Who’s your daddy?
For hundreds of young souls back in the early 1970s, the answer to that was Jim Baker, a.k.a Father Yod, a.k.a. YaHoWha. The name didn’t really matter. For the scores of people who came to Los Angeles and gathered at Baker’s feet for food, shelter and enlightenment, Baker was the father they never really knew or have ever forgotten.
Jim Baker is the towering mystical figure at the heart of The Source, a fascinating new documentary getting its local premiere as the kick-off screening of the monthly Doc Soup series next Wednesday and Thursday at Toronto’s Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Directed by Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille, and comprised of both contemporary interviews and archival material provided by Baker’s appointed resident “family” historian, the movie touches upon one of the deepest strains in American cultural life: the search for the absent father.
While the movie makes the legitimate observation that the late 1960s and early 1970s were an especially fertile one for the scattering of lost young souls – a byproduct of the period’s rejection of traditional familial and generational roles – the fact is fathers have been missing and sought in American culture for decades. The presumption of patriarchal authority, from Presidents to evangelists to Pa Cartwright and Atticus Finch, has been one of the country’s most persistent forms of popular myth. In a world where families have been fractured by geography, war, politics, crime and values, the missing father puts the world out of balance and finding him promises to put everything right. Luke Skywalker meet Ronald Reagan.
While The Source walks a fine line between endorsing Baker’s presumed role as benevolent communal guru and questioning it, the story it tells falls squarely within the unsavoury history of American cultism. Occurring midway through the decade that spanned from Charles Manson to Jim Jones, the story of The Source Family casts radiant light and ominous shadow equally.
Then there’s the striking coincidence of the local premiere of this movie with the recent opening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Anderson’s movie is not just about cultism but also its attractions and illusions, and in that way echoes last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, another unnerving depiction of the allure – for those who are vulnerable – of a charismatically creepy father-guru (John Hawkes). There’s something in the cult and guru figure that both compels and repels us. The Source’s Jim Baker represents that ambivalence in spades.
Ponder some facts. Baker was a Silver Star-decorated, hand-to-hand combat veteran of the Second World War. He was also a big man (6 foot 4) who had a black belt in jiu jitsu, a history of bank robbing and violence (including an alleged murder or two), and a fanatical dedication to purifying the body through proper diet and meditation. He was also the owner of one of the continent’s first and most successful health-food restaurants – The Source on Sunset – and drew new followers to his cause by offering them jobs there.
As his business and following grew, Baker changed his name to Father Yod, began holding Sunday rituals of meditation and worship, and gradually converted his growing gathering of young acolytes – many of whom were girls barely out of their teens – into a full-fledged communal enterprise.
He preached a doctrine of holistic metaphysics that combined Eastern mysticism, psychedelic culture, ritual marijuana use and hour upon hour of shambolic babble. On top of all this, he encouraged the musically gifted among his flock to participate in the family band, called YaHoWha 13, a kind of unhinged psychedelic orchestra that performed at campuses and high schools.
For a year or two, all seemed sunny and good, but then the common fate of the cult intervened, as Father Yod began to compare himself to God, arrange marriages between his male and underage female followers, practice super-secret ‘blood rituals,’ and eventually take 13 young women as his wives. Dissent grew among the Family, legal authorities began to bear down, and eventually Father Yod moved everyone to Hawaii, and died after sailing off a cliff from a hang-glider, his first and last attempt at solo flight.
Interviewed these many years on, the survivors of The Source Family remain a remarkably loyal and level-headed bunch, many of whom openly describe their leader’s shortcomings while insisting their Family experience had a lastingly positive influence on their lives.
Which only makes the legacy of Father Yod that much more complex: He was clearly a flawed, deluded and megalomaniacal man. But he provided something that transcended all these shortcomings – a way of living still embraced by many of his Family. Meanwhile, the search continues.