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Six Years with God: The Trials and Legacy of the Source Family

The Source Family by Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille. 2013. Drag City Film Distribution.
The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wha 13 and The Source Family by Isis & Electricity Aquarian. 2007. Process Media. ISBN 0976082293 —

Everyone remembers the high-vibration rainbow salad sprinkled with kindness and brewer’s yeast, served to John Lennon or Warren Beatty sitting on paisley throw pillows, by flaxen-haired girls too young to remember a time before birth control pills. Or Woody Allen ordering a plate of mashed yeast in Annie Hall. Or the 4AM chanting sessions in the room out back, led by giant bearded man in the blinding white robe who spoke with the voice of God in the eternal now.

1970. While many in the hippie movement were still reeling and disillusioned by Altamont, the Jesus Movement was thriving countrywide, Feraferia were worshiping the goddess and publishing The 7th Ray, Lester Kinsolving was beginning to smell a rat at The Peoples Temple, and hundreds more communes, societies, orders, and neo-churches were sprouting, each with its own promise for the true believer. Men and women from all across the country were still arriving by the VW busload, turning on, tuning in, dropping out, planning utopian communities and rock festivals, and reading esoterica voraciously. Health food stores and restaurants were capitalizing on an increasing interest in organic and unprocessed foods, veganism, and Ayurvedic -style cleansing. No surprise then that spiritual consciousness, health food and the commune lifestyle would come together. Surprising maybe is that they were brought together most convincingly by a decorated Marine and war veteran, Judo champion and legendary restaurateur who was already a multi-millionaire. Jim Baker (later YaHoWha), owner of The Source restaurant on the Sunset Strip at Sweetzer, corralled, in the end, 140 spiritual devotees into a single well-groomed, well-disciplined home in the Hollywood Hills and became their Father.

That the most important of all late 60s/early 70s spiritual cults has escaped, or resisted, serious critical review until now is testament both to its secrecy and to having not ended with a mass or clarifying tragedy a la Jonestown or 3301 Waverly Drive. A new documentary film by Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille, titled simply The Source Family, and book compiled by family members Isis and Electricity, provide the first critical companions to this unique and influential phenomenon. It has to be seen to be believed.

Baker was the owner of the Aware Inn, possibly America’s first organic food restaurant on Sunset Blvd in the 50s, followed by the Discovery Inn in Topanga, and the Old World Restaurant, before opening The Source in 1969. Baker, having grown up in Ohio, was inspired by Paul Bragg in his early days, and later by the Nature Boys, but a morally wholesome lifestyle was not concomitant with his diet. Baker robbed at least two banks to fund his restaurants, was charged twice with murder, and was acquitted, ultimately, both times on grounds of self-defense. It did not end there. Baker was fascinated by the Flower Power movement. And with the speed and acid. Like many in those days whose personalities unraveled, he turned to deep and unconventional religious practice. Baker found Yogi Bhajan and through his devotion became a practitioner of Kundalini Yoga. As a devotee of the infamous yogi, Jim became a Sikh and in so doing stopped cutting his hair, beard and dressed in all white. (Later would have the original members of his Family convert to Sikhism so as to be protected under their religious codes.)

Jim opened The Source restaurant at 8301 Sunset Boulevard on April 1st, 1969 and served a strictly vegetarian, and mostly raw and organic menu, fresh-squeezed juices, large salads, and deserts without processed sugar—things which today are available everywhere. He played The Moody Blues, lit candles and incense, and hired many fresh, devoted, and beautiful young people to work there. The Source Family grew out of The Source restaurant’s original staff and their healthy living philosophy. Soon it grew into a unique spiritual practice patched together from Manly P. Hall, Watts, Krishnamurti, Kundalini yoga, Essenism, Masonism, Atlaneanism, and Judeo-Christian traditions. Unlike Yogi Bhajan’s ‘let’s build a drug free nation’, the Source Family was anti-ascetic movement which turned sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll into a discipline. They were instruments for the express (if not amorphous) purpose of ushering in an evolutionary quantum leap into the Age of Aquarius, whose saints the Family members would become. After travelling in India for three months with Yogi Bhajan, Jim recognized that the yogi would never become the world’s next spiritual Father, and that he, Jim, would have to fulfill this vital role. In 1971 he self-published Liberation, in which he included the Ten Aquarian Commandments. Jim returned from India with the conviction that he could graft the wisdom of the East with the love vibrations of the West to bring about the Age of Aquarius. His Family was the first drops, preceding the monsoon to come. Like all spiritual movements, the social and literary chemistry can be just right for a few searchers, but like all mass movements centered on a charismatic individual, the individual inevitably becomes the center of everything.

In March 1972, the nascent Family moved into the Mother House in Los Feliz, to and from which The Source restaurant staff could easily commute by vehicle or on foot. It was at this time the Source Family began in earnest. Jim lived with his young wife Robin[1] (rechristened Ah-Om) in the loft above the restaurant. It was during this time the Family members, who numbered nearly 100, marched down en masse to the Social Security Office and changed their first names to hippie-monikers given to them by Father, and surnames to Aquarian. Unlike so many starving communes, The Source restaurant was grossing millions of dollars a year and so everyone was well provided for. Most members of the Family would agree these initial years were some of the best of their lives, in terms of awakening and togetherness. Father’s unique combination of strict discipline and free love made the Mother House an appealing destination for many lost souls and truth-seekers, willing to give up all their worldly possessions.

It is not too difficult to identify the turning points from which the Family began to disintegrate arguably well before its time. Although the Sixth Commandment for the Age of Aquarius indeed read ‘The man and his woman are one, let nothing separate them’, Father’s introduction of the polygamous practices into the Family left many, especially women, reeling, wondering about their part in the fantasies of a fifty year old man made manifest. Some left. Others stayed but harbored an acute disrespect for Father. This change, compounded by the loss of their lease at the Mother House due to neighborly anxiety after the Tate-LaBianca murders nearby, saw the Family—all 140 members—forced into the three-bedroom/three-bathroom Father House. Also at this time the Family members began to refer to Jim as God (YaHoWa). There were investigations the sheriff’s department into teenage runaways being harbored at the Father House. All this and more precipitated the sale of The Source restaurant and the Family’s move to Kauai with intentions to open an international health spa, schools, farms, and healing centers. None of which would ever come to pass. The hippies and their spiritual experiments weren’t welcome in conservative Hawaii. The police tailed them, no one would hire them. They were confused for the Manson Family. Soon the bullets came flying and Father felt compelled to arm the increasingly paranoid and emotionally unraveling Family members. This was the point at which Jim Jones and 912 Peoples Temple members would inject themselves with poison and drink laced Kool-Aid three years later.

Instead, Father told his little birds to fly out of the nest, that he had nothing left to teach. He was not God, but a man, a man frustrated by political impossibilities and grievous mistakes. A man who on August 25th 1975 decided to go hang gliding at the Makapuu Cliffs, without any lessons in how to hang-glide. He must have known how it would end.

The question which always plagues communes and families led by an autocratic and self-proclaimed spiritual guru is whether he, or she, is to be considered a consummate con-artist or a sincere spiritualist, or both, and if both, how? According to Electricity, it was common in those days not to have a close relationship with one’s father, hence the appeal of a tall, mirthful, protecting, generous man who welcomed you home. This film, and book, would suggest Jim Baker worked too hard to be a con-man in an environment where less should have been more. And yet he also could have pursued his own awareness without marrying fourteen young beautiful women. The answer to the question should maybe seen less in terms of personality and more in terms of cultural production and legacy. Not least of the Family’s legacy is some 65 albums’ worth of the most mainlined, complex, rich, free, highly influential, and even more highly coveted record albums of the psychedelic era. Several have been reissued in the past few years. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the Family private archives, compiled carefully and dutifully over the years by Isis, at Father’s behest. Without access to it, the story of this remarkable film and book about a remarkable American phenomenon would have been impossible.

In spite of whatever religious freedoms there may be, communal living experiments have always had a rough go in America, where the nuclear family is considered a morally tested social fact. That some communes continue to burn in the fires of Jonestown and Heavens’ Gate is never measured against the similar fate of so many nuclear and extended American families. No argument is made against the long-term stability of the nuclear family in the name of John List or the Barkers. Communal life, far from being a social experiment peculiar to the late 60s and early 70s, saw itself stigmatized in those years by some of the behaviors associated with it. The smells of blood and patchouli were made inseparable to some on a few desperate and mysterious nights. And yet fraternities, sororities, retirement homes, military barracks, and psychiatric institutions are all forms of communal life. As this remarkable film and book demonstrate, had the Source Family not been suffocated, their contributions to American culture might have reached beyond organic grocery stores, natural birthing, and Saturday Night Live parodies. Many members have found great success as green builders, farmers, designers, artists, and millionaire entrepreneurs, and many consider their lives still to be guided by Father’s life and teachings. Many remain in contact with one another, and many claim to still be carrying on with The Work.

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[1] Legend has it that after months of hounding, Robin, then 20 years old, finally consented to go out with Jim (who was 47) one night, forfeiting her planned visit to her friend Sharon Tate. Jim and Robin spent that night—Aug 8th, 1969—together. When, the next day, they read in the newspaper about the fate Robin had escaped her devotion to him was cemented.

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