C., it brought along its Wild West mentality and assumed that they could simply intimidate other tenants out of the building, making more room for themselves. This worked in a handful of cases, but caught the attention of the local press.
Whereas Synanon only had to deal with the local small town weekly newspapers in Marin County, they were about to learn what the D.C. press was capable of in a post-Nixon world. Reporters came knocking on Synanon’s D.C. doors and Dederich himself, along with other top Synanites, attacked a photographer. Instead of standing to face charges, Dederich fled to Italy, where he reportedly started drinking again.
Dederich and his thugs, understanding that they would do best to just stay on the Left Coast where the national media largely regarded Synanon’s transgressions as a local story, agreed to leave D.C. But being the “greedy bastard” he was, Dederich wanted his deposit back from the property rental company. The company declined, and they went to court. This was a huge miscalculation.
While demands had previously been made by Morantz and others to produce the tapes from the Wire, it was the D.C. court that finally procured them. What Synanon handed over was clearly heavily edited material, the cult claiming that most of the tapes had been recycled. Just as in the Nixon case, there were large gaps in some of the recordings. However, there was enough there to prove that Dederich knew what was going on within Synanon, and that the group was indeed terrorizing anyone who dared get near them.
“The courts said this was a fraud upon the court conducted by Synanon’s legal department and that the remedy is that Synanon loses the case,” Morantz tells me. This ruling essentially called Synanon a terrorist organization for its intimidation of other building tenants, and brought to light the destruction of evidence.
Every piece of litigation involving Synanon going forward was able to cite this ruling, Morantz explains to me as he drinks his tea. I clearly see the excitement build inside him as he recalls this sense of vindication.
And slowly but surely, the cases started rolling in during the 1980s. But even more devastatingly to Synanon’s utopian community of horror and abuse, the tax man now wanted his cut. Coincidentally, the IRS case was overseen by Judge Charles Richey, the same judge who oversaw the Nixon Watergate break-in case.
Richey’s 1984 ruling against Synanon didn’t mince words, warning that the evidence presented raised, “serious questions concerning Synanon’s financial operations and create a chilling portrait of an organization that advocates terror and violence.”
Synanon could no longer claim tax-exempt status as a non-profit, but its for-profit business was still raking in enough to keep the IRS at bay and pay their back taxes. The bigger problem though? It continued to sell itself as a non-profit drug rehab group to large corporations, producing promotional items (lighters, paper weights, branded pens, etc) and saying that it was simply rehabilitating drug addicts. This presentation of a for-profit business as a charity was clearly fraudulent.
Meanwhile, Dederich and a small army at the very top of the organization were getting paid handsomely, with the organization still pulling in an estimated $30 million per year well into the 1980s. It wasn’t until Forbes magazine more or less exposed the true nature of the for-profit scheme that huge companies like IBM and Heinz were shamed into cutting ties with Synanon, effectively a financial death sentence.
“After that, Visalia [the central California compound] essentially became a ghost town. It was falling apart. There was only a small group of fanatical people left,” Morantz tells me. “Then the IRS took what was remaining and it closed.”
Out of money by 1991, Synanon was done, disappearing not with some climactic shoot-out between the heroes and the baddies, but with a whimper of unpaid tax bills, property seizures, and diminished funds. But that fade out helped Morantz in small ways. Investigators invited Morantz to visit the Visalia compound after it was seized and he appreciated getting to look inside, if only as a way to maybe find some semblance of closure on that aspect of his life.
“It wasn’t really a big news story when it closed in 1991. I remember my son was six years old then. I remember this sort of feeling that I guess I can kind of exhale now. I guess that he’s safe and I guess I’m safe… and…” he says, trailing off thinking perhaps about the emotional trauma that he and the people in his life had endured.
Underside of a ceramic pot created by Synanon now in Paul Morantz’s house
When I ask Morantz if he has any regrets, he says that nearly everything is a double-edged sword. Sure, he never became the writer he dreamt of being, but he almost certainly served a greater purpose with his life as a lawyer rescuing people out of cults, even if it meant some drastic personal sacrifices.
He recalls a time that he was watching TV with his then-fiancee Trudy. It was not long before the snake attack, and Dederich was on TV making thinly veiled threats against reporters and lawyers who had crossed Synanon. In that moment, sitting in the glow of the TV, he knew the love of his life was going to leave. He also knew that however much it hurt, it was the best thing for her safety.
“I thought that I had the woman that I was going to marry, and I was never able to accept another woman,” he says choking up. “On the other hand, if I could go back and do it over again it’s not even a thought, because my son would not have been born.”
Morantz would later marry another woman with whom he had one child. He’s very proud of his son, speaking in glowing terms about his work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory helping to get the Curiosity Rover on Mars. Morantz and his wife would later divorce.
“And in one sense, I’m very proud of what I did, so it’s a mixed bag,” he says. “I know I did something important and I know I saved a lot of people’s lives — people we’ll never even know because in some ways I changed the course of history.”
His phrasing in this way may seem shockingly immodest, but it’s true. And Morantz isn’t one for false modesty. He understands what he did to help change the course of history. And he’s the first to tell you that he didn’t do it alone. But when you’re one of the first to wage battle with an organization like Synanon and you feel like nobody’s listening to you, it can be quite alienating. When he finally got a call from U.S. Department of Justice investigators he reportedly replied, “Where in the fuck have you guys been?”
Ultimately, Morantz isn’t looking for sympathy. He explains that he lived a full life—a “double life” as he called it—where he was able to run to the beach and play volleyball one minute or commiserate with his group of fellow border collie owners, and yet still go back to the courtroom and fight the good fight, with neither world knowing anything about the other.
But he pauses again to reflect on the one that got away. “If I had my choice, my choice would’ve been Trudy. That hurt me the most.”
Morantz speaks of personal pain, but it’s rooted in this fear that human nature will never allow for the comfort or happiness that we so desperately work towards when trying to build our perfect worlds.
“That’s the sad part of it,” Morantz says. “It’s always been a great dream, but I believe that Orwell, Lord of the Flies, Synanon, Jim Jones, Animal Farm, — every attempt at utopia — Cuba... how about this one, United States of America,” he laughs. “....human nature just won’t allow it.”
Morantz understood the struggles of those who had joined Synanon looking for a better life. In fact, he became close friends with many Synanites after they left the cult. As the years have gone on, they’ve died off as older people do, leaving Morantz struggling to find others who understand what he endured.
“For a period of time, all my close friends were ex-Synanon members,” he tells me. “It was really like they were the only ones who could understand what I’d been through. And there was a sort of need to talk the language.”
For all the mental and physical anguish that he dealt with, Morantz may as well have been a prisoner of Synanon himself. Dederich joked with Morantz at his deposition that he always thought the lawyer would eventually join the Synanon cause. By helping to bring it down, he had to virtually become as much a Synanite as anyone else—and ultimately pay the awful price that comes along with that.
Davy Crockett lampshade and Synanon ceramic bowl sit on a desk in Paul Morantz’s home photographed by Matt Novak (2014)
In 2007, doctors told Morantz that he didn’t have much time left to live. By 2009, after having shopped around a screenplay about Davy Crockett, Morantz realized that the story he really needed tell was his own, and that a website would be the most effective way to bring it to a mass audience. There was an entire generation of people who had no idea what Synanon was, nor how dangerous they were. So he put aside his Davy Crockett script and started working on a book about his life, publishing large stories from it online as he finished different chapters.
“Even when I was famous, it was ‘you were the guy who got bit by the rattlesnake.’ It wasn’t like they knew what I did,” Morantz says of the late 1970s and early 1980s. This frustration for only being known as the guy who’d been attacked by a rattlesnake spurred him to tell the full story.
His first book was published by his alma mater—the University of Southern California, where he’d been the sports editor of the college newspaper—but his book was print-on-demand. They published just fifteen copies at a time to be placed in stores. He released a second edition through a self-publishing site, and became frustrated by the entire experience.
“It makes me want to puke,” Morantz says of the self-publishing industry. “I’m still searching to find some company with any integrity.”
More recently, Morantz just finished a new book that focuses solely on Synanon, but he has again struggled to find a reputable publishing home for his 600-plus page comprehensive history on the cult.
Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in 1959 via Getty Images
You can see the legacy of Synanon in the “tough love” youth boot camps of the 1980s and 90s. Some still operate today, the most egregious of which are physically abusive and practice things like gay conversion therapy. But aside from the residue of Synanon’s methods, there’s still the danger that more traditional cults can rise to manipulate people in horrific and abusive ways.
“Historically, cults have risen at times of unrest,” Morantz says. He believes that the last decade was a more fertile ground for totalist movements than our own. He saw the economic instability, second Gulf War, and marches on Wall Street as worrying signs that people may become attracted to follow any charismatic guy who stands on a soapbox. “But things have calmed,” he argues. But to be honest, I’m not so sure I agree.
Fascinatingly, Paul Morantz doesn’t believe that cults with a history of violence can’t necessarily morph into something more benign. He cites the violent origins of the Mormons and Christians, and even proposes that Scientology could one day be a much more respected organization on the world stage.
“Sometimes when the founder [of a cult] dies off you have a better chance to mutate and evolve,” Morantz says. “But in Scientology’s case, from Hubbard to Miscavige they may have gone from the frying pan to the fire.”
Morantz is, of course, talking about the history of mental and physical abuse that was rampant in the organization during L. Ron Hubbard’s reign until his death in 1986. In fact, the FBI file on Synanon makes comparisons to Scientology. And it’s hard not to see the similarities. Synanon, unlike Scientology, didn’t weather the storm brought on by the IRS. And by the realities of the information age.
“Scientology, it used to be like Synanon, that if you breathe this name, you were slapped with 48 lawsuits. And it controlled its enemies. But now so many books have been written, there’s so much information, it’s just a lost cause [for Scientology to sue everybody].”
“I was in court trying to get the truth out about their theories, that they were claiming were copyrighted. And I was saying the public has a right to know before they join about the volcanoes and the H-bomb and all that kind of stuff,” Morantz says.
He’s talking about Scientology’s creation myth involving the intergalactic warlord Xenu capturing souls and dropping them in volcanoes here on Earth. Morantz believes that people have every right to join whatever group they like, as long as they know what they’re getting into and maintain the freedoms guaranteed to them by U.S. law. By withholding the origin stories of Scientology, Morantz saw their dealings as outright fraud.
In 2005, Morantz’s son showed him the infamous South Park episode “ Trapped In The Closet,” which pokes fun at Scientology by revealing its creation story to the world. These stories were considered (and still are considered) top secret by the church of Scientology. “And then finally one day my son sticks a cartoon show in and I’m watching it all on a cartoon!”
“I can’t believe this!” Morantz remembers saying. Here was all of the top secret church information that Morantz had argued decades earlier that people had a right to know. And suddenly, in the mid-2000s the church had less power to intimidate outsiders as they had so often in the past. The flood of information was simply too overwhelming. “Scientology’s main power for harassing was lawsuits, so that’s kind of taken away. There’s already a significant change.”
In fact, Morantz sees hope for even the most extreme organizations, especially since many of our modern institutions have uncomfortably similar roots. “The Mormons, Christianity, they all went through in their early days stages like that,” Morantz says. “So if its leadership dies off it could morph into something more mainstream. And then just because maybe it was a fraud to a lot of people who ran it doesn’t mean that it’s not a good faith belief to people thirty years later who join it.”
This kind of shocks me, coming from a man who nearly died because of a violent cult. But he’s absolutely right.
“I’m not saying it’s going to change, I’m just saying that it could. Even Synanon, if it had survived Dederich’s death, it could have morphed,” Morantz concedes before reminding himself of the group’s manipulative therapeutic tactics, which would have presented a tougher hurdle than he initially thought.
Palm trees in West Hollywood by Matt Novak
Morantz recounts to me his last visit to the law offices where he once waged battles against not only Synanon, but the other cults that would convince their followers that theirs was the only way—the only path to redemption—and take advantage of that trust through abuse and manipulation.
He tells me that he sat on a stone bench outside those offices and did his best to remember what he had lived through; to remember what it had all been for. His voice trembles as he tells me about that day, when he could do nothing but cry over the battles that had been lost to history.
“I cried for myself, I cried for my staff,” he says. “But most of all I cried because I knew that there’d never be a Camelot, Shangri-La, or Utopia.”
I leave Morantz’s house a bit shaken; his stories rattling inside my head. He is, very clearly, a man who has lived a full life. But his frustrations become my frustrations. What’s the point? Did Morantz succeed, even if his legacy is that of a story largely left untold? What does success look like?
The personal and occupational sacrifices we make in life follow us everywhere. No one gets to “have it all,” as the tired cliche goes, either individually or as part of a larger whole. Morantz struggles with that, as we all do. Ask him whether it was all worth it, and you’re bound to get a different response on any given day.
After enough time, history eventually forgets us all. And despite his best efforts, Morantz will probably continue to be remembered simply as “that lawyer” (or even just “that guy”) who was attacked by a snake. But while he never found his own utopia, he saved countless people from the pain of Synanon’s abusive dystopia. His own life’s lack of perfection, weighed against saving countless of other lives from despair. In the end, that has to be enough.
[Correction: The article has been changed to reflect that the screams Morantz heard coming from a Synanon building in 1963 could have been a loud session of The Game, rather than a physical beating.]
Image by Jim Cooke