The Oneida Community was a whole world unto itself. We had a large farm, secluded from society, where we grew our own food, made our own clothing, and manufactured items to sell so we could purchase what we could not produce. We strove for perfection; living a sinless life. Dr. Noyes, by his precise reading of the scriptures, determined that Christ had already returned, in the year 70AD, and his Kingdom was already upon us. It was up to us to institute God’s Kingdom on earth. We practiced what Dr. Noyes called “Bible communism” in which all possessions were owned by the Community—as practiced by the primitive Christians. This was not so difficult, really, since there were precious few possessions to own in the Community.
But it was in the area of relations between the sexes the Community’s doctrine was most strange and difficult for an outsider to comprehend. Dr. Noyes believed that love between one man and one woman led to jealousy and selfishness. If a man could not bear to see the woman of his love in the company of other men, then he was not selfless enough for the Kingdom. Thus, as Charley had briefly described to me, the Oneida Community practiced polyandry, or “complex marriage.” All of the men were married to all of the women, and sexual intercourse was permitted between any man and woman as long as they both agreed to it.
The way this institution was taught to young people was curious but really quite sensible. In the practice known as “ascending fellowship,” each of the virgins, both male and female—and without protest, I allowed myself to be included in this category—was paired up with an older member of the Community who would teach them about sex. Girls were instructed by an older man and boys by an older woman, and the students had a lot more to learn that their counterparts in the outside world.
I was paired with a woman whom I knew only as Mother Sarah. She was a handsome woman, of about forty-five years; kind, patient and quite accomplished in the arts of lovemaking. I spent several wondrous afternoons in Mother Sarah’s bedroom. With great detail, she explained the mysteries of a woman’s body and taught what a woman likes and what she does not. And she allowed me to practice on her all that I had learned. Though the knowledge that she imparted was, to me, novel and enlightening, I think she could tell that, in practice, I was not a beginner.
The hardest lesson for me was trying to master “male continence.” This was a practice similar to what Jack had taught me to avoid pregnancy, but instead of just withdrawing before ejaculating, the man finishes without ejaculating at all. Mother Sarah assured me that it was possible and that the elders of the Community were quite proficient at it. For my part, on the rare occasions when I could accomplish this feat, I had to finish the job myself when alone, lest I explode.
The way that complex marriage worked was this: if a person desired to have sexual relations with another, that person would ask through a third person. If the message returned was “yes” they would meet and fornicate, if not then life went on as if the question had never been asked. In practice it seemed like a needless mechanism that produced the same results as in the outside world; that is, when I desired someone, she did not desire me, yet I seemed to be an object of desire of girls for whom I had no interest. But it was not in my nature to turn anyone down, and many of the girls who were not so pretty in face and form could be quite energetic in bed.
Of course, there was a negative side to our perfect community. Periodically each member would have to endure “mutual criticism” in which members of the Community would point out the flaws in that person’s character in front of the whole community. It was not as mutual as I would have liked since the harshest criticism came from the leaders who were, in turn, immune from criticism from someone as low as me. I was chastised for laziness and daydreaming at work and for noticeably coveting girls who would not have me. I had little recourse but to apologize and promise to do better.
All in all, though, it was a peaceful life. We would work all day at our appointed jobs, eat together at the same table, and sing and pray together in the evenings. There was plenty of food and good fellowship, and there was frequent sexual congress with an interesting variety of girls. The Oneida Community was probably as close to perfection as one could expect in this world, and before long, their doctrine was all that I believed, and I earnestly strived to live a sinless life.
I can’t say for sure how long I stayed in the Oneida Community. The days, by design, were uneventful and each one flowed seamlessly into the next. The effect was peaceful, eternal and timeless; the movement of the sun across the sky marked nothing more than the time for work and the time for sleep.
Then late one night I was awakened by a rustling outside the window of my little room. I looked out but could see nothing unusual. When I heard it again, I went outside and around to the side of the building to see what was making the noise. There, to my surprise, stood Jack, dressed as a boy again and accompanied by two men carrying rifles.
“Jack!” I whispered loudly, “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to break you out of jail, Pratt.”
“This is not a jail.”
“Then how come there’s a fence all around it.” Jack made a sweeping gesture, “We had to walk for miles to find a spot we could climb.”
“That’s not to keep us in,” I said, “it’s to keep the world out.”
“Tell me, Pratt, didn’t the judge send you here for stealin’?”
“Then it’s a jail.”
“It’s not a jail, Jack; it’s a perfectionist community.”
I tried to explain the difference. I told Jack how we were living a sinless life there; living in peace, loving and sharing the way God intended us to live.
“What about your beloved Mirabile?” was Jack’s response.
“It is selfish for one man to possess a woman and keep her from all others.”
Jack slapped my face then; she slapped it hard. “Snap out of it, Pratt, you Goddamn idjit.
“I think, Jack,” I said, rubbing my smarting cheek, “that you might benefit by some criticism from Dr. Noyes. Why don’t you come and join our community?”
“It’s worse than I thought; they’ve stolen your soul!”
“Come join the Kingdom of God, Jack.”
“I know you’ve never forgiven me for taking you from your uncle’s sailing ship.” Jack was speaking very calmly now. “But this time, Pratt, I know someday you’ll thank me.” She turned to the riflemen then and said, “OK boys, take care of him.”
Her companions then dropped their weapons, and pulled me to the ground. They gagged me and bound my arms and legs. Then together, with Jack in the lead, they dragged me out of the Oneida Community.