How I Plotted a Murder on the Infamous ‘Sex Raft’
Fé Seymour, who took part in a notorious 1970s social experiment, explains how murderous thoughts can sweep through a group of ordinary people when they are pushed to their limits.
She ended up plotting a murder.
Seymour told The Daily Beast that a multinational crew of participants, who had agreed to sail across the Atlantic unaided, were overtaken by a kind of madness. The experiment was designed to study the way 11 strangers from different nations, religions and races would respond to being confined to a tiny raft for months on end.
The vessel was dubbed the “sex raft” by the media as it set sail after organizers explained that they expected all aspects of human life to take place on board, including friendship, power struggles, and fornication.
The crew members developed an unshakeable bond—they even developed their own kind of hybrid language—but their relationship with Dr. Santiago Genovese, the man running the experiment, soon morphed from fractious to homicidal. They believed their lives were at risk out in the middle of the Atlantic unless Genovese was taken out.
“Murder was one of the options,” said Seymour, in a matter-of-fact tone.
That’s not to say she does not shudder when she recalls the monstrous act that she and her fellow participants almost committed. “It was so close,” she said. “It reminded me of a Beatles concert that I went to when I was a kid. When we got into the Cow Palace—the venue for the show—people went nuts. They were crazy. They were screaming and hysterical. Crowds that are being whipped into a frenzy can do weird things.”
The story of the mutinous vessel bobbing across the ocean in 1973 is told exquisitely in a new documentary called The Raft, which has opened for a limited run in theaters across the U.S. Genovese deliberately antagonized the participants by—among other things—trying to encourage them to have sex, stirring up arguments and reading out their private thoughts to the group. He also put them at risk by disregarding safety warnings and leaving the vessel in the path of a hurricane. As the participants panicked and drew up ways to save their lives, they concluded that the only way Genovese would cede control of the experiment was if he was dead.
Seymour came up with a plan to take a syringe from the medical kit, fill it with a deadly cocktail of drugs and inject it into their leader. She wanted everyone to place a hand on the syringe plunger and administer the killer dose in unison.
“I’m not happy to say that, yes, that was my idea. In retrospect it sounds really macabre and silly but if everybody was going to do it, it had to be like Murder on the Orient Express. Everybody would have to be in on it. If we were going to get past it we would all have to be complicit,” she told The Daily Beast.
Once the group had openly discussed the plan, Seymour said it became clear that the murderous plot was becoming a reality. “It was awful even having the thought at the beginning,” she said. “Then an idea gains momentum. It’s really terrifying. Oh no, what if we can’t turn this around?”
Ultimately, the group backed down. Genovese’s grip on power was finally weakened by two life-or-death incidents which befell the raft. The anthropologist deposed the captain and took control of the vessel when Maria Björnstam, one of the world’s first fully qualified female captains, decided they needed to dock in the Caribbean to shelter from a hurricane. Genovese disagreed, and they stayed out in the ocean, exposed to the elements. The storm eventually veered away from them, but the atmosphere on the craft was destroyed by his power-grab. “What Santiago did to me was mutiny. The penalty for mutiny is death,” Björnstam says in the film.
Genovese proved to be a useless captain, cowering when the raft got into trouble once again—this time when it came in the path of an oncoming freighter. Björnstam instinctively took control of the situation and managed to keep everybody safe.
“We were really at death’s door on that one, and it was the captain who took care of it; took care of us and we made it. And then Santiago kind of withdrew into his shell. You remember back in the day when people would have the vapours, they would become sick when they were facing stress. It was like that,” Seymour explained.
There were also good times on the raft, of course. Seymour said the highlight was a Christmas celebration where the doctor gave everyone a shot of the medical isopropyl alcohol. “Everybody was pretty well lit; cavorting about, acting silly and screaming—running all over the raft with a childlike innocence.”
The director of the film, Marcus Lindeen, said Genovese had been ill-prepared to deal with the feminist utopia he tried to create by installing women in positions of power, including the captain and the doctor. “He had this idea of wanting to try out this kind of feminist approach with the women in charge. And ironically enough, he was the one who really couldn’t deal with the powerful women,” said Lindeen during an interview at the London Film Festival.
He was also depressed because there was nowhere near as much sex or conflict as he had expected. “It was too lame of a result in his mind—that peace established itself on board,” the director said. “He wanted action and he couldn’t get over his disappointment with the action not really happening, even though—in a human sense—it was the most hopeful thing that could ever happen.”
Genovese died around the time Lindeen began research for the documentary. Seymour said she was relieved that he never heard of their plans to kill him.
“I think it’s a mercy. I think it would have been heartbreaking for him to know that we were looking at him differently,” she said. “His experiment didn’t succeed—it didn’t succeed financially, or in the publishing world, or the anthropology world. That’s enough of a blow for somebody who’s a visionary.”
That’s not to say that she looks back on him fondly. Seymour said he was clearly racist. She said she overheard him describing her as “primitive” and tried to encourage her to sleep with Bernardo Bongo, a priest from Angola, purely because they were both black.
“I was gobsmacked. How would you say something like that to me? To try to seduce a priest. That just was beyond anything I’d ever heard of,” she said. “He was completely racist. He couldn’t help himself.”
She was 23 when she returned to the U.S., and the experience helped shape the next five decades of her life, which saw her raise her family in Alaska and work her way up the ranks of various telecommunications companies as a successful engineer and IT expert.
“The raft affected me basically every day. I never forgot the lessons I learned there about power, men and women working together, the struggles of misogyny and bigotry. It helped me get through the quagmire that I faced in my career because I was always in a career that I wasn’t wanted in. I wasn’t welcome, but it was my career.”
Although the experiment was tougher than she had expected, and took the group to far darker places, Seymour, who turned 70 this year, says she doesn’t regret it for a second. “I’d do it again if I could,” she said. “I’d go back right now.”
The Raft is in theaters now, for performance dates visit here.