The Kerista Commune in San Francisco: Living Polyfidelity

This is another instalment of our series on Polyfidelity.

Check out the Definition of Polyfidelity here.

The Kerista Commune of San Francisco, like many other “utopian” experiments before it, had a life cycle with a beginning, middle, and an end. Some of the things we did while it lasted were bold, fun and exciting, breaking new ground. Some were arrogant, crazy, and, from today’s vantage point, downright embarrassing. Certainly whichever way you look at it, there are valuable lessons to be learned for anyone with a serious interest in cooperative endeavours, group living, and human relationships in general.

Personal Responsibility

 

Of all the complex issues I have attempted to sort out in the past year since the commune split up, none stands out so prominently as that of people taking personal responsibility for their lives . . . and the consequences of not doing so. Those who heard about Kerista while it existed most likely heard about its many standards. We had a social contract with hundreds of points of agreement in it (some written, others not). We felt that a group could not hold together without a very unified outlook and approach to life. The idea was that no one would join who did not feel internally “aligned” with all these points, so that no one was forced to do or not do anything she/he didn’t believe in. And in fact, the group never grew very big (the population hovered at about 25 people during most of its history), in large measure because of that heavy-duty standards “screen.”

openlypoly-kerista-poly-commune

In addition to this overarching, institutionalised, collective attitude, many other things were handled at a collective level. We practised economic communism, where no one accumulated personal wealth above a small, limited amount regardless of the work load they carried, and a communal fund covered all living expenses. All living space was considered community space; no one officially had her or his own room.

Decisions were made democratically (though the politics of influence in Kerista above and beyond one-person-one-vote could make up a whole mini-series), and often the group made decisions about what an individual would or would not be doing with regards to things like vocation, how to handle a relationship problem, childcare decisions, educational pursuits, and other personal matters. “The wisdom of the group mind” was given great reverence in virtually all arenas.

There were definite benefits to much of this.

For starters, once you were in Kerista, you had a real sense of belonging to a tribe. You always had a group of friends to move around with. You didn’t have to worry about paying your bills – the community took care of that. Those of us who were parents did not have to bear the stress and strain of raising kids alone. You always had help figuring out a difficult problem. And, somewhat more abstract, yet still significant, you always had a sense or belief that you were doing something good for the world.

We had a whole rap about how we were building a huge communal movement that would save money via cooperative living, use the surplus for philanthropy, and thus eventually save the world. So it didn’t really matter what you did day to day-simply by being involved in the community, you were a part of that plan. The downside of all this was that the collectivisation of life in general gradually eroded people’s personal motivation to do anything creative, unusual, risky, beautiful. In the early days it was not that way so much – many people did explore different kinds of artistic, musical and recreational activities, and there was a spirit of fun and excitement to the scene. But, over time, this faded.

Though other things no doubt affected people’s morale as well, I believe that our communistic approach to life effectively immobilised people. It was an interesting coincidence that, at about the same time that some of us in Kerista were becoming aware of, and uncomfortable about, this problem, the Soviet empire was crumbling and the world was getting a very clear understanding of the incompatibility of communism and personal motivation – and the social gains that derive from individual creativity.

The manifestation of this in Kerista was equally clear.

Our living spaces were disgustingly messy and unaesthetic, largely because no one felt any personal responsibility for them. It was everyone’s – and therefore, no one’s – problem. People felt free to spend money on all kinds of things in a way that they would never do if they were solely responsible for balancing their chequebooks and making ends meet. (And, as it turns out, when the accounting was done after the commune’s demise, we found that our communal fund had been running in the red for years.)

Every ex-Keristan I have talked with remembers numerous instances of going along with the prevailing group sentiment on an issue rather than take a contrary stand, or, worse still, without even bothering to really think the issue through independently. Often the matters were relatively inconsequential, but there were also many which were not that had major effects on the lives and minds of other people. There are memories of this sort about which many of us will probably continue to cringe for years to come . . . times we gave some innocent person a hard time for thinking, saying, or doing something that didn’t synch with current Keristan doctrine … or times we sat by and watched while some of the “heavies” in our tribe verbally abused someone else in the name of honesty, growth, the pursuit of “righteousness” or some other such rationalisation.

There were other factors that complicated the situation and made it what it was.

Jud, the charismatic man who had started Kerista as a hip “scene” years before the commune ever formed, was intensely focused on his visions and ideas of what life should be like. Though we had never considered ourselves to be guru-centred (after all, we believed in democracy, equality of the sexes, and other “politically correct” positions), from our perspective today, Kerista was in many respects a cult with a charismatic leader. Jud’s forceful personal style of conversation and confrontation became the model for how Keristans related to each other and outsiders; only the most courageous Keristans dared to openly disagree with Jud.

His personal visions originally encompassed many positive, basic hippie ideals that matched the ideals most of us held when we first encountered them/him as young alternative lifestyle seekers. But it seemed to many of us that, as time went on, Jud’s schemes grew more unrealistic and more grandiose – and his personality became increasingly aggressive and difficult to deal with. [Ed. note: see the journal’s page 34 for Jud’s perspective.] Over time, our lives became increasingly caught up in developing our business (a computer company). The business experience brought many of us out of the more sheltered, cloistered previous commune period, and into more contact with the outside world. We found, among other things, that there were many more nice, “cool” people out there than we had let ourselves believe in our cultish, we’re-better-than-everyone else mindset; also, that we actually did have the skills and abilities to succeed in the world as individuals. This increased people’s confidence and broadened our perspective, factors which ultimately contributed to the commune’s dissolution.

Polyfidelity

Kerista was probably best known for its pioneering efforts in the area of multiple adult family relationships, for which we came up with the term ”polyfidelity.” At the time of the break-up, just about all of the approximately 25 people were in one or another of three polyfidelitous families, ranging in size from three to fourteen people. Today, only nine people are still in polyfidelitous groups – one family of six (the remains of the 14-person group, of which I am a member), and another of three (though not the threesome that had existed in the commune). A few other individuals are still involved sexually with each other, either in monogamous or in open relationships.

Why the big drop-off of relationships between people who were supposedly in love up until that point? To me the answer has to do, again, with the matter of personal responsibility. Many different pressures exerted themselves on people with respect to relationships in Kerista. For starters, you had to be into polyfidelity as a lifestyle preference. Though occasionally we made exceptions, if you didn’t agree with that you had to leave the community, just as you had to leave if you differed on many other things. So once that enforced structure was removed, many of the people began opening up to other sides of themselves, and began to explore other types of relationships.

It gets worse.

We used to scoff at people who would show up at one of our rap groups and ask, “But what if you end up in a group with someone you aren’t attracted to?” We would tell them they obviously didn’t understand-you only joined a group if you wanted to be with all the people in it, and they all, wanted to be with you. That was the ideal, which made sense. In reality it was often not that way. Many of us did find ourselves at different times in bed with people that, on our own, there was no way on earth we’d have ended up with. The way it sometimes worked was that a few influential members of a group would be interested in a new person, and they would “gestalt” (read, harangue) others who didn’t share that feeling until they assented to accept the new person. Sometimes a newcomer would feel attracted to some members of a group and not others, but would decide to join anyway – on the grounds that we were all nice people and all relationships are unique, so it was OK if closeness developed quickly with some members and more slowly with others.

That in and of itself was not so bad . . . it’s true that relationships can and do evolve. But what was really bad about it was that there could be situations that went on for years where one or both people in a given dyad (an intimate pair within the family) would know, in their hearts and minds, that they weren’t really in love. Yet because of all the other things and relationships going on, they could both sort of pretend that all was well. In a couple or small group it’s not so easy to put such a problem out of mind, but in a larger group, more things can slip through the cracks. Within a family, the consequences of singling out one person with whom you felt you had a problem were usually severe: more often than not, you’d wind being pressured to leave the group you were in, and end up separated from the ones you loved as well as the one or ones you did not.

Another peculiar aspect of polyfidelity in Kerista was the numbers game.

We had (mainly on the force of Jud’s conviction) decided that we wanted our families to eventually reach 36 people each: 18 men and 18 women. The upshot of it was constant “cruising” – unceasing efforts to look for and recruit interesting and attractive people. Even though, at least in some cases, we had a number of good relationships going, we could not rest on that and be satisfied with nurturing those relationships. We were always looking for that next person. It became a kind of obsession and game, and, in its own way, a distraction from our other problems. In the end, it became exhausting.

The situation was complex. I do not believe that the only way to have shown good character and taken responsibility for our relationships would have been to clearly acknowledge where our true affinities lay, and separate from the group if we could not have worked out a solution to be with those people only. For one thing, it was not always that clear; sometimes it took courage to hold on and try to work things out, trying to hang onto relationships that were dear in spite of the other difficulties.

What happened with those of us who are still together was that somehow, despite all the flak, we managed to connect with each other and form the beginnings of real love relationships. All of us in Mariah (my six-person family) played a leading role in initiating the sequence of events that led to the commune’s disbanding, and I believe that one reason it happened that way is that we finally reached a level of trust and closeness among ourselves that gave us enough motivation and confidence to take the stand we finally took.

The way I see polyfidelity today is much more in terms of ordinary relationship issues than as some sort of major breakthrough unique to our idealistic lifestyle.

Even though it is rare, I know that what makes it work are the same things that make other relationships work: commitment, communication, compatibility, trust, love, and so on. We do not so much define ourselves as polyfidelitous in any ideological sense -this is just the way we feel like relating to each other. To be in a group has its own inherent drawbacks and advantages, as any lifestyle does. To choose it is to let go of other possibilities, but so far as I have been able to tell, that’s just the way life is.

To imagine living with a group of 36 people now boggles my mind. We are three men and three women in Mariah-but that’s about the extent of it. We’re very satisfied with this arrangement, and have no ambitions to recruit additional members. In Kerista there was some trade-off between quantity and quality. I’m done with that. It is an amusing irony that the heavy-duty recruiting energy generated by the commune does seem to have been the most successful technique we’ve seen for gathering together polyfidelitous people … yet it is precisely those techniques that totally burned us out and which we don’t believe in anymore. Oh well. I’m relieved that we no longer face the dilemma of how to find partners for a multiple adult family without relying on a “glamorous” vision and a zealous recruiting team.

Lessons Learned

What kicked off the break-up of the Kerista Commune was really pretty straightforward. Bottom line, some of us decided it was time to make Jud answerable to the same standards everyone else was expected to live by – and play as an equal. Given that demand, he decided to leave … first his polyfidelitous family, then the commune as a whole. That was in November of 1991. By the end of that year (following a lot of personal soul-searching, group debate, and dialogue), the economic, social, and ideological union that had formed the Kerista Commune was dissolved. Obviously, for the whole thing to unravel because one person left means that there was a lot more lurking beneath the surface. One way to see it is that, basically, most of us had just grown up and were ready for a different set of challenges in life.

I also think that a community of people cannot be united by social contract or ideological agreement alone.

While common beliefs and values do play a part, there are many other less tangible things that make people like each other and want to do things together. In the wake of the commune split-up, many of the folks involved have realised that, in reality, they do not have that much in common with some of the others who were their previous community partners. In the end, the mix of forces that held the thing together – the feminist, egalitarian rhetoric; economic security/expediency; aversion to being alone; the presence of some pretty cool, intelligent, attractive people; the sense of camaraderie; Jud’s charismatic personality; some shared ideals and beliefs and whatever else – weren’t sufficient to make up for that absence of more fundamental social affinity. I should also say that the experience was no doubt different for the various individuals involved. My impression is that some may have been happier, at least on some levels, if the commune had not broken up … but lacked the conviction or leadership skill necessary to try to hold the community together or to build something new.

This was another whole issue in Kerista (as in all organised groups) that is worthy of exploration: how to deal with the concentration of leadership energy within a small percentage of the membership. No dictates requiring equal participation seem to have any enduring impact on this apparently human fact. In any event, for better or worse, all of us who were once Keristans must now face the world more directly and make it or break it on our own steam. It’s scary and liberating at the same time.

‘The business experience brought many of us out of the more sheltered, cloistered previous commune period, and into more contact with the outside world’

A final thought: I think we used up our enthusiasm for the belief that any one group or plan was going to “save the world.” The world is pretty screwed up, but things are far too complex for a single, simplistic solution. Improvements will happen as good people with their own visions dedicate themselves in whole or part to doing creative things that are good for the planet and for people. The more who do that, the better. Cooperative activities and a sense of community still have a valuable part to play, but I now have a deep suspicion of any person or group who tries to direct or control these things. Change of consciousness leading to change in behaviour and lifestyle is still important, as is making intelligent use of available philanthropic funds, and as is changing legislation at the governmental level. Beyond that, it’s up to the higher forces to deal with as they see fit. If they exist, and if they care.

So that’s the gist of the story as I see it. Though others, no doubt, have different perspectives, I think much of what I have said here are experiences that most of the others involved would identify with. There’s much more that could be said, and it makes a rather fascinating study in human psychology. Maybe someday I’ll write a book about it. I hope it will be a best-seller, because now that the commune doesn’t pay my bills, I could use the cash.

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