Thursday, May 2, 2013


The Source Family: A Cult I Might Have Joined

What would you do if a middle-aged man with a big white beard and a long white robe asked you to be his daughter? What if he had a magic touch that made you forget your name, and he smelled like a blend of rosemary and river mud and deep BO pheromones,* and he owned a successful vegetarian restaurant with the best salad dressing in all of Los Angeles? If anything, you would use protection and then shudder off the oxytocin rush. But if this were the ’70s, and you were a wandering hippie in search of a higher purpose, you might join him in his mansion in the hills and call him Father Yod. I would not judge you. [*This is speculation]

The Source Family was a spiritual collective — a cult, if you will — of about 140 members, most of them under 30, most of them great-looking. They ate raw food and home-schooled their home-born children; they dressed in beautiful robes and sometimes ate at Chasen’s, where Father Yod would bribe the maitre d’ to seat them next to Ronald Reagan. Father, who cruised around town in a $34,000 Rolls Royce, was keen on “nice things” for the “life trip” and believed that money was “magical green energy that will produce anything for you instantly.” He did not believe in hospitals.

I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not like that. (Actually it is, but there’s more to it.) Father Yod led his family through a life of heavy enlightenment and rigorous hedonism: 4 a.m. meditation sessions invigorated by “Sacred Herb,” sex magic in which men “withheld their seed” (or tried to), as well as psychedelic jam sessions resulting in some very collectible records (and a few memorable performances, including a concert on the lunch patio of Beverly Hills High School in 1973). Lots have been reissued over the years, sparking new waves of interest in the Family and its New Age idyll, and last night a documentary on the Source Family premiered at the IFC Center in advance of screenings nationwide. It follows a book by Isis Aquarian, the Family Historian and Keeper of the Records, with help from Electricity Aquarian, who maintains an intense beard to this day. All of their last names were (legally) Aquarian. Their middle names were “The.” 

Before Father Yod was Father Yod, he was Jim Baker, a judo master and decorated Marine. In the early 1950s, he abandoned his first wife and daughter to ride to Hollywood on a motorcycle and audition for the role of Tarzan. He didn’t get the part, but here are some things he did instead: kill a man, in self-defense, with judo chops; kill a man, in self-defense, with either judo chops or a gun; marry and eventually leave a second wife, Elaine, with whom he’d had three kids and a spiritual awakening; cure a Samoan tribal chief’s ailing daughter through dietary remedies, marry, then leave her; rob “between 2 and 11 banks” to fund his health food restaurants, which were very successful. (Some of these feats are documented; others he only recalled to his spiritual children, in the third person, since the Baker trip was done by then.)

In April 1969, Baker opened the Source Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, where, on a given day, you might find John Lennon or Joni Mitchell scarfing alfalfa sprouts. There, he met a new wife, a 20-year-old named Robin Popper (he was 47), and began holding meditation classes for a growing group of devotees. A spiritual clique began to form, and in 1972, Yod moved everyone into a 15-bedroom manor in Los Feliz. At the “Mother House,” he got way into playing the dad many of his followers never had — tough, loving, exciting, and wealthy — and his “children” thrived in the warm musky glow of his wisdom.

Family life was often blissful, but often intense, and sometimes just dark. According to Omne Aquarian, interviewed in the film, certain magical practices created a “rent in the astral world” and people saw vampires hanging out on the staircase. Dating was complicated: Women chose their partners — for whom they sewed robes, and made coffee, and gave “skilled massages” — but could be “reassigned” to “single sons” according to the dictates of Father, who retitled himself YaHoWha to indicate his godliness. While initially faithful to Robin (Ahom, the Family’s Mother), his eye wandered to a 19-year-old named Susan (Makushla), who remained his Mother/Angel while he accumulated 12 more “spiritual wives.” Robin, in the film: “He might as well have skinned me alive.”

When their lease wasn’t renewed the following year — the LaBianca murders being fresh local history — they found a place closer to the Source Restaurant and called it the “Father House.” Since it was smaller, most had to sleep in stacked cubby holes, which was not copacetic to the authorities. Neither, at the time, was home schooling, or home birthing, or letting kids with bad infections go without medical treatment. When a Source Family baby nearly died of staph in the lungs, the hospital reported them. Soon after that, the Family teachings got deep into apocalypse.

In the fall of 1974, Father announced he was selling the restaurant and moving the Family to Hawaii. “We all sat in shock as he talked about it in the mornings,” Isis writes. “But he would talk for what seemed to be hours of the wonderful fruits that we would soon enjoy in Hawaii and yell, ‘HMMMM!’ after describing each one in detail. Lychees! Mangos! Coconuts!” For a year or so, the Family wandered as their money dwindled: first to Kauai, where the locals despised them; then to San Francisco, which was pricy; and finally back to Hawaii. There, in August 1975, YaHoWha made the fateful decision to hang glide without a lesson. While nobody says this outright, one gets the impression that he was testing himself: If he were God, he would soar, if he were a man, he probably wouldn’t. “I thought that I was going to fly the kite,” he told his children, after landing hard against the beach. “But I guess it was God’s last lesson. He had to teach me.”

Yod did some highly condemnable things. He abandoned partners when it suited him and fucked with girls young enough to be his biological daughters — “I feel like still,” Makushla says, “to this day, I work with not giving my power away to another.” Babies, as well as adults, got dangerously sick and, in at least one case it seems, died without receiving hospital treatment. You can’t really defend any of that, and not all of the Source members interviewed try to: Most seem to remember him fondly, but critically. Lots count the Source Family years among the best of their lives, and only a few say they’d never do it again. Yod is remembered as a Cool Dad. Even Cool Dads can be bad.

Dying might have been the best thing Father Yod ever did for his children. He left the body before things could go too far south, and let most of his followers get on with their lives, though it’s hard to forget Robin weeping next to his picture. The Source experience was total, but ephemeral — a cult, but not one of those killer cults. You find yourself falling hard for the whole experiment, then fighting hard not to yell at the screen. But you leave thinking it might’ve been a far-out way to spend your 20s, considering how most of us spend our 20s.

It feels okay to see the Source Family as kind of a great fantasy, as much now as it was then. Hip 20-somethings don’t really join cults anymore; everyone knows too much to buy into one guy’s idea of utopia. But I think most of us get that yearning, from time to time, for some benevolent overlord to make sense of the world for us. There are people I have exalted as Better Than Me and would have handed my brain over to if they’d deigned to accept it. If my twelfth-grade philosophy teacher had told me to throw out my Polysporin, I might have. Had a certain professor held early-morning economics lectures out of his townhouse, I totally would have gone, and if he’d wanted me for a spiritual wife, I think that would’ve been groovy for about a year. I still like the idea of someone who has all the answers; I just know now that no such person exists.

Furthermore, life in the world of provable phenomena gets dull. There are only so many colors in the spectrum and there are only so many ways to have fun at the bar. If some grandiloquent Santa promised me new colors, plus secret wisdom handed carefully down through the ages, plus a variety of mind-bending experiences — well, I’d love that. But I’d worry about dying or sustaining permanent brain damage. And I’d feel ridiculous at Chasen’s in bare feet. And I couldn’t suppress the knowledge that no human being should have that kind of power over anyone else.

In short, I want to believe. But I can’t. But I loved the movie.


Previously by this author: Talking to My Exes Exes

Alexandra Molotkow is a writer and senior editor at Hazlitt Magazine.

64 Comments / Post A Comment

Valley Girl

I have plans to see this movie at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks! This is making me look forward to it all the more.

The fascination with cults is funny. I totally get it and I'm as fascinated by the People's Temple and Children of God as anybody, but I really hate the Manson worship that's so common. Like, yeah the image of poisoned hippiedom is interesting, but people like to overlook the rancid racism that was also a part of their entire worldview. I went to the Museum of Death this week and they had a Manson room that included the crime scene photos and a giant quilt that was adorably homespun-looking except for that it was covered with swastikas. And I hated that sometime somewhere money exchanged hands for this memorabilia, and I was supporting it with my admission price. But I still looked.


@Valley Girl Right? Racism was essentially Manson's entire ethos; the idea that black people and white people were eventually doomed to engage in war with each other perpetuates some seriously fucked up shit. The one thing that always gets me when I read about the Manson Family is their weird worship of The White Album as prophecy; every time I listen to it I'm like, "THIS is what inspired the most notorious cult in history???"


@cosmia Hey Samuel Huntington had more or less the same idea and he got to teach at Harvard for 10 million years.


@cosmia Have you read Child of Satan, Child of God by Susan Atkins?


Just Cool@l


This looks like a great movie I would totally see. I hope it features that "best salad dressing in Los Angeles" recipe.

tea sonata

Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy
but join my cult, call me Yod, baby.

Count Chocula

This is nuts. But I like the idea of having your middle name be "The"...


@Count Chocula I always though "Fucking" would be a great middle name, e.g.:

"What's your name?" "Count FUCKING Chocula!"


@stuffisthings I know a guy whose middle name is honestly Manley. He doesn't take the chance to declare it nearly often enough.


@Apocalypstick I hope his last name is Mann.

Miss Maszkerádi

@Apocalypstick I know a guy whose middle name, literally and truly, is Stoner.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

The first paragraph grossed me out so much that now I think I'm impervious to cults. An old smelly man asks to sex me? No, thanks.


@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose Asking to sex you while calling you his daughter, no less.


@KatieBarTheDoor That pretty much happened to me on a business trip one time. It was gross.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@KatieBarTheDoor Ugh. Nightmarish. This is also the problem I have with women who call their male sex partners "daddy." Because oh noooooooooooooooooo that's horrible.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@Mira Did he ask you, "You in town for business or pleasure? Do you define pleasure as stinky cult sex?"


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Not a killer cult like the Manson cult but they still denied life-saving medical care to their children, which is also killing. Not a fan.


@ghechr Yeah, right? Maybe the adult twenty-somethings have a generally positive recollection, but I imagine the kids raised there may have a different view.


Just an interesting similarity...

What is it with cults and withholding male orgasm?

My master's thesis was about a male run utopian "cult" of the mid 1800's in upstate NY - The Oneida Community. Anyway, the male members of the Community practiced what they called "male continence," or, male coitus reservatus, as the "healthy" way to have sex and cultivate relationships and, less importantly, as a birth control method.


@ohpioneer I knew those fapsternauts were a cult.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@ohpioneer Maybe it's from that biblical thing about men not spending their seed? Or maybe it's from the man leader of the cult wanting to be the only one to procreate so he tells all the other dudes to keep it in check? Or maybe the cult leader was told at a young age that his sperm emissions were disgusting and sinful? Who really knows.


@ohpioneer apropos, I guess and tmi - my first serious bf used to press a vein in his penis so he wouldn't ejaculate. I've never been with someone since who has known this trick. Is that a thing? Not asking just you, asking the world.

sceps yarx

@ohpioneer I'm guessing it's because cults are about power and control. If you make control and self-denial part of your cult culture, it's easier to maintain control of your people. Also, if the leader is on a power-trip, what better way to prove your power than to be the boss of other dudes' private parts?

does it need saying

@themegnapkin I found out about the pressing thing a while back as some kind of method to avoiding swallowing. Something about the body absorbing any unused sperm anyway. I have no idea where I saw it, but it worked. I haven't done it since. It was just a little off-putting.


I do not want to believe.

I would like that salad dressing recipe, though.


@laurel It might be in this book!

If it's worth the trouble, one could log in and search inside the book.

WAIT! WHOA! Edited to add, I found this statement:
"At one point Baker licensed their famous salad dressing to a manufacturer, and the dressing is actually still on the market to this day under the name Cardini's Lemon Herb dressing." (it's from this piece: http://www.lefthip.com/features/2881). You're welcome.


@Lu2 Thank you! You, I believe in.


@laurel I believe in you, too. And, for the record, I don't emit any pheromones at all, from what I can tell.


Oh man I just remembeerred the people-we-assumed-were-a-cult that used to live across the street form the supermarket - all the dudes were bearded, all the women wore long dresses or skirts and they had a shit-ton of kids - sort of a hipster-Amish vibe. I don't know what their deal was, they seemed quite gentle and didn't really bother recruiting anyone? Wish I'd interrogated them, now.


@iceberg Could your cult possibly have been The Twelve Tribes? They run bakeries and restaurants going by the name of Yellow Deli that have a groovy 70s treehouse vibe. My dad & I unwittingly had dinner with a couple of families belonging to the Tribe, and while they were ever so kind and sweet to us (and very appealingly hippieish) further research into their cherry picked Judaic and Christian fundamentalist belief system revealed some weird underlying sexism, racism, homophobia and general millenarianism- which was a total bummer of a turnoff because I was really into some of their ideas, like simplicity and raw milk and bulk herb collectives. :(


@iceberg Eeeehhh, they're probably just Apostolic or Mennonite.

Sophie Rabbit

I liked Rookie's article on the source family: http://rookiemag.com/2012/06/secret-style-icon-the-source-family-2/


Nnnnnope, benevolent sense-making overload is not on my birthday wishlist ever, thank you.



lucy snowe

@Bloodrocuted But you could throw and or choke someone to death with judo chops, if you interpret "chops" as "skills"-- as in, I have no piano chops.


@lucy snowe I did not know that term, thank you! Yes, maybe he threw someone into something that killed them.


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"Money was “magical green energy that will produce anything for you instantly.” is the best thing I've read/heard in a bit.

lucy snowe

@pajamaralls Isn't that what money is? Seemed accurate to me.

Still doesn't make me want this guy to be my brainwash sex daddy...

Lee Van Queef

I saw that movie a couple years ago at SXSW (if it's the same one). The women Father Yod slept with were not just young enough to be his daughters, they were also underage high school dropouts. Pretty skeezy. The weirdest part is that the director of the movie seemed untroubled by some of the more problematic aspects of their life (which were, in all fairness, really well represented by the film). She even claimed that we could learn from their philosophy, as people like -- and I really don't see the connection there, but whatever -- Steve Jobs did. I left that screening feeling really sick from watching people speak on some of the violations people, particularly the women, suffered during their time there.

The records that that family made are fucking amazing, though.

George Templeton Strong

I once sat next to Ronald Reagan at Chasen's! I was in a cult called Roman Catholicism at the time, so maybe not relevant.


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awesome dating website plugs aside,

"There are only so many colors in the spectrum and there are only so many ways to have fun at the bar"

there is just so so much wrong with this statement. Just because something has not happened yet (what, fly...? Impossible, you crazy fools! Internet video instead of tv? not in our lifetime! ) does not mean ipso facto that it cannot happen. It's true that a lot of social exploration from the fifties (for those early on the curve) and sixties and seventies turned out atrociously smdh badly, but just because they fell back (hard) on old paradigms of power, sexism and utter batcrap weirdness, doesn't mean that there aren't, in fact, more groovy, enlightened ways to live.

That should not be the take away. Bars and freeky cults are not the only two options to engage socially. (Not including shopping and manicures and movies and eating out). It's pretty sad that we don't have more creative alternatives (comic con, I am not looking at you) by this time in our "modern" history. Still though, there's plenty to be amazed at. A whole huge gigantic heck of a lot. A wander thru Ted Talks will quickly show you how super amazing we can be (Amanda Palmer video, I am NOT looking at you, because, Scientology, and also fundamentally so wrong even if it sounds legit - the talk, not Scientology, obvs.) there are just SO MANY super inspiring things we can turn to as touchstones to just how INCREDIBLY WONDEROUSLY fantastical this world can be. On the more simple front.... love, beyond mind-blowingly awesome and cool. Life is much more the shit than we are currently in touch with (culturally... thanks, organized religion and madison avenue and inherent silliness / reptilian brain of the human species) but we shouldn't just accept that life as-it-is is too often less-than-inspiring (or, downright undertow sucky -- hello there too frequent substance abuse seen in bars!) Life is what we make it. This is so much more literally true than we realize. And it is much, much better than "hanging out in bars" (not that that isn't fun sometimes, too). And the colors of life? Fucking mind-blowingly rich. And I don't need a skeezy guy hitting on young ladies while driving a benz to realize it. Although I WILL take yummy healthy food any day of the week! ;)


My uncle and aunt got into this cult in the 1970's, and all their kids (my cousins) were born into it. I guess on the very very very surface there is a sort of cutesy humour to it...but in reality, it was really sad.

I was never close with that side of the family, but on the rare occasions I did see my cousins, they were always sick and physically run down (both from the lack of medical care, and physical abuse...and, frighteningly enough, I also assume other kinds of abuse.) They would devour our National Geographic magazines as soon as their parents weren't around, because they were never allowed to learn about the outside world. They would sing weird little religious songs and rock back and forth constantly, I remember that so vividly. They cried every time they had to leave our house.

I don't want to speculate about...the other kinds of abuse too much, but both of the girls were pregnant by 16 and married by 17, and the boy was also married with kids when he was 17, the mother of his kids was 14 or 15 I believe.

I haven't seen any of them since then. They shipped most of the family to Mexico to do mission work. One girl escaped I think, I hope they're all doing okay.



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