Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Isis Aquarian’s father filmed shuttle launches for NASA. The launches would have been from NASA’s Mercury, Gemini or Apollo programs; the first shuttle was not launched until 1981. This version has been corrected.
Some people said it was a cult, but they never experienced the overwhelming, universe-tipping peace that came with being around Jim Baker, who became Father Yod, who became YaHoWha, who became, colloquially, Father. He was a luminescent shiny man, barrel-bellied, bush-bearded, a sensual Moses, if that makes sense, and it did to the people who followed him.
It did to Isis, who became one of his 14 wives, who managed the affairs of the eucalyptus-treed Mother House, who witnessed her husband/Father’s transformation from a physical being to a spiritual one and who, one morning in 1976, watched him soar off of a cliff, loop through the warm air over the Pacific Ocean, crash to the ground and expire.
Before this, any of this, Isis was not Isis. She was Charlene. She lived in the District in the 1960s, in the prim kind of boarding house that required residents to trill, “Man in house!” if they had a visitor with XY chromosomes.
It seems like cosmic eons have passed since then. “We lived whole lifetimes,” Isis says. She’s 70 now. “We lived incarnations.”
Lifetimes ago, a Washington socialite became a spiritual bride in a radical social experiment that succeeded wildly in some ways and ended long before its followers expected. Life and death and Washington move on, but Isis Aquarian, nee Charlene Peters, remains the keeper of the strange vibrations that pulsated through Southern California 40 years ago.
There is a new documentary made with Isis’s help — a feature-length film called “The Source,” screening Friday and Saturday at Washington’s Silverdocs film festival. The commune known as the Source Family always did seem groomed for prime time, with its industrious work habits, healthy bodies and high-hippie fashion, the way members cheekily upturned societal norms while wearing serene expressions on their doe-dazed eyes. At its peak, the Family had 150 members. They lived in a sprawling mansion in Los Angeles paid for by profits from the Source restaurant, the health-food haven frequented by Warren Beatty, Julie Christie and John Lennon, where Woody Allen said goodbye to Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall” over a plate of mashed yeast.
When filmmaker Jodi Wille began researching the members of the Family, she noticed that “they all had this spark. This spark that said they knew something I didn’t.”
Much of the footage is of Father Yod, a man the camera can’t seem to look away from, not that you’d want it to. He cuts an endlessly fascinating figure: a judo champion, a businessman, an early proponent of organic eating and health-food restaurants. He was rumored to have robbed a bank, and he definitely killed someone with his bare hands. It made the papers. Self-defense. Judo.
Most of the photographs and audio were provided by Isis, who was — in a title that invokes the improbable organizational skills of the freewheeling commune — the Source Family’s official archivist.
Her father was a documentarian, a man employed by the Air Force to catalogue American missions in World War II. In family lore, he was supposed to film the bombing of Hiroshima from inside the Enola Gay but had an earache that day — a malady for which he never stopped being grateful. By the time Isis was in high school, they’d settled in Florida, close to Cape Canaveral, where her dad was filming NASA projects. She was a cheerleader, a beauty queen, the kind of girl who instinctively knew how to click with a scene the minute she walked into the room.
In the mid-1960s, she used that social ESP to get a job in the Washington office of her congressman, a square-jawed Republican named Edward Gurney. For more than two years, she flitted through the world of Capitol Hill, an intersection of starch and glamour that poured her into pastel suits for photo ops at Walter Reed, and into leggy Pucci prints for her role as Miss U.S. Savings Bonds. (“Say Merry Christmas,” the slogan went. “Buy Savings Bonds.”) She wore her dark hair in updos.
There were holiday cards from White House social aides, invitations to the right kinds of parties. One time, she says, a date canceled their plans because he had to fly to Rome. He’d been granted an audience with the pope and was hoping to bring back an autographed picture to give to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughter Luci for her coming wedding.
(The groom at that wedding, Pat Nugent, doesn’t recall receiving any such gift for his nuptials, although he does remember Charlene from the social scene. She seemed a “traditional” girl, he says.)
Back home in Winter Park, the newspaper’s social diarist could barely keep up with the goings on of the pretty pageanteer in the big city. “Charlene Peters . . . will represent Florida as a princess in the Cherry Blossom Festival the second weekend of April in Washington,” wrote Virginia Loog, noting that Charlene’s mother also had big news: She was going to be a contestant on “SuperMarket Sweepstakes.”
Isis’s life seemed destined for a certain path. “I knew where I was going to end up,” she remembers. “I knew I was going to end up a socialite or a senator’s wife.”
It should have pleased her. She found it terrifying and fled the city.
After a brief sojourn in New York, she went west, like everyone did then, banking on warm weather and good fortune.
She met Jim Baker when a friend took her to one of his restaurants. He had short hair then, a trim beard.
A few years later, she’d gotten engaged to the photographer Ron Raffaelli, managing his studio for him, assisting with his shoots. For one poster, they needed someone who looked like Jesus. She’d heard that Jim had just opened a new restaurant called the Source and that all the waiters were wearing beards and robes.
“I said, ‘I can get you a bucketload of Jesuses,’ ” she recalls.
She met Jim again. He invited her to a meditation.
Within days, she had moved into the compound. All she took with her was her camera; the documentarian’s daughter was instructed by Father to catalogue the missions of the soul.
The Charles Manson/Jim Jones/David Koresh narratives have polluted the cult experience — poisoned the connotation, made it seamy and brainwashed and Heaven’s Gated.
“We’ve been led to believe they’re malevolent and dangerous,” says Wille, the filmmaker, who considers herself somewhat of a cult connoisseur. “But I see the Source Family as a radical cultural experiment with a cultish aspect.”
The homespun hipness of today — slow food, natural births, home schooling — are concepts that were incubated in the compounds of the 1970s, Wille says, in that post-Summer of Love era where free love had peaked but the residue of creativity it had sparked remained.
Joining the Source Family “felt totally natural,” Isis says. “I was home.”
She curls on the sofa, flexible as teenager, in stretchy black leggings, her hair woven into a long braid. It is three days before the Silverdocs screening. The house, a Silver Spring brick bungalow, belongs to Cecil Thompson, who was assigned to be Isis’s spiritual son in the Source Family. Father Yod named him Explosion. Now, he works with Synetic Theater in Arlington. Isis and Jodi are staying with him while they’re in town for Silverdocs. Isis makes her home in Hawaii.
The sprouts, yams and broccoli from the evening meal have been cleared away; Isis, Cecil and Jodi sit in the den and talk long after the sun has gone down.
“It was my anchor,” Cecil says of his two years spent with the Family. “I really wanted to get into something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. . . . Father Yod gave us something we could go back to, with or without him.”
After he left the Source Family, Cecil tried out a charismatic Islamic sect for a while. It didn’t stick; he no longer considers himself spiritual.
“But I’m still a son of YaHoWha every day,” he says.
Isis nods. “I’m a wife every day.”
After Cecil left the Family, he wound up in Brussels, driving a cab. One day, a blond guy got into his taxi and they got to talking. “He said, ‘I’m Lion Aquarian,’ ” Cecil remembers. “I said, ‘I’m Explosion Aquarian.’ ”
They hadn’t crossed paths back in the States, but 6,000 miles from the Family homestead, he was feeling the vibrations.
For Isis, the best year was the last year they all spent together in California. The days unspooled in harmony, beginning before dawn with dips in the pool, moving inside for meditation, moving outside again to greet the rising sun. It got weird, though. Their unconventional living arrangements had caught the attention of authorities — building inspectors, child protective services who mistrusted home schooling — and Father decided it was time to sell the restaurant, leave California, go further west and build dome houses in Hawaii.
Kauai wasn’t what they’d expected or hoped for. “We were the darlings of L.A.,” Isis says, but their new neighbors on the island saw them as useless hippies. “There wasn’t any work we wouldn’t have done if we could have done it together, but nobody would hire us.”
Father was “mortified,” she says. “It’s not like ‘I’m Jim Baker’ anymore,” he told her. “I’ve been out of the earthly world too long.” He couldn’t figure out a way to replicate the success they’d had in California, and he began suggesting that they disperse, live apart. He suggested that he’d taught them all he could, and they should return to the real world. He suggested they cut their hair.
On Aug. 25, 1976, he surprised his followers by saying that he was going to go hang gliding, which he’d never tried, and a small group followed him to the top of a mountain. Isis took photographs of him launching into the sunlight like a great winged bird. As soon as he took off, the air seemed to drop out from under him, but he managed to stay aloft for several minutes.
His followers found him by a cluster of ambulances. He lived for nine hours, asked for a drink of water, took the breath that nobody believed would be his last and then left the physical world.
They tried, for a while, to stay together. Father’s main wife, Makushla, led meditations. Isis became pregnant by another man in the compound. But it was hard. Everything had changed now that the force that had bound them all together no longer existed.
Isis’s daughter, Saturna, was the final baby born in the waning utopia.
Some members found other faiths — like Explosion, they turned to new mysticism, different communal experiments, born-again Christianity. Some of them became atheists. In the documentary, some of them have close-cropped hair, look like your accountant, have powerful jobs.
Isis never moved on. Or, she moved on, but she carried Father with her. That’s the way she prefers to think of it. She calls herself the Aquarian Nun. “I never felt my time with him was done. Or my duty. He still talks to me.”
She kept his picture in each of her houses; Saturna — grown and living in North Carolina — remembers her friends asking who the man was.
She maintains the Source Web site, a cheerfully jumbled space full of Father’s teachings. The site sells merchandise and calls for other former Source members to get in touch. They hold reunions, sometimes.
They have groupies now — one of the more interesting developments in recent decades. The Family is cool again. The members’ music recordings are collectibles. Their fashion choices are studied. Isis went online one day and found that an Australian jewelry designer was selling a bracelet called the “Isis Aquarian.”
When she first saw the documentary, she was unsettled to see her past laid out — the way that other Source members remembered things differently. But she’s come to peace with the personal truths belonging to each member of the family. She lived through that time once, looking through a lens. She can live through it again, looking at a screen.
“I’m still vibrating,” she says. “I’m still vibrating within that frequency.”