AN INTRODUCTION TO ISIS AQUARIAN AND THE SOURCE FAMILY
CHARLENE PETERS & ISIS AQUARIAN
When Charlene Peters arrived at The Source restaurant in 1972, she had no idea that her entire world and the manner in which she existed within it, was about to be immeasurably altered forever. Up until that point, she lived what many people would consider a fairly accomplished and fulfilling existence—or, at least, that is one way that it could be interpreted on paper. With a father in the Air Force, her family moved often in her early years and, while she always identified as more of an observer, she learned to assimilate, integrating herself firmly into the social frameworks that surrounded her. Already a cheerleader, elected to prom court, Central Florida Model of the year, and a sorority girl, Charlene eventually moved to Washington DC where she became a minor beauty queen (first as Cherry Blossom Princess and, later, Miss US Savings Bond); she had discovered a gift for maneuvering, almost effortlessly, through a world that she continued to feel distanced from. As things progressed, she landed a job as an aid for the Johnson administration, and seemed destined for a future of throwing dinner parties as the socialite wife of a politician. Peters rejected that inevitability with a move to New York where it was not uncommon for her to come in contact with the likes of Salvador Dali, or attend parties at Andy Warhol’s Factory. From there she fled the more serious, heroin-fueled, chain-smoking art scene of NYC for the light-hearted, sunny, health-conscious world of Southern California.
As one might expect, the glamorous life continued in Hollywood, with soirees at Joey Bishop’s house and her briefly dating a young Rob Reiner. This all culminated in Peters becoming engaged to noted rock photographer, Ron Raffaelli, initially meeting him while modeling for a Jimi Hendrix shoot that he was doing. Feeling content while living an exciting life surrounded by the most prominent rock musicians of the time, she began to play an integral role in Raffaelli’s work, discovering a unique talent for managing the studio.
It was through that work, and, more specifically, a hunt for “Jesuses” to photograph for a Jesus Christ Superstar poster, that led her to her old friend and successful restaurateur, Jim Baker’s pioneering health food establishment that day, and, more indirectly, to the life-changing events that would follow. Within 3 days, she would completely abandon her old life, moving into a mansion in Los Feliz with over 100 other young people as part of a progressive, spiritually-minded, health-centric cult/commune. She would ultimately become one of Baker’s 13 spiritual wives (or 14, depending on interpretation), while taking on the role of the archivist, “Family Record Keeper,” and “Keeper of the Temple.” Peters would also adopt a new name which reflected her role as a member of the family and, in turn, her role in the Universe, at large. That name was, and is, Isis (middle name “The”) Aquarian.
Jim Baker – The Ultimate Animal Man
James Edward Baker was raised by a single mother during the depression era, and his yearning for the guidance of a father figure played a key role in both his development, as well as his motivations, over the years. At an early age, he found one such figure in health food pioneer Paul Bragg, of apple cider vinegar fame, who took him under his wing, becoming the catalyst for Baker’s own future endeavors in that field. At the age of 12, Jim earned the title of “Strongest Boy in America,” and would later grow into an impressive 6’3” specimen, becoming a decorated marine, as well as a Judo and Jiu-Jitsu expert. Abandoning his own wife and child, he moved to Hollywood with dreams of being cast as Tarzan and becoming a stuntman.
This would lead to him meeting his second wife, Elaine, with whom he’d grow increasingly immersed in the studies of religion and mysticism and, eventually, open two successful and groundbreaking restaurants, The Aware Inn (“The first organic, gourmet health food restaurant in the country”) and, later, a more lunchtime focused establishment on the Sunset Strip known as The Old World. During their union, Jim was jailed on two separate occasions for killing men with judo chops, with the first resulting in him being exonerated, as it was determined that he had acted in self-defense, and the following incident finding him jailed for 5 months with a manslaughter conviction that was later overturned in a retrial. The second attacker-turned-victim, who not only had his windpipe collapsed, but also took a bullet through the head from his own gun, was the husband of a woman that Baker was having an affair with; the incessant cheating being the primary factor in his and Elaine’s separation, with her retaining custody of their 3 sons, along with The Aware Inn, after the divorce.
Jim would again remarry, this time to a much younger woman named Dora; get involved in the psychedelic lifestyle; and, ultimately, have The Old World taken over by investors, due to his increasingly reckless decision making and handling of the finances.
The Source & Father Yod/YaHoWha
The Source was a new start and opened with the help of a new investor in 1969, although Baker would later make claims that he funded some of his enterprises by committing bank robberies. The vegetarian restaurant proved as popular as the previous two had, continuing to bring in high profile clientele like Warren Beatty, John Lennon, and Steve McQueen; it was even used as a setting in the Woody Allen classic, Annie Hall. Eventually, Jim would separate from Dora and find himself marrying the 19- year-old Robin—28 years his junior. He would also find a new spiritual father in the prominent Sikh guru Yogi Bhajan, who, in a very Siddhartha-esque fashion, he would, ultimately, outgrow to pursue his own path.
By the time that Isis stepped onto The Source premises, her “old friend” had already begun his transition from Jim Baker into “Father Yod” (later evolving into the title of “YaHoWha”), leader of The Source Family and spiritual guru in his own right. More and more followers had begun to find their way to the charismatic Yod, participating in the free meditation classes that he was providing at the restaurant, and even sticking around to work as staff at The Source. These bearded, long-haired workers in white robes were the “Jesuses” that Isis had heard about and their process of becoming a unified group, with their own set of governing principals, commandments, and spiritual laws, was already well underway. Baker had recently leased a large three-story, 15-bedroom mansion, with an Olympic-sized swimming pool through friend/realtor, Lucius Foster (father of Jodie), so that he could finally house the entirety of his growing family under one roof. Originally built in 1912 for LA Times and real estate magnate, Harry Chandler, the residence was re-christened the “Mother House.” Over time, their numbers would grow and certain founding principles would even change (namely those relating to polygamy and an adoption of spiritually-based tantric sexual practices). The family evolved and would be forced to move, and then move again. They eventually relocated to Lanikai, Hawaii where Yod would leave his physical body in 1975, after a failed hang gliding attempt—both the first and last one that he would ever make. The date was August 25th, exactly 38-years-ago yesterday.
The Archives and the Legacy
While all of this information is undeniably intriguing as it stands, please note that what you’ve just read is nothing more than a severely condensed version of Father Yod/YaHoWha and The Source Family. After Yod’s passing and the family’s imminent dispersal, there wasn’t much keeping the legacy alive. That responsibility fell onto the shoulders of Isis Aquarian, who has continued to honor her role as the family documentarian and historian, storing and protecting what seems like a bottomless archive of photos, writings, video, home movies, and various other teachings over the last 40 years. Without that dedication, the majority of the legacy would not only have laid dormant for decades, but would have disappeared altogether.
Like many others, I first became familiar with The Source Family through the discovery of the psychedelic music that they created as Ya Ho Wha 13. Acknowledging the various talents within their ranks—Sky Saxon (aka “Arelich Aquarian”) of 60s garage/psych outfit The Seeds among them—a number of musical projects were formed, studio space was created, improvised psychedelic music was channeled/recorded, albums were pressed, and live improvised shows were performed at “venues” like local high schools as a method for distributing the Source Family message to the masses. Of these projects, the Father Yod-led Ya Ho Wha 13 was the most prolific and, as knowledge of the albums that they produced through their jown independent Higher Key label began to spread, they became highly sought after by vinyl collectors, many years later. But while the music may have been the first introduction to the family for many, it was, as Father Yod intended, merely a gateway into a deeper message. Or, as Isis Aquarian expressed to me herself, music was simply “a chariot that [they] rode into the ether on.”
It wasn’t until Isis released the book The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and the Source Family, with the assistance of fellow family member Electricity Aquarian, back in 2007, that the fascinating behind-the- scenes exploits, history, imagery, and greater details of the commune truly became available for public consumption for the first time. That project evolved into a full-on documentary film (reviewed here), which was directed by Jodi Wille (who edited/published the book) and Maria Demopoulos, while relying heavily on the vintage photographs and video footage from Isis Aquarian’s Source Family archives. After making the rounds on the festival circuit, The Source Family was picked up for distribution by the Chicago-based, Drag City Records–also responsible for re-releasing albums by Ya Ho Wha 13, along with other Source-related audio material.
With the film receiving its official DVD release earlier this year, I had the privilege of speaking with the woman who was most responsible for making it a reality, Isis Aquarian herself. That phone conversation turned into a second one, which then turned into several interactions via email and instant messaging. And while both the documentary film and the book that have been released which chronicle that period of time spent living with The Source Family are incredibly compelling and revealing pieces of work, there is one thing that has become increasingly more evident to me through our interactions: there are way too many levels to this thing for the full story to ever be revealed in a single 99-minute film or 280-page book. Likewise, there is clearly far too much to ever cover everything in a single interview. My only real hope is that, through my forth-coming interview posts on the site, I will be able to contribute something of worth to the Source Family legacy and/or the conversation that surrounds it. And hopefully, this 1,800-plus word introduction provides just enough of a foundation to allow everyone else to follow along.
[All images used courtesy of Isis Aquarian-Source Archives]
The Source Family documentary is available now on DVD from Drag City records
CLICK HERE TO READ PART 1 OF THE INTERVIEW