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Eight Siblings, One Feminist Step-Father, a Utopian Farm: A Writer Recalls Her 1970s Childhood

Omega Farm sits on top of a hill, the highest point in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, with sweeping views over fields and farms, the Sourland Mountains unfurling in the distance to meet a big and open sky. When you sit on the deck the sun rises on your right, just beyond a barn and another field and chicken run, a rooster crowing. The sun sets in spectacular fashion across the valley. The midday heat, which comes on hard and thick in July, is cut in half by a canopy of enormous oaks and ash. So complete is the canopy that a satellite image on Google shows only trees—no house. There are neighbors. There is mail and package delivery, the mailbox at the bottom of a long gravel driveway, but somehow the idea of affixing an “address” to this place seems particularly misplaced. The house, near the village of Ringoes—just 70 miles from New York City, 50 miles from Philadelphia, 10 miles from Princeton, five miles from Lambertville in the too easily maligned, benighted state of New Jersey—is located in the most densely populated part of the northeast. Even so, the only thing that arrives from that wider, crowded world is the wind falling into the trees.

My stepfather, Dan Sullivan, bought the place in 1970, from a woman who had recently lost her husband. She told Dan she couldn’t care for the place the way it needed to be cared for without her husband. She told Dan the place needed to be loved.

I was one of nine children who lived there, plus the baby my stepfather and mother had together—and as our blended family settled in, lofts rose through the ceilings, a wing extended from one end of the house, transforming a garage into bedrooms. A dining room got pushed out from the kitchen, the walls replaced by plate-glass windows and sliding glass doors so that sitting down for a meal felt like you were hanging above the yard in the trees.

At the far end of the new wing, Dan added an indoor swimming pool that he kept heated to 105 degrees with a furnace all its own. Sliding Japanese doors with their smoked panes sealed in a steam so thick you couldn’t see your hand. Dan practiced as a Gestalt therapist, though he wasn’t legally licensed, and often, naked, he’d see his patients, also naked, in the pool.

The place was stuffed with stuff. Dan’s first wife, Sally, was a newspaper heiress. Her father had owned The Times of Trenton and oil interests in Texas. She inherited 18th-century cupboards and cabinets, side tables, Louis Comfort Tiffany objets, Vuitton steamer trunks, a pair of swords that dated to the French Revolution, sterling silver, cranberry crystal, Rosenthal china, Bohemian glass. The house was a kaleidoscopic mix of African and Haitian art, and traditional furniture, dinnerware, and specialized silver dining implements and doodads—grape shears, a potato fork, a cake breaker, a butter pick—that had no practical contemporary exigence. Plants and books were everywhere. A swinging couch. Persian rugs. An orange laminate kitchen straight out of an electric Kool-Aid acid test. In photographs of the time, usually for holidays and other occasions, Dan could be seen sporting an ascot, jaunty suspenders. On his finger sat an enormous turquoise ring. He was a would-be philosopher and a dandy trapped in the body of a Texas showman who loved opera and enjoyed wrong-footing dinner guests and disarming the locals with a glad hand and a wink.

If you believed this Texas storyteller, who drove into our lives in a turquoise Cadillac belonging to his father-in-law, the whole place was history. According to Dan, the house sat on the site of a sacred Lenape burial ground. He told us that if we looked hard enough, we could find Lenape coins and arrowheads. He told us that George Washington had camped at the foot of our driveway near the Alexauken Creek on his way to defeat the British troops at what is now known as Washington Crossing.

He told us a lot of things when we were kids. John Ringo, founder of our town, had buried a bunch of gold up here. In the evenings sometimes, Dan would have all us kids climb a ladder so we could sit on the roof of one of the barns. He’d light a joint, which he liked to do, and take a deep long puff, then pass it around. From up there, he told us, you could see New York City. This was as untrue then as it is now. You can look as hard as you want from that roof, but you will never see New York City. But that was Dan—and all of us kids looked hard just the same: for the arrowheads, for the Lenape coins, for the hidden chest of John Ringo’s gold. Dan infused everything with a certain kind of magic and lore. The name Omega Farm, for instance, was a nod to his favorite philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote about a future time when everything in the universe spirals into one unified point—the Omega Point. So, Omega Farm—with its tone of utopian aspiration tempered by the common straw of everyday life—suggested the old joke about utopias: that the only thing wrong with them was that they included other people.

McPhee’s new memoir, from which this essay is adapted, is out now.

Photo: Courtesy of Scribner

Before we moved to the farm, my mother, sisters, and I lived just down the road on the outskirts of Princeton in a big white colonial in the woods on Drakes Corner Road. Long after we left Drakes Corner Road for the farm, I would still consider it my real house. In it were my bedroom and my dolls and my things and my family, all ordered and tidy, and built by my mother and father early in their marriage. My parents split up in the spring of 1969, and, as I remember it, my mother went to her bed and stayed there for what seemed a long time.

At the suggestion of a friend, she started seeing Dan, who ran his Gestalt therapy practice in Princeton. He lived there, too, with Sally and their children, and he had a reputation in town as a feminist, a supporter of women, even organized sit-ins in pubs that excluded women. Although he was unlicensed, he advertised the therapy practice and worked with groups on realizing sexual equality. His thesis was essentially sound: The dehumanizing role we ascribe to women was good for neither sex. Only if men and women could be equal could true romantic love be achieved. But he was also something of a con man, a serial philanderer. He was, as people sometimes like to say, a complicated figure, a man who was convinced he was helping women realize their full potential. If he sometimes slept with those same women—well, it was the ’70s, after all.

As it happened, Dan’s Princeton clinic was located in a dilapidated farmhouse just a short distance through the woods from our house. Mom got herself out of her bed and made her way to one of his sessions, and soon she fell in love.

The nine of us—the Sullivans and the McPhees—were divided into the “big kids” and the “little kids.” I was a little kid, and in that summer of 1970 on a family trip out West, to California and Oregon, I watched as the big kids got to accompany Mom and Dan to a production of Hair in San Francisco, regaling the rest of us with stories of the cast naked onstage. Naked was a theme, a prolonged ’70s-era meme. In Big Sur, we stayed at the Esalen Institute, where the adults wandered around unclothed, to the mortification of us kids, while Dan held his group therapy sessions.

Back home at Omega Farm, the dinner table was always crowded and often argumentative, the tectonic pressures, resentments, shifting allegiances, and betrayals of two very different families suddenly erupting, say, over the issue of abortion. Roe v. Wade was in the news. As a Catholic, Dan was stridently against abortion, even though swirling among the children, whispers passed from ear to ear, was the secret that my mother had been pregnant twice before giving birth to Joan. I didn’t understand exactly what this meant as a child, but I absorbed it enough to know my mother was going through something big and scary that she was trying to fix.

Dan and his kids would fight about abortion using terms I didn’t understand, words like quickening and sentient flying across the table, the tide of rage rising. When it wasn’t abortion, it was the PLO and Israel. Always the same fights, which went so late into the night that Mom would disappear into Dan’s bedroom, lulled to sleep by the rhythms of Dan’s mildly subversive waterbed, a word that, by itself, conjures an entire gaudy family, long extinct, of 1970s enthusiasms that populated the house—fondue pots, egg-shaped cocoon chairs suspended from the high branches of an oak, swinging in the air—while my sisters and I found a place to sleep on the floor in the living room, curling into each other, wondering how we’d get to school in the morning.

The back and forth between Princeton and Ringoes, between my old home and what was becoming my new home at the farm, ended in the spring of 1973. My parents were finally divorced, and my mother was very pregnant with Joan. Was this to be the Omega Point? The only point that Omega Farm represented to me then was the upheaval and disorder of a momentary whim that had gone off the rails. In the mornings, we were always late to school, piled into the Cadillac. Many times, I went to school wearing two different shoes. Afternoons, one of the friends of my older stepbrother, long hair flying, a cigarette in one hand, a beer between his legs, would pull into the school parking lot like an extra from Easy Rider and rev the car engine so that everyone in the straitlaced, buttoned-down world of Princeton could watch me climb into the back of the turquoise Cadillac and thereby become properly, righteously, discomfited.

My mom had become a photographer by this time, and when she’d return late to the farm from work with the camera bags hanging off her shoulders, Dan would sometimes be glowering with rage. I thought it best to stay quiet and not draw attention to myself, but I watched and here is what I saw: adults stoned or drunk or exhausted or all three; children filled with turbulence and rage—pushed together and told to get along—stealing one another’s clothes and small possessions; children who played mean tricks on one another, laughed, forgave one another, went on adventures, prattled in the wee hours about nothing, but mostly—and this was because of the older kids, who could sniff out a fraud when they saw it—mocked and ironized to a fare-thee-well the way Omega Farm was neither one thing nor the other, neither farm nor utopia, but mostly, really, a big, sprawling, chaotic mess with Neil Young playing from speakers nailed to the trees.

On a McPhee family road trip in the 1970s.

Courtesy of Martha McPhee

Most of my life, it seems to me, I’ve been trying to put my family back together, to understand it, gain mastery over it, fix it. I was four when my parents separated. Across my childhood I looked for signs that my mother and father were still in love, that they’d reunite. It didn’t seem impossible. On what would have been their 20th wedding anniversary, both remarried to others, my father gave my mother a book of wine routes in France. One they had traveled when we were babies, had been highlighted by Dad in yellow. We’d heard the story of that trip so many times, how they dined in Michelin-starred restaurants, leaving my sisters and me asleep in the car. In my kitchen in New York, I had a menu from one of these culinary excursions framed and hanging on the wall. Asterisks drawn by Dad indicated what dishes they had eaten, what wine they had drunk.

Sometimes I imagined who I’d have been had they not divorced, had my mom not met Dan and moved us to Omega Farm. I’d have been an entitled girl from Princeton, growing up in a big white house in the woods at the edge of town, confident in herself and her beauty. Sometimes I could see her, that other me—almost unrecognizable, living the life that could have been mine. My mother told me to keep a journal. “Take notes,” she said. “You have an interesting family.” So I did what my mother told me to: I wrote things down. “Observe,” she’d say to me. “Details.” She had wanted to be a writer, had started a children’s book, had won an award from the state of New Jersey for the work, but life got in the way.

And she wanted me to love Dan. It was around this time that they got into one of their worst fights. He found carousels of slides from Mom and Dad’s life together with my sisters and me, our life as a family, Dad’s love letters to Mom. In his rage—his feminist passions forgotten—he dumped them in a heap in the driveway, squirted gasoline on the heap, and lit a match. I remember Mom standing over the fire, the slides melting, staring with a big, blank expression, numb with the horror she must have felt. For me, the fire, the burning of our past, defined Dan’s jealousy—and that jealousy gave me hope. 



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