I used to identify as a hippie. Not a flower child of the ’70s, but the modern variation: eating organic, doing yoga, dabbling in psychedelic drugs, and rarely showering.
I went to a small experimental program in college. We didn't get grades and walked around barefoot. Thus when I needed a place to live, the ad on Craigslist titled “Eco-friendly hippie house,” seemed like a good fit. It talked about composting, a vegetable garden, "being 420 friendly," yoga, and hosting gatherings. Jacques* and I spoke on the phone the next morning and he invited me to come over immediately.
The door was open, so I walked tentatively inside and was greeted by the sight of two men in the living room standing on a table, one beating his chest and the other one doing strange yoga poses. The yoga man snapped his eyes open and came bounding over to me.
“Hello, you must be Becca. I am Jacques, with whom you spoke earlier today. This is our community space. Once someone moves in, perhaps you, I will be vacating the bedroom to live in a tent in the backyard to escape the trappings of modernity.” He had not been this ridiculous on the phone.
We looked at the room -- it wasn't huge, but included a bed, desk and dresser. Convenient, since I didn't have any furniture or money to purchase it. It even had a walk-in closet. My eyes widened, but I said nothing -- I could tell that Jacques might not approve of my excessive collection of floral print dresses and distressed jean shorts.
Jacques was most excited about showing off the backyard. “This is my magnum opus, the garden.” Although the plants didn't seem entirely alive, the garden was impressive. It was at least six plots, accompanied by some large green bags.
“What are those?” I asked.
“Gavin, the other roommate, grows algae.”
Of course he does, I thought to myself.
“He'll be happy to tell you about it when he returns, assuming this goes well. I have a few other people interested in the room, but I like you the best.” I thought this was a bit odd, since we hadn't actually spoken much. “I should be able to let you know by next week. Or, you could just move in tomorrow!”
“Just let me know next week!," I said. "I don't want to move out on my friend that quickly, I want to be respectful.” Jacques patted me on the shoulder, then without warning enveloped me in a hug.
“That's the kind of respect I like to see in a potential roommate.”
Jacques invited me to live with him early the next week. He was camping while I moved, missing the five suitcases of clothes and 17 boxes of books.
It turned out that Gavin was a 51-year-old bachelor and entrepreneur. Despite our age and professional differences -- I was a server at IHOP -- we got along immediately. I asked him about how he liked living in the house, and he replied with a laugh.
“I really enjoy the energy. Jacques and his friends are an interesting crowd -- but I think you'll have fun.”
Interesting was an understatement. Jacques' friends, who came in and out of the house without warning at all hours of the day, were a whole new breed of hippie. There was Seapunk, who made instruments out of sticks and "gifted" one to me every time I found him sleeping on our couch. Natalia, one of Jacques' many polyamorous lady friends, always brought over home brewed Kombucha. Savannah sold cheese and ran a hula hoop exercise group. This ragtag group treated me like a close friend, inviting me to events and always greeting me with a hug, but something about it felt false. We never had long conversations -- the time they spent at the house was filled with playing drums or yoga sessions.
Jacques hosted a "community gathering" every weekend. At first, they were basically day parties, an ever changing group of young people coming together to smoke and discuss not using soap. After a few weeks, Jacques decided that the gatherings were becoming too focused on socializing and not enough on his garden.
“I want the garden to be a community effort,” Jacques told some friends one afternoon as I got home from work. “I don't want the gatherings to be about socializing. From now we will focus on the garden and no alcohol will be allowed. I'm actually going to go on a toxin cleanse, and I highly encourage all of you to do so as well.”
His friends seemed enthusiastic about changing their habits based on his whims, but it bugged me. Why did Jacques expect his friends to put as much effort into his garden as he did? The garden rarely produced more than a head of Swiss chard, it couldn't feed every person who came wandering through the house. I was put off by how heavily he encouraged all of us to follow him on his toxin cleanse. He implied judgment toward anyone who chose not to participate.
That night, I brought up Jacques' proclamations to Gavin. He laughed.
“You've gotta get used to it Becca. Jacques has a guru-complex. He wants to be the leader. I know you're independent, so just ignore it.”
Jacques' strange behavior only increased. He started having "ceremonies" at the house, one around understanding the pineal gland, another using crystals to get in better touch with our dreams. One Saturday he called me into the living room.
“We're having a mushroom ceremony and if you're going to be around the house you need to participate.”
“I have to work in the morning. I can't be up all night on a mushroom trip.” Jacques didn't understand having a steady job. He made his money by gambling -- he planned to play in the World Series of Poker to fund urban gardening in low income areas. He didn't know what it was like to have a boss who would fire you if you showed up strung out from psychedelics.
“Just take one, you'll still be able to sleep. I don't want anyone in the house who isn't involved in the energy.” I shrugged, going along with it for an hour instead of being exiled from my house.
The next day, Jacques took me aside and said that he wanted me to get more involved in the garden so that once it started making money, he could pay me.
“I really think that IHOP is a negative influence in your life, Becca. I am taking it upon myself to help you get away from that atmosphere.” I pretended to agree with him, but I doubted the garden was ever going to make money.
After the cleanse, Jacques began having psychedelic trips much more frequently. His "ceremonies" devolved into offering mushrooms to whoever was at the house.
In late July, Gavin went on a business trip and I flew home for a few days.
Gavin called me on the third day of my trip.
“Becca, where are you?” he asked urgently.
“Um, Wisconsin? You were gone when I left. What's up?”
“Oh, I'm glad you're not here. Um, something happened, but I don't know...let me call you back.”
My mom and I hypothesized about what could be wrong -- what if there was a fire or we'd been robbed?
She began browsing the news websites. “Look at this,” she said.
I read the headline -- “Naked man found stabbed near freeway.” and gasped.
“That spot is less than a block from my house!”
I texted Gavin: “Is Jacques the stabbed naked man?”
He called a few minutes later. “I need your keys. The police need to get in your room to investigate.”
Gavin told me that he'd come home early that morning and found the front door wide open, the kitchen spattered with blood and a knife laying on the floor.
When I got back, two of my friends accompanied me to the house to pick up some of my stuff -- I was too afraid to sleep there until we found out what happened. Had Jacques owed somebody money from poker? Had someone gotten violent on one of his many mushroom trips?
I said as much to Gavin, who said, “I understand you not wanting to stay here for a few days, but I don't think you're in any danger. The police think it was self inflicted.”
My friends barraged Gavin with questions, but as he said it, I remembered something.
A few weeks ago, I'd come home wasted and found Jacques alone in the living room. He'd jumped up, exclaiming that he'd almost stabbed himself. While hallucinating, he'd become paranoid that someone was going to harm him, but realized that the real danger was himself. But I shouldn't worry, he quickly assured me, he realized that suicide would be a selfish act because the world deserved his wisdom.
When I remembered this, I felt extremely guilty. I'd chalked his words up to another crazy hallucination and forgotten them in my drunken haze. I had been an RA in college, I should have known to tell someone when another person mentioned suicide.
I was sure that Gavin would be angry, but he replied calmly: “I wish you'd told me, but four of his friends said the same thing. Apparently he was going around telling everyone that story, laughing about it. At least he's alive, and stable.”
A few days later, Gavin invited Jacques' friends over to talk about the incident. As they arrived, they all hugged me, saying how sorry they were and how hard this must be for me. I was confused. It felt as though they were treating Gavin and I like Jacques' parents instead of his roommates.
Gavin began the discussion of the weeks that led up to the breakdown. He took a harsher stance than he had with me -- these were supposedly Jacques' closest friends. He asked them why none of them had intervened.
Gavin's calm facilitation quickly turned to yoga instructors sobbing and a 17-year-old girl saying “After we made love at the full moon celebration he told me he felt like he had to push himself into deeper hallucinations to protect us!”
Once everyone started talking, it wasn't hard to see what had happened. There were at least 20 people at our house in emotional distress, but none of them had spoken to each other about how strange Jacques had been acting.
It came out that Jacques had showed signs of paranoia, especially while hallucinating, but nobody had thought anything of it because he spent so much time trying to educate people on his healthy lifestyle. His friends were convinced by his guru act.
I never thought when I moved in with a guy who proclaimed himself to be an eco-hippie that he would try to control my life. Jacques had demeaned my job and pressured me into using hallucinogens. He believed his mission to swindle money from poker and use it to create urban gardens was more valid than mine, and he tried to exert that on me so I would help him pursue his goals while neglecting my own.
Gavin spoke with Jacques on the phone a few weeks ago -- he's recovering with his parents out of state, and I hope that he finds the wellness he's looking for away from psychedelic drugs. I came out lucky in the situation. I'd thought I had a lot in common with Jacques because of how people had defined me in college, but I was able to confront how my ideals differentiated from his and build a life in a new city.
*Names have been changed.