Cult survivors share their experiences

Corvallis Gazette-Times/August 4, 2005
By Theresa Hogue

More than three decades ago, two women from different backgrounds found themselves searching for a sense of belonging, and both, for a while, thought they'd found it in communal living. What they found instead was that they were immersed in cults, and once in, it was very difficult to leave.

The two women have written memoirs about their lives in communes in the early 1970s as a way to work through their experiences and share them with others. Although they lived in very different communal groups with different principles, they discovered that both had one fundamental similarity — the subordination of women. They'll discuss their memoirs Friday at Grass Roots Books & Music.

D'arcy Fallon was an Army brat, born in Monterrey, Calif., and raised "all over." She was baptized Catholic and attended parochial school for a few years, but her parents weren't strictly religious. Fallon found herself, at 18, traveling and living on the land, celebrating the experimental lifestyle of the 1960s.

"I just really didn't know what I wanted to do with my life," Fallon said.

She was hitchhiking near Eureka, Calif., when she was picked up by a member of the Lighthouse Ranch, just outside the city on the beach. She was invited to have dinner at the ranch, which she described as a stunningly beautiful spot on the coast.

Fallon was taken in by the warmth of the members of Lighthouse Ranch, a fundamentalist Christian commune. There, she felt welcomed, and part of something larger. Through the persuasion of commune members, she became "saved," and accepted Jesus Christ as her savior, a necessity for life at the ranch.

"My parents were really appalled," she said. "I sent them letters filled with Scripture and they said 'Omigod, she's in a cult.' "

Fallon tried to assuage their fears, telling them she was there of her own free will, which she was, and that she was happy, which she wasn't.

Life at the ranch was extremely structured. Women and men were kept separated, and sex was allowed only between married couples. Women were expected to marry within the group and be good wives, submissive and supportive to their husbands. Life was divided between work and worship.

"It was very dramatic," she said. "Picture yourself living at the edge of the world and you have been called. … It gives your life this aura of drama."

But after Fallon married another member of the group, she began to have strong doubts. She wanted a "normal" marriage and relationship, but her husband was more interested in belonging to the group than in sharing life with her.

Finally, she and her husband were sent to Brooklyn, N.Y., to do evangelical work, and it was there she finally convinced her husband to leave the group. They fled to his home in Montreal, Canada, and a year later, divorced and went their separate ways.

Now, Fallon describes herself as an agnostic, and finds the support and community she needs from her new husband, son and friends. She has learned in the meantime that she didn't have to change to be accepted.

"People will accept you the way you are," she said. "You don't have to be spiritual."

Molly Hollenbach also spent much of her youth moving back and forth between Southern California and Michigan. She said moving so frequently made her something of a nomad, and during graduate school she decided to drop out and have "adventures."

"I was exploring the wide world of the '60s," she said.

Fascinated by ideas of personal freedom and political change, she found herself drawn to the World Affairs Conference in Boulder, Colo., where she heard members of a New Mexican commune speaking about their life in Taos.

"They described this wonderful community they called The Family," Hollenbach said. "It was based on Gestalt therapy."

Hollenbach was enthralled, and begged members to take her with them when they returned to New Mexico. A short time later, she found herself living in a five-room adobe house with 55 other people.

The tenets of the group forbid drugs, and encouraged face-to-face communication through conflict and group marriage. Members were expected to give up their personal possessions and their names, and revolutionize the world by revolutionizing themselves.

To her surprise, Hollenbach found the group operated on principles that went directly against what she'd learned in the feminist movement. The group leader was an older man named Lord Byron, who demanded sexual access to all female members of the group. Although theoretically all members were equal, Lord Byron was "more equal" than others.

"The first or second day I said, 'This is really sexist. Women wore skirts and worked in the kitchen.' "

But her complaints and criticisms were swiftly silenced by group members, who told her she needed to live the lifestyle before she criticized it.

"They put me down and said, 'You've thought about it, we've lived it,' " she recalled.

She became more involved in the group, and more confused because the things she felt were wrong were called right by her fellow members. She finally became disillusioned both by the way in which Lord Byron held sway, believing himself the Messiah, and the way she simply didn't feel right about the way things were going.

"I thought I was crazy," she said.

Finally, she fled, going to a psychiatrist to find out whether she was sane. Reassured, she moved on with her life, using her experiences within the commune for her master's thesis. She earned a doctorate degree, taught and then eventually became a journalist.

She didn't talk about her experiences with The Family for years, but one day, during a writing conference at Fishtrap in Joseph, she began putting her memories onto paper.

"I realized I needed to," she said.

The most important lesson Hollenbach said she learned from her time with The Family was to become her own person.

"It is very hard for women to assert themselves and say 'No, this isn't right for me,'" she said. "It forced me to define myself."

At a glance

Margaret Hollenbach and D'Arcy Fallon will discuss their experiences in communes in the 1970s at Grass Roots Books & Music at 4 p.m. Friday.

"Lost and Found: My Life in a Group Marriage Commune" by Hollenbach and "So Late, So Soon, A Memoir" by Fallon are both available at the store.

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