The communal Love Israel Family was located in Seattle from 1968 to 1984 and in rural Snohomish County for 20 more years. Its founder and leader was Love Israel, who was born Paul Erdmann in 1940 and died in 2016. His followers -- as many as 350 at one point -- adopted the Israel surname along with first names that represented virtues or biblical figures. In this personal reminiscence written for HistoryLink, Tekoah Handorff writes about the highs and lows of living in the Love Family.
Refugees of a Broken Love
I have always been aware of being different. Not different as in having some sort of physical disability or different as in having some sort of genius, but the kind of different that comes with painful self consciousness. A difference that prevented me from ever feeling like I belonged. I began my life in a storm of love gone wrong; my mother, the epitome of a small-town American girl running off to marry her very first Prince Charming. As we all know, there really is no Prince Charming, and worse yet, hers turned out to be a broken boy with nowhere to put his brokenness but onto her. Being a meek and gentle person, this is not something she tolerated well; it left her with her own set of wounds to lick. The scars would haunt her for many years.
This ugly and violent storm resulted in three children, me being the youngest. When the storm left its wreckage, my mother fled with me, leaving behind two pieces of her heart with my father. My older brother and sister left to him, and my motheer and I now the refugees of this broken love.
Beaten down, guilty for leaving my siblings, and full of fear, my mother struck out with me to save herself, falling immediately into anther controlling and damaging relationship. This relationship, however, was not with a single man, but an idealistic community, a kind of community that most people refer to as a cult. It was the 1970s, and I am sure this seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Who in their right mind would turn down sanctuary to heal within a community that believed in peace, love, and 'We are all one'?
Initially this place was one of healing, being at peace. Being different from that other world that started wars, and separated people. But slowly, incrementally, her identity was stripped; this of course was for the good of the "whole" (the whole being the community in its entirety). She no longer needed her worldly goods, or her given name, or money. None of these things mattered now that she was part of something bigger. This community I will from now on for the sake of ease refer to as The Family, for that is exactly how they saw themselves. But this family of course had to have a father. He, I have been told, was handsome and charismatic (I, however, never found him to be either). He and a small group of his carefully chosen elders held absolute power (I know I don’t have to tell you what absolute power does).
This utopia, I can imagine, lasted only a few sweet years before revealing itself as having every flaw of worldly life imaginable. I will start by addressing the issue of women. Although I understand during this era, women were really just stepping into their own power, and so it must have been an easy backslide to give it up again. They were expected to serve the men in every way. I can only assume this was a comfortable place for my mother at this point in her life, handing over her power and direction, allowed to just be quiet (She was later given the name Quietness as her virtue name, as was the tradition in The Family). I, a small blond-headed girl, was going to be raised in this environment. Being quiet, seen and not heard, was valued for both the women and children, so I can’t help but think this had great impact on who I am today. I now value the ability to speak out, to have your thoughts and opinions be heard, and I disdain too much meekness, especially in women.
Next of course was power -- women and children having none -- and very few of the men having very much. The Father of the family was fairly lavished with the finest to be had -- food, lodging, and women. Because this, of course, was the respectful thing to do, wasn't it? I know this had to puff up his inflated ego. I believe he began to see himself as actually deserving of all this respect, as if he was somehow something special among mere humans. But this as well suited my mother, who being naturally soft-spoken, and already having been broken down, wanted no power.
Finding Peace and Tranquility
So over time mother and daughter settled into this way of life, we became it, and it became us. And no, it was not all bad. This lifestyle gave us many things, including the familial friendships of some of the most beautifully souled people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, all of them seeking the alternative to the workaday world, something more harmonious and peaceful, cooperating to ensure each other’s survival.
And it also gave us a place where both my mother and I have always found peace. A place, literally a piece of ground. Located on the Columbia River, covered with tall pines and wild creatures, and far removed from anything that could remotely be called bustle. It was to this encampment we were stationed for some of the best years of my life. Miles away and protected from much of the comings and goings of the The Family. Only a few Family members were stationed in this remote valley on the river, and luckily for us, they were all hard-working, lovely, and peaceful people. We thrived on just surviving -- no electricity, no cars; we lived in yurts like nomads and made our kitchens in two pioneer cabins.
Looking back now, I realize it was not all coming up roses during this time for my mother, who had gotten herself involved in one of those notorious polygamist relationships you always hear exist in such a community as ours. This man was I think a true love to her, and happily still is, as a dearest friend, the kind that you carry throughout your life. However, he fell quickly and madly in love with a spirited and beautiful woman who he could not deny. That couple have been my mother’s nearest and dearest friends, and I am honored to consider them as my family. My mother’s brief relationship with this love resulted in a son, my little brother. The friendship that was forged in that relationship is a beauty to behold in and of itself. It should be an inspiration to lovers everywhere.
I was born in Arlington in 1974 and raised as nomad, moving place to place with my mom and her chosen family. My love of writing was passed down from my great grandfather Robert West to my grandfather of the same name, and then to my mother Sharon West and finally to me. I have been lucky to have lived a colorful life from which I draw my material. I write mostly for my own healing journey, and pleasure, but enjoy when it is appreciated by others.
More Love Israel Family Stories: Counterculture Crossover by Rachel Israel, A Broken Rainbow by Understanding Israel, Fat Farm by Eve Ingraham, Losing My Voice by D. L. Rivers, Flip Flops and Naked Breakfasts by Toshav Israel