Notes from Nethers: Growing Up In A Sixties Commune
by Sandra Lee Eugster
Academy Chicago Publishers
Reviewed by Jessie
I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of communes and attempts at creating utopian societies. The idea of dropping out of mainstream society, living deliberately with like-minded people, and living off the land is so appealing when I find myself sitting in rush-hour traffic for hours, or realizing that I spend most of my time doing what is required or asked of me by others. But I’m not brave enough to make such a radical change in my life, so I rely on accounts of others who are.
Sandra Lee Eugster’s account of her childhood living on a commune, Nethers, of her mother’s creation is a fascinating commentary on the desire for radical social change and the counterculture of the 1960’s and 1970’s, but also on the effect of a parent’s choice to live outside the mainstream on her children.
Eugster’s mother, Carla, separated from her husband and moved with her three children (Eugster was nine years old) from Baltimore to rural Virginia, intent on making her dream of an intentional society come true. She believed that people should be free to do whatever kind of work they loved without concern for income. Her society would guarantee each member income, so that they could do whatever kind of work they loved.
From the sex ed classes where a Nethers member used a candle to demonstrate how to pleasure a man, to a sweat lodge ritual, to the eventual breakup of Nethers, the memoir features an interesting cast of characters and experiences. People came and went as they pleased, sometimes staying for months, or only a few days.
The children of Nethers were not formally educated, but took part in the experimental educational system of the commune, the “free” school. The adults believed that if children were allowed to follow their own interests, they would arrive at the desire to study and learn on their own.
But life at Nethers was far from ideal, and Eugster struggled with her desire to be a “normal” child or teenager, and the kind of life that was encouraged at Nethers. There were times when she wanted her mother to discipline her, or to eat forbidden candy and processed foods.
Eugster entered the commune experience a cheerful, talkative, curious girl. By the end, when she was seventeen, she was sullen and quiet, feeling abandoned. She writes of her life at Nethers:
“Captive to visionaries, I was in a constant made scramble to get with the dream. And it was something of a moving target, because I wasn’t the dreamer. Nearly all those at Nethers had chosen to be there for idealistic reasons, and they promulgated an ethos of love and tolerance that I took literally and very seriously. I didn’t know that they hadn’t themselves necessarily arrived at their espoused states of grace, I just knew that I fell short. Because I occasionally felt judgmental, jealous, or distrustful, I was often resentful and aggrieved, and sometimes I even lied.”
Most of the accounts of communes I’ve read were by those who lived through the experience as adults, so to read an account of someone who experienced it as a child was fascinating. As she points out in the above passage, she was not there as a “dreamer.” She was there because it was her mother’s dream, and as a minor, she had to go where her mother’s dream led her.
I’d highly recommend Notes from Nethers to anyone who is interested in an account of a counterculture commune, or a story of how a child is affected by their parent’s vision of a radical ideal lifestyle.