Eugster, Sandra Lee
Eugster, Sandra Lee
Married Richard Levine (a clinical psychologist). Education: Wesleyan University, B.A., 1982; University of Wisconsin, Madison, Ph.D., 1995.
Office—313 Price Pl., Ste. 113, Madison, WI 53705. E-mail—[email protected]
Independent Psychology Alliance, Madison, WI, clinical psychologist. Writer.
Notes from Nethers, Academy Chicago Publishers (Chicago, IL), 2007.
By her own admission, Sandra Lee Eugster never intended to write a memoir. Nevertheless, in an interview with Linda Falkenstein of the Daily Page, Eugster said she was inevitably drawn into describing her unconventional childhood in the midst of the counterculture era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her book, Notes from Nethers, details her experiences as an adolescent member of a commune founded and run by her mother. The commune Eugster describes is hardly an idyllic place for a young girl to spend her formative years, but in retrospect the author has come to realize that her life sheds light on a particular aspect of the counterculture movement—and a lifestyle that has virtually disappeared from modern American society.
Eugster was living a conventional life in suburban Baltimore when her parents divorced and her freewheeling mother decided to move to a farm in rural Virginia. At the age of nine Eugster and her two sisters found themselves living in a commune tailored to the emotional and physical needs of adults. People arrived and departed as they pleased, some of them unstable and all of them dedicated to the notion of freedom from constraint that characterized the counterculture. As Eve Ottenberg put it in the Washington City Paper, the author grew to young adulthood "raised on a diet of spiritual and therapeutic quackery."
What distinguishes Eugster's experience of commune life is the fact that she did not choose to be there. The decision was her mother's, and however well-meaning her mother was, Eugster was thrown into a bewildering situation. "The adults were unaware what this all meant to me as a young child," she told the Daily Page. Although she was never physically or sexually abused, Eugster felt uncomfortable amidst groups of adults who engaged in primal scream therapy, sweat lodge rituals, group nudity, and transient relationships. When the commune dissolved and Eugster returned to a more conventional lifestyle, she was unprepared for the social and educational challenges she faced. She had never shaved her legs or worn a bra; her learning was self-driven and sporadically supervised; and she could not distinguish between teasing and hostility.
Eugster rejoined the mainstream when she became a college freshman at Wesleyan University. Having grown up in isolation from other children, she had never dated and had no friends her own age. Still she managed to assimilate quickly, earning a bachelor's degree in 1982 and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1995. She is a partner in a private counseling practice based in Madison, Wisconsin, where she works primarily as a one-on-one psychotherapist.
During the years she spent at the Nether commune, Eugster kept journals of her daily life. After the commune dissolved and she went on to college, she kept the journals in a box. Curiously, when friends pressed her to write her memoir, she decided not to consult the journals, feeling that their contents would be too painful to read. Instead she allowed her memory to reign over the material, a process that actually helped her to understand her mother more fully and to improve their relationship. In her book and her talks about it, Eugster describes commune life as a milieu in which children quickly lose their innocence simply by watching the behavior of self-indulgent adults.
Notes from Nethers offers a child's view of a distinct, and not particularly child-friendly, lifestyle. According to Linda Falkenstein in the Daily Page, the events described "are nothing short of mesmerizing…. Reading about the milieu is arresting, shocking, and alluring all at once." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commended Eugster for her depiction of "intense feelings of anomie and abandonment." The reviewer also characterized Notes from Nethers as "an engaging portrait." Booklist correspondent Gillian Engberg found the work "a fascinating, evenhanded view of counterculture life." Mary Cowper in the MBR Bookwatch concluded that Notes from Nethers can be recommended as a "matter-of-fact glimpse into what commune life was truly like: the good, the bad and the ugly."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, October 15, 2007, Gillian Engberg, review of Notes from Nethers, p. 24.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2007, review of Notes from Nethers.
MBR Bookwatch, February, 2008, Mary Cowper, review of Notes from Nethers.
Publishers Weekly, September 10, 2007, review of Notes from Nethers, p. 47.
Reference & Research Book News, February, 2008, review of Notes from Nethers.
Alumni at Wesleyan University,http://www.wesleyan.edu/writing/Alumni/ (June 9, 2008), biography and review of Notes from Nethers.
Carp(e) Libris,http://carpelibris.blogspot.com/ (January 23, 2008), review of Notes from Nethers.
Daily Page,http://www.thedailypage.com/ (September 14, 2007), Linda Falkenstein, "Head-trip through the Counterculture."
Psychology Today,http://therapist.psychologytoday.com/ (June 9, 2008), professional biography.
Washington City Paper,http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/ (November 14, 2007), Eve Ottenberg, "The Yurting Kind."