Friday, February 4, 2011

The Farm: Part 1

I realize that many of my posted stories of people who were a part of Therafields have highlighted painful experiences. I believe that it is important for the voices of these people to be heard. At the same time few, if indeed any, of the people with whom I have spoken maintain complete regret about having been a part of the community. At the very least people have expressed gratitude for the friendships that they made and sustained from that time. Many have spoken of things of great value that they learned, sometimes from positive, sometimes from negative experiences. The vast majority of my interviewees spoke of regrets which linger to this day that they were not more energetic about decrying abuses of which they were aware, even if only dimly. There were people who refused to be interviewed when I approached them 14 years ago. Some of these people simply did not want to go back into a place of painful memories which they had put behind them. A few others I believe felt so bitterly about the damage to themselves or to someone in their families that they would not enter into a dialogue with anyone whom they considered to have a more positive view or perhaps was seen to be in some way a part of the problem.

I think unquestionably that some of us were more fortunate than others in what we have taken from the experience. Those who were most injured have been in large part people who in some manner were associated with Lea or her family. I am thinking specifically of the families and their children who were harmed by involvement in Malcolm’s school. Even there, some were more fortunate and the traumas were slighter. There were other men and women who were drawn into involvements with Lea’s daughter to satisfy needs of her own. Then there were those who were caught by Lea’s views and dictums about motherhood and homosexuality. There were people whom Lea lionized and then abandoned as their behaviour or her mood shifted. There were people in Lea’s own inner circle who dedicated themselves to her and her family but who were ultimately left with little. Some of my friends have told me how for years they longed to be close to Lea and to one of the “chosen,” but who now congratulate themselves on having been passed over. To be close to Lea in the 1970s meant being loyal to her personally at the expense of one’s own life and needs. It required a fairly high degree of self-abnegation. To be at the edges of the inner circle was a special place: one had a certain amount of knowledge of what was happening even though the realities were screened through the particular spin of “Lea says.” At the same time one was free of intensive interaction and scrutiny by Lea and able to establish not only various skills but also loyalties and relationships of tremendous value to oneself.

In my last post the discrepancy between what happened at the Willow, Lea’s home, and at Therafields’ farm was mentioned. The farm was purchased in 1967 as a location for marathon work with Lea’s groups. Having a place of our own would allow on-going weekend groups for more intensive therapy than the twice-weekly groups permitted. The work also would be private, not scrutinized by the administration of the various sites where marathons had been previously held. By the early 1970s when the Willow had expanded to become not simply Lea’s home but the locus for most of her work, the farm had also morphed into a space for the performance of functions other than the ones originally conceived. An organic garden was begun and gradually expanded, requiring intensive volunteer labour. Striders, a group formed in 1969 to focus on construction and renovations, was situated at the farm and a building specifically for its use was built. At the same time marathons for most “standard groups” of therapists other than Lea were held at the farm, making use of its facilities and requiring people to provide meals and to clean and care for the premises. A staff living full time at the farm and employed by Therafields gradually evolved to take charge of the garden, the various buildings, and the care and feeding of volunteers and group members who primarily came to the farm on weekends.

A number of the staff came from the group who had been part of the months-long Willow project group that had begun in October, 1971. Some of the group members stayed on after the project wound down and the Willow renovation/construction was concluded. Most had given up their city jobs to remain at the Willow and now wished to continue their close involvement with the farm and the Willow. Remuneration for these positions was modest: room and board as well as a small monthly stipend. Those who stayed on had their own reasons for doing so – a love of the country, a sense of safety at what had become their home, a commitment to Lea and/or the community as a whole, and possibly, an unclear idea of where life might take them if they were to pull away from the closeted life they had been living and move back to the life of regular jobs and house group living.

For most of us involvement at the farm was a regular but partial activity. We had jobs that required our attention during the week. Also those of us in the early learning groups had taken on clients whom we saw for sessions weekly or bi-weekly. Our involvements at the farm consisted of coming for our own groups and of volunteering in the garden, on construction sites, or in the kitchen. A custom was established that members of a therapy marathon one weekend would provide the staff for cooking and cleaning the following weekend. As well a core group of people began to come regularly to the farm on Friday nights, staying until Sunday afternoon, to organize and direct the other volunteers. Tony and Judy most famously led this contingent for at least a year. Others who took charge were Marilyn, Maureen, Lorna, myself, and others, all of whom became accustomed to the routine of the caring for up to 200 people/weekend. It was steady work but often fun and satisfying. We got to meet and spend time with lots of interesting people. On Saturday evenings we would dance to music in the dining room or go out together to the local pub for drinks and music. The farm felt like it was ours because we spent so much time there and contributed such a lot to its functioning.

It was never the same at the Willow. From the fall of 1967 we had done a lot of work fixing up the barn and the farm house for group use and this kind of work continued at the Willow as it went through various expansions and renovations. In the early 1970s from time to time a call would come down to the city on a week-day afternoon, asking for workers for the job site or for a team of women to come up to the Willow to clean. Despite just being home from work a bunch of us would rally, grab a bite to eat, drive up to the Willow, and help out where needed. There was a sense of obligation to help especially when Lea called, as well as a feeling of being close to the “inner sanctum” by being allowed to clean up Lea’s own area, but there was never a real comfort in being there. Learning group meetings took place at the Willow. We would have breaks between sessions there but spend the nights and take most of our meals at the farm. From time to time Lea would cook a meal of fish and chips together with her helpers and we would eat outside on the Willow patio. After my daughter was born in October, 1976, she and I would be given a room at the Willow when we came up for a marathon. I was never comfortable staying there. There was an aura of unreality and tension that I could never quite identify but which I attributed to my own problems. Since I have spoken with many others who had groups there or who worked or stayed there. My own experience was reflected in those of many with whom I conversed.

At the farm the regular weekend menus were fairly simple, even Spartan. Usually lunch consisted of a hearty soup and the famous “Lisa bread,” a dense multi-grain bread made by a local woman. Supper might be baked potatoes, a salad, and perhaps a dessert. As Lea went through various dietary fads, these would be reflected in the menu. However, those of us working in the farm kitchen would be aware that the foods requested and taken down the road to the Willow tended to be more select and varied. Foods consumed at the Willow were paid for out of the same financial pot as those at the farm but there was a definite distinction about who got what. In the next post I will give the experiences of one of the women who worked at the farm for a number of years. She was in a location to experience many of the changes that occurred at the farm and the Willow over the years.

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