The Magnolia Street Commune by Vivian Rothstein
(Editor's note: During the late 1960's and early 1970's communal living experiments took place across America. This is former CWLU member Vivian Rothstein's experience with her commune. She is pictured to the left with one of the commune children along with their dog Poochie.)
There are some things you should never do when your marriage is on the rocks. One of them is join a commune.
Our commune formed in 1971 when social change was in the air and young feminists were questioning the ground rules of marriage, monogamy, and heterosexual relationships. If the conventional family looked like an oppressive institution for women, we would come up with a more workable alternative. My fellow communards and I--all political activists in the human rights and peace movements--were committed to building a new world in the midst of the old. We were convinced we could transform the future by changing the way we lived.
For myself, I thought that living in a commune would bring my personal life more in synch with the budding women's movement in which I was deeply involved. Besides, my marriage was a mess; I was chafing at the limitations of coupled life. And we weren't making each other very happy.
By the time we decided to form the commune, my husband Stephen and I had each had an affair, and by the time we moved in, he and another commune member, one of my best friends at the time and a member of my women's group, had begun a "relationship." Nevertheless, after months of planning, the ten of us--eight mid-twenty to thirty-something adults and two kids--moved into a three-story house on Chicago's far Northside.
Our commune was highly structured and cerebral, in part because Stephen, an all-or-nothing kind of guy, had played a prominent role in establishing its rules and expectations. While he hadn't initially been enthusiastic about the commune idea, Stephen figured if we were going to do it, we should do it "right." We would share all our income and expenses, jointly sign the mortgage, and discuss how each person spent his or her time earning money and being politically active. While the arrangement was unusually resolute for communes of the day, it reflected our commitment to collective decision making, economic equality, and simple living.
We bought the large, wood-frame house, squashed between two apartment buildings, from Hungarian immigrant Count Zichy and his wife, who had been having trouble selling it. The Zichys left some fairly nice castoff wooden furniture to which we added our motley collection of couches, upholstered chairs, and brick-and-board bookcases. We stored the kids' toys in the windowed sun porch that looked out to a postage-stamp front lawn. The alley-facing garage provided the perfect venue for female-only VW repair classes run by a woman in the house. Unfortunately, the dark backyard was, and despite our efforts remained, a mess, serving as a dump for our neighbors.
As part of our commune's plan to support individual privacy in a collective environment, everyone had his or her own bedroom, either in the house or in the separate coach house above the garage. I relished the idea of my own private space because I was anxious for the independence it provided. After all, I had been drawn to collective living largely by the desire to live as an individual in the house free from the emotional constraints of a coupled existence. Stephen did not initially share my enthusiasm about the private bedrooms. Early on in our commune experience, when we were already having trouble dealing with each other in face-to-face conversation, he shared his touchiness about the arrangement by writing:
Though the interpersonal dynamics in the house were edging towards a New Left Peyton Place, we quickly reaped the predicted financial benefits of group living. In 1972, all ten of us lived comfortably, if frugally, for under $35,500. We spent $614 on clothing, $502 on books and magazines, $1,900 on individuals' allowances (of $5 a week), and $6,380 on food. Like an old-fashioned extended family, we managed with a single refrigerator, stove, TV, toaster, and blender for the whole house.
While money was available it wasn't plentiful, and we all had firm views on how best to spend it. One couple married, and the commune paid for their wedding rings. Another member was denied a $35 down comforter because we couldn't afford one for each person. And we energetically debated the cost of one woman's milk baths, which some members saw as overindulgence and others as appropriate self-care.
Together the adults in the collective kept the house clean, orderly, and operational through detailed sign-up schedules for cooking, shopping, cleaning, child care, and use of the four cars. Weekly meetings and occasional all-day Sunday gatherings combined practical housekeeping, child-raising, and financial discussions with comments on readings, political events, "personal/political biographies" and "criticism, self criticism and admiration"--a group process borrowed by American leftists from the Chinese cultural revolution. As I recall, we were always pretty short on the admiration.
Because our commune was a political collective, differences of opinion about worthwhile work could cause major divisions. "I think there are new political differences developing in the house," wrote one member in an ominous memo about a cross-country organizing trip he wanted to take. "They are not yet deep but could become so and will, I fear, if what we believe is not talked about and thus made accessible to modification by a public and collective process."
A case in point was the 1972 presidential campaign, which some commune members felt was an insufficiently radical choice of political work. Nevertheless, a few of us got deeply involved in McGovern's presidential race. I co-chaired the 48th Ward McGovern campaign, which was shunned by the Chicago Democratic machine. (The anti-McGovern sentiment was so strong among old-line Chicago Democrats that at some polling places on election day, when you pulled the big lever to vote a straight Democratic ticket, the little one marking your presidential choice was rigged to pop up, erasing your vote.) Through the Ward office I got a chance to connect with independent-minded Democrats from our neighborhood. One was a local firefighter whose company still went out on calls with a Dalmatian riding atop the hook and ladder. This guy, something of a pothead, explained that it was a good thing he worked in his own community because otherwise he "wouldn't give a shit if the houses burned down."
I was reluctant at first to tell these new friends about my collective living arrangement for fear they would think it too weird. But I soon found that, especially to the women at home with young children, it seemed ideal. Indeed, the most successful aspect of our commune was the commitment to share equally in the responsibilities of raising children together. The non parent adults got great pleasure from developing close, consistent relationships with the two kids and were proud of fulfilling their childcare responsibilities, whether that included staffing the cooperative childcare center we helped organize, driving the carpool, putting the kids to bed, or taking them on outings. My mother-in-law worried the arrangement would satisfy my maternal drives enough to put off my own child bearing, and she may have been right.
Communal child-rearing was not without its difficulties, however. One morning I walked into the kitchen to find the two-year-old playing with sharp knives. He was starting to get shallow slices on his little fingers. The commune member on childcare felt that would teach him that sharp things were dangerous. I quickly took the knives away.
At the same time, we all agreed that no one should impose "sexual hang-ups" on the kids. So when the youngest child in the house and his closest friend sat masturbating in front of Sesame Street most afternoons, everyone, though feeling a little uncomfortable, let them be.
Despite such potentially divisive and difficult moments, the need the parents had for childcare help and the enjoyment we all experienced in providing it on a fairly intimate basis served as the glue which held our commune, like many others in the 1970s, together. While we were utterly incompetent at creating lasting and loving alternatives to the nuclear family, we had it right in our critique of the isolating nature of the modern family structure when it came to raising children.
The sociability of group living was also a big plus. There was always someone to talk to, read a book with, or drag along to a movie. I learned about music, books, and poetry of which I had been completely ignorant. And I felt a tender closeness with most residents of the house. The day-to-day contact with other like-minded people my age was more fun than living alone with my mate.
The sexual landscape of the house, however, was much more painful than I had expected. I was deeply unhappy, and deeply conflicted about my unhappiness. I wrote: "[Stephen's] relationship with [Suzanne] is getting more and more intense as time goes on. They spend more and more time together, depend on each other more, and now I presume will sleep together more and more. I think that the situation I will eventually be asked to live with is sharing Stephen totally with Suzanne--two different but equally involving relationships."
As part of my effort to--as we said at the time--"struggle" with my feelings of betrayal and envision a new form of relating, I tried to consider a triangular relationship among the three of us, as Suzanne had suggested. I wrote away for various studies and guidelines for group marriages from the "Multilateral Relations Study Project" run by Larry and Joan Constantine in Acton, Massachusetts. ("When not studying group marriages," the literature explained, "Larry Constantine carries on another career as a successful computer scientist.") Their material, which included reprints of articles published in The Modern Utopian, The Futurist, and The Radical Therapist, observed that:
Though the articles looked interesting, I was so oppressed and depressed by my living situation--which was supposed to liberate me from the isolation and pressure of my shaky marriage--that I could barely even read the stuff. Despite our high ideals, the reality of non-monogamy was a painful personal disaster for me, just as it had been for generations of women before me.
As the Multilateral Study Project predicted, "What sex in the multilateral situation can do is serve as the trigger for bringing problems of jealousy, possessiveness, exclusiveness and competition to the surface which will be good only if they can be dealt with." I wrote:
I remember sitting in my coach house room out of whose front windows I could see the light from Suzanne's second floor bedroom where my husband and she spent certain scheduled nights together. (That structure again.) I would smoke a joint until the view and all it represented stopped bothering me. This intense effort at self-control succeeded (temporarily) only because I was either extremely disciplined or extremely stoned. Occasionally, however, I envisioned rushing into her room and shooting them both between the legs.
On other nights Stephen and I were scheduled to sleep together. But our sexual relationship was becoming a big problem. I had become emotionally removed and unavailable for real intimacy. For his part, in attempting to rationalize his inability to respond to me sexually, Stephen explained in a painstaking, ten page, handwritten letter,
He had me coming and going--with an explanation that, predictably, left me the cause of his sexual problems.
I found myself reacting to small things with almost animal impulses--a tiny stain from Suzanne's menstrual blood on Stephen's bedspread obsessed me; the smell of her Noxema face cream left me fuming. Still, in the spirit of the time, Suzanne wanted to deepen her connection with me. (In addition to Stephen, she was involved with another man and a member of our women's group.) "What I would like most of all right now." she wrote, "is to be able to show you somehow that you can trust me--that I love you ... that I want us to be close and warm and loving because of my feelings about you, and because I want very much to be able to bring happiness and comfort to your life rather than pain and uncertainty." It was appealing at first glance to have some romantic action myself but, given my vulnerable state, getting involved with Suzanne felt like certain death.
One of my close friends at the time tried to cheer me up with a crocodile patch for my jeans and a poem that likened me to an idealized reptile, "peace-loving and shiny. It eats vegetables and swims through the everglades, planting flowers, doing soil reclamation, and organizing the pelicans. It wants to be left (somewhat) alone to do its good work. However, despite this, and even though it cries real tears, it never is."
Sandy, my best friend and colleague in the women's movement, lived in another commune just two blocks away and was having similar if perhaps worse problems. She had two children with her husband and lived in a far less structured and "political" situation than ours. Shortly before they moved in, just as Sandy began discovering her feminist identity, her husband informed her that he had a love affair with their mutual male best friend for many years. He then insisted on inviting his newest love interest to live in the commune along with their kids. Sandy had no grounds to object; we all felt that newly emergent gay men deserved our unqualified support. Besides, at that point the commune seemed to her the only way to keep the family intact.
Sandy and I were both in great pain but constrained in by our feminist beliefs from doing anything about it. Together we taught a very popular class on the nuclear family offered through Chicago's Liberation School for Women which we had helped found. Our readings and study group questions addressed the transition from the medieval to the modern family, the role of the modern family in sustaining the existing economic system, and the social controls it imposed on women and children.
But that didn't mean we knew what alternative social arrangement would make life better for women in general or for ourselves in particular. Once a week we'd meet at the neighborhood Thai restaurant and commiserate about what we couldn't really admit to anyone else. In truth, although we were trying to create a new social order, we were suffering from the same wretched feelings as in the old. Insecurity and hopelessness were slowly eroding my optimistic outlook on life. I wrote:
I sought out a feminist therapist to discuss my despair and my options. After only a couple of sessions, her romantic interest in me became clear. The terrain felt so hazardous that I quickly stopped seeing her.
Still, I remained active in the Chicago women's movement--working with the citywide Women's Union and wildly enjoying myself at dances put on by the Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band--even as my original exhilaration at joining the movement, and my belief that sisterhood was powerful, began to wane. Sisterhood, when I got right down to it, seemed also to be incomplete, misleading, and potentially dangerous. For me the promise of female solidarity and mutual trust which the movement held out so appealingly was foundering on the old terrain of sexual competition and acquisitiveness which had traditionally divided women from each other. Only this time we had rejected the bourgeois values that might have inhibited us from embarking on such adventures.
It wasn't just Suzanne who disappointed me; Stephen's first extramarital affair had been with a college teacher who called herself a feminist and said that, since I was a leader in the women's movement, she assumed I wouldn't mind their sleeping together. I felt taken advantage of as a founder of a movement that had become so judgmental and unsupportive of marriage and monogamy. Neither I nor the movement I helped build could defend my need for an exclusive relationship.
My one extramarital affair was with another feminist. Having declared herself a lesbian for political reasons, she found herself so tied in knots about her own feelings that our sexual relationship was a disaster.
This inability to reconcile what we thought women should want with what we actually wanted led the movement and many of its participants into contorted relationships that sapped our strength and distanced us from the lives of most "ordinary" women. So busy theorizing about the sources of women's oppression, we could not accept that what women need and want in their intimate relationships is as varied and diverse as women themselves. To its discredit, our beloved movement was quick to impose its own judgmental attitudes on women's lives to replace those of the larger society. The ambivalence of the movement and of each woman in it toward female leadership complicated things still further--it sometimes seemed that only the ideal of strong women was valued, while those who actually stepped forward with skills and vision were seen as threatening. Although the movement gave me my first real chance to play a leadership role, I sometimes felt women distrusting me for taking it.
While I was preoccupied with surviving the sexual tumult in my commune, our social experiment created other challenges. As we gathered every night for a communal meal, the emotional tension at our oversized table took away most of my appetite. The manic desire for food that often accompanies a moderate sadness for me had been replaced by a misery food could not relieve. To make matters worse, Suzanne decided to require her eight-year-old to take at least one bite of everything on her plate, no matter how much her daughter disliked the dish. The gagging and choking sounds from the protesting youngster further dampened my appetite.
When the commune moved into its second year, three members became committed to vegetarian cooking and alternative health practices. Meatless meat loaf, meals cooked without salt, garlic or onion, and lots of militantly tasteless lentils became part of the daily fare, to the meat eaters' dismay. I became thinner than I had ever been before in my life.
Then there were the village illnesses: Pink eye appeared again and again; crabs arrived on the second floor; and I was furious to find I had been infected with chlamydia. If I saw a sick friend whose child was in our co-op childcare center, I knew the illness was on its way to our house.
Well into the commune's second year the consensus about life directions began to dissolve. Three commune members were moving away from political activism and towards health/self-help/spirituality, while factionalism was shattering the political left. One of the marriages in the house was falling apart, and I had nearly decided I would rather split up with Stephen than continue the status quo relation of "no definition, no responsibilities, no obligations" in our relationship.
Suzanne, the only single parent in the group, was the first to move out permanently. In the process she and her daughter lost the social support which the commune had provided so well. She also lost what I came to feel was her real goal, a chance to become connected to a long-term marriage between political activists. In parting she returned a gift I had made her and wrote "it symbolizes for me all the high hopes that haven't come true. And I don't want to throw it out--I don't feel that bitter and hostile. So here it is--with my regrets and my affection--I hope your life can be happy now."
"My house continues," I wrote in a letter to a good friend, "is stable and seems to last and last. But I don't get much from it. I am more private and isolated by my own choice and I don't make any attempt to reach out to other people, to understand their lives, etc. I think eventually Stephen and I will try it on our own again soon. . . . Until then I'll stay living here even though in ways I would rather not. He and I are getting along quite well--I've given up on some of the things that I thought were possible and he is happy with his life and I think more gentle with me after all the horrendous shit we have put each other through." And I added sort of hopelessly, "In any case, it's not as if there is much choice in terms of lasting, stimulating relationships."
One of the other married couples decided to divorce and share custody of their son, the youngest child in the commune. (His mother refers to him as coming not only from a broken marriage but also a broken commune.) The third couple moved into their own place. Stephen and I stayed together after he agreed to break off with Suzanne, and we moved far away from Chicago to another state. In the process we adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy--to the future detriment of our marriage. The VW mechanic, who succeeded in single-handedly rebuilding the engine of her bug, went to live in Findhorn, a Scottish commune best known for raising gigantic vegetables.
By the end of the third year, the commune had dissolved. We eventually sold the house and divided the profits. Few of us have been in touch since then.
Despite all the pain and disappointment, as I look back now on my commune experience, I still feel proud of our fearless and serious ambitions. With our own lives we tried to create new social forms that would foster women's autonomy and transcend the isolations imposed by the nuclear family. As I know from twenty subsequent years of child raising (both within a traditional family and as a divorced parent), current family forms pose painful and unresolvable conflicts between children's needs and parents' desires for meaningful and engaged work. The available alternatives--hired nannies and infant day care--are out of the financial reach of most families, and in many cases don't provide the loving, stable, individualized care so important for young children.
For younger people who long to combine child-rearing with ambitious work lives, communal living might again be seen as a humane way to provide the support needed by both parents and children in a self-created and self-conscious extended family. And for those like me, at the oldest tip of the baby boom generation, communal living may again become an option as we contemplate surviving into old age. Many of us have been through marriages and are loath to try them again. Yet long-term relationships of mutual affection and responsibility are important parts of our lives, and are not necessarily confined to sexually intimate ones. Many women are choosing to be alone, while men have turned to younger partners for their anchor and care in old age. Corporate-run, institutionalized senior housing will not sit well with our "question authority" generation. And many of us took the "simple living" admonition seriously, never amassing property or pension funds to sustain us financially in our later years.
Communal living, with its cost savings, mutual caring, community building, and on-the-edge social experimentation, may become current once again. I for one would welcome the revival of the best from the commune experience--although that may be only because I've had twenty-five years to recover from my last one.
Review, 1998. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without