If you lived in San Francisco between 1971 and 1991, you might find a free newspaper around town called the Utopian Classroom, which was published by a group of Haight/Asbury artists called Keristans. I was one of the last generation of the Kerista tribe for the final five years it existed. A very big man, and a very big influence on a very big chapter of my life, meet the late JUD Presmont, the Founder of Kerista Commune.
I joined Kerista, a group living experiment affectionately known by the members as a “hippie sex cult” in 1986. JUD was 63. There is much to say about Kerista, thus the link above, but for now my focus is on a few stories about me and JUD. My father was one of many men both pissed and fascinated by the way this aging hippie/swinger/ “cult leader” was able to seduce young women well into his senior years. As we would lie in bed after an orgasm, he liked to say that sex was the greatest mystery. At the time, I thought he meant something cosmic, but now I suspect he was marveling at his own ability to sleep with a new twenty something woman as fat old man over sixty. He described our “intentional community” as a “scene” that did the work to bring in the right people. He described many a person and their pet beliefs and theories as spouting “a rap to get laid.” He meant it as both a dismissal and a compliment.
Keristans were in the business of selling their utopian lifestyle to people who thought they might be a good fit. Group living, lots of sex, high ideals, voluntary surplus income sharing, all laid out in their social contract, the “Blueprint for Heaven on Earth.” These ideas had been honed over 40 years of lifestyle experimentation by JUD and various incarnations of the Kerista tribe by the time I discovered them in 1986. Robert Anton Wilson had written a piece on Kerista in the sixties in New York when Jud was a bohemian in Soho, and came again to interview JUD and the Keristans while I was a member in San Francisco in the eighties. This scene had roots! There were chapters before my time that connected with other well known icons, scenes/cults, including Dau Free John and Ishvara of Harbin Hot Springs, the much beloved clothing optional resort in Middletown, Ca. Keristans loved to have naked dance parties at Harbin, and JUD had supported Ishvara in early legal challenges involving the ownership rights of the Harbin volunteers and stakeholders.
As younger men living on Dominica Island, JUD and Dau were peers and friends, both interested in better living through intentional community. As happened often in his life, Jud’s cantankerous personality ultimately led to a breakdown in the friendship. He liked to tell the story of their last heated encounter. “If you are actually a divine guru, then you don’t need me to believe in you, and if you are not, then go fuck yourself” is a quote I heard many times as brother JUD reminisced.
In five years of life with Brother JUD and the Keristans, I mastered the martial art of bullshit detection, and that has often served me well in life. The tribe practiced a flavor of confrontational conflict resolution called “Gestalt-O-Rama” which might pass for abuse in the molly-coddled modern era. At the time, however, it seemed very Yiddish to me, well intentioned if not polite, and compatible with the brutally honest, angry and acerbic Italian culture of my family. I embraced the power of direct psychological probing with a passion, and learned to cut to the chase when issues came up.
I remember the feeling of having my beliefs challenged the first time I met with Keristans. When I was invited to meet a group of commune members at the weekly “Growth Coop” rap group, I faced questions that urged me to take a stand and define my values. A physical sensation which I usually describe as cottage cheese in my forehead revealed to me that my thoughts were unclear, and full of contradictions. In a fog brained encounter I can partly remember, it seemed like a friendly conversation became awkward, but I did not understand why. This was the beginning of a life full of lessons in self actualization, as I began to identify my own patterns of defensiveness in a situation designed to test my confidence and challenge my beliefs.
Long story short, at the Growth Coop, the routine was to ask people to read the social contract, and if they agreed with everything, then offer a chance to give the Keristan lifestyle a try. If there were no “contradictions” then there should be no problems, and we could all celebrate finding that rarest of treasures, a new member of the commune.
When quizzed by the members of what would become my very own sex cult, I thought the ideal life for me would be as a single mom in a collective lifestyle that included other single moms, and as an afterthought, also a community of people of all ages. The fog started rolling into my brain when I said something about people of all ages. Agism was one of the taboos in the Keristan social contract. Looking back, I imagine it was JUD’s idea to make Agism taboo, so he could benefit from the natural horniness of the new young members interested in the tribe.
But inside my cranium, the real reason for the fog was the many competing and contradictory beliefs in my young mind about serious subjects like sex, parenting, love, abandonment, and a host of other submerged passions, fears, and disappointments. Lots of unconscious thoughts and their associated sub-personalities woke up when a few polite beliefs were challenged.
I was interested in Kerista because I was wounded in the traditional family values department. My parents divorce had left me sour on the idea of lifetime marriage, and my encounters with boyfriends left me feeling I would be better off on my own than partnering with a man to start my family. As a woman, I felt destined to have a child… especially since getting pregnant was pretty much the main reason for sex, biologically that is. Catholic roots, as well as scientific surrender to the facts still leads me to this belief.
One of Kerista’s bumper stickers bragged that we were “Horny as a Keristan.” There was no shame about enjoying a good orgasm in this cult. I liked to call it the “Church of the Big O.” We were “Monks and/or Nuns in Paradise” and our religion was expressed in the Far Out West comics drawn by the amazing and wonderful Keristan artist, Even Eve. Perfect for me, a cult of genuine idealists with a rye sense of humor.
Polyfidelity and Compersion are two words invented by the commune to explain that the new family structure was both non-monogamous, and committed. My era in the commune was at the dawn of the aids crisis, which more than anything can be credited with putting brakes on the post sixties free love revolution. In the confusing aftermath of the sixties, women my age thought they could “have it all.” The sexual freedom and independence enjoyed by men, plus the economic status and financial equality of a well paid full time job.
Women of my generation received the gift of RoeVWade and legal birth control at the blossoming of their age of consent. They delayed becoming young mothers so the could “have it all.” We had not quite realized yet that raising children was a full time job, and that money was something people could never get enough of, and would soak up all time not otherwise committed.
At Jud’s suggestion, the Keristans were willing to grant me an exception to the “voluntary childlessness” item in the social contract if I joined and remained a member for five years. Ironic how the whole thing fell apart just as I met the five year mark.
In short, it was a very confusing time. Personal independence, self worth and self expression, sexual identity, partnership, and ideas of future parenting were all deeply intertwined, and poorly understood. I secretly believed that society was offering me a raw deal, with too little incentive to carry the lion’s share of the burden of raising the next generation without enough security or rewards. Thus, the appeal of communal living with kindred single moms!
Lets unpack that young woman’s belief system a little more.
As a liberated, self-supporting woman, I embraced my sexuality as freedom, adulthood, and self expression. Having all sisters and no brothers growing up, and a dad who divorced and practically disappeared from my life when I was 15, I did not know much of the world of men. I lacked preconceptions and experience regarding their agenda’s, wiring, cliches—all things I have many more opinions about today.
At that time, I was all about discovering my own inner landscape, my own sexual identity. It did not occur to me that I was an innocent, and that my inexperience would be easy for a more mature person to manipulate. I felt like I was in charge, except for the fact that I had no experience to anticipate the consequences of my choices.
I did not have to account to anyone except myself for my choices. I did not share my unconventional beliefs with my mother, which in hindsight led to many avoidable tragedies. Yet, at the time, it was my parent’s and their discarded catholic programming of my conscience that I did not trust, because it was formed by my someone else’s expectations. I had committed myself to taking responsibility in a world I believed my parents did not understand. . I suspended self judgment in order to surrender to new experiences, to gain my own experience and awareness. In the end, I can say that was a valuable journey, though in hindsight, there are bridges I would have crossed instead of burned, and that might have made the journey easier and less painful for myself and others.
OK, so I guess this is not quite about JUD yet. It’s still all about me. The thing is, that JUD was not afraid to point out contradictions in one’s beliefs, and that very fact could unravel years of personality accumulation. As people met their disconnected subpersonalities, they might become defensive, combatant, teary, or any combination of unstable and vulnerable. So, needless to say, it could be dicey. The journey did have its own rewards however. As JUD often liked to say, The Truth will set you free… but first it will make you squirm. I would say, that is the secret of bullshit detection. When you feel that foggy head from all those competing beliefs, its time to admit there are obstacles to knowing the truth. And slow down. There is time…take it step by step, and make choices that will clear up the confusion. Just aim for the high ground, and surrender what you don’t really want to bring with you.
That’s all for now. Lots to unpack.