Her name was Marian Weiss, she was 23, and filled with the dewy-eyed idealism of being an antipoverty worker from Long Island armed only with a bachelor's degree in social work. She spent her days trying to help pregnant teen-agers who were poor, unmarried and scared, and her nights surrounded by her college friends, drinking in bars and trying to figure out what kind of person she wanted to become.
That was three years ago. Today she calls herself Orion, and instead of filling out caseworker reports and making dinner for three roommates in a Buffalo apartment, she milks cows and cooks for 76 over a huge, black castiron stove in the kitchen of Twin Oaks, the thriving commune in central Virginia she now calls home.
"I wasn't helping anyone as a social worker because it seemed like the government's intention was just to control," said Orion, who was reared in an upper-class home where dancing lessons, art classes and summer camp were a way of life. "One of my roommates heard about Twin Oaks through Communities [the bi-monthly magazine the commune publishes] and I came down to visit, and then I went back to Buffalo, thought about it for a while and decided to join."
"At first I was pretty lonely because I'd left my friends behind on the outside and hadn't formed another support group." she recalled. During those early days at Twin Oaks, she spent her free time alone, taking long, melancholy walks in the woods or sitting on the loft bed in her small private room, sketching or reading.
"I joined sort of on instinct. I've always wanted to live in the country, I like being with a whole group of people and I really didn't want to live on the outside any more," said Orion, who wears overalls, flowered shirts and muddy work boots, instead of the tailored sweaters and designer jeans her baffled parents "try to ply me with when I come home."
"I was really afraid I'd get into a cycle of making money and wanting more things, and then I'd become a full member of a society I don't like," she said. "I wanted to remain on the fringe and keep my radical perspective." s
Ever since Twin Oaks was founded in 1967, people have been coming to it to do precisely that. More than 300 people, most of them, like Orion, white and middle-class, have lived in this commune since it was founded by eight people who fled straight lives in Atlanta and Washington. Their intent was to replicate the good life and egalitarian society detailed in B.F. Skinner's utopian novel, "Walden Two."
While Twin Oaks has strayed far from the mechanistic world Skinner envisioned, its basic ideals still consist of equality, sharing, concern for ecology and nonviolence. And while an ideology generally considered a relic of the 1960s still attracts many to this remote and bucolic 450-acre commune 100 miles south of Washington, the other reasons people join are as varied as the lives they left behind.
"Some people join because it's a small enough pond for them to be a big frog in," said Kathleen (Kat) Kindade, 50, one of the original founders whose steely determination to make Twin Oaks work is considered the reason it survived the early crises that killed so many other communes.
For others Twin Oaks is a psychological "safe house," a place to weather the turbulence of youth and the ravages of a mid-life crisis, postpone a career decision, find love or experience sexual freedom.
"Twin Oaks is a first-class mating society," said Kinkade, now a computer programmer in Boston. "You can move from one relationship to another and there's the sheer availability of all these unmarried people, including a lot of the visitors." More than 800 people visit Twin Oaks each year, on tours that must be prearranged.
But sometimes the very things that lure people to Twin Oaks are the ones that ultimately drive them away.
"Some people meet someone, fall in love and leave, and some are broken-hearted and leave," said Josie Kinkade, 28, Kat Kinkade's daughter and the only original member still at Twin Oaks. "Jealousy is one of the hardest problems we have to deal with."
Although there are a few married or monogamous couples, virtually all Twin Oaks residents are single. Some are homosexual, some are celibate. There is at least one divorced couple and several whose long-time relationships dissolved shortly after their arrival.
Will Stewart, 30, joined Twin Oaks six years ago with Laurel, his honey-haired high school sweetheart from South Carolina, who attended Sweet Briar College when he went to Duke University and then lived with him for five years in Chapel Hill. Will was working as a caretaker on a farm and flirting with the idea of attending graduate school in English literature, and Laurel was working as a hostess at a Holiday Inn, when they decided to visit friends near Louisa.
"Our lives seemed idyllic in some ways, but I didn't really feel stimulated," said Will, who has sky-blue eyes, dimples, wears a tiny, thunderbird-shaped silver-and-turquoise earring, and ties his thinning shoulder-length brown hair in a ponytail.
During that trip they heard about Twin Oaks, visited the commune, and moved in several months later. Four months after their arrival they broke up, a memory that is still visibly painful for Will. Even so, both still live at Twin Oaks. Will is one of the three planners who make most of the decisions at the commune. Laurel left for a year after the breakup, but then returned.
"When we came, the sentiment was that monogamy wasn't cool, it wasn't communal," said Will, the son of a plumber who grew up in a small, two-stoplight town outside Charleston. He attended Duke after he lost a Naval ROTC scholarship to the University of South Carolina because of his involvement in the antiwar movement.
"Twin Oaks is an extremely hard place to carry on any monogamous relationship, because there's such an incredible freedom to get involved with other people. When we first broke up I was like a kid in a candy store," he said. "But when I decided I wanted a child I knew that would require more of a commitment."
The commitment was made in the form of what Twin Oakers call "a couple relationship" with Gerri for five years. Gerri, the 30-year-old business manager of the hammock shop that supports Twin Oaks, is the mother of Trevor, Will's three-year-old son. She also has a seve-year-old daughter, auburn-haired Seren, whose father, a former Twin Oaks member, lives in California, works at a staight job and sends Seren plane fare several times each year.
"Usually when people join as a couple they're looking for changes," said Gerri, as she walked by the milking barn, the pungent odor of manure mingling with the metallic sounds of Jethro Tull playing on the stereo.
"One reason I'm still here is that I like the way my children are being raised," said Gerri, who spends most evenings with her children. Seren and Trevor live with the five other commune children in a special building where they are raised by a team of men and women called "metas" after the child-care specialists in the Israeli kibbutzim.
Gerri said she finds constant exposure to her children draining and difficult. That usually only occurs on vacations, when the four of them go to visit her parents in Wilmington and Will's parents in South Carolina.
"The grandchildren are a real disappointment because I'm not married," said Gerri, whose parents, both retired teachers saved their money to send her to George Washington University, her ticket to "a career, a nice Jewish husband and a house in the suburbs."
Will says Trevor's birth effected a reconciliation with his parents, to whom he had not spoken in nearly a decade after his father ordered him to leave the house during a violent argument.
"Trev legitimized me a whole lot to my parents," Will said. "They kind of said, 'Okay, there's nothing we can do with this guy, but . . .' Also, they love Gerri. They've even visited here twice and stayed overnight."
Will remembers trying to inconspicuously guard the bathroom door and preserve his parents' privacy in the face of Twin Oaks' policy of prohibiting privacy in the bathroom. And, he said, "My father was impressed by the physical plant. I showed him [the commune's] sewage treatment plant and we talked shop."
Sometimes, Will says, he feels restless and disillusioned, explaining: "There are days when it seems people would rather talk about whether to get another dog instead of talking about our economic survival."
Jeffrey McCune Porter, McCune to the commune and Sam to the outside world ("it's a nice all-purpose name," he explains), says he, too, feels restless. The grandson of a Mormon bishop, McCune, 34, a tall, bearded and slightly diffident man, dropped out of the University of Utah's medical school nine years ago to join Twin Oaks.
"For me, Twin Oaks combined a whole lot of social movements I was interested in," said McCune, the production manager of Twin Oaks hammock shop. But he said he would like to leave Twin Oaks for a year to travel, which he did little of before joining the commune.
Six years ago McCune left Twin Oaks to follow a woman who was leaving the commune and moving to Massachusetts.
"I thought it was for good, but I couldn't find a job, we had trouble finding an apartment, and I was back in a week," he said shrugging his shoulders. "I guess I never hacked it out and faced the cold, cruel world. I know I could leave right now and take care of myself economically. But socially, well, I don't know how well I'd cope."
For the 39 years before he joined Twin Oaks, Bruce Dale coped just fine. Now 49 and one of Twin Oaks oldest members, Dale joined the commune as the culmination of a two-year metamorphosis from technocrat to commmunard. In 1969 he was earning $20,000 per year as a missile systems engineer at the Raytheon Corp., one of the nation's major defense contractors headquarters in Lexington, Mass.
"I had an office overlooking the courtyard at the 'head shed,'" said Bruce, who sang with the Lexington Choral Society, lived in an elegant Beacon Hill apartment furnished with Oriental rugs, went skiing in Vermont and sailing in the Caribbean and played a lot of tennis. "[But] I was unhappy with what I was doing. I felt Raytheon was confusing motion with progress. I would buy things and then feel unhappy with them, and I wondered what I was doing in this sterile world, in this blah, middle-class existence."
Bruce took a look at his bank balance, figured he could live for two years without working, quit his job, gave up his apartment and moved into a communal house in Boston, where he lived for about a year.
"I've always liked to feel I was part of something avant-garde, and at first I felt that about computers," he said. Twin Oaks, which he learned about through friends in Boston's large counter-culture community, gave him that feeling. He joined several months later, when the commune had 35 members who lived in double rooms. He misses the ski trips and other trappings of his old life "much less as time goes on." He has stayed because he's happier at Twin Oaks than he was as an engineer on the outside.
Christopher Pax, the 27-year-old son of two Massachusetts college professors, said he sometimes misses San Francisco, where he worked as a carpenter for several years after dropping out of Hampshire College and before joining Twin Oaks.
"I miss some of the luster of the city," said Pax, who now works on the commune's Glorious Mud construction crew. "But here I have access to an incredible wood shop, 400 acres of land, and on the outside I would have had a much lower standard of living. Outside, I had all these little compartments of friends from various places and I wanted to integrate that. Twin Oaks was a way to do that."
Pax said his parents have accepted his life at Twin Oaks.
"Their values were never that we should be materialistic," he said. "The 'Why don't you grow up' accusation you sometimes hear from other people seems kind of silly."
For Twin Oaks founder Kat Kinkade, the commune was "my mother, my husband, it was everything."
In 1965 she was 34, divorced, and struggling to support herself and her daughter Josie by working at a low playing secretarial job in Washington. She read "Walden Two" and began attending conferences about it at various colleges. Two years later Twin Oaks was born, founded by Kinkade and people she had met at the conferences, and bankrolled by one of them, an engineer who paid $27,500 in cash for the ramshackle tobacco farm and 123 acres that was the original commune.
Kinkade left Twin Oaks in 1973 over a disagreement with other members about whether to rapidly expand the commune. She wanted to; they didn't. She went to Missouri to found East Wind, its smaller counterpart and business partner in hammock and furniture production. She left East Wind in 1977 for Boston and what she calls "a 10-year adventure on the outside."
"I left because I was 47 and I had the rest of my life to look forward to make hammocks and washing dishes," said Kinkade, who lives in a communal house near Boston. "It was delightful to have $100 to spend and not have to consult anyone, and to go into the kitchen and have no mess except the mess I made. A lot of little things were a real pleasure."
Kat Kinkage still visits Twin Oaks annually to see friends, her daughter Josie, and her 8-year-old granddaughter Amy, who has lived at Twin Oaks all her life.
"Twin Oaks was the first place I felt at home," said her daughter, Josie, who remembers her life before Twin Oaks as being mostly unhappy. "I never had any peers as a kid. We always lived in very poor neighborhoods and my mother was an atheist, she was divorced. I was a communist and a hippie and everyone thought I was weird."
An intense woman with close-cropped hair, Josie dropped out of high school in Louisa when she was 15 and left Twin Oaks twice briefly as a teen-ager to hitchhike across the country, with the commune's approval but not her mother's. At 20 she contracted what she calls "a bad case of baby fever" and got pregnant by a Twin Oaks member she never married. He since has left the commune, but lives nearby. Her daughter Amy was born in a Richmond hospital with cerebral palsy, the result of a birth trauma.
Josie, who passed a high school equivalency exam and recently was graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, plans to enroll at the Medical College of Virginia in August.
"We'll stay here because this is home, she said. "Amy has friends and connections here, and I'm sure as hell not ready to raise her on the outside by myself."
One day, the three generations of Kinkades may be reunited. Kat says she plans to return to Twin Oaks to retire in seven years, when she has played out her "outside adventure."
"I think Twin Oaks will endure most of my lifetime, because it attracts reasonable people and it survives on the energy and commitment of its members," she said. "It's the only place in the world that one could reasonably retire to, and it's certainly the only place to die. People there really stand by you. I want to go where I know people give a damn."