Profiles | 16 May 2024

Undergraduate Profile: Molly Maher


Molly Maher is a History and Psychology double major at UC Santa Cruz. They are a THI 2023-2024 Undergraduate Research Fellow for their project, “Tensions in Paradise: The Om Commune as an Alternative Cultural Experiment.” In May, we sat down with Molly Maher to discuss their research on the Om Commune in Ben Lomond in the 1960s-1970s, the importance of oral histories, and the role of community in bringing about revolutionary change.

Hi Molly! Thanks for chatting with us about your THI-supported research project, “Tensions in Paradise: The Om Commune as an Alternative Cultural Experiment.” To begin, could you give us a brief overview of the project?

My project “Tensions in Paradise: The Om Commune as an Alternative Cultural Experiment” seeks to understand the functions of the Om Commune in Ben Lomond in the late 1960s-70s, specifically in looking at the political and cultural contexts to understand the discrepancies in accounts by its residents and other San Lorenzo Valley community members.

Your project seeks to weigh the accounts of Ben Lomond locals, local authorities, visitors, journalists, and long-term residents of the Om Commune in order to discern the role that the commune played in the community. How did you contend with these sometimes inconsistent accounts? What were your findings?

A 1967 edition of the Santa Cruz Sentinel dismays the counterculture in Ben Lomond. From the larger three part series “Hippies find ‘Where Its At.’”

After reviewing my primary sources, I was specifically intrigued by the limited yet largely differing perspectives of the commune and its ways of living. The experiences of those who had lived in the commune reflected feelings of acceptance, non-violence, and community. However, Ben Lomond residents and journalists referred to these people with derogatory names like “communists,” “river rats,” and “the hippie invasion.” Furthermore, the group faced unprovoked violent attacks from oppositional community members in which law enforcement became involved. These conflicting perspectives encouraged me to research further into the political and economic contexts leading to this cultural split. I found that the majority of these complaints were coming from the community of largely Bay Area wealthy residents who owned a second property in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Because of their detachment from the region itself, these residents saw this emphasis on community in the Om Commune as a burden to their vacation homes. From this understanding, I framed my research by looking at how the complexities of media representation and class differences interact with our understanding of community. 

As part of your project, you conducted archival research at the Special Collections at McHenry Library as well as the archives at the Santa Cruz public library. I imagine this was a fascinating process. I’m always curious about archival research, and I’m wondering if there was a specific text or specific moment from your research that stands out to you–a moment of surprise, shock, awe, or understanding you’d like to share with us?

Image from Holly Harman’s Inside a Hippie Commune.

One of my favorite parts about archival research is the variety of mediums that primary sources can come in. When I visited the Special Collections at McHenry Library to watch a documentary that features members of the Om Commune, I discovered a student project with interviews from 1971 that seemed relevant to my work. The paper was written by a student named Nick Atchinson yet I was unable to identify the context of the assignment or course it was produced for. The documents included a manuscript of an interview with someone who lived in the commune as the student paper was written during the Om Commune’s active years. While this paper served as one of the only primary sources offering the perspective of the commune’s residents, it wasn’t entirely cohesive and was clearly missing pages. I specifically loved the interview with the self-proclaimed “psychic alchemist” Max Hartstein who temporarily lived on the Om Commune. He seemed to have an intimate relationship with the community that had formed in the commune and praised their selflessness. I quoted him at the opening of my research: “The kids at Holiday would give you the shirts off their backs […] they would give things away until they didn’t have enough for themselves.”

You made contact with Holly Harman, a woman who lived on the Om Commune during its heyday and authored a book about her time spent there. What can you share about the process of interviewing her? Why are oral histories important for this kind of work?

When doing this type of research, oral histories from individuals with first-hand experiences often offer a surplus of keywords and pieces of critical information that can change entire aspects of the research process.

It was a pleasure to be able to interview Holly Harman as her book Inside a Hippie Commune was very helpful in guiding my research. She was very willing to share research resources with me and offer anecdotes about her time on the commune. When doing this type of research, oral histories from individuals with first-hand experiences often offer a surplus of keywords and pieces of critical information that can change entire aspects of the research process. Because she resided in the commune in its earliest days, Holly could offer me names of members and the roles they played. This type of information is extremely useful to refer back to as a starting point for research as a single name can lead you to an entire new body of sources related to your topic. 

I’m curious about the relationship between your research and your lived experience. Has the project influenced your personal views about the feasibility or attractiveness of living communally on land? 

I think the most revolutionary pushes for change are birthed from the collective action of our communities. 

One of the biggest changes in my life since moving to Santa Cruz has been the ways in which I prioritize community. Before college, I struggled to find a community in which I could explore my individualism – a major point of emphasis for those living in the Om Commune. Yet since coming to Santa Cruz I have found a sense of belonging and been met with love in every community space I entered. While I think I am far from realistically being able to live communally entirely, I do live my life centering on my community. Like the Om Commune, I don’t see community as an exclusive entity but rather a form of love only sustained by mutual effort. I think the most revolutionary pushes for change are birthed from the collective action of our communities. 

As a historian, why is it important to study local history? 

While higher education can teach us things that we once thought could only be learned through experience, a historian is most equipped to research a local topic to which they have closest proximity. Studying local history can often be easier to navigate in social networks and can play a key role in accessing sources relevant to the research. Closer physical proximity to the location of the event assumes better access to first-hand accounts. Similarly, local history makes visiting archives, conducting in-person interviews, and physically visiting relevant sites much more accessible. 

How has your THI Undergraduate Research Fellowship aided you in your research?

I initially began this research project in my Historical Methods Course in Fall of 2023 however I was fairly limited in the extent of my research by the constraints of the class. When the course reached its end in December, I did not feel like my research was near completion. I knew that working my two university jobs and being a staff member at our radio station would make it difficult to continue conducting my research as I took on a new set of classes. With the help of the THI Undergraduate Research Fellowship and the mentorship of Professor Benjamin Breen, I got the opportunity to continue finding sources related to my topic and developing my research. I see this project as a work in progress yet this fellowship has offered me long-standing experiences and connections that will continue to help me with this and other research endeavors down the line. 

Finally, what’s one place in Santa Cruz everyone should check out?

SubRosa, a collectively run anarchist community space in downtown Santa Cruz.

My favorite place in Santa Cruz is Subrosa Community Space. The complex includes a Bike Church which offers free bike repairs and lessons in self-sustaining bike maintenance. Fabrica, a room full of sewing materials, fabrics, machines, and more, stands by its entrance and is run by sewers from the surrounding community. Subrosa regularly hosts local musicians, many of whom have never performed publicly before, and offers a space for artists and bands to promote their work. The space is all donated based (meaning no one will be turned away for a lack of funds) and volunteer-run. One of the most accessible ways people can increase accessibility to community research is through supporting these non-profit community-run organizations like Subrosa.

Banner Image: from Inside a Hippie Commune by Holly Harman.