Curse of the hippie parents

Benign neglect and noodle dancing to Ravi Shankar do not a healthy childhood make.

Published August 22, 2001 7:18PM (EDT)

One summer when I was 10 or 11, a boy I'll call Jackson befriended my brother and came over to our house frequently to play in our pond. After a few hours of splashing around, naked as usual, we went up to the house to dry off and have something to eat. Jackson plopped down on my mom's platform rocker, grabbed his penis and started to masturbate.

"Hey!" I yelled, and threw a pillow at him. "Don't do that right in front of everybody!"

"My mom says, 'If it feels good, do it,'" he said, whacking away.

If it feels good, do it: a rallying cry of the '60s and the root of a lot of really awful parenting. Jackson may have been admirably comfortable with his body, but like many children of hippie parents, he was in the dark about some very basic social rules, such as the one that says don't jack off in public.

Growing up with no boundaries will do that to you. In their effort to raise children without inhibitions, my parents and their peers eschewed the teachings of Benjamin Spock and went for a more anarchic, Fellini-esque parenting approach. Sometimes this meant noodle dancing to Ravi Shankar into the wee hours of a school night, or spending whole days swimming naked and gorging on blackberries. But there was a dark side to this intoxicating rejection of rules and boundaries. With everyone embracing spontaneity and the mandates of the id, there was no one left to assume the adult role. People like my parents may have had the best of intentions, but in a wide-eyed quest for social change, they became children. And their actual children suffered as a result.

Sure, the benign neglect of hippie parenting had some side benefits. If you wanted to stay home from school, you could -- as long as you had a really good excuse, such as, "I just can't get behind school today, Mom." Hippie kids also got to run around in the woods a lot, without being overly burdened by Establishment concepts like sunscreen or mosquito repellent. My mom took me on long walks, taught me to find wild huckleberries and to weave baskets out of sticks. She woke us up at midnight for impromptu waffle feasts. If we found something cool, like a dead dragonfly or a weird mushroom, she would be just as curious and amazed as we were. She was convinced magic existed, and since she was our mom, we absolutely believed it. That was wonderful.

However, the hippie creed of "no rules, no limits" combined with a horror of hypocrisy sent groovy parents skidding down a dangerously slippery child-rearing slope. If you smoke pot, what are you going to do when your kids ask to try it? It would be hypocritical not to let them. And if pot's OK, why not mushrooms or acid? If you tell your kids sexual expression is great, and you yourself frequently "ball" (to use the mot juste) with abandon, how do you explain to your daughter that it's not OK for some crusty old guy at a Grateful Dead show to feel her up in the child-care tipi? The old standby "It's wrong because I said so" was out, because they'd taught us from birth that such a statement is fascistic. So, to avoid the hypocrisy of potentially arbitrary limits, hippie parents placed few or none.

And kids need limits. Someone in the family unit has to take the adult role, preferably the adults themselves. On the commune, I actually begged my mom for rules. "Let's have a rule where kids have to go to bed at a certain time every night!" I said. Or, "Let's have a rule that says children should be seen and not heard!" I think I'd read that in Dickens. It sounded like a great idea to me, not because I had some freakish desire to be silent, but because I knew I could never live up to it and then perhaps I'd be punished. I longed for discipline, for someone to tell me, "That's quite enough of that, young lady!"

But in the hippie days, discipline was out, and wild Dionysian revelry was in. I can't remember the first time I smoked pot, though I do remember getting a joint for my 7th birthday, all wrapped up in a pink ribbon. And the love was certainly what they called "free." My mom tells me it was considered impolite not to sleep with someone when they asked politely. People would pair up, naturally, but relationships were strained by the constant lure of extracurricular screwing. The repression and conservatism of the '50s were rejected with a vengeance, and people coupled and separated and regrouped like pornographic square-dancers.

This was presented to the children as the natural order of things, but we knew there was something wrong. For one thing, a dizzying number of people were always coming and going. Sometimes they'd say goodbye to the kids who had grown attached to them, sometimes not. We were terribly hurt when people we loved just up and left, and we were embarrassed by all the unfettered humping. Adults seemed so ridiculous with their balling and their toking and their weird wiggly dancing to the Grateful Dead. One evening at the commune, the grownups took Quaaludes or mescaline or something, and they all ended up in a big horny, writhing, drugged-out mass on the living room floor. At some point, my mom says, they heard an angry little throat-clearing sound. They looked up, and I was standing in the doorway, fists on my hips, glaring at them. "What exactly do you think you are all DOING?" I yelled.

Things weren't much better when my brother and I visited our father in San Francisco. Despite fairly clear evidence of some early heterosexuality, Dad had always had homosexual leanings. Just as the hippies violently rejected social norms at least partly in response to straitlaced convention, my father exploded out of the closet like a rocket fueled by repressed yearning. With the gay sexual revolution in San Francisco, he was finally free to express that side of himself openly. This was a wonderful thing, but the effects of it were confusing and bizarre for my brother and me. With him, the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name became the Love That Would Not Shut Up.

My father marched, he swung, he went to bars, he talked incessantly about his sexual experiences, and he left copies of Torso and Honcho strewn liberally about his Victorian house in the Haight. At first, my brother and I thought they were just some kind of new mainstream magazine. Certainly, they weren't any more male-centric than Time or Life. Thus misled, we spent many a frustrating hour trying to figure out what was so funny about Tom of Finland cartoons.

Confusingly enough, Dad also had some straight porn as well. I can kind of track his acceptance of his gayness over time by the dwindling ratio of Penthouses to Honchos. By the time I was 9 or 10, he was full-strength, concentrated, half-a-cup-does-the-whole-load gay, and living with a really nice guy named -- I'm not making this up -- Randy.

On arriving at his house for a visit, after months of cultural deprivation up in the boonies, my brother and I would drop our duffel bags at the door and head for the television like patients in an obsessive/compulsive ward. We had lots of cultural reference catching-up to do, and devoured the subtleties of "The Brady Bunch" and "Speed Racer."

The trouble really started when Dad got a VCR. He quickly amassed a large collection of movies, most of them pirated and hand-labeled, and he didn't bother to segregate the porn. Some, like "The Young and the Hung," were easy to avoid. Others were more worrying. My brother and I would consult each other over ambiguous titles like "12 Angry Men." We finally got up the courage to watch that one, but no way were we going near "The 400 Blows." We loved "Arsenic and Old Lace," but it was kept right next to "Run, Little Sailor Boy, Run." Once we put in the wrong tape, and were treated to the sight of a guy being fellated in an alley. "I don't think that's Alec Guinness," said my brother.

The open sexuality and lack of boundaries of the hippie era, which many parents thought would encourage their children to be happy little free spirits, often had diametrically opposite results. At age 8, I had a big crush on a commune guy I'll call Bill. That crush included sexual fantasies. I had just learned about rape, by overhearing someone tell a joke about it. They made it sound like a fun game, and I decided I wanted to try it with Bill. I went and found him, and told him I wanted to rape him. "OK," he said.

I took him into the kids' building. He took off all his clothes and lay down. He had an erection. I took mine off too and lay down on top of him. He kissed and fondled me. After a while, he got up, kissed me on the top of the head and thanked me. I felt confused and embarrassed.

Over the years, I had many inappropriate sexual experiences, with different partners and levels of interest on my part. The confusion and embarrassment were a constant. Even in less ambiguous situations in which I was exploited by predatory adults, I blamed myself for what happened. I had been raised to think that saying no was uncool, and that my body was up for grabs.

The worst part was that even when I was really uncomfortable with a sexual situation, I would sometimes respond sexually. This sent me into an abyss of self-loathing before I grew up and learned that children naturally have sexual feelings, and that they can arise even when the child is scared and unwilling.

My parents wanted to raise a happy, sexually liberated free spirit. I took the "free" part to heart, anyway. By the time I hit puberty I was already sexually jaded. I can't remember not knowing what went where, complete with variations and sub-routines. From age 11 until I whipped up a new batch of self-esteem in my late 20s, I slept with so many people that I lost count at around 150. To this day, I can be standing at the sink washing a dish, woolgathering, and something will trigger a memory of a long-forgotten sexual encounter: the guy I slept with in the bathroom of a Greyhound bus, or the taxi driver I screwed for the sole reason that he had a cute Irish accent and I had no money for a tip.

I slept with my friends' boyfriends, or their fathers, just because they asked. I alienated a lot of people, mostly women. I was lucky to dodge the scarier of the venereal diseases, but I got a lot of urinary tract infections and had a few unplanned pregnancies. Hey, man -- love the one you're with. Right. Im pretty sure that an overfamiliarity with Bactrim and cannulae is not the beautiful expression of sexuality the hippies had in mind when they rejected traditional parenting.

But all this has a happy ending. Paradoxically, the dangerous freedom I was raised with was the thing that allowed me to rebuild my self-esteem and set boundaries for myself. I had been told for so long I could be anything I wanted to be that I finally figured out I could, by that same token, get over the anger I had for my parents. They had no childraising instruction manual, and they lived through one of the most turbulent, strange times in our country's history.

In the course of working on this, I finally found ways to shock my mother. At one point I decided to become a lawyer, and when I told Mom, she looked stricken. "Oh, no! Anything but that!" she said. "Honey, be a painter or a poet or something else instead!" I felt like a tax-payin,' job-havin' James Dean. All I have to do to freak out my Mom is work too hard, or mention my 401K.

Now Im 35 and happily engaged to a wonderful man I've been with for five years. Life is good. I impose boundaries on myself and try to stick to them despite an innate rambunctiousness that won't quite go away. I love my mom, who lives close by, and I live right next door to my "other mom," a woman we met on the commune, who helped raise my brother and me and is now my best friend.

People who were raised by hippies are writing books now, and I'm finding out how common my experiences were. Chelsea Cain's excellent collection of essays, "Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counterculture," is full of stories similar to my own. I've interviewed a lot of ACHs (Adult Children of Hippies), and we all pretty much agree: Loved the God's eyes and the baby goats; hated the lack of Lucky Charms, boundaries and discipline. We have nice traits in common, like adaptability, resourcefulness and a tendency to be more open-minded than not. But we are all a little bit control-freakish, and we have no patience for people who romanticize the hippie era uncritically. An accidental Wavy Gravy sighting can send us into a frothing rage.

Which brings me to why Im writing this. In the past few years, hippie culture has had something of a revival. Hippie music, hippie clothes, hippie politics, even hippie hairdos are big. More and more, I see VW buses with cedar peaked-roof add-ons, lumbering up Highway 1 on their way to Reggae on the River, the happy scruffy singing hippies inside dandling little newborns in tie-dyed Garanimals.

It isn't surprising that in an era tinged with the paranoid ultraconservatism of the '50s, people seem to want back some of the '60s freedom and revolutionary feeling. The George W. Bush presidency is almost enough to make me sell everything and buy one of those buses myself. Almost.

Growing out of the anger I felt has allowed me to admit that I also long for some of the feeling of that age, but I don't want nouvelle-hippie parents to make the same mistakes with their kids that the first hippies did. Once you have kids, finding yourself should never trump the goal of giving your kids a safe, thoughtfully limited environment.

So this is a cautionary tale. Go ahead, eat carob. Weave your own dashiki. Get off the grid. Open your mind to new experiences. But when your microbus pulls into the festival lot, don't drop acid and ditch your daughter at the child-care tipi. Sometimes your mind can be so open, your brain falls out.

By Sarah Beach

Sarah Beach is a writer living in Berkeley, Calif.

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