[ Originally published on: Wednesday, May 03, 2006 ]

NEARLY two decades after the Brotherhood of the Spirit ceased to be, many former members of the commune will reunite this weekend when filmmaker Bruce Geisler’s new movie is shown at Northampton’s Academy of Music.

I’m dying to see it, said Bunni Vaughan Healy, 54, of Conway, S.C., who plans to attend.

Healy, who is now a Web site designer, came to the commune in Warwick in 1970 from New Jersey, with her husband, and two babies. She was 19, she said, and weary of the ‘drugged-out’ 1960s, but unwilling to follow mainstream society.

‘I wanted to be with kindred spirits,’ she recalled in a recent telephone interview.

The couple quickly turned over their only real possession - a beat-up car - to the commune and settled in to a rustic lifestyle.

‘It was total culture shock,’ Healy said. Things previously taken for granted - like running water - either didn’t exist or didn’t always work. ‘It was like a camp without electricity,’ she said.

But drawn by what she calls the high energy and feeling of being home, Healy opted to stay. There was always plenty to do: household chores, clearing land, garden work, child care.

Healy, who needed clean diapers for her babies, often trucked off to the Laundromat in a nearby town with her family’s laundry - plus the dirty clothes of about 80 other people. ‘I would tie up the place for the whole day,’ she said.

Money was a recurring source of tension and intrigue, Healy said. Though the ideal was that all money be turned over to Metelica, who oversaw how it was used, people who earned tips on jobs often held back some cash to use themselves. ‘If your kid needs shoelaces, you didn’t want to have a meeting about it,’ she said.

From the start, Healy saw Michael Metelica as a powerful, intense figure. At his best, she said, he inspired others with his talks about spirituality and reincarnation. ‘The Michael that he originally was - the followers of Jesus had to feel the way we felt,’ she said.

But there was another side. ‘He could make you feel so wonderful, and he could also make you feel the worst,’ she said. As one of those who stood up to him on occasion, Healy knew what it was like to feel his wrath, and to be in his good graces. ‘And he had no sense of humor, just absolutely none.’

He was a ‘master manipulator,’ she said, but she stops short of saying he misused that power. People followed him, depended on him, looked to him to make even the smallest daily decisions, she said. While some may see him as the villain in the commune story, Healy isn’t convinced. ‘I’m not buying that,’ she said.

Even after she’d moved away from the group and lived in her own apartment, she still saw him on occasion. His death, she said, came as a shock.

It seemed impossible, she said, that such a larger-than- life person had succumbed to something as ‘mundane’ as cancer. ‘I knew he was mortal, but I didn’t believe this would be the end. It was so un-Michael.’

Lessons Learned

As an undergraduate at Clark University in Worcester, Rob Hincks developed a growing interest in Eastern religion and philosophy. But in 1969, there was little the university could offer him on the subject in the classroom.

Hincks’ quest eventually led him to the commune, where he was told there were people who shared those interests.

‘I was definitely intimidated,’ he recalled of meeting Metelica. ‘He seemed rather simplistic and naive - but the intensity. I’d never met anyone like that.’

Though he returned to college after that first visit, Hincks felt drawn back. And so, with his life savings, about $2,000 from a boyhood paper route, he returned.

By day, he helped out on logging and salvage crews. Home was a cramped house with bunk beds, but it felt right, Hincks says. ‘I felt like I had landed where I was supposed to be.’

With a knack for songwriting, Hincks became a member of Metelica’s band. He got married at the commune and became a father in 1973. The idea of having so many adults around to help raise children was appealing, he said: ‘To me it seemed like a fabulous experiment.’ It didn’t last, though. The marriage foundered, and by 1975 Hincks was living in an apartment away from the commune.

By then, his interests had diverged from those of the group. He wanted to pursue music and form a new band, and Metelica’s growing strangeness, he says, eased his decision to leave.

Hincks, who is now a social worker at the Valley Medical Group in Florence, doesn’t regret his time with the Renaissance Community. He says he met some remarkable people there, and ‘it awakened me spiritually’ in ways that have stayed with him to this day.

But he does wish he and others had become more assertive in standing up to Metelica, earlier. ‘That’s a lesson learned.’

Debating the Legacy

In emails they post and exchange today, former commune members sometimes reflect on the impact their commune experience had on their lives, says Daniel Brown, now a landscape painter in Leyden.

Brown says that during his years with the Renaissance Community, he grew from a shy, introverted young man into a much stronger person. Witnessing Metelica’s forceful presence - ‘it was like dealing with a tornado’ - and his decline left him, he says, skeptical of leaders of all stripes, and of fundamentalism in all forms.

In his own piece on the commune, written this year, Brown describes the changes and stages the group went through in its long history. There is, he suggests, no one answer to the question of what it all meant. Views of former members, he wrote, ‘run the full gamut of human emotions and opinions.’

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