From time to time people send me stuff about Michael Metelica Rapunzel and the Brotherhood of the Spirit, the mystical cult whose dramatic rise in the 1970's and fall in the 1980's had a profound effect on the entire Pioneer Valley. I myself once visited there, and recently someone sent me this anonymous testimonial of their own experiences among the Brotherhood.
Brotherhood of the Spirit was a rural commune in Western Massachusetts. Michael Metelica, a young man with flowing blond hair and penetrating eyes, was the leader of the Brotherhood. Like Manson, Lyman, and many another less publicized latter-day shaman, Michael exuded a charisma that the drug-zonked, the suicidal and the chronically inept find irresistible in their flight from the ugly realities of war, overpopulation and pollution. What seemed to distinguish Michael is that he showed the courage of his convictions at such an early age. In the spring of his seventeenth year, he founded the Brotherhood.
Michael said he never planned on the Brotherhood growing to the proportions it did - 300 members, with houses and property in Warwick, Northfield, Turner's Falls, and Bernardston. In spring 1968, after experiencing an apocalyptic revelation, Michael returned from the West Coast and with a few friends and took to a tree house behind his parents' home near Greenfield, Massachusetts. There they sat, quite literally up a tree, fully intending to contemplate their navels for the rest of this lifetime, when a young girl on speed threw herself at Michael's mercy. He saw this as a sign that he was meant to illuminate the way for those in search of themselves and willing to perceive the truth as revealed through him.
This interpretation was corroborated when another vision revealed to Michael that he had worked out all his karma in previous lives and no longer had to return to Earth, but chose to do so in order to lead mankind into the promised land during this, the last generation. Soon young people began flocking to him looking for a simpler way of life and the Brotherhood began to grow.
In his vision, Michael perceived that the only way to overcome the excessive negative energy in the world is through positive thought force. This force, man's unique creative energy, holds the secret to mankind’s spiritual transcendence,
Most members of the Brotherhood believed in re-incarnation, ESP, astral travel, and other supernatural phenomena to a greater or lesser degree. The keystone of their faith though was Michael's prophecy of the Earth Chang, to begin in 1972: the western United States would fall into the Pacific Ocean; Red China would then launch a nuclear attack against the U.S. and worldwide cataclysm would ensue.
After Earth Change, each member would become a teacher of multitudes. Man would transmute into pure spirit and shed his manifest form. Conventional forms of communication would be replaced by telepathy. Levitation would obviate all other means of transportation. Until deliverance, Brotherhood's earthly needs were being met in several ways:
Michael's gospel rock band, Spirit In Flesh, brought in hard cash by playing at dances and concerts. In November 1970, they received a reported $50,000 for signing with Metromedia Records.
In addition to raising vegetables, at harvest time Brotherhood members gave neighboring farmers a helping hand, for which they usually received payment in crops. Parents eligible for food stamps used them to purchase brown rice, flour and other staples in bulk.
Finally, as with many religious orders, membership was a lifetime commitment and all of one's worldly possessions become communal property. Upon acceptance, everything had to be signed over into Michael's name. Several people who had received inheritances from the death of their grandparents gave all their money to Michael.
Members ranged in age from infants to several in their forties. Most were in their late teens to mid-twenties, comprising high-school dropouts as well as former graduate students. The Aquarian Gospel According to Jesus Christ was their bible. The outside world was known as "The Illusion."
This my story: After three years in the Army, followed by four more grinding out an English degree, I spent the summer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I made ends meet as a night receptionist at a Boston hospital. My friends and I filled the days swimming along the North Shore, working on volunteer community projects and shopping at Haymarket Saturday afternoons.
Now and again I read about Brotherhood in local papers. Shortly after Labor Day, I met a member named Marion who was proselytizing in the city. In October, I visited the commune's 25-acre farm near Warwick. I spent two days working with them on a giant dormitory they were building. There seemed to be no friction among the nearly 200 members, and it was a productive community. Had they solved the eternal dilemma of how to live in harmony? I wanted to find out. I returned to Boston and gave the hospital two weeks' notice.
A late Indian summer day I steered my old red Dodge Valiant, weighed down with most of my belongings, over to the shoulder of the road and came to a stop. A farmhouse, white paint peeling, sat off to the right, a hundred feet back from the blacktop country road. A dirt driveway ran' up alongside the house, and a large sign was staked at the drive's entrance reading: VISITORS PARK ON ROAD. I turned the engine off and got out.
A low, vine-covered embankment sloped to the shoulder of the road. More signs, these nailed to birches along the embankment, advised in red, blue, and yellow hand-lettering: NO DRUGS NO BOOZE NO SMOKING NO PROMISCUITY.
Fifty feet straight ahead through the birches, the muted notes of electric guitars came from a two-story brown building. Behind the homemade music studio, a garden of cabbage and carrots stretched. A series of additions extended behind the main house-laundry room, large kitchen, locker-room style bathroom facilities and a huge rec room with fireplace for meetings and meals. To the left of the house spread a giant turnip patch. Beyond, the skeletal wooden frame of the dorm rose four stories against the dark backdrop of the encircling woods.
I grabbed my hammer, rolled up the windows and locked the car. Several children and adults romped in the leaves on the front lawn. I jammed the hammer into my belt and headed for the dorm. Midway through the afternoon a girl brought a kettle of brown rice and several jars of tamarind sauce from the house.
"Think you're going to like it here?" a bushy-haired boy asked me through a mouthful of rice.
"Yea, I think so. I feel like I belong here."
"That's only natural," said another member. "You know, it's no accident you happened to come here now. We're getting very near The End."
Their intense gazes made me uncomfortable. I filled my apron with nails and went back to work. I noticed that most members wore the fixed expression of the ex-junkie. Yet, while I had never sampled anything stronger than pot or hash, there were the usual affinities and antipathies based upon first impressions, and most of these strengthened as the days passed.
That evening, after a dinner of baked soybeans, string bean-and-tomato stew and fresh gingerbread, I started around the rec room to introduce myself. Prospectives must express their inmost selves to all members before being considered for membership. One young girl remained a prospective for four months before being accepted.
"Why are you here? What are you looking for!" a member known as Weird Paul demanded of me. I glanced up above Paul's head at a wall tapestry bearing Brotherhood's creed:
TO LOSE MY SELF
FROM MY CARNAL SELF
VlBRATING CREATIVE ENERGY
I grew uncomfortable under the eye-lock Paul was trying to engage me in, and also at the prospect at having to justify my presence. I felt like saying that this was just a groovy little vacation in the country for me after living in the city for five months. As it turned out, I should have laid my cards on the table right then and there.
I was still trying to formulate an acceptable answer when a bell began clanging.
"Meeetinnnn'!" someone hollered. "Members only!"
The four other Prospectives and I left the rec room. A kitchen of dirty dishes awaited. After finishing dishes and glasses by myself, I decided to leave silverware, pots and pans for some other volunteer. The members' meditative silence allowed the medium's voice to be clearly heard in the kitchen. The medium was communing with the deity Vishnu. When Vishnu spoke, the medium's voice would deepen. Having never been able to stomach cant, I removed myself from earshot.
As soon as the meeting broke up, I grabbed my sleeping bag from the rec room. The other Prospectives were bedding down in front of the fireplace. I started outside.
"Where you going'?" It was Dale, in charge of the Prospectives. Earlier he had told me to give him my car keys. I had refused because of his bossy manner.
"The fireplace doesn't draw properly, and it's like a smokehouse in here," I answered. "Besides, I dig sleeping under the stars, Okay'?" I was dog-tired.
"But sleeping alone is not where it's at," Dale said. "We want all the Prospectives to stay together tonight so in the morning you'll rise as one cohesive force."
"Yes, but it's going to be a long winter. We'll have ample opportunity to get together then."
I stepped out into the blackness of the night and closed the door behind me.
For the rest of the week, I grew increasingly aware of a pecking order at the Brotherhood just as strong as any found back in the so-called "Illusion" of the outside world. Under Michael, one had to convince the other members of one's greater mystical powers and spiritual enlightenment in order to move up the ladder.
I had no desire to play that kind of game. The empty forms of my childhood religion of Episcopalianism had left me cold by my first communion. Now, after several days of encounter group therapy, a bastardized version of Hinduism, and arbitrary rules handed down by Michael, it didn't look as if I was even going to get through confirmation classes this time!
The only persons I felt I could talk with without being confronted were the other Prospectives. We swung between the extremes of commiserating with one another to repressing our misgivings in order to concentrate all our energy on the super-human effort of willingly becoming a zombie. There was no such thing as talking to a member as an individual, only as a link in the ever-growing, ever-strengthening chain of the Brotherhood. Once a member began acting and speaking in terms of what was best for the group (meaning Michael and his band), only then were they given serious consideration for membership.
Of course, the strongest chain has its weakest links, and while I was there two members did cast off their bondange, choosing uncertain freedom over secure bondage under Michael. The first, one of Michael's original disciples and the architect/master carpenter of the dorm, split in the middle of the night after becoming convinced that his Messiah had become corrupt. The other was a young girl named Karen, who had formed one-third of the female choral back-up on Spirit In Flesh's first album. She left after ten months when she decided that she wasn't helping herself or Brotherhood to grow anymore and that Michael's outbursts of egotism during the recording sessions in New York City had shaken her faith. She was also angered that Michael had expelled others for promiscuity, while he did as he pleased in his erotic life, fathering several children by several different women.
It became obvious that Michael and the band was the focal point of the commune. It was said of Michael that "If Billy Graham was lead singer with Steppenwolf, this is what it would sound like." Michael told everyone that Spirit in Flesh was going to be more famous than The Beatles.
I first started to question the Brotherhood when, after finishing the dishes and sitting in the kitchen talking with the other Prospectives that first night, a member stormed in and shouted, "Shut the fuck up! We're trying to have a meeting and we can't meditate with all this goddamn noise." Later I learned that those being groomed for the band didn't have to undergo the same rites of passage as did ordinary Prospectives.
It was no use. I felt I had gone more than halfway in trying to understand, and adopt to the Brotherhood. But, of course, they were racing so far ahead of themselves, toward immortality, that they weren't about to wait for anyone to catch up, let alone to meet them halfway. You had to swallow the whole spiel about Michael and Earth-Change and Spirit In Flesh hook, line, and sinker, or else it was no go.
And most important of all, you had to have faith that faith and faith alone can still work miracles in this day and age. Saturday night I stopped in to visit Weird Paul on my way down to the tent he was continuing to camp out in.
"Hi, mind if I come in a minute?"
"Not unless you mind," Paul said cryptically.
I sat on the floorboards of his winterized hovel. A candle, the only light, stood between us. He sat nude in a full lotus, his eyes glowering up at me.
"Well, what do ya think of Brotherhood? You think you'll stay?"
"Oh, I'm going to give myself at least another week before deciding," I said. '" want to be perfectly honest....“
"Yea," he cut me off, "but you must be inclining one way or the other by now. Personally, I don't think you belong here. You're a good person, but you're content with three meals a day and just being amiable with people. We've got to move beyond that, onto a higher plane. Someday you'll wake up to the fact that God is within you-that you are God—and then you'll live up to that responsibility."
I nodded wearily. "You're quite right, Paul. I am easily satisfied. Perfection never was one of my goals, and, quite frankly, a little bit of sanctimony goes a long way." I stood up. "See you in the morning."
Sunlight flooded the tent. Hammering and shouts echoed between the dorm, the house, and piercing the stillness of the woods. I unzipped my sleeping bag and sat up. The spell was broken. When I reached the rec room, a member was expounding to the Prospectives, now nine, the virtue of accepting everyone without reservation. I sat down outside the circle gathered around the fireplace. The lesson drew to a close. Marion stepped into the circle.
"I need a ride to Boston," he announced.
"I'II take you," I heard myself say. "I'm splitting at noon,"
As I said my good byes there was a mutual sense of relief at my leaving. The Brotherhood was a court of last resort, their members had played out all their options; for most of them there was nowhere else to turn. I was searching for answers; too, but not with the terrible sense of despair that I had to find them at the Brotherhood or not at all.
With Marion at the wheel, we had driven no more than two miles when I noticed a faint hot odor. I reminded myself that the car was overdue for an oil change. Then a thin smoke began coming in through the air vents and then I knew that something was seriously wrong. I glanced at the dashboard. The temperature gauge needle lay pinned over on "Hot."
"There's a farmhouse around the next bend," Marion said. "We know the people there."
He pulled into the driveway. We got out and I checked the radiator. Steam pressure blew the cap off. Marlon got a bucket of water. I began slowly pouring it in.
"Wow, man, it's coming right out the bottom!" Marion cried.
I knelt and looked up under the radiator. The stopcock was wide open. My mind raced: Weird Paul? Bob? Dale? Michael? Vishnu testing the limits of my patience? Or had it been local farm boys? I’d heard about their stealthy night raids on the commune.
Once the radiator was filled and the engine had cooled, we headed for Boston. The miles fell behind, but I continued fuming over who was responsible for the malicious prank. Then, without warning, the tension broke. I settled back and let out a long sigh of relief.
There always has been and probably always will be a lunatic fringe. None of them has managed to save the world yet. On the other hand, none of them has gained enough momentum to make their prophecies of doom self-fulfilling. Manson's Family. Lyman's Fort Hill, Hubbard's Scientology, DeGrimstons' Process, Metelica's Brotherhood—aII will attract a certain number of followers, those looking everywhere for salvation except within themselves.
In the end though for every such lost soul, there will always be millions more who will find nothing particularly fascinating about the atavism of petty despots.
To read my account of life among the Brotherhood click here.
Rockin' in Northampton last week.