Feature: Strange new world

The Atlantis Therapy Commune lived a life of sexual freedom and primal screaming deep in Colombia's guerrilla territory. Then two bloody murders destroyed their dream. Andrew Brown recalls the bizarre time he spent with the group
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The Independent US

People always said that Jenny James's dreams would end up as nightmares. They said it in London in the late 1960s, when she first began to practise "primal scream" therapy in Ladbroke Grove. And they said it in the respectable Irish village of Burtonport, county Donegal, when she established a community of "Screamers" there in 1974. They said it when, to escape the scandal, she moved the community to the nearby island of Innisfree. And they said it when - after years of conflict with the forces of conservatism on the mainland - she finally fled across the Atlantic and, after two years of rough travelling through the Caribbean and South America with her three small children, set up the Atlantis Therapy Commune in 1988 on one of the remotest mountainsides in Colombia.

People always said that Jenny James's dreams would end up as nightmares. They said it in London in the late 1960s, when she first began to practise "primal scream" therapy in Ladbroke Grove. And they said it in the respectable Irish village of Burtonport, county Donegal, when she established a community of "Screamers" there in 1974. They said it when, to escape the scandal, she moved the community to the nearby island of Innisfree. And they said it when - after years of conflict with the forces of conservatism on the mainland - she finally fled across the Atlantic and, after two years of rough travelling through the Caribbean and South America with her three small children, set up the Atlantis Therapy Commune in 1988 on one of the remotest mountainsides in Colombia.

What no one predicted, though, was that the end would be so long in coming; or that, when it did, it would cause such shock waves. James's experimental lifestyle, based on principles of free love, Reichian release of repressed emotions and the rejection of European conventions, continued to thrive for another decade or so. And when, this month, it finally became clear that the dream was over, feature-writers across the world groped for words to give meaning to its apparent failure.

The grotesque incident that brought it to a close actually took place in July. But, so remote was the corner of southern Colombia where the Atlantis commune was based - near Icononzo in the Tolima region - that the news took nearly three months to reach the outside world.

Icononzo lies deep in guerrilla country, where the left-wing rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has for many years held more sway than the Colombian government and its paramilitary supporters. For more than a decade, members of the commune had maintained a harmonious coexistence with the FARC guerrillas. Then, last summer, for reasons that are only just beginning to emerge, the relationship turned sour. The 15 remaining members of the commune were advised to leave, and, for a while, did. Then, in July, Tristan James - Jenny's teenage grandson - and another commune member, Javier Nova, decided to return.

They were warned when they reached Icononzo that their lives were in danger, but took no notice. When they reached the village of Hoya Grande, a few miles downhill from the commune, they were seized, "tried" before a kangaroo court, taken out into the street, stabbed and decapitated. Their bodies were burned. No one knows what became of their heads.

There will be people who interpret this tragedy as some kind of moral comeuppance for a group once condemned by the Daily Mail as "a degradation of everything the family stands for". But while the lifestyle of the Atlantis commune was certainly unconventional - and its sexual economy was complicated beyond belief - it is hard to see how it deserved such a visitation of brutality. In general, the group seems to have meant well towards the outside world, in so far as it acknowledged that it existed. That is, however, an important "in so far as". Mentally as well as physically, the people of Atlantis were about as remote from the outside world as it is possible to be, as I discovered when, a few years ago, I visited their commune.

The commune's contact in Bogota was a stocky and vigorous man, a teacher, with the fast monotonous laugh that distinguishes those who are in touch with their feelings - hahahaha. At the commune they told me later that he was a retired cocaine dealer from New York, whose experience of Atlantis had cured his various problems. But he seemed to me to be just a normal English or Spanish teacher. He asked if I had met Jenny; I said no. He looked at me quickly, as one might size up a chicken being taken to the market, and said that I might decide to stay at the commune - hahahaha.

I pressed him on the details of the journey: five hours by bus to Icononzo, and then a further 45 minutes on a smaller bus to Pueblo Nuevo. The marker for Pueblo Nuevo, he said, would be five or six abandoned buses on the right of the road; the hamlet itself was four houses 50 yards up on the left. I enquired delicately about guerrillas. Oh, there had been no incidents for 20 years, he replied.

On the first bus I told the woman next to me where I was going. She said something I couldn't find in the dictionary: Icononzo was "pueblo dayheryah". Then she wrote in my notebook: "Icononzo es pueblo de guerrilla." We are there by the gentilenza of the guerrillas, on sufferance, she added.

The road climbed and swooped through sensual slopes in hectic, fevered greens. Eventually, an impossibly steep, hour-long ascent took us over the first foothills of the Cordillera Oriental into the shallow basin where Icononzo lies. Beyond, the mountains rose up just as high again; beyond them, maybe higher. The wonder is not that these parts are a stronghold for the guerrillas, but that anyone should have thought it possible to subjugate the mountains from the plains. Without helicopters, nothing could come up the Icononzo road against resistance. It is too steep, and too thick with vegetation. Even at the top, the climate is tropical enough for sugar cane, and only a little less humid than in the valley.

After an hour on the second bus, I was growing anxious. After Icononzo, there are no town names to tell you where you are. Then the first abandoned wreck appeared on my right; then four more on the left; then a shack with a corrugated iron roof and an open front. I climbed off the bus, dragging a bag. "Hello," I said. "Una gaseosa, por favor... ¿Los Gringos?"

And then I stopped, overwhelmed by silence and embarrassment. About 10 children and four adults watched me. Nothing happened for a while. One of the men moved behind the bar and gave me a gaseosa, a sweet, slightly fizzy orange-ish flavoured drink the colour of jaundiced pee.

More nothing happened. Then one of the drinkers, a middle-aged man with bloodshot eyes, suddenly spoke to me. "¿Osa?" he said, and made walking movements with his hands. His name, I later learnt, was Antonino. He made me suppose that he would guide me to the commune. I finished another gaseosa, and we set off.

The path was well-defined, and started level, before dropping towards the clouds. Mostly, we skirted meadows, but as we reached the level of mists and cloud the forest crept around. I could see no route ahead, only Antonino. At his left hip, he wore a machete in a scabbard hung with strips of leather that reached almost to his ankle. This worried me for a while; but after a while I stopped worrying and started breathing seriously. We were somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 metres up, dropping towards the upper limit of coffee growth, and there was not enough air in the air.

After around 40 minutes, we saw a wooden shack about 50 metres above. My breathing was still regular, but someone had driven a chrome nut and bolt through my temples and tightened it hard. I staggered up the final climb, and we stepped through a gate on to a verandah roofed with plastic. Antonino immediately began to bargain for wine, one of the commune's main products. I sat on a crude wooden bench and waited. Tall, thin, young Englishmen with beards and vegetarian pallor, who all seemed to be called Ted or Ned, swooped around in the thin air. Someone brought me a cup of warm black coffee.

Then Jenny James, the leader of the commune, appeared. Dressed in a scraggly, ancient sweater and skirt, she had a strong face, handsome rather than pretty, with a decisive nose, wide mouth and deep-set eyes and an air of tired command. I stuck my hand out: "Andrew Brown..." - she took it without huge enthusiasm - "from The Independent" - and at once she organised a scurry of solicitude. A sweet, refreshing infusion of lemon grass was brought, and she invited me into the room she shared with Ted, where I could sprawl on a hippie four-poster bed with a layer of foam between me and the wooden slats. This was the greatest luxury the commune afforded. I lay there for an hour, sipping cups of warm sweet aromatica until the bolt at my temples had been loosened and I could walk without wobbling.

A little later, I lay in a hammock over the verandah while introductions were made: there were Ned and Ted, whom I had met at first, and Alice and Kate, two blonde-haired children Jenny had had by Fred, who had vanished somewhere on their way here. "I think he's in Venezuela," said Jenny, looking for a moment regretful before her natural ebullience bore her away.

Then there was Consuela, Ned's Colombian girlfriend, and her two daughters, one of whom turned out to be the girlfriend of Fernando, whose brother, Jesus, was also there, although Jesus's girlfriend, Anne, was in Ireland with Jenny's oldest daughter Becky, who had slept with Ted when he first came to the commune, before he started sleeping with her mother and, intermittently, the previous incumbent of her bed, who was now teaching English in Bogota, an activity the commune seemed to regard with suspicion.

Becky had taken two of her children (one of whom, Tristan, would later return with such tragic consequences) back to Europe "to visit their fathers"; the third was being fostered in a local family because Becky "just couldn't feel the right things for him"; his place as the commune's problem child had been taken by Anne's son Thomas, and by another Ned, this one a withdrawn blond child with huge blue eyes.

Not all of this came out on the first evening, but only for lack of time. The commune-dwellers - of whom there seemed to be about 10 adults and five children - were all very proud of these connections, hahahaha, which they thought of as the real business of the commune. I tried dutifully to take it all in.

It was decided that I should spend the night in the bed where I had earlier rested. They assured me that the polythene window blinds would keep out the mosquitoes. The dark fell suddenly at 6.30pm. By 7pm I was asleep. I woke once before the thunder, light-headed and sweaty from the altitude. I had brought the obvious books to help me understand this settlement - Heart of Darkness, 100 Years of Solitude - but the analogy that now popped into my mind was from One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, "the littlest Seuss for youngest use". There is a drawing there of four strange creatures under the sheets, captioned "Ed, Red, Ted and Ned in Bed". The good Dr Seuss had left the F off Fred, and Jenny had obviously popped out of the bed for a moment, but otherwise he seemed to have the commune taped.

The next morning, Jenny asked if I had been bothered in the night by any animals. I asked whether I had dreamed the deafening thunderstorm - which had both woken and (until I saw the radio antenna that the guerrillas had attached to the porch and realised that it would act as a lightning conductor) terrified me. She said no, but she had been worried about the mountain rats that sometimes came into that room. Later she told me that there was only one local animal that would give me a problem, which I would probably notice in a couple of months: "Intestinal worms. But you can cure them with pills. And if you grew up in England after the war, you know they are not much of a problem."

Meals, I soon discovered, were not a communal affair. Ned stayed in the kitchen from 6am to 6pm, working at the range they built themselves out of clay mixed with pressed sugar-cane juice and horseshit to make it fire-resistant. Before that, they cooked in the open air. They were proud, too, of their earth toilets: buckets beneath wooden seats, with a neat pile of leaves in the corner and a broom and a coconut for the visitor to heap them over his excrement. This caused friction with the Colombians who came to stay, as Ned explained. "Colombians don't have toilets - they just go under the bushes, and the pigs and the dogs go in it and bring it round. We're not trying to change their character, but we have to teach them about this."

As the rain began, Ned went down to help Consuela with the washing-up. Ted joined us. What would be my angle, he asked. I said that I could see no need for any angle beyond a description of a vegetarian primal-screaming commune planted in guerrilla-controlled Colombia. "Oh," Ted said, lugubriously. "I was hoping there'd be something to annoy my parents."

"Yes," said Ned. "We just had this furious letter from his father. He's really conservative. He's accusing Jenny of seducing him and taking advantage of Ted's unformed mind - hahahaha. Unformed mind? Ted's 23. It's just another in the long line of parents who can't let their children grow up."

I asked about reports that the commune had suffered from robberies. The Atlanteans told me that they had been here for three years before anyone robbed them; but that one night in 1991, when they had enough cash in the building to expand their landholdings (they already owned about 350 acres of mostly marginal land but would ultimately increase this, briefly, to 2,500), four masked men had turned up and cleaned them out at gunpoint. It turned out that the whole thing had been set up by the Colombian peasant who had lived with Becky for the preceding six months. After that, abandoning their pacifism, the Atlanteans got guns: four revolvers and two hunting shotguns. The next attempt at robbery was fought off by one of their visitors, a middle-class girl from Bogota. The attackers only managed to get off two shots at her before she emptied a short-barrelled revolver at them as they fled. Little Thomas, the "problem child", was blamed for her failure to hit them: he had wandered out into the middle of the firing.

Six months after these excitements, the Atlanteans were confident that negotiations conducted through intermediaries among the villagers would succeed. The four robbers would surrender the money in return for being left in peace; the money itself would be redirected to fund a local school. The story became one of the defining myths of the Atlanteans: it proved to them that they had been utterly accepted by the local people.

Some locals even came to live in the commune. I asked what such Colombians got out of it. "Economic security," replied Jenny, "and more freedom than they've got at home. In Consuela's case, the guy she was living with is in prison for murder. She's just attracted to Ned, basically." The middle-class friends of the commune, such as the contact I'd met in Bogota, apparently came for the scenery, and the spiritual refreshment.

The Atlanteans also told me that they had made the great discovery that therapy - or their kind of therapy - worked even in this poor corner of the Third World. As an example, they told me that there had been three days of almost continuous bilingual encounter groups after it was discovered that Consuela's 12-year-old daughter was sleeping with Fernando - a Colombian commune-dweller in his early twenties.

"We don't set an age at which a child is a sexual creature. If they want to sleep with each other at nine or 10, that's fine," said Jenny. "In this particular instance it was Consuela's own daughter who started an affair with Fernando. Consuela did not know. Now that is unforgivable. You absolutely do not have that sort of secret here. When I happened to hear, I threw a violent fit at Ned."

"I hadn't told Consuela because I was very afraid of losing my relationship with her," explained Ned. "But after Jenny found out I went to Consuela. She had an absolute fit."

Jenny was eager to establish the point of principle involved. "The girl is very undeveloped - a sulky little vixen, actually. But whether I like her or not, I'm going to stand up for her rights. There were lots of people here at the time - some peasant women, middle-class Colombians, and we had a very constructive three days. This older peasant woman who had only been here a few days was giving me therapy! And by the end of the few days, there was a lovely feeling of friendship around."

I never actually saw one of these prolonged sessions, but I did see an evening outburst of therapeutic piggy-back riding. Ted and Ned took children on their backs, and leaped around the verandah shouting and yelling and bumping into each other in mock battle. After dark, a battery of candles was set up, and a sort of dance began.This turned by degrees into a game. Ted and Ned performed a mock ballet while Jenny played the violin and Jesus battered a guitar. When the possibilities of this were exhausted, the dancers armed themselves with percussion instruments. Soon the stringed instruments, wrenchingly detuned by the heat and damp, were drowned out by a cacophony of spoons on tin plates and saucepans. Ted, armed with a wok, crouched in the corner, and howled at Ned, who leaped up and down and howled back while banging a saucepan. This went on for about 15 minutes, quieter than the thunderstorm, but less musical. Behind the leaping Ned, two of the children read a Tintin book by candlelight. At last, Ned sat down and launched into a dialogue with Ted.

"Did you attain... ecstasy?"

"I don't know. I didn't count the chakras."

"Are you coming down from Nirvana now?"

I resolved to leave shortly afterwards, and, the next morning, Jenny and Ted guided me down the steep horse-track that leads through the jungle to the lower village. The scene the previous night still preyed on me. Perhaps I should not have been consulting Dr Seuss but The Golden Bough; the dancing of ecstatically castrated priests in Isis's honour must have been quite like the therapeutic thrashings of Ted and Ned while Jenny sawed at her violin in the middle of the Andean jungle. But it was impossible to think of Jenny as sinister for very long. As we toiled down the path, it suddenly seemed obvious that all we had here was a kind of displaced public school, where matron managed the Lost Boys, all for their own good. Except that usually, in real public schools, no one gets to fuck the matron.

On the journey down, I asked about sex. In her book on male sexuality, Jenny had recommended the practice of sleeping three in a bed: two men to one woman. Did this still go on? And what did the Colombians make of it?

The visiting Colombians, it seemed, were not told of this habit, though those who lived in the commune knew everything. But of course it went on. Jenny moved forward on the path to allow Ted to walk ahead of me and talk about it. "I've done that," he said, "with Bill, who was Jenny's previous boyfriend; and it's not about sex at all. It's about a tremendous amount of relating between the two men. It was really difficult for me. I came out in rashes every bedtime. But I learnt an enormous amount. I mean, Bill, he's had dozens of girlfriends, and he was able to help me a lot."

"And you were able to help him, too," Jenny chimed in.

"Christ! Grow up, you great pallid lump of dripping!" I wanted to shout. Instead, I asked him about a close relative of his who, I had heard, had visited the commune and lasted a day and a half. I offered to take a letter back. "She's a lesbian, though I don't suppose that would bother you," he said with a sudden bullocky gracelessness. It was unclear from his tone which of us this proved decadent. "She works for a couple of Old Etonian pooftahs in an art gallery in Bond Street."

And so we walked on down the path in the jungle together, silent beyond the reach of therapy.

Down in the village of Hoya Grande, I talked to the schoolmaster, who was also the local guerrilla representative. He told me some interesting things about how the commune worked. In advertising itself to the outside world, the Atlantis community presented itself as a body whose functions included saving the rainforest and teaching ecology to the local peasants. They practised organic farming, introduced "high value" crops to an area dependent on coca, taught ecological farming techniques and vegetarian cookery to local women's groups, put on occasional theatrical productions in schools. They thought of themselves both as the purest of the pure and as among the poorest of the poor, having freed themselves from the sordid compromises of life in a European economy.

In fact, the Atlanteans' relationship with the locals was one of carefully judged exploitation or taxing by the local guerrillas. The schoolmaster at Hoya Grande told me that the commune's economy was not based on farming - for they had been sold poor land, too high for coffee, and too low for coca - but on trading wine and on money brought in by visitors. On that occasion when money was stolen from the Atlanteans, a deal with the guerrillas did indeed restore it - but only to the local school; and the commune did not approve of schooling. Neither did it approve of modern farming, or banking; yet the schoolmaster listed fertiliser (non-organic) and cheap loans as the things his village most needed - and hoped to get through the relative wealth of the commune-dwellers. He himself had no interest in ecology, he said.

The outrageously complicated sexual economy of the commune also had an impact on the locals. Commune members employed local women in two ways: they would marry them, for $50 a head, in order to gain themselves residence permits; and some could come and live there with their children if they provided "therapeutic" services to the incoming Westerners. It was a better deal by far than working in a brothel. The commune also supplied some of its own children - the ones who did not fit in - to be adopted by local families. One such child was Brendan, brother of Tristan and son of Becky. It was in the hope of visiting Brendan that Tristan made his fateful and fatal journey back to the commune with Javier Nova this summer.

My visit to Atlantis, in the early 1990s, resulted from a letter to The Independent from Jenny James urging curious visitors to come and have a look. That bout of proselytising seems to have borne fruit. By 1993, the commune at Icononzo was overflowing (at one point the number of Atlanteans touched 60), and a group of members set off to found a second farm, in an even more remote spot in the southern jungle province of Caqueta. They lived there for six years - and were then abruptly told to leave by the local guerrillas. Their return to Icononzo coincided with the beginning of the end.

Two things seem to have upset the local equilibrium. The first was that one of the commune's members, Anne Barr (a Donegal woman who had left her wealthy Greek husband in order to join the commune), started to make a lucrative business as an astrologer and tarot-reader to the wealthier classes in Bogota - driving into the capital to do readings for clients rumoured to include politicians and top businessmen, and returning with currency that increased the commune's power in the local economy. The second was the increasing political tension that followed from the USA's intervention on the side of the government in its war against the FARC guerrillas and the lucrative drugs trade they controlled. Combined, these developments were enough to plant in the heads of the guerrillas the thought that the Atlanteans, or their visitors, might be government spies.

In April last year community members announced that they were living in fear of pro-government right-wing paramilitaries and were considering moving into hiding. But it was the left-wing FARC guerrillas who, four months later, ordered them to leave their main commune (the one that I had visited) on pain of death.

The remaining commune-dwellers - thought to number around 15 - had no choice but to comply, but seven of them remained in the region, basing themselves at a farm near Bogota. They included Anne Barr, who continues to support the movement through her astrology, and Jenny James, who wrote another letter to The Independent, published in November 1999, attacking the USA's "war on drugs". Other members returned to Ireland, where at least some - including Becky, mother of the murdered Tristan - have been staying in a flat in Cork. According to recent reports, they have been organising the repair of the commune's ketch, The Atlantis Adventure, and the sale of their property in Burtonport, Atlantis House, with a view to severing the movement's links with Ireland altogether. Becky recently appeared on Irish radio, appealing for funds for their "anti-nuclear, ecological network", and she gave the Burtonport number as a contact point. When I rang that number, however, it was answered by a man who first spoke Spanish and then denied all knowledge of Atlantis. When I tried again, I got another Spanish speaker and then an English woman - whose accent became rapidly more Irish as she claimed to be a barber's shop with no knowledge of Atlantis at all.

Tristan James had planned to return to Ireland as soon as he had made his journey with Javier Nova earlier this year. Their premature deaths - Tristan was 18 and Javier was 19 - have made talk of a future for the movement seem irrelevant.

The last thing Jenny James told me was that she had grown up in Dartford on the same street as Mick Jagger. In fact, she told me three times in 36 hours, and I have wondered since if she might not think of herself as a figure of comparable historical significance. Certainly she shares something of his charm and sexual voracity, and her willpower and imagination are welded together in ways that make her both shrewd and fearless, with an unusual talent for ignoring inconvenient features of the world. There was a delightful irony in the way that a commune based on the ideal of perfect openness so successfully repressed the knowledge of its real functions in the local economy. To hear Jenny James, the daughter of middle-class parents and the former neighbour of Mick Jagger, deriding the local Marxist schoolteacher as bourgeois - because he had a television in his mud-floored house and two men to help with the coffee harvest - was an extraordinary lesson in the self-righteousness that wrapped her even when she was dressed in rags. But it was a curiously dated self-righteousness. In 1970, I probably believed everything that Jenny believed about the bourgeoisie and the intrinsic superiority of the poor bohemian - but I was 15. She has preserved the faith of her Ladbroke Grove days pure and undiluted for 30 years; partly through strength of will and partly from isolation from the world. This enabled her and her followers to live by the gentilenza of peasant guerrillas while still believing that their philosophy was, as Anne Barr once described it, a quest "for the way the world was before materialism took over, before machines, money, and ridiculous packets of white rice and spaghetti" - all of which their neighbours and protectors would, if they had to, kill to own.

Ever since they left London in 1974, the Atlanteans existed in a bubble of their own. Only those outsiders prepared to enter their game would feel welcome. Others found it sinister. In the commune's early days, in Burtonport and Innisfree, there were allegations of violence and neglect of children, though what really made the papers was the rigorous schedule of sexual athleticism, in which men were expected to hop like fleas from mattress to mattress on the wooden floors. Certainly, I was chilled by the indifference they showed to some clearly miserable children, such as Thomas, blamed for wandering into the middle of a gunfight. "I hope you get beaten up," the doomed Tristan wrote to his mother when he was 12 - and showed the letter to a journalist. "I would like to beat you up myself. Did you get my last letter, Was it very annoying? I hope it was. I will write again as soon as I feel annoying. PS: Write back. I hope this letter is very annoying."

But there was too much comedy in the Atlantean experiment for it to be taken entirely seriously. In a country as drenched in casual violence as Colombia, the most surprising thing is that the commune lasted as long as it did. Perhaps the Colombians saw some of the joke too. But now it's running out. The last news to reach the commune's supporters in England was that they were being evicted even from their land near Bogota. Anne Barr had travelled to Icononzo, hoping to get the FARC to launch an inquiry into the deaths of the young men. The members remaining in Bogota, among them Jenny James herself, are rehearsing a play relating to Tristan's death. James has said that she will never leave Colombia.

The young man I have called Ted left years ago, and has been reconciled with his family. He now runs an orphanage in Spain, and another in Venezuela. But it's hard to imagine Jenny herself reconciled with the outside world. From time to time, I wonder what she'd be like in an old people's home.