My friend Nancy goes to family reunions a thousand miles away with at least 50 people, and I marvel. I’m an only child from a small family, not married, no kids. We moved around a lot, and my parents didn’t actually live together much, even when they were married. I’m not sure why. They moved to change jobs, to be near her brothers and sisters in Detroit or his in Los Angeles, or maybe to split up, to get back together. We had relatives but didn’t live near them; I had friends but frequently had to say goodbye.
My mother was the only constant in my life, and we had an edgy relationship. She came of age on a Missouri farm in the Depression, I grew up in a California town in the ’60s. She worked two jobs as a medical secretary to put me through high school, and I, of course, lounging around reading the Existentialists, had no appreciation for what she must have given up to raise a child alone. We blamed each other for our differences.
I have, like my mother, itchy feet, the travel bug, the nomad’s belief that there really is greener grass in the next valley over. Being able to move along when things aren’t going well is a very American form of freedom, and it produces a very American kind of person: a lonely one. Although I’ve kept up the family pattern, with variations, I’ve also yearned for closer relationships. This story is about my personal quest for intimacy in family, friendship, and community, and what I learned along the way.
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The common element of intimacy is some kind of openness. You meet each other’s eyes without dissembling—it’s an open-eyed, mutual regard. It could be called a loving regard; but not all intimacy is loving. There’s the quiet comfort of knowing and being known, such as one feels in a family, a long marriage, or a small town. There’s also the intimacy of extreme moments—in crisis or celebration—the stuff movies are made of. You’re standing together on the deck of the sinking Titanic. You’re in bed. You’re halfway up the glacier. Or someone has a gun to your head, and you look into his eyes. You are fully, mutually present.
And there’s what Romain Rolland, an early 20th century French philosopher, and then Sigmund Freud called the “oceanic feeling,” “le fait simple et direct de la sensation de l’éternel (qui peut très bien n’être pas éternel, mais simplement sans bornes perceptibles, et comme océanique).” [literally: The simple and direct fact of the sensation of eternity (which might not be eternity, but simply without perceptible boundaries, oceanic).] Freud rephrased this as “a feeling of an indissoluble bond of being one with the external world as a whole.”
I think of it as a moment of grace, an ecstatic, mystical oneness—the far end of the range of feelings of intimacy. It happens; it’s not something one can consciously direct. My first experience of this sort came at a lonely moment in my life, when I was 11. My mother filed for divorce and took a secretarial job in La Jolla; my father went to work for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. They put me in a small boarding school for girls on a ranch in the live oak hills of Fallbrook, California. On the second day of class, the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse skipped me two grades—from fourth to seventh—and thus I became both the youngest and oddest member of this small community.
Each girl was assigned a horse to ride and take care of. Mine, a swaybacked brown pony named Prince, became my best friend. Because of the swayback he couldn’t wear a saddle much, so I learned to ride him bareback. One afternoon I was out in the back pasture with Prince, stretched out on his warm, dusty back, with my toes in his mane and my head on his rump, watching the clouds. Something happened that I called afterwards “merging with the sky.” The air became luminous. I had a deep sense of absolute belonging in the world. I couldn’t tell whether it lasted for a moment or for a while. Since then, whenever that perception comes, it fills me with gratitude. It infuses my life with meaning. It is what I stand on, my bottom line.
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When I was younger I think I expected that feeling of ecstatic, mystical oneness to happen in human company, as well. I believe I’ve seen it in Sufi dancing or the ecstatic devotional dance of followers of Rajneesh, though I haven’t experienced it that way myself. It is an extraordinary kind of intimacy in a crowd, closely related to the bliss of sex, the feeling of union with god. It is one of the elements of charisma. It is a human universal, although many people have never felt it, might not even want to feel it. This feeling can be manipulated, controlled, and directed by those who know how to use their personal power over others.
As a graduate student in cultural anthropology, I read about the wide varieties in human experience and social forms, and thought there were probably better arrangements in some societies than ours. For example, I found gypsies fascinating because they, like my family, never settled down, yet they seemed to have a closeness and emotional freedom so different from ours.
Carol Miller, a cultural anthropologist who lived among modern-day, Serbian-American gypsies in the 1960s and ’70s, writes about the gypsies’ love of a blissful feeling of togetherness in extended family groups. Although they moved around a lot, they maintained close ties through phone calls and parties and religious events throughout the year. Miller explains, in her book, Lola’s Luck: My Life Among the California Gypsies, that gypsy ceremonies held on occasions such as births and deaths were intended to be more than just a good time, to create more than good feeling: the goal was euphoria, unforgettable moments, heroic moments—what I’m calling ecstatic, mystical oneness. All the elements of community were there: close relatives, food, music, dance, and formal elements invoking spiritual beliefs. But it wasn’t considered a successful event if that shared good feeling didn’t arise and sustain itself among everyone present. A mean-spirited remark could ruin the whole ceremony.
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The Be-Ins, Love-Ins, rock concerts, political demonstrations, group therapy, and communes of the ’60s were experiments in intimacy—intensely shared experience, openness, honesty—in new social forms that flew in the face of the cautious, conventional ’50s. Toward the end of that era, after hugging strangers at Love-Ins and standing shoulder-to-shoulder in protests, I dropped out of graduate school in anthropology and joined a commune.
At the height of the hippie Revolution, a group called The Family coalesced in Haight-Ashbury and left the city, eventually settling in northern New Mexico with high hopes of creating a new and better society. In early 1970 I met two representatives of The Family at the World Affairs Conference, a semi-academic, radical thinkers’ conference at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where The Family was invited to talk about their communal way of life. They gave a demonstration of Gestalt therapy to a large audience, which I found thrilling. At the end of the week, I quit my waitress job, said goodbye to my roommate, and left for Taos. The calm self-possession of these two folks, both bright dropouts from higher education, impressed me. I hoped they could help me get what they had: “the self you’ve always wanted.” And I was hoping to find a real family.
At that time, The Family had about 55 members and lived in a small adobe house about 10 miles outside of Taos. They considered themselves a group marriage and practiced their own form of group encounter and Gestalt therapy as a means of breaking down psychological barriers. They had a rule of “24-hour encounter.” Every member was supposed to be emotionally available to the others at all times. If someone wanted to interact with you, you had to give the encounter your full and honest response, including showing anger or irritation if that was how you felt. All conflicts were supposed to be resolved by face-to-face confrontation, which they called “hassling”; no passive avoidance, no forming alliances to gang up on someone. Everyone had an equal voice, they said. This vision appealed to me. I hated hypocrisy and believed that people are essentially good. I believed that if I could get in touch with my “real” self, I would be OK; I would know what was going on, know what to do, know how to be a good person. And I would be loved.
As it turned out, there was no politeness encountering each other, and no privacy either; even toothbrushes were shared. But more significantly, there was no psychological privacy. I was horrified to hear things I had said to a lover thrown in my face by someone else. Intimacy in The Family proved painful, as it was based on psychologically invasive techniques without corresponding safeguards. The Gestalt sessions often turned accusatory and bullying—all in the name of love. In The Family’s version of Gestalt therapy (probably not recognizable to its founder, Fritz Perls), the person on the “hot seat” in the middle of the circle faced a crowd of interrogators who gave no quarter. For me, the message was: “You don’t know where you’re at!,” “You don’t know what you really feel” (the implication: We do.), “You’re so fucked up.” When I was on the hot seat, I usually ended up humiliated, sobbing apologies for not being whatever I thought I was supposed to be according to the group.
Nothing in The Family’s rules said anything about nonviolence or compassion. The leader was called “the strongest among us”—not the kindest or wisest, though some considered him wise, but the strongest. The rule of hassling, which was presented as a means of giving everyone an equal voice, in fact created a hierarchy in which the strongest and most aggressive members got their way and directed the life of the community.
Yet there were moments—many moments—of peaceful being together in the little adobe house on a field outside of Taos, or crowded together on the floor of the white van on the way into town, or working side by side in the kitchen, that touched some part of me seldom touched. It was like having lots of brothers and sisters—the larger family I had yearned for as a child. Though I left The Family after only a few intense months, I held onto the possibility that somewhere, somehow, there could be that open sharing of selves without the invasiveness, whether in the intimacy of one-to-one relationships, or in therapy, or in a community of a different kind.
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Now, in my 60s, I have finally realized that relationships deepen when you stay put. I live in a high mountain town where I’ve lived several years, gone away, visited, and moved back, to be with the same friends. The post office and grocery store are a short walk away, and I see faces I recognize even if I’ve been gone for a while. I cherish this community that others have built and take comfort from their sense of permanence. My own small circle of friends is teaching me what it means to know one another over a long time and to see one another grow and change. Simply choosing to stay in this town, in a landscape I love, with these particular friends, has taught me a lot about intimacy. I’m not looking to move—at least not for a while. Not unless I have a really good reason.
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An article in the “Elders” issue of Communities magazine by Victoria Albright moved me to think again about my own family. She is about my age and is writing about a mother-daughter relationship transformed by a group process in community. My mother died 12 years ago, before I ever found a way to let go of my anger and blame. My clumsy efforts at encounter-style honesty with her after I left The Family didn’t work well for either of us. She looked back bitterly on “that terrible time when you got involved with the hippies and hated your mother.”
Albright described an experience of intimacy within a group that sounded so different, and so much kinder, than what I had seen in The Family. It sounded secular; not mystical oneness but a way of building close relationships while keeping ego boundaries respectfully intact. She and her daughter had a very positive outcome from a group process that seemed intrusive to her at the beginning.
Albright had come for a visit to Lost Valley Educational Center, an intentional community near Eugene, Oregon, where her daughter was living. When she was invited to share disagreements with her daughter with a third person—a mediator—present, she almost turned around and left. But she stayed, at her daughter’s urging, and found it was possible to be herself, communicate fully, and honor the generational differences. Albright visited Lost Valley many times and grew to love her role there as an elder, able to help other parents and children understand each other better.
I decided to call Albright and ask her to consider in more detail what made this potentially painful or even harmful “processing” of differences in values and worldview both positive and growth-inducing instead of widening the conflict between herself and her daughter. If my mother and I could have had something like that, I thought, it would have changed our lives. Albright said the ground rules made the group process positive—the rules for peaceful, nonjudgmental communication, and the dedication of all the members to following those rules. There were several practices that made deep sharing at Lost Valley safer than it was in The Family or in my family of origin.
The Lost Valley community’s rules were based on the principles of Compassionate Listening, developed initially to help Israelis and Palestinians talk to each other in the quest for a lasting peace, and Nonviolent Communication, developed by a psychologist, Marshall Rosenberg, for similar purposes. The idea is that conflicts can be resolved if the parties agree to listen to each other with empathy and speak honestly without judgment, blame, shaming, guilt, or other kinds of manipulation that increase the conflict. Nonviolent communication is a four-part process: first, making observations based on perception, e.g. “I hear you vacuuming the living room at 8 in the morning”; then a feeling statement, “I feel irritated”; then an expression of a simple human need, such as “I need to be able to sleep in after working late”; and finally a clear, concrete, feasible request, such as “Would you be willing to wait until later in the day to use the vacuum cleaner?”
Surrounding all this at Lost Valley were hours and hours of just listening and allowing each other to say what they meant. It sounded delicious to me, but it wasn’t about oneness; it was about allowing, differentiating, and working together.
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Because, after The Family, I remain suspicious of hierarchy and distrustful of charisma, I was intrigued to hear from a former member of another communal group who considered her patriarchal leaders benevolent, even though she eventually left. I asked for more information from Taylor Goforth, a bright-faced, slender woman now in her 50s. Goforth spent nearly 20 years with the international spiritual group, Emissaries of Divine Light (EDL), living for six years at an EDL community in Oregon, and another 12 years at Sunrise Ranch, in the foothills of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The beautiful land at Sunrise played a large part in her experience of community.
“The land spoke to me so deeply,” she said. She loved to climb the hill of huge granite boulders to the west and look out over the valley and north to the mountains. The 345-acre ranch provided the group a solid economic base, with a dairy herd, a five-acre organic garden, and enough land to raise alfalfa and hay. Some 125 members worked hard together, growing and processing much of their own food. They found joy in the work, Goforth said.
EDL had a hierarchical structure, but in this case there were many leaders, not just one, and according to her they were mostly benign.
“The spiritual focus was represented by the community and the leaders. We considered the hierarchical structure the design of heaven on earth; the heavenly design could be made manifest,” Goforth said. “The community was a vehicle to experience oneness with God and with the creative process and the Whole [of existence].
“When we were together there was a hugely moving experience that happened, with the group resonating around ideals and high feelings of ecstasy, compassion, serenity, illumination.”
In the best of times, Goforth said, “I felt like everything I did had significance; I had a purpose, a direction; I was surrounded by others with the same purpose, having the same experience. It was mind, heart, and body together. Life was suffused with meaning.”
What could possibly have been missing? For Goforth, it was critical thinking and a strong connection with the big world outside the community. She felt subtly set apart as an intellectual. She saw the patriarchal leadership growing rigid and resistant to change. The teachings emphasized the positive to the extent that the negative couldn’t acceptably be spoken.
It’s hard to sustain utopia. As Shakespeare put it in The Taming of the Shrew: “My tongue will tell the anger of mine heart, Or else my heart, concealing it, will break.” Jealousy, aggression, a carping, bitter anxiety—there will be a stain on the white tablecloth, and eventually it will have to be washed. The Taos Family ran up huge debts, lost members, and left town in the middle of the night. The communities described by Albright and Goforth did not last, at least not in the same idyllic form. For Lost Valley, the gradual changing of the generations, as well as economic and other factors, both internal and external, brought in new goals and approaches that also changed the social dynamics (part of an evolution, perhaps a spiral one, that continues today). In the EDL community, Goforth said, “people felt their idea of or commitment to what Martin Exeter (and Uranda before him) had taught in terms of spiritual truths was being betrayed, left behind, changed. The group’s trust of each other was deeply shaken.” Many, including Goforth, left. (Sunrise is, however, still a working farm community, still part of EDL, and, according to Goforth, again manifesting important elements of its initial spirit.)
But despite their struggles, those who left those communities took something with them, as I did from The Family—new knowledge of themselves, and some questions, and perhaps a determination to build something more.
“After I left I felt very fragmented,” Goforth said. “No one around me had anything in common. I wondered what brought people together [in mainstream society].”
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After my brief but often painful experience in The Family, I had no interest in living in a commune, ever again. But while I was still with The Family, I had the opportunity to visit another kind of place that also left a lasting impression, this one positive. The Family had made a film about itself and the other Taos communes of the time, and had a grand plan for distributing it and becoming rich and famous. The leader sent four of us off in a car with a copy of the film and instructions to arrange showings at university campuses throughout the west. Our first stop was the University of Arizona, and someone had arranged for us to stay at a community of artists north of Tucson called Rancho Linda Vista. Rancho Linda Vista was a cohousing community before the term was adopted. A group of artists and art professors from the University of Arizona had bought a piece of land that was formerly the home base of a working ranch; houses were scattered out among the desert landscape and there was a central building for meetings and shared meals. But there was privacy; there were separate houses; there were psychological and social boundaries and breathing spaces in which to make art.
When I visited Rancho Linda Vista in the spring of 2003, more than 30 years after its founding, it was still there, still beautiful, and they were still doing art. Some of the original members had passed on, but the community continued. I chatted with Joy Fox McGrew, one of the cofounders, sitting on her porch in a cool desert breeze. I asked if there had ever been a time when someone tried to take over and run the place their way. Joy mulled it over and said that someone once did get into writing up the rules and making them into a book and telling everybody what to do, but that effort didn’t get very far. There was no way to get a leg up on that particular horse. It seemed that when conflicts arose and meetings got long, someone would likely say, “Aaahh, let’s go get drunk and make art.”
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I’m happy in my unintentional community with good friends, but here’s what I would look for if I wanted something more consciously designed: First, a secular mission statement. I’m no longer looking for ecstatic, mystical oneness in a group. That’s religion. I believe in the separation of church and state, on the micro as well as the macro level. Second, a means, whether formal or informal, part of the rules or part of the group’s culture, to acknowledge and prevent the ascension of those who want power over others. Exercising limited personal authority based on character, experience, and/or skill is different from control, manipulation, coercion. Let that distinction be maintained.
I would look for a place where there are separate quarters for partners and families and others who choose to live alone. I’d look for a community with permeable boundaries and lots of involvement with the wider world. And I’d want to find people who know about Compassionate Listening and Nonviolent Communication and are committed to living by those rules of engagement, because I think such practices allow intimacy to develop where it will—like grace—like belonging in the world.