North Korea on the Hudson: On Alexander Stille’s “The Sullivanians”
By Dave MandlSeptember 9, 2023
The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune by Alexander Stille
The Sullivan Institute, named for psychoanalytic pioneer Harry Stack Sullivan, was established by married hard-left psychotherapists Saul Newton and Jane Pearce in 1957—crucially, after Sullivan’s death. It was built around a highly exaggerated take on Sullivan’s beliefs—which held, in short, that the best way to foster patients’ growth was through relationships with others. Newton and Pearce combined proto-hippie ideals about sex (the more the better) and relationships (monogamy and romantic love were to be avoided at all costs) with extreme anti-family convictions that bordered on delusional. It’s barely an exaggeration to say that Newton and Pearce considered mothers and their axiomatically destructive relationships with their children to be the root of nearly every evil in the world, with the traditional nuclear family a close second. It was much healthier, as they saw it, for people to live in group settings, sleep with the greatest number of people possible, and nurture multitudinous relationships, both sexual and platonic, with as many members of both sexes as they could.
In the 1960s and early ’70s, these views chimed not only with freethinkers and radicals but also with isolated introverts and virgins yearning for a rich social life or a taste of free love. At Sullivanian HQ on West 91st Street, where most members of the group lived and socialized, there were all the sexual partners you could hope for, and you were not just encouraged but required to sleep with as many of them as you could fit into your life. Men found that women they’d only just met were dragging them into bed (no less than a miracle at the time), and people’s calendars were perpetually filled with “dates,” many of them carried out in “date rooms” set up specifically for this purpose. The atmosphere was a dream come true for would-be revolutionaries who viewed their parents’ regimented bourgeois world with horror. One group member, in her memoir of the period, recalled thinking:
I am part of this amazing scene. […] I feel privileged. The people on the outside live their depressed lives with one spouse and a friend or two. All of these people are potential friends to me. I have left my old family behind, with its dysfunction and abuse […]
We know their world of nuclear families and serial monogamy is going to come tumbling down all around them. […] Leave them to their cluelessness. We are the vanguard of the revolution. Watch us own the world.
Others joined up simply because they were lonely. Without lifting a finger, they now had a ready-made group of worldly, like-minded buddies and lovers.
Newton’s presumed political and psychoanalytic ideals went south quickly. (Pearce was eventually jettisoned from her position, just one wife/second-in-command in a long list for the capricious Newton.) What was once nominally consensual behavior in the group soon became mandatory. Among the worst infractions were refusing a “date” that had been set up for you by a higher-up, especially if that date was with a higher-up; getting “in a focus”—Sullivanian code for moving toward an exclusive relationship or, heaven forbid, falling in love—with a romantic partner; displaying anything resembling “family” or “parental” behavior (always a risk with new mothers among the Sullivanians); or talking shit about the group or its senior members. Penalties for breaking the rules could be a frightful dressing-down, demotion to a less prestigious position within the organization’s rigid hierarchy, or complete expulsion. Newton also had a tendency to sabotage budding romances by sleeping with the female member of a couple or ordering others to do so. His notoriously violent temper was easily triggered, and fear of being at the receiving end of it was ever-present. By the 1970s, certainly, the group had transformed from an experiment in self-actualization and socialism to something that any outsider would recognize as a cult.
The cruelty that the group’s members had to endure is hard to fathom. Newborn babies were taken away from their mothers for fear that an unhealthy bond—that is, a bond—might be established between them. (In exceptional cases, the baby might be afforded limited time with its mom for breastfeeding: one mother recalled looking at her watch anxiously as she neared her seven-minute limit and her child showed no signs of stopping.) Young children were blithely sent to nightmarish boarding schools where abuse was known to be rampant—the important thing was to get them away from their parents. The group’s senior members made sexual demands that couldn’t be refused, most of all the fellatio-obsessed Newton: “Toward the end of his life,” one female member recalled, “I was peeing in a bottle in my room so I didn’t have to go down the hall, on the chance that he might see me. That whole house was like a giant blow job factory!”
In an organization built around psychoanalysis, where many members were themselves assigned as therapists to other members (no formal training necessary), the most egregious professional transgressions were a regular occurrence: female patients were subjected to verbal and even physical abuse; called “vicious bitch” or “cunt” in sessions; and told, “You’re not [your daughter’s] mother, you’re her destroyer,” and that they should kill themselves. Therapists routinely slept with their patients, with or without their consent. Children were sexually abused. The whole system was maintained thanks partly to a North Korea–style fear that fellow members, even your close friends, might report you for violating the rules—which, in fact, they did, all the time.
All of this and, alas, much more is revealed in Alexander Stille’s exhaustive history The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune (2023). And while it would obviously be better if none of these events had ever occurred, it would be dishonest not to admit that Stille’s book gives us a valuable look at the day-to-day workings, and psychology, of a middle-class cult.
The “middle-class” part is significant. Many cults cater to the underprivileged, the down-and-out, the poor, or the uneducated—people who may be desperate or naive, or who have had other avenues for getting by in life closed off to them. The Sullivanians were almost all white, well educated, and from comfortable families. They were “high-performing urban professionals—doctors, lawyers, computer programmers, successful artists and writers, [and] professors,” as Stille puts it. How on earth do adults from this milieu find themselves in a situation (in the middle of Manhattan!) where they have to construct elaborate ruses to see their boyfriends or girlfriends on the sly; where they willingly give their newborn children away; where they denounce and break with their kind and benevolent, if “boring,” parents for no rational reason, sometimes scamming them out of their life savings in the process; where, when commanded to, they hunt down and beat the shit out of their own friends just because they’ve made an attempt to leave the group; where women wanting to get pregnant consent to sex with multiple partners, because knowing the identity of its biological father would be harmful to the child?
For one thing, they didn’t consent to those things, per se. They joined the group because they were in sympathy with its stated psychoanalytic goals, which were radical but not wildly unreasonable at the time. (Philip Larkin’s “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” is after all not that far-fetched a proposition.) There were thousands of intentional communities and communes in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s, most of them with perfectly admirable objectives. And for someone who was, say, pathologically shy, discovering a no-questions-asked free-love paradise like the Sullivan Institute was like entering heaven. For gays and lesbians, at the time still outcasts or worse in mainstream America, the institute was the kind of accepting community they couldn’t imagine elsewhere. For the many radicalized college students who signed up, the stated socialist or communist politics of the group suggested an actual utopia just a few blocks from the subway.
Over time, all these people became boiled frogs. The slide into authoritarianism and outright sadism among the group happened gradually, over a period of years. There’s generally no single point where what was a noncult yesterday becomes a cult today; people are basically trusting and, having already put their faith in a person or group, may simply shrug off microadjustments in the rules. It may also have been easy for Sullivanians to accept the incrementally harsher environment because they had a huge network of friends and were getting more free sex than they’d ever dreamed of.
The history of the Sullivanians tells us a lot about how authority, the exercise of it, and obedience to it operate. Members at all levels in the group’s hierarchy were kept in fear of any number of possible punishments but had no qualms about brandishing whatever power they had over others, sometimes in the most vicious and inhuman ways. It’s plausible that, early on, this was due to their innocent belief in the group’s program as handed down by the all-powerful and all-knowing Saul Newton. (If this is what we have to do to achieve the revolution, who am I to question that?) Later on, what we see is something akin to a toxic corporate culture, where a sociopathic boss sets the tone for their devoted team, creating a poisoned environment. “The fish rots from the head,” as they say in that world. Stille makes the inevitable comparison with Stanley Milgram’s work, including the infamous experiment where students willingly delivered what they thought were electric shocks to their peers when ordered to do so by an authority figure. But what’s giving a brief shock to a student in a laboratory compared to ripping a baby from your friend’s breast, or turning her in because she’s found that (gasp) she’s in love with someone?
Being in the group meant that you had to do these things, but leaving the group became almost impossible due to the total dedication members had given to it—decades of their lives, in many cases. Leaving meant giving up your livelihood (as a therapist, it’s not easy to make the transition to the real world when you’ve never actually had formal training), abandoning your friends (who were sure to shun you once you’d left)—losing everything. Another impediment to quitting was a variation on the sunk-cost fallacy, the economic phenomenon where investors who have poured significant time and money into a failing business desperately keep hope alive rather than face reality and pull the plug. Last but not least, after years sheltered in the Sullivanian womb, members genuinely couldn’t be sure whether they’d be able to survive outside it. The group’s leaders, well aware of this, stoked their fears by telling them repeatedly that they’d end up on the street, or dead, or a “drug-addicted prostitute” if they left. Having been fed an endless diet of Sullivanian propaganda, it was impossible for members to confirm or deny this.
Oddly enough, and in contrast to most cults (QAnon, NXIVM), it’s hard to discern any premeditated plan or agenda in Newton’s behavior. His lieutenants and everyone below them in the organization were motivated by some combination of the quest for power, which usually meant being in or close to Newton’s inner circle, and the avoidance of pain. (Special recognition goes to his fifth wife, former actor Joan Harvey, for being both preternaturally ambitious and sadistic beyond the call of duty, a kind of Eichmann to Newton’s Hitler.) But Newton himself seems to have been more or less a petty tyrant who had simply stumbled into a good thing and wanted to keep it going. One former confidant of his tells how, in candid moments, “[h]e would literally sit back with me […] and say, ‘This is a pretty good job. I control this whole situation. I have X amount of money per patient. I get sex from patients.’ He was completely aware of the whole situation.” If he hadn’t planned to establish a cult from the beginning, however (and there is no reason to think he did), he was nevertheless a quick study. He learned about people’s darkest vulnerabilities and fears and exploited them expertly, using a carrot or stick as required. The lesson, I’m afraid, is not a happy one: it’s a side effect of humankind’s generally trusting nature (which is a thing to be celebrated) that tyrants and confidence tricksters like Newton will continue to pop up and flourish (which is not).
It’s sweet poetry that the only group in the Sullivanian story that appears to have seen everything clearly all along—in a side-plot reminiscent of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”—was the children, most of whom had been abused by the elders, left with incompetent babysitters, or shunted off to prisonlike boarding schools. They referred to the Sullivan headquarters as “the Kremlin.” One kid, upon hearing that his father had left the group, remarked, “It’s about time”: his boarding-school friends “had come to the consensus some time ago that this whole thing was insane.” Reflecting on things years later, while many of the group’s former adult members were still unwilling to look objectively at the damage that the group had wrought, one of Newton’s own daughters joked that the Sullivan Institute and its ham-fisted political-theater group, the Fourth Wall, “combined the worst of Marxism, psychoanalysis, and the musical theater.”
Dave Mandl’s writing has appeared in The Wire, The Believer, The Register, The Comics Journal, The Rumpus, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and other publications. He was the longtime music editor at The Brooklyn Rail and an editor at Semiotext(e)/Autonomedia. He hosts the radio show It’s Complicated at WFMU and plays bass guitar in various groups.
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