Footnote on Mel Lyman

Bill J. Harrell

Footnote 3

Charisma and the Con-Man:
Virtual Power and Knowledge

I would not wish to deny that charisma is without important personal qualities. One of the reasons I continue to be interested in charisma is due to a personal experience. In about 1959 when I was a young man in graduate school, an even younger man appeared one day on my doorstep (with two friends). He was an aspiring musician (though not yet very skilled) and with Jack Kerouac's Dean Moriarty and Woody Guthrie as his guide was "on the road" and "bound for glory."  He and his friends on their way to New Orleans and the South  from Portland, Oregon, had been pointed my way by a mutual friend. Mel and his companions were hitch-hiking and  riding the rails and had come from Texas to New Orleans in boxcars. They were tired, very dirty, and far from any romantic view I might have of  the footloose bindlestiff.  About 20 years old, Mel was medium height, lean and bony, had long sideburns and oily hair combed back in a "duck's butt."  His nose was running and eyes bloodshot  from allergies and he sometimes had an alarming asthmatic wheeze. He was not a very physically imposing person.

He and his friends stayed with my wife and me for a week before they moved on.  Over the next three years, Mel, usually with others in tow and in beat up old cars made a regular grand tour of the U.S., from Oregon down the coast to L.A., across to Texas and into New Orleans and through the South, up into New York City and Boston, then back across the top of the country to Oregon. Our house was a regular stop on these tours and Mel usually stayed a week or two. In each trip around the cycle he had become not only a more and more accomplished musician (banjo and mouth harp) but was full of stories  and experiences which had moved him and, in the telling, it was equally clear that he moved others. He was struggling toward a view of life, a kind of epiphany which was both spiritual and utopian. By "epiphany" I mean that this was not an intellectual or political quest, nor a self-conscious  reflection on experience, but Mel assumed that at some point if he stayed open to it he would directly experience and immediately understand what the hell was going on and why. He believed music would mediate his relationship to people and with music  this walk through the world would bring the light. Of course, there is nothing particularly new or unusual about this in a young person. But Mel had great energy and enthusiasm and kind of relentless pursuit of life which took one's breath away. He also had confidence in his ability to struggle and survive and a striking ingenuity when confronted with practical problems for example, he was an excellent "backyard" auto-mechanic.  He took a lot of chances and whatever the transitory difficulties or disasters he was confident he would learn from it and come out the other side. This energy and confidence was contagious and Mel became the center  of any group that gathered for whatever purpose. Without any apparent or conscious effort on his part, the topics of conversation and questions discussed tended to move toward those that interested him and on which he had strongly held views.  He had had a rough life, spent time in jail and was shrewd in many ways of the street but otherwise seemed innocent and open to others in ways which made people trust him. Indeed, people tended to trust him implicitly or were repelled by him.

This sense of confidence and purpose characterized Mel's usual "presentation of self" to others and, no doubt, to himself.  However, in the wee hours of the morning on long walks through New Orleans he talked of his doubts, guilt about his wife and children, and would occasionally have inklings of how he used his energy and enthusiasm as justification for his imposition and even exploitation of others.

I last saw Mel in 1963 and had no real contact with him over the next ten years. However, in that period and in the midst of the counter-cultural excitement of the late 60s, I did hear rumors and stories that Mel had his epiphany, founded a commune in Boston and was looked upon by others as a spiritual leader and "avatar."  In November, 1974, I received a letter from Mel and a copy of his book, Mirror at the End of the Road (American Avatar Publications, Roxbury, Mass., 1971)  The preface to the book is a letter to Mel from Wayne Hansen in which Hansen says, "For me to approach the book to read it is already an awesome responsibility. I stand in awe of its greatness and purity I can't  believe it.  It's full of miracles and its greatest miracle is its reality. It really is the new bible, born to be read and read again, inexhaustible in its capacity to teach . In the past Christian martyrs died for the Spirit and Christian crusades killed for it, but you make the greatest sacrifice of all, to LIVE for it!"

As is usually the case with charismatic leaders and movements there is also a dark side, disillusionment, and bewilderment.  This experience of Mel was reported, in part, by David Felton in Rolling Stone, 1971 ("The Lyman Family's Holy Siege of America," Rolling Stone, 98:43 (Dec. 23, 1971). Also reprinted as "Dangers of Charisma: Mel Lyman and Fort Hill" in Rosabeth M. Kanter (ed.) Communes: Creating and Managing the Collective Life, NY, 1973, pp. 209-221.)

I have not made a study of  Mel's movement nor have I corresponded with him since the letter in 1974. I have only fragmentary and contradictory information about the movement and the commune and consequently have no substantive opinion about its nature and outcome. In the years I knew him in the early 1960s I considered Mel a very interesting and dear friend.  My only point is that there were personal qualities in Mel apparent to me and others in 1959 which must have played a crucial role in what he came to be and the impact he had on others. I certainly did not predict in 1963 that Mel would become a spiritual leader of a charismatic movement, but subsequent events involving him and in the context of the turmoil and excitement of the 1960s, did not surprise me. I was surprised neither by the enthusiasm and commitment to him, nor the witness to Mel's darker side.

other writings of Bill J. Harrell at his Bill J. Harrell Homepage.

Mel Lyman