Polyfidelity Pioneers

The Kerista family provided love (not free), and plenty of it


| January 12, 2006


Popular culture has long grasped the concept of polygamy, but polyfidelity -- multiple partners forming committed relationships with each other in a sort of group-based monogamy -- has been much less understood, if at all. Twenty-five years after audience members marveled at three members of the polyfidelity-based Kerista family who appeared on 'The Phil Donahue Show,' the practice can still evoke wonder and condemnation.

The Kerista family, based in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, came to consist of subgroups with anywhere from four to 14 committed and faithful members. These subgroups closely resembled traditional monogamous relationships, with the exception of one major twist: there weren't just two people in the relationship. Food, clothing, childrearing, apartments, and sex were just a few aspects of members' lives that were thrown into the communal pot. There were also, of course, the drugs.

As Annalee Newitz reports in Other Magazine, the Kerista model began before the San Francisco incarnation. The idea came to founder and prophet -- at least, that's how members described him -- Jud '[w]hile reading the Koran and smoking pot.' He began a small sect in New York City's Greenwich Village, and as Robert Anton Wilson reported in the July/August 1965 issue of Fact, the New York Kerista sect gave birth to and was guided by the principle of 'Buddho, the art of no-defense: there are no regulations or stipulations.' And also, there were the drugs.

Jud's tight ship, however, began to show cracks in the hull when he established a family in San Francisco. Burdened by the administrative task of keeping track of who was going to sleep with whom on a given night, they turned to Apple spreadsheets. Soon the Kerista family was running one of the largest Apple computer stores in the state of California, and the strict business regimen began to tear at the family's free-flowing fabric. Most of all, though, the Buddho ideal seems to have been left behind as Jud began to favor elaborate lists of rules that governed family life. He also led, according to Newitz, what he called 'gestalt-o-rama' sessions. Intended to be cathartic and healing after a family member had transgressed, the sessions essentially consisted of Jud berating a cowed member. Finally frustrated with the inability to speak their minds, during a 'gestalt-o-rama' the family began to, as Newitz puts it, 'gestalt the gestalter.' This turned out to be the death-knell of an otherwise wildly successful stab at polyfidelity in America. For a time, the success must have felt good, must have felt powerful. It must have felt, for a time, like a drug.

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