Ever since men gathered under the shade tree in the middle of the village square to talk strategy and remember exploits, while the women sat together to peel, chop, weave, or whatever, human beings have gathered in groups. They can be powerful or trivial. Most small towns have a café or several where like-minded folks start the day or if not, there’s always the imitation on the radio or television. But I like my mornings quiet and solitary.
From the beginning I was not a group person. I flew from Bluebirds (Campfire Girls for little kids). I was freaked out by my first Sunday School experience and had to be returned sobbing to my mortified mother in the main pews. I don’t even like parties. The tide was turned by high school dramatics. A) the group was structured around tasks and scripts and B) plays only last six weeks -- then the cast disperses.
But in 1975 I was seduced by Pacific Northwest Leadership School for Unitarian Universalists, exactly the kind of experience described in “Rain Dragon,” a novel by Jon Raymond who has also written movie scripts. (“Meek’s Cutoff” is the one that attracted my attention.) His first novel was called “The Half-Life,” a fractal story repeating patterns of relationship among three interwoven pairs: two semi-delinquent female teens, two frontier bachelors, and two captives in an early Chinese prison. The “bones” of the story is something like inseparability: literalized as two skeletons found holding hands. All in the same PNW location except for China.
“Rain Dragon,” a recent novel, seems to be about a conventional pair of lovers with an ambiguous relationship. Maybe it’s also about the ideal versus reality. The lovers come up from California to sign on with an organic food company that in the story is based at the former Multnomah County poor farm. I know this place well since it’s where Animal Control was located. Also, McMenamins, who developed the decrepit main building, in a slightly different way than in the book, as a kind of restaurant/spa. http://www.mcmenamins.com/54-edgefield-home
The arc of the story is that once the lovers get to their destination, they take different paths under the charismatic influence of their mighty leader, who bears a strong resemblance to Ken Kesey in both appearance and philosophy. The protag seems not to have a name. (The girl is Amy -- you know, love?) Let’s call the guy, who is first person, “Jon,” the way we call movie characters by the actor’s name.
There are two pleasures in this story, one being Jon’s love of metaphor. “The Half-Life” was laden with so many jewel-like and minute descriptions that the story almost sank under the weight of poetry. “Rain Dragon” has a better balance. The other pleasure is recognizing the accurate stages of the love affair with group movements in one’s own experience -- that familiar rising up of hope and growing mastery, the conviction of a life-changing breakthrough, the gradual erosion into the mundane and commercial, and then the dump on the butt that comes when the magic has finally worn off. Jon never gives up hope.
Instead of the novel’s organic yoghurt and honey business, this pattern-story could have been developed around the PNWD Leadership School or even the PNWD itself. It could have been the story of the Portland Scribe -- the “people’s newspaper” in Portland in the Seventies -- or any of the treatment movements based on groups. Substance abuse, anger management, feminist consciousness-raising, PTSD recovery. We seem to have assumed that if we all pulled our chairs into a circle and talked, something would happen. Sometimes it really did.
Now the backlash begins, alongside the new pattern, which is consumerism. (Are you getting value for your time and money??) http://healthland.time.com/category/mental-health/mind-reading-mental-health/ I checked this article out with a family member who has been in many of these groups, sometimes ordered there by the courts. Confirmation came that there was little change between going in and coming out, but that over time something finally worked, if only maturation. Many Blackfeet have become drug advisors on the premise, partly, that they are now motivated to help others because they understand the suffering, and partly that it takes one to know one. Results vary.
I would like to see studies of what happens to brains when people sit “in group.” Most of my groups were in preparation for ministry and all led by professionals of mostly good skills. Yet I have returned to my original aversion of groups, mostly because I realized they were meant to “form” me and the others by setting a group-endorsed standard. That is, the goal was not mine. This went bad when it was used by City of Portland managers who failed to see that they were not dealing with a class at Reed College or even residents of Berkeley. What they had in front of them was an assortment of mostly working class people. Most Bureau of Buildings inspectors of plumbing, electricity and building practices had worked their way up by doing, not speculating. The style of leadership was foreman rather than therapist. Once the doughnuts were eaten, the shrewd get-’er-done assumptions came back in play -- not idealism about the true philosophical goal of the mission-statement written on newsprint with a magic marker we’d just agreed upon and taped up. And this is what “Rain Dragon” is about: all that Love meeting all that ground level Reality.
If one looks for the same pattern in terms of religious institutions (I’m NOT talking about the experience of the Sacred which cannot be defined) it’s plainly there. The committees do their thing, the congregations do their thing, Alban Institute sends out the latest research on what is surefire, and the same do-gooders, the same bullies, the same patrons, the same blinking beginners, all go through the same script-arcs as in the “Rain Dragon.” With some luck and experience one can make it work. What’s most amazing is that sometimes the Sacred DOES arrive, like a dove unexpectedly landing on one’s head. The problem then is figuring out how to call the Holy Spirit that is embodied in the avian metaphor and yet -- to run with the notion -- to keep people from making it into pigeon pie. Because sometimes treatment DOES work. Sometimes the organization DOES turn around.
I looked at the Alban Institute website. (www.alban.org) They still believe in congregations, they still believe in “gifted outsiders” who can come in to make a difference, and they still usually succeed in keeping people from “murdering” each other. They also claim to believe in God, which sort of limits their usefulness these days. Still, mostly it’s all about the money, just as it is in the novel. Yes, Speed Leas is still at Alban, still addressing conflict in practical ways. All the consultants are really nice people.
Once upon a time I deeply believed in all this and thought I’d found a career. Maybe I would have done better with people who were not so nice. The exchanges would have been a lot more interesting and the problems might have been more worth addressing, often sharpened by death. I mean, the last I heard of the big stone church where I freaked out over Sunday School in 1942, the most viable group (1999) was women who were needlepointing pew cushions with elegant Presbyterian symbolism, for the comfort of the butts of a lot of “nice” people (aging). At least they weren’t trying to crucify the most recent minister as they had earlier.
At the same time the disowned son of an aging widower in the neighborhood was in the habit of taking refuge in the bus shelter where I waited every morning. We commuters grew accustomed to his backside as he curled on the bench. Until one day his lungs hemorrhaged and he left behind a ten-foot-wide pool of blood when they removed his body. No one taped up sheets of newsprint on the bus shelter walls and wrote a list of causes and goals.