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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008

Notes from Nethers

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Onecan hardly say the words “hippie commune” without a hazy fog of associations clouding up one’s judgment. Woodstock, Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love are a few of the luminaries swirling around in that tripped-out constellation. Perhaps that’s why a new book recounting what it was like for a child growing up on such a commune might be a rude awakening for those who still cling in happy delirium to the era of free love. In her new book, psychologist Sandra Eugster recalls that “the idyllic-sounding freedom was often terrifying and disorienting.”

Notes from Nethers is a memoir written from a child’s point of view, offering up the finer points of her mother moving her and her siblings from safe and sanitary suburbia to a commune inhabited by 20 other people. In the book, Eugster recalls the discomfort of waking to find a naked man standing on his head in the living room, or the equally uncomfortable realization that you’ve just unwittingly eaten your neighbor’s placenta. These are not included for gratuitous shock value, but rather to allow the reader to enter into “a similar feeling of dislocation” as she herself experienced, and also highlight the disparity between her mother’s (largely fond) recollection of the commune and her own.

And in fact her difficult relationship with her mother was something Eugster was afraid might overshadow the narrative. “I very much didn’t want this to be an expose of my mother … it was very important to me that the difficult aspects of our relationship be very much within the context of a larger point.”

The larger point is the misconception people have of the ’60s commune as an idyllic haven of sexual liberation and camaraderie. “I never did subscribe to the mythology,” Eugster says. “I would roll my eyes when people would start rhapsodizing about the commune.”

Yet she felt compelled to write about it, partly in response to the fact that it’s something she feels isn’t written about enough, not adequately at least. “From the adult perspective there’s two trends: One is still the adult idealization,” Eugster says. “The other is quite the opposite—that this was just a bunch of rich dilettantes that were spending their trust accounts and defying their parents. There was more to it than that.”

You can meet Sandra Eugster when she comes to Broad Vocabulary on Saturday, Jan. 26, at 4 p.m. To read an interview with the author, go to “Author Voices” in the A&E section of www.expressmilwaukee.com.