It is the story of the Brotherhood of the Spirit, which later became the Renaissance Community. That story is also told in compelling manner by Daniel A. Brown, here. Brown was one of the commune members interviewed for the documentary.
Since my nephew had given me the gist of the story over the phone, I had prepared myself for an evening of merriment, laughing and making jokes at the expense of the stupid hippies and their stupid experiment in communal living. But that is not quite the way it turned out. Granted, I did Laugh Out Loud at many points, such as the description of "Toilet City", seven toilets arranged in a circle, so that the community members could continue their endless dialogue on the life of pure spirit even when attending to the basest needs of the body.
And there were several other times at which the folly of the community or its leader (Michael Metelica Rapunzel) made the documentary seem more like a Spinal-Tap-style mockumentary.
But I was sobered by the realization that I myself share the personality type of the people who joined this commune and put up with so much from their abusive leader. My father noticed this trait in my when I was in my early twenties, and though I denied it at the time, I now must conclude that he is right.
How do I describe the combination of traits that makes me a candidate for membership in a hippie commune? Let my try listing a few:
1. A dissatisfaction with the world and a concomitant urge to either change it, or build a better one. This is kind of the core value of that drives not only communal-living hippies, but is also behind the productive industrialists of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. It can also drive people to become monastics, or revivalist Gospel preachers.
2. The sense that "regular people" lead boring lives and are "missing out". This is a close relative of the 1st trait. It has some validity, in that the lives of most people leave much to be desired. But it also comes from not studying closely enough the drama of the average human life. We miss a lot, and assume a lot. Eventually, we may come to assume that there is an ontological difference between us an the "regular people". I think that this is incredibly dangerous. You see it clearly in Free Spirits in the words of one of the children raised at the Commune, in his disdainful words (as an adult) about the closed-mindedness and limited lives of everyone he knows who didn't grow up in the Commune.
3. The pride of youth. Time has graciously arranged it so that I can no longer fall prey to this one. But I remember one LSD-soaked Saturday in Central Park, circa 1979, when I asked my fellow acidhead friend: "Why is it only we young people who understand, who are wise?" In retrospect, this is one of the most embarrassing moments of my own personal documentary. In retrospect, the answer is: It's NOT, you dunderhead! Get over yourself!
4. Failure to appreciate tradition. Why have traditional institutions grown up? Why do we have governments? Why do we have towns? Why do we have any of the "establishment" institutions. In general, the answer boils down to: Long ago, our ancestors tried the "pure spirit" method of the Brotherhood and, thanks to some abusive personality like Michael, various safeguards were put in place. We wander onto a dangerous path when we ignore what Chesterton called "the democracy of the dead": Tradition.
5. Attraction to charismatic personalities. I have this. I guess a lot of folks do, given the passion with which people seem to follow celebrities of all varieties, trying to fill their own empty lives with substance from the celebs' lives. If you read the Daniel A. Brown article, please note the moment in which Michael invites him into the Community. It puts a powerful spell on him. Just reading it gave me the shivers, as I realized that I would have felt the same reaction he did.
My possession of theses "cult joiner" traits made me not laugh so hard at the "stupid hippies" as I had intended to, and that is probably a good thing.
I loved the documentary for several reasons. One reason was that there was a good bit of film footage from the Brotherhood/Community, so the filmmakers did not need to resort to that horrid documentary practice of showing the same exact still photograph 50 times over, but zooming and panning to try to add some life to it. They don't just tell you about making the silk-screened posters of Michael, they show you!
Then, too, the tone was very balanced. Those who had left the commune, forced out by Michael's increasingly bad behavior, still had a wistful nostalgia about the Community. The best and perhaps saddest remembrance appears in the trailer for the film, and is a statement to the effect that none of the attributes that had attracted the woman speaking to Michael at the beginning were present at the end.
Of interest to me also was the rock band that Michael Metelica Rapunzel started with commune members: Spirit In Flesh. From the brief snippets of music on the documentary, I had expected a hard and heavy psychedelic sound, perhaps akin to Iron Butterfly. So, you can imagine my surprise when I heard this track from their album on YouTube, and found it to be almost 10 years behind the times, sounding more like Freddie and the Dreamers or Herman's Hermits than Blue Cheer:
I have to ask myself, had I joined the Brotherhood in its early days, at what point would I have left? I don't know the answer. I also ask myself what sorts of brilliant things this community could have achieved had Michael, its founder, been more interested in seeking to encourage to vocations of others, and less interested in pleasuring himself. God only knows.