KERISTA COMMUNE TIMELINE
1923: John Presmont (formerly Jake Peltz, possible birth name Jacob Luvich, aka “Brother Jud”) was born.
(1953?): Susan Furchgott (aka Eve Furchgott aka “Even Eve”) was born.
1956: Brother Jud had a vision in which he was told to found a sexually experimental intentional community. “Old Tribe” Kerista began.
1962: Brother Jud had a vision of an island called Kerista and henceforth that name was used by the community.
1965: Robert Anton Wilson visited Kerista in New York and published an article on the group in Fact magazine.
1966: Kerry Thornley, co-founder of Discordianism, joined the Los Angeles chapter of Kerista.
1970: The “Old Tribe” Kerista ended.
1971 (February): “New Tribe” Kerista was founded in San Francisco, after Brother Jud and Even Eve met.
1991: Kerista disbanded.
2002: The Kerista Commune website was launched, devised and managed by Susan (Eve) Furchgott and her husband Thomas (Kip) Winegar.
2009: Jud Presmont died.
Kerista had two distinct periods of history, known as “Old Tribe” and “New Tribe.” The first instantiation of Kerista came into being when John Presmont (“Brother Jud”) [Image at right] had a mystical experience in 1956, after which he became convinced that he must abandon his mainstream life, and “search for meaningful religiousness and communal living” (“History of the Kerista Commune,” Kerista 2002-2015).
John Peltz Presmont was born on January 9, 1923 to Russian immigrant parents. He was subsequently adopted by his Orthodox Jewish aunt and uncle and raised as Jacob Pelz. After completing high school in Brooklyn, New York, Presmont enlisted in the armed forces in 1940 where he saw combat and was awarded medals for his heroism. Following his discharge from the armed forces in 1946, Presmont became “a beatnik, a New York bar owner, and a bohemian in the 1950s, [as well as] a hippie in Dominica, Honduras, and San Francisco” (Presmont 2010). He founded the Kerista Commune in 1971.
The various communal houses that Jud established with like-minded people, in the United States, Ibiza, Dominica, Roatán and other locations in the period from 1956 to 1970 are known as “Old Tribe” Kerista. This phase overlapped with the emergence of the hippie movement in the 1960s, and Kerista embraced many of the countercultural practices of the time, including experimentation with drugs, dropping out of nine-to-five jobs, and revolutionary politics. At first, the group was simply called “our thing,” but in 1962 Jud had a further vision of an island called Kerista, and a Voice commanded him, “THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO TO PREVENT THIS THING FROM HAPPENING. HAVE A BALL, ENJOY YOURSELF TO THE UTMOST. FIND THE MOUNTAIN BESIDE THE SEA. THE PIED PIPER WILL PULL OUT THE SWINGING PEOPLE” (Cottrell 2015:237). From that point forward both the religious philosophy and group were known as Kerista, and individual members as Keristans. Sexual freedom and a communal lifestyle were appealing to artists and writers, students and rebels, political activists, and sundry other dreamers. During the 1960s, the most prominent Kerista houses were in New York’s Lower East Side, and in Berkeley and San Francisco, California.
In 1965, the writer, mystic, and futurist Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007), who was working as a freelance journalist, interviewed nine Keristans from the New York commune, and published a lengthy article on the group in Fact magazine. Wilson describes Jud Presmont’s spiritual quest, which involved reading the scriptures of the world religions, and the vision mentioned above. In Greenwich Village, Wilson spoke to Dau (Leonard Freitag), E.Z. (pronounced “Easy”), Tre, Fly, Onn, Dom, Marquel, and Gud (which he misspelled “Good”), and on a separate occasion, Jud. Dau explained that upon joining Kerista, a man or woman has to “ get in contact with [their] pure self, through Buddho, the art of no-defense. That means not defending the social self with all the usual hang-ups and bullshit. When you find the pure self, you take a new name” (Wilson 1965). Dau revealed that the names people used were found via the use of the ouija board. Apart from Jud members were in their twenties; many had college educations and had left middle-class homes and marriages to become “beatniks.” Wilson commented on the poverty of the district that members lived in, and the constant harassment from the police, chiefly because of the Keristans’ recreational drug use and nudity. According to Dau, who recruited for Kerista by walking in New York, Berkeley and San Francisco playing “one of his many flutes or penny whistles” (which led people to call him the “Pied Piper”), Jud had several encounters with authorities. He had been committed to at least one psychiatric institution and had done several stretches in prison because of his commitment to freedom, including the use of marijuana, unrestricted consensual sexual activity, and the practice of social nudity (Freitag 1984). Sociologist Timothy Miller regards Kerista as engaged in the “unabashed pursuit of hedonism” and notes that bouts of venereal disease, as well as drug arrests, were par for course (Miller 1992:83).
Dau’s history of “Old Tribe” Kerista preserves memories of a little-documented period, and is the longest text hosted on the Kerista website. Dau first met Jud “on a merry go round in Central Park” in the early 1960s, after Jud’s first communal experiments on Ibiza and Dominica had failed, and a year later abandoned his plan to live and work on a kibbutz in Israel to commit to Kerista. He acknowledged Jud’s prophetic role, but insisted that Jud, he and EZ were the “three main figures … the three main Kerista leaders” (Freitag 1984). Dau’s spiritual quest went in a completely different direction to that of Jud, and by 1971 when “New Tribe” Kerista emerged, he had embraced monogamy and had mystical experiences, in which God spoke to him, that led to the reaffirmation of his Jewish identity. Dau believed Judaism was a vital part of Kerista, due to Jud and EZ also being Jewish (Freitag 1984). It is interesting to note that Even Eve and Bluejay Way, two of the foundation members of “New Tribe” Kerista, were also Jewish.
Dau’s reminiscences of Kerista in New York in the mid-1960s describe around one hundred members living in a number of apartments, in which food, clothing and personal possessions were shared. EZ was one of the chief bread-winners of the group, which also benefited from “Linda the Heiress” who gave Dau and Gud five thousand dollars in 1964 to buy a loft and maintain Kerista for about a year. Dau regarded the loft as a high point of communal life and harmony:
The first rule of Kerista originated in the loft: Everyone wash their own dish. Everyone in the loft did some sort of art. People played music, did painting, therapy, meditation, on psychedelics. There was mutual child raising, total sharing of all property, brotherhood, cooperation, good vibes, and a group mind. There were other Kerista households besides the loft. For some people the loft was an open house where people could sleep or eat at. Anyone could apply to join permanent membership, although not everyone was accepted. A select twenty or thirty people were selected to stay. A woman named Bee stayed. Cheryl a sixteen year old black virgin friend of Joy lived in the loft. Cheryl was a celibate. Feedee Brown a mellow black brother lived there. The loft lasted a little under a year. There were about thirty mattresses on the upper floor of the two story loft. Everyone slept where they happened to find an empty or full bed … How long a newcomer was allowed to stay, for a night, or permanently was determined by how committed and compatible the newcomer’s vibes and ideas were with the already there people. Those who didn’t fit were asked to leave. I recall a time when the core members went out to eat, and when we returned we asked at least ten people to leave, we called it a shake out or purge (Freitag 1984).
During the heyday of the loft Jud and his young wife Joy only visited occasionally. The loft came to an end when Linda and her husband Arthur were persuaded by Jud and Joy to fund the purchase of an island, a plan that never came to fruition.
The utopian island colonies Jud desired to establish were intended to pay for themselves as tourist attractions for wealthy “squares” that wanted to stay with “swingers” in pursuit of a new experience. In 1965, Jud told Wilson:
When we get the colony going, nobody will work . When you are doing what you want to do, it isn’t work, it’s play. One cat is raising rabbits, another is raising chickens, somebody’s growing vegetables, they’re all having a ball, is that work? Work is when you are taking orders from someone you hate (Wilson 1965).
The members of Kerista, liberated from working for a living, could spend their time creating art, making love, pursuing spiritual goals (partially through the ingestion of psychedelics and other mind-expanding drugs), and engaging in radical politics. Jud always spoke of Kerista as a religion, though other members preferred to call it a social movement. The artistic bent of Keristans meant that in the New York “Old Tribe” era many distinguished literary and artistic counter-cultural figures, such as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and his partner Peter Orlovsky, chess expert and author Frank Brady, and musician Ken Weaver, were frequent visitors and became friends (Freitag 1984). Ginsberg, interviewed by John Gruen in 1966, said “Kerista sounded a bell that was heard all over the Lower East Side and reverberated to San Francisco as a possibility for a new society” (Gruen 1990 :52).
Dau was with Jud through the mid- to late-1960s experiments with communal living in Belize and on Roatán Island. In 1967 Dau returned to New York, where he and EZ promoted Kerista via public lectures and meetings. He then moved to San Francisco and was reunited with Jud and EZ. Dau records that they lived together in Haight-Ashbury, where “the three Kerista leaders were affectionately referred to as the Three Bears by their friends” (Freitag 1984). In 1969, Dau’s religious experiences, which emphasized a more traditionally moral lifeway, caused him to break with Jud, reconnect with his Jewish roots, and fuse Judaism with Keristan principles to form a new religion, JuDauism. Dau’s view of Jud gives credit where it is due, but is critical. In 1984, he wrote of Kerista:
there are two branches of Kerista. Jud’s branch of basically newer people. And Dau’s branch of JuDauism which consists of the old-time well-known Kerista tribe, as well as new people. Now Jud’s branch of Kerista is very formal. Jud needs formal events to hang out with friends. Dau’s branch is often eating, hanging out, playing music, and doing spontaneous things in our homes together. Jud’s branch of Kerista ran Kerista dances, and volleyball games in Golden Gate Park. Dau’s branch of Kerista has frequent informal spontaneous gatherings and outings, as well as invitation type parties with a lot of music. Jud’s non profit corporation puts out a free newspaper the Utopian Classroom . The non profit corporation makes a good profit selling paid ads in the free newspaper (Freitag 1984).
This basic difference in orientation, between spontaneous and somewhat chaotic organisation and a formal structure with rules and timetables, is fundamental to the way that Jud Presmont’s communal vision developed into the “New Tribe.”
The second and most influential phase of Kerista was the twenty years in which the “New Tribe” existed as a stable communal house in San Francisco’s bohemian Haight-Ashbury district. In February 1971, Jud, aged forty-eight, met Eve (born Susan) Furchgott in 1953, the artist daughter of pharmacologist Robert Furchgott (1916-2009), [Image at right] who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1998 (Martin 2009). With Eva (Bluejay) Way, they established a commune in the Haight, then a run-down district with Victorian and Edwardian houses available for very cheap rents. The original “Living School Residence Group” was later called a “superfamily, then … a PCG (polyfidelitous closed group), then … a B-FIC (Best Friend Identity Cluster)” (Kerista 2002-2015). Over the next twenty years approximately forty people joined Kerista, though the group rarely had more than twenty-five living together at any one time. Jud’s ideal of thirty-six people, balanced between men and women, was never realized. B-FICs (“beefics”) of between four and fifteen people were formed, and had names like the Purple Submarine and Sanity Mix (Kerista 2002-2015). The group ran a successful Apple computer resale business, distributed the free newspaper Utopian Classroom, and ran “rap groups” and various community outreaches. In 1975, Eve initiated publication of Far Out West, which was introduced as “The First Utopian Comic Strip” and was created to spread the group’s message.
In 1991, tensions that had been building over time came to a head, and Jud left the commune in November (Miller 1995:425). He then formed the World Academy of Keristan Education. By the end of 1991, Kerista disbanded (Anapol 2010:58).
Jud, who was sixty-three in 1986, had become increasingly irritable, demanding, and autocratic, and in the “gestalt” sessions for which the group was famous, he brutally criticized and cowed other members, which created deep divisions in the commune. Eventually a six-person group of which Even Eve was a member, which later continued as a polyfidelitous family called Mariah in Hawai’i for some years after the demise of Kerista, led a rebellion that resulted in Jud’s departure. In the words of Even Eve, “ we believed in democracy, equality of the sexes … [but] Kerista was in many respects a cult with a charismatic leader … only the most courageous Keristans dared to openly disagree with Jud” (Even Eve, “Afterword: What Happened To Kerista?” Kerista 2002-2015).
Kerista had very few metaphysical beliefs, but was possessed of a strong set of principles, a kind of code of conduct that governed relationships between members. The early concept of Buddho, developed by Dau in New York, remained a vital part of Keristan belief and practice throughout. Buddho was termed “the art of no-defense” and was cultivated chiefly through self-observation (Wilson 1965). As members observed their own conversations and actions, they became aware of the ways in which they habitually “defended” themselves against others. Wilson characterized Buddho as “escape from other-directedness” and explained that “more advanced Buddho includes the conquest of greed, sexual jealousy, and other ‘hang-ups’ ” (Cottrell 2015:241). During the “New Tribe” era, Dau and Jud had parted ways, but the “gestalt” sessions that were integral to the commune in the most idealistic sense carried on that tradition of self-observation and verbal defusing of defense mechanisms, to create harmony in the group. That the gestalt sessions had a dark, more negative impact was unfortunate, but the goal of a unified community with shared standards was crucial to the “New Tribe.”
Unsurprisingly, many of the principles developed within Kerista were concerned with sex. When Robert Anton Wilson interviewed Jud, he was informed that in place of the “10 Commandments” Kerista would have “69 Positions,” a witty reference to the slang term for a sexual position in which partners give mutual oral gratification. Jud had, to date, only fixed upon twenty-five positions, which he argued were simply common sense. These were:
Legalize group marriage. Legalize indecent exposure. Legalize trial marriage. Legalize abortion. Legalize miscegenation. Legalize religious intermarriage. Legalize marijuana. Legalize narcotics. Legalize cunnilinctus (sic). Legalize transvestitism. Legalize pornography. Legalize obscene language. Legalize sexual intercourse. Legalize group sex. Legalize sodomy. Legalize fellatio. Legalize prostitution. Legalize incest. Legalize birth control. Legalize Lesbianism. Legalize polygamy. Legalize polyandry. Legalize polygyny. Legalize homosexuality. Legalize voluntary flagellation (Wilson 1965).
From the vantage point of the second decade of the twenty-first century, many of these “positions” are uncontroversial. For Jud, the most important commitment in Kerista was group marriage. During the “New Tribe” this was termed “polyfidelity” and dominated the structure and interactions of Kerista’s communal life.
Even Eve became the key articulator of the Keristan concept of polyfidelity. She described it is a non-monogamous family structure using a “balanced rotational sleeping schedule” in which each member slept with a different member every night. It was important that particular couples (“dyads”) did not develop more intense erotic or emotional relationships, as “ relating to all their partners without a hierarchy of preference” was a core value, as was not being jealous, and not having sex with anyone who was not part of the group (Even Eve, “Polyfidelity,” Kerista 2002-2015). Polyfidelity was hailed as a completely new impulse, in that polygamy and polyandry as they had existed historically and among widely differing cultures had not developed in an atmosphere of free choice, brought about by progressive social currents like women’s liberation, and the communal living and civil rights movements. In 1984 Even Eve wrote idealistically that, “The … ramifications of this family structure are potentially quite significant, because of the problems it solves (loneliness, jealousy, social fragmentation, housing shortages, single parenting, economic strain, emotional boredom) and because of the new vistas of responsible hedonism it opens up” (Even Eve, “Polyfidelity,” Kerista 2002-2015). Keristans developed a complex in-group language, and coined “compersion” to refer to “the opposite of jealousy, positive feelings about your partner’s other intimacies” (Kerista 2002-2015).
In practice, the Keristan approach to sex meant that within the commune B-FICs formed, changing over time, and within each B-FIC a “Sleeping Schedule” was established, which meant that every male participant, for example, slept with a different woman each night. Particular dyadic relationships (couples) were against the rules, as it was fundamental that the polyfidelitous relationships were non-preferential. In the words of Even Eve:
Romantics might consider such a system too ‘mechanical’, but those who use it think it is a marvelous way to ensure that every twosome in a B-FIC has equal and ample time to build their own special, one-to-one intimacy … Every combination has its own unique qualities (called ‘lovjoy’ by practitioners of polyfidelity) which does not have to compete with any other dyadic relationship (Even Eve, “Polyfidelity,” Kerista 2002-2015).
The reality was that there were always more women than men, which resulted in women having “Zero Nights” during the cycle, and more importantly, members did feel pressured to have sex with people that they were not attracted to, and developed particular emotional bonds with certain people in their B-FIC although they were not supposed to. In fact, Susan Furchgott (Even Eve) and Thomas Winegar (Kip), former Keristans who set up and maintain the Kerista Commune website, have been married for more than fifteen years, and essays authored by both explain their shift to monogamy, and the benefits of being first, being loved to the exclusion of others, by a partner (Kerista 2002-2015).
Keristan rituals emerged in the early year of the “Old Tribe” in New York. Reference has already been made to the ouija board that members used to choose their new names, and Robert Anton described the practice of Buddho, the “art of no defense” developed by Dau (Wilson 1965). The ouija board was first used in 1962 by Gud and Dau, and became a daily ritual. Fascinatingly, the spirit guide that Keristans most often contacted was G. I. Gurdjieff (c. 1866-1949), though Dau lists Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), and John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) as other guides that advised the group via the board (Freitag 1984). It could be argued that in the early days the use of drugs, open sexual behavior and nudity were rituals that were conducted by Kerista regularly, for members. Jud recalled his first experiences of the free love culture in late 1950s New York with affection:
The group would get together on Friday nights in somebody’s Upper East Side penthouse. At ten o’clock, Jud remembers, “We’d lock the doors, cook a wonderful meal, listen to some of the musicians play, and take off our clothes.” The best part wasn’t the sex. It was the companionship. Jud adored being surrounded by glamor and talent, beautiful “liberated women” and powerful men, people who could afford to spend all weekend talking philosophy (Annalee Newitz, “Test Tube Lovers – Kerista’s Ambiguous Utopia,” Kerista 2002-2015).
These gatherings appear to be both scheduled and spontaneous, and were certainly more open-ended and relaxed than the sleeping schedule of “New Tribe” Kerista.
Dau’s history confirms that the gatherings Jud attended in the 1950s were continued among “Old Tribe” members, although drugs took on a more prominent role as a ritual sacrament. In his history, Dau emphasized sharing, anti-racism, and the spiritually-elevating effects of drugs:
Kerista did produce psychedelic Don Juan the Yaqui type Gurus. We took LSD, mescaline, magic mushrooms, STP, and other trips to gain enlightenment. Most of the early Keristan core members were psychedelic Gurus. These trips were also used to attain higher consciousness, and better deeper freer art and music. We tripped to contact and find ourselves. We tripped to communicate better with each other. We tripped to know ourselves, and to communicate with God. We tripped in order find and be found by the Tao. We tripped to grow and discover. Dau was one of the few people to take LSD mixed with a full mescaline trip at the same time. Dau has done psychedelic healing and made many meditative and art break-throughs on trips (Freitag 1984).
The creative side of Kerista might also be regarded as a ritual activity. The group engaged in artistic production, produced newspapers and magazines (The Kerista Speeler in New York and Utopian Classroom in San Francisco) and exercised considerable attraction for literary and aesthetically-minded people.
The emergence of “New Tribe” Kerista saw certain continuations of ritual observance from the “Old Tribe,” and many innovations. Larry Hamelin’s fascinating memoir of his time with Kerista during 1987-1988 reveals that the ouija board (which he calls the “message board”) was still in use, and he notes the importance of Keristan business ventures to recruitment, having met the group at the Growth Co-op (Hamelin 2013). Hamelin describes the language of the “New Tribe” in some detail, noting how members called themselves a Utopian sex cult (with tongue firmly in cheek), spoke of “holding your own mud” (do not bother members with your personal gripes), and held to the “88 standards,” including polyfidelity, anrti-racism, economic communalism, and “Gestalt-o-Rama” (Hamelin 2013:61). The sleeping schedule had developed from allocation of partners by a “chore wheel” known as “the washing machine,” on which women were letters and men were numbers and a notch was moved each day, to a computerized spreadsheet devised by Luv, who joined in 1980-1981. This sheet mapped partner combinations and allocated rooms allocated with mathematical precision ( Annalee Newitz, “Test Tube Lovers – Kerista’s Ambiguous Utopia,” Kerista 2002-2015) . Polyfidelity was carefully managed; new members went for three months without sex then were screened for venereal disease. This was followed by three months of condoms. After another screening, protection was abandoned. Unlike New York, where there were many children and babies constantly being born, there were two children only in the “New Tribe” (though others occasionally visited). When Hamelin joined all men had vasectomies; another ritual they went through (Hamelin 2013:62) that contrasted sharply with 1960s New York, in which women were entirely responsible for contraception (Wilson 1965). The sleeping schedule ritualized sex and reified the ideals of non-preferentiality in relationships, polyfidelity and compersion.
Hemelin’s account of Gestalt-o-Rama makes clear that it is a development of Buddho, what he terms “the ordinary conversation and negotiation found in any group of people with a shared purpose” (Hamelin 2013:64). As such, it was a daily practice. However, every couple of months someone, usually Jud, used Gestalt-o-Rama as a launching-pad to interrogate a member’s suitability to be in Kerista, or their commitment to the group’s philosophy, and an atmosphere of anxiety and dread grew. Some ex-members blame Jud; Hamelin argues that “his sole tactic was to raise an issue in the group and not back down until everyone agreed” (Hamelin 2013:67). Yet even this generous assessment allows that Jud bullied others, and Gestalt-o-Rama seems light years from Dau’s gentle Buddho. What Hamelin identifies as an obsession with purity and adherence to the group mind stifled dissent.
“Old Tribe” Kerista was a loosely organised communal movement. Members lived in about ten apartments in New York, and while there was an ethic of sharing there were no formal arrangements regarding childcare, money, and so on. Robert Anton Wilson’s interviews reveal clearly that members regarded Jud Presmont as a prophet, but firmly rejected the idea that he was the leader, or that Kerista had a leader at all (Wilson 1965). Dau’s history of the group gives greater prominence to himself, Jud and EZ as the leading minds or spirits in the community, though he does not give them formalized leadership roles or titles (Freitag 1984). Several Keristans had military pasts, including Jud who had been in the Air Force in Japan during World War II, and EZ who had followed the Air Force with a stint in the Federal Aviation Authority. Military pensions were one source of funding for the group households, as only a small number of members had jobs. Jud advocated not working for a living, as his 1956 mystical experience convinced him that the business career he had pursued after leaving the military was of no merit (Freitag 1984). EZ, who had left his family and a stylish Long Island home, agreed. Donations from wealthy sympathizers like Linda the Heiress (discussed above) and elaborate plans to establish utopian island communities were other ways to acquire funds. Sex was free and relationships were open-ended, unregulated, and often transient.
“New Tribe” Kerista was quite different in organizational terms. Annalee Newitz argues that Jud’s military background is crucial to understanding the extreme regimentation of the San Francisco commune. She comments that Wilson in 1965:
like many observers of the Keristan community model, is fascinated by Jud’s ever-expanding list of rules that every member of the group must follow. Jud may be a Beatnik, but his mind cannot unstick itself from the Air Force: the guy believes in order, and will brook no disobedience. And yet his strict principles are hardly militaristic in flavor – they’re full of exhortations to be “honest,” “polite,” “sensitive,” “funky,” and “non-sexist.” Although adhering to Jud’s principles was an often-painful process, Eve believes they’re what held the Haight-Ashbury Keristans together long after other local communes fell apart (Annalee Newitz, “Test Tube Lovers – Kerista’s Ambiguous Utopia,” Kerista 2002-2015).
The list of rules grew ever longer in San Francisco, with regimented sex and nightly gestalts, running store-fronts and publishing the Utopian Classroom, the organized ball-games and dances that Dau so decried, and increasingly the running of business enterprises such as Abacus, the lucrative Apple computer dealership that was largely managed by Eva Way (Kahney 2002), and the cleaning business, also named Abacus. Hamelin, who joined in the late 1980s, noted that the commune lived a middle-class lifestyle, with material comforts, holidays and travel, and ample funds for entertainments (Hamelin 2013). The Gestalt-o-Rama sessions indicate that Jud, though still not the “leader,” had great power in the “New Tribe.” Even Eve has noted that “New Tribe” Kerista had the atmosphere of a “cult” led by a charismatic leader. This came to an end with her revolt in 1991 that led to Kerista disbanding.
Kerista is not clearly a New Religious Movement (NRM), but is best classified as an “intentional community” (Miller 2013: 1) or a “countercultural communal group” (Hall 1978: 2), which voluntarily banded together in the desire to live communally according to a philosophy that challenged the values of mainstream society. Yet Jud insisted Kerista was a religion, and when Kerry Thornley, the co-founder of the early fiction-based religion of Discordianism, joined the commune in Los Angeles he rhapsodized that:
Kerista is a religion and the mood of Kerista is one of holiness. Do not, however, look for a profusion of rituals, dogmas, doctrines and scriptures. Kerista is too sacred for that. It is more akin to the religions of the East and, also, the so-called pagan religions of the pre-Christian West. Its fount of being is the religious experience and … Kerista, like those religions of olden times, is life affirming (Adler 1986:294).
Jud is acknowledged to have been a difficult character, confronting and intimidating members and non-members alike. Ex-Keristan Nu Luv’s essay “The Dark Side of Community” traces his participation in the group for the last eleven years of its existence, using the Jungian imagery of light and shadow. He felt joy at joining in 1981 and the first six years were a positive experience, despite Jud’s “ intensely negative comments that he often introduced during gestalt encounters” (Nu Luv, “The Dark Side of Community: Hidden Limits to Lasting Groups,” Kerista 2002-2015). Nu Luv views the last five years as the triumph of the shadow, and he identifies three traps that Keristans unwittingly fell into: the Harmony Trap, the Equality Trap, and the failure to recognize or deal with Hidden Agendas and Power Plays.
Even Eve’s reflections on the demise of Kerista are mixed, but broadly affirm Nu Luv’s assessment. She is keen to point out that the sense of belonging to a “tribe,” being democratically involved in decision-making, and knowing that your bills would be covered, were valuable and pleasurable. Yet there were significant negatives, including the fact that democratic decisions were not really democratic, because certain people had greater influence than others, and “ our communistic approach to life effectively immobilised people” (Even Eve, “Afterword: What Happened To Kerista?” Kerista 2002-2015). She connects the breakdown of the “groupthink” of Keristans with the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Both individual responsibility and individual creativity were absent from Kerista. Even Eve comments that:
our living spaces were disgustingly messy … because no one felt any personal responsibility for them … People felt free to spend money on all kinds of things in a way that they would never do if they were solely responsible for balancing their chequebooks … Every ex-Keristan I have talked with remembers numerous instances of going along with the prevailing group sentiment on an issue rather than take a contrary stand, or, worse still, without even bothering to really think the issue through independently … times we gave some innocent person a hard time for thinking, saying, or doing something that didn’t synch with current Keristan doctrine … or times we sat by and watched while some of the “heavies” in our tribe verbally abused someone else in the name of honesty, growth, the pursuit of “righteousness” or some other such rationalization (Even Eve, “Afterword: What Happened to Kerista?” Kerista 2002-2015).
In addition to these problems of groupthink and individual frustration in the day-to-day running of the commune, Keristans also became exhausted by the “sleeping schedule” and the demands of rigid “non-preferential” sexual relationships. Rio recalls a conversation with Way about her depression at realizing that being equally important to eight people did not translate into feeling that she was important to anyone, and Kip indicates that not only was he not particularly intimate with the women with whom he had sex, neither did he have close personal relationships with the men (Kerista 2002-2015). Awakening to Jud’s controlling personality and need to dominate was a gradual process, and resulted in his departure from the group in November 1991. The group itself had peacefully disbanded by early in the following year.
The Kerista Commune site was established in 2002 by Even Eve and Kip, now reverted to their regular names of Susan Furchgott and Thomas Winegar, married and living in Hawai’i. The aim was to facilitate open communication, with both those who feel injured by the group and those who are at peace with their history in Kerista. A theme that permeates the website is that Kerista was a radical movement that was at loggerheads with mainstream society in both its earlier, more organic format of the “Old Tribe” and the organised, rule-based commune of the “New Tribe.” Thus although these people are no longer members of this new spiritual movement, they remain deeply engaged with the issues of what the group taught and why they left or agreed to disband, which is also found in other NRMs such as the Brethren and the Church of Scientology (Rubin 2011; Dyason and Doherty 2015).
Jud Presmont sent a greeting to the online community in 2004. After his death in 2009 ex-Keristans and non-Keristans celebrated Jud’s achievements, without glossing over the conflicted legacy he bequeathed to them. In Religious Studies scholar Benjamin D. Zablocki’s opinion, the “Old Tribe” Keristans were an “extraordinarily flawed but extraordinarily gifted, kind, creative and caring agglomeration of people … [not] just Jud and Dao (sic) but pretty much the whole inner circle in NYC and SF” (Zablocki 2015). The thoughtful reflections of Even Eve and Kip, among others, from the “New Tribe” reflect the same degree of idealism, generosity, and sincerity. The creed of freedom and defiance of convention preached by Jud continues to inspire many, who see the problems leading to the group’s demise as failure to realise an ideal, rather than pursuing a flawed ideal in the first place (Miller 1992: 83).
Image #1: Photograph of John Presmont (Brother Jud).
Image #2: Photograph of Susan (Eve) Furchgott.
Adler, Margot. 1986. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers, and Other Pagan in America Today, Second Edition. Boston: Beacon Press.
Anapol, Deborah. 2010. Polyamory in the Twenty-First Century: Love and Intimacy with Multiple Partners. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
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