An Interview with Robert Houriet
When we interviewed Robert Houriet in 1987, he was a for-real
fifty-year-old hippie, living on an organic farm in Hardwick,
Vermont. Like thousands in the 60s, the Movement kindled
a spark of hope in Robert and he gave his whole being to
make it happen. His ideals and vision led him to quit his
job as an "upwardly- mobile city editor" of a
newspaper in Philadelphia to go to the 1968 Democratic Convention
in Chicago. From there he traveled around the country visiting
various communes which he described in his book, Getting
Back Together. Eventually he settled in Vermont
and helped establish Frog Run Farm, a commune in East Charleston.
Robert hopes that one day the ideals of the Movement will
come into reality.
Q: How did the Movement begin?
RH: About twenty-five years ago, the first communities
started. Hippies started these open-ended communities. They
were formed mostly in opposition to the local structure
of Nixon, America, and the plastic nature of American culture.
It wasnt very clear in the beginning that there was
an underlying spiritual hunger. The sense for community
was also not clear. It was evident that people knew this
[community] was what they wanted, but they saw they couldnt
get it in society. Community was spoken of first as tribal,
extended families, and then later as community when the
circle widened out to larger groups, and also broke down
to smaller households in localities.
Q: Why do you think that the Movement,
as it is called now, had such a tremendous, powerful take-off?
Why was there so much energy behind it? It just seemed like
it exploded into something that affected a whole generation.
Why is that?
RH: I think it got its explosive nature from its
anti-authoritarianism. The war brought that out. The baby
boom generation seemed to coalesce and play upon this "what
were not" kind of feeling we are not our
parents; we are not university trustees; we are not American
capitalists; we are not liberals without really defining
what we were. The clue is really in the name that still
exists: the counter culture. It was not a positive culture
to begin with; it was a counter culture. It was what we
were against. When the war subsided, the dust cleared, and
the anger subsided a bit, we looked around and found ourselves
in places like Vermont, New Mexico, and Oregon. What was
left after that anger abated? Was there anything positive
to build a community on? What was the basis for a culture
that holds families and communities together?
After May Day, 1973, the national leadership said, "Okay,
were finished with the demonstrations. All you people
go back home, work in your own communities, build your networks
there. Theres nothing more to fight against; we can
no longer hold what we have nationally; weve got to
do it locally." People came back and said, "Okay,
what do we do in Vermont?" And they really couldnt
pull it off because they didnt have their personal
relationships together, didnt have their groups together,
and consequently didnt have their politics together.
The politics were defective because their relationships
werent good. The relationships werent good because
the basis of the culture wasnt there.
Could you say that it was a counter culture in the sense
of being against the culture of America, but that it really
had no true basis as a nation itself, as far as having a
government, a body politic?
RH: We spoke in terms of the Woodstock nation,
but even though it existed in name, it wasnt a nation
in the centralist sense of the word nation. It was a very
loose-knit concept of very decentralized anarchist groups.
Q: Was the Woodstock nation more like
a vision of what was in peoples hearts?
RH: Well, I think it was both in their heads and
their hearts, and maybe the connection was lacking. I think
there was a defect in the vision from the start because
it was a vision based on opposition. We were defining ourselves
by what we were not. We were not a centralized government,
therefore we were a de-centralized, loosely-organized government.
It was a vision in the LSD sense of the word, in that you
could have a vision of something and yet be unable to attain
it in reality. The vision may have had, for many people,
a spiritual reality, but they were unable to connect it
with day-to-day life. Somehow the distance between actuality
and vision became wider and wider. The contradictions were
so painful that it was impossible to maintain that tension
without becoming schizophrenic.
Q: Why do you think that happened, that
the vision and the actual day-to-day practice never could
come together? What was the flaw? Was it because there was
not true spiritual authority?
RH: People found it difficult to submit themselves
to the authority of a group or the consensus of a group
because they were very much American individualists. And
some of us were very cantankerous personalities! So the
anarchists philosophy of "everyone do their own
thing" was unworkable in terms of what will actually
work in community.
Q: Why was the baby boom generation so
primed in every way to become a counter culture?
RH: Some people reduce it to child-rearing. They
say permissive child-rearing promoted by Dr. Spock somehow
cultivated unreal expectations of the world as if it were
an unlimited breast, when in fact they found it wasnt.
Then they reacted with infantile rage against it. I dont
buy it. What stands out about that period of time is not
so much the child-rearing practices, but the great wealth
of this country. Youre talking about the height of
the empire; youre talking about the most money ever
available everyone was ripping with money in the
60s. Before the oil crisis, foundations gave away
money. The upper class as well as the middle had more money
than they could deal with. There was a luxury for rebellion.
Q: Was the catalyst a reaction against
the American Dream?
RH: Yes, it was a reaction to the wealth itself
which sponsored it, a reaction against our parents
way of life. They had so much money, superfluous wealth,
that they werent utilizing for a social purpose.
Q: What do you feel was awakening that?
What was causing that to happen?
RH: Well, it goes back to the Civil Rights period.
It goes back to John F. Kennedy. The conscience was there.
The Kennedy assassination was very important in that such
great hopes were raised and then crushed. You were left
with an awakened conscience and nowhere to go with it. Kennedy
raised a lot of expectations; perhaps this country could
save itself. Then he was snuffed out. I dont know
how much you believe in his politics, but he stood for something
that aroused us. He was assassinated in 1963, Robert in
1968, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., and then right
after that came the escalation of the Vietnam War. A cultural
revolution in our music also awakened the conscience when
the Beatles came to America in 1964.
Q: After the May Day thing in 1973, when
people started going back into rural areas and starting
rural communities, Robert, do you think there started to
be a realization that there needed to be a spiritual foundation
in what they were doing? Or do you think that came about
earlier through LSD and the whole psychedelic philosophy?
RH: When people first tripped on acid in the city,
during the Summer of Love, the message was, "Get back
to the country." After that the trips people had in
the country became more spiritual more spiritual
in the sense that having gotten back to nature they found
a spiritual element in nature. You couldnt have a
trip in the city without hearing the message, "Get
out!" And once you got out, the message was, "Get
back to something natural, something thats real
reality." "Get back to reality" was the most
opposed thing in American society. America at that time
was headed toward more urban forms. Once you got back to
the country, the message was, "Find a spiritual base."
Q: So you think people had the concept
of getting back to God, or to whatever their spiritual thing
RH: Once people got back to the country, they went
off on different trips. Some people went into spiritual
communities as a result of those drug experiences, and some
people went into other things. Some people stopped doing
drugs altogether, saying they couldnt take it anymore.
Q: So those spiritual communities, did
they find substance enough to survive and flourish, to prosper
and grow as the people went back into the country?
RH: Well, not all people who had a spiritual level
in their trips went into communities. But the spiritual
communities continued to exist and theres a definite
spiritual sense in people that separates them distinctly
from their parents. Theres a definite difference.
Q: So, when did the leadership start
to break down?
RH: Around 1970, the leadership of the counter
culture was repudiated. It happened for two reasons: first,
the men failed on their own account. I believe that more
than what a lot of radicals believe, like Jerry Rubin, who
says it was the womens movement that messed up the
whole counter culture. Men failed on their own account.
They didnt need the women to help them.
Secondly, there were situations in which women, seeing
the failure of men, took matters into their own hands. They
had their own revolution and took the leadership upon themselves,
or attempted to. The true spirit of that revolution opposed
many things: opposed authority, opposed the capitalist system,
opposed the war and after the war ended, opposed men. So
then it became doubly difficult to have men become leaders
because if you failed, the women wouldnt let you forget
it. This really led to the breakdown of a lot of the groups.
But I wont say that the counter culture broke down
because of the womens movement. It wasnt a separate
movement, it was related. It was all part of one thing.
This issue has taken radical movements round and round for
a long time. "Why did they do this to us?" It
is something that is very difficult for old radical men
to figure out.
Q: Did this type of thing happen in rural
communities as well as on the national scale?
RH: Oh, yes. It happened in urban groups first
and then it was quickly imported to the country. Some people
think that it happened at the same time in both groups,
or some say it happened faster in the country because the
groups in the country were like pressure cookers where social
change was rapidly accelerating. The women there reached
that point before any groups in the city did. Things changed;
relationships changed; it was very speedy. That is a big
thing that we have left out the social issue.
It is really an interesting point because you said earlier
how the whole thing came down to relationships people
couldnt get along and this is really the essence
of it: relationships between men and women.
RH: Mens relationship to each other, to the
society; women seeing that failure, and seeing mens
misuse of their power these guys werent
any better than the fascists in some respects. (I am just
Q: Once the men were deposed as leaders,
were the women able to I guess this is an obvious
question was there any leadership after that point?
Was there a head after that point?
Q: Why do you think that?
RH: Well, because that was the ideology of the
womens movement. We are all leaders.
Q: There are no followers. It just seems
like for there ever to be any kind of restoration of the
Movement that will really, truly be the Movement, that theres
going to have to be a restoration of relationships between
man and woman a right relationship between men and
RH: Thats one thing you have going for you
[in your communities].
Q: Thats the restoration of authority
the restoration of man, male and female?
RH: Thats it.
Q: Since there has been no true authority
to get the Movement off the ground, do you think that over
time they have had to compromise with the system of their
parents that they rejected, say twenty years ago? Has there
been an element of compromise that has forced these people
back in that direction, out of necessity or survival?
RH: Oh yes. There has been, both on an economic
level and in the fact that they got older, had children,
and had to compromise. When you become a parent, you tend
to revert to patterns that you inherited. Then your parents
die and you psychologically absorb their roles. That is
part of the life process.
Q: Do you think that is why when people
from the counter culture get to be about forty, they are
really taking a hard look at their lives because maybe they
are going through some of these things that you are talking
about, and maybe they are realizing some of these compromises?
RH: Well, yes. I think that everybody, well, almost
everybody I know who is forty, is going through a tremendous
crisis, a personal crisis. It is amazing to me how many
of my friends are in so many different ways. Its hard
to get a handle on it; its so widespread now. It isnt
like people are doing something so dramatic or outlandish
barricading themselves in their farmhouses, being
surrounded by SWAT teams, or freaking out that way. It is
a very subdued and a very unpleasant kind of psychological/spiritual
crisis that is going on in their lives. I know people go
through this; you can read books about it. However, it seems
to me, and Ive only lived half of one life, that it
seems to be harder and sharper right now than what Id
known of my parents experience or what Ive read.
One doesnt have any perspective on it. But there is
definitely a personal crisis going on.
A close friend of mine who has been through communes, political
anarchism, organic agriculture, marriage, two kids, successful
vegetable farm (semi-successful no one is very successful
in vegetables), is going through something. I dont
know what it is, except that he is drinking and I can see
it in his face. He is trying hard not to drink. I think
people stop going on when they feel there is no basis to
their lives. Its like they wake up and the bottom
falls out. What are you going to do on that day? Why do
it? Ive always done it this way but why do
it? What for? This is how they feel inside. It is an inside
feeling. They begin to feel disjointed, unhappy and depressed.
They cant function. They either dont want to
get up or everything they do hurts them too much and they
start to drink or take drugs or cover it up or avoid it,
or lash out suddenly. It is like in the deepest recess of
peoples conscience there is this nagging feeling of
unreality. They want reality. They want a basis for their
lives and yet its just not there. You go around and
talk to people and they say, "Gee, I dont feel
real anymore!" Theyre afraid to admit it, but
when you get right down to the conversation and say, "Im
just losing it; I just cant get my grip on reality."
Its a hard thing to pin down. It is hard to say what
causes it. You try to describe what it really feels like
to live in 1987, and youre a forty-year-old hippie
and youve gone through this what does it feel
like to suddenly fall all apart?
Do you think that maybe some of these feelings that
people are having at forty are some of the same feelings
that they had at twenty, or do you think that they are on
a different plane altogether?
RH: No. They are on a different plane altogether.
For one thing, drugs arent working. You cant
cover it up anymore and they also realize addiction. You
know when you were twenty or thirty, you didnt think
that you could become addicted, that there was no such thing
as addiction; it was psychological or physical. But now
you are forty, and you know that there is such a thing as
addiction to marijuana. Addiction to anything. I mean, suddenly
they are addicted to coffee, cigarettes, sex, or whatever.
And whats more, the addiction doesnt get better,
it just gets worse. It was great stuff back then: sex, drugs,
and politics, but it doesnt work anymore.
Q: So what are some of the realizations?
Do you think that people who are going through these things
are coming to any realizations, or is it just basically
a thing where there are no answers?
RH: Yes, I think that right now a lot of people
are going through therapy. They are going to AA to get straightened
out, to get rid of the addictions. They are going to psychological
root-getting, to counseling about what you get counseled
for, exercising, looking at their lives, changing jobs,
trying to be more honest about their feelings, taking more
vitamins but maybe theyve done that before,
and maybe theyve gone through therapy before, and
those who have been through therapy already are realizing
that this is a different kind of crisis. This is no longer
a psychological coming of age, "I am a man now and
a parent" kind of crisis. This is something of a different
Q: Is it something deeper?
Q: I want to get back a little bit now.
Back in 72 in your book, Getting Back Together, you
were of the opinion that communities could not survive "if
they set themselves above the reality of mans nature."
What did you mean by that?
RH: Well, I suppose I meant that if you look for
a utopia with unattainable ideals, the result is going to
be a utopia where there is a contradiction between reality
and the ideals. The whole thing is going to fall apart.
Everybody is good, everybody is a brother, its love-dovey,
but actually you have to deal with how people are: they
still have egos, private property, still have to raise their
children themselves, because that is the culture were
from. You cant ignore that.
Q: So you think that when they tried
to live in community, they werent able to deal with
the reality of how people really are, and werent able
to overcome those obstacles in each other. Do you think
they became really frustrated with that and were unable
to cope with it?
RH: I think that it drove some people insane, to
realize their own reality. Because the discrepancy between
the vision they had of themselves and human nature in general,
and the actual reality that they were confronted with was
shocking to them.
Q: Once all the smoke cleared, the good
vibes went away?
RH: Yes, were talking about evil here. Were
talking about a fundamental flaw, and our inability to deal
with it. Its hard to recognize evil in ourselves or
in nature. You think evil doesnt exist, so you go
along and, boom, you are swallowed by a shark!
We went through great disillusionment with ourselves, tremendous
disillusionment it was more than disillusionment,
it was a moral shock to realize the existence of evil in
ourselves. Yes, it is very shocking to realize that it exists.
People ran away from it, ran away from communities, away
from Vermont, back to Boston. They retreated because they
saw things in themselves that they couldnt accept;
things they didnt want to see anymore, so there was
that denial stage.
Q: Denial of what?
Q: It seems like a person who would deny
evil would be really for the vision of the Movement. But
to deny evil and to also deny the Movement seems like a
RH: Well, its as if they were denying the
whole experience, because of the evil they came to realize.
Its like amnesia. They want to wipe out the whole
experience. Both parts of it, as if it didnt happen
to them. Ive met people that when you talk to them,
its as if there is ten years of their lives that are
missing. It is no longer there. It is wiped out.
Q: Do you feel that seeing the evil in
themselves, but not being able to deal with it, that they
tended to find it easier to accept as necessary the evils
of the society that they had rejected?
The first step was facing the evil, and then denying
it. Then they denied the Movement, and went back into the
system. Some yuppies today are old hippies who have a split
conscience between the things they do in the system (which
involves a certain amount of playing the game), and their
own private life (which is almost separate from what they
do for a living). Its as if they can juggle the two.
I find people who call themselves New Age people. I think
of wholesale organic companies who talk "New Age"
and yet they are actually dealing with you just like a capitalist.
There is a certain hypocrisy there. I dont know where
their heads are at that they can do that. They can function
that way on one level and talk to you another way. I dont
know if they know what they are doing, or if they are fooling
themselves. The conscience is there but it is denied. And
that is why they have to maintain a split-level personality.
If they allowed their conscience to function, then the conviction
of their life would be too difficult for them to deal with.
I really cant speak for yuppies. Its hard to
figure them out. But there is a little bit of yuppie in
everybody. In myself, I suppose I can justify certain things
that I do in a yuppie way. Its hard to think of myself
as a yuppie. I think yuppies today, even if they have families,
two cars, and are making money, are more desperate and insecure
than their parents who believed in the system. They may
be using the system in the same way, but yuppies realize
that it is going to fall apart. They are just taking what
they can for the moment while its going down
and making money on the downside of the system.
Q: Where are the people now, the true,
genuine, counter-culture people who really are trying to
maintain some sense of integrity in their conscience and
in their life? What are they looking forward to? How are
these people dealing with the future their own future
and the future of their generation?
RH: If anything, theyre slipping back into
the system. It is awfully hard to be out there in the so-called
New Age believing that its Harrowsmith magazine youre
editing, or its Organic Natural Foods of America that
youre running. The longer youre out there in
the system, the more you have to recognize that youre
part of it. You have to give up even the hypocrisy of believing
that the New Age is coming. People can be hypocrites for
only so long and then theyre going to say, "Im
making a buck."
Q: What is the main reason for the inability
to fulfill the vision of living in community?
RH: The lack of personal relationships. There is
nothing else. We couldnt deal with each other. It
wasnt society; it wasnt Nixon; it wasnt
Mayor Daley we couldnt deal with each other.
Q: Isnt that the same root problem
in traditional American communities the same reason
why theyve fallen?
RH: You have to survive and you only have a certain
number of ways to survive. If you cooperate with the things
that are there, then youll be able to keep together
to some extent. Thats how people have stayed in communities.
Because they have had to cooperate; theyve had to
farm. But once you remove the necessity and get food stamps
or stock dividends, or checks from Daddy, then you dont
have to be there. You dont have to farm you
Q: So if people need one another, if
they depend on one another, is that a basis for them remaining
RH: The question is what to base that need on or
base that bond on. The real communes, for example, base
that bond on self-sufficient agriculture. Do we really need
to do that? If it is not economically possible to survive
agriculturally, does that nullify the need for people to
be together? What is the real basis for that need?
Even in agricultural communities I find people fight over
how to live and farm. They will find reasons to do it differently.
Unless you put everything together in one pot and say, "This
is our land," youll find differences. Youll
even have various approaches to how to hay. Do we use horses?
Do we use tractors? Do we keep inexperienced women from
driving tractors? There are all kinds of ways you can disagree.
I wonder sometimes if agriculture itself needs to be based
on something other than agriculture. Certainly an agricultural
community isnt enough. Agriculture has to have its
roots in something more.
Q: You are saying that people need a
basis to come together. And you talked about agriculture,
that agriculture was just not enough; there has to be some
kind of foundation based on need that is realized in human
beings, individually the need for one another. Then
you say that when people come together, they are still at
each others throats, still trying to decide how to
RH: Yes, you are getting me there.
Q: All right, so doesnt that bring
you to the conclusion that there has got to be authority?
RH: Youre right on! Authority and leadership.
There was a time in the counter culture when there were
leaders. Not the best leaders, but there were leaders and
they were respected and they were followed, but they abused
their leadership and they were the worst kind of egotistic,
arrogant, male, macho leaders that you could imagine. But
they functioned as a leadership. That was demolished. The
anti-authoritarianism that turned against the war, turned
against the leaders when the leaders failed. They abused
their leadership; they abused their power. They misused
their power. I can be more specific, but I dont need
to be. A lot of it was sexual abuse and power. As a result,
you had leaderless groups.
But then relationships are very difficult to work out.
You just go around in circles. People today have just given
up. There cant be leaders. As soon as someone tries
to lead, they get shot down, or you have to use such indirect
means to manipulate the group or lead the group without
them feeling like theyre being led or swayed.
Q: You have to be self-accommodating?
RH: Or you finally say, "Okay, Ill be
accommodating and diplomatic. Then in ten years well
have planted one more acre of carrots." So what! There
is a distrust of leadership. I dont know what to do
about that. Leaders themselves must do something about it.
They must be firmly rooted in reality.
Q: So, it comes down to what was missing
all along what has been missing all along is true,
genuine authority. Good authority!
RH: Some greater reality is what they have to believe
in. You cant be a father or a leader unless you had
a father, or have a father you believe in. And we cant
believe our own fathers because they are human.
Q: Is the idea or possibility of finding
a true father just too impossible or too incredible to actually
RH: It is a matter of faith.
Q: What if those in the counter culture
saw the reality of true fathers, true leaders? What if they
actually saw a demonstration of it. Do you think that once
again there could be an awakening in a whole generation
RH: I dont know. Its hard for me to
speak about how a whole generation of people would react
to that kind of demonstration. Im afraid at this point
that they may not see it if it happened, or they would dismiss
it as something else because they are so suspicious and
cynical, not only about groups, but about all authority.
How I got to this point of opening up was through reaching
the bottom, the absolute bottom. I recognize that. Unless
I establish my own reality or am attached to a greater reality
(or sense of reality), I would be lost. What can I tell
my son to do tomorrow if I dont have my own sense
Recently I saw that I am gradually coming out of that.
I think its a gradual process. I think that the masses
of people arent going to see the example and change
overnight. I think they have to reach the bottom and come
up. But I wouldnt be here unless there was someone
else who had done it too. Its true. And knowing you
people makes it easier each day to keep on growing in that
way. If I were totally alone, as I said, I couldnt
even talk about it. I probably wouldnt be trying to
go very far. Knowing that there are other people that are
headed the same direction theres help.