Having lived in the controversial utopian commune for most of her childhood, Swisher ventured out into the world and launched a career in theater and stand-up comedy.
Now, more than a decade after leaving Synanon, she turns the spotlight on her upbringing with a warts-and-all look at what it was like. Her 10-character solo show -- "Hundreds of Sisters and One Big Brother" -- at Brava Theater Center through April 4, is the sort of personal expose that tabloid TV and quickie biographers dream of.
Swisher, however, isn't interested in anything but the facts as she remembers them. Keeping the show purposely ambiguous so as not to arouse prejudices in her audience, she doesn't even mention the word Synanon until the end of the play. The script is essentially a compendium of her childhood experiences.
Following her parents' divorce, her mother brought Swisher and her sister to a Northern California commune. Growing up there, they learned to get along without their birth mother for weeks at a time, relying on other adults for guidance and regarding other children as their siblings (hence the show's title).
Sipping tea in a Mission District coffee shop, Swisher talks dispassionately about a childhood that seemed normal to her.
" 'Cult' is an insulting word. You might as well be calling me a nigger," says the half-black, half-Jewish Swisher. "All I'm asking is for people to come and be the child I was, and then decide for themselves how they feel about it."
At Synanon, Swisher never heard racial epithets. During the politically turbulent 1960s and '70s, Synanon was a refuge for interracial couples. Dederich, a recovered alcoholic, founded the group in Ocean Park in the late '50s as a drug- and alcohol-treatment center. Initially heralded for its high success rate, it soon was attracting hundreds.
But during the '60s, Dederich stopped sending patients back out into society, moving them, instead, to Synanon houses and communities around California. Liars and rule-breakers were treated harshly; often they had their heads shaved or wore placards that said "I'm an idiot."
Parents and children were separated; children lived in dorms and were cared for by teachers known as "demonstrators." The idea was to replace the nuclear family with a larger, supportive community family.
Soon, even non-addicts who liked the strict regimen started joining Synanon. In all, it is believed 15,000 to 20,000 people lived in the group's communities over a 20-year span.
"In the early days it was quite a popular plan," says Swisher. "My mom would take us to these incredible parties, where people were just high on life. Many people wanted an alternative to the norm, and they found it in Synanon."
But eventually the commune's rules regarding families brought scorn. Married followers often were asked to divorce and re-couple with others. And to prevent secrets or unspoken hostilities, all were asked to participate in "The Game," loosely formed encounter groups in which participants were expected to speak freely about the faults or failings of others without fear of retribution.
"I'm a little mixed about The Game," says Swisher. "It allowed people to shoot their wad without having to bite their tongues. It could crush somebody. But it was also an opportunity to for someone to say they loved you, even if they never acted on it outside The Game."
Now in her early 30s, Swisher says that adapting to life outside Synanon was "culture shock and Mardi Gras" at the same time.
She studied dance at San Francisco State University and did Bay Area theater before heading to New York to pursue stand-up comedy. She landed small parts on TV's "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Seinfeld" and has a continuing gig on VH-1's "Rock Candy."
After Swisher left, the Synanon community began to unravel. Decisions by Dederich (who suffered a series of strokes and died of cardio-respiratory failure in 1997) started raising the suspicions of government and law-enforcement officials. Accusations of violence led to the end of the group -- and the start of a new life for its followers.
"(Dederich) was a man who started with a great idea, but that idea changed over time," says Swisher. "This (play) is my baby, but I'm only delivering one point of view. I can't speak on behalf of the thousands of others."