The Search for Utopia Reaches the End of the Road in ‘American Commune’
Sex and drugs and Passover Seders: In a new documentary, two sisters reflect on their years on The Farm in the 1970s
Although exploration of universal consciousness was at the core of spirituality on The Farm, as people had kids some regained an interest in the traditions they were raised with. Jan Mundo went to her first Passover Seder on The Farm at a neighbor’s army tent in 1973, and she started making her own annual Seders in 1977, with dozens of people packed around huge tables, eating handmade matzo and reading from mimeographed Haggadahs that, in their meditations on human rights and liberation, perfectly aligned with the ethos of the commune.
“For me, being Jewish was cultural and heart-related rather than about laws and rules,” she told me. “I kind of re-found my personal connection to it through that feeling of celebrating freedom.”
Although The Farm flourished in many ways, problems persisted both within families and on the commune at large. The family effects seem to have been particularly damaging for the children born of “four-marriages,” a situation in which two couples married each other as an expression of nonattachment and a vehicle toward enlightenment. The film includes a wrenching interview with Genevieve Perkins, a young woman who grew up as the product of a four-marriage—her “parents” had seven children among them, although she was the only product of her biological parents’ coupling—and the pain she recounts is halting. “I didn’t understand why, but I hated my parents, and I hated the whole hippie thing,” she says. “They fought all the time.”
The Mundo family was more typically structured but not much less fraught; Nadine and Rena were hyper-aware of near-constant tension and bickering between their parents. It was only as adults that they could fully process the marriage in the context of the commune.
“Our parents were so invested in saving the world that they sacrificed their personal relationship for that, which was sort of the Catch-22 of The Farm,” Rena told me. “There was this feeling like they had to maintain their relationship when they were never really happy together.”
The commune came to a crossroads in 1983, facing mounting debt and an inability to support the burden of its own booming population with limited income. In an event known as “the changeover,” members of The Farm voted to decollectivize and became a membership-based community in which people maintained their own livelihoods and finances. The vast majority left.
Jan and Jose Mundo stuck around for a couple more rocky years, but in 1985, they divorced and went their separate ways. The Mundo sisters ended up in southern California with their mom and, as told in a section of the film that’s both hilarious and moving, went about the adopting the peculiar mores of the land like aliens who had arrived from another planet. Outwardly, they shellacked themselves with make-up, donned Spandex, and grooved to Deee-lite. Inwardly, they absorbed the dual traumas of their parents’ split and of being wrenched from the only world they had ever known. They hid what they regarded as their shameful past.
The commune’s end as a commune per se would seem to cement its legacy as a failure, but as with any family history—and The Farm seems to have been nothing so much as a massive extended family—it’s more complicated than that. Its imperfections sit beside its considerable achievements. The Mundo sisters reflect that their childhood was amazing in a lot of ways, something they’ve come to appreciate in reckoning with it as adults. They grew up in a tight-knit community of people who took care of each other, and, divorced from American material culture, they didn’t crave possessions or place any value on how they looked. The particular beauty of life on The Farm—beaming packs of children tromping through fields to school, residing in collective houses with their friends, and roaming through the woods full of pluck and freedom—is visceral in American Commune. As Nadine recalls wistfully in the film: “I remember never wanting the day to end.”
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