I recently finished a book I spent four years writing and researching. It’s about one of the most challenging topics I’ve come across yet: Relationships. Specifically, my own complete and abject failure with them.
Most of my books are about the same thing: Finding the problems in my life, doing whatever it takes to solve them, and then sharing the story of that journey with others in the hope that it may help them too.
Here’s the story of one of the more unusual relationship experiments I attempted while exploring if there’s a better way to live than traditional monogamy. This exclusive excerpt was never published in my book, "The Truth: An Eye-Opening Odyssey Through Love Addiction, Sex Addiction, and Extraordinary Relationships":
Part I: How to Live Together
“Honestly, what’s worked for us is the idea that life is perfect and that I am perfect,” Ilana says. “That’s our philosophy. That’s what binds us together.”
By us, Ilana is referring to the sixty or so members of Lafayette Morehouse just outside San Francisco, one of the country’s oldest and most successful communes. Since its formation in 1962, it has spawned additional Morehouses around the world—and its teachings have been ripped off by countless other sexual and communal movements. I’m in front of a panel consisting of Ilana, Judy, and Colin, all commune members in their forties and fifties.
Lafayette Morehouse was founded as “an experiment in pleasurable group living” by a charismatic former Marine, bouncer, and mob enforcer named Vic Baranco in 1968. Like Father Yod, who led a Los Angeles commune called The Source Family and later died in a hang-gliding accident, Baranco was tough, had likely killed people, harbored rock-star ambitions, and died early.
According to former residents, when Vic was around, if someone left the premises for a few hours, he was likely to come back to find someone sleeping with his wife or that he’d been moved to another room. Life was a series of adventures and experiments.
Despite Baranco’s lack of peace-and-love origins— Lafayette Morehouse is probably the only commune with a boxing ring—his group succeeded and prospered harmoniously, long-outliving thousands of other groups who tried.
I found them after voraciously reading the classic books on group living —from fiction like Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Robert Rimmer’s The Harrad Experiment to non-fiction like Robert Houriet’s Getting Back Together and Richard Fairfield’s Communes USA.
There was a wide gulf between utopias that writers imagined in their fictional books and the actual ones people created in real life. I studied what made them work (qualities of sharing, temperance, and a work ethic) and what made them fall apart (hostility from neighbors, in-fighting, megalomaniacal leaders, accepting new members indiscriminately).
Then I went in search of still-existing communities. All roads seemed to point to only three that were successful, long-standing, and significant: the Zegg Intentional Community in Germany, the Osho Ashram in India, and, closer to home, Lafayette Morehouse in California.
“I want to get as much information as I can to make things go smoothly when we try out my own group relationship,” I tell the Morehouse triad. “One thing you say now may save the entire group.”
“How brave and deliberate,” says Judy, who has a thin frame, brown bowl cut, and hoop earrings. “A lot of people just hope for the best. This is a much better plan. It’s something we’ve researched for forty-five years.”
1. THE ONE NO VOTE RULE
“We have a recommendation,” she continues. “It’s called the one-no vote. And the only groups that we have seen that make it, including groups of two, are people who treat each other that way.”
“Can you explain it?” I look at them curiously, clustered together on an old couch, super-heroes of communal living, all almost sharing the same hive mind. They don’t look remarkable or out-of-the-ordinary or alternative in any way. If anything stands out about them, it’s that they seem disconnected from any fad, trend, or style. If I passed them on the street, I’d think they worked in a library with a lax dress code.
“Yes, it’s that if one person votes no on something,” Ilana elaborates, “then it doesn’t happen.”
“Can there be a re-vote later?”
“No. We truly honor people’s no’s. However, we’ve had only like two no votes in our entire forty-five years. So if someone is even looking like they don’t want something to happen, instead of voting, we’ll back off and talk. “
“It’s very empowering to everyone,” Judy adds. “Once you know that your voice will be heard and that even if you just hint that you’re going to object, people will stop and listen to you. So each person has so much influence that they don’t have to go around bludgeoning people with it.”
2. THE SANCTUARY GUEST
“We actually take care of at least one person on sanctuary, which is to say one person who needs help,” Judy adds. “It could be a homeless person or somebody who just needs a break from life in some way. You don’t have to do that, but a Morehouse does that. We feel like it reminds us of the surplus and the good life that we have. It’s also a way to pay back.”
“Really? Isn’t it hard enough for so many people to live together as it is, without introducing a homeless person as a wild card?”
“Actually it can be a way to unify the group because any group will align either on a common good or a common enemy. Often it’s easier to align behind a common enemy, so you have to really reach for the good by doing something like taking care of somebody.”
3. GOSSIP AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
“We have quite the opposite philosophy,” Ilana interjects. “We are pro-gossip. We talk about each other behind each other’s back at all times.”
“Really? What do you mean?”
“Well, if these are people we’re choosing to spend our lives with, presumably they’re good people and we try to assume that they have the best intentions. So if something’s going on with them, we’ll talk about it.”
Experience is the best teacher, and often the lessons are counter-intuitive. This simple conversation is going to make the commune far more likely to succeed than the harem.
“We notice each other,” Judy elaborates. “Like, ‘Did you see her face? She looks like something is upsetting her. Let’s find out what’s going on.’ So the outcome is interest and caring, and ultimately talking with someone directly, not decimating them.”
4. DEALING WITH THE BIGGEST ASSHOLE
“But what do you do with someone who’s just annoying and hard to live with, and doesn’t really listen or change when you bring it up with them? Do you eventually ask them to leave?”
“We call that person who’s the most annoying person in the group The Biggest Asshole,” Judy explains patiently. They have an answer for everything. “Regardless of how small the group is, somebody will take that spot. I guarantee it. You’re going to be tempted to say, ‘Man, this would be a great group if only we didn’t have Gary who uses up all the toilet paper or doesn’t refill the ice cube tray or whatever.’
So you get rid of Gary and you think everything’s going to be great now, and what we have found is that somebody who had been perfectly fine until that person left steps up to be The Biggest Asshole—and it turns out they’re actually worse. So you keep getting rid of people until you’re alone, and then you find who the Biggest Asshole really is.”
The more I think about that concept, the more powerful it seems to be. People always say, “The world would be better if a certain regime was deposed or if various people, religions, ideas, and even countries didn’t exist. But there will always be a biggest asshole in the world. And usually the people seen as the biggest asshole—whether it’s Nazis, Stalinists, or violent religious extremists—are trying to eliminate others they see as the biggest assholes. So the secret to world peace may just be for everyone to stop saying “the world would be a better place if only those guys were gone or moved somewhere else.”
5. THE HAPPY PERSON AND THE SPACE CASE
“Are there other roles that people fall into besides the biggest asshole?” I ask them, fascinated.
“One role that’s really valuable around here is someone who’s just happy. They may not be good at electricity or plumbing or computers or cleaning, but when they come around, people feel good in their presence. It’s not a role you can assign somebody and say, ‘Okay, now you be the happy person.’ You just gotta luck into it.”
“There are lots of other roles,” adds Colin, who’s barely been able to get a word in edge-wise. He has a boyish face topped by short grey hair, and though he’s soft-spoken, at times he seems to bristle with irritation “There are people who support the action and people who challenge the action. And there are people who always seem to be not understanding what’s going on and not current with what we’re doing.”
“That’s the space case,” Judy cuts in. “They don’t read the emails, they don’t talk to anybody. And it’s actually a good thing. You’re not looking for another six yous.”
6. DO WHAT YOU WANT
“These are a lot of rules,” Judy says. “We don’t have many rules besides communal property, sanctuary, and one no vote. The only major rule when you live here is that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. So this way if you’re doing something, we’re going to assume you want to be doing it.”
Ilana adds that there’s also another rule: “Don’t put glasses on Vic’s floor,” which basically means that the other secret to living with others is to respect their idiosyncracies, even if they don’t make sense to you.
7. WHAT ABOUT THE SEX
“Our time is almost up,” Judy says. “Is there anything else you’d like to ask?”
“Yes, actually there is one thing.” And that’s when I ask the question that’s been in the back of my mind the whole time, burning my tongue, waiting for the right time when they’ll be honest about answering it.
“What about the sex?”
PART II: “WHAT ABOUT THE SEX?”
I ask them about sex as casually as possible, hoping they’ll be as open about it as they’ve been about everything else.
Judy, as usual, is the first to answer. “When you put a bunch of people together, one thing that happens is there is more sensual energy to tap into than when there’s a couple living together. You often find that with couples, after the honeymoon period it dries up a little bit unless you get really creative. But when you have more women around specifically, you may be feeling kind of flat, then your friend walks in the room and she’s all perked up and turned on, and it’s contagious.”
“So do you have any rules about sexual interactions in the group?”
“Our rule is really the one no vote,” Ilana says. “We think people ought to be able to do whatever they want to do as long as everyone who’s involved agrees. If me and my husband want to have an open relationship, that’s up to us and it’s about whether I’m in agreement with what he’s going to do and vice versa.”
“That just may be the best definition of a relationship I’ve heard so far,” I tell her. “But how do you handle jealousy if it comes up in the group?”
Judy is quick to answer. “Jealousy is a big issue. There’s one kind of jealousy that can come up because someone feels excluded. But as long as one of you knows that you can take that energy in your body and have fun with it, things work out.“
It sounds a lot like compersion, the word signifying the opposite of jealousy that was coined by the Kerista commune. Yet amongst this group, unlike many of the other communes I've researched, I don’t pick up on any controlling, self-deluded, or proselytizing energy.
“However,” Judy continues, “there’s another feeling of jealousy that’s experienced as betrayal. That’s when you feel, ‘You’re doing something I don’t think we agreed that you would do.’”
“So what do you do in that case?”
“You bring up the deal you made with that person. And the deal always starts with the lowest common denominator. Say two couples are mixing it up, then whoever is the most skittish of those four people, that’s where the bar is. We don’t go beyond that until that person is okay with that thing.” It’s advice I should have taken in San Francisco.
“We have a lot of open relationships in our community, and we’ve noticed that you can say, “Look, please do not make google-y eyes at her over dinner, I can’t take it. I lose my appetite. Could we contain it to other locations?” If people honor that no and don’t give someone the cold shoulder because they set the bar, after a while that person is usually willing to raise the bar. When people feel safe and like things aren’t going to spin out of control, they’re more willing to open the door.”
“The best way to have strange ass is to be sure the primary woman you’re with is totally gratified and you have her agreement,” Colin says. “She has to feel she has enough of you and has a surplus of you. Overall, the viewpoint we take is if that extra person does not add to the primary relationship, it doesn’t go anywhere.”
They teach me new terms such as the concept of getting strange ass, which is when someone in a relationship has sex with a new person; often, this can add to the passion of the primary partnership. They also discuss new relationship energy, which refers to the obsession and fantasy that typically accompany a new affair—and often feel threatening to someone’s primary partner.
Their answers are clear and direct, and so forthcoming that I work up the courage to ask one of the most awkward questions in this lifestyle. So I ask the commune council, “What about STIs? How can you be sure no one’s passing them around.”
Not surprisingly, they have the solution worked out. “There was a time back in the seventies when we were more open as a group,” Ilana answers. “But now we have a deal amongst ourselves that if you find somebody outside the group, you have to bring them into the group and they have to jump through all the hoops.”
“And the hoops are getting tested,” Colin says.
“The CDC, the Center for Disease Control, has a standard and they say to get texted six months after exposure,” Ilana continues. “But we’re a little more cautious than that because we’re such a large group of people, so whatever happens would affect fifty or sixty of us.
"And with a lot of exchange between people, we have not had a case of AIDS in our group, knock on wood.” She raps on the side of the couch. “If anyone wants to make out or have sex with someone outside the group, that’s fine. We just will not have contact with them until they go through the waiting period and get retested.”
In fact, Colin explains, they even have a member of the group who serves as screening director, keeping track of everyone’s test dates and results.
“We do that because it’s the most selfish thing we can do,” Judy interrupts. Perhaps they’re not so much cutting Colin off, but they just know each other so well that they can continue each other’s thoughts. “This way, we can have all the fun we want with no regrets. It’s no fun getting in bed with someone and hoping you make it out alive. And this goes for us all the way to sharing water bottles and forks with people who aren’t in our group. The odds are lower, but they’re still there.”
I wonder if sex can ever be free when it comes with so many potential consequences. But so too does driving.
“The waiting period can be a very romantic time,” Judy says. “Colin and I have had a love affair for fifteen years and we both have other partners. When we first started our love affair, he had joined the group way past me, so he started getting his tests and it was quite a while before we kissed because kissing is actually more exposure than using latex gloves and contacting each other’s genitals. But we had a wonderful time when there were things that we couldn’t do.”
I ask a few more questions on the subject, until something incredible happens: They invite me to stay with them. “We actually formally researched this stuff: Sensuality, communication, relationships,” Judy tells me. “Our course on basic sensuality can move you forward light years. It’s very efficient: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel for every single thing that might come up. We have a few guest rooms on our property, so you could also stay here.”
“We don’t talk to many people we don’t know,” Judy says. “But you are so responsive and such a quick study. There was a good connection there.”
I end the conversation uplifted by the idea that it is possible to make a free group relationship work, to live by common agreement rather than narcissistic dictatorship. Then I immediately go home, start a free-love commune, and am almost killed three days later by one member wielding an axe and some jealousy.
Evidently, like anything, it takes work to get all this right.