For over six years, my mother and father lived communally, as part of a nation wide colony, during the early to mid-1980s. Although my mother never mentioned the name of this group, both my older sister and I were members, birthed by ‘family midwives.’ Since I knew my mother as only a child knows their parent, it was impossible for me to imagine her living in a commune, or at least, how I imagined a commune.
When I was two my father died of a coke overdose, and the hostility my mother expressed towards all things associated with “drug use” or the “counterculture” was evident in my own zealous Christianity. After the 1960’s, the words “Utopian community,” “colony” or “commune” were forever tainted by their association with the media stereotypes of the counterculture, a bunch of half-baked long-hairs stringing beads, cruising out on LSD, and waxing their asses with insincere Hare Krishna’s. One rarely hears about the communities that thrived though they are numerous, such as Llano Del Rio, a Southern California socialist colony from the 1920’s that experimented with feminist architecture like kitchenless houses, communal daycares, and built-in furniture to make cleaning and general upkeep easier.
My mom’s depiction of her commune experience sometimes resembled Valerie Solanos hilarious portrait in SCUM Manifesto: “The most important activity of the commune, the one upon which it is based, is gang-banging. The `hippy' is enticed to the commune mainly by the prospect for free pussy [...] but, blinded by greed, he fails to anticipate all the other men he has to share with, or the possessiveness of the pussies themselves.”
Whenever I talked about wanting to live on a commune when I grew up, or even more innocuous dreams of attending a Rainbow gathering, my mother would pull her hair into a ponytail: they are just as fucked up as normal society. Whenever there is one group stronger than the other, or someone sees a way to dominate, they will. At times her view of human nature seemed almost Sadean: the person with the whip in hand always holds the real power and the victim is always the person who has little or none. My mother did not believe that the rich felt sympathy for the poor, but like Sade, that the rich were rich so that others are poor. Although she wouldn’t use a word as harsh as ‘evil,’ her definition of it was wealth, specifically materialism, which she saw as bound up, inherently, with selfishness and pride. In this respect, and this respect alone, she praised communal living: it rejected crude materialism. In order to join their commune, members were required to donate all possessions and future funds to the collective.
Growing up my mother did not allow my sister or me to watch much TV. As far as she was concerned, TV was nothing but advertising, designed to lure us into the Cult of Materialism.
When the New Kids on the Block blew up the scene in the late 80’s, their faces were plastered on everything from lunch boxes to bed linens. My sister and I were the only kids at our Methodist Church who did not own a single piece of NKOTB paraphernalia. Whenever we visited Kmart or Sears, mom would walk down the aisle, shaking her finger at every NKOTB display: my kids are not a billboard! She also encouraged my sister and I to spend weekends doing community service at the children’s hospital or nursing home. She favored the latter: everyone loves a baby; they’ve got plenty of people to love them. That’s how my mother judged the neediness of others: their lack of love.
As I found out at age twenty-one, my parents were not part of a “commune” but rather a religious group called The Family (formally Children of God), which, in popular media, is referred to as a “cult,” and sometimes even, a “sex cult.”
My mother joined the group when she was twenty-six, a few months after she began dating my father who had been a member, on and off, for six years. At the time, she had recently divorced her first husband, an unemployable alcoholic, and relocated to Georgia to live with her parents (also alcoholics), and teach biology to sixteen year olds at a small catholic prep school. My mother often raved about working with “the nuns”—how smart they were, how fun, what fabulous dancers at the Friday night potluck and polka. She appreciated that they did not need to drink or fuck or spend money to have a good time. Throughout my childhood, I longed to convert to Catholicism for the sole purpose of becoming a nun. I dreamed of what I perceived to be their secret bliss: infinite solitude. I admired nuns for two main reasons: their devotion to God and the fact they existed entirely outside society—that is, women, living collectively, independent of men. That nuns did not actually live this way was of little concern. In my child’s mind, they represented a matriarchy not found elsewhere.
For others its different, but for me, prayer was pure pleasure, an interrogation, the first flush of intellectual life: a place where I told God my wants and was called upon, by the one who loved me most, to investigate, with keen eye, whether they were, really, my wants. Christianity appealed to me in the same way I imagine it appealed to my mother: it offered unconditional love and acceptance fused with a doctrine of noble suffering. Even as a child, I recognized the psychological usefulness, comfort, of repeating God never gives us more than we can handle.
According to my mother, she felt “called” at a young age to serve the Lord. When she was eight, two nuns caught her stealing a bible from the sanctuary of the New Hope Catholic Church in New Jersey. It’s not like my parents were gonna buy me one. The nuns were charmed. They took her under their wing. I, too, was captivated by this tale: my mother so desperate for the word of God, she took to sinning. It was precisely the sort of ethical dilemma that confused me, that I delighted in parsing through while sprawled out in the weeds, alone, on the playground during recess.
I, myself, felt called to Jesus at age eight. Sunday morning: sitting on the cracked wooden pew, I yawned through a boring sermon on The Importance of Tithing, counting down the minutes until the back doors of the sanctuary flung open and released us into the harsh glare of the noon sun. Then, the praying started. I closed my eyes, kneeled on the red carpet. My body began to tingle. I assumed my legs had simply fallen asleep. No. My face slicked with sweat. Within minutes, I felt utterly compelled to speak with this strange man named Jesus, to be as close to him as possible.
Three weeks later, I was baptized under the bible verse 13:13 Corinthians as Amazing Grace played on a pipe organ. I felt incredible lucky, smart even, to have discovered the soothing joy of faith so early in life. As a teenager, at school, it was not uncommon for some smug boy (always a boy) on the debate team or Mathletes to roll his eyes at me: you know belief in god is just a defense mechanism. As if I were somehow unaware of the religion’s single biggest selling point, the thing that kept me coming back again and again: what happens on Earth, in the here and now, does not matter. It just does not matter.
I figured if those boys on the debate team were really so smart they might have pondered, a little longer, the question that had already begun to terrify me: what does it mean, for an individual, to organize their entire existence around the promise of a better life, a future pleasure that is so awesome it cannot be understood by the mortal mind, must remain a mystery, forever “beyond me.” That is, what does it mean to waltz through life emboldened by the delusion it does not matter what happens to me. It just does not matter.
After her contract with the catholic prep school ended, my mother moved into a house with one other couple located in a suburb on the east side of Atlanta. She described a yard raked clean of everything but dirt, two withered pecan trees. There were many defining aspects of Children of God that classify it as a cult, the major one being the role of the group’s founder, David Berg, as prophet.
When David Berg founded Children of God in 1968, he was fifty years old. An established minister, Berg had recently returned to California with his family after resigning from a church in Texas under the cloud of an unspecified sexual scandal. His new ministry set up shop in Huntington Beach and focused recruitment on teen addicts and disaffected hippies seeking shelter, recovery, and the Answer. A “prophet of the end times,” Berg preached the collapse of Global Capitalism, and that ‘the system’—including organized religion, the government, and the the nuclear family—was so crooked that no moral citizen could live as a part of it without being implicated in its evil deeds.
As an adult, while embroiled in a political discussion with my mother, it was not uncommon for me to say, in exasperation, something like the system is so fucked, unaware of the phrase’s connections to The Family. My mother’s response was a predictable eye roll. Beyond the fact that we both tended to vote democrat, we did not agree on most political issues, not in the details. She seemed to think everything was so corrupt, it could not be changed so why not just wait it out, go with the flow. She was a ‘take your pleasure where you can,’ no nonsense kind of woman. She did not attend church, or read the bible every day, but she never stopped believing.
I did not abandon my Christian beliefs so much as take a break from them, ‘my little siesta’ ... that never ended. In my sophomore year of college, living alone in a cramped attic apartment, it seemed there was simply no way to exist as a devout believer as a member of secular society, certainly not college culture, unless one lived in total, terrifying isolation. I had reached a crossroads, so to speak, and decided to go the way of the Amish: Rumspringa, the German word for “running around.” Let the youth go out, into the world, feel ALL the pleasures.
Like many, I thought I would remain faithful, but when I stopped praying, strange things started happening in my brain. I stopped thinking of time as a thing to endure, to get through. Instead, time became an everyday phenomenon. I had to sit very still, look very close to discover that I possessed nothing but time: a supreme blessing. I skipped class, sprawled out in bed, read up and through history. Whole centuries devoured in an afternoon. That rare, ripe pleasure of total engrossment. Whoever said reading isn’t a physical experience? In a few months, I had discovered literature, marijuana, and the present-tense pleasure of the clitoris. I no longer wanted to wait for promiseland. I saw no distinction between the present and the future, between time as a form of constraint and time as a possibility for freedom. What mattered most to me was the here and now.
Initially, Berg’s ministry attracted little attention from outsiders. Southern California was no stranger to mystics, sex-obsessed communes, and gurus of all sorts. One writer in 1921 described the region as a “breeding place and a rendezvous of freak religions.” The first cult was founded in the 1840’s by a quack doctor and economic theorist Dr. William Money. He was also the first person to write and publish a book in the region: The Reform of the New Testament Church, which was also the name of his cult. In the 1930’s the region was home to over 1,000 practicing nudists, and three large nudist camps, including The Land of Moo, whose entrance was marked by a large, wooden sign that read “In All the World, No Strip like This.” “The existence of a large number of transients and visitors,” wrote historian Cary McWilliams, “has always stimulated the cult-making tendency.”
Berg, himself, was born in 1918 to a long line of esteemed California evangelicals, and learned at an early age to speak to large congregations as his family traveled from one town to another. In the early years of Children of God, Berg strayed little from traditional Christian scripture. As membership grew, however, he called for the dissolution of the nuclear family in order “to form one family,” The Family of Love.
When I read about the Kerista Commune in a sexology class, I longed, in a far off way, to be a member of such a group. I was an unfucked, unloved twenty year old. What attracted me to Kerista was not their interest in Gestalt Therapy, and certainly not their self-description as a “hippie free-love trip,” but rather, their practice of Sex on a Schedule. Polyfidelity was their guiding principle. Certainty, the ultimate comfort. Members were faithful to a family group of more than two and up to eighteen people. A new lover every night. A fucking unencumbered by personality, seduction, or frustration. None of this headache of having to do right by feelings.
In 1976 Berg introduced a “more intimate” method of witnessing called Flirty Fishing, which is defined by members as “evangelical sex” with strangers for the purpose of conversion and financial support. Flirty Fishing was the use sex appeal for proselytizing. If masturbation, oral, or penetrative sex occurred, it was called "loving sexually" and also counted as “deep witnessing.”
My mom always asserted I never. But if she had prostituted herself, I would not have cared. A part of me felt that promiscuity was a kind of manifest destiny: a god given right to fuck. I admired notorious whores like Mae West grinning “it ain’t no sin” or Anais Nin with her two husbands, one on each coast, completely unaware of the other. Although I knew little about her sculpture, I taped a picture of Louise Nevelson’s heavily creased face, eyes outlined in thick kohl, to my bedroom wall. When she was left out of an important exhibit of female sculptors at the MOMA in 1959, she showed up with a top art critic and a fabulous floor length dress. Although her very presence shocked, she also stole the bar’s ice bucket, ducked behind some velvet curtains, pissed on the ice, then rolled out. That is—I steeped myself in a kind of feminism that made little room for tenderness, or even honesty—anything outside the triumphant unfeeling I just can’t give a fuck.
I had almost wanted my mother to be one of these mythic, hard-ass whores that put all the judgmental, sexist, rich assholes in their place. But this was not, and never could be, my mother. She does not believe in pissing in the ice bucket. Revenge is almost as despicable to her as the idea of stinginess. Her compassion was her thing. She donated a kidney to my grandfather, despite years of animosity between them, when I was nineteen. However, her kindness also manifested itself as a kind of weakness, or rather what I once perceived as weakness.
Whenever my mother talked about my father, which was not often, she claimed that he was one of the only truly unselfish men she had ever met. A literal kindness, she’d say. He’d give a stranger the shirt off his back even if he didn’t have another. As a child, this image delighted me: Jesus, too, had been known to give the shirt off his own back. I clung to this tidbit, shred of info, in part because the only other images I had of him were those of ‘Addict’ and ‘Lonely Misfit.’ At night, in bed, I would comfort myself with the question: who was this wonderful person that the world had shit upon over and over who would still give their shirt to a total stranger? As I got older, however, I found her story harder and harder to believe.
Perched on my own adolescent moral high horse, I considered my father a loser. He ran away from home at age thirteen, had dyslexia, could not even spell the word ‘deceased’, and struggled on and off with drug abuse of all kinds since adolescence. When I was six, I visited my patern grandmother in Florida, and she took me to Disney. While we waited in line for Its a Small World, she said I was relieved when your father ran away. He was so annoying to be around. You have no idea. His younger brother echoed the sentiment. When I was thirteen, over two massive plates of chimmichangas at strip mall restaurant, my mother told me that often my father had asked her to give him some sort of signal—a pinch, a little kick in the calf—to let him know to ‘tone it down’ whenever he acted too crazy while socializing. No matter how hard I kicked him, he wouldn’t stop, she said. As a child I was terrified that I would inherit my father’s personality—his extreme eccentricity, the curse of not knowing how to shut up, “be chill.”Apparently, he was so annoying that even the cult could not stand him and gave my mom the ultimatum: him or us.
My father, at age twenty-eight, had never had a girlfriend or any long term lover other than a forty-two year old married woman. He had no friends outside of dealers and cult members. My mother chose him. Although I used to think she was an idiot for even dating my father, much less marrying him, I am now thankful that there are those who love—whatever that love may be— what no one else will take.
My mother’s opinion of her communal living shifted radically after turning fifty-five and divorcing her third husband, Gene, my stepfather of twenty years, after discovering that he had lived a secret life for almost the entire extent of the marriage, including sexually abusing my sister for years. After they sold our family farm when I was twenty-three, I moved to Los Angeles to live with my boyfriend and attend grad school. For a class I wrote an essay describing my mother’s new single life, or rather, what I had wanted her life to be like. I wrote that she moved into a co-op, a purple house that sat high on a hill overlooking nothing but dirt, a smattering of firs. I explained that she shared the house with ten other women, all over fifty years old, who grew various hydroponic vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Although I knew no such communities existed in Georgia, it provided a little light to an otherwise gloomy tale. In truth, my mom moved into a one bedroom prefab apartment complex in an edge city of Atlanta. She lives alone with her fat, brown beagle.
Six months after the divorce, Gene had already remarried a woman he met at the only bar in town, Kevin’s Korner. The woman was the typical southern barfly: salt n pepper hair, loose jean shorts, drank High Life, lived for two week sprees in Biloxi. I read on his facebook page—before he ‘defriended’ me—that she ‘seduced him’ by helping him replace the refrigerator in his RV.
When I ran into Gene at the Wal-Mart tire center in Christmas 2009, I almost did not recognize him. Then, I did. I ducked behind a vending machine selling sticky buns and gum. From my crouched position, I watched him slide his keys across the front desk, smile. Where he had never had an accent, he now talked in a thick southern drawl. He also dressed in camo, a far cry from the hippie garb he had donned with my mom. I stared slack-jawed. For months after their divorce, I had dreamed of such an encounter, the reckoning, which was to be my moment of glory. In the fantasy, I see him across the aisle, rush up to him, and shout you molested my sister! and the whole world would know! Yet as I watched him standing in his brown leather boots, real casual, beneath a dazzling noon sun, I couldn’t move. This was, of course, a supreme defeat, specific ache, for if you had asked me what living with Gene had been like, I would have flicked my wrist and said a schooling in putting motherfuckers in their place.
The first time I met Gene was in the Hartsfield-Atlanta airport in 1991. He wore a “SUPPORT CLINTON” t-shirt. I was five years old, flying home from the aforementioned week-long vacation in Orlando, Fl with my Grandma Jenny. The trip was dramatic: Grandma Jenny was two hours late picking me up from the Orlando airport when I arrived. As I waited for her, sitting on the glassy top of the “information desk,” I pissed my pants while an annoyed airline employee tried to reach security we’ve got an abandoned child. I was too embarrassed to tell Grandma Jenny what had happened so I wore my wet panties till bedtime, chapping the inside of my thighs bright red. Then, there was the trip to Disney, hearing the ‘inside story’ of my father’s childhood. I got pregnant on my honeymoon. I mean, I had just married. I had no youth, she said as we ate bratwursts in Epcott. And to have HIM as a first child. Before my flight home, Grandma Jenny curled my hair, painted my nails, gave me a facial, and even polished my shoes. I felt impossibly glamorous: flying alone, my shiny patent leather heels clicking across the airport’s glass tiles. As I rode the escalator up up up, I spotted my mother and sister holding an armful of yellow balloons, smiling wildly. I rushed into their hugs, did not so much as notice the man standing next to my mother. She squatted to meet me face to face: This is Gene. He leaned down, shook my hand and smiled: you better be nice to me or I’m gonna bop you. My sister laughed as did my mother. I remained straight-faced: I don’t think that’s very funny.
“Bop you” was a southern phrase I was, at the time, unfamiliar with. I later learned that the phrase was also used on cartoons like Rocky and Bullwinkle. As a child, I loathed toons. Too silly. The only children’s show or movie that appealed to me was Charlotte’s Web, which I was obsessed with in the years following my father’s death. Charlotte’s Web, of course, is all about death. Charlotte spins the clever messages in her web about Wilbur to save him from the slaughterhouse—all while waiting out her own inevitable demise. In the final, and most important scene, Charlotte dies, and Wilbur, distraught, protects her eggs, all her children. When the eggs hatch, Wilbur implores them: Don’t you miss your mother? Don’t you want to stay here? With people who loved your mother? And the motherless children say, one after another, it does not matter, as they fly off into the sky.