No discussion about the Sixties is complete without mentioning communes. Stories about them (and the zany goings-on in them) have taken on almost mythical proportions in the last few decades: free love, nudity, weird rituals, wacky holistic medical treatments, a diet of brown rice and tofu—it all seems not only completely believable, but faintly tinged with a rosy sort of nostalgia: those were the days of innocence and love and brotherhood, free from the money-grubbing materialism of later years.
It’s very seldom that we’ve heard a straightforward, honest, unromanticized account of everyday life in a Sixties commune—that is, until now. In Notes from Nethers: Growing Up in a SixtiesCommune, Sandra Eugster describes the life, companions, joys, and complications of living in Nethers, the late 1960s rural Virginia community founded by her mother when Sandra was nine. Eugster details the seven years she spent at Nethers with the clear-eyed simplicity of the sole child who can see the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Notes from Nethers is simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking: Eugster shows the reader what the Emperor really is, but, in the process, she exposes her own most private insecurities and feelings as well.
In the book, Eugster takes the reader through her parent’s emotional breakup; the realization of her mother, Carla’s, life-long dream of establishing a new sort of community where bourgeois ideas of proper lifestyle were dispensed with; to the fascinating details of a commune childhood that is as different from the childhood of most Americans as a butterfly is from buttercream icing; and on to Eugster’s own tentative attempts to integrate herself into mainstream college life at the age of seventeen.
Eugster’s descriptions of everyday life at Nethers are, on their own, worth the price of the book (probably more, actually). Group-witnessed home births, sweat lodges, unschooling, explicit sex education for pre-teens, community meetings in which a single young child’s vote can block the wishes of all the adults, primal scream therapy, voluntary (and more often than not, completely ignored)work schedules—life at Nethers is a like a glimpse into a foreign and unfamiliar land. What makes the book truly memorable however are not the juicy details, but Eugster’s painfully honest writing about her own ambivalence over the entire Nethers experience.
Nethers was not Eugster’s dream; it was her mother’s. Yet, as Eugster points out, as a child, she was held captive to that dream and a life that she had deep misgivings over. She was told that the people at Nethers were all like one big family, yet she didn’t share this feeling: “People kept talking about love and family, but it didn’t seem like family to me. And love?...I was supposed to love each and every person. But I didn’t…They were strangers and strange and there was all this talk about family, extended family, communal family, family this or that. Well, this wasn’t my family, I was clear about that. I hadn’t gained new family members, I had lost hard. My family was…well, where was my family?”
The freedom Eugster had at Nethers was unlike anything most children experience—no compulsory schooling, few rules, and nearly no supervision. Yet she felt “trapped” by the freedom: “…everything seemed so vague and chaotic and unexpected…” She feels like she is waiting, but “waiting for what? Rescue? Attention? Help? There were plenty of people around, available even, but it seemed I had to figure this out for myself—what to do with my time, how to amuse or interest or occupy myself, how to feel connected to my life.”
As she gets older, she becomes more aware of the ever-increasing difference between her life and the lives of other, mainstream children and constantly worries, “what was I missing out there? Would I ever get out? And if I did, could I survive?”
Despite her ambivalence, when Nethers eventually disintegrates, Eugster—and the reader—is devastated. “This was my second divorce,” she writes, “and, much as I had fought against it ever being so, my second family, now lost as well.”
Notes from Nethers is a gem of a book. Eugster not only manages to record in detail an iconic moment in American history, she allows the reader to enter the private world of a child struggling to understand herself and the world around her in extraordinary circumstances. The result is a memoir of outstanding power.
The above review was contributed by: Michelle Kerns. Michelle writes for an eccentric collection of print and online publications. She is helplessly in love with the fictional character Melrose Plant, watches the movie Hot Fuzz every Thursday night, and likes Chianti without the liver and fava beans. Visit her at the Book Examiner site on Examiner.com.
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