Journal of Charisma Studies
Stoking the Counterculture:
Father Yod and the Bliss of Guruhood
Taso G. Lagos
Article contents adopted from secondary sources. All rights reserved. © 2022
Born James Edward Baker, but in his full charismatic bloom, Father Yod, and, before his untimely death, YaHoWha, he led the counterculture commune, the Source Family, in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 70s that for a time owned a wildly successful health food restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. His tight-knit clan thrived in the cultural permissiveness of Southern California, which gave cover to a hedonistic, patriarchal lifestyle that cemented his fame and notoriety. His checkered past and tendentious emphasis on sexual relations (“balling”) as the very core to human life, including between adults and minors, brought unwanted publicity and public scorn. He remains a figure of mystery and great controversy, despite, as social historian Erik Davis suggests, his transforming “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll into a genuine religion.” His social ethos places him in a long line of American spirito-cultural entrepreneurs that test the outer limits of religious faith and interrogate the foundational tenets of a repressive, conformist utilitarian society.
§ § §
Many fringe religious figures fill American history, but few quite like James Baker/Father Yod/YaHoWha as he came to be known. Baker is one of those unfathomable, charismatic figures who both represent an era but also help define it, but whose hold over less critical and counterculture-focused minds in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Los Angeles cannot and should not be exaggerated. Like a Federico Fellini film character, he dashes in and out of moral sanity, one moment a pathetic imitation of a wise, penitent guru, the other a rather crude and lustful middle-aged man screwing teenagers. It’s hard to tell the difference between the two selves, so full of contradiction and venality gather into one being, yet also a figure
who shrewdly knew the basest, darkest corners of human reality and the strange power he acquired from this knowledge.
He was a womanizer who craved sex. It got him into scrapes, in one case, leading to the death of a jealous husband. Then he discovered that he could become a guru figure with all the sex he wanted, and then some, with young, nubile women. The Source Family was born from “a deeply devoted group of young people, living communally, whose eccentric sexual, spiritual and financial relationships were commanded by an enormously charismatic patriarchal figure who presented himself to his flock as Father and God.” Genius? Rogue? Scam artist? The elephant has many parts, but which one represents it best?
As a charismatic personality, Baker follows the classic pattern of a troubled upbringing that metamorphosed into a controversial yet well-publicized career. That’s the banner hanging on the shop window; go farther into the store and the realization emerges that he may have set a trap for anyone trying to analyze him, that it was not just charisma at work but the whole Baker/Yod/YaHoWha guru act a supreme joke played upon anyone who tries to dissect his curious life and whatever meaning can be squeezed out of it. Perhaps, at the end of a wild and dangerous hang-gliding ride that resulted in his untimely death, Baker discovered there was no meaning at all. If true, then he probably had the last laugh before tuning out the world for the final time.
§ § §
Is America uniquely placed to produce charismatic figures? Does its social permissiveness allow such personalities to find favor and fame in the racially divisive, culturally diverse, and morally unsettled reality that constitutes the United States since its birth? Perhaps it says something about the nation’s psycho-social vitality that figures of some disrepute can climb the slippery slopes of regenerative success and notoriety to achieve historical status (at least, briefly). This is certainly the case with James Edward Baker and his transformation into a spiritual guru of renown and controversy in the boiling cultural landscape that was Southern California in the 1960s and 70s merits examination. If there is a spigot of charisma, it can be easily found within the escapist and inchoate romp that was the Sixties’ counterculture movement. Baker was one of its most glaring examples.
Steve Allen’s Beloved Son: A Story of the Jesus Cults and Isis Aquarian’s (with Electricity Aquarian) The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and the Source Family provide clear evidence of the difficult upbringing and its resultant charismatic trail that constitutes Baker’s life. Like other charismatics, his introduction to harsh reality came at a young age, in Baker’s case, as a baby. He was born, according to Aquarian, “at midnight on the fourth of July, in Cincinnati [Ohio] in 1922.” His father was a firefighter who, shortly after Jim was born, walked out on the family, leaving his wife, Cora, to tend to a girl and the toddler by herself. The divorce deeply impacted his life, sending him on a lifelong quest, “first for his flesh father, and then later, as he matured, for his ‘Spiritual Father.’” Cora fed the family as a “housekeeper and chef” in both in private homes and institutions (the latter “talent,” Allen claims, “that was in time passed along to her son”).
By the time Baker reached 10, the country had fallen into grim economic times. The Great Depression. Forced to work in odd jobs, “mostly hard labor,” he developed an “impressive physique,” later pay romantic dividends. Tall and attractive, he never shied away from difficult tasks. The wheels of his personal history quickened with each passing year: as a teenager, employed by the Roosevelt Administration’s Civilian Conservation Corps as a road and dam builder, among other jobs; at 16 winner of the Ohio State Archery Competition; married at 19 with a daughter to follow; off to World War II to become a decorated Marine, expert at hand-to-hand combat; Marine Corps judo champion; teacher in Idaho to Marine judo instructors and for a brief time owned a gym (“Baker Studio of Body Culture”). An eclectic career, no doubt, yet one that placed him in the very frontlines of masculine life. The remaining parts of the Baker body of work, as revealed below, became legends.
While pained by the exodus of his father, Baker could turn to one family ancestor in the 19th century for inspiration: his great-grandfather, also named Jim Baker. This ancestor, his biographer claims, “for sixty years of the West’s most turbulent history was a prominent figure.” Like his descendent decades later, Baker straddled two worlds – the pioneering one and the Native American one he came to love and adopt (which he claimed as the happiest of his life). Miracle cures and medicinal charms held sway for him, as it did for his namesake who practiced them under the guise of New Age spirituality. Prodigiously tall, the womanizing “Mountain Man” Baker roamed the wilderness in various guises – from trapper to guide and everything in between – fathering 14 children with Native American wives and 13 more with pioneering ones, like his restless descendant, leaving his mark in several places. While the biography chronicles his exploits, little is known about the fates and thoughts of the many wives and 27 children he left behind of the peripatetic biological husband/father.
A moment in this peripatetic lifestyle stands out above the rest if only because it presaged much of his later destiny. He was 14 when he fell ill to hemorrhoids, necessitating an operation. Coincidentally, Paul Bragg (“nutritionist and health food pioneer”) was traveling through Cincinnati on a Health Crusade at that exact moment. Bragg more than simply opened a new world for the young Baker; for a time, he even served as a substitute father, always part of the playbook of the rising charismatic. Jim invited Bragg to his house, the older man cooking a meal for him and his mother. The friendship extended for several years, as did Baker’s growing belief in the power and impact of healthy, nutritional food on the human body. Since the hemorrhoids are not mentioned again, presumably he was cured of the affliction.
The siren call of Hollywood beckoned. He sought the role of Tarzan, and not getting the part, married a second time (to a design artist named Elaine) and dabbled in the occult, astrology, and mysticism with his wife under the sway of Manly P. Hall, author of The Secret Teachings of All Ages. Hall, the product of an estranged relationship with his father who grew into a powerful charismatic in his own right, is the type of eccentric personality well represented in the annals of America’s alternative religio-spiritual movements. His dramatic, biblical prophet-like headshots were designed to impress, or awe his audiences, even as they endowed him with the look of a deranged scientist. He charmed many with his earnestness and utter confidence in his beliefs, and influenced many others, including President Ronald Reagan. The strength and power of Hall’s ideas should not be underestimated; they echo in major threads of our own culture today. Donald Trump was another believer and beneficiary of Hall’s ideas.
Hall was an entry point for the Bakers into the bohemian counterculture and its divergent beliefs. His fellow travelers included fitness guru Jack LaLanne and a group that came to be known as “Nature Boys.” According to Aquarian, these “Nature Boys,” along with the east coast Beatniks, paved the way for the hippie movement. To earn money, he created a business for the manufacture of leather belts and custom-made sandals. Beneath Baker’s entrepreneurial façade bubbled the desire to escape the Maya, or the quotidian daily reality, or the “rat race” for the rest of us.
Charismatic personalities seek the limelight and Los Angeles, like it has for so many others, provided the vehicle for the publicity he craved. Fame for Baker came in an unexpected way. The Bakers cared for a neighbor’s dog in Topanga Canyon when its owner served three weeks of jail time in prison for “traffic charges.” The altercation started when the neighbor came to the Bakers’ home demanding Baker’s help in moving his car. He also berated Baker for “allegedly mistreating his dog.” Events suggest, at least, according to the Los Angeles Times, that the pitched argument intensified and by the time they reached the neighbor’s car, the other man drew a hunting knife and pressed it against Baker’s stomach. Whereupon the judo expert immediately grabbed the man’s wrist (his expertise prepared for such moments) and threw him over his shoulder, both landing in a gully. Baker judo-chopped the man’s neck until he saw the man was dead. Why Baker continued to hack the neighbor until he died (he could have stopped after one chop) was a question never answered. Elaine Baker and neighbors corroborated Jim’s side of the story, with a jury ruling in his favor (self-defense). A picture in the Times shows Elaine happily embracing the freed Baker. Life could return to normal, at least, Elaine hoped. Baker was back in normal society, and no longer just another anonymous, fame-hungry acolyte in Los Angeles. The publicity bug penetrated his skin, and he remained in its claws for the rest of his life.
An issue that separates mystics from ordinary yokels is their adamant belief that western doctors cause more harm than good. This belief brought conflict between Elaine and Jim. When she got pregnant, he insisted on a natural birth at home while she preferred a hospital. She won the debate but got measles in the waiting room before delivering a deaf baby. Aquarian claims that Baker did his level best to heal the baby’s deafness by natural means (even getting a goat to provide more nutritional milk than what cows produce), but with apparently no improvement to the baby’s hearing. It didn’t stop them from having two more children, and even opening a “gourmet health food restaurant,” apparently the first of its kind in the United States. In 1958, the Aware Inn appeared at the perfect time to capture the growing interest in nutritional food but with the added twist of being served in a stylish upscale setting.
§ § §
It was not simply that the Aware Inn was a trendy operation, jumping on the backs of a rising health food movement (or in Steve Allen’s words, “the health food, natural-ingredients fad”), but it was also located in the middle of Sunset Boulevard that caught the attention of passing movie stars as they drove by, including Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, and aging Greta Garbo (Baker claimed he had an affair with her). “Jim prepare[d] the food during the day,” Aquarian claims, “and in the evenings, Elaine would co-host and Jim would drink half a bottle of vodka, cook for a while, and then go out and work the room.” How his proclivity for alcohol squared with his obsession with pure foods is never mentioned. A second Aware Inn was opened in San Fernando Valley, and later, the Old World on the Strip, all successful. With a flourishing chain of restaurants as his calling card, like all good charismatic personalities, Baker was absorbing the mores of his Hollywood surroundings, soon to excel in them.
Paradise is never paradisiacal, at least, not for long. An inner restlessness, an inner hunger, a deep-seated angst that success is never enough, there cannot be enough fame – all these pervade the charismatic life. And so it was with Jim. He didn’t care if he hurt others’ feelings, in many respects the “other”didn’t exist (a characteristic often associated with malignant narcissists, with whom many charismatics share traits). The charismatic also tests fate, and in coming out ahead, proclaims themselves invisible. As a local celebrity, Baker’s roving bedroom eye found many willing participants; how this wounded his marriage and family he had little concern. The roulette ball stopped on “a blonde dancer turned television actress,” Jean Ingram, “31, gorgeous, and recently separated from her wealthy hotelier husband.” Baker knew the Ingrams for two years as customers of his and Elaine’s restaurant.
Despite their separation, the husband (a hotel owner and builder) did not take her affair with Baker lightly. He threatened to kill him, according to Allen, or “taunt[ed] Jim in public,” from Aquarian’s perspective. Whatever the circumstances, they led to a singular point: January 29, 1963, at around 10:00am in the office above the Aware Inn on Sunset Strip where the hotelier stepped in with a gun. In Baker’s blithe, matter-of-fact recounting of the tragic event, the entire episode takes on the manner of paint drying. “I took a judo chop at the gun.” he says as reported in the Los Angeles Times, “It went off and a bullet went through the ceiling. I knocked the gun from his hand. Then we fought for the gun. He was in a stooped-over, crouching position and I fired once. He rolled over. I checked his heartbeat and there was none, so I called my wife… then called the Sheriff’s office.”
Baker claimed, as with the first murder, self-defense. “The coroner reported that Ingram’s husband had died either from neck blows that had collapsed his windpipe, or the bullet wound to the head.” That he killed enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand combat in World War II, dispatching someone was second nature to him. Rather than receiving medals this time, in the second civilian murder he got something sweeter: weeks of headline-powered publicity. In the land of sensational trials, Jim’s proved enduring and, in a notorious way, at least for him, empowering. He was convicted (manslaughter), and briefly jailed, but in a new trial the charges were dismissed. Once more, Baker beat fate. Yet, gossip would haunt him the rest of his life: not just the two murders, but the bank robberies (“anywhere between two and eleven banks”), and eventually his polygamous ways. “There was clearly a larger-than-life outlaw quality to this man,” Aquarian writes, “which only seemed to add to his appeal.”
At this point, the pace of his life quickened. From this moment forward to the point when he decided to go hang-gliding off a tall cliff in Hawaii, several lives were lived, each followed by a more stupendous and incredible one. What did he have to show for it at the end? Perhaps little, perhaps more than mortal minds can grasp. Either way, he lived like a comet streaking across the night sky. A ride fueled in part by drugs. Lots of drugs; always with the sobriquets “Sacred” in front of it, such as “Sacred Snow” (cocaine).
To power the hallucinatory escapades, he regularly helped himself to the cash registers at the Old World (“$300 to $600 a day for a year and a half”). The serving staff and the manager knew about the thefts, but “were literally afraid [that] Baker... would murder them if they informed on him.” His partner in the business finally confronted him over the cash withdrawals and in the arbitration that followed, the partner took over the Old World operations. Baker refused to go silently into the night, however. An altercation took place at the Old World on Sunset, with Baker ready to physically attack the former partner; the latter “was saved by a tough lesbian who called herself Gus.” Separated from his beloved Old World, Jim Baker was now a free agent. What would he do with all his free time, free spirits, and drug habit?
§ § §
There’s always India. At least, in the 60s and 70s. The Indian culture at first, then India herself. It was a rabbit hole for some, a spiritual adventure for others. For Baker, it was a hungry quest that needed satisfaction. Mixed in was his deep, inner-core need for a father figure, one that he never had nor ever ceased seeking. He embarked on a career choice that does not yield a gold watch in retirement. Buddhists have a phrase: it always ends badly.
Meanwhile, there were stops along the road.
A chance meeting with an investor on a hike led to the opening of the Source, his most successful of all his eateries. Part rambling shack, part “energy center,” part mystic fountain, part nutrition and part showcase of female attractiveness, the Source had no real peer. It existed in its own world, own ethos, own path. Perhaps the most successful restaurant operation in America (per square foot), it was a money-making machine that underwrote what soon became known as the Source Family. The charismatic Baker had finally found his true home, and he was to enjoy its extraordinary benefits for several years – sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll – on levels rarely witnessed in the United States. One must look to Medieval potentates to absorb the level of narcissism and hedonism involved.
Nothing in his life predicted his transformation from Jim Baker to Father Yod to YaHoWha. Yet, on another level, guruhood was an easy fit for the chameleon-like Baker. Recall, his initiation into the Southland lifestyle led him to understand its customs and habits; if the Source was the most financially successful restaurant per square foot in the United States, it’s also the case that Los Angeles contained its fair share of cults. The city is a modern version of the Burned-Over District, a swath of Central New York state that was a whirlwind of spiritual activity in the first half of the 19th century, but with the difference that the Southland version involved copious amounts of drugs. Baker imbibed the essence of the era, and he adeptly mastered its ways. He experienced a transformation to be sure, but as Allen noted, “if his spiritual conversion was authentic, then none of his past crimes [“con man, thief and killer”] could be held against him.”
Since there is no reliable, scientific measurement of the authenticity of such conversions, there is only anecdotal evidence. First, there is the Source itself, an expression of his own mystical flight of fancy for what a health-food eatery should be: a purveyor of nutritional food and spiritual healing served together as one. Each plate of “Aware Salad” and “Mother’s Eggplant” satisfied the stomach and brought to the table by a Family-member server, opened the soul otherwise lost in the mundane. The Source signaled the arrival of the Age of Aquarius, a time of supposed elevated consciousness, peace, harmony, and inner growth would lead the way. Unfortunately, astrologers never made up their minds as to when such an Age began.
The restaurant operationalized his own version of an equitable economy: all employees at the Source received the same salary. Socialism in mystical garb. Strangely, it worked. Even Baker put in stints washing dishes. “He considered it a form of meditation.” More importantly, it brought attention to his ascendant Eastern-inspired spiritualism sweeping across American culture (thanks, in part, to the Beatles leading the way) and made him a focal point for acolytes. Even as Baker transformed from mortal to guru, he kept some traditional symbols of famous occultic groups. Part of the signage of the Source included the large eye sitting atop an unfinished pyramid, the symbol of the Freemasons known as the ‘Great Seal of the United States:’ nothing achieved in this world (topless pyramid) takes place without God’s blessing (eye). It also stood for the “renewed search for universal truth as it existed in all the great civilizations,” a philosophy undergirding all Yod’s spiritual practices. He also borrowed from the Masons “ritually bathing neophytes [often in freezing pools], clothing them in temple garments, and giving them new spiritual names.”
Second, a soured love affair (for once the mate left him rather than the other way around) concentrated his mind further into meditation, which he had begun earlier but which took on a renewed intentionality. His insatiable hunger for a father figure and to quell his inner demons brought him face to face with the Sikh, Yogi Bhajan. Bhajan was to play a more role in Baker’s life, not simply the father figure he always craved (despite the Yogi being five years younger than Baker), but also key unlocking his own spiritual awareness. Jim began “calling him Father.” His outward appearance had changed too: longer hair, a beard, and simple-fitting clothes. The transformation seemed complete.
This was Jim’s first experience with what he
recognized as spiritual enlightenment; he
felt a sense of deep and direct knowing unlike
anything he had previously experienced. He
no longer felt like a seeker and was finally
able to let himself become completely vulnerable.
From the depths of that innocence, he hung onto
the Yogi for a long time.
But, to repeat the question, was the change real? The third and last element may perhaps be the most important. Like all religious and pseudo-religious figures of one kind or another, Baker’s own spirituality did not take place in a vacuum. Context matters, here more than in other cases. Baker drew sustenance, even encouragement that his own pathway was one shared by millions across the world. He was not alone, he could not be deranged, his dabbling into the ethereal came with its own security blanket of wide-spread publicity of the efficacy of Eastern spiritual movements. Baker’s commune was one of hundreds if not thousands of such gatherings that mushroomed across the land, both urban and rural, during the period. A period that scholar Timothy Miller notes, was “by far the largest episode of commune building in American history.”
Baker was aware that his collection of young, underage acolytes and adult worshippers (reaching as high as perhaps 140) had other competitors and friendly rivals. Less clear is whether he knew his Source Family was part of a “continuous, if small, ongoing theme [of intentional communities in American life” who continually stoke the fires of alternative spiritual embers. In the end, his awareness or lack therefore mattered little; Baker did not need to defend the validity of his conversion when so many others around him were defending their own. Particularly to the charges they led cults.
Jim lived in an Eastern-themed room above the Source (as he had above the Old World restaurant on Sunset). There he meditated, held his meetings, read, smoked marijuana, enjoyed some alfresco with his attractive female followers, and held court as a Southland version of Picasso’s “River God” drawings. His admirers regarded him as their “earthly spiritual father.” Later he and his clan moved on an unused mansion, the “Mother House,” and then when neighbors complained, to another compound dubbed the “Father House.” Whatever the location, the day always began at 4am with meditation.
Steve Allen attended one of the early-morning meditations and his words are instructive. I paraphrase: Allen sat alongside Family members who murmured as Baker, now Father Yod, marched down the staircase. Allen didn’t recognize that the figure he had once known as a “well-to-do Beverly Hills restaurant owner,” was now “Michelangelo’s version of God the Father.” “Long, flower gray-white hair, a full beard, piercing eyes.” Central Casting would have approved.
Father Yod walked through the gathered throng (“fervent admirers”) and the young women “swooned” when he touched them. He proceeded to a raised chair in front of the panoramic but sleeping Los Angeles below, in effect, as if he ruled the city. Yod spoke, at first hesitantly, a la voce, as if imitating, for Allen, “Oriental gurus and swamis.” Once finding his rhythm, his voice rose in intensity and his eyes “flashed,” as if in a state of revelry. “He was, in various breaths,” Allen continues, “solemn, wise, amusing, hip, reasonable and… nutty as a fruitcake, though the man himself was perfectly sane.” His audience was entranced, blurting “Oh, wow,” or “Right-on,” or “strange, soft giggles by the young women kneeling at his feet.” Yod’s observations, Allen concludes, reflected “true wisdom” yet “would strike the average person as sheer nonsense.”
Baker even tried to eclipse Jesus when he told his listeners during meditation: “It has been said unto you, ‘love everyone.’ Try it. You cannot. But you can be kind. You become part of that guardian wall that protects humanity.” Was this spiritual learning meant to guide lives, or simply “fishing for people to bring in and make part of what it was they were doing?” If Baker had his Sermon on the Mount, it would be boiled down to these words sung in the Family’s musical band:
To purify the body,
refine the emotions,
elevate the mind,
and liberate the soul,
so that you can be
of service to humanity.
Like Manly P. Hall did before him, and others still earlier, Baker/Yod amalgamated several spirito-religious strands under one umbrella: the Old Testament, the New Testament, Hip Culture, jazz music, astrology, “Oriental-Hindu-Yoga philosophy” and “ancient Egyptian, Persian and Middle-Eastern pagan belief and mythology.” It was a potent combination and one that cut across various religious traditions and thus touched the lives of many, rather a sectarian few. In today’s parlance, it was good branding. Allen has a slightly different opinion: “[t]hose inclined to a reasonable frame of mind tend to react to this sort of material with an almost automatic mixture of contempt and rejection. The irrationality of it is so evident that one is inclined to dismiss it out of hand as almost totally nonsensical.” And why its practitioners tend to be lumped into the label of cult.
Perhaps out of a need to prove his credentials, Yod and the Yogi traveled to India, the fount of all his spirituality stood for. Yet, in leaving for the motherland of esoteric wisdom, he also walked away from the Source eatery in disarray: in debt, badly managed and on the throngs of being padlocked by local authorities for arrears. Indian spirituality was an attraction for Baker, but so was the availability of the “Sacred Shin” (hashish) and the “Sacred Herb” (marijuana). Baker apparently returned a different person, but only through the extraordinary efforts of two of his followers was the Source saved from bankruptcy. The eatery’s parking lot began to be used for meditation sessions on Sunday mornings (curious drivers on Sunset nearby staring in puzzled disbelief). But such was the sessions’ visibility that newcomers filled the lot.
§ § §
Between 1970 and 1974 with his untimely death, Yod lived the life of excess particularly acute and brazen at the time: drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll. Lots of sex (“balling” he called it). With dozens of women, some of them underaged. He married one but cavorted with many. Sex with drugs. With single partners, or more than one at a time. Sex in contorted positions. Sex without ejaculation. Sex with ejaculation. Sex that produced babies. Sex any time his heart yearned. Sex so few mortals ever come by. And when he was filled with sex, there was still more of it, waiting for him around the clock, as if his waking hours – except for those devoted to his meditative work – had to be filled with it. A cornucopia of sex. No small wonder he died with a smile on his face. His mind and groin never stopped working. His mind and groin knew the sweeter life than one imagined.
Baker wore clothing that resembled a hip version of an ancient monk (easier to slip in and out of for sexual purposes?), and risibly changed the names of all his acolytes (to “Orbit,” “Electricity,” “Sunflower,” “Whisper,” “America,” “Waterfall,” etc.), but all with the same last name, Aquarius. His sermons offered wisdom originating from a mystical interpretation from one of the many ancient texts he read, or from a fortune cookie. “’If you want to know something, ask it,’” he would say, “if you want to learn something, write it, if you want to master something, teach it.’” Yet, such wisdom entranced his worshippers, who – penitently enough, at least before they escaped his clutches – regarded him as a ‘God’ manifesting through his being, or as Aquarian put it: "We knew that he was not the only GOD, but we also knew that he was definitely a self-recognized and very real component of God." With such accolades, it’s difficult to imagine his ego shrinking. Anne Marie Bennstrom, one of his acolytes tells the story of seeing a picture of Yogi Bhajan over the fireplace at the Source. “’Where are you going to put up your own picture instead?’” she asked Yod. “Never,” he responded. Six months later, his picture hung over the fireplace.
From our perspective today, the whole enterprise takes the tone of an intense narcissistic fantasy, but the 60s were no ordinary time. There was an air of experimentation (something seriously removed from our present culture) to make us envious. The era certainly bred an element of freedom, however, hedonistic, anarchistic, and simplistic it might seem to us. It attacked the consumer economy, which for many non-conformists, was a “culture of self-indulgence.” It was also a culture of pure greed, where the stock market tables held more reverence than the demands of ordinary life. For these modern communards, who could draw inspiration from a variety of commune-oriented groups throughout recorded history, “American culture had ‘deeply and uniquely frustrated’ three basic human desires – for community, for engagement, and for dependence.” All these elements floated and swirled around the American edges at the time, and coalesced in these alternative groups that held sway and even some power before they vanished in the less accommodating 70s.
There was also an element of environmentalism involved in these gatherings. Concerns about the environment has long antecedents – Aristotle wrote about the deforested hills and mountains around Athens used to build warships and the soil run-offs this caused – but by now modern technology had not simply ruined the environment – pollution, soil destruction, heating atmosphere, etc. – but created ‘slave humans’ who lived by the paycheck and by values that turned humanity on its head. Miller cites Newsweek on this Luddite fantasy: “On the day two Americans harnessed technology to land on the moon, 25 members of New Mexico’s New Buffalo communed harvested wheat by hand – ‘the way the Babylonians did 3,000 years ago.’”
Lastly was a desire on the part of Baker/Yod and many other communes to return to a simpler ‘church,’ even an “’early revolutionary church’ that Jesus set into motion, but which had been lost, encrusted, rusted in the effluvia of capitalistic expansion and growth. A church “whose followers lived in caves and shared their bread, their persecution, and their destiny. A church that stands for the salvation of men’s souls, the salvation of humanity (frequently called Godliness) or its members. A church that stands for a belief in a radically different, spiritually liberated life which is thought to be so changed as to be unimaginable to people who live in this world. A church that stands for communion, and it is the church feeling of communion that must be at the bottom of an organization built.”
These ideas and philosophies that animated gurus like Baker/Yod. But they didn’t always occupy his time. He had more concerns, and usually related to his groin. He married a formerly sickly young woman, 19 at the time, only to leave her for 14 more attractive ones. The number didn’t matter, the sex did. Sects (or cults) that form around singular figures rarely sustain themselves over the breadth of time. It takes dedicated souls to keep the memory alive, and certainly Aquarian fits that mold. But eventually the fire that set off the Source Family in the first place, when confronted by the day-to-day struggles, dies. We are then left with the smoldering ashes to parse and study, but they can never quite capture the brightness that for a time ruled the lives of the Family.
Disillusion sets in, particularly over Baker’s hedonism and hypocritical ways (violating commandment VI of his ‘Ten Commandments’: “The man and the woman are one, let nothing separate them”), and one by one, acolytes left. In the back of many minds there were always questions not just about his harem, but about the very lifestyle itself, which included a Rolls Royce and other fancy cars. It was not just Baker who indulged in this kind of excessive consumerism; his idol, Yogi Bhajan, lived in a wealthy house in an exclusive part of Los Angeles with a “garage full of Rolls Royces” himself. Exclusive cars were part of the guru playbook – touring the city in white Rolls Royces. Since big-time actors, producers, directors, and film executives also tooled around in the same cars, few took notice. Los Angeles bred and encouraged this kind of showy branding, and in the case of the Source Family, giving notice to onlookers that this was no ordinary commune, not simply a collection of solipsistic, tribal hippies but a financially successful clan as measure by capitalist yardsticks.
§ § §
Hawaii was different; Baker and his tribe were not welcomed, but scorned and despised. None of them were prepared for the hostility they encountered, and despite always managing to get out of a scrape (financial, governmental, social, cultural, etc.) in Los Angeles, no such luck served them in Hawaii. This was a new chapter in the Family’s journey, and they were not prepared for it. Certainly not his young acolytes, many with little experience of adult life, and certainly not with their utterly devoted, light-blinding dependence on Father Yod as the father-figure (hence the name), but also their protector of the darker aspects of life, or, worse, their rescuer. Such infantilization is common in dictatorships, and, sadly, all too common in communes. He was required, demanded, expected to solve all their problems with a wave of his big, sturdy hand, the one that dispatched several men to their death. When he couldn't or wouldn't solve them, further disillusionment set in.
In leaving the Family, many felt the "Father's wrath." (Aquarian p. 96). As one who abandoned the Family expressed it: “[Yod] told the family that they should shun me because I was 'lost in the Maya [the daily reality].'" (p. 96) “Together," Aquarian notes, the Family "experienced the good, the bad and the ugly." By the end of their journey in Los Angeles, the latter two claimed more of their time than the former. State authorities circled around the Family, focused on, among other concerns, that children born into the Family were not attending schools.
So, the group took their multi-dimensional sex ("which left both parties so satisfied and heightened, we rarely had the desire to make love in the traditional way," claims Aquarian) and alternative ways to Hawaii. Baker sold the Source for $300,000 and they permanently left the "creature comforts" of Los Angeles to the rural, rustic one in Maui with no toilets, showers, laundry facilities or even covered places to sleep. The children had a blast, and some considered the time in Hawaii as "the best days of my life." (Aquarian p. 160). But for others, these were grim days.
Away from the safety of Los Angeles, outside their nest, Hawaii was less forgiving. Many locals considered them an extension of the murderous Manson family, another L.A. cult, and it felt to them as evil had descended on their grounds. Baker’s past may have finally caught up with him. He wouldn’t give in to his comeuppance without a struggle. His magical touch deserted him. Decisions were made that he would never have considered on the mainland. As a restaurateur, the Source was a natural stepping-stone to his life: he knew all the sides of the hospitality business and it suited his lifestyle. In Hawaii, rather than opening a restaurant, he decided the Family should become fishermen (they were all men involved). How he would expect for former cooks, dishwashers, busboys, servers, etc., to suddenly metamorphosize into sea denizens can be judged as either cruelty or a stupendous act of supreme self-confidence that borders on mania.
Trying to pacify their loathing, Baker/Yod spoke to local reporters to get their point-of-view across, in a futile attempt to reason with people who regarded them as an ugly stain on their community. When that didn’t work and when they were shot at with real bullets, guns were purchased to defend themselves, even though no one in the Family knew how to use them. Bow and arrows were their more preferred style, which they employed but never attempted.
Rather than keep up the tension, Yod and Family moved to the big island of Hawaii, renting the “Doc Hill Mansion” on Hilo, the Love Israel group, their frenemies, not far away. A yellow Mercedes was leased (the image had to be maintained!) with everyone settling into mundane reality. Members struggled to find work to pay the Family’s bill, and in time several news businesses were started. Something had changed and the remaining Family members knew it. This change manifested itself during a special meditation. A bowl containing magic mushrooms with Source dressing on it greased the wheels of spiritual awareness. Soon they were walking in the bucolic Hawaiian landscape. Then he astonished his listeners, telling them, “’I am not God. I’m just a man.’” Jaws dropped. “’I am a man like other men,’” he continued. It was perhaps the most honest thing he had ever uttered. Did he have a premonition of what was to come and finally opened his heart in a moment of vulnerability?
August 25, 1975 began like any other day with meditation but it would end like no other. Only three weeks earlier, one of the Family members had set a world-record for hang-gliding for 13 hours. Inspired, he declared he would go hang-gliding without any lessons. The world-record holder was there to assist. Baker and his retinue drove to Makupu’u Cliffs for the launch. Women in his harem begged not to go ahead with his plans. He adamantly refused. Instead, he prepared like a gladiator going into the Roman for the fight to death (“Morituri te salutamus” he had earlier told a passing woman, “We who are about to die salute you”). Then he took flight with help from the record-holder. The ferocious winds suddenly stopped, and he went into freefall, but somehow managed to get control of the kite and circled above the ocean and the beach. He repeated this a few times then suddenly crash landed on the beach and skidded on his tailbone into a nearby campground.
By the time Family members had driven down to the beach from the cliff, he was already surrounded by a police car, ambulance, and fire truck. They found him flat on his back, unable to move but with a blissful smile on his face. The authorities moved in to inspect him, but Baker assured them he was okay, even as he knew his back was broken.
Instead, the members carried him to the backseat of the Mercedes and up to the house. He had broken his back and was in intense pain, yet when he asked to be taken to a hospital, his acolytes reminded him that this went against the Family’s anti-Western medicine beliefs. And it was in that state, lying on his back, in great pain that his former wife, Elaine and their son called, but he refused to speak to them. He did anything to relieve the suffering pain: from aspirin to champagne to Sacred Snow. Nothing worked. Nothing could work. He asked for water, rolled to his side, and as he looked into his mistress, “he quietly left his earthly physical body.” The extraordinary, charismatic, tumultuous, murderous life of James Edward Baker, this “self-recognized and very real component of God,” ended.
Erik Erikson, the psychologist, once wrote that when an infant does not get the proper love from his parents, “mother love,” as he called it, a “sense of evil and doom” pervades the child the rest of its life. It is in these early days that trust and mistrust are alloyed, that guide the “primal hope and doom throughout life.” Baker lived out Erikson’s tenets and, in a sense, died from them. In the end, despite the hero, God-like worship he felt from his followers, Baker could only trust himself, could only look into the mirror of himself, could only imbibe the fruits of life himself to feel connected to the human reality we all know. But it was a dubious connection, never ultimately fulfilling. That last hang-gliding flight was an attempt to escape that cloud of hope and doom that remained above him. He could only have perished knowing he could never escape its fate. ¤
 The Source Family, directed by Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille (2012; Drag City).
 Erik Davis, “Introduction” from Isis Aquarian and Electricity Aquarian, The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and the Source Family (Los Angeles: Process, 2007), p. 11.
Aquarian, Source, p. 23.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 23.
 Steve Allen, Beloved Son: A Story of the Jesus Cults (Indianapolis & New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1982), p. 109. The book focuses on Allen’s own son who joined the Love Israel group in Washington state, which for a time formed loose bonds with the Source Family. The book takes a critical approach to cults, although it should be noted that the Source Family was not a Jesus cult, but more accurately a “God cult.”
 Aquarian, Source, p. 23.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 23.
 Aquarian lists him as 6’3” (The Source, p. 23) while Dr. Patricia Bragg, childhood friend of Baker and daughter of Paul Bragg, claims 6’4” (The Source Family documentary).
 Aquarian, Source, p. 25.
 Nolie Mumey, The Life of Jim Baker 1818-1898: Trapper, Scout, Guide and Indian Fighter (Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Company), p. xiii. The Mumey quote footnoted here appears almost verbatim in the Aquarian book without proper attribution or citation.
 Mumey, Life, p. 53.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 24.
 Jared Yates Saxton, “The Cult of the Shining City Embraces the Plague,” The New Republic, March 25, 2020, np; see also: Mitch Horowitz, Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation (New York: Bantam Books, 2009), p. 221. It was not simply that, according to these sources, that Reagan lived his life and presidency by the whims of astrology, but that he was an avid acolyte of Hall, whom him called an “’avid student of history’” (Sexton, Cult, np).
 Aquarian, Source, p. 26. LaLanne could himself be described as a charismatic figure.
 The hippie movement may have longer roots, but she never lists her sources (there is not a single footnote in the book), so it’s not clear how she makes this claim.
 “Jury Frees Ex-Marine in Fight Death by Judo,” Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1955, p. 2. It’s interesting to note that Baker was identified as a former Marine at a time when the afterglow of World War II still burned in the United States.
 Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1955, p. 2.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 26. While it is unlikely that the Aware Inn was the first health food eatery, it may have been the first “gourmet” health food operation when it opened in 1955.
 Allen, Beloved Son, p. 110.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 26.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 26.
 Allen, Beloved Son, p. 110 and Aquarian, Source, p. 28.
 “Builder Slain on Strip in Row Over Wife,” Los Angeles Times, January 30, 1963, p. 2.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 28.
 Om-Ne, The Source Family documentary.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 32. One might say personal and public appeal.
 Allen, Beloved Son, p. 110.
 Allen, Beloved Son, p. 110.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 32.
 Much of Chapter One in Horowitz, Occult, focuses on the Burned-Over District, or what he calls the “Psychic Highway.”
 Allen, Beloved Son, p. 109.
 That the menu contained several misspellings speaks to either carelessness or a disregard to convention. Source menu found in Aquarian, Source, between pages 120 and 121.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 32.
 Horowitz, Occult, p. 26.
 Horowitz, Occult, p. 28.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 32.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 32.
 Timothy Miller, The Quest for Utopia in Twentieth-Century America (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998) p. xii.
 Miller, Quest, p. xiii.
 Robin/Ah-Om and Sunflower interviews in the Source Family documentary.
 Allen, Beloved Son, p. 111.
 Allen, Beloved Son, p. 111.
 This and all the other quotes in this paragraph from Allen, Beloved Son, p. 112.
 Bobby Klein interview in the Source Family documentary.
 Lyrics from the Source Family documentary.
 Allen, Beloved Son, p. 112.
 Allen, Beloved Son, p. 112.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 43.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 164.
 Anne Marie Bennstrom, Source Family documentary.
 Jon Margolis, The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964 – The Beginning of the ‘Sixties’, (New York: William Morrow, 1999), p. 173.
 Miller, Quest, p. 67.
 Philip Slater cited in Miller, Quest, p. 67.
 Miller, Quest, p. 157.
 Miller, Quest, p. 157.
 Margolis, Innocent, p. 110 (verify).
 Paul Potter, president of Students for a Democratic Society in 1964, cited (with alterations to the original words) in Margolis, Innocent, p. 110.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 49.
 Bobby Klein, former manager of the Old World restaurant, cited in the Source Family documentary.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 96.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 96.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 85.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 162 & 159.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 160. She is sincere enough in her pronouncements, but it always feels that she writes with one eye toward posterity. This may be common with cults, or it may show her ultimate and never-ending devotion to Baker.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 218.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 219.
 Source Family documentary.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 225. As the Family historian, Aquarian noted the entire list: “Darvon aspirin, champagne, Sacred Herb, Sacred Snow, and nitrous oxide.”
 Aquarian, Source, p. 225.
 Aquarian, Source, p. 164.
 Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1976), p. 211.