Notes from the Editor: Exploring the Shadow Side

Posted on September 10, 2019 by

Excerpted from the Fall 2019 edition of Communities, “The Shadow Side of Cooperation”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

A multi-talented, charismatic community-seeker visits a cooperative rural group that is understaffed, joining them at the beginning of an unexpected weather emergency. He quickly makes himself useful, taking initiative in helping assure the group’s basic physical needs are met, while befriending a number of residents. He ends up being hired, with very little vetting, into a major leadership position which the community’s business has been striving somewhat desperately to fill. All seems to go well in the first few days, but issues soon start to surface, involving what some perceive to be an over-authoritative, controlling style, lack of humility, and consistent defensiveness in response to certain types of crucial feedback. After a lengthy interview/meeting a month after his arrival, he is denied residency, but not without some community members (both those against his residency, and those in favor of it) ending up feeling greatly alienated from their fellow communitarians.

The divisions within the community take some weeks to heal; fortunately, the experience provides motivation and opportunity to put in place new organizational structures and procedures to guard against future recurrences of similar episodes. The group finds its own bonds ultimately strengthened, its members’ respect for one another increased, through dealing with this challenge and its aftermath. But it was no fun when it was happening―either for the community or for the person trying to join it, whose wounds from this episode may outlast the group’s.

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Inspired by its founder’s vision, a community develops a polyamorous “group marriage” structure in which each member becomes sexually involved with every other member. Things seem to go swimmingly for a time, but eventually, several newer members recognize that they no longer want to participate in the same way in the group marriage. Specifically, they no longer consent to sexual activity with some longer-term members. Unwilling to accept this change, the community’s “old guard” moves to revoke their membership, ultimately provoking their departure. An exodus of other residents follows. Those who remain wonder: what happened to our group marriage, and the vision we’ve been working toward? Others wonder: is it legal for a group to require sexual activity as a condition of membership, or refusal of sex as grounds for disenfranchisement and eviction, especially when the land, facilities, and organization are held in the public trust, as a nonprofit? Everyone involved wonders: how exactly does one dissolve a group marriage, when so much is at stake?

In this case, too, idealism and naivete lead residents down a perilous path in which feelings of love―accompanied by passionate dedication to what they see as a necessary cultural revolution―turn into feelings of betrayal, heartbreak, and the breaking of the participants’ spirits. For those who end up leaving, freedom of choice is the first threatened loss―followed, when that freedom is asserted, by loss of agency, community, home, and financial security. For those who stay, the feeling of family is shattered. This is not what was supposed to happen. Over time, the community’s “remainers” and refugees alike work to pick up the pieces within their now separate spheres, but some of the wounds may not heal.

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A large-ish intentional community cultivates a sense of extended family, with children roaming in apparent safety, allowed and encouraged to get to know others in the village. Many adults (not just their own parents) watch out for their well-being; many homes feel like some version of “home” to them. One day, to community members’ shock, police arrive to arrest a well-respected, long-term member on multiple counts of child sexual abuse, allegedly involving children within the community. The community’s world is turned upside down. How could this have happened? It is the most traumatic event many of them have ever experienced, and causes existential questions within the group.

After initial attempts to share the difficulty of this experience with their wider circles, they find their ability and willingness to talk about it publicly shutting down while they work to process it among themselves. Both the trauma of it and the discomfort caused by members’ differing responses (do they consider their member innocent until proven guilty? believe those reporting the violations? visit the alleged perpetrator in jail? focus energy instead on the families harmed by the alleged actions?) make it impossible to know what to say. And for the families most directly affected, the thought of talking about it in any way beyond what is absolutely necessary can seem traumatic in itself, an obstacle in the path to healing. Yet community members are also aware that patterns of abuse survive and are perpetuated in silence. The danger of other communities encountering the same kind of event because they were not fully aware of its potential persists, perhaps even grows, with each instance kept quiet. How can the cycle be broken?

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Intentional community can engender a feeling of trust―an attitude that, unfortunately, can sometimes prove to be detrimental or perilous, whether placed on fellow community members or on outsiders who may not turn out to be so trustworthy.

On the other hand, intentional community can allow people to know each other better, and thus be more aware of potential dangers and pitfalls. It can create more safety and security among groups of people, who, through practical structures and design that encourage it, and through the natural growth of connections and intimacy, look out for one another and protect one another from harm coming from either without or within.

If anything, this higher standard for interpersonal accountability and care makes the effect even more devastating when those feelings of safety, security, and affection turn out to be based on illusion. When trust is betrayed, dreams turn into nightmares. Ultimately nightmares can be worked through in the light of day, but the worst ones may take years or decades to get over―and sometimes, full healing may not be possible in this lifetime.

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Fortunately, most of the difficulties people encounter in cooperative settings are considerably less dramatic than the prototypical examples cited above. Sensational episodes are what garner the great majority of press coverage and attention from those who, with little context or understanding of intentional community life, may tend to paint with broad brush strokes in depicting something that is mostly not how they describe it. For this reason those within the communities movement may themselves be hesitant to draw attention to times when things go very wrong.

But not talking about something does not make it go away. We need to be able to share our stories and the wisdom we’ve gained from difficult lessons, even if it means admitting that cooperative living, like any other kind of choice, can bring frustration, pain, “failure,” and disillusionment at times. Harm, even trauma can happen―in the same way that they can happen anywhere.

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In a three-dimensional world, light also casts shadow. This is as true in the world of intentional community as it is in any other realm. The most inspiring community models can have fatal flaws. Seemingly ideal, even heavenly living situations can turn into living hells. In the same way that community can bring out the best in individuals and groups, it can also bring out the worst. Unacknowledged shadows within individuals and within cultures can manifest in destructive ways, tearing apart communities rather than binding them together in shared humanity.

In response to this difficult reality (a reality reflected in one common attitude toward community living: that it can never work), sometimes not cooperating can seem like the most secure or only safe option―cutting ourselves off from community and all the dysfunction that can happen within it. Yet separating ourselves brings equal perils and does not diminish the presence of “problematic” elements within ourselves or in our experience of society―in fact, it may even increase their influence. The real challenge is to recognize the shadow side of cooperation and persist nonetheless; to endeavor to learn from the sometimes unwelcome lessons that cooperative endeavors bring, and to develop ways of preventing, responding to, and healing from the damage that unacknowledged or marginalized shadow sides of ourselves and our groups can inflict on us when we’re in denial.

This issue of Communities is intended to help with that process―to share stories of community’s underbelly and offer suggestions on making that underbelly a little less grisly, giving it some air and light and inspiring us to lift up our own underbellies rather than keeping them submerged in the mud of shame and denial. As individuals and groups, we can and do learn to do things differently. We need to. Sharing our stories and perspectives is one way to make that happen. Thanks again for joining us.

Chris Roth edits Communities.

Excerpted from the Fall 2019 edition of Communities, “The Shadow Side of Cooperation”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

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