At first glance, my life looks pretty normal, maybe even like a snapshot of the American Dream. I run a growing business and am happily married with two kids, a dog, and a nice home in the suburbs. My company, The Organic Gardener, has planted nearly 700 urban farms and food gardens in and around Chicago. I teach Fortune 500 execs and kindergarteners alike how to grow food.
So no one who meets me would ever guess that I spent 17 years (more than a third of my life) on a commune that was, for all intents and purposes, a cult.
In high school I was the consummate good girl, a tennis-playing, straight-A-making student body vice president. Things began to unravel in 1984 during the spring of my sophomore year when I fell in love with an intense, brooding classmate who was obsessed with nature. We read books by Henry Thoreau and Herman Hesse and roamed state parks for days (sometimes even nights) on end. After I spent the summer working on a farm in rural France, I returned home to feel a gnawing emptiness in my materialistic suburban life. Midway through my senior year I dropped out of high school — shocking and hurting my family almost irrevocably — and left home in what felt like a dead sprint to join a farming and arts commune in Southern California. Here, I had grand plans to save myself and the world at the same time.
Over the next 17 years, I rose through the ranks from basic tasks like weeding and goat-milking to eventually manage the 100-acre organic farm that fed our community. But instead of achieving the lofty hopes and dreams that had sparked my journey, I wound up in a deep trench of depression at the age of 35. I had become unrecognizable to myself. While I was free from what I’d judged to be the materialism and illusions of my upbringing, I had trapped myself and my 2-year-old daughter in another, much more damaging set of illusions.
I bridled at the attitudes of the commune leaders toward love and parenting (they shunned monogamy and “too-close” relationships between parents and children). And while their belief system had no religious affiliation, they practiced self-sufficient, low-impact living with a kind of zealotry, and regarded mainstream consumerism as a “death culture” that was killing the earth. I began to see it would be impossible to create positive change by shutting out the mainstream, rather than engaging with it. In March 2004, we fled.
There isn’t space here to explain how and why it all happened: why I was willing to live within an oppressive belief system that governed even the most intimate aspects of my life; when the cracks of our idyllic commune life began to show themselves and reveal the cultish patterns that lay beneath; what kept me there so long; why I put my family — and for that matter, myself — through so much pain. Since my return home, I’ve spent the past decade of my life exploring these questions. (The memoir I released this month, From The Ground Up: A Food-Grower’s Education in Life, Love, and the Movement That’s Changing the Nation (Random House: Spiegel & Grau), answers them in depth.)
But what has surprised me most in the process of investigating these questions has been coming to understand not just the painful costs of my rogue experience, but the invaluable benefits. I’ve come to see that the detours I’ve taken along the way have been worthwhile, however extreme, and have led me to a place I’m deeply grateful to be today. Here are 10 reasons why joining a commune — that turned out to be a cult — was actually good for me:
HEALTH 1 of 10
Our diet of farm-raised vegetables, fruits and meats was packed with whole grain and had no sugar or caffeine and very little alcohol and intoxicants. We also fit in lots of exercise — especially running and dancing. I'd never been so fit and healthy in my life.
LOVE 2 of 10
I met my husband and business partner, Verd. We're a funny match in many ways, but he's undoubtedly the love of my life. You can read the story of our relationship here.
OPENNESS 3 of 10
I learned how to be comfortable with discussions around sex, money, illness, existential despair — now, anything goes.
COOPERATION 4 of 10
I learned to work well in a group by working hard together. I'll always appreciate the memory of hustling with 25 people to bring in hundreds of bales of hay before the sun went down, and harvesting, preparing and eating each meal with the 3 dozen members of our community.
SIMPLICITY 5 of 10
Living a minimalist life changed my definition of luxury and wealth. I like the small house my family and I live in. (The master bedroom, pictured above, is not much bigger than the bed.) We live without creature comforts like AC; we grow most of our food, and I shop very little. I like to have a few nice things, but material wealth doesn't bring me the satisfaction that it once did.
BEAUTY 6 of 10
The farmland we lived on — with sweeping mountainscapes, flower-strewn meadows, and rolling rivers — was gorgeous. Commune members valued beauty and artistry and taught me to see gardening as an art form. Now, when I create food gardens, I consider their beauty as important as their productivity. I play with the symmetry, texture, and color of edible plants and ornamental flowers, and try to develop a kind of garden feng shui.
PHYSICAL WORK 7 of 10
Growing enough fruits and vegetables to feed our group all year long took a lot of sweaty work. Pushing my body to its limits of strength and endurance every day was incredibly gratifying. I learned the joys and benefits of physical labor — dawn until dusk, for 17 years.
HUMILITY 8 of 10
Having been a zealot who then became disillusioned with the flawed belief system I'd subscribed to, I'm humbled. I'm more accepting and less judgmental of others.
SKILLS 9 of 10
PASSION FOR A CAUSE 10 of 10
I learned the joy and pleasure of seeing small tasks as emblematic of a larger vision — of working toward an ideal, however flawed it was.
I now find it so gratifying to work for a business that has a sound, practicable vision, and to be a part of the larger food movement that is producing so many tangible results.
Photo Credit: Brain L. Cox