May 31, 2023

Books: The Sullivanians, The Cult That Hid in Plain Sight on the Upper West Side

Books: The Sullivanians, The Cult That Hid in Plain Sight on the Upper West Side

Anya Schiffrin
West Side Rag
May 28, 2023

My first job as a teenager on the Upper West Side was scooping ice cream at Ferguson’s on West 86th Street at Broadway, which turned out to be owned by EST, a cult whose celebrity followers included Yoko Ono and Diana Ross, according to The New York Times. I knew nothing about cults back then. But I remember that during my childhood, our family had acquaintances with an unusual living arrangement: they shared a large apartment with others who were all in therapy together. Strange, yes, but just how strange, we didn’t know at the time. Our acquaintances were part of the Upper West Side’s very own 1970s cult, with hundreds of people living together in two buildings: one on 314 West 91st Street, the other on 100th and Broadway. Now, a new book, The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune, by Columbia Journalism School professor Alexander Stille, unlocks the secrets of that Upper West Side cult, sometimes known as the “Fourth Wall.”

The Sullivanians provides a startling, very detailed account of the damage wreaked by the group on many, particularly the children of cult members. Stille, who wrote for The New Yorker for many years, spent five years pursuing the Sullivanians, doing dozens of interviews and consulting thousands of pages of court records. His research on cults showed how they often begin as relatively harmless groups, until a powerful leader starts to demand more extreme behavior – such as encouraging men to have multiple affairs or to prey on younger women or girls. A recent New York example: the leader of the NXIVM cult marked his women followers with a brand, until he was arrested and convicted of a series of crimes, including sex trafficking.

The Sullivanian group was cofounded in New York in the 1950s by Saul Newton and his wife Jane Pearce. Pearce had been a student of neo-Freudian psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan, whose name became attached to the group even though he died in 1949 before it formed.

The Sullivanians were professional therapists who came together and performed therapy on each other. They spent summers together in the Hamptons and founded a theater company called the Fourth Wall, initially on 77 East 4th Street.

But as time passed, Newton began to push the idea that families were a destructive force, including families among the Sullivanians. He promoted divorce, free love, and an emphasis on personal growth over family values. Men had wide freedom to pursue sexual relations, while women were subordinated and pressured to send their children to boarding schools, as early as age three. Some ended up in abusive institutions. Yet the group’s leaders kept their own children in private schools in the city, with financing provided by the other cult members.

Below is a lightly edited email interview with Stille about the Sullivanians. Spoiler alert: the last part of the interview explains how the cult disintegrated.

Q: Can you explain how the Sullivanians became a cult? How did it evolve?

STILLE: The Sullivan Institute began as a maverick form of psychotherapy. Its founders, Jane Pearce and Saul Newton, believed that people grew from contact with a variety of other people, so traditional institutions like the nuclear family and monogamous marriage were antithetical to growth. By the 1960s, they were advising them to live in large group apartments on the Upper West Side: men with men and women with women, so that people would not form traditional family units but would have multiple sexual relationships.

Jane Pearce, who was both an M.D. and had extensive psychoanalytic training at the William Alanson White Institute, which Harry Stack Sullivan and other major neo-Freudians had founded in the 1940s, believed this approach was a path to human liberation. Pearce did not intend to found a cult. But her very “directive” form of therapy – telling patients what they should do and isolating them from past family and friends – were techniques straight out of the cult playbook.

Her husband, Saul Newton, (who later divorced Pearce and excluded her from the group), had no formal training in psychotherapy but quickly learned this approach gave him power over his patients. Even in the 1960s, being a Sullivanian patient meant being part of an exclusive community with clear rules that organized people’s lives. It became more cult-like in the 1970s. When members of the group formed a theater company, The Fourth Wall, the leadership realized that it could create a formal membership with people paying dues and undertaking large, collective projects. The theater was a great vehicle for power and control, and the leaders took it over.

Q: What do you think was the most pernicious part of their society?

STILLE: The most pernicious element of the group was the coercive nature of the therapy, therapists taking control over every aspect of their patients’ lives and convincing patients that if they didn’t go along with directives, that they would be kicked out of the group and that their lives would be ruined. Because patients had cut all ties with their families and past friends, the idea of ostracism became terrifying to them.

This meant, for example, that many patients who had small children were convinced to send their kids to boarding school – at ages of five, six, seven – with often catastrophic effect on the children – and the parents. The therapy also undermined people’s sense of self and agency, convincing them that their own natural inclinations and judgment could not be trusted because it had been shaped and corrupted by their terrible families and by a stultifying bourgeois society. Patients grew by doing things that made you anxious and that you resisted doing. So, if a woman didn’t want to have sex with someone, they should [anyway], precisely because you didn’t want to.

Q: Was this a hard book to write?

STILLE: The world of the Sullivanians was deeply private and somewhat hard to break into. At the same time, I found some remarkable people who were generous and open, which allowed me to make serious inroads into that community. I was able to contact and interview a larger swath of the former group members, track down the kids who had been sent away to boarding school. Some people who initially said they didn’t want to be interviewed wrote back six months later and asked if I was still interested in talking with them.

The group created a powerful culture of silence and mafia-like omertà around the group’s life, which is still quite real for many ex-members. Some people responded by saying, “[T]his was the most traumatic period of my life and I don’t want to talk about it.” For others there was quite a bit of guilt and shame around their experience. Many of them told me: “I still don’t quite understand how I could have gone along with all of this, allowed myself to be treated that way.” But a surprising number overcame that resistance and spoke with me with surprising candor. I liked most of the people I met, people who were, almost universally, smart, thoughtful and kind. The central mystery of this project, for me, is how the leadership was able to get so many smart and not-crazy people to turn their lives inside out, in ways that are hard to understand.

Q: How did it end?

STILLE: People who had joined in their early twenties got tired, by their mid-thirties, of having their relationships broken up by therapists who demanded they stop “focusing” on one person and instead maintain multiple relationships. Many left in order to marry and pursue a more traditional family life. There are dozens of ex-Sullivanian married couples.

Women members who joined in their twenties, by their mid-thirties wanted to have children and resented the group’s heavy-handed interference with parent-child relationships. In 1986, a 41-year-old woman named Marice Pappo kidnapped her own child off the street at Broadway and [West] 100th Street because her therapists had denied her access to her infant daughter for six months. She consulted a lawyer who told her that as a mother she had a right to her child and should hire a couple of bodyguards and snatch the child when she went out for a morning walk with her babysitter, who was the adult in charge of looking after the daughter. All this right in front of the building at 2643 Broadway where Marice and about 90 Sullivanians all lived.

This marked a turning point, setting off a legal battle. Two other parents who had left the group also sued for custody of their kids. These battles split the group, led to multiple defections, drained it of economic resources. And, at the same time, the founder, Saul Newton began to suffer from obvious signs of dementia in the late 1980s and died in 1991, the year in which the group formally disbanded and began to sell off its assets.

The Sullivanians: Sex, Pyschotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune, by Alexander Stille, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux June 20.

Anya Schiffrin is a lifelong Upper West Sider and senior lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

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