LITR 5439 Literary & Historical Utopias

Twin Oaks: On to Walden Two

Time, 20 Sept. 1971

At first glance, it looks like a movie set for Walden Two. There is a shop building called Harmony, a farmhouse called Llano, and a dormitory called Oneida. Bulletin boards list upcoming cultural events, and young people lounge on hammocks, reading and engaging in serious discussions. The smell of farm-fresh cooking is everywhere. The resemblance to Walden Two is more than superficial. Twin Oaks, a 123-acre farm commune nestled in the foothills of Virginia's Piedmont, is a remarkable attempt to create a Utopian community governed by Skinner's laws of social engineering.

Work is allocated by an intricate system of labor credits so that none of the 35 members have unequal burdens. Titles and honorifics have been done away with so that, in the words of the community's code, "all are entitled to the same privileges, advantages and respect." Private property is forbidden, except for such things as books and clothing, and even with that loophole, most members draw their clothing, right down to their underwear, from a massive community closet. No one is allowed to boast of individual accomplishments, to gossip ("negative speech") or to be intolerant of another's beliefs.

Behavioral engineering goes on every minute of the day. A member who gets angry, who makes demands or who gives ultimatums is simply not "reinforced," to use the behavioral term. He is ignored. What is considered appropriate behavior—cooperating, showing affection, turning the other cheek and working diligently—is, on the other hand, applauded, or "reinforced," by the group. Members are singled out for compliments if they do a job well; signs are put up telling who cleaned a room, for example. Smokers who wanted to break the cigarette habit formed a group to help one another. Cigarettes were put in progressively more inconvenient spots, and each member of the group received congratulations for every day he spent without tobacco.

The use of tobacco and alcohol is, in fact, discouraged at Twin Oaks, and all drugs, including marijuana, are banned. So is television, which is considered a cultural poison. "We decided that we just weren't strong enough to stand up to television," says Kat Griebe, one of Twin Oaks' charter founders and, at 40, one of the oldest members. "Its powerful message is that of middle-class American values, which we reject—a high level of consumption, streamlined cosmetic standards of beauty, male dominance, the use of violence as a problem solver, and the underlying assumption that life should be a constant state of titillation and excitement. Life just isn't like that."

Especially life at Twin Oaks. The favorite sports are "cooperation volleyball" and skinny-dipping in the South Anna River—false modesty is another of the sins that are not reinforced—and there is plenty of folk singing and dancing. In a departure from Skinner's rather puritanical Walden Two, sex is considered, as one member put it, a "pleasant pastime, like anything else." Adds Kat: "We don't have a very high opinion of marriage—it often becomes possessive. We do have a high regard for what Skinner calls 'abiding affection.'"

As yet there are no children at Twin Oaks. There is not enough "surplus labor" to care for infants, and there is no space for a separate Skinnerian nursery. Besides that, the reasoning goes, it is better not to bring children into the equation until all the adults have developed "appropriate" behavior; otherwise, bad habits would simply be reproduced in the young.

All of the Utopian ventures of the early and mid-19th century—from Indiana's New Harmony on the Wabash River to Massachusetts' famed Brook Farm—eventually foundered, and Twin Oaks, too, has its problems. The major one appears to be financial. "Skinner never wrote about a poor community," laments Gabe Sinclair. "He wrote about a rich one." After starting with only $35,000, Twin Oaks, four years later, still finds survival a struggle. The farm brings more emotional than monetary rewards; members would find it cheaper to work at other jobs and buy their food at the market. The community's chief source of income is the sale of hammocks stitched together in Harmony, but it is not enough to make ends meet; several members are forced to take outside jobs in Richmond and Charlottesville—a direct contradiction to Walden Two's basic premise that all time should be spent in a totally controlled environment.

Beyond economics, there are serious psychological problems at Twin Oaks, and few members have stayed very long. Turnover last year was close to 70%. The ones who leave first, in fact, are often the most competent members, who still expect special recognition for their talents. "Competent people are hard to get along with," says Richard Stutsman, one of Twin Oaks' trained psychologists. "They tend to make demands, not requests. We cannot afford to reinforce ultimatum behavior, although we recognize our need for their competence. So often we have given in to them on little things, and then when a big demand arises we have to deny them." When they leave, the community not only loses their skills but also sacrifices a potential rise in its standard of living.

While it is still considerably poorer than Walden Two, Twin Oaks has gone farther toward the goal of behavioral control than might have seemed reasonably possible. It is too soon, however, to call the commune much more than a fascinating experiment.