Lost and Found: My Life in a Group Marriage Commune
Reviewed by Alexandra Stein
In 1970, Margaret Hollenbach spent a few short but formative months as a member of The Family, a small commune in Taos, New Mexico (not to be confused with the much larger and well-known group of the same name, previously known as the Children of God). Something about this experience stuck with her so that, although soon after leaving the group she wrote about it for her master’s thesis in anthropology, she still felt a compulsion to come back to the story and publish this new memoir three decades later. As she says in the Preface of this book, in relation to why she felt she needed to return to this experience:
While I am satisfied that I wrote an accurate description of how The Family worked at the time I was a member, I tabled a discussion of why I joined, what really happened to me on an emotional level, why I left, and what I learned. My experience in The Taos Family remained an undigested lump somewhere in the back of my mind.
For years I was ashamed of myself for having chosen [...] a group that turned out to have millenarian beliefs that I thought were foolish and a charismatic leader who, in spite of all that was said about his reluctance to lead and his voluntary giving up of power, wielded considerable authority and gave the group the characteristics of a cult (p. ix).
Hollenbach’s lively and quite gripping memoir is a useful and honest study of a small, loosely organized, and yet highly controlling group. Although the analytical portion of this book isn’t particularly strong, her personal narrative is a helpful and interesting addition to the cultic-studies literature.
Hollenbach recounts the details of cultic control with which we are, in a general way, familiar. The leader, Lord Byron (leadership personnel, oddly, were given titles such as Lord, Lady, Mistress, and Sir), is an ex-con who, she suggests, may have learned his manipulative techniques while doing time for armed robbery in San Quentin prison. She describes Lord Byron as both charismatic and authoritarian, with an underlying violence that he seemingly consciously suppresses. Lord Byron uses sex—he sleeps with all the women in the commune—as part of his system of control. Assuring his dominance in the group, he breaks apart couples who have “special bonds” because a “tight couple takes energy away from the group.” In a similar vein, parents could be sent away from their children, supposedly to show them how others in the group were just as able to care for their kids, despite the chaotic and unreliable reality of the group’s care for the youngsters.
In the spirit of the early 1970s, the core group activity is “the Gestalt,” wherein any member who is having “problems” might be called to the hot seat and grilled by the community. Along with the complete lack of privacy (55 members live in a three-bedroom house in Taos), financial or any other independence, and breached personal and sexual boundaries, “the Gestalt” is a key tool in Lord Byron’s manipulative arsenal. Here, the group cajoles, criticizes, and generally enforces Lord Byron’s will, leaving Hollenbach in tears and a state of confusion. Perhaps this induced confusion is the “undigested lump” Hollenbach was still grappling with when she set out to write this memoir.
It is now well demonstrated that creating a narrative of one’s cultic (or other traumatic) experience has clear benefits in resolving symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Although certain scholars of new religious movements dismiss this type of account as an “atrocity tale,” it can undoubtedly be more usefully looked at as part of a personally helpful “digestion” process. It is in this process that one can step through and understand the fear, confusion, and dissociation induced in the cult, thus helping the former member to integrate and gain mastery over his or her experience. In this sense, these personal narratives can have a two-fold function: first, to provide data for future scholars, and second, to help the writer resolve a difficult and usually frightening experience.
Hollenbach tells us that “it was physically easy but emotionally excruciating to leave.” Luckily for her, her father stays in touch with her during this sojourn, and with the help of the monthly checks he sends, she is able to leave when she gets pushed beyond her limits, despite having given up all her possessions to the group. When she leaves the group after her short tenure, Lord Byron curses her in a kind of frightening, cult-leader cliché, prophesying that “You will end by killing yourself” and announcing “I am the Messiah!” These are quotes he must have taken straight from Cult Leadership for Dummies, a bestseller which, though yet to be written, is apparently already widely read.
Hollenbach’s final analysis, however, is cloudy. She states that The Family was “founded and organized with good intentions.” Given Lord Byron’s criminal background and manipulative behavior, one wonders what evidence she has for this statement. Certainly the members seem to wish to do good, and to this end they staff various enterprises such as a free clinic, childcare center, and general store. But one wishes Hollenbach would differentiate further the motivations of followers from those of Lord Byron who, ultimately, makes all the decisions, controls all the money (at one point squandering so much that followers are forced to scavenge wild asparagus to supplement a rice-and-beans diet), and controls all of his followers’ relationships.
In the Afterword, Hollenbach writes, “The fact that I experienced the group as coercive had as much to do with me as with others.” She continues, “A person always has choices about how to deal with coercive situations,” yet she immediately follows this statement by retelling how her father “persisted in writing me his newsy letters with checks enclosed.” The fact she had help from her father is in stark contrast to others in the group who had no external resources and therefore far more limited options. One wonders what happened to these members who perhaps didn’t have as much “choice” as she; unfortunately, Hollenbach isn’t able to shed light on this. While I greatly appreciate her telling of this story—and from my own experience I have some understanding of the effort required to remember, relive, and, finally, write such a narrative—this cloudiness of analysis could play into the hands of relativist scholars who see only benign alternative lifestyles where manipulative control and dominance by charismatic authoritarian leaders is actually at work.
Lost and Found is a good read and a useful addition to the personal-narrative cult literature. What it lacks in clear analysis is compensated by the lively and honest telling of an experience that is both reflective of the unique period of the early ‘70s and demonstrates the classic dynamics of coercive persuasion within a cultic environment.