The group-therapy session starts up

From 2005, a visit to the Zendik commune:

Lunch at Zendik is, like much else at the commune, more than it appears to be. Long before the farmers finish scraping their bowls, the group-therapy session starts up. A thin, blond woman in her mid-20s garners attention with an “Ahem, everybody” and tells the table that Helen has something to share. Helen’s a short, stout woman who “realized everything was bullshit,” dropped out of Harvard, and moved to Zendik. (She has since left the commune.)

Helen shares that she has “a date” with a guy at the table named Talon. She plans to get pregnant. Talon drops his fork, then goes back to eating lunch.

Helen’s declaration of intent to get knocked up leads to a drawn-out group analysis of her personality. Is she using pregnancy as an excuse to act out her natural desire to hump random men, which has been repressed by her strict Catholic upbringing? Does she want a child because she’s ready to be a mother, or because she has other emotional needs to fill, such as a feeling that she is not accepted by the group or that she hasn’t found someone to love? After a bowlful of tears, she decides that it’s not time to get pregnant, though the random sex will continue. Talon looks relieved, and the group moves on to the next farmer.

Another session on another day:

“I don’t know,” said a guy near the center of the table. “I think it’s his attitude. His attitude’s just got to change. He brings me down, man.”

I found an empty chair against the wall and pulled it in toward the table, where a friendly-looking Laotian-American guy, Vong, slid over to make room.

I eventually gathered that they were in the middle of the all-too-familiar scene that ends many reality-show episodes. The group was discussing dumping one of its members. The bad vibes didn’t last for long, though; someone demanded a change of subject.

Are you twitching yet? Or is that just me? I have a terrible attitude.

A new woman started to join the commune, one with a long-term girlfriend.

The gentlemen on the farm, when her arrival was discussed, tended to focus on her sexuality. They doubted that she was a “real” lesbian and were convinced they could overcome what they saw as a minor barrier.

She told me how excited she was to be in a place where she could focus on her art. I had been there long enough by then to know that she was in for a rude awakening. Very few of the members do any actual art—there’s no time; everyone’s working—unless you count work as art. The Zendik philosophy, as articulated on its Web site, refers to “Life Artistry,” which “takes the rigors of Art—the workmanship, the daring, the objectivity and intensity of focus—and applies them directly to the problems of Life itself, providing a framework of critique and self-awareness that is woefully absent from our common day-to-day reality.…In this way, Life itself becomes the Art, an object of endless fascination, where there are no limits on the potential of imagination and creativity.”

Three months after my first visit to the farm, I got a call from Welsh in Milwaukee. “They kept telling me that I was only a lesbian because of the influence of the Death Culture, and now that I was in a loving family I should embrace my hetero side,” she said. The line didn’t work.

Though she was disturbed by the incessant advances, she said, the real reason she left had more to do with the lack of revolutionary zeal on the farm. “They advertise themselves as revolutionaries, but they’re nothing but a bunch of dropouts…who couldn’t hack it in the real world. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that, and I wish them the best, but they shouldn’t try to recruit people who are actually interested in making the world a better place.”

And they probably shouldn’t try to push lesbians to turn straight, either.


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