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A home unlike all others

In the 1970s, cultists dropped out and tuned in to a guru called Father Yod.

August 19, 2007|Steffie Nelson | Special to The Times

Earlier this summer, almost 100 psychedelic music fans, subculture aficionados, students of the occult and local literati climbed the flower-petal-strewn steps of publisher couple Jodi Wille and Adam Parfrey's Silver Lake home for a salon celebrating the upcoming publication of "The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, YaHoWa 13 and the Source Family" (Process), the definitive history of a mystical cult that thrived in Los Angeles between 1970 and 1974. The book's author, Isis Aquarian (formerly Charlene Peters), had flown in from Hawaii, and Family members Omne, Magus, Electra and Orbit, all of whom are now in their 50s and 60s, had also come to share stories.

During a Q&A session, they good-naturedly addressed whether they'd been brainwashed ("Absolutely!" said Orbit, who now goes by David) and answered questions about Dionysm, the form of tantric sex they'd practiced.

"I'm ready to join right now!" announced one attendee, no doubt echoing the sentiments of many who wistfully longed for a time when Utopia was, if not entirely feasible, at least on the agenda.

Imagine your fantasy commune, the one you'd find only in the movies, where everyone is young and beautiful; the clothes are fabulous; the leader benign; and home is a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Chances are it probably looks a lot like the Source Family, whose 140 members "dropped out" right in the middle of Los Angeles. Led by a bearded, hunky, 6-foot-3 former war hero who called himself Father Yod and, later, YaHoWha, this vibrant group of men and women embarked on a wild social experiment, turning all their material possessions over to the group and supporting themselves serving gourmet vegetarian cuisine at their popular Sunset Strip restaurant, the Source. Living communally in a Los Feliz mansion owned by the Chandler family (former owners of this newspaper) and then in a house built by Catherine Deneuve, many of them formed polyamorous relationships; not surprisingly, the most extreme example was Father Yod, who took 14 "spiritual wives."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 22, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page News Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
The Source: A photo caption with an article in Sunday's Arts & Music section about the early 1970s Los Angeles cult the Source misidentified a modern photograph of Isis Aquarian as that of Jodi Wille. Aquarian also appeared in a second photograph, from 1973.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 26, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part Page Calendar Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
The Source: A caption with an article last Sunday about the early-1970s Los Angeles cult the Source misidentified a modern photograph of Isis Aquarian as Jodi Wille. Aquarian also appeared in a second photograph, from 1973.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 26, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page News Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
The Source: A photo caption with an article in the Aug. 19 Arts & Music section about the early 1970s Los Angeles cult the Source misidentified a modern photograph of Isis Aquarian as that of Jodi Wille. Aquarian also appeared in a second photograph, from 1973.

Notwithstanding the group's visible presence in Hollywood (brothers and sisters could often be seen strolling en masse down Sunset, Atlantean robes and hair a-flowing), extensive media coverage, and the catalog of music they recorded as YaHoWa 13 -- legendary among connoisseurs of psychedelic rock -- the Source story has remained untold for 30 years. This is partly because of a vow of secrecy taken by all members, but more likely it's a reflection of their confusion and even shame about the communal experience, for which American society gave them only one place to file: in the freaky hippie bin.

Wille, who edited the book and is also at work on a Source Family documentary, believes cults are due for a second look. "They have yet to be reassessed since the anti-cult backlash of the '70s," she noted. "What people of our generation don't realize is that our impressions have been formed by the images that have been repeated in the mass media." Indeed, who can link California and cult without envisioning Charles Manson? Wille admitted that even her perceptions were affected by this conditioning when she first saw pictures of the Source Family in the late '90s. "I thought, 'cool, creepy cult!' Because that was my mind-set back then."

Despite the trend toward collective living among senior citizens today, to say nothing of the mainstreaming of organic food and alternative medical practices, both integral to the Source way of life, these negative images and ideas continue to be upheld in books such as T.C. Boyle's "Drop City" and the memoir "My Life in Orange" by Tim Guest, or two new documentaries: "Join Us" (by "Dig!" director Ondi Timoner) and "Children of God." Of course, those perspectives remain valid, but what about the stories that don't detail abuse?

According to Erik Davis, author of "The Visionary State: A Journey Through California's Spiritual Landscape," who also wrote "The Source's" introduction, "For the most part, small sectarian religious movements don't leave any mark on the larger culture unless they fulfill the archetype and something really bad happens. Everybody knows about the Branch Davidians, Heaven's Gate, the Manson Family, Jim Jones. But there are myriad groups of that size or even larger that are actually influential on the culture in small ways.

"There isn't really a model of a successful, creative, alternative religious sect in the general mind-set. It doesn't exist as a category, so that when there is one, it's hard to figure out where to put it. It has to be kitsch, at best, or it has to be kind of dangerous."

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