How I Escaped From The Bruderhof
by Ramon Sender Barayon
Excerpted from the KIT Newsletter, August-September 1995 Vol. VII #8-9.
In spite of sex information pioneers such as Dr. Kinsey, and TV personalities such as Dr. Joyce Brothers and Dr. Ruth Westheimer, our own sexuality often remains a difficult topic to write about because of old taboos that linger in our culture and our minds. What a mountain range of suffering these no-no's have created for so many generations! As for me, it took ten or so years of raising my bliss tolerance level on rural communes in the 1960s to be relieved of various wrong attitudes. Apart from the obvious need to practice safe sex, the rest of the no-no's, in my humble opinion, just come from self-righteous old patriarchs whose bliss tolerance level probably could have been jacked up a notch or two.
In July, 1994, I was prevented from presenting a scheduled paper at the Elizabethtown Anabaptist conference by a last-minute change in travel plans. Julius Rubin, co-presenting with me, forged ahead bravely and read my "Heini And The Early Woodcrest Community" that dealt, amongst other things, with that big no-no in some Anabaptist circles, masturbation. I am permanently indebted to my dear friend for facing the flak that various listeners aimed at him, which it should have been my responsibility to receive and respond to.
Recently someone asked why my paper never has been published in the KIT Newsletter (although both Julius Rubin's and mine have been advertised as reprints in KIT ever since they were presented). Mostly it was a word length problem, and perhaps also some lingering hesitancy on my part to address such a personal topic. However inasmuch as I'm always telling KIT writers that "your most personal is your most universal," here, then, are some excerpts from the above-named paper, somewhat expanded relevant to the sexuality issue.
In the Spring of 1958, my wife (here I will call her 'Rosemary') and I were included in a Woodcrest baptism preparation group that was an ego-shattering experience for me. We had come to Woodcrest as a separated couple and had been accepted into the novitiate a few months earlier. Heini pulled out all the props shoring up my identity, all the excuses to which I had clung for my previous pre-Bruderhof behavior. After the confession session, I sat alone in my room. I realized that nothing was left inside me except a silent emptiness. Out of that vacuum came an unassailable experience of God's love for me that permanently altered my view of reality. Later, I was able to express to Rosemary my deep sorrow over the wrongs I had done her. She seemed to accept my contrition, although without any thaw in the frozen relationship.
Over supper that evening, Heini made a reference to 'self-abuse,' as he termed masturbation. It was an impurity and would not be tolerated within the Brotherhood. I had experienced increasing guilt over masturbating in the shower earlier that winter and had talked to the Welsh Servant Gwynn about it in a roundabout sort of way. Afterwards, I made a determined effort to stop and somehow found it easier to do so than to face the anguished embarrassment of having to confess to it. For the following year I still awoke some mornings from a wet dream, but even these occurred with less and less frequency.
Although neither Rosemary or I were baptized into membership after the preparation group ended, we were invited to attend brotherhood meetings. We sat together as husband and wife in the circle for the first time, although otherwise we remained separate and single. At our first meeting, a brother who had been committed for shock treatment came in to address the group. After he mumbled a few incoherent phrases, Heini shouted at him to leave until he could find true repentance. For the first time I was jolted by the severity of our Servant's treatment of a 'down-and-out' brother.
I began to join Rosemary and our little daughter at after-siesta snack times in their apartment. Our relationship remained very formal because Heini insisted that I not express any affection physically, even with a hug or a peck on Rosemary's cheek. When I moved from the shop to the Community Playthings office to assist the Office Manager, I interacted with Rosemary on a daily basis in her role as secretary-typist. To an outsider, she and I probably seemed no different than any other Bruderhof couple.
In May of 1959, we attended a second baptism preparation group that began meeting in the schoolhouse. Annemarie, Heini's wife, confided to me that "You and Rosemary will be moving together very soon," and explained that the housemothers were preparing an apartment for us.
I began to feel anxious regarding my role in the preparation group -- and as Rosemary's once-more husband. In the group, I couldn't figure out what I was expected to die to that I had not died to before. The 'ego death' experience had been extraordinarily painful, and I shied away from going through it again. After all, God had assured me of His love and acceptance. Hadn't I experienced His forgiveness for all my past sins? Was I supposed to confess to them all over again? And as for moving in with Rosemary, although I thought that I wanted more than anything to be a happy Bruderhof couple just like the others, I couldn't imagine Rosemary in the role of my wife. She still seemed so distant, so uninterested in me except perhaps as the father of her child.
Meanwhile Rosemary caught fire at the preparation group meetings. She challenged me to participate more and once brought me to tears by telling me that I loved the marriage more than I loved Christ. Later, in Heini's presence, she taunted me for being "soft." At this point something snapped inside me, and I lost trust in the marriage-healing process that Heini personally was overseeing. Rosemary's sharp edges reminded me of just how much power she wielded over my emotions. All the reasons why we had broken up before resurfaced, my jealousy over her intimate relationships with other men foremost. Suddenly I was filled with a deep anxiety. I felt desperate to escape, but immobilized by my deep desire to continue my relationship with my adorable four-year- old daughter.
After a year of celibacy, I suddenly felt a compulsive urge to masturbate. I was fully aware that within the context of Bruderhof teachings, I was committing a sin that, if confessed, would result in immediate exclusion and/or banishment from the community. However it never occurred to me not to confess immediately to the nearest available witness brother. Over the next week or so, I basically masturbated my way out of Woodcrest, and the irony was that I didn't even enjoy it -- just sort of wham, bam, excuse-me-I'm-sorry. Never during that time did anyone ask me what was wrong or show the slightest empathy or concern for what I might be feeling. First, I was excluded from meetings, and then I was asked to leave the community. Throughout my time of travail, Heini remained at the Oak Lake Bruderhof, overseeing a crisis there that anticipated the yet even larger storm brewing in the European and Paraguayan communities.
I was sent to Evergreen, the new Connecticut 'hof, and after a few weeks asked to leave and take a kitchen job at a nearby children's camp. My work consisted of setting up the dining room for meals, overseeing the food service and cleaning up afterward, a job so similar to Austeiler at Woodcrest that it contained no surprises. I bunked in a small cabin behind the kitchen. The camp also needed a shop instructor, so I taught two woodworking classes each day. I enjoyed the challenge of keeping one step ahead of the kids on projects.
Finding a Japanese ink stick and some rice paper in a drawer, I began to paint in the Japanese Sumi style I once had enjoyed. I wet the paper and meditated on emptiness while softening the ink stick in water. Then as rapidly as possible, I scribbled on the paper, not allowing myself time to become aware of what I was drawing. The results often astonished me with their literalness. One was a runner drawn in an elongated style. With the addition of a final line, the runner became a pole-vaulter running to clear his obstacle. The Freudian implications made me smile, because I was continuing to pole-vault my way out of any possibility of return to the community in the privacy of the bathroom -- and setting some sort of new Olympic speed record in the sport.
What was my body doing so obsessively? I asked myself over and over. The rewards for my return to the Bruderhof fold were so obvious! Once more I would be embraced by the Church and all my needs met. Once more my little daughter's sweet presence would delight me daily. But between me and this dream of happiness stood Rosemary's shadowy form. I felt much too vulnerable to her assaults. The pain she had caused and continued to cause me overbalanced all other considerations. I just could not live with her again.
One day after lunch, the boss told me that some people were waiting outside the kitchen to talk to me. I went out, and there sat Heini and at least a half-dozen Witness Brothers in a semicircle on some logs. They had decided to stop by on their way from one Bruderhof to another. By then I knew that I could never return. Worst of all was the realization that my daughter's daily presence would be lost to me, but I comforted myself with the thought that at least I had managed to get her out of New York City and into what I thought of at the time as a sheltered children's community. I decided that if the price of her protection and happiness was my loss of her, well, somehow I would have to find the strength to bear the pain of her absence.
A week after the camp job ended, I wavered. I felt that I was going against God and losing my daughter forever, so I asked to meet with two Witness Brothers at the Poughkeepsie YMCA.
"Can't something be worked out?" I begged. "I could find a job near Woodcrest and keep seeing my little girl!"
"No, no," they said. "You have no relationship with her outside of the Bruderhof."
I gave it up. Before moving to Woodcrest in 1957, I had been referred to a teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, so I returned there, having learned before the healing effect of geographical space and time. It took me many months, even years, to overcome the trauma of leaving. A month after I arrived, I wrote Rosemary in desperation, suggesting that she and our daughter join me in California. I also offered to meet her on 'neutral ground,' with a therapist in New York City, but she never answered. Instead I received an official notice that she had been baptized into membership. This put a definite end to any possibility of a resolution.
Later, I met another woman and we fell in love. The following summer I filed for a divorce and remarried. Heini and Rosemary traveled together to San Francisco to confront me, but there was no longer anything to talk about. Rosemary told me I was giving myself to death, and as I left her for the last time in their hotel lobby, I shouted an angry something which now I do not recall. Heini reported back to the brotherhood, with an air of finality, that I was 'rebellious.'
Over the ensuing years, whenever I was on the East Coast visiting family, I would gird myself for the psychic onslaught and phone Woodcrest. Palms sweating, my heart racing, I would ask to visit my child. Always they refused and I acquiesced meekly when now I know that I should have insisted or gone to court for my visitation rights. But I could not face the collective disapproval of the brotherhood, and convinced myself it was better to allow my daughter an undisturbed childhood instead of, to quote one of Heini's favorite phrases, 'bringing a disturbance.'
In the 1960s I dropped out and helped to found two open-door hippie communal ranches that were the exact opposite of the Bruderhof in almost every way imaginable. There I pursued my spiritual quest with yoga, meditation and occasional LSD sessions. During three or four of the latter, I wrote or telephoned the Bruderhof in a misguided attempt to communicate with them. In retrospect this was an error, but it does not surprise me, after the heartless way they treated me, that I experienced some sort of reaction. Currently the Bruderhof is publicizing a letter that I wrote to them in 1969 during my 'hippie days' in which I used the dreaded "f" word a dozen or so times, and advocated free sexual expression for children. They are using my letter to defend their having refused me visitation rights to my daughter. I would point out that I wrote the letter after ten years of their ongoing refusals to allow me to visit her. Also twenty-six years have passed since that letter was written, and I think I have matured a little in my views since then.
Summing up, masturbation removed me from the Bruderhof in 1959 when my brain, paralyzed by an anxiety attack, refused to function. I always have remained very grateful for my body's innate wisdom and unique rescue method. Recently I was reminded of the Bruderhof's abusive attitude towards masturbation when I heard how young men in Woodcrest are forced not only to confess "self-abuse" to their fathers, but then have to make the soul-wrenching climb up the Carriage House stairs to the elder's office and confess to him also. Lucky are those who then are not compelled to stand before the brotherhood (or all the brotherhoods listening in on a conference phone hook-up) and stumble through an embarrassing public admission! What a horrible nightmare for a Bruderhof young person to endure for a pleasurable act that nowadays is accepted as totally natural! During earlier times, the Bruderhof allegedly employed methods that included tying a child's hands to the bed frame, placing their body in a sack with a drawstring around the neck (hands outside), smelling a little girl's hands in bed and slapping them if they retained any telltale odors. Despite questions I have asked as a concerned grandparent as to whether such physical restraints are still used, I have not received an answer.
It bears restating the obvious: at least for the past fifty years, the view held by various puritanical, old order or orthodox religious groups that masturbation is 'sinful' has been totally discredited by psychiatrists and doctors everywhere as extremely damaging emotionally. Old wives tales such as "Self-abuse destroys the mind," or "Eek! You will grow hair on your palms!" terrified adolescents for generations. The abuse comes from others trying to control you, not from yourself!
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