Had I not been a bearded atheist, liberal, intellectual, vegetarian, integrationist, environmentalist, pot smoking, Thoreau-reading, lover of freedom, I might not have felt lonely and isolated in rural Mississippi; and had I not felt lonely and isolated, I might have not remained in my seat (thirty feet from where a black man was lynched when I was six) when the district attorney told the grand jurors to stand for prayer; and had I not remained in my seat, I most certainly wouldn’t have been struck on the head by another juror who said through clinched teeth, “Get out of that seat!” But because I was these things, and because I was struck on the head, and because I had grown-up witnessing the bloody price that nonconformists pay for being true to their values in the most ignorant, religious, oppressive, impoverished, freedom-hating, and violence-embracing, state in the Union; I decided that I had rather die than spend the rest of my life surrounded by drawling bigots who took pride in the fact that generations of their families had used violence to force conformity to their asinine deity, their fascist politics, and their Bible-based xenophobia.
To understand the lowlife mentality of Mississippi and other Deep South states, envision Donald Trump with a Southern accent, the tragedy being that the region hasn’t only failed to join the civilized world during my 35-year absence, it has continued to go downhill in every area but black/white relations (my home town can truthfully claim that it hasn’t lynched a single black man since 1955, when it murdered Lamar Smith for attempting to turn in voter registration cards for his frightened neighbors).
So it was that I built a fantasy around how loved and supported I would feel if only Peggy and I lived in a commune. Though she wasn’t exactly gung ho about the prospect, she was at least open to the possibility, so I proposed that we pack-up and go searching for nirvana. She said that, no, I should be the one to go searching, and she should be the one to visit such places as I liked. So it was that I spent much of 1984, 1985, and part of ‘86 visiting communes, many of them with no thought of living there, but simply because I found them interesting. For example, it was curiosity that inspired my visit to a Hare Krishna dairy farm in south Mississippi and to that religion’s US headquarters near Moundsville, West Virginia. Likewise, it was curiosity that led me to visit a Sufi commune in eastern New York State, and the world’s last active Shaker commune at Sabbath Day Lake, Maine. Then there was Missouri’s hippie-run East Wind Community, with its sixty to eighty residents. (I approved of the group’s communal outhouses, but didn’t fully grasp the etiquette of the situation, so when a woman plopped down beside me while I was laughing at the funny pages, I was mystified by her chilly response to Blondie, Snuffy Smith and Beetle Bailey.)
The smallest commune I visited was in a two-story house owned by a Denver couple who confessed that they were having trouble finding people who were willing to live under their autocratic rule. The largest was guru Stephen Gaskin’s 1,400 member commune The Farm with its nationally known midwifery program presided over by his wife, Ina May Gaskin (who wrote prolifically on the subject). Gaskin’s leadership was sufficiently mellow that I might have considered living there had it not been for the commune’s squalor, and the fact that none of the men cut their hair or shaved their beards. Although they insisted that the practice was voluntary, the fact that every last one of the hundreds of men adhered to it screamed groupthink (Groupthink occurs when the desire for group cohesiveness leads members to uncritically agree to what they think everyone else wants.)
I was very much bothered by the totalitarian regime of another guru, Marc Tizer (aka Yousamien, aka Yo), who ran a commune in Boulder, Colorado. I don’t remember the commune’s name—or even if it had a name—but it is now called the Divine Madness Running Club. Yo gave his followers individualized commands about what to eat, how much to sleep, what sports to engage in, who to live with, and so forth. The names of new sex partners were drawn weekly (the purpose of the weekly change was to discourage “unhealthy attachments,” and in Yo’s view, all attachments were unhealthy). Although Yo claimed to have secret and surefire means to prevent pregnancy, he still ordered abortions.
The commune had fifty to one hundred followers who lived in private residences that were scattered throughout Boulder. I stayed in two of these residences—one of which was occupied by 6-8 women and the other by 6-8 men—and found the people intelligent, educated, personable, physically attractive, and welcoming of questions. When—in one-to-one conversations—I told my new friends that I was opposed to gurus, the gist of their response was, I wouldn’t lie to you. Yo will tell you every thought you ever had. Yo will tell you more about yourself than even you know, and you will recognize that he is right. So it was that I quickly agreed to meet Yo, although I just as quickly backed-out upon being told that “the privilege” would cost me $1,200—satisfaction not guaranteed.
My final tally of communes was: two in Mississippi, two in Tennessee, one in Missouri, one in Texas, one in New Mexico, two in Colorado, one in Virginia, one in West Virginia, one in New Hampshire, one in Maine, two in New York, and one in Oregon. If I didn’t like a place, I left after a day or two, but if I really liked it, I might stay for a week or more. No one ever asked for money to cover the cost of my visit, and it never occurred to me to offer it. Peggy flew to communes in Denver, Richmond, and New York City. She preferred the one in Richmond, but it’s eight members had been working night-and-day for over a year to care for a terminally ill member (whom no one liked and who had been planning to leave when he became ill), and its residents warned us that the commune was unlikely to survive his death.
I liked Richmond fine, but I loved the Foundation for Feedback Learning—now called Ganas— on upper Staten Island in New York City. It’s 35 residents (the number has since doubled) were divided into an inner and an outer circle with membership in the former requiring a lifelong commitment. FFL owned two stores, three or four large houses, and accepted research and teaching contracts related to “feedback learning.” Many members were from Spain, and people candidly admitted that they had only married so they—or someone else in the group—could get a Green Card. The closer I got to the group’s inner circle, the more I was bothered by the fact that their lack of honesty and integrity in dealing with the outside world contradicted their insistence upon honesty and integrity within the group itself. Even so, I found so much to love that I asked Peggy to fly up, which she did, although—for the following reasons—things didn’t go well:
(1) She had been ill, and was still so unwell that she seemed fragile. (2) She had no interest in spending hours a day sitting around the group’s large table baring her soul and listening to others bare theirs, often taking and giving severe criticism in the process. (3) The neighborhood was so bad that she couldn’t take her daily walks without being sexually harassed. (4) When members of the inner circle asked what her interests were and she said gemstones (she had seriously considered a career in gemology), they dismissed her as frivolous. (5) She was disgusted by the number of women I had been having sex with on my travels (we had an open marriage), and the commune contained three women who had a sexual interest in me. (6) Our promised “private quarters” were roomy for the city, but were still smaller than the smallest place we ever lived.
The commune was clearly not a good fit for Peggy, but because the inner circle wanted me, they proposed to her that we move there for a trial period of a year. Before coming to NY, Peggy had applied to the Traveling Nurse Corps, and they called her in NY to offer a four-month stint in Fresno, California. So it was that we moved to Fresno with the thought that we would use our time there to decide about NY.
We liked Fresno—until the daytime highs hit 115—and found it easy to make friends. During one of our calls to Mildred—the leader of the New York commune’s inner circle—we were told that our living expenses (which I would pay in work credits at a communal business, and Peggy would pay in money by working at a nearby hospital) would cost hundreds more than we had been told. When we asked why, Mildred said without even a hint of embarrassment that she had so wanted me to live there that she had lied. We concluded from this that we could never take the group’s word about anything, and we gave up all thought of moving to NY. Unfortunately, this meant that after two years of searching for a place to live, we still had no idea where we would end up. I suggested that, if nothing else turned-up, we could move to Fresno, but when Peggy refused to “trade one oven for another,” I became deeply depressed. To be continued…
Mississippi’s Hare Krishna dairy farm: https://newtalavana.org/
West Virginia’s Hare Krishna headquarters: https://www.newvrindaban.com/
New York’s Sufi commune: https://www.theabode.org/
Maine’s Shakers: https://www.maineshakers.com/
Missouri’s East Wind commune: https://www.eastwindblog.co/
Gaskin’s Tennessee commune: https://thefarmcommunity.com/
Ina May Gaskin’s books: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=ina+may+gaskin&ref=nb_sb_noss_1
Yousamien’s Colorado commune: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_Madness_Running_Club
New York’s Foundation for Feedback Learning: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganas