When I first went to the Gathering of the Juggalos, Insane Clown Posse's infamous yearly festival of arts and culture, I was five years younger and an unmarried man utterly fixated on his career. Inspired by my now-wife's high school misadventures following the jam band Phish, I set out to write a book about the oddly complementary fan bases of Phish and the widely reviled Detroit horror core duo Insane Clown Posse. If I noticed children there at all, it was to be mortified to see children in such a flagrantly non-child friendly place, a wild west zone complete with a drug bridge, abundant nudity and enthusiastic, almost unavoidable profanity of both the spoken and written.
But when I returned late this July, I was a much different person and my assignment reflected my new priorities. Instead of writing about Insane Clown Posse fandom as a subculture and a way of life, I was writing about families at the Gathering. As a new dad, I couldn't think of anything in the world more fascinating than babies, and I was interested in how parents navigated the gulf between the simultaneously very adult and childish world of Insane Clown Posse, where adults wear clown make-up, give themselves silly names and get sprayed with Faygo brand soda (available now in your nearest economically depressed neighborhood) in a frenzied ritual, and the responsibilities of parenthood.
I was a little intimidated to be asking people about their babies and children and parenting ideas at The Gathering because I wondered, deservedly so, if there was not a strong implied judgment in the very action of questioning itself. I worried that behind even the most open-ended question lie the accusation, "How on earth could you have brought your child to such a child-unfriendly event? What were you thinking?"
I did not want to lead with judgment, because I very much understand the thinking that would lead a Juggalo to take their child to The Gathering. Juggalos are by definition obsessive (there's no such thing, really, as a casual Juggalo, or someone who sort of likes ICP; you're either a super-fan or think they're terrible) and it's a natural human instinct to want to share the things that you love with the people closest to you, to infect them with your passions. Obsessive fans tend to be evangelists on behalf of their passions, and who better to share the gospel with than your own flesh and blood?
The challenge for so much of us is to not abandon the person we were as we get older, to not lose touch of our open-mindedness and lust for life...
The families that I talked to established rules for this largely lawless realm. A woman who was pregnant with twins at The Gathering said that the rule in her family was that children could only hit the Gathering once they were six years old. That might seem arbitrary, but it was a way of making something structureless and wild a little more manageable, and there were lots of stuff at The Gathering that would appeal to children, from carnival rides to free Faygo and hot dogs to an open air arcade where Juggalos could play free video games, and either recreate their childhoods, or enjoy being a kid in one of the weirdest places in the world for a kid to hang out.
Another dad that I spoke to spoke of Juggalo culture and his embrace of Insane Clown Posse in spiritual terms. He was there with his adorable but uncomfortable looking daughter, who was carrying a sign asking for donations for her college fund. He was fiery with intensity as he spoke about how he trusted Juggalos to behave honorably and respectfully in a way he wouldn't the denizens of a church camp or even a school. There may have been a lot of people at The Gathering doing unwholesome and unfamily-friendly things, but they were his people and he trusted them instinctively, and that gave him the security to bring his daughter to a place that was borderline sacred to him.
The father homeschooled his daughter and talked about his dream of there someday being a family section of the Gathering, a place more kid and family-friendly and less full of people loudly selling drugs, sometimes through a bullhorn and with signs as accompaniments. It was an interesting if not terribly feasible idea, if only because I suspect that the Ohio Child and Family Services department might descend upon the Gathering with full force if they thought there were a bunch of kids there.
I would never take my son to The Gathering unless he very much wanted to go and was in his twenties but I understand the impulse that leads people to want to bring their offspring to such a strange and controversial place. The challenge for so much of us is to not abandon the person we were as we get older, to not lose touch of our open-mindedness and lust for life, and the hearty souls that brought their progeny to The Gathering were doing their damnedest to bridge the gulf between the wild-ass Juggalos they were in their younger years, and the parents they were in the present. It's a tricky, difficult task to be sure, but then again, no one said being a Juggalo was easy, especially when you add a crazy variable like parenthood to the mix.