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Synanon came to life in the fifties. The ultimate temple of soul sacrifice. You laid yourself out to all comers, at Synanon, because this was the new school of drug rehab. But, unlike its twelve step brethren, Synanon did not mature very quickly, it didn’t really develop was until the 70’s.Scientology, itself often branded as a cult, had also become fruitful at the same time, and was selling its own drug program. And like Scientology, the fierce creatures of Synanon formed into a kind of cult. Musicians showed up, and Synanon put them to work, recording albums to promote the rehab. Ask yourself how many drug rehabs issue albums? Now, how many cults do?

Synanon’s self-popularization sang with such perfect pitch that hepcats near its Santa Monica, and Bay Area locations rang the bell, and joined up, before they even realized what they were getting into. Jazz and pop musicians- famed addict and sax man Art Pepper among them- came calling. What’s the plan? Don’t know, don’t care, it works, that’s all. Everyday Joes showed up, too. Synanon didn’t discriminate. They took you in, and gave you the rap. And the rap was tough love. To the extreme.

Synanon emerged, like an ex-pugilist with something to prove, straight out of founder Charles “Chuck” Dederich’s garage in Ocean Park, California. For a while, the program aligned itself closely to the twelve step groups that were gaining their own cult like status in the late 50’s and early 60’s. But only for a while. Eventually Dederich received tax-exempt status for Synanon. After that, the money rolled right in. The garage in Ocean Park gave way to a ranch in the foothills, then another. And then, there was the Santa Monica spot. Right smack dab on the beach.

So what happened? Synanon was built around one person. The group beat to his imperfect cadence. Members slipped out of reach because they were encouraged to relinquish past acquaintances and family members in favor of their new ‘family.’ Yeah, like Manson. Like the Children of God. Like a cult.

Some of the methods were outlandish for the time, but have become mainstream today. Rather than focus on the individual, Synanon sought to encourage group members to ‘test’ other group members, in regards to their sobriety, their faith, and their dedication. In essence, the group member became the therapist. These ‘test’ sessions sometimes turned into shouting matches, but in the end Dederich and the other ‘therapists’ sought to establish closure so the group as a whole, and the individuals therein, could move onward, upward to a new salvation. In some cases it made desperate junkie prostitutes able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, in others, it offered a major rush of egotistical power to people who had never experienced it, and they abused it. As Synanon moved beyond its gestation the twelve step tenets wore thin. Dederich began restructuring them, adding in new rules, new regulations, new regiments, making it up as he went along. One major theme Dederich stressed was that the patient needed to stay in the group, and not leave. To give back, to build a new community. Things got weird. Normally, a visit to the drunk farm ended with some sort of fresh start. Or not. Either way, there was a beginning, middle, and an end. Not so with Synanon. There, you stuck around in perpetuity, finding new ways to make yourself useful for years at a time. Synanon encouraged the beginning and the middle, but never the end. An end presented too difficult a task. Dederich had seen where other rehabs had failed. They all let their clients back out into the real world. And that was their great mistake. Success rates plummeted once addicts were set free. Synanon simply abolished that last act, instead electing to treat addicts over long periods, for seemingly endless terms. If you decided you were ready to leave, a group of your Synanon peers came round to remind you what it was like before you got there. They urged you to stick it out, to let Synanon keep working its magic. If that didn’t work, Chuck would send in the aptly named “punk squad,” which existed, in the words of ex-resident Charlotte (no last name) “for people who need to be tamed.”

Synanon family members began to get frightened when they couldn’t contact their loved ones. Critics of the Synanon ‘method’ arose. Some called it a cult. Most claimed it robbed them of relationships with their family members. All pointed their fingers at Dederich, who made no effort to give a public response.

In the very early part of the 1970’s, the Point Reyes Light, a teeny local paper in a small town north of San Francisco near a Synanon compound, started investigating rumors of staff abuse, and beatings. As the reports of negligence grew, the IRS took note, and began the process to revoke the group’s tax exempt status, saying it was no longer a medical rehabilitation facility, but something else, a way of life. Synanon, feeling like it was on the ropes, did what any cult-ish group would- under Dederich’s order the group declared itself a religion. Enter the church of Synanon.

Suspected of acting in and covering up the murder of a dissenter, the frayed group started to make headlines beyond the Point Reyes Light reach, though the small paper did capitalize on its coverage of the group, even receiving a Pulitzer Prize for its Synanon articles.

Time Magazine featured Synanon in an unfavorable light. The article portrayed Dederich as wife swapping messianic leader. Descriptions of the residents of Synanon referred to them as “smiling people” with “shiny, shaved heads,” who bowed in sync, and chanted like monks.

They listed assets, they mentioned Dederich’s 70’s era $100,000 salary, and quoted him, “A lot of guys could do this thing from an old Ford roadster and sit on an orange crate…I need a $17,000 Cadillac. We are in the people business just exactly as if we were building Chevrolet axles.”

Stranger things were in store. More investigations arose from the constant news coverage. Local police began getting calls from estranged family members. As the scrutiny wore on, Synanon security tightened. The punk squad grew. Paranoia took over. Addicts usually become acclimated to reality if given something else to become addicted to. Synanon added to already compulsive behavior a regimented structure that offered an alternative future to needles plunged into arms, and sucking off johns behind bus stations. While many celebrities had given praise to Synanon in the past (Steve Allen promoted Synanon on TV) the celebrity endorsements dried up in the face of the bad press of the early 70’s.

Since Synanon claimed such definite success, it pointed to the past record of its achievement, to the (past) celebrity endorsements, to the sobriety of its members. Synanon embraced a hive mind, a boot camp philosophy. Somehow, the myth continued to grow. New members arrived daily.

Sci-Fi writer Philip K. Dick battled his own demons. During the 60’s he started using large amounts of speed, taking more and more of the amphetamine to accomplish more and more writing. And of course, addiction rooster tailed in the wake of all that drug taking. Eventually things spun wildly out of control for Dick, who began living with local addicts trading dugs, and comparing notes. As some of his pals began to overdose and die, others sought rehabilitation. Synanon had a campus in nearby Marin. Dick likely experienced some Synanon concepts first hand. He didn’t like what he found. New Path, the rehab in Dick’s loosely autobiographical novel “A Scanner Darkly” is based on Synanon. In another book, the group is actually identified as Synanon by a character, “It’s a fascist therapy that makes the person totally outer directed and dependent on the group.” Critics Rosa Lee Cole and Phil Ritter came under heavier fire than Dick. Ritter was beaten after he left the group. Fifteen-year-old Rosa Lee Cole disappeared from the Synanon foundation’s Oakland center never to be heard from again. A lawyer for another ex- Synanon member was bitten by a rattlesnake, which had been de-rattled, agitated, and stuffed in his mailbox. Somehow the man survived. Each of these stories were reported by the Point Reyes Light, and later investigated by local and federal authorities. Paul Morantz, the lawyer bitten by the snake dedicated his life to debunking Dederich’s myths, writing a book and operating a website condemning all things Syn-Syn-Synanon.

By the time an NBC expose ran, Synanon was claiming to Connie Chung that it was the victim of bad publicity. Very bad publicity. Mostly stemming from the disappearance of a Synanon patient, or member, however they were classifying them, back in the early part of the decade.

Dederich made no bones about the hi-jinks. He admitted wearing costumes, that he was ”big brother big daddy.” The icing on the cake, however, was a clandestinely obtained recording. On it, Synanon’s founder can be heard ranting about lawsuits waged by ex-members and other detractors. “These are real threats, they (lawyers) are draining life’s blood from us and expecting us to play by their silly rules. We will make the rules. I see nothing frightening about it… I am quite willing to break some lawyer’s legs and next break his wife’s legs and threaten to cut their child’s arm off. That is the end of that lawyer. That is a very satisfactory, humane way of transmitting information…. I really do want an ear in a glass of alcohol on my desk” A few months later, Dederich, the man who founded Synanon on the concept of complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol, broken by strain and or megalomania, or both, was found stewed to the gills, and arrested in relation to the attempted murders of Morantz, and Ritter. John Watson, the LA prosecutor assigned to the case described Dederich upon arrest as being, “in a stupor, staring straight ahead with an empty bottle of Chivas Regal.”

But there was something to Synanon, before their tough-love-confrontational-rehabilitation-methodology shifted into its late era thuggish free for all. The program changed lives. It kept irrefutably hopeless addicts clean, long as they stayed under the Synanon roof. Many who had been through the program paid no mind to the bad press. Synanon worked where nothing else would. To this day former members meet online and in person sharing stories of their time as members of Synanon the family. Still, after Dederich’s arrest, and subsequent downfall, it was next to impossible to keep tabs on success stories because Synanon success stories kept their mouths shut, unwilling to invite the odor of the group’s last days into their well fought for sobriety. Can you blame them? Some aspects of Synanon’s ‘no bones about it’ program can’t be argued with. Desperation’s wild horse needs a jockey, and in a lot of cases, that jockey was Synanon. But even the best jockey needs the oversight of a trainer and that was where Synanon failed.

Despite the mounting bad press, or likely, because of Synanon’s previous favored-son status during the mid 60’s media onslaught, other addiction specialists took note. New York’s Daytop Village, the name sometimes referred to as an acronym for Drug Addicts Yielding to Temptation, based their methods on that of Synanon’s primal group therapy model. Whatever. Daytop remained an incredible success in the treatment of hard-core addicts and alcoholics. One of Daytop’s founders spent time at Synanon in the early sixties before Dederich’s megalomaniacal model overwhelmed the rehabilitation process. And Mel Wasserman started his CEDU schools based on his own Synanon experiences, billing them as Therapeutic Boarding Schools. Like Synanon, they failed.

It’s not hard to see why many flocked to the Synanon model. It was damn seductive. A misappropriation on tough love, it looked like you were giving the addict a punch in the face to help them get better, and one time or another we have all wanted to punch the addicts in our lives square on the jaw. They looked like elegant marines as they ran across the beach in front of the Santa Monica headquarters, moving like chiseled gazelles, turning their bodies into temples once again. The group therapy was based on absolute interrogation and complete candor. No one was allowed to have any secrets. “You’re only as sick as your secrets” took on a whole new meaning at Synanon. Secrets were hunted down, and throttled, until even the secret keeper could no longer stomach the idea of dishonesty. But Dederich couldn’t seem to stop fiddling with the more controlling aspects of his therapeutic model. Women and men had to shave their heads. Most referred to Dederich as a kind of God. Vasectomies for men were encouraged. Then enforced. If a couple entered together, they wouldn’t last. Dederich pushed for and gotwife swapping. He sought a more lurid sort of enlightenment.

Dederich wasn’t jailed, but his reign at Synanon was over. The IRS confiscated Synanon’s property after the tax exemption revocation became official. The group ceased to exist, until the Internet.

Now a few pages dedicated to the group exist. Paul Morantz, the lawyer who received the rattlesnake in his mailbox operates one. Former Synanon members operate another- Synanon.com.

Gurus are a constant problem with twelve step programs. Touting guidance for the extreme cases, Gurus almost always end up using sex and money as their puppet strings, while often encouraging members to sever ties with friends and family in case any sense will be lodged into the group member’s mind.

As for Synanon’s physical presence in Santa Monica, the former hotel standing just steps from the Pacific Ocean has once again returned to the resort mentality- rates start at $395. About the same cost for a month stay back in ’78. And the name? In an article published in 1959 by R.D. Fox, Synanon stood for, Sins Anonymous.

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Hank Cherry HANK CHERRY, As I live and breath on earth as it is in print, in person, and on webpage! Slake Magazine, Los Angeles Review of Books, Artillery, Poydras Review, The Hammer Museum, The Louisiana Review, Southwestern American Literature, Juice, Cadillac Cicatrix, Offbeat Magazine, Desire 82, Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Twitter Facebook

20 Responses to “They Called it Synanon”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Wow, this is a fascinating piece.
    I love that you have written it almost as a conversation – After reading it, I feel like I’ve just had one of those conversations where you feel really satisfied -so thank you.
    I’m intrigued by cults of any kind. Whether they purport to be for rehab or otherwise, the psychology of cults is fascinating. I guess with rehab, it’s particuarly sinister because of the vulnerability of the people within the group.
    But it baffles me how so many rational, intelligent people get sucked into cult life. And also, how things that start off with good intentions metamorphasise into something cruel and abusive. I think about the Peoples’ Temple and how that originally was a well intended group but by the time they set up Jonestown, it had become dangerous and something else altogether.
    I guess that’s the thing though (and what you talk about in your piece): Originally, these groups/centres have immense promise and that’s how they sucker people in.
    Great piece.

    • Hank Cherry says:

      Hooray Zara!

      It’s hard to decipher this particular thing, the Synanon model still operates in some places, like with Daytop, and a few more.

      And yet, it ended so badly, what I wrote wasn’t even the half of it.

  2. Sarah says:

    Interesting article on the cult Synanon, never heard of them but took an interest in cults and their mind control culture since some family members joined this one called The Twelve Tribes. My uncle and his wife entered into this hippie commune more than a decade ago, and since then they’ve “disowned” us, though stay in contact about once a year. They move around the country a lot, are always being relocated and the M.O. is work, work, work (and prayer). I like the low impact, enviro-friendly self sustainability in their organic farming and lifestyle. But the kids aren’t allowed to play with toys and the women can’t use computers or go to school (homeschooled). Have never met my cousins but in photos they seem to be very bright and beautiful, although have kind of a hollow sadness in their eyes. At one point Manon’s family in The Netherlands asked my dad and uncles to do an intervention which wasn’t successful. Now we just sort of let go, and I wonder what will happen to those kids, how they’ll ever make it in the world… should they ever leave the group. this article mentions my aunt Manon who lost her first child shortly after birth. they’re not allowed access to medical care and some of these women go through agonizing old school labor… NOT the same thing as modern natural childbirth: http://www.twelvetribes-ex.com/articleshow.php_ID=42.html

    • Hank Cherry says:

      Those twelve tribes! Weird how we become so inured to the ease of life, and make rules that are not based on sense, and then try to live by them.

      Thanks for commenting. That was awesome

  3. John Moskop says:

    Henry Chery;
    I always walk away more informed, and as if my life has been somehow enriched by reading your article. The wealth of knowledge you share with us readers is appreciated, the research that must go into your articls does not go unnoticed. Thanks

    • Hank Cherry says:

      Synanon is the real wealth here, a wealth of myt, and of stories much more intense than what I reported. That place was WILD!

      And thanks man

  4. Mike Andreas says:

    Sad really, the poor peeps out there who just keep trading one shitty lifestyle for another…though I guess we all have to find something to do with our time here…nice read Hank on an original subject…you’re a pro.

    • Hank Cherry says:

      Sometimes that’s the process, trade laterally to more shit, more sublimation, more nonsense. Just was reading about sstate sponsored Wet houses, that keep drunks drunk.

      Well, why not? I’m still waiting for state sponsored live fight to the death matches.

      Yum!

      Thanks Mike

      • AHodges says:

        Here in the U.S. it seems people can’t get their heads around harm reduction programs for addicts. Of course, that’s no surprise considering how woefully misunderstood addiction is, treated as a moral failing or a criminal impulse than the mental and physical illness it actually is. The truth is that wet houses, needle exchange programs, methadone clinics, etc. do more to realistically address the public health issue of addiction than inadequate abstainence programs that have a very low success rate. But again, if it isn’t stark, cold turkey, tough love bs Americans seem unable to take it seriously, and that’s tragic, IMO.

  5. Gloria says:

    I find this fascinating reportage, Hank. Yeah, when my mom was an active user/drinker (for most of my teenage years and into my early 20s), I had more than one nearly uncontrollable fantasy about kidnapping her and binding her to a chair until she kicked and quit being fucking insane. Kind of like Kathy Bates’s character in Misery. Then I realized I sounded like a nuts-o, which Dederich obviously never did.

    I’m curious though: this story isn’t framed or prefaced. It’s comes out as just a report (a well written one!) kind of apropos to nothing.

    What is your relationship to Synanon? Were you just cruising the internet one night and you bumped into information about it and it captured your imagination? Did you know someone who went there? Just curious.

    Cheers,
    Gloria

  6. Hank Cherry says:

    Synanon got me going years ago, when I was reading Art Pepper’s autobiography. I’m clean myself, and there were rumors about this place way back when. A few programs that were based on the thing appeared on my radar was I was still ripping and running, one of which was called the Straight program.

    I guess the thing about not really developing a personal connection was that the story was so wild, so incredibly unbelievable, I wanted people to dig around, and find out for themselves, but I think in retrospect, a short epilogue or prologue explaining my interests in it would have made more sense.

    Still, these people were WILD CATS!!! Dederich was king wild cat. The whole thing about the need for a fancy car, and the rant about lawyers, my goodness, he’s like Kurtz up the river, nothing anyone downstream can do about him…

    So in summation, thanks for reading, and opening up about your own connection…

    Hank out!

  7. Cub Lea says:

    Thanks for the capsule, Hank…all I ever had on Synanon were much shorter strokes than these. It seems hardly surprising to me, though…really, shouldn’t we expect this kind of thing as long as we continue to permit the most costly group of illnesses on the planet (compulsive disorders rightly earn that title; the math is pathetically easy) with programs which have more in common with religions than with actual corrective care? Oh gee, that’s right…I forget that addiction can never be cured, only controlled. And as long as addiction is treated by health professionals as a total mystery instead of as the subgroup of post-traumatic stress disorders that it so clearly is (stay away from my soapbox, son…it’s old, well-used, and liable to break at any moment), we’re gonna have to do something about that messed-up tenth of the population that just can’t seem to get by with the types and levels of reality enhancement that the rest of us seem to find satisfying enough.

    What I’m waiting for right now is a deep and jagged exploratory of that Church of Today bunch in Detroit and Austin (also in the addiction-processing industry). I’ve met a couple of casualties of their holiday-camp retreats in Quebec…real nice bunch, that (well, real nice as long as you look and smell like family)…and quite a feat of synthesis, too…combining twelve-stumble recovery and new-age ideology with the success/achievement elitism of the Wayne Dyer/Napoleon Hill crowd. Wish I could write that expose myself, but I’m still picking bits of my own wrist veins out of my teeth.

    (Please try to empathize…I was a huge fan of Lester Bangs in my teens and Creem never published my letters to the editor.)

  8. paul morantz says:

    Just found your article…thanks for compliment and plug for my site. Like to know more about the site you wrote on and if I can use ‘Paul Morantz, the lawyer who was bitten by the snake, has dedicated his life to debunking Dederich’s myths, writing a book and operating a website condemning all things Syn-Syn-Synanon.” attibuted to you and site as book cover blurb. Synanon is really only one part of my site. Look under cult expert for stories on all my cases, or involvements, Manson, SLA, est, Center for Feeling Therapy, Rajneesh, Jonestown…Scientology will be up in next 48 hours.

    perhaps you can e-mail a phone number I may call. We are both in LA? Maybe you will do a book review?

    Also reading this, it was apparent it was a story you are somehow connected or followed but you seem too young. Yet your style reveals this is not something just researched and you know things one would not find in books and the net. So wondering who you are…maybe a hatchery kid?

    Wondering how you knew a book was being written? And what caused you to write this. Still needs at least month before it is finished.

    • Hank Cherry says:

      I have got to read this book when it’s done. I just was researching the thing, when I came across your work, and the like.

      Am in LA. Sent you a message on your web spot. So check it, and we can take it from there.

      I wasn’t ever a part of Synanon, nor were any of my people. Just a fascinatingly wild ride.

      It’s fine by me if you use that quote. Not sure where it’ll get you, but by all means.

      thanks for coming over to read!

      Hank

  9. Anonymous says:

    With respect to you and to Mr. Morantz, I will say that your vision of Synanon – as his – while entertaining – is skewed and doesn’t represent reality there in the slightest. You’d have had to have been there to understand what I’m saying. My recommendation to you would be to focus on what you know, which is jazz. Before all of the insanity started, Synanon was integral to the American jazz scene, since it was one of the first places to help drug addicts kick their habits. (Drugs being integral to jazz musicians, you see.) Art Pepper wasn’t the only one that was there. Do your homework. Little Esther Phillips, Joe Pass, Frank Rehak, Mose Allison and others went there for the cure. Write about what you know — ’cause you don’t know squat about Synanon!

  10. Hazura Jane says:

    Been to the Marin Synanon (now partially in use by an outdoor ed school) site. Walked around it one summer afternoon in ’09.

    The outdoor ed school area is active, children playing ball, smells like whatever’s being cooked for the next meal (in a good way :-) ) counsellors walking around, teachers, parents, etc. BUT – take a twenty minute hike back on the property – once the friendly sounds of other humans fade away – it gets quiet.
    Very, very quiet.
    Walking on, you see the buildings – sheds containg rusted out machines for the office-supply business run from here, a large meeting place with a big “S” on it, and, most poignant of all, the coat hook board with the names of the children living there written above each hook.
    The quiet is so deep that you could mistake it for deafening.
    Each footstep sounds amplified; bird whistles make you jump.
    A play field lies empty, but the most extraordinary feeling of dread filled me, just looking at it from the dirt road that lies slightly elevated above it. I stopped dead in my tracks and asked my companion, “What is that?” and was told, “It’s Jackrabbit Flats.” “But what was it for?” I persisted. A shrug. No answer.

    Yikes.

  11. Zona says:

    Some how time takes you back to places you prefer to forget, realizing an almost 4 year journey into “The gate’s of Hell ” as I call it, I entered the Punk Squad, Basic Training, The Ranch, Walker Creek, the Bay. The life experience as a child molds who you become, and the deprogramming is the journey. I saw the darker sides of Synanon, I served Chuck, Betty and other V.I.P’s at their tables…always looking from the other side of true reality. I worked and was sent out on the jitney buses to S.F. ,Santa Monica, Oakland. The immoral trauma in the GAME was like sirens going off in one’s mind, it was all so simple for them to program into us that we were cast outs, unwanted children who were dumped there, thus proving our lack of family worth. We shaved our heads, worked all day, marched like the good little solders we were, ate the bland foods, learned to be robotic and run like hell just in case we dropped on the road side, than the real punishment came and you got to witness a beating, or it was you who was beat. I was given my Synanon mom and dad who must have later had mercy on me then sent to Walker Creek with the VIP kids who were allowed to go to school. I believe I was either the youngest kid to enter the punk squad at age 11 years old. My views differ greatly from others because I stood on the wrong side of the fence once placed there. The siren’s were real, they went off and we were to circle outsiders. Once everyone gathered they were beaten and demoralized and removed from the Synanon property. Somehow you make all the wrong you witness seem right, you begin to rationalize that you are “Family” and that you were better off there with you’re family, after all…where was your family? I had only seen them once during that time frame of my life. My stay at Walker Creek became short lived because I’d found a waterway that one night was going to serve all the training they implemented… I ran only to be caught and placed back into the Game. But they couldn’t brain wash me any more, the following month I ran again. We are all bitten by the some sort of snake and sometimes you can still feel it’s sting.

  12. PM says:

    Great piece. Much more balanced than most.

    Focusing on the benefits to drug addicts as the reason people were attracted to Synanon makes a certain amount of sense. Yet, what about the Lifestylers and the Squares of the later years, the people who did not enter because of addiction? Until we understand the pull for them, we haven’t even graced the surface of Synanon or groups like it.

    I know a handful of people–intelligent, accomplished, emotionally “whole” people–who lived at Synanon. What brought them there? What kept them there? It’s easy for us on the outside to sensationalize, to paint them as Other, to focus only on the dark and violent years, to condescend from our cozy, nuclear, unsatisfying, functionally addicted lives (TV, alcohol, shopping. whatever. our dogs, even.), raising our kids in isolation. We haven’t learned much, though, until we understand the pull for the normal and the non-addicted.

    The story is so much bigger.

  13. sinner says:

    I laughed when I read the “hatchery kid” comment mostly because I guess I AM that chick! ;) I’ve been researching synanon alot lately for my own curiosity and maybe secretly hoping to find out where I belong… as a child of parents from different coasts I had always questioned HOW my parents had met! Their pasts weren’t things we were allowed to ask about growing up and yet I found ways to inquire. I’ll never forget the first time I saw my parents wedding picture and the wide mouth gasps that escapedbwhen I realized that both my father AND MY MOTHER were BALD!!! Anyways I just wanted to comment and say REGARDLESS of the methods both of my parents have remained completely sober to this day and were married over 25 years happily producing FOUR well rounded and successful children through from I’ve read thus far using what they learnt during their time there! Tough love and hard work was the ONLY way to succeed we were taught early on… what’s so bad about that? Its an honest approach to child rearing and only enabled us to thrive once in the REAL world! Just one lil chicks opinion or course! Lol I’d love to hear of more SUCCESS stories like my parents. Maybe it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows but im alive today because of lessons learned in a land far far awayin a time long ago…

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