My Father’s Father

My father was raised in a Communist cult. When people ask about my life story, I find jumping to this fact, as soon as possible, saves a lot of time and confusion.

I am in no way exaggerating. My grandfather, Linas Brown, started an insular religious community, called Reba Place. They had no personal property and pooled all their money to be shared, in ways the community agreed on. They lived by their own rules, and made themselves as independent as possible from the federal and local government. They never became violent; in fact they were philosophically radical pacifists, although my father once mentioned they were supportive of certain militant movements, like the Black Panthers. To the best of my knowledge, they were never seen as a threat by the government. They just kept to themselves and lived the way they thought everybody should live.

My father eventually left. He has many pleasant memories of where he grew up, but also many bad ones. There were times when their home was opened up to so many passing strangers, kooks and vagrants that my father felt unsafe. There were also times when a member of the community was behaving in a way that was toxic, or indicative of a mental health problem, and the cult’s rules did not have an adequate way of managing that person’s problem. And there were times my father had questions, about faith or money or the way the world worked, that clashed with my grandfather’s chosen philosophy. These conversations generally did not end well. I get the sense that, although there was no active violence, he never felt safe or like he would be accepted for himself.

I know the following things about my great-grandfather, whose name Frank.

  1. Frank was moderately wealthy.
  2. My grandfather, Linas, felt there was something corrupting, unethical or harmful about his wealth. I don’t know what. I can only guess at the shape of the thing that made my grandfather flee to a fairly extreme lifestyle.
  3. My father, Tim, has only good memories of Frank. They bonded well whenever he visited. Tim went on to develop an interest in finances and economics. Rather than nurturing it, Linas saw some toxic connection between Tim and Frank and money, and discouraged both the interest and the relationship.

Tim’s interest in economics never went away. He was convinced that it was, in some way, the answer to our cultural divide and rising mental health crisis was rooted in money. However, his view of that was deeply skewed by his upbringing. Being isolated, counter-cultural and politically radical was familiar and normal to him. So he became as extreme a conservative as he could be, and attributed any hint of liberalism to Marxist conspiracies to undermine the institution of family.

If you’re familiar with this story, you know it ends with me being outed as queer, and completely kicked out and cut off by him. While that is a common experience, nowadays it is getting more and more rare, and even those queer people who have experienced rejection are often able to rebuild something.

For me and my father, it works a little differently. The cut that Tim received from Linas never healed correctly, and the opiate that sedated the pain was radical conservatism. He cannot accept me without going off his drug of choice, and nobody is willing to sit him down for an intervention.

As badly as it turned out, there is something I admire in my paternal line. Tim allowed himself to be poisoned by suspicion and bigotry, but he also recognized something was wrong in his life and at least made an effort to find something better. Too many people don’t even do that much.

And, if I’m giving Tim credit, I must do the same for Linas. I have to criticize him for how far he took his political stances, for neglecting his family in the name of ideological purity, and for teaching my father to isolate from the rest of the world rather than connect to it. But he had ideals, and he tried to life them to the fullest. Without people who take risks like that, we can’t learn what sorts of societies are worth living in.

Although I never met him, I suspect even Frank deserves some credit. For generations, America has been the sort of place where the message is “be good to your family by providing them with all the material goods they could possibly ask for.” It is a message that takes our physical needs too far. It teaches us to neglect our spiritual selves and community ties. But it is one that many people, with the best of intentions, have fallen for. I have no reason to believe that Frank was evil, only misguided. Most people are.

In this mess of contradictions, there is a common theme of men who see the mistakes in their father’s choices, and wants to not only escape them, but teach the whole world to recognize the errors. They were driven by a mission to tell all the well-meaning but misguided fathers out there how to focus on what really matters. That resonates with me, powerfully. But I don’t want to do the way they did. I don’t want to raise a son who feels caged by his father’s idealism. I want to end that particular cycle.

Part of spirituality is finding purpose. Some of mine comes from this story, of the futile utopianism of my father’s fathers. Another part comes from my mother’s side, which I will talk about in my next post. Until then, as always, thank you for reading!

*Edited to correct my great-grandfather’s name. Thank you to my sister Ginny for catching the error!

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