For the current issue of our magazine, we spoke to Hawaii resident Isis Aquarian about the five, very game-changing years she spent inside the Source Family, a ’70s utopian community centered around Los Angeles health food restaurant impressario Jim Baker and his transformation into Father Yod, a long-bearded spiritual guru. According to the new documentary of the same name, the family was all the sex, drugs and rock & roll of the era rolled into a single living experiment, and Aquarian—appointed documentarian of the cult and one of Yod’s 14 wives—captured pretty much all of it. To mark today’s release of The Source Family soundtrack, which is out on Drag City and brings together some coveted, psychedelic rarities from the community’s numerous house bands, we spoke to directors Jodie Wille and Maria Demoulous about what attracted them to the Source Family and how a commune can have a lasting impact on culture, even if it doesn’t last forever.
Jodi, you’ve been documenting cults and communes for decades, through your publishing companies Dilettante Press and Process Media. What makes the Source Family stand out from the other communities you’ve covered? JODIE WILLE: What was distinctive immediately to me was their strong aesthetic sensibility and their style. The aesthetic sensibility reached over to their album art, which I just found extraordinary in this wild, outsider way. There were literally thousands of groups like the Source Family happening in the ‘60s and ‘70s—but the difference was that the Source Family happened to be right in the middle of Hollywood, on the Sunset Strip. They had a lot of money. They were very visible. They had a restaurant where they interacted regularly with the public, so they weren’t just running off into the countryside and doing this in the middle of nowhere. Also what was unique about them was that they documented themselves and they have an archivist [Isis Aquarian] who was dedicated not only to documenting hundreds of hours of Father Yod speaking on audiotape but well over 1000 slides, black and white images and scrapbook pages. She not only documented it but held onto it for 30 years. That’s really what makes the Source Family stand out.
How did going around the country to interview past Family members expand your understanding of the Source Family? WILLE: Throughout the entire process, my ideas of what the Source Family was and what their relationships were and what this all meant to our culture were overturned again and again. Preconceptions were continuously blown out of the water until I realized that the reality of the situation was so complex. There are the preposterous moments and then there are these extremely deep and rich moments about this family. MARIA DEMOPOULOS: We would do an interview with somebody and you would kind of leave the interview, walk away, being so certain about what happened in the room. Then you would go and you’d interview other people who had been present for the same experience and they would give you such a radically different perspective. The lesson in that is that it doesn’t really matter what the absolute truth is. All that matters is what the participants experience—how they feel about it now.
What are some examples of surprises you experienced? WILLE: Maybe when Robin [Jim Baker’s first Source Family wife] gets so upset about the multiple women, but then you hear the other women talk about it and they are totally fine with it. DEMOPOULOS: Certainly him saying, “I’m not God, I’m just a man.” We didn’t find that audio until late in the edit. I remember I was walking listening to my iPod, and that audio came up, and I was like, Oh my God! His humanity became revealed more and more the more I was going through the audio listening to his words directly. How, in some ways, he was really sane and aware of the situation. Not diluted by his ego at the same level that somebody like Jim Jones is—where you are totally in denial of the situation and it becomes something really bad. WILLE: What’s interesting about Jim Baker is that he’s fallible and he’s human. It’s great to be able to show all those sides of him. To show the value that he gave those people, but also show that he was having sex with underage girls. He’s a very complex person, and it’s fascinating how he brought so much to the 40 plus members of the Source Family that we interviewed. After talking to Family members, the one thing that they say to us is, You know, you’re really good at capturing his outrageousness, but I wish you could have captured just a little bit more his kindness, and his feminine qualities, because apparently he was very much in touch with his feminine side and has this gentleness to him. Even though he caused a lot of hurt with the multiple wives with Robin and even though he made some irresponsible decisions like an overgrown Peter Pan, he had a genuine love for and desire to be truthful to Family members which never wavered. That’s why we were able to get so many people talking so fondly about him. When he said, “I’m a man, I’m not God,” that was something that he’d said to them before. And he’d said, “You’re all God. I’m God, and so are you.”
Why do you think people were drawn to him in the first place? DEMOPOULOS: There were a couple common tropes that we discovered. One is that a lot of these people—the Source Family members—had fractured relations with their families. They grew up with military parents for instance, or they were radically opposed to the wars going on but maybe their parents weren’t. They grew up in the Mad Men generation. They were looking for something meaningful and looking inward for other answers that they weren’t getting from their nuclear families. WILLE: Also it was clearly a cultural thing that was happening, where a lot of young people were just disaffected by these institutions that their parents believed in that were turning out to be corrupt and hypocritical: the government, the church. All of those things were being called into question, so the idea of banding together with a community of likeminded people seemed more and more appealing. That’s one of the main reasons why communes and cults were so appealing—even to the most radical.
Part of our misunderstanding of the ‘60s and ‘70s is that so many writers focus on the idea that the communal movement was a failure because people couldn’t maintain the communes for an extended period of time—even though there are still some communes that are running strong today. What was important to me personally was to really get into the period of idealism and the power that entering into a utopian social experiment has on the mind. The idea is that these things don’t have to last forever, and sometimes it’s better if they don’t, so you can actually go back into the world and take what you’ve learned and this expansive mindset about what the world can be and make change in the real world. And that’s clearly what a number of people who are experimenting socially and spiritually in the ’70s ending up doing. I mean, take Steve Jobs, who lived on a commune—he’s probably the biggest visionary who affects our lives on a daily basis today. He was a radical hippie, and so was Stuart Brand, one of the founders of the internet, and so was the guy who started Whole Foods. It doesn’t mean they’re good people or nice people, but they’re visionaries and they’re taking ideas and moving culture forward in some way.
Talking to Isis, it seemed she didn’t think that people joined the Family out of a desire to drop out of society or rebel against it. She simply felt that people were drawn to it on a spiritual level. Did you find any variations on that perspective? DEMOPOULOS: When people talk about that period in history, they talk about sex, drugs, and rock&roll—they don’t talk about the spiritual explosion that was happening. I think with a lot of the Source Family members, making a choice to live communally, making a choice to not accept wages for your work in a restaurant is political. It may not be the overt motivation, but there’s something incredibly political about that. I think Isis perceives it as kind of a karmic connection—they were all part of the same soul family. But if you pull back the camera lens, you can see that this is a bold choice. Not everyone can hang and do that. It takes someone who has a lot of guts and who is willing to try something that’s so out of the box. WILLE: A number of people that entered into spiritual groups were passionately political at one point, and then just became disenchanted and wanted to try another way to make change. A number of Family members and people in the larger culture that joined spiritual communities, they were involved in [demonstrations at Berkeley's] People’s Park, they were involved in the Civil Rights movement. I think a lot of people just got dispirited in 1969, after Altamont and the assassinations, and realized that their demonstrations weren’t really doing anything effective, and the greatest way that they could be effective would be to go off by themselves and grow themselves individually and make a change that way.
What makes the Source Family’s story timely in 2013? WILLE: What makes it especially timely in my eyes is noticing these cycles that happen in our history. You can look at culture all the way back to the ancient Greeks and find periods where there are power structures dominating the people and the people are suffering, and the power structures begin to develop cracks and fissure and glitches, which makes people aware that they’re being suppressed and they shouldn’t be trusting these power structures necessarily, and it’s time for them to return to different kinds of values. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, modernism was giving was to post-modernism, and these previously unquestioned institutions like church, the government and the benevolence of capitalism were all coming into question. People become disoriented, and when that happens people tend to reach for higher truths. Timeless, irreducible truths that are not marketed to them or programmed in them and that usually comes through mystical spirituality or alternative spirituality. The Source Family seems like such an anomaly to some people who look at it from the outside, but if you go back through our history in America—the 1840s, when you had utopian groups like the Oneidans, who were practicing free love and withholding their seed and were doing very much what the Source Family were doing. Or in the 1890s, when our country essentially went bankrupt, you had more communal groups, social activists, and this radical spiritual renewal that was happening. And now it feels like we’re at the same thing again. We have a depressed economy, we have all these institutions where the cracks are showing and people are starting to really question the whole materialist consumer paradigm. It’s definitely happening.
How can you tell? WILLE: Think about all the friends you know who are growing stuff right now or who have chickens or who are fermenting or friends who are doing yoga, people that only want to shop at farmer’s markets, people who want to have natural births. All of that stuff was stuff that the Source Family and other groups were pioneering and reminding our culture was possible back then. And that’s breast feeding in public, homeschooling—all of that stuff is mainstream now thanks to these people, and those connections haven’t been clearly drawn yet. They’re hard to draw clearly, but they exist.