We really did live in another dimension of reality. We had our own protocols. We always said that we were living by spiritual law over man’s law. Isis Aquarian
In the late 1960s, my parents bought a pre-Civil War farmhouse near Woodstock, New York, and for many years my family spent summers there. It wasn’t an official commune, but several other families moved in with us for varying periods of time. We all did yoga and ate health food, learned about meditation, and generally acted like hippies. My parents were devotees of various teachers and gurus, including Baba Ram Dass, Chögyam Trungpa, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and Alan Watts, and my brother and sister and I were raised in a world where Buddhism and Taoism were part of the daily macrobiotic stew.
As the dissention bred by the war in Vietnam, the upending of traditional power structures spurred by the civil rights and sexual liberation movements, and the numerous other cultural revolutions of the era began to take hold, many young people started to seek ways of applying the spirit of those social transformations to exploring their own consciousness. Some of them found religion—both in organized form and in the form of more esoteric branches and movements. Others joined communes that were interested in finding new ways of living and being. Still others joined what eventually turned out to be cults. Around the same time that I was enjoying my idyllic hippie childhood in the Catskill Mountains, thousands of communes were springing up across the country, most of them peaceful and innocuous, while others—like those led by Jim Jones and Charles Manson—more nefarious.
Among the hundreds of self-styled guru figures dotting the American landscape in the late ’60s and early ’70s was a man named Jim Baker, a former Marine and World War II vet who had rechristened himself Father Yod, and who is now the subject of the new documentary The Source Family, directed by Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos. Baker had a less than savory past: in addition to having abandoned two marriages, he was also said to have been involved in a number of bank robberies and to have killed two men in separate incidents, apparently in self-defense.
By the end of the ’60s, though, Baker had amassed considerable wealth. He’d opened Los Angeles’s pioneering health-food restaurant, the Source, on Sunset Strip, and was leading meditation classes. He’d also begun to attract a circle of attractive young men and women, many of whom would eventually become members of the Source Family, a commune led by Baker that mixed teachings from a variety of belief systems, ranging from theosophy and tantrism to kundalini and astrology. Baker’s restaurant became the epicenter of a cool new lifestyle and health-food consciousness: John Lennon, Steve McQueen, and Warren Beatty all ate there; Woody Allen shot a famous scene from Annie Hall (1977) there. The income from the restaurant also allowed the members of the Source Family to live much larger than most commune-dwellers: Baker was whisked around town in a white Rolls-Royce and rented a mansion with an Olympic-size swimming pool in Los Feliz, where he soon came to live with more than 100 Family members. The Source Family also had a rock band, Ya Ho Wa 13, which explored the fringes of psychedelic rock while Baker (somewhat haphazardly) banged on drums and chanted (vinyl pressings of Ya Ho Wa 13’s recordings have become obsessed-over collectors’ items).
Baker was—to say the least—a complicated character. At one point, he had 14 “spiritual wives,” some of whom were teenagers. But while he undeniably demanded a certain dedication among his followers, he wasn’t a tyrannical leader, and Demopoulos and Wille’s documentary neither demonizes him nor shies away from his more controversial behavior. “My opinion of Father Yod is that he was not a charlatan,” says Wille, who spent six years interviewing more than 40 former Source Family members for the film. “He had charlatan aspects to him, but Father Yod fits squarely into what the scholar Robert Ellwood would call the ‘magus tradition.’ The magus is not a saint; he’s not even really a seer or a prophet, but he’s kind of an initiator. He serves as this figure who has more access to other realms than others. People like that existed in ancient Greece and throughout every culture, and they were always questioned by the authority. Father Yod, to me, has a lot less in common with Charles Manson than he does with Pythagoras.”
Nevertheless, it was the fearful comparisons to the former rather than the latter that eventually drove Baker and the Source Family from their compound, which was located just blocks from where the LaBianca murders occurred. Eventually, in 1975, the entire Family moved to Hawaii, where they faced a hostile reception from the locals, as well as money troubles. After Baker fatally injured himself in a hang-gliding accident, his followers began to drift apart.
The story of the Source Family might have been largely forgotten were it not for the 2007 book The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13, and the Source Family, by Family members Isis Aquarian and Electricity Aquarian. Demopoulos and Wille’s documentary builds upon the work of the book, and we learn that, nearly 40 years on, some former Family members have become quite successful (one, Magus, founded a software-industry staffing company that eventually sold for $60 million), while others haven’t fared as well (Baker’s legal wife, Robin, is described by her daughter in the film as being broken by her experiences). But most of those interviewed don’t regret their time with the Family. “There were so many people in the Family who have gone on to do amazing things who claim that the Source Family was an important foundation for who they became,” Wille says. “It’s easy to look at these sorts of groups and just look at the psychology and what a mess they were, but they were social incubators for some of the brightest lights of the culture. They also destroyed some people or really screwed up some people for decades. Some people really had a hard time recovering from the Source in the years after it fell apart, and it took them years to get their shit together.”
For her part, Wille sees Father Yod as a kind of Jungian archetype. “He was totally human,” she says. “He was heavily flawed, and some say he had narcissistic tendencies, but ultimately what he provided for Family members was enough to give them the opportunity to have a radical personal transformation. And I feel like these groups become, in some ways, the transformers of a culture.”
I recently spoke by phone with Isis Aquarian and Electricity Aquarian, both of whom appear in the documentary and still live in Hawaii.
DIMITRI EHRLICH: What were your respective childhoods like?
ISIS: I was the oldest of seven children. We were in the military so we moved a lot. My mom was a saint—an absolutely loving, perfect mother. Took very good care of us. My dad was an alcoholic, which in the ’50s was just kind of what military men were. We were, to a degree, a dysfunctional family. First of all, we had way too many kids, and we were moving all the time, so it was hard. It basically led to all of us wanting to get out as soon as possible.
ELECTRICITY: Very similar story in a lot of ways. I was born in Columbia, South Carolina. My dad was an alcoholic, my mother was a saint. She’s 93 years old now and still lives in the South. We had a pretty rough childhood. I had an older brother who absorbed most of the violence and difficulty, so that enabled me to retain some of my innocence. But, in general, it was a standard Southern upbringing. I think probably most of the children I knew had alcoholic fathers at that time.
EHRLICH: What religion were you?
ISIS: I was pretty much raised Catholic. I never really remember buying into it. I loved the incense. When they walked down the aisle with the incense, I always remember thinking, Oh my god, that is so cool.
People didn’t find Father. he basically magnetized us. He attracted to him those who had the vision to see him. Electricity Aquarian
ELECTRICITY: I was raised in the Baptist church. I was pretty devout. I stood up on the pulpit in front of the church when I was 6 years old and told the entire congregation that I was going to be a preacher. That lasted until I was about 12 or 13, as late as 14, when I began to realize that it was too many lies. So I went to a lot of other different religions to check them out. By the time I was in college, I considered myself to be a pretty staunch atheist.
EHRLICH: What was your first exposure to any kind of mystical experience or meditation?
ISIS: Growing up I had psychic experiences where I knew I had guides, and I never really related it to a religion. When I got out of high school, I was searching for something but I just never could find anything that really grabbed me. I dropped out and came to L.A.—the hippie and flower-children thing was happening. It was like a portal opened and a whole society in certain pockets of America embraced a new type of spirituality of relating to each other and living. That’s what the ’60s and ’70s were about, without going into all of it: the food, the diet, the vegetarianism, everything. When I left my family, I got a job with my congressman and moved to D.C. and very quickly realized that I did not want to be that type of a socialite or marry that type of a person who lived that life. I was very drawn to the flower children and the hippie energy.
ELECTRICITY: I graduated from the University of South Carolina in the summer of 1968. I was leaving and my wife wouldn’t go with me, so the day after I graduated, I put books and records and a few clothes in my VW Bug and left for San Francisco. I had bought some little plastic daisies and stuck them on my VW. [laughs] I was going looking for something better. I wanted something more. So I drove straight to San Francisco and rented a closet under the stairwell in a brownstone in Berkeley with all the students—graduate students mostly. Of course, they began to expand my mind right away. Within a couple of months, I moved into the city, right off of Haight. You did not live in the Haight-Ashbury district and stay conservative and ignorant of what was going on. Just to walk down the street with people standing on the street corners saying, “Grass and acid, grass and acid,” and the local hippie girls wearing overcoats so they could go out in the tourist cars and flash them for money . . . It was a really wild scene, and your mind just immediately began to grow dramatically—in spiritual ways as well as physical ways. But we began to seek out something better and go to meditate with the various yogis who would come to town and the gurus, and do our own meditations. I fell in love with this little lady, and we lived up on Potrero Hill, and we began to almost have our own little family, our own little commune. We had a group of people who were attracted to us and gathered around us. We would all meditate together and study various forms of spirit. But the first time my mind was completely blown way, way, way beyond what I had known before was when I met Father. That was in January of 1974.
ISIS: When I dropped out of New York and went to L.A., we all went to the Old World Restaurant, and that was my first meeting with Jim Baker. He was married at the time to Dora, a French girl, and she and I became very good friends. I never really connected with Jim Baker at the time. I mean, he was fabulous. He was a Hollywood legend. He was being called a food guru because he had all these amazing, successful restaurants on Sunset. I became engaged to a very famous rock ‘n’ roll photographer [Ron Raffaelli], and we were working in the field and needed models for a poster campaign for Jesus Christ Superstar. I had heard that Jim Baker had opened up a new restaurant called the Source down on Sunset, and there were guys who had long hair and looked like Jesus. So I went down one day, stepped onto the patio, and out came a man looking like Moses. He was no longer the Jim Baker I knew. Something happened immediately. It was an absolute, immediate turnaround, and that was it—I knew I was home. I knew that was what I had been looking for. His frequency merged with mine and it uplifted me. I never looked back.
ELECTRICITY: If you interviewed a hundred of the Family members, you would probably be blown away by the similarities of the stories that everybody will tell you. But I always say: people didn’t find Father, he basically magnetized us. He attracted to him those who had the vision to see him. I was living in San Francisco. I had picked up a kid named Scott hitchhiking one day and it turned out he was a phenomenal musician. I invited him to live with me for a while, while he worked on his music. We decided to go to Los Angeles, so we packed up my ’51 Chevy and spent a week pounding our heads against brick walls, getting nowhere, and many times going by this restaurant that had all these amazing people working there—men with white robes and long hair and beards, and beautiful women. We were fascinated by it, but we couldn’t afford to stop and eat, so we just kept looking at it. Finally, we were out of money, we were out of ideas, we had spent all day sitting in David Geffen’s parking place in his parking lot. He didn’t come to work that day, so we decided to go to Venice Beach and drop acid and see if we could come up with any ideas. Scott pulled out a leaflet and said, “Let’s go to this concert at the Venice Pavilion.” It was a concert being put on by the Source Family. After the show, Scott sat down to play one of his songs at the piano. Some of the sons got Father to listen to the song, and he talked to us and invited us to meditation the next morning. I knew from that point that my life had changed.
ISIS: We really did live in another dimension of reality. We had our own protocols and we always said we were living by spiritual law over man’s law. I was pretty much focused on him. He was my thread. And then when he started having other women and stuff, that didn’t bother me. The women were sisters beforehand. To me, it worked. You talk to some of the other women, and you might hear a different story. But I did not have that karmic thread with him. In fact, I never felt like I had drama with him. We were there in agreement from before we even came into this life to do the work.
EHRLICH: What was your first impression of Father Yod?
ISIS: My first impression was absolutely knowing what I was doing with him and who he was. The Family was phenomenal. We had a phenomenal life. We were very wealthy, but money didn’t mean anything. We lived in a mansion. We drove Rolls-Royces. And we had fun and we had each other. We had morning meditations. I mean, we had everything.
ELECTRICITY: The next morning after we met him, we went to meditations, and that was where my impressions were burned into my psyche forever. As you approached this amazing room with the most amazing smells coming from it, you heard this awesome chanting. You opened the door and there’s this incense-filled room with over a hundred people sitting in the lotus position in front of Father—just staggering power and beauty. We stood in the back of the room and he said, “You’re late!” We were late because we were driving slowly to make sure we didn’t run out of gas before we got there. [laughs] He said, “Would I be showing you more love if I allowed you to stay or if I made you leave?” He was looking right at me, and I learned later on that he was always looking right at everybody. So I said my preference would be that you allowed us to stay, and he said, “That’s exactly what I thought. Get out!” So my first impression . . . I went out storming. “Nobody is going to talk to me that way.” But I did come back the next morning.
EHRLICH: What did your family and friends say when you entered the Source Family?
ISIS: That’s what you did with the yogis and the gurus at the time, so it wasn’t a foreign concept. You left your old life, which included your family and friends. If they weren’t on that path with you, then they got left behind. I always stayed in touch with my mom, and she always knew where I was. But we did turn around and embrace a new life. And most of us did not look back during that time, because we had such a full, complete life. And most people did not come from a family situation where they had too much going for them to begin with.
ELECTRICITY: Most of us—of our generation—were estranged from our families or relationships were strained our their families. So it was easy for us when Father said, basically, that the only way you can truly get on the path is to leave your past behind—your family and your friends. And if you don’t, then you need to bring them with you on the path—otherwise they’ll hold you back. So it was very painful for a lot of people, and we did have to go back later on and heal relationships. But in general, we walked away from our past, and that’s why we got new names. We even got new drivers’ licenses. But I would keep my mother apprised; I’d speak to her once every three to six months.
EHRLICH: When you had 140 people living in a three-bathroom house, who bought the toilet paper?
ISIS: Everybody had a duty. The women who stayed at home took care of the house perfectly. Everything was clean. There was food that was brought to the house. I don’t know how we lived with three bathrooms, but it worked. I never remember having to wait for the bathroom. But going to the bathroom when you are a vegetarian or on a very clean diet and lifestyle is a little different than going to the bathroom if you’re not—if you know what I mean.
EHRLICH: What was the best aspect of Father Yod’s character and what was his worst flaw?
ISIS: His best aspect was his ability to completely change in the moment and be open and present. From hitting what we called “the Earth trip” if somebody was having an issue, and going right back into spirit. He was a man’s man but he was also a woman’s man. He was very powerful. And his worst aspect probably was just being impatient at times, because, when you’re moving so fast with spirit through the universe and things aren’t manifesting as fast as you want them to on the Earth plane . . . With 200 people, it can get frustrating.
EHRLICH: Given that he’d been involved in the deaths of two people and apparently robbed banks and abandoned wives and families, did you ever think, Maybe he shouldn’t be my guru?
ISIS: For us, it was removed; it was that part of him in the past, and that’s not a part we knew. And it was his part to figure out on his life journey and amend or clean up. That was not our karmic thing to do with him; that was his. But he told us everything. He would spend morning after morning talking about killing the person, robbing the bank. It was like an oral history for the next generation. And he only spoke in the third person once he became Father Yod—Jim Baker became another entity for him.ELECTRICITY: He was no longer Jim Baker. Jim Baker died, Father Yod was born. So no karma came with him.
ISIS: He always assumed the responsibility for anything he did or any harm he caused anybody when he was Jim Baker. And he took steps to go back and apologize or talk with them or pay people back money if he owed it to them.
ELECTRICITY: He always said, “Learn from the past, keep an eye peeled on the future, but live in the now.” And that’s exactly how he lived his life.
ISIS: He used to laugh at Jim Baker all the time.
EHRLICH: Didn’t the fact that he was with 14 women at once contravene one of his Ten Commandments and—
ELECTRICITY: Pardon me. No, it doesn’t contravene. It doesn’t say that man and one woman will be one. It says, “The man and his woman will be one.” That doesn’t mean necessarily that it will limit it to one woman.
ISIS: He said, “I’m not going to have mistresses and keep them in the closet, like some yogis do. I’m going to be out front with what I’m doing, because I respect women.”
EHRLICH: In the documentary, Electra says he was also commanding people to have sex with certain other people.
ISIS: That totally blew my mind. I didn’t agree with what everybody was saying. That was not my reality. I never saw it come down that way, and I never saw anybody being unhappy about their choices. He always said that if you don’t want to be with somebody, you don’t have to. He asked many of the women to be with a Son, and they went, “Well, I really don’t want to,” so that was it. Maybe the blindly obedient would not feel the same. So that whole thing with Electra [a female member of the Family who appears in the documentary] about being with Mercury [a male member], it didn’t make sense to me. That was how she saw it for some reason. Did you see a picture of Mercury? Like, oh my god, you’re complaining about being with this person. [all laugh] Please, step aside. Let me at him.
ELECTRICITY: Forty years later, some people have colored their memories by what they want to remember and what they need to remember in order to fit into their current lives or to try to fit back into the life they had before the Family.
ISIS: I’m sure that with some people, some of it wasn’t good. It was good while we were together because we lived in our own reality. But when you step back into the Earth’s reality, you don’t fit. They were trying to make something fit from that frequency into this frequency, and it didn’t fit for them, so then they started becoming negative and judging it. That’s not the way I saw it, but if that was their perspective, then that’s true for them, and I allow it. I’m sure he wasn’t all that grand to everybody; I just never had an issue with it, so it’s hard for me to see that something was not right. But if it wasn’t right, why did everybody stay for years and put up with it. I just remember people laughing and being happy and saying, “My god, best time ever.” Anybody in the movie who wasn’t happy will turn around and go, “But I wouldn’t have changed it for anything.”
ELECTRICITY: He’d always say, “If you are not happy, if you see anything wrong with what I say, please bring something better to me or let me know or leave.” So everybody who was there was absolutely there and absolutely committed. And as they look back on it and reinterpret things with their current perspectives, sometimes their memories seem to have changed. But we do allow them that, as Isis said.
EHRLICH: I got the impression that he committed suicide at the end because—
ISIS: I’m going to cut you off because I know what you’re after, if you don’t mind. He tried to disperse the Family several times. Once we left L.A., that was it. It just went downhill for us. It no longer worked. When we were in Kauai, he said, “Let’s disperse the Family.” The Family wouldn’t leave. He said, “It’s time for everybody to go out on their own—this isn’t working.” And he said, “I’ve given you everything I have, you don’t need anything else.” We wouldn’t go. So he didn’t commit suicide, but he wanted out, he was ready to go. He knew that he couldn’t leave the Family, and we weren’t going to leave him. So he tested it. He said, “I’m going to go off a cliff. I’m going to go hang gliding.” But I think he had a thought in the back of his mind: “Oh my god, please, if this could be an opportunity to take me, I’m so ready to go.”
EHRLICH: So it wasn’t suicide—
ISIS: When we found him, he had no broken bones, he wasn’t bleeding. He was conscious. He said he had a pain in his back. Nobody ever thought he was leaving the body. He said something like, “Well, I guess that’s my last lesson from god. I thought I was doing that, but I wasn’t.” He did leave the body. It’s what he wanted. And he had an M.O. from the time he was Jim Baker. I traced it back—
ISIS: Okay, well, he was done with it, and he walked, and he left. And that’s what he did with us. He just left.
ELECTRICITY: We had a conversation recently on our private Family site, and no one ever suggested that he had committed suicide. He taught us that suicide was not part of the spiritual path. One of the Sons, who was a hang glider and who loaned him his kite, said, “Why would he have flown in a beautiful pattern and landed the kite if he were trying to commit suicide?” He actually had a good landing. It was a little bit of a hard landing, but I’ve had more scratches on my leg from cats than he had on his leg from the landing. So that’s the final statement: He landed the kite. The kite was not even damaged. You don’t commit suicide by landing a kite. You fly into the cliff or the ocean or whatever.
EHRLICH: Where are each of you living now?
ISIS: I live on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.
ELECTRICITY: I live on Kauai, Hawaii.
EHRLICH: And how are you both living?
ISIS: Very well. [laughs] We are very lucky to be here. We both have nice homes. We both have work that we do. We have family around us. We travel. Electricity is my Source partner, and we have a lot of projects we’ve been working on. Sometimes I go to Kauai and sometimes he comes here. I’m 71 and retired.
ELECTRICITY: I have several businesses. I have been a licensed real estate broker in the state of Hawaii for about 24 years, and in the last five years, I’ve been putting together a business called Soulgrowth.org, an online portal for all matters of spirit and an effort to draw everybody together on all spiritual paths and give them a place to come and become one.
EHRLICH: Looking back now, what did you learn from the whole experience?
ISIS: I have absolutely no fear of death. I understand karma in this life. I understand incarnation threads. I understand spirit. I would say I’m not a complete vegetarian, but I have the wisdom and I’ve retained that thread with him. It’s still an ongoing thing. It gives me new stuff everyday.
ELECTRICITY: I do all of this work not only because I think this is a very good story, but also to inspire everyone to seek their own soul’s growth. Father always said, “We don’t need any middle men between us and god.” And he’d say, “Which path? It does not matter as long as you have the strength to stay on it.” So the best way we found to boil down his teachings is to use what he would always call our aim. I’ve renamed it the path of the PERL: Purify your body; Elevate your mind; Refine your emotions; Liberate your soul. Once you start on that path, you can do absolutely anything you want to do, as long as you’re kind.
DIMITRI EHRLICH IS A CONTRIBUTING MUSIC EDITOR FOR INTERVIEW.