UW graduate Margaret Hollenbach details her experience with a group marriage commune in the turbulent 60s
Henry Ford once said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” By this line of reasoning, UW graduate Margaret Hollenbach should live forever.
In her 60 years, Hollenbach has earned a masters and doctorate in anthropology (both from the UW), traveled from India to Colombia conducting research, attended the Vancouver in British Columbia Film School, worked as a radio station program director, taught at Bellevue and Shoreline Community Colleges and pursued journalism and freelance writing.
“I’m pretty enthusiastic about life and the world in general,” said Hollenbach of her diverse resume. “We’re fortunate to live in a time and place that allows for so much personal freedom.”
Rather than being steeped in dry academia, Hollenbach’s history has been forged from interactive, real-world experiences. The most unusual of these is her time with a hippie community called The Family in Taos, N.M. The group served as the focus of Hollenbach’s recent book Lost and Found: My Life in a Group Marriage Commune.
The Family, formed by a group of students from UC-Berkeley in 1967, was created to bring about a social revolution through communal living, “24-hour encounter” and group therapy sessions. In theory, the group broke down the walls that separate individuals by remaining completely honest and open, as well as being free from hierarchy. Defying traditional stereotypes, The Family was committed to abstaining from drugs of any kind. They also worked in the local community, staffing a health-food store and information center and helping with a medical clinic that provided free treatment.
But it did not take long for Hollenbach to discover that the commune could not live up to its high ideals. A power structure quickly emerged, with titles such as lord, lady, sir and mistress denoting one’s status, while most of the major decisions were made by a founding member, Lord Byron.
The commune’s sexual freedom appeared liberating at first, but proved to be a two-sided coin. Although lovemaking (The Family’s preferred terminology) was supposed to be consensual, some took it as a right — especially Lord Byron, who was officially allowed to choose any woman he wanted. At one time, Hollenbach found herself the victim of the commune’s equivalent of a date rape and believes that hers was not an isolated incident.
“It just wasn’t addressed. It took me 30 years to talk about what happened to me.”
Therapy sessions, which amounted to a group interrogation, were far from helpful.
“They could be very coercive — very critical and accusatory,” said Hollenbach, “And when you’re in that type of situation you don’t feel safe, which makes genuine change impossible,” she said.
Hollenbach first encountered The Family while attending the 1970 World Affairs Conference in Boulder, Colo. The conference was less formal than conventional academic gatherings and dealt with many pressing social and political issues. Film critic Roger Ebert, journalist Russell Baker and historian Stanley Hoffman were a few notable presenters that year.
Two members of The Family talked to the audience about the commune’s history and goals and gave a demonstration of a typical Gestalt therapy session, in which the emphasis is placed upon how one is feeling rather than why. In order to join, they said, one must change their name, give up all possessions and swear off drugs.
Hollenbach’s decision to join was largely the result of personal turmoil, rather than any political agenda. At the time she had just left a job, relationship and graduate school in Seattle and was searching for direction. Being the only child from a broken marriage in which moves were frequent, Hollenbach was also drawn to the perceived stability and community The Family provided.
“The counter-culture really hated the hypocrisy of the times. All of the lies being told shattered people’s confidence in the government,” said Hollenbach of the group’s motivation. “We grew up in a time of prosperity, and our parents, who had been through the Depression and World War II, tried to make everything better and easier for us. We felt powerful and important. We were not cynical, but hopeful, optimistic and earnest and really believed we could change the world.”
Powerful in many ways, Hollenbach’s book gives the reader a unique perspective on the sexual revolution and politics of the time.
“I think that what makes this book unusual is that most books about the counter-culture were written by men,” said Hollenbach, “Much of the sexual revolution was about guys getting as much as they wanted rather than true liberation.”
It also raises the question of how to qualify groups as cults and addresses the new spirituality and its emphasis on intuition for decision-making.
Jan. 6, 2005