Josie Kinkade (Photo by Ed Dingman)
Josie Kinkade arrived at what is now the Twin Oaks community in Louisa County with her mother in the spring of 1967, scouting for property where a small group of people could garden, raise farm animals and make a new world. Now, at age 64, Josie still remembers how she felt at the inception of one of North America’s earliest and best-known intentional communities.
“When we saw this farm, I just remember emerald green. And I just fell in love,” Josie recalls. “I said, ‘Mommy, I want this one, I want this one.’ ”
Josie had grown up in cities — Seattle; Mexico City; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C. — as her mother moved around after separating from her father, a soldier, when Josie was 1.
They later divorced, and when child support payments ceased, her mother, Kathleen “Kat” Kinkade, went to work teaching English to first-graders at a private school in Mexico City.
“To her, family did not represent security, love — you know, the things most people think of as family. And, therefore, she didn’t really raise me with a sense of family either. So, Twin Oaks … took on the importance of family.” —Josie Kinkade, reflecting on her mother, Kathleen “Kat” Kinkade, and the Twin Oaks community
At 36, Kat Kinkade was the oldest of the group of eight original Twin Oaks founders. Josie was the youngest, at 14. The six others were in their 20s, all swept up in the idealism and free-spirited life that, for many, typified the 1960s experience.
“These people were passionately involved in the concept of changing the world through communal living, and this was a mission for us, and I loved it,” Josie says. “Not only did I enjoy having friends and living on the farm and enjoy swimming at the swimming hole, I very much thought I was part of a greater purpose.”
One of the oldest surviving communes in America, Twin Oaks was founded 50 years ago during the “summer of love,” when 100,000 people, many self-identifying as hippies or flower children, descended on San Francisco to party, make love and contemplate opposition to the established order.
The eight people who showed up to establish Twin Oaks on a 123-acre red-clay tobacco farm in Louisa County were a grittier bunch, soaked in the possibility of creating a utopia based on Walden Two, a fictional place imagined in a novel by behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. He posited that happiness and freedom could be achieved, in part, through a rigid program of behavior modification. For example, lollipops would be hung around children’s necks to develop will power.
The “Twin Oakers,” as they are sometimes called, eventually abandoned many of Skinner’s ideas, among them raising children communally, which hinged on the theory that children belonged to society and not to their parents. But they kept or adapted concepts such as income sharing and an egalitarian planner-manager form of government.
At the end of Twin Oaks’ first five years, only Josie and her mother were left of the original founders, some of whom had tired of communal living. But others came to take their place.
Moving around with her mother, Josie had experienced schools both good and bad. She mostly preferred to read on her own. At Twin Oaks, she tried going to public schools in Louisa County. But she lasted only two months before becoming bored and dropping out in the 10th grade. She never graduated from high school and the only diploma she ever earned was in 1986 from the VCU School of Medicine, then known as the Medical College of Virginia. She was 34.
Josie says that although she never finished high school, she scored high enough on the SATs to qualify for college. She breezed through VCU’s undergraduate school, she says, with mostly As, and two Bs – one in physics and one in an independent study in English.
When the medical school admissions adviser told her that she had been accepted to MCV, Josie promptly dropped out of VCU’s undergraduate program with less than a semester left. During both her college and medical school days, she commuted to and from Twin Oaks.
“I went to school, and then I went home to my people,” she says.
After a medical residency in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and beginning to pay off $25,000 in college debt, Josie returned to Louisa County — but not Twin Oaks — in 1990, and practiced medicine for 15 years before taking early retirement.
“Two things I loved about medicine: one was the intellectual part," she says, "figuring out a problem; and the other was relating to my patients. I just loved that relationship.”
But Josie says stress brought on by the demands of drug and insurance companies, along with her own desire to move on to something else, motivated her to leave. Now married to a retired IT professional, Josie moved to Harrisonburg several years ago to run a spay-neuter and feline adoption center, Cat’s Cradle.
Though she no longer practices medicine, she keeps her medical license current and divides her time between civic endeavors, such as tutoring Spanish speakers in English, and visiting her daughter, Lee Ann, in nearby Staunton.
Josie gave birth to Lee Ann in 1973, and in reflection she says she wasn’t prepared for her new role.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t understand what being a parent was. I thought I was having a child for the community,” she says. “The sad part of my life is not having been a better mother.”
Lee Ann went on to earn a master’s degree in English, and got married; she is currently teaching online courses. Her father still lives in the Louisa area, though not at Twin Oaks.
Josie says she began seeing men while she was in her early teens. “I was an early bloomer … at that time in that culture, it was not considered abuse. Nobody thought anything about it,” Josie says. “I thought I was an adult, and pretty sophisticated. But now looking back, I realize it wasn’t appropriate. But it didn’t do me a great deal of damage. I think the damage was done to my mother through her parents and it kind of came down to me.”
Josie lived at Twin Oaks for 19 years. She left to follow a boyfriend or two, but did not leave permanently until she went to Pennsylvania to do her medical residency.
“I had a hard time adjusting to the culture outside of Twin Oaks,” she says, and offers an example: “At Twin Oaks, if two people are talking, you stand in front of them and wait, and when they finish they turn to you and ask you, ‘What would you like?’” Josie says.
“At my residency or whatever, I would come up to two people, and they never talked to you. You had to break in.”
In medical school, she never felt the same culturally as the other students in class, and that feeling carried over into her professional life.
“I was the ‘hippie’ doctor,” Josie says, with no tone of resentment.
Dr. Pamela Richardson, a part-time physician at the Goochland Free Clinic, says Josie was her best friend when both were working together in private practice in Louisa County during the 1990s.
“We shared deeply,” Richardson says. “She had no interest in fashion or makeup or any of that. At that point in time, a whole lot of women were not interested in those things. She was a liberated woman, like I considered myself.”
As a young mother of two children who was engaged in a demanding profession, Richardson says she could see the merits of raising children in an environment such as Twin Oaks.
“I sort of envied her,” Richardson says. “For a child to be raised by her parents in isolation, I don’t see it superior in any way [to] children being raised in a community.”
Josie has mostly happy memories about her life at Twin Oaks.
“I learned how to milk a cow, I learned how to run a printing press, and I learned how to cook, and to cook for groups. Want me to whip up a meal for 60 people? No problem,” she says.
Josie’s view of what constitutes family was shaped during her time there, she says. “For me, I don’t differentiate between family and close friends. And it’s Twin Oaks that created that for me.”
Josie says her mother, despite her energy and dedication to Twin Oaks, was not an easy fit for the community.
Kat Kinkade grew up in a lower working-class environment and contrasted sharply with other residents, who largely came from middle-class families. She also had been emotionally scarred. She was abused by a stepfather and was largely raised by an emotionally distant aunt.
“My mother grew up without significant love,” Josie says.
At Twin Oaks, Josie says her mother was sometimes in conflict with other residents.
“My mother offered leadership, but she wasn’t motherly. In fact, people didn’t like the fact that she reminded them of their mothers, because she was older,” Josie says. “And because she was lower-class, she didn’t watch her mouth; she didn’t do that middle-class polite thing.”
Kat Kinkade left Twin Oaks on several occasions to help start new communities, return to a regular job or just to spend time alone.
In 2000, Josie bought her mother, who was by then 70, a home in Mineral, a small town 13 miles from Twin Oaks. She said her mother thought she would live there forever. But about eight years later, dying from the complications of breast cancer, Kat Kinkade again felt the tug of Twin Oaks.
Josie says the community broke its own rule against accepting someone into residence who was terminally ill.
“They took her specifically because of her contribution. They treated her like a grandmother,” Josie recalls. “She was deeply moved by that love and care.”
Kat Kinkade died at age 77 at Twin Oaks on July 3, 2008. Her death merited a prominent story in The New York Times magazine later that year.
Josie’s mother wrote two books about Twin Oaks. The first, “A Walden Two Experiment,” in 1973, was a retrospective on the community’s first five years.
The book was serialized in the magazine Psychology Today, which propelled Twin Oaks into the national consciousness. Kat Kinkade’s second book, “Is It Utopia Yet?” published in 1994, was portrayed as an “insider’s view of Twin Oaks in its 26th year.”
Josie says she has never read either of her mother’s books.“I’m not a past-looking kind of gal. I’m a looking-forward kind of gal,” she explains.
“I have thought a lot about writing the story of my mother’s life or doing a journal, or [writing] the story of my own life — I’ve lived a pretty darn interesting life — and whenever I start to do it, I get bored to death. I want to know what’s next. Next!” she says.
As for Twin Oaks, Josie says she still loves it, but would never return.
She says the community consists of a kind group of people living lightly on the land, fully engaged in life. On the other hand, she says the egalitarian nature of the community means that it is governed by committee.
“And I just don’t have the patience for that.”