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ESSAY / Resistance is Genetic / Ally Weinberg

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It seems so naive now. In the days before the election, I sarcastically wrote on our fridge’s “to-do” calendar, “Move to Canada if Trump wins.” The silly remark was placed next to a reminder about voting and a chiropractor appointment. If I do a deep dive into my social media, I can still look at the photo and the joking comments of like-minded friends below it.

The morning after the election, my eyes puffy from crying, I told my husband I didn’t know how I could live in a country that elected that man. I know I’m not the only one; after all, the Canadian immigration site crashed the night of the election. Was I being an over-dramatic “snowflake?” I don’t think so. As a woman and mother of a young girl, it seems normal to fear the repercussions of having a man who bragged about grabbing p***y (among so many other repulsive things) running this country. 

The idea of escape on that day was, and still is, alluring. But it also is impractical. I have a five-year-old daughter, a career deeply rooted in Southern California, and a responsibility to resist at home. As more time has passed, and the chaos within our country and administration escalates, I can’t say the idea of running away has completely left me. 

My father told me on one of our weekly FaceTime calls that he was interviewing for a visa to Mexico. He is of retirement age and this visa would make traveling to Mexico and staying longer easier. My dad vacations there several times a year with my stepmother. They have made expat friends, they’ve taught art classes to the locals, donating profits back into the community. They have begun to carve out a second life in that country.  

Is my father the one who is going to actually escape? I asked his motivation for this visa and his answer was simple: “We’re fed up with Trump.” My mild-mannered father, who, while always fairly liberal, often decried those who he thought were too radical (whether radically liberal or radically conservative)—now he’s the one contemplating a rather radical move, motivated by this radical administration.

My mother and father divorced when I was nine, and with more distance, I wondered about their pairing. They seemed wildly different. After all, my mother, Deborah, had once been one of those radicals my dad scoffed at. Before they met, she lived in an Illinois commune in the early ‘70s called Laughing Acres with her first husband. Laughing Acres was a direct reaction to the Vietnam War, Nixon, and consumerism. As a child, I attended commune reunions with her and her friends. There were other “hippie babies” there as well, the progeny of our like-minded parents. 

I recently reconnected with a fellow “hippie baby,” Mariana, whose mother, Kathy, lived at Laughing Acres as well. As children, we had attended one reunion together, bonding over our shared love of the Spice Girls. We both agree that rebelling with hippie parents was challenging. Mariana recalls that her form of acting out consisted of wearing Abercrombie polo shirts. When she and her mom fought, she remembers yelling, “I’m sorry you loved me better when I was a hippie!” I’m pretty sure my version of that was ditching the bell bottoms I had favored for Doc Martens and blasting Green Day.

As an adult, I have more curiosity about what would lead a group of young people into this counterculture lifestyle. I also have a deeper understanding. Adulting is hard, the world is terrifying, and finding some solidarity with peers doesn’t sound too bad right about now. 

I still can’t get the idea of “escape” out of my mind. I live in California and in the weeks following the election, “Calexit” was bandied around. I wanted to know the why and how of it; what does it take to remove yourself from mainstream life? I decided to reach out to my mom and her commune alumni for answers.  

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the racial and socioeconomic makeup of this group. As I understand it, most were solidly middle-class, and all were caucasian. Did this allow them the ability to undergo such an experiment in the first place? Probably. I have my doubts about whether a real estate agent/landlord, even a “hippie” one, would rent to a group of African American twenty-somethings looking to escape society in the 1970s. I believe my own fantasies of escape exist in part because I am a member of a privileged class. The events of Charlottesville served to remind me of my “place” in America as a Jewish person. But my sense of danger is minor in comparison to others; I’ll always be able to “pass.”

I started this journey by reconnecting with Doug. I have fond childhood memories of him: a tall man with a big, white beard and a booming voice, too skinny to be Santa. We would drive to Springfield, Illinois, to visit him and his wife, Sheila. When I was home from college, he took me for a day trip to get the best grilled cheese in the country (for the record, it’s in Wisconsin). 

While my mom and Doug are not close anymore, for reasons that seem to elude everyone (including them), she tells me, “He had a real impact on my life. On everyone around him. He’s a charismatic character.” 

Doug was the de facto leader of Laughing Acres in Illinois. Back in the early ‘70s, he was released from the army and was living just outside Rockford with his wife, Louise. He attended a local college and joined protest marches to speak out against The Vietnam War. He and Louise were looking for a way to redefine their family and connect more with their community, so they got together with a small group of friends and rented some land with a big barn and several acres. At the time Doug thought, “we could kind of throw out the book and start over again on ‘What makes a family’, ‘What is a household’, and ‘How much should you should see your friends?’ In our case it was: ‘Let’s see our friends every day, all the time.’” 

He met my mom when he was a student and she was working a minimum-wage, desk job at the local community college. With the presence of a scholarly professor–meets–radical protester, I imagine my mom quickly became enamored with the idea of alternative living. She was young, impressionable, and looking to distance herself from her difficult family. Recently married to her first husband (again, not my father), I imagine this probably looked like the perfect escape from a more conventional suburban existence.

My mother and her husband agreed to join Doug at Laughing Acres. Doug describes the commune with palpable love: “It was just glorious; it was out of a picture book. There was a creek, there were groves of trees—huge cottonwood trees—there were fences, and pastures, and hen houses, and corn cribs, and a big red barn. Like out of a dream.” 

Laughing Acres started with about five people, eventually reaching eight or nine—no one quite remembers how many. Louise, Doug’s now ex-wife, told me how they sold the others on the concept of commune life. “The idea behind the farm was freedom,” she said, “a new lifestyle, being independent, being away from the mainstream—that was kind of a critical element of the counterculture. You know: ‘We’re not going to work for the man. We’re not going to work for corporations. We are going to do our own thing and grow our own food.’”  

According to Louise, the commune owners didn’t have to pay rent for the first three months. Instead, they agreed to help fix up the barn and clear up the land, then once the three months were up, they would pay $75 dollars a month. Doug remembers the rent-per-person figure coming in so low, they included the cost of the postage stamp in their calculations. 

There wasn’t an official manifesto at Laughing Acres, but they had a shared idea of what communal living could be. Louise describes it largely as part of a back-to-the-land movement, “The start of the organic movement was just beginning then,” she said, “in my consciousness anyway.” But the goal of Laughing Acres went beyond reacting to corporate greed and a burgeoning interest in organic farming. “We thought,” Louise said, “we were going to establish a new culture that doesn’t fight wars and that doesn’t discriminate against people. The Civil Rights Movement was going on at the time, and the beginning acceptance of gay culture, and a lot of that took us in, and we believed we were going to start a new world.” They all admit there was some naïveté as they embarked on this journey. 

Kathy, who found herself living at Laughing Acres out of happenstance, ultimately discovered that, “it was a very powerful experience, learning about being with other people, living with other people, what you do as a community, and how you reach out as a community.”

For Doug, an only child (like my mother and myself), communal living also meant creating a bigger family, one of his own choosing. He recalled, “Somebody once accused me of [making my own family], like it was a bad thing. I thought about it over the years, and I realized, ‘well yeah, I did.’ What the hell is wrong with that? This was a way to actually construct a volitional family.”  

Banjo Bob, who later traveled the Appalachian region, learning to play banjo from the masters, had never lived in such a communal situation. He was from the south side of Chicago and this was his first foray into rural life. He says, “I was there for about a month and decided I probably would never live in the city again.” Bob fondly remembers the “family” holidays: “We had two Thanksgiving celebrations. God, we cooked a whole bunch of pies and bread and turkeys; we entertained like thirty or forty people.” There were certainly many bonuses to such an environment. “Being in a cooperative place meant you had to cooperate,” Bob said. “And some of the benefits of that were like...have you ever actually played Chinese checkers with six people?”

When I was a teenager, the idea of living on a commune sounded so exciting to me. But now it’s clear that it wasn’t always as romantic as I had once dreamed. Bob remembers the harsh winters. “That first winter, the pipes always froze,” he said, “and I was outside one night, in a WWI trench coat, putting snow in a bucket so I could go in and heat water.” There were house meetings, and chores, and many members still had day jobs. 

Doug tells me, “The day-to-day was sort of evenly split between people who got to stay home and feed the rabbits, or work in the garden, or make candles, or all the other wonderful, hippie, back-to-the-land activities there were, and those of us who got up every day and went to a job, and punched in, and got a paycheck.” 

Bob worked a day job first in a psychiatric facility and then in a lumber yard, pulling 12-hour shifts, and he often felt like he missed out on the experiences everyone else had. While Louise, who stayed at home attending to the farm, felt like she was doing more than her share. But each resident eventually got their turn at the chores. “I made twenty-four loaves of wheat bread in one day,” Bob said.  

People came and went, recollections are foggy, but there may have been ten regular residents at most. Louise told me, “There was kind of a festive feeling about all these people being together—kind of a big party all the time. You’d wake up, and go sit and have coffee with five or six people, and that was a big family feeling, and for some moments, that was just what it was like—but it was not without a lot of conflict.” 

According to Louise, “There were some hangers-on who didn’t do their part.” Is the idea of communal living inevitably unsustainable? Bob says, “I know some people were not very happy there, and it has to do with Doug. They felt Doug was pretty heavy-handed sometimes, and he was. He was the self-appointed leader of Laughing Acres.”  

Did Doug put himself in charge, or did he naturally fall into that position? According to Louise, “He was sort of taking us along; he was our guru, our leader, educating us in some of these details of politics. And I think he sort of saw himself in that role, and several of us admired his intellect and thought, ‘Yeah, that’s right, dude, yeah.’” 

But others felt differently. After the commune disbanded, Bob recalls two other members of the household complaining that Doug played favorites—especially when one of the female members walked around naked. “They said, ‘did you notice that?’” Bob responded, “‘You’re damn right I noticed that!’” They thought Doug was favoring this particular lady, but Bob felt differently. He told them, “Well, who said youcouldn’t walk around the house naked? No one said you couldn’t do it.”

It seems that no matter how idyllic the situation, powerful men find a way to use their influence to their advantage. Louise tells me, “Doug was an advocate of open marriage. He kind of pushed that. He’s always liked women, and I think he just found that hard to give up in the promise of marriage. There was a little bit of an overlap.” An overlap in partners, that is. Louise may have been a willing participant, but I imagine Doug’s role in the commune as leader played some part in the acceptance of the open marriage.

My mom learned that maybe the commune wasn’t quite for her. “It turned out I really didn’t like communal living,” she said. “I would have a hard time with that later on. But you know, the idea of it, the theory of it, was appealing. Of sharing, peace, love, brotherhood, that kind of thing.” But as an only child and newly married woman, she wanted more one-on-one time with her husband. Later, she would move to a remote barn in Wisconsin with him and discover that there was such a thing as too much alone time. She missed the socialization that came with the group. Canning and pickling and baking bread for only the two of them didn’t have quite the same meaning and purpose as feeding the larger group, or bringing the latest goods to the farmer’s market. 

It’s not often you’re given an opportunity to interview your own mother and that experience alone was fascinating. I felt like it gave me license to ask my mom questions I wouldn’t normally consider delving into. I had to ask her, “How much was just drugs, and sex, and music, and stuff like that?” She laughed and blushed over Skype while she slyly skirted around the question. 

Doug was more forthright, “Sure, we enjoyed making love with lots of people, and we enjoyed drugs and loud music, yes. That was all true. But it didn’t mean that we weren’t politically active, in terms of everything from actual politics and trying to fight against a war, right down to trying to convince people to eat better food.”  

They participated in marches and spoke out against the administration. Doug remembers building a strikingly realistic casket with the words, “40,000 Dead Kids” written on each side. He and another veteran put on their army dress uniforms, Louise adorned herself in black, and they marched the casket through town, stepping uninvited into the local Memorial Day parade.

However, much of the commune members’ radicalism came simply through the way they lived their everyday lives. In direct opposition to their parents, to a more conventional family life, these young men and women forged their own paths and created a non-traditional family. They grew their organic foods and sold the goods at farmers’ markets long before it became trendy. They removed themselves as much as possible from capitalism and commercialism.

Ultimately, Laughing Acres did not end with an emotional blow-up, but a visit from the police less than two years later. At this point, the story gets complicated, and each person I interviewed has a different recollection. From what I gather, the landlord’s 18-year-old son had been allowed to live in one of the outbuildings and was busted with marijuana. That’s when the organic manure really hit the fan. Bob explained, “We were basically told to get out of there—quickly. Otherwise we were going to be busted.” 

At this point, some of the group, including Doug and Louise, relocated to a pig farm in Springfield, Illinois. An elderly woman allowed them to live there, and in exchange they cared for the pigs and other animals, and they worked the farm. Doug remembers that at one point they were tasked with dealing with some wayward sheep. So they acquired a pet goat, and the goat got a job as a sheep herder. 

The rest of the members (my mother among them), went their separate ways. But the experience of Laughing Aces has never left any of them. As Doug put it, “To be as dependent upon one another, to be as involved with one another as biological brothers and sisters are, it’s just one of the most precious, wonderful gifts I’ve ever been given in my life.”  

Bob tells me that his time at Laughing Acres made him a better person. “It was a very good experience in living with other people in very close proximity and sharing the ups and downs, the problems, the projects,” he said. 

Louise said, “For the first time in my life, I was in nature for prolonged periods of time. That was definitely something that has stayed with me my entire life.” 

My mother says one of her biggest regrets is not joining the remaining group members at the pig farm. But even though she didn’t continue living on a commune, I can attest that she certainly didn’t lose her hippie ways. 

As I listen to the Laughing Acre alumni speak about the tumultuous times of the 1970s, I wonder what they think of the unsettling events of today. I admit, before I ask, I’m hoping they tell me that this is nothing. Perhaps this is just a blip on America’s radar. After all, they lived through the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and Watergate. But I’m quickly corrected.

Unanimously, they agree that life in 2017 is so much more terrifying than what they experienced in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “You know, after forty more years of experience, I didn’t realize how fragile democracy is, and how easily it can be overcome,” my mother tells me. Her next words hit just as hard. “There’s never been a time when this country hasn’t been racist, but there were times when it was more prevalent and prominent. Right now there’s subtle, covert racism, and there’s overt racism too.” 

My mom and I agree that we’ve been seeing more and more examples of the overt racism these days. It’s as if people have gotten permission to take the mask off (or white hood). That being said, the more subtle racism is systemic in this country. If we don’t have leaders interested in fixing the in-your-face variety, how are we going to tackle the covert brand that infects communities across the nation? 

Bob tells me, “It seems far more intense to me now than it did back then. And that’s what makes it scary. You could actually sit down and talk with people you disagreed with then, and now it’s ‘well, if you watch CNN and I watch Fox News then f*** you, we’re not going to have anything in common, whatsoever.’ And that’s a shame. I think things are more unsettling now. It’s taken me several years to admit how I think diversification is one of the beauties of this country, and now that idea is becoming a liability, and it shouldn’t be.”

Doug says, “Nothing has been as categorically dangerous for our country as what I wake up to now.” Louise agrees, “I feel more gut-wrenching repulsion against this administration and that this man is trying to dismantle what has taken so many decades to create.” 

But here’s the thing, the Laughing Acres crew hasn’t given up hope, and they haven’t given up trying to make a difference in this country. Whether it’s Louise, joining her local Women’s March and fighting for the environment, or Bob, who still plays banjo gigs and never returned to city life. He has raised his daughter with an activist mindset, and she is joining the Peace Corps. There’s Kathy who lives in the rural countryside, surrounded by Trump supporters. She still believes in the importance of connecting with her neighbors, and is joining the Rotary Club to make a local difference. Rural life, once a bastion of hippie living, is now associated with a conservative mindset. But the Laughing Acres crew who live out in the country have not given up their progressive ways.  

Kathy’s daughter, Mariana, told me half-jokingly that sometimes she wishes her parents, “hadn't raised me to be so conscientious, strong, and intelligent, so that I could live in blissful ignorance.” But ultimately, she wouldn’t trade her upbringing for the world. 

Then there’s Doug, who is still very much an activist in Illinois. He sends out Wednesday emails to friends about what is happening this week in the world. And there’s my mother, who advocates and educates at-risk families in her community—and tags me on a lot of progressive articles and memes on Facebook. 

If the members of Laughing Acres haven’t been beaten down by what’s happening in the world, if they’ve found ways to be active no matter where or how they live, then I certainly have no excuse. For now, I’ll put my dreams of escape aside. There’s too much work to be done.


Ally Weinberg lives in Los Angeles with her husband, daughter, and two cats. She works in television and sometimes writes things. She is passionate about all things related to kittens, pop-culture, and feminism.