Sep 25, 2016

Inside the Rise & Fall of A 1970s Upper West Side Cult

September 21, 2016
Jake Offenhartz in Arts & Entertainment

On the evening of July 29th, 1985, members of a mysterious group called the Sullivan Institute broke into and terrorized an apartment at 100th Street and Broadway. Dressed in dark colors and stocking caps, some beat the tenants with sticks, while others slit open mattresses and smashed the sink, toilet, and television set. It was a coordinated revenge attack, intended to send a message to the group’s neighbors, who allegedly started the drama by spilling paint on the institute’s wall.

After the raid, the pillagers returned to their seven-story co-op at 2643 Broadway. “We were prepared for them to invade,” says Paul Sprecher, a member of the Sullivan Institute for over a decade. “We had security down at the front door to make sure they would be duly chastised. I don’t remember, I think one guy showed up to complain and he was manhandled.” (According to a 1989 New York Magazine article, the complaining tenant was “beaten by more than a dozen members,” one of whom “broke four knuckles punching the young boy in the face.”)

The paint splatter that started the ordeal is still visible today, on the brick wall just above the Metro Diner on 100th and Broadway. It is perhaps the last physical reminder of a psychotherapy cult—informally known as the “Sullivanians”—that once had 500 members living in three buildings on the Upper West Side.

Sprecher, who now works as Unitarian minister, tells me over the phone that he prefers the term “high demand group,” though he’s willing to admit the group had “a lot of hallmarks of a cult.”

For one, there was the chimerical leader, Saul B. Newton, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who founded the Sullivan Research Institute in 1957 with his wife, Dr. Jane Pearce. A Marxist with no formal training as a therapist, Newton sought to create an alternative to the traditional nuclear family, which he viewed as the root cause of social anxiety. The institute—part therapy center, part polyamorous commune—began attracting members in the late 1960s, many of them well-known artists and intellectuals, including writer Richard Price and singer Judy Collins. Jackson Pollock was also a proto-member—according to his biography, he started seeing Ralph Klein for therapy in 1955. Klein was a close friend of Newton's, and would go on to become a leader of the group.

Sprecher, a recent Harvard graduate seeking roommates in a new city, joined the institute in 1974, almost by accident. “I found this group and it just so happened that all of them were in Sullivanian therapy,” he says. “It was this incredibly neat experience for a newcomer in New York City. Suddenly I had a social life. There were women who wanted to date me. We spent the summer in Amagansett. It was very loose in those days, just people hanging out in apartments.”

The purpose of the group, as pitched to Sprecher and others, was to expand on the revolutionary promise of the 1960s. Members would find a social circle of likeminded people—mostly well-educated, secular, leftist, and Jewish—committed to a brand of psychotherapy imbued with radical politics and sexual liberation. “The therapists did not regard therapeutic boundaries with any respect at all,” says Sprecher. “Everyone slept with everyone.”

While he now recognizes that many of those relationships crossed a line, Sprecher didn’t think anything of it at the time. “We created a living context like a tiny village that was mostly cut off from the world. The bizarre thing, of course, is that you’re in the middle of New York City, but the dynamics of control and so on are like a village.”

Despite the seemingly lax nature, this village still had plenty of rules. Most members lived in sex-segregated apartments on the Upper West Side, where they were forbidden from engaging in exclusive relationships, unless approved by Newton. Children born in the group were shipped off to boarding school or given to caretakers, with their parents only allowed to visit for an hour or two a day. In mandated weekly sessions, therapists advised patients to cut off all contact with outside friends and relatives, except when in need of money. It took only a few months in therapy for Sprecher to sever his relationship with his parents.

As ranks swelled in the mid-'70s, the group took on an increasingly authoritarian nature, even as they expanded into new ventures. Many attribute the shift to the departure of Dr. Pearce and the arrival of Newton’s second wife, Joan Harvey, a soap opera actor and aspiring stage director. It was Harvey’s idea to merge the therapy group with a politically progressive theatre collective called the Fourth Wall. In 1978, the budding troupe signed a lease at the Truck and Warehouse Theatre in the East Village (at 77 East 4th Street). When the previous company refused to vacate the theatre, hundreds of Sullivanians took over the space and destroyed their sets, leading to three arrests.

“All of the members were invited to come down and occupy the theatre. The cops came in the middle of the night and we had barricaded the doors. It was very exciting,” recalls Sprecher. “Saul wanted to teach people how to stand up to cops. He liked that kind of confrontation.”

The leadership’s tendencies for erratic behavior finally came to a head in 1979. Following the partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the group migrated en masse to Orlando, Florida, to await the destruction of Manhattan. When the 250 or so members returned to New York a few weeks later, things were different. Anyone who didn’t go on the trip was ostracized by Newton, and members who publicly spoke of the incident could be kicked out. “This was the moment that the Fourth Wall smashed closed,” says Sprecher. “It was very scary.”

Mike Bray joined the Sullivan Institute in 1972, on the recommendation of a fellow classmate in Fordham’s clinical psychology program. Within two years, Bray divorced his wife, cut off contact with his parents, and moved into one of the Upper West Side apartment buildings, where he would remain until 1985.

After the Three Mile Island incident, he tells me over the phone, “paranoid beliefs and distortions of reality began to set in,” particularly among Saul Newton and Joan Harvey. The group had recently acquired a resort in the Catskills, where Bray was soon dispatched to build a “secret, steel lined room with quarter inch plates so that Joan Harvey could edit her film” without interference from the CIA. Bray didn’t buy into the surveillance panic, but he remembers deriving a sense of purpose from the mission. “There was the technical manpower of succeeding at this task, subsumed under this desire to be approved of,” he says. “It was a suspension of critical thinking.”

Another one of his jobs was to oversee the fleet of school buses and motorcycles, which the group kept in case of some dire emergency. “We had a very planned out escape route that involved walking to the George Washington bridge,” he says. “In terms of the leadership’s children, it meant putting them in backpacks and then riding them out in off-road motorcycles, which we had about six of.” At this point, the group owned approximately $12 million in property, including the Catskills resort, a house in Vermont, and two buildings on the Upper West Side (the third was a rental). This wealth came directly from members, who were instructed to contribute most of their money for the benefit of the group.

As the leadership grew more powerful, they also became more controlling. “The therapists tried in some cases to control people's relationships romantically,” remembers Amy Siskind, a member of the group for 21 years, beginning when she was 13. “They wanted to control whether I had children. They wanted to control who I was with.”

She recalls being frightened by Newton, whose violent tendencies only escalated in the ‘80s as he began exhibiting signs of dementia. “He had this idea of how to deal with people who were against you. And his idea was basically intimidation and violence,” she says. “There were many incidents throughout the history of the group of intimidation.”

One such incident involved Siskind’s current husband and former therapist, Michael Cohen, who attempted to leave the group in 1985. As Cohen would later testify in court, two Sullivanians—one of them Newton’s son—tracked Cohen down and assaulted him in the Union Square subway stop. According to court documents, the pair dangled Cohen over the subway tracks and threatened to kill him.

Today, the two aggressors are successful New York professionals—one works for the New York Times, the other as a professor at Columbia. “No one ever was prosecuted for that,” says Siskind. “It would've been nice if they had been. It's too late now.”

The group began to crumble in late 1980s, as two custody suits filed by Michael Bray and Paul Sprecher brought public attention to the group's violent tendencies and controversial child-rearing practices. Newton’s death in 1991 marked an official end to the institute, though some claim that Joan Harvey and her husband Ralph Klein continued operating a similar community out of their home in New Rochelle.

With the exception of an academic book published by Amy Siskind in 2003, almost nothing has been written about the Sullivan Institute/Fourth Wall Community in the years following its dissolution. A few longtime residents of the neighborhood have vague memories of the group, but otherwise it’s been mostly forgotten. Most of the surviving ex-members are in their 60s or 70s by now, and are understandably wary of discussing this chapter of their lives.

The exception here is Eric Grunin, a self-described recluse who spent 12 years in the group, beginning in 1979. He has only positive memories of the experience and argues that, with rare exception, most others feel the same. “If you really wanna get a sense of what it's like,” he says, “you have to talk to the people who have no interest in talking to you.”

Of the half dozen people, I spoke with, Grunin is by far the most interested in talking. He is a fervent defender of the institute and scoffs at my use of the term cult. He also maintains a certain level of bitterness toward those who describe it in such terms. “Do I feel like Mike [Bray] particularly went over to the dark side?” he says, unprompted. “Yeah.” He has similarly harsh words for Siskind and Sprecher.

A few years ago, Grunin started a private Facebook group to connect with ex-members. He envisioned the page as place to post old photos and obituaries, and occasionally to plan meetups. Everything was going fine until someone started using the group to share bad memories of Joan Harvey. Grunin deleted the comment, igniting a firestorm.

“Some people said, ‘But you're censoring us,’ and I said, ‘start up your own group, it's easy.’ And this was important because half the people had something to complain about and went to the other group, and the other half didn't want to hear any of this, what they felt was stupid repudiated negativity. So the other group was there, and people yelled and screamed and bitched and moaned, and sometimes they had important things to say and mostly they just didn't.”

Grunin’s role as moderator, he tells me, is not unlike the minister who arrived in Salem during the aftermath of the witch trials. The village had divided into rival factions by then, a problem the new minister managed to solve by assigning the community members random seats within the church. “All of a sudden people started to calm down,” says Grunin. “They started to un-demonize each other and see each other as people again.”

It’s a confounding analogy, considering Grunin’s choices as moderator seem to have brought about more division, not less. But the idea of Facebook as a village is one that seems significant. In its own way, social media promises the same sense of community that attracted so many members to the Sullivan Institute, but without the rigid hierarchy that eventually brought the group’s destruction. A world where people can join and leave a group at the click of a button is probably not what these utopian dreamers once envisioned, but it’s at least a step in the right direction for individual freedom.

Before I get off the phone with Grunin, I ask him if a group like the Sullivanians could exist in New York again. “Of course it will happen again,” he replies. “People want that. People need alternatives.” On this last point, both Grunin and his enemies would seem to agree.

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