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Polyamory in CAW

A Heuristic Literature Review

by Rev. Luke MoonOak

Among the more intriguing aspects of CAW is its espousal and practice of polyamory. The term is typically defined as

the practice or lifestyle of being open to having more than one loving, intimate relationship at a time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved. Persons who consider themselves emotionally suited to such relationships may define themselves as polyamorous, often abbreviated to poly.

Although the practice is recognizable as far back as the 1920s, the word polyamory was coined by Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, High Priestess of CAW, in her 1990 article “A Bouquet of Lovers.” Morning Glory writes therein, “The goal of a responsible Open Relationship is to cultivate ongoing, long-term, complex relationships which are rooted in deep mutual friendships.” Therefore, poly people are those who consciously choose to enter into a relatively stable collective relationship with more than one intimate partner, all of whom also choose such a relationship and approvingly know about each other.

The Original Grok Flock

Polyamory’s origins are inseparably intertwined with the origins of CAW in the mid 1960s. The original impetus towards polyamory was Robert Heinlein’s science fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land, in which sexual love is joyfully practiced among members of family “Nests.” The novel concerns a human boy who is stranded on Mars after the death of his parents and their entire Martian expedition, and who is subsequently raised by Martians to young adulthood, acquiring special abilities and radically different morals. His name is Valentine Michael Smith, and one of those special abilities is “grokking,” which is defined as “the perfect understanding, the mutually merging rapport…that should exist between waterbrothers.” A special and deeply empathic relationship is created between voluntary “waterbrothers” both in the novel and in the real-life CAW. To “grok” is to understand something (ideas or people) so profoundly as to, in essence, become that thing. This relationship relies on the use of the brain, in its most complex emotive context, to establish an interconnected and roughly telepathic consciousness between persons, which forms the basis of polyamorous groupings in the fictional version of CAW.

Groups in the novel practice polyamory (though it is not called that) as extended family units somewhat akin to hippy communal structures, but with an important difference. To grok means that people are able to understand each other so well that if misunderstandings, anger, jealousy, or other destructive responses emerge, they do not have a chance to fester. Conflicts are minimized as each member comprehends and accepts the foibles of the others. Of course, this means that everyone in the group must have considerable communication skills, which is why CAW’s real-life version of polyamory also requires these skills. It might even be argued that the Church’s function is to teach the language of deep empathic grokking, which in the novel is metaphorically called “Martian.”
Smith takes polyamorous love for granted as a virtue, and in an exchange with his friend Jillian, the absence of jealously does not indicate indifference. Speaking sexually, the dialogue introduces a kind of innocence relating to sex:

“Jill, you would not want Duke?”
She heard an echo of “water brother” in his mind. “Hmm…I’ve never thought about it. I guess I’ve been ‘being faithful’ to you. But I grok you speak rightly; I wouldn’t turn Duke down—and I would enjoy it, too! What do you think of that, darling?
“I grok a goodness,” Mike said seriously.

This is not merely a middle-aged SF writer in the early 1960s rebelling against monogamous morality; it is an attempt at revealing another mode of joyful, mutually sustaining relationship. In Smith’s CAW, people live together in comfortable surroundings, usually naked and sexually uninhibited, bound together by Smith’s charisma and the desire to live what is perceived as a healthier and more evolved lifestyle. Next to the door of the Nest is a sign that says, “Did you remember to dress?” The exact same sign was displayed next to the front door of the early CAW meetinghouse in St. Louis, Missouri.

In a way, water brotherhood and Heinleinian polyamory are like marriage: a substantive commitment, except between more than two people. Describing it, one character says to another:

You are married. After tonight there will never be any doubt in your mind.” Duke looked happily pensive. “Ben, I was married before…and at first it was nice and then it was steady hell. This time I like it, all the time. Shucks, I love it! I don’t mean just that it’s fun to shack up with a bunch of bouncy babes. I love them—all my brothers, of both sexes.

Forgiving Heinlein’s early 60s patriarchal attitude, love is an irreplaceable element in the equation of his SF universe and has become an undeniable part of CAW mythology. Heinlein describes love as “that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own,” which requires a steady altruism, challenging even for many CAWers. The supreme benevolence of love, practiced deeply and authentically, allows the complex interchange of energies and personalities in a poly relationship.

In SISL, polyamory is described by Jubal Hershaw, the major character after Michael and the one closest in spirit to Heinlein himself, as “plural marriage—a group theogamy, to be technical.” “Theogamy”—marriage between gods—is something of an inside concept, without any attempt at blasphemy, implying the immanent divinity of all persons. To survive a polyamorous relationship, one almost has to accept such personal divinity, not only as theology, but in order to claim one’s individual right to follow an inner voice rather than external social pressures.
Jubal also discusses the morality of polyamorous arrangements:


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