When we interviewed Robert Houriet in 1987, he was a for-real fifty-year-old hippie, living on an organic farm in Hardwick, Vermont. Like thousands in the ’60s, the Movement kindled a spark of hope in Robert and he gave his whole being to make it happen. His ideals and vision led him to quit his job as an “upwardly- mobile city editor” of a newspaper in Philadelphia to go to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. From there he traveled around the country visiting various communes which he described in his book, Getting Back Together. Eventually he settled in Vermont and helped establish Frog Run Farm, a commune in East Charleston. Robert hopes that one day the ideals of the Movement will come into reality.
RH: About twenty-five years ago, the first communities started. Hippies started these open-ended communities. They were formed mostly in opposition to the local structure of Nixon, America, and the plastic nature of American culture. It wasn’t very clear in the beginning that there was an underlying spiritual hunger. The sense for community was also not clear. It was evident that people knew this [community] was what they wanted, but they saw they couldn’t get it in society. Community was spoken of first as tribal, extended families, and then later as community when the circle widened out to larger groups, and also broke down to smaller households in localities.
RH: I think it got its explosive nature from its anti-authoritarianism. The war brought that out. The baby boom generation seemed to coalesce and play upon this “what we’re not” kind of feeling — we are not our parents; we are not university trustees; we are not American capitalists; we are not liberals — without really defining what we were. The clue is really in the name that still exists: the counter culture. It was not a positive culture to begin with; it was a counter culture. It was what we were against. When the war subsided, the dust cleared, and the anger subsided a bit, we looked around and found ourselves in places like Vermont, New Mexico, and Oregon. What was left after that anger abated? Was there anything positive to build a community on? What was the basis for a culture that holds families and communities together?
After May Day, 1973, the national leadership said, “Okay, we’re finished with the demonstrations. All you people go back home, work in your own communities, build your networks there. There’s nothing more to fight against; we can no longer hold what we have nationally; we’ve got to do it locally.” People came back and said, “Okay, what do we do in Vermont?” And they really couldn’t pull it off because they didn’t have their personal relationships together, didn’t have their groups together, and consequently didn’t have their politics together. The politics were defective because their relationships weren’t good. The relationships weren’t good because the basis of the culture wasn’t there.
RH: We spoke in terms of the Woodstock nation, but even though it existed in name, it wasn’t a nation in the centralist sense of the word nation. It was a very loose-knit concept of very decentralized anarchist groups.
RH: Well, I think it was both in their heads and their hearts, and maybe the connection was lacking. I think there was a defect in the vision from the start because it was a vision based on opposition. We were defining ourselves by what we were not. We were not a centralized government, therefore we were a de-centralized, loosely-organized government. It was a vision in the LSD sense of the word, in that you could have a vision of something and yet be unable to attain it in reality. The vision may have had, for many people, a spiritual reality, but they were unable to connect it with day-to-day life. Somehow the distance between actuality and vision became wider and wider. The contradictions were so painful that it was impossible to maintain that tension without becoming schizophrenic.
RH: People found it difficult to submit themselves to the authority of a group or the consensus of a group because they were very much American individualists. And some of us were very cantankerous personalities! So the anarchists’ philosophy of “everyone do their own thing” was unworkable in terms of what will actually work in community.
RH: Some people reduce it to child-rearing. They say permissive child-rearing promoted by Dr. Spock somehow cultivated unreal expectations of the world as if it were an unlimited breast, when in fact they found it wasn’t. Then they reacted with infantile rage against it. I don’t buy it. What stands out about that period of time is not so much the child-rearing practices, but the great wealth of this country. You’re talking about the height of the empire; you’re talking about the most money ever available — everyone was ripping with money in the ’60s. Before the oil crisis, foundations gave away money. The upper class as well as the middle had more money than they could deal with. There was a luxury for rebellion.
RH: Yes, it was a reaction to the wealth itself which sponsored it, a reaction against our parents’ way of life. They had so much money, superfluous wealth, that they weren’t utilizing for a social purpose.
RH: Well, it goes back to the Civil Rights period. It goes back to John F. Kennedy. The conscience was there. The Kennedy assassination was very important in that such great hopes were raised and then crushed. You were left with an awakened conscience and nowhere to go with it. Kennedy raised a lot of expectations; perhaps this country could save itself. Then he was snuffed out. I don’t know how much you believe in his politics, but he stood for something that aroused us. He was assassinated in 1963, Robert in 1968, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., and then right after that came the escalation of the Vietnam War. A cultural revolution in our music also awakened the conscience when the Beatles came to America in 1964.
RH: When people first tripped on acid in the city, during the Summer of Love, the message was, “Get back to the country.” After that the trips people had in the country became more spiritual — more spiritual in the sense that having gotten back to nature they found a spiritual element in nature. You couldn’t have a trip in the city without hearing the message, “Get out!” And once you got out, the message was, “Get back to something natural, something that’s real — reality.” “Get back to reality” was the most opposed thing in American society. America at that time was headed toward more urban forms. Once you got back to the country, the message was, “Find a spiritual base.”
RH: Once people got back to the country, they went off on different trips. Some people went into spiritual communities as a result of those drug experiences, and some people went into other things. Some people stopped doing drugs altogether, saying they couldn’t take it anymore.
RH: Well, not all people who had a spiritual level in their trips went into communities. But the spiritual communities continued to exist and there’s a definite spiritual sense in people that separates them distinctly from their parents. There’s a definite difference.
RH: Around 1970, the leadership of the counter culture was repudiated. It happened for two reasons: first, the men failed on their own account. I believe that more than what a lot of radicals believe, like Jerry Rubin, who says it was the women’s movement that messed up the whole counter culture. Men failed on their own account. They didn’t need the women to help them.
Secondly, there were situations in which women, seeing the failure of men, took matters into their own hands. They had their own revolution and took the leadership upon themselves, or attempted to. The true spirit of that revolution opposed many things: opposed authority, opposed the capitalist system, opposed the war and after the war ended, opposed men. So then it became doubly difficult to have men become leaders because if you failed, the women wouldn’t let you forget it. This really led to the breakdown of a lot of the groups. But I won’t say that the counter culture broke down because of the women’s movement. It wasn’t a separate movement, it was related. It was all part of one thing. This issue has taken radical movements round and round for a long time. “Why did they do this to us?” It is something that is very difficult for old radical men to figure out.
RH: Oh, yes. It happened in urban groups first and then it was quickly imported to the country. Some people think that it happened at the same time in both groups, or some say it happened faster in the country because the groups in the country were like pressure cookers where social change was rapidly accelerating. The women there reached that point before any groups in the city did. Things changed; relationships changed; it was very speedy. That is a big thing that we have left out — the social issue.
RH: Men’s relationship to each other, to the society; women seeing that failure, and seeing men’s misuse of their power — these guys weren’t any better than the fascists in some respects. (I am just quoting.)
RH: Well, because that was the ideology of the women’s movement. We are all leaders.
RH: That’s one thing you have going for you [in your communities].
RH: That’s it.
RH: Oh yes. There has been, both on an economic level and in the fact that they got older, had children, and had to compromise. When you become a parent, you tend to revert to patterns that you inherited. Then your parents die and you psychologically absorb their roles. That is part of the life process.
RH: Well, yes. I think that everybody, well, almost everybody I know who is forty, is going through a tremendous crisis, a personal crisis. It is amazing to me how many of my friends are in so many different ways. It’s hard to get a handle on it; it’s so widespread now. It isn’t like people are doing something so dramatic or outlandish — barricading themselves in their farmhouses, being surrounded by SWAT teams, or freaking out that way. It is a very subdued and a very unpleasant kind of psychological/spiritual crisis that is going on in their lives. I know people go through this; you can read books about it. However, it seems to me, and I’ve only lived half of one life, that it seems to be harder and sharper right now than what I’d known of my parents’ experience or what I’ve read. One doesn’t have any perspective on it. But there is definitely a personal crisis going on.
A close friend of mine who has been through communes, political anarchism, organic agriculture, marriage, two kids, successful vegetable farm (semi-successful — no one is very successful in vegetables), is going through something. I don’t know what it is, except that he is drinking and I can see it in his face. He is trying hard not to drink. I think people stop going on when they feel there is no basis to their lives. It’s like they wake up and the bottom falls out. What are you going to do on that day? Why do it? I’ve always done it this way — but why do it? What for? This is how they feel inside. It is an inside feeling. They begin to feel disjointed, unhappy and depressed. They can’t function. They either don’t want to get up or everything they do hurts them too much and they start to drink or take drugs or cover it up or avoid it, or lash out suddenly. It is like in the deepest recess of people’s conscience there is this nagging feeling of unreality. They want reality. They want a basis for their lives and yet it’s just not there. You go around and talk to people and they say, “Gee, I don’t feel real anymore!” They’re afraid to admit it, but when you get right down to the conversation and say, “I’m just losing it; I just can’t get my grip on reality.” It’s a hard thing to pin down. It is hard to say what causes it. You try to describe what it really feels like to live in 1987, and you’re a forty-year-old hippie and you’ve gone through this — what does it feel like to suddenly fall all apart?
RH: No. They are on a different plane altogether. For one thing, drugs aren’t working. You can’t cover it up anymore and they also realize addiction. You know when you were twenty or thirty, you didn’t think that you could become addicted, that there was no such thing as addiction; it was psychological or physical. But now you are forty, and you know that there is such a thing as addiction to marijuana. Addiction to anything. I mean, suddenly they are addicted to coffee, cigarettes, sex, or whatever. And what’s more, the addiction doesn’t get better, it just gets worse. It was great stuff back then: sex, drugs, and politics, but it doesn’t work anymore.
RH: Yes, I think that right now a lot of people are going through therapy. They are going to AA to get straightened out, to get rid of the addictions. They are going to psychological root-getting, to counseling about what you get counseled for, exercising, looking at their lives, changing jobs, trying to be more honest about their feelings, taking more vitamins — but maybe they’ve done that before, and maybe they’ve gone through therapy before, and those who have been through therapy already are realizing that this is a different kind of crisis. This is no longer a psychological coming of age, “I am a man now and a parent” kind of crisis. This is something of a different order.
RH: Well, I suppose I meant that if you look for a utopia with unattainable ideals, the result is going to be a utopia where there is a contradiction between reality and the ideals. The whole thing is going to fall apart. Everybody is good, everybody is a brother, it’s love-dovey, but actually you have to deal with how people are: they still have egos, private property, still have to raise their children themselves, because that is the culture we’re from. You can’t ignore that.
RH: I think that it drove some people insane, to realize their own reality. Because the discrepancy between the vision they had of themselves and human nature in general, and the actual reality that they were confronted with was shocking to them.
RH: Yes, we’re talking about evil here. We’re talking about a fundamental flaw, and our inability to deal with it. It’s hard to recognize evil in ourselves or in nature. You think evil doesn’t exist, so you go along and, boom, you are swallowed by a shark!
We went through great disillusionment with ourselves, tremendous disillusionment — it was more than disillusionment, it was a moral shock to realize the existence of evil in ourselves. Yes, it is very shocking to realize that it exists. People ran away from it, ran away from communities, away from Vermont, back to Boston. They retreated because they saw things in themselves that they couldn’t accept; things they didn’t want to see anymore, so there was that denial stage.
RH: Well, it’s as if they were denying the whole experience, because of the evil they came to realize. It’s like amnesia. They want to wipe out the whole experience. Both parts of it, as if it didn’t happen to them. I’ve met people that when you talk to them, it’s as if there is ten years of their lives that are missing. It is no longer there. It is wiped out.
RH: The first step was facing the evil, and then denying it. Then they denied the Movement, and went back into the system. Some yuppies today are old hippies who have a split conscience between the things they do in the system (which involves a certain amount of playing the game), and their own private life (which is almost separate from what they do for a living). It’s as if they can juggle the two. I find people who call themselves New Age people. I think of wholesale organic companies who talk “New Age” and yet they are actually dealing with you just like a capitalist. There is a certain hypocrisy there. I don’t know where their heads are at that they can do that. They can function that way on one level and talk to you another way. I don’t know if they know what they are doing, or if they are fooling themselves. The conscience is there but it is denied. And that is why they have to maintain a split-level personality. If they allowed their conscience to function, then the conviction of their life would be too difficult for them to deal with. I really can’t speak for yuppies. It’s hard to figure them out. But there is a little bit of yuppie in everybody. In myself, I suppose I can justify certain things that I do in a yuppie way. It’s hard to think of myself as a yuppie. I think yuppies today, even if they have families, two cars, and are making money, are more desperate and insecure than their parents who believed in the system. They may be using the system in the same way, but yuppies realize that it is going to fall apart. They are just taking what they can for the moment while it’s going down — and making money on the downside of the system.
RH: If anything, they’re slipping back into the system. It is awfully hard to be out there in the so-called New Age believing that it’s Harrowsmith magazine you’re editing, or it’s Organic Natural Foods of America that you’re running. The longer you’re out there in the system, the more you have to recognize that you’re part of it. You have to give up even the hypocrisy of believing that the New Age is coming. People can be hypocrites for only so long and then they’re going to say, “I’m making a buck.”
RH: The lack of personal relationships. There is nothing else. We couldn’t deal with each other. It wasn’t society; it wasn’t Nixon; it wasn’t Mayor Daley — we couldn’t deal with each other.
RH: You have to survive and you only have a certain number of ways to survive. If you cooperate with the things that are there, then you’ll be able to keep together to some extent. That’s how people have stayed in communities. Because they have had to cooperate; they’ve had to farm. But once you remove the necessity and get food stamps or stock dividends, or checks from Daddy, then you don’t have to be there. You don’t have to farm — you split!
RH: The question is what to base that need on or base that bond on. The real communes, for example, base that bond on self-sufficient agriculture. Do we really need to do that? If it is not economically possible to survive agriculturally, does that nullify the need for people to be together? What is the real basis for that need?
Even in agricultural communities I find people fight over how to live and farm. They will find reasons to do it differently. Unless you put everything together in one pot and say, “This is our land,” you’ll find differences. You’ll even have various approaches to how to hay. Do we use horses? Do we use tractors? Do we keep inexperienced women from driving tractors? There are all kinds of ways you can disagree. I wonder sometimes if agriculture itself needs to be based on something other than agriculture. Certainly an agricultural community isn’t enough. Agriculture has to have its roots in something more.
RH: Yes, you are getting me there.
RH: You’re right on! Authority and leadership. There was a time in the counter culture when there were leaders. Not the best leaders, but there were leaders and they were respected and they were followed, but they abused their leadership and they were the worst kind of egotistic, arrogant, male, macho leaders that you could imagine. But they functioned as a leadership. That was demolished. The anti-authoritarianism that turned against the war, turned against the leaders when the leaders failed. They abused their leadership; they abused their power. They misused their power. I can be more specific, but I don’t need to be. A lot of it was sexual abuse and power. As a result, you had leaderless groups.
But then relationships are very difficult to work out. You just go around in circles. People today have just given up. There can’t be leaders. As soon as someone tries to lead, they get shot down, or you have to use such indirect means to manipulate the group or lead the group without them feeling like they’re being led or swayed.
RH: Or you finally say, “Okay, I’ll be accommodating and diplomatic. Then in ten years we’ll have planted one more acre of carrots.” So what! There is a distrust of leadership. I don’t know what to do about that. Leaders themselves must do something about it. They must be firmly rooted in reality.
RH: Some greater reality is what they have to believe in. You can’t be a father or a leader unless you had a father, or have a father you believe in. And we can’t believe our own fathers because they are human.
RH: It is a matter of faith.
RH: I don’t know. It’s hard for me to speak about how a whole generation of people would react to that kind of demonstration. I’m afraid at this point that they may not see it if it happened, or they would dismiss it as something else because they are so suspicious and cynical, not only about groups, but about all authority. How I got to this point of opening up was through reaching the bottom, the absolute bottom. I recognize that. Unless I establish my own reality or am attached to a greater reality (or sense of reality), I would be lost. What can I tell my son to do tomorrow if I don’t have my own sense of reality?
Recently I saw that I am gradually coming out of that. I think it’s a gradual process. I think that the masses of people aren’t going to see the example and change overnight. I think they have to reach the bottom and come up. But I wouldn’t be here unless there was someone else who had done it too. It’s true. And knowing you people makes it easier each day to keep on growing in that way. If I were totally alone, as I said, I couldn’t even talk about it. I probably wouldn’t be trying to go very far. Knowing that there are other people that are headed the same direction — there’s help.