An excerpt from Robert Levithan’s memoir, Song of an Unlikely Survivor
INFINITY: Englewood, New Jersey, 1965:
The summer I was fourteen I was hanging out with my next door neighbor, Eric Ginsburg, and our friend Michelle Belier. They were a year ahead of me in school but that didn’t impede our playing board games and talking and walking—having lazy suburban summer evenings. It was my first experience of being part of an affinity group that didn’t have anything to do with external activities or parental guidance. We just felt good together.
One night we were discussing the nature of the universe as only teenagers can, pondering our place in it when something happened:
My mind took the concept of ‘infinity’ and in its embrace of it, for my first time ever, I left behind the limitations of physical self. I had an experience of infinite space and an expanding universe that has never left me. This was years before pot or acid or other enhancers. It was pure. I was a virgin in every sense of the word and this was my introduction to transcendence.
Ram Dass, one of my favorite spiritual teachers (because he has never pretended to be holy or perfect, just a man on his path) has said that psychotropic drugs can open us to certain possibilities. However, he cautions that overuse can burn out the circuits that enable us to get there again. In college I did acid a few times and it was mostly wonderful, but I discovered that I had a propensity for ‘flashbacks’—unscheduled trips that appeared out of nowhere a few days or weeks later. That’s not fun, so I gave it up. I’m glad the circuits seem to still be intact.
At the University of Pennsylvania aka Penn, I had the next profound experience of finding ‘my tribe’. When I arrived on campus in the Fall of 1969, one still had to wear a jacket to dinner. However, the conservative Ivy League underpinnings were about to topple. By the end of my freshman year, the Vietnam War protests had escalated and when the National Guard killed several unarmed protestors at Kent State University in Ohio, Penn was shut down by student activists, me amongst them. I left my first year in college in patched jeans with shoulder length curls and an appetite for non-violent change.
My sophomore year, a few of us created a group R.A.L.P.H. which stood for Radical Action for Love Peace and Happiness. At first we were a roving campus party. Eventually a core group of us decided that we should form a commune. I was still inhibited about my sexuality at this time and looking back, I can realize that my crushes were actually on Lee and Glenn and not Laurie or Barbara, but at the time, free love in the sense of affection and camaraderie were mine—and lots of grass and occasional acid bonded the group for the rest of the year.
We met with an existing commune at one point to talk about how to actually create one—probably my first group therapy session. We also drove up to Woodstock, New York to look at farms. We were optimistic and totally naïve and I love those sweet kids that we were—mostly from affluent suburban families. We really didn’t know what we were trying to do. That we didn’t actually do it is less important than what it opened up in me: a belief that I could be close to others and that shared vision and community were not only cool, but the platform for personal realization and creative social involvement. Since then, I have rarely been without a community to support my thinking and growth.
The lure of community can be tricky, however. Two of the almost commune group, Dunky Dave and Michele ended up as Moonies, high ranking Moonies to be exact. Michele was kidnapped and ‘deprogrammed’ and later testified before Congress about the abusive cult.
I, too, had one less than sterling experience with a cult of sorts. Now was it a cult, I might ask, just as I was asked a number of times, was my father an alcoholic? It’s a matter of perspective.
I was introduced to R. C. by one of my ‘baddest’ boyfriends, Richard Barron. Richard was the charismatic over-energetic owner of the Natural Source Restaurants. He was a seducer. Once he had you, he brought you into his life by bringing you not only intermittently into his bed, but into his businesses and to his teacher. R.C. is brilliant. A concert pianist originally, later a voice coach and ultimately a spiritual teacher who was guided by ‘the voices’. His classes met on Sunday evenings in his living room and it was an honor to be invited to participate. There was an advanced class and some very special students. I did my best to be recognized as very special.
It wasn’t until years later when I was in graduate school that I realized that R.C. had seduced me with sex as part of the teaching. It really was part of the work, I believe, but how it began was not, looking back, kosher. I was too vulnerable to make a clear decision when presented with sexual aspects of truly esoteric teachings. I became one of R.C.’s lovers. I remained in love with Richard and had sex with other students as well. It was all very sophisticated.
The actual work was spectacular. Based in the teachings of Gurdjief and Ouspensky, the men who arguably introduced Eastern Philosophy in a Western context in the early 20th Century, the voices were also brilliant and I regret little about the experience. In fact I use some of the concepts and ideas that I learned there to this very day. I am truly grateful that I met R.C.. I am also grateful that I left when I did. My inner voice told me that there was a dependency being encouraged. I felt that I needed to be on my own and discover other teachings. I was considered something of an apostate for leaving.
I believe the classes are still going on. What I notice is that R.C. has not, as of yet, to my knowledge published any of the books he was working on. Some of the star students have not realized their potential either. Maybe this is exactly as it should be. It just didn’t suit me. Over the years, I have had some wonderful teachers and mentors. I believe that teachers must encourage their students to outgrow them. I want my clients and students to outgrow me as well.