The Finders was an intentional community based in Virginia and the Washington, D.C. area beginning in the 1970s. We've covered this group a bit in the past, mostly its enduring role in conspiracy culture. The Finders were much more than victims of the Satanic Panic, however. In this article, we'll look at the group's lifestyle of social experimentation.
All of our coverage: Everything We Know About The Finders
In 1971, Robert "Tobe" Terrell was an accountant who specialized in tax shelters. To find clients, he put an ad in the Washington Post that said: "Your ideas, my money," and a phone number. Through some investments, including real estate, cable TV, and oil drilling syndications, Terrell had made enough money to retire at the age of 35. “I was not shrewd,” he clarifies when I ask him about this. “It was pure luck.”
He may have been financially secure, but he wasn't fulfilled. "I had done everything that I had been programmed by my culture to do," he says, looking back.
Through a colleague in real estate development, Tobe met a man named Marion D. Pettie and the circle of people who surrounded him. At the time, they were living in a home at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Newark Street in Washington, D.C. Pettie called this the New Ark. "This was the beginning of a commune" that would eventually become known as The Finders, Tobe says.
Tobe was a CPA. He had worked for the IRS for nine years. He had a family. None of these were compatible with where he was headed, however.
According to Hindu teaching, life happens in four phases.
- The student stage of life, Brahmacharya, lasts until you're roughly 20 years old.
- During Grihastha, or the "householder" stage, you're encouraged to be a productive member of society, producing and distributing wealth while enjoying family life.
- Vanaprashta begins once you've fulfilled your commitments to your family. Traditionally, when people reached this stage in their spiritual journey, they would travel to the forest, where they'd search for enlightenment. These days, they can opt to remain at home, concentrating on charity and other selfless tasks.
- Renunciation is the focus of the fourth step, Sannyasa. After you've fulfilled all of your previous responsibilities, it's time to free yourself from the cycle of repeated birth, mundane existence, and death.
"I think this was the end of my householder phase," Tobe says of moving in with Pettie and the others. "My kids had reached adolescence, and they didn't really need a rigid, accountant-minded guy to tell them what to do. It was better for me not to be there."
Being "the company man," even if it was his own company, didn't suit Tobe. "I’d been programmed by the culture to think that there was a period in your life when you were a bachelor, and you courted women, you went out to dances," he says. "All of the stuff that Madison Avenue puts in your head. I had never done any of that." Before abandoning life as a householder, he handed his nest egg over to his family. This was Pettie’s idea. In response, his wife and kids turned around and gave twenty-five percent of his savings back to him, which he used to buy the property where the nascent Finders lived.
The group was leading "such an interesting and exciting life," Tobe says, that he couldn't pass it up. "So I moved in. You know, I'd been living in an expensive suburb in a nice house, and I moved into this old abandoned house that was about to be torn down. It was fun. It was interesting and exciting every day."
In its embryonic form, The Finders consisted of Pettie and his housemates.
"We did a lot of sitting around in circles, joking and talking," Tobe says. "There was a lot of philosophical talk. Pettie was the main philosopher, although other people sort of parroted him or asked him questions. And so the formation of the community kind of evolved out of that.
Nick (as we’ll call him) was another early member of Pettie's circle. He first met Pettie after dropping out of college in 1971. "It was a very conscious choice," he says. "I wasn't just dropping out of college. I was stepping off the path [that led to] normal society. I kind of wandered about for a while."
His travels led him to the School of Living, an organization founded by homesteader and social philosopher Ralph Borsodi in 1934. "I went to one of their conferences. They weren't setting their goals very high. They called it a conference for an adequate human future," he laughs. At the conference, he met a member of Pettie's community, who invited him to visit.
Nick, who was 20 years old at the time, made the trip about a week later. He recalls "six or eight" people hanging out, playing a game of Pettie's where they spoke strictly in verbs. "People would go around and say verbs that they thought were interesting or inspiring," he says. They eventually moved on to other games, and then to giving each other massages. "I was very impressed with the whole thing. We were here for a couple of days, and during that time I got a very strong intuitive signal that this was the right place and these were the right people for me. And I've been here ever since."
Pettie's group had a lot in common with the human potential movement of the 1970s, a collection of concepts from humanistic psychology and the New Age movement packaged by a wide variety of figures, including a guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, former used car salesman Werner Erhard, and the folks at the Esalen Institute. According to Tobe, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Pettie was influenced by any of these groups. His influences were older: author and mystic Manly P. Hall and the 19th-century communal movement were both profoundly important.
Unlike many free-market gurus, Pettie never turned his ideas into a religion or high-priced seminars. Instead, Pettie concocted "games," activities that both tested his theories and helped his followers shed their inhibitions and delusions. Life with Pettie was "a 24-hour, 365-day-a-year training group for games," a friend of the Finders told the Washington Post in 1987. "It was like people who go to an institute for a weekend, but this was for a year or a lifetime ... And the games were always changing."
Pettie "cultivated his intuition," Nick explains. This would often lead to "an intuitive flash," an idea for an activity, which he would suggest to the other Finders. By calling it a game, Pettie was making the point that the activity (and the participants) shouldn't be taken too seriously. "He would never call a game for anybody unless they first volunteered. That was his protection against becoming an autocrat."
An entry in the 1994 Communities Directory listing of intentional communities describes The Finders as a 23-year-old "spontaneous non-organization" without an official name. "Finders," according to the book, "is the label most often used by outsiders to describe their community."
One of the challenges of having an intentional community is staying afloat financially, and The Finders tried many things over the years — from catering to temp jobs and business consulting. According to former Finder Michael Holwell, the name "Finders" came from one of their business cards, advertising a research service: "We find... people, places, things, ideas, and organizations," it said. For a time, they had a building they called the Problem Solving Center. Michael delivers the pitch: "We'll help you solve your problems. Find what you're looking for, whether it's housing or work, or a relationship, or a different life." The Problem Solving Center was also a good way to meet new community members. "People would come through, and if we liked them, we might invite them to live with us."
“But not too many people took advantage of” the Problem Solving Center, Tobe says:
Instead, from my point of view, Pettie was a Taoist teacher…. He was trying to lead people with big egos to humble themselves and take menial jobs of one kind or another, like household servants and temporary employees, and so forth. That was the main way we supported the organization, by bringing in small salaries and being thrifty, and accumulating a pretty good-sized cache of money.
And if you took The Finders up on the offer to move in, what might you be getting yourself into? Again, from the Communities Directory:
Their overall approach to life is to make it into a "Game" — a challenging and educational process where the rules change from week to week, day to day, sometimes even by the hour. Members often "volunteer" to each other, informally rotating leadership roles depending on the project at hand, the experience of the people involved, and the prevailing mood of the moment. The head game caller is usually Marion Pettie, the originator of the adventure.
Their cooperative lifestyle is efficient, and a fertile arena for personal growth... The Finders welcome visitors who share their zest for learning and adventure. They'd enjoy hearing from you—if you're friendly, open minded, and resourceful enough to find them...
Unlike most other listings in the directory, there is no address or telephone number given.
One of the Finders' principles was "extreme volunteerism," says another community member we'll call K.
"Every morning when you woke up, it was your choice whether to volunteer for the games or not," she says. "And we all flagrantly didn't go along with Pettie’s stuff 90% of the time."
K was impressed by the psychological sophistication of the games. "Pettie managed to integrate deep psychological understanding with deep philosophical understanding," she says. "He would structure experiences for us that were designed to help us get better. And that meant get stronger, clear stuff out of our psychological basements, become more capable and competent in the world. So that's what his games were supposed to be for. I think that Pettie had a vision of us becoming global citizens." Another influence of Pettie’s was Garry Davis, the former Broadway actor and founder of the World Citizen Movement.
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I believe it was Jean Cocteau (although it might've been my friend Kyle) who said that as a filmmaker, you learn more from watching bad movies than good movies. Pettie's games often employed this principle, which he called "negative teachers." Being part of the intentional community movement gave The Finders access to a wide variety of negative teachers.
"There's a lot of people who just float from intentional community to intentional community," K explains. "They stick around until they wear out their welcome, then move on to the next one. Or we would have people that just got off the Greyhound bus and couldn't find a hostel, and somehow they ended up with us."
When someone came through who seemed to be off their rocker, they might be put in charge.
In his book The Gamecaller, Tobe Terrell gives us an idea of the characters that The Finders attracted, including "a bright manic-depressive Chicagoan with a Harvard Law School diploma" who spends his day on the roof, singing the Islamic call to prayer; members of an obscure religious sect called The Servers of the Great Ones; a guy who takes acid and moves to California with his girlfriend, who has the surname "Babalon;" a schizophrenic who stays up all night painting William Blake-inspired portraits; and a pair of brothers "who escape from their CIA station chief father during adolescence, then go to work for the CIA themselves, because they can’t figure out anything else to do."
"If you put out some bait," Pettie told Tobe, "the fools will come to get it and you can learn from all of them. Some are more foolish than others."
"A lot of negative teachers came through," K says. "And a big way that we would learn from them is that we would give them power. We would all just volunteer to them and say, 'Hey, please be our leader for the day. Show us how to live,' you know? And if they liked it, they would stick around. Most of them didn't, because it would kind of show them up in ways that they didn't want to be shown up. Usually, those experiments would only last for a few days, and then the person would disappear with their tail between their legs."
"Today, stress reduction is a very big thing," Tobe says. "Pettie didn't try to relieve stress. To know how to deal with stress, you have to experience stress. So he put us in a pressure cooker that would keep the stress on. We never slept more than three days in the same place. In D.C., we had a warehouse on one side of town, we had an apartment house on the other side of town, and you could be sure that after two or three days you'd move from one side of town to the other. Or you'd go to the property in the country."
The community had a motto: RTGIAD. Ready To Go In Any Direction. They were always on the move. It was a sort of metaprogramming exercise.
"I think that the practical part of it," according to Nick, "is it gave us some resilience as a group. We could go to a faraway city, and if there were six or eight of us, we didn't have to find six or eight motel rooms and lay out a lot of money. We could find a small place and get along in that until we got situated, and then branch out to a better situation."
Andrei Codrescu is a Romanian-born poet, novelist, essayist, and retired professor of English. If you listened to NPR in the 1990s, you've probably heard his voice. In his book Comrade Past & Mister Present, Codrescu describes a 1984 encounter with The Finders. He was in the market for a printing press at the time, and the community possessed one they weren't using. Codrescu's friend takes him to an "elegant" Washington, D.C. mansion, where they're greeted by two women who appear to be in their fifties.
His first impression of The Finders is worth quoting at length:
Swirling around them are all sorts of men taking orders, carrying out orders, performing tasks. There are several computer terminals around. So we are introduced, and they ask me, and I say that I'm Romanian. "Romanian, Romanian..." muses the senior leader, "don't we know a Romanian?" The other one puts down the leg of lamb she's rubbing with coarse black pepper, and pecks at the computer's keyboard. Stuff comes on the screen. "Two," she says, "we know two. One is a specialist in Turanians, the other works for Kissinger's office."
When they learn that Codrescu isn't interested in Turanians (a family of ethno-linguistically related peoples in Eurasia) or Henry Kissinger, one of the women suggests that he speak with someone named David about the printing press.
"He's the founder," Codrescu's friend says. "He used to be in the CIA, then he founded the DCIA."
"Divine Central Intelligence," the cook explains the initials. "We have no secrets."
David arrives and gives the two visitors a tour. The community's women live together on the top floor, in a charming loft "divided by flower pots, little bookcases, art objects, into small sleeping areas." Their position at the top is fitting, since the community is matriarchal. Below that is another loft, "much sparser and rougher," for the men, who sleep on bunk beds. Then they are shown a small theater where The Finders play many of their games, and a "war room, which is a round chamber with couches along the walls. In the middle of the room is an immense globe."
Eventually, they get to the reason for his visit. The printing press is not exactly free, a Finder named Barbara says; Codrescu will have to "do some jobs for us to pay for it."
Two days later, back in Baltimore, Codrescu answers a knock at the door to find "thirteen (!) rather hefty ladies of all ages."
"We've come to serve," their leader says. "Your roof needs fixing? Your sink leak? Need babysitters? Want an orgasm?"
No thanks, Codrescu says.
(“This is one of Pettie’s games,” Tobe says when reading Codrescu’s account of the offered orgasm. “A joke to see how Codrescu would handle it. In hindsight, it was an unfortunate incident, if it happened.”)
He lets the group crash overnight, then throws them out the next morning.
"But we have a two-week mission in Baltimore," one of the women protests. "We have to earn six hundred dollars and establish a Finders' center."
"Good luck," Codrescu says.
He never did get his printing press.
"They loved being mysterious, they loved being misunderstood. And they loved pranks and playing games. And everything was meant to confuse outsiders," says Jon Cohen, the journalist who wrote "In Search of The Finders" for Miami's New Times in 1988.
"I think he liked being mysterious," Nick agrees. "If there was any kind of blowback, it was that, of course, being mysterious attracts attention. I don't think [Pettie] was so interested in attracting attention, but he did like the mystery."
If Pettie desired a legacy, it would be "in terms of the social inventions that we were working with," Nick concludes. "I think he cared about discovering social inventions, about how people could work together in non-traditional ways. I don't think he held a lot of hope that it would ever catch on in a big way with the general public. But I think he wanted to seed some ideas that might make their way down through the generations, through the lives of the people that he influenced."
In Prometheus Rising, Robert Anton Wilson makes a strong case that the human mind treats ideological territory the same way it treats physical territory. And as mammals, we’re all very protective of our territory. Indeed, when someone dares to have an opinion that differs from ours, it lights up the same part of our brain that is activated when someone invades our physical space. Seriously challenging our assumptions, Wilson says, “is always a profound shock … and is generally considered a threat to territory (ideological head space). The long list of martyrs to free inquiry, from Socrates onward, shows how mechanical this neophobia (fear of new semantic signals) is.” Maybe this explains the strong negative reaction so many people had to the Finders as much as the satanic panic does.
Theirs was a novel way of looking at the world, suited for novel individuals. There was a method to their madness. Perhaps, unless you knew Pettie, all you saw was madness.
Marion David Pettie passed away in October 2003, and the remaining Finders moved on to their next adventures.