Reporter Shoshana Walter gets a message from a stranger: Penny Rawlings has just read one of Walter’s stories about Cenikor, a drug rehab with a facility in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Rawlings is desperate to learn more because her brother Tim Roe is a participant there. Rawlings helped send him to Cenikor — but didn’t realize getting him out of treatment was going to be the bigger problem.

Cenikor’s model has its roots in Synanon: a revolutionary, first-of-its-kind rehab that started in the 1950s on a California beach. Its charismatic leader, Charles Dederich, mesmerized the nation by claiming to have developed a cure for drug addiction. But as it spread across the country, Dederich wanted the rehab to turn into something else: a business.

This is the first episode in our series American Rehab, which Reveal first broadcast in 2020.

Dig Deeper

• Listen: The American Rehab podcast series

• Read: Reveal’s reporting on All Work, No Pay.

• Learn: American Rehab resources


Lead reporter: Shoshana Walter | Reporter and series producer: Laura Starecheski | Reporter and producer: Ike Sriskandarajah | Contributing producer: Katharine Mieszkowski | Contributing reporter: Amy Julia Harris | Associate producers: Najib Aminy and Amy Mostafa | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art: Eren Wilson | Art direction and layout: Gabe Hongsdusit | Original score, mix, sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Post-production assistance: Claire Mullen | Fact-checker: Rosemarie Ho | Series editor: Brett Myers | Editors: Esther Kaplan and Andy Donohue | Editor-in-chief: Matt Thompson | Executive producer for tv and documentary: Amanda Pike | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson 

Special thanks to WHYY in Philadelphia

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Two years ago, we brought you a project our reporters had been working on for years. It was one of the biggest stories we’d investigated, looking at one of the biggest public health crises at the time, the opioid epidemic. Then the world’s attention shifted to a new public health crisis, the pandemic overtook all of our lives and our attention. But while we were gripped with fear and grief over a killer virus, addiction problems in this country only got worse.
Al Letson:Over the next three weeks, we’re revisiting our series that investigated a dark corner of the rehab industry, and what’s happened since our series, American Rehab, originally aired. We start back in 2019 with a woman named Penny Rawlings. She just had a long sleepless night.
Penny Rawlings:Well, I threw up until about 5:00 in the morning, cried. My husband tried to calm me down, tried to get me to go to bed. I finally fell asleep about 5:30 and I got up at 8:00.
Al Letson:Penny was not sick with a bug. She was sick because she had just read a story that made her physically ill with a combination of fear and guilt. And she needed to contact the reporter.
Penny Rawlings:I was like, “I got to get ahold of this lady. I got to tell her that she’s on the right track, that this isn’t right. People need to know about this.”
Al Letson:The lady Penny was trying to reach was my colleague, Reveal reporter, Shoshana Walter, who we all call, Sho. Eventually Penny found Sho on Twitter and they got on the phone.
Penny Rawlings:And it was your article.
Shoshana Walter:Wow.
Penny Rawlings:I thought my knees were going to buckle underneath me when I started reading that.
Al Letson:Sho’s story was about a drug rehabilitation center called Cenikor, a place Penny had just sent her brother, Tim Rowe.
Penny Rawlings:Could you tell me what happened? Okay, so I’m 51. My brother’s 46. He is skilled trades, had a good job, owns his own home, cars, boats, motorcycle.
Al Letson:Penny and her brother, Tim live in Dayton, Ohio. They grew up right outside the city.
Penny Rawlings:If you watch the news, Dayton, Ohio is pretty much the meth and heroin capital right now. It’s really bad here.
Shoshana Walter:Yeah. Yeah.
Al Letson:Tim used to have a good job fixing up gigantic printing presses. And he used to live with his wife and three kids. Then in 2010, he had surgery on his knee and his foot. His doctor prescribed pain pills afterwards. When those ran out, he turned to heroin.
Penny Rawlings:He overdosed five times, I found out. Two of them died and they brought him back.
Shoshana Walter:Two of them, he died?
Penny Rawlings:They brought him back with Narcan.
Al Letson:Narcan, the overdose reversal drug. Penny wanted to save Tim. She tried to be there for his kids and his wife. She found him an attorney. She answered his late night calls, but she’d reached her limit.
Penny Rawlings:I had pretty much cut my brother out of my life three years ago and we were very close and I told him, if you don’t get clean, I will not help you anymore. I’m done. And I said, do not come to my house unless you’re going to knock on the door and say, I need help.
Al Letson:And as Sho tells us, when Tim did come knocking, Penny was there.
Shoshana Walter:Penny and Tim both agreed he should get out of Dayton and go someplace where he didn’t have so many connections to drugs. That’s when Penny ended up talking to Cenikor about its long-term inpatient rehab program. What Cenikor told her sounded really good, like in this commercial.
Speaker 4:I was lost in my addiction.
Speaker 5:Life was spinning out of control.
Shoshana Walter:With residents strolling shady grounds and swimming laps in a sparkling blue pool.
Speaker 6:I was going to die. I was, until I found Cenikor. With treatments tailored to me that truly worked.
Speaker 4:With the counseling I needed.
Speaker 5:Cenikor understands how hard addiction is.
Speaker 7:Cenikor can help you right now.
Cenikor:We’ve improved the lives of over 100,000 people with addiction issues like yours. We are affordable. We understand, and we’re serious about your recovery. Let us help you get out of the pain and helplessness.
Penny Rawlings:They told me that my brother would be getting three group sessions a week and two one-on-one sessions a week with a counselor and I had to pay $3,000. Well, almost $3,000 up front to send him there.
Shoshana Walter:Penny handed over her credit card number. Tim got on a plane and made it to Baton Rouge where he planned to stay for the next eight months.
Penny Rawlings:They told us that it was eight months. He would be there eight months, which is a lie.
Shoshana Walter:Cenikor’s program was actually two years long.
Penny Rawlings:Well, then I found out he was not allowed to talk to us. We were not allowed to have any contact with him.
Shoshana Walter:Not until Tim had been there at least three months, no phone calls, no visits. And there was one more issue, a big one. Penny says a Cenikor staff member had told her that on the job training was part of the program.
Penny Rawlings:I feel pretty thorough. I wanted to know what the program was, what they did. I wanted to make sure he was getting counseling. You know what I’m saying? And I was very concerned about this work thing. And she was like, oh no, they only work 20, 30 hours a week. They work them seven days a week, seven days a week.
Al Letson:Without any pay.
Al Letson:Sho has gone deep into the whole world of rehabs that function more like temp agencies than treatment centers. Years before the pandemic, she found rehabs that sent people to work at assisted living facilities and at chicken plants that supplied KFC and Popeye’s. After Sho and our former colleague, Amy Julia Harris first broke these stories in 2017, they were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. And at the Dawn of the pandemic when states were locking down, Cenikor was still sending people to work where they faced exposure to the coronavirus and they often didn’t get gloves or masks. At night, they came home to sleep in dorms with other participants. And again, the people getting this so-called treatment, they don’t get paid. The deeper Sho dug, the more people like Penny would turn to her, looking for answers.
Shoshana Walter:I’ve gotten dozens and dozens of calls like these from desperate family members and people stuck inside these rehabs. So when I hung up with Penny, I called Tim.
Tim:Well, from what I read, it’s a tough program. It’s not like your traditional 12-step rehab or whatever. So I thought, well, I’ll try it. It’s something different. It was definitely different.
Shoshana Walter:Tim says he was expecting a topnotch facility. He saw the pool on Cenikor’s website, and packed five pairs of swim trunks. But when he got to Baton Rouge, the facility was one wing in a mostly abandoned former hospital. The pool water was a green swampy color. And there was almost no time for counseling. After orientation, Cenikor sent him straight to work. They had him doing electrical work.
Tim:I’m not even an electrician.
Shoshana Walter:Did you get any training on how to do that?
Shoshana Walter:They had him making thick steel cables for shipping yards.
Tim:I was making those cables. I would sling them over my shoulder and this big spool that is as big as a car, I had to pull it out 200 feet. I would be so sore the next day.
Shoshana Walter:They sent Tim to a call center where he sat in a cubicle alongside paid workers. On his first day there, he heard a thump in the bathroom. He tried to get his supervisor to check it out. But in the end, Tim says he was the one who pushed the door open and found a worker there unconscious with a syringe. The guy had overdosed.
Tim:I’m still in a treatment facility. And then they put me to work at a job where people are on drugs. I was told that you would help me find a job. I wasn’t told that I’d be just thrown into a van and hauled off to some job. And be told, like it or not. I have to do it.
Shoshana Walter:Wow, Tim.
Tim:All they do is just work the dog [inaudible] out of you and you don’t get paid.
Shoshana Walter:Cenikor was keeping all of Tim’s wages. And then there was the treatment Tim got. It seemed to work for some of the people at Cenikor, but to Tim, it was like nothing he’d ever seen.
Tim:It wasn’t very straightforward at all, like a 12-step based program or a faith-based program with religion.
Shoshana Walter:The treatment was based on strange methods, squeezed into the few waking hours he had left after work.
Tim:They shaved my head while I was in there.
Shoshana Walter:If he said the wrong thing-
Tim:Is that non-support? Go have a seat in a verbal chair for non-support.
Shoshana Walter:If he broke one of the many, many rules-
Tim:The verbal chair, that’s where I would sit with my hands on my knees and I’d have to stare straight ahead.
Shoshana Walter:The staff and other participants would yell at him or make him talk to himself in the mirror.
Tim:That was called mirror therapy.
Shoshana Walter:Tim was learning a new Cenikor language. He had to stare at his reflection and repeat what he did wrong and how he’d fix it.
Tim:I, Tim Rowe, have a consistent behavior of talking to me. I, Tim Rowe have a consistent behavior of being late to the floor. My positive solution is to stop talking about … My positive solution is to set my alarm back. I, Tim Rowe, have a consistent behavior … And you just have to keep saying it over and over and over and over.
Shoshana Walter:For how long?
Tim:However long they decide. And anytime you ever questioned it, I would be told that it’s part of the treatment.
Shoshana Walter:After just a few weeks of this, Tim felt broken. He wondered what could possibly fix him. The answer from everyone, the staff, the other people in the program was always Cenikor.
Tim:There were some times where I thought I was going crazy. It was confusing. I wasn’t sure of myself. I didn’t know how to act. I was scared to think, because everything I did was wrong.
Shoshana Walter:When Tim’s sister, Penny finally reached him, she says, it seemed like Cenikor was brainwashing him.
Penny Rawlings:So the two times that he did call here, he was only allowed to talk to us on speaker phone and somebody was with him. So he was like, oh yeah, it’s great. It’s really great. The food’s great. He kept saying, the food’s great. And I’m like, why does he keep saying that?
Shoshana Walter:Tim just didn’t sound like himself.
Penny Rawlings:And then he’s like, yeah, just check it out on Cenikor. Go check it out online. Well, he was trying to tell us something was going on without them knowing. You know what I mean?
Shoshana Walter:Penny did check it out online. She read my reporting.
Shoshana Walter:By this time, I’d co-reported a story investigating Cenikor, showing how dozens of people getting treatment there had been horribly injured at work, broken backs, mangled hands. Somebody had even died at a Cenikor job site in the nineties. I’d written about the millions of dollars Cenikor was making off this program by sending people to work at job sites for companies like Exxon and Shell. After my stories came out, Shell emailed me that they didn’t find evidence that Cenikor participants had worked there and Exxon denied it. But we confirmed that subcontractors for those companies did use Cenikor workers. I tried to interview Cenikor’s CEO back then. He wouldn’t talk to us on tape. When Penny learned how Cenikor was sending its participants to work, she knew she had to get Tim out. After that sleepless night spent throwing up, she started calling Cenikor at 8:00 AM.
Penny Rawlings:Couldn’t get through, couldn’t get anybody to answer a phone until about 11:30. And I had to call the main Cenikor place and go literally crazy to get them to get me transferred to Baton Rouge and make somebody answer that phone.
Shoshana Walter:Penny also called the police and asked them to go check on Tim. An officer went to Cenikor and told Tim his sister could fly him home that day. But Tim was surrounded by Cenikor people. And he told the officer he was fine. He was too afraid to leave. He ended up sneaking out when no one was looking. He walked out into Baton Rouge, a place he’d never been, with no money and no ID. One of the first open businesses he found was a Comfort Inn. He convinced the woman at the front desk to let him call Penny. She got him on a flight to his mom’s house in Florida. When I talked to Tim, he’d been out just a couple days.
Penny Rawlings:How does it feel to be out of there?
Tim:It feels good. It feels good. Yeah. I’m just sitting here. I’m looking up at the sky and just kind of walking and talking. I haven’t been able to talk about any of this.
Penny Rawlings:Yeah.
Tim:Because you don’t do that at Cenikor. You don’t get that kind of therapy. You get work therapy, whatever the hell that is.
Shoshana Walter:Work therapy, whatever the hell that is. That’s my first question. I have more, Penny does too.
Penny Rawlings:Yeah, no, I’m really serious. I really want you guys to, there has to be laws being broke here. People working like that. I mean, that’s slave labor. We outlawed slavery. I can’t wrap my head around it. I can’t be the only person.
Shoshana Walter:No, you’re definitely not the only person.
Al Letson:Over the next three weeks, we’re going to answer that question. And many others to find out how many programs like Cenikor are there out there. How many people end up in these programs and where did the idea of work-based rehab even come from? We’re going to tackle that question next.
Cenikor:We can take credit for literally getting thousands and thousands and thousands of people off of crippling addiction, fatal addiction. We have done that. We’ve done it here.
Al Letson:We’re going back to the fifties and a violent cult called Synanon.
Speaker 10:I didn’t know it was going to turn into what they did, man. Going on, beating up on people, man, and guns and rattlesnakes and mailboxes.
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal.
Steven Johnson:Hey, I’m Steven Johnson, the new host of the Ted Interview podcast. In each episode, I’m going deep with the most fascinating thinkers on the planet and grappling with the most provocative ideas of our time. I’ll talk dark matter with theoretical physicists, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, explore gaming and fiction with Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Jennifer Egan and discuss Russia and Putin with political activist and chess grand master Gary Kasparov. Check out the Ted Interview wherever you listen.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. For years, Reveal’s Shoshana Walter has been investigating drug rehabs that send people to work for free and keep all their pay. And the deeper she dug, the more questions that came up.
Shoshana Walter:One of my biggest questions, where does this work-based rehab come from? And as I’ve learned from talking to hundreds and hundreds of people who’ve gone through these types of programs, I kept hearing it wasn’t just about work. It also relies on a host of strange rules, punishments, and “therapies”.
Speaker 12:There’s 17 different types of punishments you can get. I’ve got all 17 of them. I’ve been to all three Cenikors.
Shoshana Walter:Some of the punishments seemed like they were designed to be humiliating.
Tim:The first thing they did was they shaved my head. They strip you down, kind of like take away everything that you think defines you.
Shoshana Walter:There are all these ways that basically break people down into submission.
Speaker 12:And they’re like, whoa, do you think you are coming here and trying to tempt us? In my face, guys yelling at me like this.
Al Letson:Yelling in people’s faces, mirror therapy, these are techniques used by Cenikor.
Tim:Are trying to brainwash you. You’re not an individual. You’re just part of Cenikor.
Shoshana Walter:Cenikor uses these techniques, and so do a lot of other programs. We wanted to understand where this kind of therapy came from, so we followed the breadcrumbs. We traced it back decades until we landed on a beach in Santa Monica, California, right outside LA.
Al Letson:This story is so big. We’ve had a team of reporters investigating it. Today, our colleague Ike Sriskandarajah follows those breadcrumbs back more than 50 years.
Ike Sriskandara…:Let me take you back to 1958, when a revolutionary, first of its kind rehab was born, it was called Synanon.
Synanon:An instant guide to Synanon.
Ike Sriskandara…:And it’s not just Cenikor that modeled itself after this place. In fact, much of the rehab industry in the United States can trace its origins back to this one program that started right here.
Speaker 15:Who started Synanon?
Synanon:Synanon Foundation was started in 1958 by ex-alcoholic, Charles E. Dederich.
Ike Sriskandara…:To understand the world of rehab options that exist in America today, why they are the way that they are, we have to go back in time to this place. Synanon, a place that made really slick explainer videos.
Speaker 15:What is Synanon’s cure rate?
Synanon:Synanon has no way of keeping track of what people do after they leave. For the people who stay in Synanon, the cure rate is 100%.
Ike Sriskandara…:I wanted to find people who were there at the birth of Synanon or as close to the beginning as possible. And I was surprised to find anyone who was addicted to heroin in the 1950s who’s still alive today. So I’m very happy, I get to introduce you to-
Kandy:Candy with a K. K-A-N-D-Y. Not no [inaudible] C.
Ike Sriskandara…:By the way, Kandy swears a lot.
Kandy:Last name Latson. L-A-T-S-O-N.
Ike Sriskandara…:Kandy Latson.
Kandy:I entered Synanon 7/14/1960.
Ike Sriskandara…:Candy was 83 when we spoke living in Santa Monica in an apartment that’s not far from where Synanon was founded. Synanon helped Kandy get off drugs. The Korean War is how he got on them.
Kandy:And that’s how I started using drugs. I had never had a drug in my life before. That’s how it started.
Ike Sriskandara…:When he was discharged, Kandy came home from Korea, bounced around for a little while. By 1956, he landed in LA.
Kandy:And that’s where I started shooting dope, shooting heroin, was in LA.
Ike Sriskandara…:The second person I want you to meet is John Stallone.
John Stallone:One time I was in Florida when I was 15. Me and my friend, Nicky we would go down there and be gigolos.
Ike Sriskandara…:I meet him in his garden apartment in Petaluma, California. He’s 79 years old. Big guy with long hair. He’s hunched, but strong. He kind of has a flower power meets Hell’s Angels vibe. When you were 15, you were-
John Stallone:In Miami, being gigolos. We had a big shoebox full of pot. And we’re going to go down there because all the-
Ike Sriskandara…:Maybe I don’t know what a gigolo is. I thought that was a male prostitute.
John Stallone:It is.
Ike Sriskandara…:Oh, it is. We talked like this for about an hour before I got in a single question about Synanon. If you can introduce yourself and say the years you spent at Synanon.
John Stallone:I spent about seven, seven and a half years in Synanon.
Ike Sriskandara…:Just like Kandy, he also started using as a kid in the fifties, in his hometown, Brooklyn, New York. John got kicked out of high school for throwing a pie in his principal’s face. Sounds kind of funny, but he still feels bad about it. And eventually a neighborhood guy introduced him to heroin.
John Stallone:It was this warm caressing feeling. And after that, I was off to the races. I fell in love, man.
Ike Sriskandara…:It was just something to do.
John Stallone:Before you know, we were shooting junk every day.
Ike Sriskandara…:How long does does that last?
John Stallone:Until I went to Synanon.
Ike Sriskandara…:Right now in the US we’re in the middle of an opioid epidemic. The last one started after World War II. Increased international trade, also brought more heroin into big port cities like New York and LA setting off alarms.
Synanon:This is an alarm sounding in a police station somewhere in the United States. The alarm is meant for you. It’s a warning to wake up, to shake loose from the grip of the nation’s nightmare.
Ike Sriskandara…:Roughly 3 million US citizens are now in recovery or are currently addicted to opioids. But back then the nation’s nightmare was much, much smaller.
Speaker 18:How many drug addicts are there?
Synanon:Well, no one really knows.
Ike Sriskandara…:In the 1950s, the government estimated 50,000 Americans were addicted to heroin. There was no such thing as a narcotics rehab. If you were addicted to drugs, your options were jail, hospital, psych wards, and two federal prisons. If you were west of the Mississippi, you went to Fort Worth, Texas. And if you were east, you went to Lexington, Kentucky to a place called the Narcotic Farm. And that’s where John went.
John Stallone:And when I got to Lexington, one of the programs that they had was they would get guys and they’d give him as much heroin as they want. And they would lock him in a room and observe them.
John Stallone:Oh, interesting. He’s vomiting. Yeah, diarrhea. It was such an atrocity of using human beings as experimental animals.
Ike Sriskandara…:Word didn’t get out until the mid 1970s. But when it did, people were outraged. Congress launched an investigation.
Speaker 20:Now, after you completed the testing program, did they give you any drugs?
Speaker 21:They had a choice of earning days on the time that you were doing there, or you could get paid off in narcotics. I choose narcotics.
Speaker 20:What did most to the other patients choose? Narcotics or time off?
Speaker 21:The majority of them choose narcotics. You were dealing with drug addicts. I mean, that’s what they wanted mostly.
Ike Sriskandara…:So the so-called hospital that was supposed to get people off drugs was paying people in drugs. Are you one of the last people from that-
John Stallone:That’s alive today.
Ike Sriskandara…:I spoke to historians who told me that some good research did come out of the Lexington Narcotic Farm. Prisoners were treated more like collaborators, and it was much safer for them than using out in the streets. But as a rehab, it was pretty much a failure. According to one study, 90% of people who left Lexington started using again within six months. For John, it was much sooner. As soon as he’s back in New York, he’s using.
John Stallone:I’m not going to shoot dope. I’m not going to shoot dope. I’m not going to shoot dope. Willpower is won’t power. Eventually something would happen, and I’d start using again.
Ike Sriskandara…:Willpower was basically the treatment for drug addiction at this point. But on the other side of the country in Santa Monica, California, Kandy Latson was about to encounter a revolutionary new treatment. Kandy had been on a bender, shooting dope for 18 straight months. He’d lost his job as a janitor, ran out of money. And that’s when he heard from a fellow user about this program on the beach. And on a summer day in 1960, deep in the pangs of withdrawal, Kandy walked up the front steps of Synanon.
Kandy:I just wanted to get well, to stop hurting, to stop throwing up, man. I’m still vomiting and I’m walking. And I opened that door and went in there.
Ike Sriskandara…:It was a three story, red brick building that used to be a US armory. The front looked out over Highway One and the back opened onto the Pacific. This was home base for a small gang of people fighting their addictions.
Kandy:Synanon wanted you to come sick. They didn’t want you to come well, because you would split. You wouldn’t stay. But if your ass came sick, you got a couch. They put you on the couch, give you a blanket, a roll of toilet tissue and a bucket. And you kick cold turkey.
Ike Sriskandara…:This is the place that inspired a generation of rehabs and created a model that continues to exist today. The guy who dreamed it all up was a larger than life figure who’d never actually been addicted to narcotics. We heard about him in those Synanon promotional videos earlier. His name is Charles E. Dederich.
Charles E. Dede…:I want to tell you a little story.
Kandy:When I first met Chuck Dederich, I hated Chuck Dederich.
Charles E. Dede…:I was an extremely popular and charming drunk. I would come to your home and puke on your floor and you would love me. Of course, I didn’t love you.
Kandy:What he looked like, he weighed about 280 pounds. He had a big belly and he came to California to die.
Charles E. Dede…:It seems only yesterday when the only thing that existed in life for me was the possibility and the reality of escape, of escape from life.
Ike Sriskandara…:Chuck Dederich chronically abused alcohol. His life was in shambles. He’d lost his job, his wife, he was living off a $33 a month unemployment check in a gritty apartment in Santa Monica. And he was down to just a suitcase of belongings, including a copy of Emerson’s Essay on Self Reliance. Around that time, he started going to Alcoholics Anonymous.
Charles E. Dede…:And there was a meeting going on and I suddenly realized that people were making speeches up there, that the people listening to them. So I leap to my feet and kind of rushed up to the podium and broke into some kind of a religious diatribe. I hadn’t the faintest idea of the content, but it got a terrific hand and everybody laughed. And so I said, this is for me.
Ike Sriskandara…:So one night after a meeting, he invites some of the folks from AA back to his place to keep the conversation going. But this time, without any of those pesky AA rules about waiting your turn or biting your tongue and nothing was off limits.
Kandy:Chuck could give seminars on Lao Tzu, Confucius, Jesus, Mohammed, you name it.
Ike Sriskandara…:They’d debate politics, religion, sex late into the night. It was heated, loud and they’d fill every ashtray in Chuck’s tiny apartment. There were only two rules, no violence, and nobody can be under the influence. Chuck’s place keeps filling up and eventually they need more room. So they get a little money together and rent a storefront.
Charles E. Dede…:And of course, you know the story of Whitey Walker, who was an addict.
Ike Sriskandara…:The story goes, a spring day in 1958, Chuck’s gang from his AA club was having a lively discussion. And a guy named Whitey Walker came in. He was Synanon’s first drug user. He liked the conversation enough that he stayed. And for a while, anyway, stayed off drugs.
Kandy:That was unheard of. So when he got clean, the word spread to the street, hey man, there’s a place down at the beach where addicts is getting clean, and that’s when the addicts started coming in.
Charles E. Dede…:And quite a gang began to gather. And the addicts all began to kind of hear about it and began to come down to the beach. And we would somehow scramble around.
Ike Sriskandara…:Scramble around and find places for people to stay. This rag tag group was becoming a residential program. Chuck knew he was onto something. So he got a lawyer friend from AA to help him incorporate. He wanted to call it the tender, loving care club, but the name was taken. Then the group slurred their way into a word that meant nothing, but was somehow a better fit.
Kandy:The word came from some guy who was announcing at 12 o’clock for the seminar. And instead of saying that, he said Synanon and Chuck heard it. So he grabbed that word and it had no meaning.
Ike Sriskandara…:So on September 18th, 1958, Synanon Foundation Incorporated was born. But its spiritual birth, that came a little after.
Charles E. Dede…:The real beginning of Synanon, the real beginning of Synanon.
John Stallone:So what happens is somebody gets loaded and they’re trying to throw them out. And he’s saying, [inaudible] I’m not leaving.
Charles E. Dede…:It was an explosion of a group of people.
John Stallone:So somebody turned around and say, “Hey, you know, why don’t you shut the fuck up, because you were getting loaded with me a week ago.” And now the guy shuts up and he looks at him and then somebody else says, “Well, you know what, I was using too. I smoked some weed the other day.” Somebody else, “You know what, I drank the other day.”
Charles E. Dede…:And everybody began to confess their sins. They began to cop and it gathered tremendous momentum. Before we went to bed, people, a lot of people came to me and said, “Something’s changed. I’m going to go for this. I’m going to stay clean. I’m going to stay clean.”
Ike Sriskandara…:They called this the night of the great cop out. And it became as central to Synanon’s origin story as Independence Day.
Charles E. Dede…:So Synanon was born that night.
Ike Sriskandara…:This is the moment that reaches into the future, and is the reason we’re telling you this story. So many of the rehabs that will follow were inspired by the events of this night and this idea of confrontation, candor, and people with drug addictions, holding each other accountable.
Al Letson:In just a few short years, Synanon will go from an ad hoc group on the beach to a national nonprofit with outposts around the country. It’s growth is propelled by a powerful idea that people addicted to heroin can stop using.
Al Letson:Ike will be back with the rest of that story. You’re listening to Reveal.
David:Hi, my name’s Catherine Makowski and I’m a senior reporter and producer here at Reveal. Reveal is a nonprofit news organization and we depend on support from our listeners. Donate today at Thanks.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Through the early sixties, Synanon grows from basically a dorm full of people in California with a common goal to a treatment program with an urgent purpose.
Synanon:Synanon’s first order of business is to reeducate drug addicts, alcoholics, delinquent, and other people who find themselves unable to function responsibly in the larger society.
Al Letson:More people start hearing about the program and Synanon expands. They pull together donations and set up shop in the San Francisco Bay area, and even open a place in Connecticut.
Speaker 18:Where do your residents come from?
Synanon:From all over the United States.
Al Letson:It was becoming a national program. And with the eastern outpost, Synanon could reach one of America’s largest concentrations of heroin users, which, in the early sixties was in New York. That’s how John Stallone in Brooklyn first found out about it. Reveal’s Ike Sriskandarajah picks it up from here.
Ike Sriskandara…:After John gets back from the Narcotic Farm, that part prison part hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, he’s using again. That place that was supposed to treat addiction only kept John from using heroin for about as long as the train ride home, then he scored again. Eventually John and his friend, who he gets high with need more money to keep up their habit. So they bought an old gun.
John Stallone:So we bought a P38. We didn’t enough money to buy a P38. I think it was about five or 10 bucks. It had old Nazi insignias all over it.
Ike Sriskandara…:They get their hands on this pistol that’s probably haunted. And once they have it, they start robbing drug stores.
John Stallone:We just want the opioids. Morphine, dilaudid, [inaudible].
Ike Sriskandara…:Back then, the government estimated that nearly half, half of all narcotics users in the United States, lived in New York City and robberies like this were on the rise. It all came to a head one day when John says another stick up gang in another part of New York did a robbery that went really wrong.
John Stallone:Apparently some [inaudible] idiots, man, stuck up a drug store in Queens and they killed [inaudible] pharmacist, man. They shot him with a shotgun.
Ike Sriskandara…:After that, John says the NYPD started cracking down. And that’s when John ran into a guy from his old neighborhood.
John Stallone:He was gone for like over a year. We thought he was in a penitentiary. He said, “Nah, man.” He says, “I was out in this program.” He says, “This place out in LA.” He says on a beach. He says, “They got a program for dope fiends on the beach”, he said. I said, “What do you got to do to get in this place?” He says, “Nothing. You just got to tell him you’re a dope fiend.”
Ike Sriskandara…:John’s friend wasn’t totally messing with him. If you followed Synanon’s rules, you could go stay in a place that would help you get sober, which is really an incredible thing, even now. No insurance, no fees, and walk-ins were always welcome, which is what brought John into a Synanon intake center in Connecticut in 1965. He got accepted and was sent to Synanon in San Francisco, free airfare too.
Speaker 15:What are Synanon’s rules?
Synanon:No psychic modifiers. That’s no drugs or alcohol and no physical violence or the threat of physical violence.
Ike Sriskandara…:But when John gets there, he’s high and this violates one of Synanon’s cardinal rules. When John finally cops to it, they boot him from the program. Eventually though, they allow John to crawl his way back in with a few bizarre punishments.
John Stallone:They shave your head. I said, “Shave it?” They said shave it. I said, okay. They said, “We’re going to dress you some funny clothes and put a funny sign on you. And you’re going to work your ass off, if they accept you back in the house.” I said, “Okay.”
Ike Sriskandara…:They shave his head, put him in a dress and galoshes and hang a sign around his neck. What did the sign? What kind of clothes did they make you wear?
John Stallone:It said, “Please help me, I tried to kill my family.”
Ike Sriskandara…:These punishments, the head shaving, the strange costumes, the demeaning signs, they were making it up as they went along. They didn’t know it, but the residents at Synanon were writing the rule book for an entire corner of what would become a multi-billion dollar rehab industry.
John Stallone:I’m just going to tell you how poor we were.
Ike Sriskandara…:In 1965, Synanon was still very much a scrappy cash strapped non-profit.
John Stallone:50 man dorm, 50 men lived in one dorm.
Ike Sriskandara…:And how do you feed a dorm full of people?
John Stallone:The guys who go out hustling in the morning, we call them hustlers. They would go to different places. Grocery stores, outdated milk, outdated cottage cheese. And you could write them off full price because we’re a nonprofit.
Ike Sriskandara…:Their tax free status would become really important to Synanon’s growth. But for now, it was just a way to collect some nearly rotting dairy.
John Stallone:My job was dairy sniffer. So I would take a container of milk, open it up, sniff it. If it smelled good, I put it in the milk crate over here. If it smells sour, I threw it in the trash can.
Ike Sriskandara…:Back then the jazz scene was somewhat notorious for heroin use. And when some of them were trying to kick, they’d end up at when a Synanon’s houses or would at least pass through.
John Stallone:Miles Davis would send his group down whenever they came to town.
Ike Sriskandara…:Whenever Miles Davis came to San Francisco, he would send his band to-
John Stallone:Yeah, but he didn’t come because he was using, he had respect, but he would send the rest of the band. They would come down and play for us in the afternoon.
Ike Sriskandara…:So it was only natural that this rehab grew a jazz band of its own.
Ike Sriskandara…:Okay. This is a record I just bought on eBay. The Sounds of Synanon side one, CED. Charles E. Dederich. And Joe Pass played on the Sounds of Synanon.
Kandy:Joe Pass, the third greatest guitar that lived. I played on the Sound of Synanon with him.
Ike Sriskandara…:Oh, is that right? What did you play?
Kandy:I played the conga drum. Look on the label. You’ll see my name Kandy Latson.
Ike Sriskandara…:How about that? Oh, okay.
Kandy:Yeah, brother.
Ike Sriskandara…:The record helped grow Synanon’s profile and even made them a little money.
Kandy:We didn’t get paid for it. The money went to Synanon.
Ike Sriskandara…:Were you okay with that?
Kandy:Yeah. Hell yeah. Okay. I was eating, sleeping, getting clothes at Synanon. Hell yeah, I was okay with it. We were a family, man. Synanon was a family.
Ike Sriskandara…:Synanon was unlike a lot of families at the time. For one, it was diverse. When Kandy joined, black and white people living together, would’ve been illegal in many parts of the country and the proud dad of this unlikely family, Chuck Dederich.
Charles E. Dede…:That’s the way Synanon was in the first five years of its existence. And of course, we hurdled into the public consciousness.
Ike Sriskandara…:Life Magazine called Synanon a tunnel back to the human race. A Connecticut Senator on the floor of Congress said to President Kennedy, “There is indeed a miracle on the beach of Santa Monica, a manmade miracle, that I feel can benefit thousands of drug addicts.” And at the center of this miracle is an unorthodox therapy called the game.
Kandy:Game, G-A-M-E. In the Synanon game, anybody can say anything he wants to say to produce any kind of an effect he wants to.
Ike Sriskandara…:The game is still around today. In fact, it’s been central to so many drug rehabs, including Cenikor, where participants tell us they still play the game at least once a week. I wanted to hear what this revolutionary therapy sounded like at its inception. The earliest recording I could find of the game is from an out of print documentary from 1961 called David. It’s black and white and sixties cool with attune by Miles Davis.
Synanon:This is a story of a struggle by the sea. 60 people fighting for their lives by fighting to stay together.
Ike Sriskandara…:I showed it to Kandy because he was there around that same time.
Kandy:I never saw this film. Un-uh. I don’t know how you got a hold of that, man. That’s way back in the, god damn, that’s almost the beginning.
Synanon:The largest group of clean dope addicts freely gathered anywhere in the world.
Ike Sriskandara…:In the film, around a dozen people sit in a circle and the women are in dresses and the men are all wearing button downs and slacks. And one of the people in that group is a young black man whose lean and tall and spells his name with a K.
Charles E. Dede…:Kandy.
Kandy:Is that me? Yeah, that me.
Charles E. Dede…:Trudy.
Kandy:Good Lord. How did you do this, man? Man, how did you do this? That’s incredible. You got the early group, a group by the sea, sitting side by side on the beach.
Synanon:This will be a Synanon session, a strange and violent group argument.
Kandy:Oh, that’s bullshit. He think it’s a violent argument. These are tools for this group, man.
Synanon:No psychologist has been able to explain a Synanon, but many believe it is the reason why more addicts have stayed off dope longer here than anywhere else in the world.
Ike Sriskandara…:The game starts with Joe Pass complaining about David. He’s a trumpet player and has been skipping rehearsals.
David:I have a cut on my lip. It’s not healed.
Ike Sriskandara…:They go back and forth about who whines more.
Joe Pass:A complainer and a whiner and a baby.
Joe Pass:You whine more in one day about my whining than I whine in a month.
Ike Sriskandara…:And then Kandy starts going after David.
Kandy:[inaudible] Is it important that your wife come down as often as she does?
David:She’s been here three times now.
Kandy:But do you think she’s coming down too often?
Ike Sriskandara…:This goes on for another couple minutes. David saying he loves his wife and son and gets strength from being around them. And the others in the group, they all pile on him asking, how long have you known your wife? How well do you know your wife? Isn’t your marriage based on a lie? Kandy leads the charge.
Kandy:And you mean to tell me that you’re willing to take this woman back and know that if your married a dope fiend, she got to be a big [inaudible] dope fiend.
Ike Sriskandara…:So I asked Kandy, how does stopping David from seeing his family help him stay off heroin?
Kandy:Because he going back to the same thing that produced him. He ain’t ready yet. It don’t mean he can’t never go back, but you ain’t ready to go back now. You ain’t been gone enough.
Ike Sriskandara…:In this early session, we start to see what would later become a much more serious criticism about Synanon and its methods. Were people in vulnerable, emotional states being coerced to do things against their will? In other words, was Synanon brainwashing people?
Kandy:Well, we used to tell people, yeah, we brainwash them because they brain is dirty and it is. It’s the heroin and morphine and wine and whiskey and cigarettes and lying and cheating and stealing. Yeah, we brainwashed them.
Ike Sriskandara…:That has a positive connotation to you?
Ike Sriskandara…:Lots of studies have looked at these methods and the use of confrontational therapy to treat addiction, and the findings are pretty consistent. One paper summed it up this way. Four decades of research show “There is not, and never has been a scientific evidence base for the use of confrontational therapies.” In fact, researchers say these tough love tactics cause more harm than good. But that doesn’t mean we’ve moved on from them. The methods Synanon started are still alive today. They’re used by other rehabs inspired by Synanon, rehabs like Cenikor.
Al Letson:Synanon had created something that offered hope to people who didn’t have a lot of it. It gained a reputation for that, for helping people get off and stay off drugs, but it was also going to change.
Speaker 28:They were planning on doing vasectomies that following weekend.
John Stallone:I didn’t know it was going to turn into what they did, man, going out and beating up on people, man, and rattlesnakes in mailboxes.
Kandy:Okay. Now, I’m going to tell you how Synanon ended.
Al Letson:That’s next week as we continue our look back at American Rehab. If you missed this series the first time around, you can listen to the whole thing on our podcast. Just search for American Rehab and be sure to subscribe to reveal while you’re there.
Al Letson:The American Rehab reporting team is Shoshana Walter, Laura [inaudible] and Ike Sriskandarajah. Brett Myers is our editor. Ike reported and produced our Synanon backstory. Laura is our lead producer. Amy Julia Harris helped us report this story from the beginning and launched this project. We had additional editorial support from NA Zacchino, Andy Donahue, and Esther Kaplan. Production support from WHYY in Philadelphia. Research help from Claire Clark and David Hertzberg. Recording help from Chris Harlan Dunaway. And excerpts from David, a 1961 film played with permission from Drew Associates. Bay Area Video Coalition digitized old real recordings of Synanon. Fact checking by Rosemary Ho. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy, the great, Mostafa.
Al Letson:Original score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. Our post production team is the Justice League. And this week it includes Jess Alvarenga, Kathryn Styer Martinez, Steven Rascon, and Claire, C Note, Mullen. Our digital producer is Sarah Merck. Our CEO is Kaizar Campwala, Sumi Aggarwal is our editor in chief. And our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our a theme music is by Comarado Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the In As Much Foundation.
Al Letson:Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.
Speaker 19:From PRX.

Shoshana Walter was a senior reporter and producer at Reveal, covering the criminal justice and child welfare systems. She's working on a book for Simon & Schuster about the failures of our country's addiction treatment system. At Reveal, she reported on exploitative drug rehab programs that require participants to work without pay, armed security guards, and sex abuse and trafficking in the marijuana industry. Her reporting has prompted new laws, numerous class-action lawsuits and government investigations. Her stories have been named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, Selden Ring and National Magazine Awards. She has also been honored with the Livingston Award for National Reporting, the IRE medal, the Edward R. Murrow award, the Knight Award for Public Service, a Loeb Award and Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting. Her Reveal podcast, "American Rehab," was named one of the best podcasts of the year by The New Yorker and The Atlantic and prompted a congressional investigation.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is a fellow with the Watchdog Writers Group at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and is based in Oakland, California.

Laura Starecheski is a former senior radio editor for Reveal. Their radio work at Reveal has won a national Edward R. Murrow, a duPont-Columbia, and a Peabody, among other awards. Previously, they reported on health for NPR’s science desk and traveled the United States with host Al Letson for the Peabody Award-winning show “State of the Re:Union.” Their Radiolab story “Goat on a Cow” won a silver award for best documentary from the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, and SOTRU's “The Hospital Always Wins” won a national Murrow Award. They have been a Rosalynn Carter fellow for mental health journalism and a Knight-Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan. Starecheski is based in Philadelphia.

Ike Sriskandarajah was a senior reporter, producer, and fill-in host for Reveal. He has worked on projects that have won an Emmy, two medals from Investigative Reporters and Editors, and awards from Third Coast, the Education Writers Association, and the New York Associated Press Association. He was a narrative audio producer at The New York Times, making investigative episodes for "The Daily." Sriskandarajah is from Wisconsin and reports from New York City.

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. She's also been a senior writer for Salon and Fast Company. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Slate and on NPR's "All Things Considered."

Her coverage has won national awards, including the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award two years in a row, an Online News Association Award, a Webby Award and a Society of Environmental Journalists Award. Mieszkowski has a bachelor's degree from Yale University. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.

Najib Aminy is a producer for Reveal. Previously, he was an editor at Flipboard, a news aggregation startup, and helped guide the company’s editorial and curation practices and policies. Before that, he spent time reporting for newspapers such as Newsday and The Indianapolis Star. He is the host and producer of an independent podcast, "Some Noise," which is based out of Oakland, California, and was featured by Apple, The Guardian and The Paris Review. He is a lifelong New York Knicks fan, has a soon-to-be-named kitten and is a product of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Aminy is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) was the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Sarah Mirk (she/her) was a digital engagement producer for Reveal. Since 2017, she has worked as an editor at The Nib, an online daily comics publication focused on political cartoons, graphic journalism, essays and memoirs about current affairs. She works with artists to create nonfiction comics on a variety of complex topics, from personal narratives about queer identities to examinations of overlooked history. Before that, Mirk was the online editor of national feminist media outlet Bitch, a podcast host and a local news reporter. She is also the author of several books, including “Year of Zines,” a collection of 100 handmade zines, and “Guantanamo Voices,” a collection of illustrated oral histories of the world’s most infamous prison.

Gabriel Hongsdusit is a former design and visuals editor at Reveal, standardizing and developing Reveal's design and visual language. Previously, Hongsdusit was the design apprentice for the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) Labs, where he worked on the visual design, branding and illustration for nonprofit news organizations such as Chicago Reporter, Mississippi Today and Rivard Report, as well as for INN itself. He graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor's in Linguistics and Mandarin Chinese.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Claire Mullen worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September 2017. is an associate sound designer and audio engineer for Reveal. Before joining Reveal, she was an assistant producer at Radio Ambulante and worked with KALW, KQED, the Association of Independents in Radio and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She studied humanities and media studies at Scripps College.

Andy Donohue was the executive editor for projects for Reveal. He edited Reveal’s investigations into the treatment of migrant children in government care, Amazon’s labor practices, rehab work camps and sexual abuse in the janitorial industry. He was on teams that have twice been Pulitzer Prize finalists and won Investigative Reporters and Editors, Edward R. Murrow, Online News Association, Third Coast International Audio Festival, Gerald Loeb, Sidney Hillman Foundation and Emmy awards. He previously helped build and lead Voice of San Diego, served on the IRE board for eight years and is an alumnus of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University.

Matt Thompson was the editor in chief of Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. Prior to his arrival at Reveal, he served as the executive editor of The Atlantic, overseeing new editorial initiatives and planning, developing the magazine's recruitment and talent development operations, and guiding strategy for podcasting and digital membership. He's also one of the founding hosts of “Radio Atlantic,” the organization's pioneer podcast. Previously, as the deputy editor of, Thompson oversaw digital coverage teams and developed editorial projects in conjunction with site editors.

Before joining The Atlantic in January 2015, Thompson was director of vertical initiatives (and mischief) for NPR, where he led the creation of several teams of broadcast and digital journalists, including Code Switch, which covers race, ethnicity and culture; and NPR Ed, which covers education. During his time with NPR, he worked with public radio stations across the country on editorial strategy and co-wrote the organization’s ethics handbook. Prior to NPR, Thompson worked as an editor and reporter for news organizations around the U.S., including the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, The Fresno Bee and the Poynter Institute. He currently serves as a member of the board of directors for The Center for Public Integrity and is a co-founder of Spark Camp.

Amanda Pike (she/her) is the director of the TV and documentary department and executive producer of films and series at Reveal. Under her leadership, The Center for Investigative Reporting garnered its first Academy Award nomination and four national Emmys, among other accolades. She was the executive producer of the inaugural year of the Glassbreaker Films initiative, supporting women in documentary filmmaking and investigative journalism. She has spent the past two decades reporting and producing documentaries for PBS, CBS, ABC, National Geographic, A&E, Lifetime and The Learning Channel, among others. Subjects have ranged from militia members in Utah to young entrepreneurs in Egypt and genocide perpetrators in Cambodia. Pike also has dabbled in fiction filmmaking, producing the short film “On the Assassination of the President,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. She is a graduate of Princeton University and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Kevin Sullivan is a former executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.