I recently came across “The Lyman Family’s Holy Siege of America,” David Felton’s excellent 1971 exposé of Mel Lyman’s Massachusetts-based commune/cult. An erstwhile jug band musician, Lyman became convinced he was the messiah after dropping acid a few too many times with Timothy Leary’s Boston acolytes. His unbridled egomania would have been scary even if he hadn’t admired Charles Manson so much.
I was only familiar with the cult because as a fan of Michelangelo Antonioni’s flawed but fascinating 1970 drama, Zabriskie Point, I read somewhere that the film’s intense young leads, Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette, were members of the Lyman Family. But they had a lot of company at the commune when it came to intensity. A chilling excerpt from Felton’s piece:
“‘We believe that woman serves God through man,’ said Lou, an attractive former nun now in her first stage of pregnancy. ‘I was sort of into women’s lib before I came up here, you know, ’cause so many men are such piss-ants, such faggots. But when I came up here and started serving them breakfast, I really began looking up to them.’
She shoved a spoonful of strained vegetables into the squirming infant on her lap.
‘The men here on the Hill are real men; the men out there are faggots, with their long hair and everything. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t let their women get away with the things they do.’
Lou learned about the true role of women from something Mel wrote in the Avatar. ‘If a woman is really a woman, and not just an old girl,’ wrote Mel, ‘then everything she does is for her man and her only satisfaction is in making her man a greater man. She is his quiet conscience, she is his home, she is his inspiration and she is his living proof that his life, his labors, are worthwhile.
‘A woman who seeks to satisfy herself is the loneliest being in God’s creation. A woman who seeks to surpass her man is only leaving herself behind. A man can only look ahead, he must have somewhere to look from. A woman can only look at her man…I have stated the Law purely and simply. Don’t break it.’
Not that anyone does. Most of the Hill women, if they’re not holding down outside ‘female’ jobs as waitresses or secretaries, spend their time cooking, sewing, cleaning house, tending the children and serving the men. They seem to do so with great relish, developing an almost worshipful attitude toward the men.
‘I mean, couldn’t you feel it in those men at lunch?’ asked Lou, ‘how strong they were? How simple. Life here is so simple. Of course, the more simple life is, the harder it is. Let me tell you, there’s a lot of hate and frustration up here. And pain.
‘When I first came up here I was a bitch.’ Lou sneered at herself.
‘A bitch, hah, that’s putting it mildly. I was a viper. I hated Mel Lyman, I hated everyone here. I resisted like hell. And the thing that shocked me was how much they still cared about me. I mean, with me my hatred was personal, ’cause I hated on such a low level. But they taught me how to hate on a higher level.’
Why did she first hate Mel? I asked.
‘Because he was stronger than me. I guess I wanted to be God too. But finally I had to break down; he was so much stronger than me, I finally had to accept it.’
‘Do you believe he’s God?’
‘Yeah, in the sense that Jesus Christ came down on earth. But he’s dead, so Mel’s the son of God now.’ As she said these last words, Lou raised her eyes in adoration toward a photograph of Mel on the opposite wall, the one on the cover of the Christ issue.
‘When I first met Mel,’ she continued, ‘it was really weird ’cause he was the most down-to-earth, easygoing guy I’d ever met. Until he looked at you, and then, oh God, his force just filled the room.
‘Now I love him intensely, I’m his forever. I want to conquer the world for Mel. I get so mad at that world out there I want to kill, I want to shove Mel in their hearts. He’s the only one who knows how to deal with feeling, the feelings you have at the time, whether they’re love, or hate, or fear.’”