Communal Living and its Discontents

By Briallen Hopper | February 28, 2017

(Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire) This illustration depicts the Oneida community at dinner.

Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table
by Ellen Wayland-Smith
Picador, 2016

Sometime circa 1970, my dad spent a month at a commune in rural Virginia that was based on the behaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner’s utopian novel Walden Two. The commune-dwellers had already built laboratory-style “Skinner boxes” for the perfect babies they hoped to raise, and were embroiled in a highly fraught process of figuring out who should procreate with whom. The commune’s combination of sunny scientific optimism and extreme sexual tension was ultimately unappealing to my dad, who was simultaneously getting college credit for a commune-based independent study project and trying to figure out how he wanted to live. He later spent some time at a spiritualist commune on Cape Cod, and finally ended up at a Calvinist commune in England, where he met my mom. My parents proceeded to spend the next twenty-five years in a tight-knit but troubled non-residential countercultural Calvinist community in Washington State, a long quarter-century my family sometimes refers to as “the Dark Ages.” Now in their sixties, my parents are currently unattached to any religious or utopian communities, but when I told my dad that the Virginia commune he’d visited was still in business—according to Wikipedia, it has abandoned its behaviorist roots, and is now an ecovillage that sells hammocks and tofu—he asked, not entirely jokingly, “I wonder if they accept retirees?”

As a child of the 1970s, I was formed by my family’s belief that the standard American way of life was bankrupt, and that mainstream religion was dead. The fringe religious community I was raised in saw itself as the best and truest expression of God’s will for the world, a tiny “city on a hill” that would redeem our corner of the country through its pristine theology and uncompromising morality. Our community gave its members a lot: meaning, purpose, stability, and the sacralization of daily life. But it also took a lot away. Individual desires and emotions were often seen as suspect or sinful, and absolute submission to God’s will as it was interpreted by the pastor and the church was the highest good. I remember being told by the youth pastor’s wife that submission didn’t count, spiritually speaking, unless it violated one’s own desires. Otherwise it was just doing what you felt like doing, and where was the glory in that? I was raised to submit to the authority of the powerful male pastor, the male elders, and unyielding doctrine.

Our community’s patriarchal power structure was reinforced through sexual control. Community members’ sexuality was policed through rituals of public confession and condemnation; members were required to marry people whose religious beliefs passed muster and to have sex only with them, and sex outside those parameters was often punished with excommunication or atoned with rituals of public shaming. I will never forget watching as teenage girls stood at the front of the sanctuary, fighting back their tears, and confessed their sexual sins to the entire congregation.

After a rebellious adolescence, I succeeded in getting my name struck from the membership rolls, and as an adult I’ve sought stability in mainline Protestantism and the Ivy League: institutions that I was raised to think of as godless, but that have become spiritual homes to me. But the legacy of my radical religious upbringing remains. Sometimes I think I’ve been inoculated against countercultural idealism, like the twentieth-century red diaper babies who became jaded conservatives, but other times I’m aware of the continuities between my past and my present. More than ever, I’m wary of the dominant American civic religion and its popular definition of greatness. I’m skeptical of notions of the good life that focus on individual freedom and individual achievements. And I’m wary of attitudes toward sex, love, and community that seem too easy and sunny—too dismissive of the sacrifices, capitulations, and thwarted feelings that underlie any attempt at well-regulated desire.


IF I WERE a century older, I might have grown up in the Oneida Community, a complicated nineteenth-century social experiment that sought to be a “city on the hill” both for its upstate New York environs and for the entire world. Founded in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes, a rogue religious leader who had been expelled by Yale Divinity School for heresy, Oneida was built on the principle that perfection on earth was within reach, and that it would be achieved by restructuring society as a single intimate interdependent family, rather than as an assortment of individuals, couples, and nuclear families with competing rights and interests. Oneidans famously believed that traditional marriage and family life had been superseded by “complex marriage,” in which everyone was married to everyone else, property was shared, children were raised collectively, and sex between community members was a spiritual practice that reinforced communal love and channeled spiritual energy. Under Noyes’s direction, Oneidans practiced birth control and eugenics, using a nearly-complete ban on male orgasm to limit the number of children, and attempting to breed a new type of men and women called “stirpicults” who would hopefully one day achieve bodily immortality. Noyes, who initiated girls into the sexual life of the community through acts that would now be punishable as statutory rape, was an advocate of biological incest between spiritually superior people, which he believed would intensify desirable spiritual and physical traits.

The worst sins in Oneida were “sticky love,” or a special attachment to a particular romantic partner to the exclusion of others, and “philoprogenitiveness,” the excessive love of a parent for their own biological children. These combustible and recalcitrant feelings were policed by the practice of “mutual criticism,” in which members of the community gathered together and publicly admonished each other for their faults and failures. The forbidden feelings were also policed by Noyes himself, who would step in to separate couples or parents and children who seemed to be getting too attached.

When Oneidans weren’t busy practicing complex marriage or sliding into sticky love and philoprogenitiveness, they made metalware, first animal traps and then silverware. Oneidans sometimes worked in their own factories, but they mostly relied on hired labor. In the late nineteenth century, when Noyes’s advancing age and ill health caused a leadership crisis, and law and public opinion outside the community were turning against non-traditional forms of family life, Oneida abandoned complex marriage and reorganized itself as a family-run joint-stock silverware company. It went on to dominate the U.S. silverware market for more than a century. An iconic innovator in advertising and domestic trends, the Oneida corporation reinvented silverware as a symbol of middle-class stability and marital love before going bankrupt in 2006 and being bought first by a group of hedge funds and then by an international conglomerate. The Oneida brand still lives on in American stores and imaginations ( boasts that “90 percent of consumers name Oneida as the first company they think of when asked about stainless steel flatware”), but its connection to the original community is increasingly tenuous.

Ellen Wayland-Smith was born to write Oneida. A descendant of John Humphrey Noyes, she grew up spending holidays and summers at the original family Mansion House, and she has been researching and writing about her ancestors for over a decade. There has been a lot of writing about Oneida over the years, but Wayland-Smith’s book stands out for its historical breadth and interpretive scope. Instead of merely focusing on the “complex marriage” period from 1848-1880, as many historians of the community do, Wayland-Smith’s narrative spans nearly two centuries, beginning with the theological, historical, and psychological origins of Noyes’s ideas in the early nineteenth century, and continuing into the present with an account of Oneida’s recent history and capitalist legacy. As her subtitle suggests (“From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table”), Wayland-Smith spends almost half her book on the post-utopian phase of Oneida’s story, revealing surprising continuities between Oneida’s different iterations, and exploring some of the varied meanings the community has had for Americans over time. She shows how the Oneida experiment has been variously interpreted and appropriated as a wholesome all-American Christian community modeling a happy medium between capitalism and Communism (this was the sanitized official version the Oneida Corporation told about itself on the occasion of its centenary in the 1940s); as a leader in eugenics and birth control (this was of interest for social reformers in the 1920s and 30s); and as a potential source for research into alternative sexual practices (among others, Alfred Kinsey expressed interest in doing research in the notorious Oneida files).

It was the increasing interest in Oneida’s scandalous sexual past that prompted the climactic event that bookends Wayland-Smith’s narrative: the mysterious 1947 ceremony known as “the Burning” in which the archival vault in the Mansion House was opened and “documents, diaries, letters, and papers dating from the Community days” were taken to the town dump and set on fire. This act of destruction haunts the narrative with a sense of all that can’t be known about the past—and also with a sense of the extreme renunciation that Oneida’s move to middle-class respectability required.

Wayland-Smith’s accounts of “The Burning” couldn’t help but remind me of a parallel conflagration in the life of Tirzah Miller, John Humphrey Noyes’s favorite niece and sexual partner, whose diary (republished as Desire and Duty at Oneida: Tirzah Miller’s Intimate Memoir) is an intermittently euphoric and wrenching account of sex and sacrifice at Oneida. After Noyes informs Miller that she must renounce her “sticky love” for the man she has been sleeping with and begin a new sexual relationship with another member of the community, Miller makes the agonizing decision to burn all her letters from the man she loves. She records the fiery sacrifice in her diary:

I have been in a struggle for several days between my senses of duty and my natural inclination. Made up my mind that I must make a holocaust of [the love letters] I have received lately … I had not quite the courage to do it last night, and though ready in other respects I postponed till tonight. Just before we went to bed I ran down-stairs and put the notes in the stove.

Miller’s burning of her letters symbolizes her religious renunciation of “sticky love”—a renunciation she eventually lived to regret. Though Wayland-Smith doesn’t discuss Miller’s personal “holocaust,” she writes with haunting empathy about Miller’s struggle as a woman with “a libido … in permanent overdrive” who struggled throughout her life to divorce her powerful sexual desires from the illicit temptations of monogamous or private romantic love. Wayland-Smith pays careful and psychologically astute attention to the stories of Miller and other community members, dramatizing the contradictions of sexual freedom and bondage that first glued Oneida together and then tore it apart. Unlike most middle-class nineteenth-century women, Miller was theoretically free to have sex with as many men as she liked, and her sexual relationships often served to strengthen her bond to the community. But it doesn’t make sense to think about what she experienced as “free love” when her desires for attachment were so fiercely controlled and repressed both by Noyes and herself. At the same time, as Wayland-Smith writes, “ridding the heart of sticky love could be exhilarating as well as excruciating.” The tremulous and transcendent intensity of Tirzah Miller’s diary depends on the irreconcilable tension between the love she longs for and the love she is allowed to have.

Miller’s spiritual struggle might at first seem to be far removed from the money-making enterprise that Oneida eventually became, and in some ways it obviously is. Through a well-curated array of advertising images, Wayland-Smith dramatizes the ironic dissonance between nineteenth-century Oneida’s adamant renunciation of conventional sticky love and twentieth-century Oneida’s reliance on the iconography of traditional middle-class marriage as a way to sell silverware. The tasteful and conventional wives depicted in early twentieth-century Oneida ads—calm, cool, and casually drinking tea stirred with a perfect silver spoon—are in some ways worlds removed from the tempestuous Tirzah Miller. These images seem to support a story of steady secularization, of bizarre sexual and religious longings replaced with a more matter-of-fact mainstream consumer culture. But the story is not that simple.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book is Wayland-Smith’s account of Oneida’s wildly successful ad campaign during World War II, a campaign that illustrates some of the uncanny continuities between Oneida the colony and Oneida the company. Beginning in 1942, Oneida magazine ads featured illustrations of a woman passionately embracing a uniformed man under the all-caps catchphrase BACK HOME FOR KEEPS. “You feel his hand closing tight over yours …” the ad copy moans, “you hear his voice speaking straight to your heart … you know this is not just for an hour, not just for a day. This is for keeps.” The ads were a phenomenon: Wayland-Smith tells us that in response to the “patriotic stirrings” generated by the ad, “Oneida received hundreds of thousands of mail requests for poster-sized copies of its ads not only from pining stateside wives but from homesick soldiers stationed abroad, as well.” On the surface the ad is a celebration of monogamous marriage, but the structure of desire it evokes is strikingly similar to Tirzah Miller’s: The ad’s emotional force comes from the fact that the thousands of people who hung it on their walls were involuntarily separated from the object of their love—though their desire for sticky love was being thwarted not by Uncle Noyes (as in Miller’s case) but by Uncle Sam. The ad’s power depends not on the fulfillment offered by sexual coupledom but on the ache of its absence: The erotic charge and consumerist urge come from long-distance longing. Generations after the end of complex marriage, Oneida was still in the business of cultivating thwarted romantic desire, but now it was channeling it toward selling spoons.

It is perhaps these redirections of desire that are Oneida’s greatest legacy. By first separating sex from procreation and lifelong monogamy, and then by seamlessly blending erotic, familial, commercial, and patriotic longing, Oneida was at the vanguard of modern American consumer society. And as Wayland-Smith suggests, and as Tirzah Miller’s diary confirms, ecstatic submission, thwarted feeling, and self-immolating renunciation were and are essential parts of this story, even some of the parts that seem most secular and modern. Like the United States it helped to create, Oneida was never a free love utopia because it was never really about freedom. Instead, it was a society structured on suppression, predicated on the proposition that enough people would be willing to consign their most precious documents to the flames if they felt the community or corporation required it.

Briallen Hopper is a lecturer in English at Yale. Her book of essays on love and friendship is forthcoming from Bloomsbury.

© 2011 Religion & Politics