This sex-loving Bay Area town is still going strong
It was also the time when high-level evangelists were pushing for the expansion of human consciousness. Former Harvard Professor Timothy Leary urged young people to take psychedelic drugs and “turn on, listen and give up”. Meanwhile, former self-taught car salesman Werner Erhard promoted an intense seminar program called ESTdesigned to bring about personal transformation.
In 1967, at the intersection of the communes, the human potential movement and the rise of these charismatic gurus, appeared the founder of Morehouse: Victor Baranco.
“Victor Baranco was one of the teachers who came up with a philosophy that helped people realize themselves or reach their human potential,” said Laurie Rivlin-Heller, who knew Baranco in the 1970s when she lived in the Morehouse residences in Oakland and Parc Rohnert. Later, she wrote her master’s thesis on the groupwhich was originally called the Human Capabilities Institute.
Baranco was a former appliance salesman now selling a new philosophy, where the goal, basically, was to remove the self-created barriers between you and what you want. And he was good at pulling people into his orbit.
“You would attend a class that he was teaching,” Rivlin-Heller said. “And he would be able to see you in a way that most people aren’t able to. Not only did he listen, but he watched and he could assess based on your question and maybe a few questions. tracking wherever you came from. It was a unique gift.
Baranco’s group made money selling yards and renovating run-down houses they had purchased. The Morehouse concept was so successful that at one point it had dozens of affiliates across the country, and Rolling Stone reported whom the people of Berkeley called the founder “Colonel Sanders of the communal scene”.
This 1971 article was far from glowing, depicting Baranco driving in a chauffeured limo surrounded by obsequious worshipers who paid money to hear him deliver homemade homilies. Baranco was also quoted as acknowledging that he had been a “scam artist” who made “a lot of money in a sleazy way. Not necessarily illegal, but shady”, including selling fake diamond rings and watches. The article later appeared in a book called ‘Mindfuckers’ alongside a chapter on Charles Manson – not a good look for a township leader.
Rivlin-Heller said the article missed the point of Baranco’s philosophy.
“He put it all out there,” she said. “The introductory course at Morehouse is called the ‘Mark Group’, where you are the mark. So there was no denying that he had organized a commotion, but you were willing, entering the commotion and participating in it. Those that I know, [they] had a good experience there…and if they didn’t feel they were getting value, they would leave.
Another former Morehouse adherent, Rebekah Beneteau, said she took many classes at the Lafayette property in the 1990s and also lived with her then-husband Marco in a Yonkers, New York , Morehouse. She described her time there as “a truly life-changing experience”.
“I call them the silver lining people,” Beneteau said, “because their philosophy and their approach to life was to always see everything as if it were a gift and their own creation. “use? How could they see it as already perfect, including the potential for change?”
One of the main components of the Morehouse philosophy, according to the two Beneateaus, is that a community works best when its women are happy.
Rebekah Beneteau said while the Morehouses clearly had a money-making component, she never felt like they were taking advantage of her.
“I’ve actually been affiliated with a lot more organizations that are a lot more pushy and suck your money,” she said.
So what is sex?
Lafayette Morehouse describes his philosophy as “responsible hedonism”.
“Hedonism is an ethical viewpoint that has the pursuit of pleasure as its highest goal,” the group writes on its website. “People often think that living pleasantly means you don’t care about anyone else. Our experience has proven that if you want to have a pleasant life, you have to make sure that others around you also live pleasantly.”
Much of Morehouse’s hedonistic doctrine seems to involve having better sex. The group currently has nine courses advertised on its website.
The focus on sex is reflective of the culture at the time Morehouse was founded, Rivlin-Heller said. Baranco, then in his thirties, saw a way for people his age and older to participate in the sexual revolution that was happening around them.
“All these different gurus had different hooks,” Rivlin-Heller said. “Ram Dass was into meditation and chanting and Buddhism. Esalen had a humanistic psychology. So the sexual revolution, I guess you would say, was the hook for Victor Baranco.”
A notorious Morehouse event was a public demonstration in 1976, of what the group claimed was a woman having a three-hour orgasm. (No, I couldn’t find any videos.) And Baranco took advantage of California’s loose post-secondary education standards to turn the township of Lafayette into “More University,” which offered doctorates in the humanities and sensuality, and conducted what the organization said was sexual research. In 1992, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that courses cost up to $16,800. A 1994 profile of the University of the conservative magazine Heterodoxy describes a not very rigorous academic programto say the least, as well as some alleged disturbing sexual incidents, although no arrests or charges were ever made.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Baranco unsuccessfully sued The Chronicle and The Contra Costa Times for libel. A court ruling is unsafe reading for the job: According to the court, More University’s advanced sensuality course included research on “engorgement, lubrication, seminal secretion.” He said one of the aims of the course was to “make friends with another crotch”. The university was forced to close in 1997.
Rebekah Beneteau, at least, thinks Morehouse did legitimate sexual research.
“There are many people now who teach [the one-hour orgasm] whether or not they attribute it to them,” she said. “They have a technique that allowed me to get much more into my body instead of always being in my head.”
For a whole hour?
“Not yet, but I’ve reached 27 minutes,” she said.
A Facebook Live video of Lafayette Morehouse discussing their approach to community life and COVID-19.
Fear of what is different
From the 1970s through the early 1990s, Lafayette Morehouse engaged in an ongoing battle with the county and neighbors over zoning issues and code violations, including allowing homeless people to live on the property in tents.
Tim Miller, the historian of intentional communities, said it is not uncommon for commons to be unpopular among local residents.
“It’s a very typical thing that’s happened throughout history,” he said. “There seems to be an instinctive fear in a lot of people of anything new or different.”
Miller said the remaining ’60s communes are “often pretty quiet. They don’t want to draw attention to themselves, even though they get along with their neighbors and stuff. [But] the big problem they have over and over again are zoning laws [that] often prohibit living together.”
Survive the decades
Baranco died in Hawaii in 2002, and since then Lafayette Morehouse has been virtually free of controversy. The great wave of communes of the 1960s eventually dissipated, leaving only a small fraction of the surviving groups.
“A friend of mine, who still lives in one of the 60s communes, said that when their community had a big out-migration in the 80s, he thought some of them just decided they were Republicans, after all,” Meunier said.
It’s hard to say why Morehouse outlasted her peers, but Rebekah Beneteau said Morehouse figured out how to make group life work. During the coronavirus pandemic, the group hosted a webcast where they described the difficulty of living in a close community with so many people during a pandemic. But true to their “silver lining” philosophy, they were looking for ways the experience could actually improve their lives.
Not a bad goal, really.