All Together Now

Last night the hubs and I took a brief respite from our ongoing 30-Rock marathon to watch “Commune”, a 2005 documentary about Black Bear Ranch, a commune that was started in the late-60’s in Northern California.


While the film touches on the political and social upheaval of the time, most of the focus is on the social experimentation of creating an intentional community. Being self-sustaining in such a remote location – 9 miles down a dirt road from the nearest neighbors and 3 hours from a hospital – proved to be a challenge, yet somehow this commune managed to evolve from the lying around, smoking pot, and having sex to a working community. It survives today, with members having their own businesses as well as living within the world of the ranch.

Many of us have heard horror stories of cults and communes that either imploded on themselves or did irreparable damage to the lives of those involved. One of the women who grew up at Black Bear Ranch tells a harrowing tale of having been born into the community there, but then as a 5-year-old being given the choice to live with another group who had settled on the ranch who called themselves Shiva Lila. (What is up with her parents, who just let her go off with these people?) The Shiva Lila traveled all over the world, eventually ending up in India, where several of the children the cult had picked up in Asia died of disease. She managed to make it back to the ranch and was reunited with her parents, and while she seems incredibly well adjusted, she hints at the toll the experience took on her psyche.

I grew up in a typical non-hippie middle class family, but from 8th-11th grade I went to an alternative school, which was basically a private hippie school in public school clothing. I credit SMASH (Santa Monica Alternative School) for saving my life, in a way – I learned communication and coping skills in a small school community, and found acceptance as a shy, awkward kid. I would have drowned in ridicule and self-loathing had I stayed in the regular junior high and high school.

While at SMASH I met a lot of kids who had hippie parents. I envied their apparently open and free lifestyle. I also got involved with a Unitarian youth group called LRY (Liberal Religious Youth), and went to LRY camp every spring break, where we also had things like women’s rap groups (imagine a bunch of teen girls sitting around in a circle crying and being dramatic, mediated by bra-less hairy-legged earth mothers) and creative writing workshops. LRY camp was also a saving grace in my life, a place where I found a little acceptance and role models that weren’t violent or uptight and angry.

Even though I idealized my hippie friends and their seemingly perfect family lives, I found out later that things were often not so ideal. My closest friend from that time, who is still my oldest and dearest friend, was raised by a single mom who embraced hippie-dom but managed to neglect her child in the process. My friend has ongoing anger and resentment for the many times that her mother did things – or didn’t do things – that either left her without guidance or direction, or even endangered her life. Another friend of ours spent some time in a cult as a child, and still won’t talk about what went on. Suffice it to say it was not a good experience.

What is it about many communes of the ’60s and ’70s that, while they grew from seemingly pure ideals, often festered into scary pits of chaos? Some of the wrong turns were because of the selfishness of the “me” generation; other communes, while taking wrong turns along the way, managed to right themselves and evolve into working communities that have apparently dispensed with the weirdness and culty-ness. One technique that Black Bear Ranch uses is that they only allow people to live there who fit in with the community, which goes directly against their nascent slogan of “free land for free people,” but that’s evolution for you. It seems like the successful intentional communities, like Twin Oaks, have found financial and social independence from greater society by combining cottage industry and farming with communal living and child-rearing, or La Selva, whose members bought land and built a community in which they can nurture their artistic pursuits. (See both in videos below).

Some of us in TGW-land have discussed our fantasy of someday living communally, but I wonder if we’ll ever get around to doing it. How many of you out there either know kids who were raised on communes, or were raised in this way yourselves? What was it really like?



10 responses to “All Together Now”

  1. AWB says:

    I don’t know why I let stories of intentional communities get under my skin, but they really do. The principles sound lovely, but there is a normative spirit to them that invites soft fascism. One has to have the right feelings–if you do, you get praise for your amazing and beautiful feelings, and if you don’t, that’s… OK!

    A friend of ours gave us a copy of the film Made in Secret: The Story of the East Van Porn Collective, which turns out to be a totally fictional movie in which some Vancouver hipsters complain that all porn is exactly the same evil heteronormative crap (they already lost me), so they form a collective action group to make queer narrative porn among their friends. It gradually becomes apparent that their work isn’t really queer and isn’t really porn (two straight dudes meditating themselves into a kiss, it turns out, does not really curl the toes), except for one het scene they manage to film, of which we see nothing. Then the group is torpedoed by a squeamish member who wasn’t even in town for the year they were doing it.

    It turns out the point of the film is to show you how collective decision-making works. What I learned from it about collective decision-making is that it attracts self-absorbed selfish assholes who like attention and hate doing research. It works best when manipulated by a charismatic selfish asshole who can manipulate everyone into her vision, and worst when we sit down and listen to everyone’s feelings.

    It just seems inevitable to me that radical freedom goes right into fascism. I think I learned that from growing up Baptist. No one should ever tell a Baptist child what to do. Instead they just find ways to inflict excruciating emotional damage for every infraction of normativity.

  2. Josh K-sky says:

    My Aunt Adrienne was in a band called the Anonymous Artists of America in the late sixties. They opened for the Dead at at least one Kesey acid test and showed up in the Tom Wolfe book (as well as at my grandparents’ house with their own school bus full of freaks who wanted to do laundry).

    After a few years of rockin’, they decided they’d rather be a commune than a rock band, and they formed the AAA ranch in Colorado, not far from the Great Sand Dunes. They spend a winter in tents, then another in wigwams, and eventually built houses, and lived there for a while. There was an article in Ebony about them (the letters the following month, about how the one black girl on the commune was acting white, are fantastic) and more recently there was a memoir about all the communes in the area, Huerfano.

    The AAA abides — it’s down to half a dozen old hippies who mostly keep to themselves. There’s a nursery that does a decent business there, but it’s run privately by one couple. My ex and I stayed there for a month once, and for a few years after we broke up, she would come back to live in the house that we stayed in when it was available.

    I got the sense that it was a pretty live-and-let-live scene, as these things go, although I’m sure there was some degree of “soft fascism.” Today, Aunt A. runs a bakery in town, and watches a lot of South Park.

  3. J-Man says:

    “It just seems inevitable to me that radical freedom goes right into fascism”

    I don’t disagree with you here, AWB, but it looks like those communities that survived have done so by going in neither direction, but rather having some rules to go by so that things don’t either fall apart or get completely rigid.

    As with Josh’s example, it makes me think that these communes work best as a short-term experiment, with some exceptions of course.

  4. FPS says:

    I don’t know anyone who was raised in such a place but I have a friend who spent some time in….Fuck Mountain, or whatever the Radical Faerie commune out in Tennessee is called.

    I have plenty of dreams of living communally but it’s almost impossible to imagine they’ll be realized. People move to other cities, have kids, break up…it just seems awfully unlikely, especially in the expensive cities most of us like to live in.

  5. J-Man says:

    It’s interesting how many of these communities are interconnected. Through one of Josh K-sky’s links I got to Peter Coyote’s website – apparently he was involved with both Black Bear Ranch and Triple-A ranch.

    FPS: Yeah, I am always struggling with the country mouse/city mouse thing – I kind of want to have both.

  6. Tim says:

    It may be my soft-fascist/retreat-from-all-of-what-I-despise-about-living-in-a-city side coming out, but man that video about La Selva makes it seem like a total dream to me. In that it’s 3 distinct families who are all friends, there’s enough togetherness and separation among them. Each family has its own living space, and there’s a large communal building with an industrial kitchen. It’s not completely open to anyone who comes along, which has its up and down sides, but that offers a certain limit to what could happen in the future. The Shiva Lila episode at Black Bear just seems nightmarish, when a faction can come in from outside and completely take over and undermine the rest of the community.

    Part of the real draw of living communally with close friends is that I’d get to see the people I truly love on a daily basis without even having to make an effort. We’d just have dinner every night. Every night could be like record club, and every weekend like record camp. Another part of the draw, of course, is not having to work as hard to make money. There, I think, is where the real fantasy lies. It’s actually really hard work, I think, to maintain a community like one of these, even if it isn’t a farm that needs constant tending. Navigating the various intricacies of many intertwined adult lives, especially communal property and money, would be incredibly complicated and potentially psychologically hazardous.

  7. Tim says:

    P.S. After watching “Commune” and hearing about his connection to another commune, I’d like to see a biopic about Peter Coyote. How he got from Black Bear to the silver screen must be a very interesting story.

  8. J-Man says:

    He’s just your typical jewish-lefty-radical-actor-activist-mime:

  9. swells says:

    Reading TGW gives me so much homework. It’s so enjoyable. My assignments will be late, I’m afraid.

  10. J-Man says:

    Swells: That’s quite alright. You get special dispensation for being so funny and clevah.