Excerpted from the Summer 2019 edition of Communities, “Sexual Politics”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.
Before having sex for the first time—in February 2000, at the age of 23—I had to ask permission of a man I barely knew, at a “sex meeting” attended by all but a few of the 50-plus adults then living at Zendik Farm.
What qualified this man—whom I’ll call Zar—to make this decision? He’d fathered the founding couple’s first grandchild, while in a relationship with their daughter. He emitted an air of menace (incubated, perhaps, during his pre-Zendik run with a Los Angeles street gang). He was close—and mostly loyal—to Arol, who’d taken over as the Farm’s sole leader when her partner, Wulf, had died in June 1999.
That is, Zar drew his authority to dispense advice not from a record of wisdom or empathy, but from his rank in the Zendik hierarchy.
I did sense the perversity in this; I’d tried, before the meeting, to preserve a modicum of discretion by making my request, one on one, of a high-ranking woman instead. Yet I also sensed resonance between my predicament and what I saw as the core of Zendik’s promise: the chance to blossom, as a sexual being, with the support of my adoptive family—rather than prolong my pre-Zendik pattern of sneaking toward sex, in secret, while guarding against the ever-present threat of sexual violence.
Since questions posed at sex meetings tended to throb with pain (stemming, we believed, from our “Deathculture” corruption—yes, we Zendiks called the outside world the “Deathculture”), Zar didn’t quite know what to do with the simple optimism inherent in mine. So he punted to Kro (also a pseudonym), my proposed partner. Was he into it? Zar asked.
Indeed he was. And so, that night, on a quilt in a moonlit field, I brought two precious gifts with me into the mystery of intercourse: the regard of a man who truly loved and admired me, and the blessing of my tribe. I’m still grateful to Kro for his kind and gentle guidance, and to Zendik for allowing me at least this instance of claiming my sexuality without shame.
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Zendik Farm was founded in 1969, in the high desert east of Los Angeles, by Wulf and Arol Zendik (formerly Larry Wulfing and Carol Merson). The two hoped to empower artists like themselves to thrive on collaboration and creativity, and practice radical honesty, while opting out of what they saw as the suicidal, ecocidal American mainstream. In other words, they desired to live tribally—which, to Wulf, meant riving the pair bond.
“Possessive attitudes about sex,” he wrote, “lead to jealousy, hostility, hate, violence, murder.” His solution? Extend the weave of intimate belonging and interdependence beyond the couple; relocate responsibility to provide from the pair to the tribe; free those in partnerships from the compulsion to cling to one another, for the sake of survival.
Was Wulf scheming, from the beginning, to gain sexual access to nearly every post-pubescent female on the Farm? Perhaps, perhaps not; either way, he got it. But that didn’t translate into “free love” for the rank and file—sex at Zendik was subject to a strict, if changing, set of rules.
Here’s a sketch of those rules, as I knew them, in the five years between my arrival at Zendik in October 1999 (several months after Wulf’s death, and the Farm’s move to western North Carolina) and my departure in September 2004 (shortly after the Farm’s final relocation, to West Virginia, and about nine years before its demise):
Sexual interaction couldn’t just happen; it had to be pre-arranged. If I wished to “get together” with a guy, or vice versa, one of us had to “hit up” the other for a “walk”—sometimes involving actual walking, usually stopping short of nudity or sex—or a “date,” during which it was expected that we would get naked and “ball” (i.e., fuck) and/or engage in oral sex. How the hitting up happened shifted with Arol’s whim; in my time, we transitioned from using designated go-betweens (called dating “strators,” or administrators), to making requests directly, to enlisting anyone we chose to play the third-party role.
In the event of a “yes,” my lover or I had to speak to the date-space strator about securing a private spot. If we were lucky, we’d be assigned one of three bona fide “date spaces” (secluded cabins just big enough for a double bed and a nightstand); if we were unlucky (late in making arrangements, or lacking in seniority)—or feeling adventurous, or interpreting “walk” literally—we’d end up elsewhere, e.g., the trailer, a van, the library, a barn loft, or outdoors. (Since most of us slept dorm-style, we did not conduct assignations in our own beds.) Then I (the female) had to make sure my “date sheets” were clean, and, unless I was bleeding, get specked.
Specking? What’s that? It’s one aspect of the “rhythm” method Zendik relied on for birth control: I gauged my fertility by tracking my waking temperature (which rises right after ovulation) and submitting, before each date, to a cervical inspection, with a speculum, by someone trained in gleaning meaning from how open my os was and the nuances of any ambient mucus. If the woman wielding the speculum discerned a risk of pregnancy, then no balling for me. (Condoms, which Wulf disliked, didn’t become available at Zendik until four years after his death―and then only with prior approval, granted case by case.)
On my walks and dates, results varied. Sometimes, I felt mild interest blossom into lush fascination; other times, I stuttered and fumbled, or went through the motions, or—in one instance—agreed to abort the mission, upon discovering that my quotidian admiration for my partner did not in fact correspond to ready potential for sexual pleasure. In general, I thoroughly enjoyed assignations rooted in shared excitement. Meanwhile, I stumbled, or suffered, through those that stemmed from a desire to “evolve sexually”―which I could supposedly do by either coupling with someone above me in the hierarchy, or erring (per Arol’s occasional exhortations) on the side of generosity, or deferring to my peers’ belief that a certain guy would be good for me, or forcing myself to move on from loves condemned as corrupt.
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Part of what kept me at Zendik was my belief that Wulf and Arol had been the first—and only—couple in history to craft a committed, honest relationship and that, if I left, I’d never have this myself. For proof of their union’s superiority, I looked no further than its longevity: they’d stayed together—as partners, if not lovers—for almost four decades, whereas no other Zendik pairing I knew of had lasted more than a few years. Then again, Wulf and Arol—enthroned atop a pyramid of their own making—had faced no pressure from above to break up.
I didn’t understand this when I lived there. Each time I broke a bond under threat, I turned the blame on myself: I was neither honest nor committed nor evolved enough to serve Zendik while sustaining a partnership. In fall 2003, after Arol crushed what seemed like my best hope of mating for life, I vowed to myself that the next time a conflict arose between my loyalty to Zendik and my desire for a man I would dump him immediately. That is, I decided to drop my hope of lasting love.
I didn’t know my spirit would rebel against this.
Nor did I know that my romantic gashes—untreated, unhealed, ungrieved—would one day reopen, and exact retribution.
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In 2015, plodding through the final revision of Mating in Captivity, my Zendik memoir, I paused to acknowledge the wrong I’d done, the pain I’d caused, by cutting ties, under duress, with men I’d still loved. Over the next three years, I reconnected, in person, with three of these men.
To one, I apologized—for kissing him, on our first walk, without permission, and for ending our relationship in such a shitty way. (I’d apologized before, via email, but it seemed vital, as well, to say these things face to face.) He said he could tell I’d changed a lot in the past 15 years and indicated that, in any case, he’d long since forgiven me.
To another, I revealed the maneuvers some higher-ups had made to persuade me to choose Zendik over him; I also refreshed his memory of the initial strike against us. These details—some of which he’d forgotten, some of which he’d never known—incited him, a dozen years after he’d chastised me, by phone, for calling Zendik a cult, to agree that it was one (which did please me, I’ll admit, even though I no longer needed his agreement as a condition of friendship).
Later, I gave him the gist of the tragic tale I’d penned (at a higher-up’s suggestion) to hammer home the point that sticking with him would only generate cascading heartbreak and (to borrow a phrase from Wulf) “perverted death”: a young mother, driven to distraction by wedded isolation, combined with her husband’s pull to itinerant evangelism, kills their infant son by accident and then, to keep her husband from finding out, kills him as soon as he comes home, before killing herself. I’d known, in the moment of creation, that this was a twisted bit of witchcraft; I didn’t realize, until I was summarizing it for the human I’d fictionalized as the husband, that it was also an act of cruelty―that I’d done violence to both of us by writing this story.
To a third former lover, I also disclosed the action behind the scenes of our breakup (he too acknowledged, in response, that Zendik had in fact been a cult). And then, I went further: in light of our rekindled flame, in defiance of Arol, in spite of the pain I was causing my husband, in reaction to fault lines already lurking beneath the crust of my marriage, I chose to enter—openly, honestly, foolishly—into a reprise of our previous intimacy.
Fortunately, thanks to a change of heart on his part, we made out only once, and didn’t have sex; nonetheless, the shock of my betrayal continues to reverberate through my union with my soulmate, to this day.
Do I blame Arol for this? Do I blame Zendik? No. None of it was foreordained. But I do trace back to the Farm the tinder of love cut short, the combustible brush pile of loss unmourned.
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In the midst of my ill-starred foray into polyamory, I turned for context to Christopher Ryan’s and Cacilda Jethá’s treatment of “The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality”—Sex at Dawn. Though I no longer resonate, on a personal level, with their defense of taking multiple sex partners, I still find their work useful in illuminating what may be the greatest gift I received from Zendik’s tangled sexual web.
During World War II, on American Air Force bases, fighter pilots and their wives started holding “key parties,” at which they “intermingled sexually…before the men flew off toward Japanese antiaircraft fire,” all too aware of the likelihood that some would not return. According to researchers Joan and Dwight Dixon (quoted in Sex at Dawn), these couples “shared each other as a kind of tribal bonding ritual, with a tacit understanding that the two thirds of husbands who survived would look after the widows.” That is, they complicated their sexual weave in service of the entire tribe’s survival.
At Zendik, we fancied ourselves “warriors” battling the “Deathculture” to save life on Earth; this lent a sense of urgency to any mission we attempted. And those missions were many: not only did we foray out into the world, most weekends, to sell the magazines, music, stickers, and T-shirts that supported us financially, but we also grew much of our own food; built and maintained our own buildings; tended horses, cows, and goats; repaired our own vehicles; and handled every other responsibility of operating the authoritarian equivalent of a small village. To this ferment of constant activity, our snarled sexual practices did add bubbles of volatility and discord. But, I believe, they also firmed the mesh of affection underlying countless acts of service to each other—which in turn thickened, thread by thread, the fabric that held us together.
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Some little girls dream of having children; I myself dreamed, in this realm, only of finding the man I was meant for and mating for life. Had I known, growing up, how to do that—had I belonged to a tribe, a clan, a culture prepared to help me on my way—I might never have gone looking for Zendik. Or fucked dozens of men. Or contracted herpes, during a mock rape meant to root out my “Deathculture” corruption. I might have chosen to honor, from the start, my desire for one true flame.
But that was not to be. So I did my best, with what I had. I let Zendik teach me its mangled version of the mating dance. I discovered—not too late, but late enough—that my soul would not let me surrender my quest for lasting love. I took the long way ’round to the arms of my husband—knowing, by the time I arrived, that this union was worth fighting for, and that I would fight.
Helen Zuman—author, chocolatier, reweaver, walker, wife, daughter, sister, and witch—details her Zendik experience in her memoir, Mating in Captivity (She Writes Press, 2018; available from Communities Bookstore; see review in Communities #179, pages 76-75). She lives in Beacon, New York; loves Earthaven Ecovillage in Black Mountain, North Carolina; and invites you to visit her at helenzuman.com.
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Sounds Like a Fairytale
excerpted from Mating in Captivity, Chapter 1: “Interview”
My task after lunch was to help Zeta—one of the young women from the trenching crew—paint shelving units on the Addition’s upper level, divided into three bedrooms. The one we set up in was a loft at the crest of a spiral staircase, bright with sunshine pouring in through windows and skylights. From the railing I admired the structure’s soaring floor-to-roof sweep, as well as the love glowing through each handcrafted detail. I would not have guessed that every board in the building had been pried from the skeleton of some rotting home or shop. The Zendiks had taken a motley jumble of derelict stuff and found purpose for it in a smooth new whole.
Zeta filled two yogurt containers with thick white paint from a bucket nested in newspaper. As we laid it in sleek glides over rough reclaimed pine, I learned that she, like me, had grown up in New York City. She’d even attended the same high school as my sister, at about the same time. A musical virtuoso, she played violin and sometimes sang backup in the all-improv Zendik band. She met her machisma quotient with high-topped combat boots, and tiny-toothed shells biting into her dreadlocks. At the Farm about a year and a half, she was one of only two Black women in the group, and one of only three Black Zendiks.
Warmed by news of our shared origins, I barely blinked when Zeta switched subjects. “Hey,” she said, with a playful smile, “has anyone told you how dating works?”
“No,” I said. “But last night at dinner I heard one of the girls say she was going on a date. I figured she and her boyfriend were heading into Hendersonville to see a movie or something.”
Watching Zeta’s smile widen, I began to doubt the story I’d supplied. “Was I wrong?”
Zeta laughed and nodded, eliciting a burst of clicks from the tiny teeth. “Yeah, you were wrong,” she said. “Dating here is nothing like dating out there. The way we do it is totally different.” She paused, raised her brush to remove a stray bristle. “Have you met Shure and Loria?”
“They’re the dating strators. They’ve been here forever—I think since Boulevard.”
“Strator,” I would discover, was Zendik slang for “administrator.” Boulevard—a town outside San Diego—was one of the Farm’s earlier locations. Other Zendik vintages, from older to newer, included Topanga, Texas, and Florida. In its 30-year history, the Farm had moved many times.
I nodded. Zeta continued. “If you wanna get together with a guy you like, you ask one of them to hit him up for you. You can hit him up for a date—which means sex—or if you just wanna kiss, hold hands, make out, you can start with a walk instead.”
My brush slowed as I imagined ambling through a meadow at midnight, hand in hand, with Estero. The thought of my fingers twined in his roused a delicious wave of tingles.
“You can say in advance how far you wanna go, and the guy will respect that. No games, no pressure. No dumb pickup lines.”
My vision dissolved into the final scene of a vivid dream I’d had when I was 10. A handsome man, at least thrice my age, was chasing me through a tropical forest. Upon catching me, he said, “Let’s not have sex. Let’s just make love.” I was relieved and enraptured.
Twelve years later, I still thought “making love” and “having sex” were separate things. To me, “making love” meant luxuriating in the holding and kissing, the stroking and petting, the languor and longing, as long as you chose. This, it seemed, was the promise of a “walk.”
Zeta broke in with a question. “You’re a virgin, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, taken aback. “How’d you know?”
“Oh,” she said, dabbing extra paint into a knothole, “Toba told me. At lunch.” She covered the patch around the knothole with short, quick strokes. “So, yeah, you’d wanna take it slow. Here, you can do that. People will help.”
I thought again of Estero—the latest in a string of crushes threading back to first grade. How many boys, then men, had enthralled me with their wit, their salt, their sweat, only to dance out of reach? How many chances had I missed to take a hand, test for a match?
Where had Zendik been all my life?
“Wow,” I breathed, gazing out the bedroom window at a pillow of mist falling on the Blue Ridge. “That sounds like a fairy tale.”
Excerpted from the Summer 2019 edition of Communities, “Sexual Politics”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.