Lyman Family

A community fervently centered around the mystical and authoritarian leadership of Mel Lyman, diverging sharply from the hippie movement of its time.

The Lyman Family, also known as the Fort Hill Community, emerged in the 1960s under the leadership of Mel Lyman, a figure whose persona and ideology significantly deviated from the then-prevalent hippie culture. Despite sharing some superficial similarities with the hippies, such as the use of LSD and marijuana, the ethos of the Lyman Family was fundamentally at odds with the hippie movement. The Family espoused conservative dress codes for women and short hair for men, far from the hippie aesthetic. Lyman’s approach to communal living emphasized a strict hierarchy, with women relegated to domestic roles and men dominating. Sexual relations were discouraged, and all members were required to contribute financially to the collective, which focused on construction and remodeling projects to create a supportive environment for Lyman’s creative endeavors​​.

The Fort Hill Community published an underground newspaper, Avatar, which became a medium for expressing Lyman’s philosophies, characterized by strong currents of megalomania and nihilism. This publication diverged from the gentle collectivism found in other underground media of the time, instead offering a mix of poetic, philosophical, and confrontational content. Lyman’s claims of divinity and otherworldly origin in these publications garnered both support and criticism, significantly raising his profile and that of the Family​​.

Life within the Family was governed by a rigid discipline that included the use of isolation rooms for disobedient members and a special enforcement squad, known as the “Karma Squad,” to maintain order. The Family’s internal dynamics and belief system were detailed in a 1971 Rolling Stone exposé by David Felton, which painted a picture of an authoritarian and dysfunctional environment. This portrayal was corroborated by former members, who highlighted the stark differences between the Lyman Family and the more well-known Manson Family, with whom they were contemporaneously active. The Lyman Family’s activities included a notorious bank robbery in 1973, which resulted in the death of a Family member and the imprisonment of others​​.

Guinevere Turner, an actress and screenwriter who spent her early years in the Family, provides a personal perspective on growing up within this enigmatic community. According to Turner, the Family taught its members that outsiders were soulless and dangerous, and punitive measures for children included severe forms of discipline. Turner’s account reveals a culture of indoctrination, where young girls were groomed for “marriage” to adult men within the group, and apocalyptic beliefs were central to the Family’s ideology. Despite these challenges, Turner recalls a sense of camaraderie among the children and a complex relationship with the community’s traditions and expectations​​.

The Lyman Family’s influence and activities have left an indelible mark on the narrative of American cults. While the group’s founder, Mel Lyman, reportedly died in 1978 under mysterious circumstances, the legacy and impact of the Family continue to provoke discussion and analysis. The group’s complex dynamics, blending creative pursuits with authoritarian control, exemplify the diverse and often contradictory nature of new religious movements and cults​​.

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