Where Egos Dare

The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune by Alexander Stille. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 432 pages. $30.

The cover of The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune

IN THE SULLIVANIANS: SEX, PSYCHOTHERAPY, AND THE WILD LIFE OF AN AMERICAN COMMUNE, journalist Alexander Stille follows whispers of a psychoanalytic cult and breaks open the story of how psychotherapy escaped the consulting room and became the total environment of its patients. The book centers on Saul Newton, a therapist turned charismatic leader who directed a collective search for liberation through analysis and communal living. Needless to say, it all went horribly wrong.

Many reporters claim to surface an under-told story, but Stille truly delivers. Even in New York analytic circles, few have acknowledged the sect that, from the 1950s until 1991, functionally controlled the lives of hundreds of its members. (I only ever heard a half rumor at a dinner party from a friend of my analyst parents, who heard it “from the couch,” so to speak.) Those four decades allowed for entire families to be raised inside the cult. And families were a key site of control within the Sullivanians: patients were seldom allowed to reproduce, and when they did, they often had several other group members function as potential fathers. Recently, aided by over-the-counter DNA tests, second-generation Sullivanians, who are now in their thirties and forties, began to reconstruct their shadowy childhoods. Much like Oedipus, they quested after their biological fathers. Life following myth, some were at least a little surprised by what they found. First-gen Sullivanians were suddenly willing to talk, and on the record, about their decades inside the group. Stille was ready to listen.

According to The Sullivanians, the story goes something like this. In the ’50s, just as Jim Jones was moving to make a Marxist revolution by nestling politics inside an Indianapolis church, one Saul Newton, alongside his fourth wife, Jane Pearce, sought to braid Marx and Freud and spark a revolution in and through the consulting room. Communist movements, they felt, had failed precisely because they left out the psyche and socialization. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, was being used in conservative ways and was largely pro-family, pro-babies, and pro-adjustment to the difficulty of same. To unlock their full potential, each theory needed the other. The problem was that Newton was not a clinician. (The solution: lie about it.)

While Pearce was a medical doctor and licensed to practice psychotherapy, Newton was not. He claimed that he had mailed his social-work thesis, but his advisor never received it (dog, homework). While Pearce treated patients, Newton was a clerk at the William Alanson White Institute, which was cofounded by the interpersonal psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan as a radical alternative to mainstream psychoanalytic training. When Sullivan died, the institute went through a massive, conservatizing restructuring. Unhappy with this turn of events and sensing opportunity, Newton left paper pushing behind to cofound his own therapeutic group, the Sullivan Institute, which borrowed the glow of Harry Stack Sullivan but was never authorized by him. Now Newton reigned as one of its leaders. Bartleby, he was not.

The Sullivanians of the train from Amagansett, ca. 1972–76. Donna Warshaw.
The Sullivanians of the train from Amagansett, ca. 1972–76. Donna Warshaw.

White Institute cofounder Clara Thompson had argued that “the institute is not a home.” The Sullivanians tried to prove their former teacher wrong. An institute could be everything: a family, a nonmonogamous marriage, a commune, a revolution, and of course, a cure. By 1963, Newton and Pearce had coauthored the nearly five-hundred-page manual for the Sullivanians, The Conditions of Human Growth. The first words read: “We live in a dangerous world.” Newton and Pearce thought that social systems were scaled-up sites of violence that could only be done away with if we jettisoned the family. The mother was described as a “repressive agent” who introduced her child to a “self-system” that readied them for exploitation. Therapists, they argued, were too often apologists for capitalism or “the psychological counterparts of political liberalism.” The Sullivanians believed “in the withering away of the state and the restrictive self-system” at once.

Stille offers an exuberant and often moving journalistic account of how this project turned cultic, but he never quite seems to care that the cult started as a utopian Marxist-Freudian project —save that it adds to the wacko factor. Stille’s sometimes pat understandings of Freud and psychoanalysis leave a hole at the center of the story. This is not to say that Stille should have been a better historian, but without taking the particularities of Freud and psychotherapy seriously, the Sullivanians could be seen as a run-of-the-mill cult. (Cults have abounded in the counter culture since the ’50s. Some estimates report about ten thousand cults big enough to track in the United States right now.) But the mechanism for cultish control was, in this case, analytic care. The alibi for ceding to that control was the yearning for revolution. Stille never fully makes the connection: cults, revolutionary sects, and analytic care all rely on intimate cells and secrecy. Therefore, disambiguating how that secrecy is instrumentalized to make a cult rather than, say, a revolution, is key.

Psychoanalysis as a practice has often given rise to reclusive, secretive milieus. This phenomenon was initiated by Freud: in his salon, the father controlled the extension of his theory, had secret committees with international reach to safeguard same, and guarded his archive with a notorious tightfistedness (the man loved to burn his drafts and letters and exile his friends). This makes a certain kind of sense. Psychoanalysis is the business of secrets—their revelation, their interpretation. It is therefore bound by confidentiality at every level. This secrecy is supposed to protect patients: Whatever confidential committee might have delivered the tenets by which you’re treated, you’re supposed to experience it as framing an encounter that allows for more and more freedom. At least, that’s the hope. Yet the secretness of the consulting room, with its alchemy of transference and enactment, means abuse can bloom. Analytic power is supposed to stop there, tarrying on the precipice of the waiting room, living only inside its patient, who then is sent out into the world. For the Sullivanians, this worked in reverse. Analysis became the total world, and the patient was just living in it.

LIKE MANY SELF-MADE LEADERS, Newton’s origin story formed how he would rule. He imputed murderous rage to his parents, and by extension, to all parents. Newton decided biology was nothing and environment total. He sought, like anyone playing God, to remake the world in his image. His tool was psychotherapy. The vulgar Freudianism and its transformation into an “emancipation” politics flow from there. Newton appropriated Freud to his own ends. He flipped the Oedipal complex: rather than the child wanting to kill daddy and marry mommy, mommy and daddy were evil and wanted to commit infanticide. This new foundational myth gave rise to Sullivanian policy. As members joined the group, their access to their children was restricted, and babysitters were highly encouraged. Eventually, the children were sent away.

Manual in hand, the Sullivanians embarked on their first era of growth. In this period, as one therapist put it, the aim of the group was “to put the human into Marx.” So far, so good. Power redounded to Newton, his ever-changing cast of therapist wives, and a select few training analysts. So it would be at almost any psychoanalytic institute, then as now. But the Sullivanians wanted to institute societal change, not cure individuals, so they needed many patients. For the experiment to work, the institute required access to the rest of their lives. Leadership continued to try to “liberate” children from their parents and parents from their children.

Every cult needs a recruiter; charisma is not confined only to the top. For the early Sullivanians, that role fell to Clement Greenberg, the most prominent art critic in midcentury America. “Chumship” or an “intimacy of peers” was as central to this revolution as sexual freedom. Patients were told to fill datebooks not just with sexual escapades but also with social dates. Thanks to Greenberg, many of these early patients were artists and writers, including Jackson Pollock. The painter, summarizing his own worldview—which jibed with Sullivanian treatment—put it this way: “What the fuck: everybody should always do what they want to do.” Without using the word id, Pollock’s credo captured the theoretical bent dominant in the early years of the institute: we are dissociated from our life drives by awful parents and the society they’ve built. (The cure, as non-Sullivanian poet Frank O’Hara once said, was to have the grace to live variously.) Pollock was already battling alcoholism by the time he wound up in the Sullivanians; the group thought that excessive drinking was the cure, not the sickness (some analysts drank heavily during sessions). Stille argues that this attitude—that self-permission in the service of creativity, especially achieved through alcohol—would lead to Pollock’s eventual death in a drunken car crash.

Stille contrasts the early days of the institute with the other forms of mental health care on offer, largely psychoanalytic. Newton may have been dogmatic and a charlatan on the make, but he was not, at least, a conservative shithead, like many analysts at the time. Stille makes the case that everything that might be called neo-Freudian in the ’50s was radical. He does so by repeating some well-worn myths about Papa Freud (most crucially, that he worked only with the wealthy and well-educated—although this is false). Not to be pedantic, but the neo-Freudians in the United States, called ego psychologists, were most often deeply conservative. Newton would have stood out among them; he had based his notions on that of the most radical psychoanalysts, many of whom were hived off by their fellow analysts as mentally ill or quacks (or both). This historical backdrop matters for thinking about how exciting a leftist low-fee therapeutic collective like the Sullivanians might have seemed at the height of Freud Mania. Seemingly everyone in New York was supposed to go to analysis to help them adjust to the woes of sociality, but in the hands of the Sullivanians, psychoanalysis was deployed to more radical ends. Not only was their analysis affordable and open, it sought to completely reconfigure the family rather than accept the duty of it. What’s more, it was sociable (never underestimate the power and pleasure of the peer).

The ironic uses of psychoanalysis to repress desire was matched elsewhere in the culture until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. If, during the economic miracle of the ’50s and ’60s, the meaning of family life was under quiet reevaluation, the health of the family form became a settled science for some or else spilled over into a full-blown counterculture. As psychiatry became ever more anti-mother, both the New Left and the neo-communalists challenged conventional family arrangements and their role in social reproduction. The Sullivanians already had more than a decade of experience in basically destroying the families of their patients—and doing so intergenerationally. This was understood as being for the good of the psyche and for society. Carried out in accordance with Newton’s psychological doctrine, the policy of family destruction also made good sense for consolidating power in a group. If communes (and cults) posed themselves as a healthy alternative to the nuclear family—and one that many in the counterculture actively sought out—the Sullivanians’ policy did double work. Newton knew that the family’s abolition could ensure the health of the group—and consolidate his power. It was essential to prevent other primary attachments from forming, whether romantic or filial. Stille writes movingly of the children of the institute, “Their absence, in a sense, made the group possible.”

Birth control and abortion had made it possible to decide when to not have children, but analysts could determine whether patients were “fit” to mother at all (fatherhood was often separated from biology). What functioned as psychological eugenics had the added benefit of consolidating control, a power play. Stille tells us the story of how the practice of breaking the biological family finally resulted in a mother losing custody to her ex, who had fled life inside the Sullivanians (mostly a problem because it brought legal attention to the community); the formal separations then ceased. Yet, according to his informants, mother-infant bonds remained highly regulated for all but the upper echelon of analysts—who had many children and relatively normative access to them.

In this portrait, who is calling the shots and what keeps Sullivanians from leaving is not exactly clear. The flytrap of friendship seems to make sense as an object of devotion within the group and then abruptly stops making sense. Stille shows us the good side of such community—deeply devoted homosocial “chumship” and the care that followed, ease in sociality, and the privileging of creativity, pleasure, mentorship, play. None of the Sullivanians, as it were, was bowling alone. But even this good is turned insidious: if all your friends—and your therapist—were inside the network, it made it harder to see it for what it was, and to leave. The ostensible leader of this project, Newton, remains a shadowy figure. Yes, he was at the top of a hierarchy and used his position as analyst-leader to intimidate, harass, and assault his patient-followers, reassigning patients to lower-status therapists if they acted out. But the carrying out of orders, the deepest structures of intimidation, seem to be carried out by his wives—one and then another and then another.

By the ’70s, Pollock’s “what the fuck” had its counterpart: “fuck you.” Patients were made to fall into line, and enforcers had a brand-new headquarters on the Upper West Side that further consolidated their power. If you didn’t want to do something that the Sullivanians suggested, you were forced to in the name of “not-me” experiences (things that make us uncomfortable but that must happen in the name of growth). This could include being sexually exploited and raped, having emotional ties broken, or being made to stay in unhealthy collective housing. Patients were given emotional dressing-downs “summaries”—by both peers and therapists alike. As if the facts weren’t bad enough, Stille engages in some light redbaiting to make this sound not just psychically awful but politically sinister. In little asides, Stille writes that the protocol “seems like a parody of the Stalin show trials of the 1930s.”

Both Freud and Marx drop out of view as Stille focuses on the dynamics of what is now indisputably a cult. Those theories of material life and mind seem to have receded for the Sullivanians as well. Among the radical devotees were those unfortunate woo-woo shoppers, their interest piqued by new social arrangements and self-growth, who happened to be taken in by a completely self-aware master charlatan. By the ’70s, alongside psychotherapy, sketch comedy was introduced to the group as a salutary practice seemingly out of left field by Luba Elman, a therapist-actress. Although dance, painting, music, and writing classes had long been features of Sullivanian life, acting became a guiding force for the collective. Quickly, the theater troupe within the psychotherapeutic community was codified as “The Fourth Wall,” with more than a hundred members actively participating. As the theater became a potential rival to the clinic, Elman was ousted and Newton, along with one of his therapist-wife, Joan Harvey, were installed at its head. Participation in the theater then became nearly mandatory—to the point where its name eclipsed that of the original institute.

The group simultaneously refocused its Freudian-Marxism on antinuclear politics, becoming ever more hardcore. Or, in Stille’s telling, paranoid: restricting members’ food intake, monitoring the air for radioactivity, forming security details that Stille describes as outlandish—and they may have been. On the other hand, that paranoia might have been at least somewhat grounded in reality. For the revolutionaries in the group, the extent of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program of covert actions against American citizens had just been exposed. The leaders of the Sullivanians may have noted that Jim Jones had fled for Guyana, under investigation. Nonetheless, securing the group, playing in the group, therapizing in the group, and performing as a group—all created more work for patients. That was exactly the point. Labor bound them further to the community.

Stille notes that the ’50s represented the height of psychoanalysis’ power and the moment when birth control remade American sexuality. But he forgets one-half of the equation when the book narrates the group’s final chapter in the ’80s. When AIDS hit New York, the Sullivanians tightened its controls both in sensical and extreme ways. While the epidemic closed the community further, the ’80s also marked the rapid decline of psychoanalysis as a whole. That the tide had already turned against psychoanalysis writ large (as well as countercultural lifestyles) is never mentioned as a contributing factor to the group’s downfall. When news of the cult broke in the Village Voice and in New York magazine in the late ’80s, it was due to yet another custody case. (The irony of an anti-family cult being taken down by members asserting their legal right to the family was not lost on anyone.) As the intricacies of the group’s protocols were paraded in print, it might have become clear that, if psychoanalysis and the cult form weren’t exactly synonymous, the terms were coming ever closer in the metonymic mind of the public.

Then Newton died, and, as that theorizer of charisma Max Weber promises, the leader’s end resulted in the end of his domain. The Fourth Wall/Sullivan Institute officially disbanded in 1991. Though largely diminished in the outside world, the cult remained inside its former participants. Trauma and inheritance and the intersection of the two meant that this chosen family couldn’t be entirely fled—or no more than one of origin.

OUTSIDERS POSE CULT MEMBERS TWO QUESTIONS, especially after they join our side: how did you get in, and why didn’t you get out earlier? By the end of the book’s four-hundred-plus pages, we still can’t exactly feel our way into why so many people joined this group in a moment of cheap apartments and plenty of looser countercultural arrangements. We could chalk it up to accidents or luck, but Freud doesn’t believe in accidents, and Marx doesn’t believe in luck. In a narrative centered on the recollections and high gossip of the fallen cult, Stille doesn’t offer us a satisfactory theory resulting from either. He is prone to repeating facts and details, as if we are unable to fully grasp the compromises of life in the cult. And we never quite get beyond an introductory characterization of the Sullivanians—like being told the beginning of the same story again and again. (Of course, we’re now all used to consuming stories fronted by recap. I am sure The Sullivanians will receive the A24 treatment sooner rather than later.)

The outlandish story covers over a lack of interpretation, a theory that would help us understand how desire operated within this particular group. Instead, it seems that the reporting, the facts, are supposed to speak for themselves. And perhaps this is so, although I have my suspicions that the story is told as “wild” in part because militant Marxists and psychoanalysts have long been suspect to those who view them from the outside. The Sullivanians were always a little wrong, a little false, a little wild because radical psychoanalysis is always too extreme. Though billed as a devolution from the potential of an open radical community to the sordid actuality of a closed cult, the story seems foretold in Stille’s telling. The Sullivanians started with all the fatal characteristics of a cultish group and only amplified them, like turning the dial from ten to eleven.

Within psychoanalysis, when new sects and groups emerge, analysts often discipline them long before the mainstream catches wind. There are two true outcomes: either you hive the wild Left flank off as crazy, or you keep it as a secret to safeguard the wider practice. Perhaps Stille doesn’t give us a theory of the Sullivanians because psychoanalysis is, to so many, already cultish, and so his work is already done for him.

FREUD WOULD HAVE RECOGNIZED WHAT WAS HAPPENING within the Sullivanians. Although he was largely a theorist of the individual, he did remark on the intrapsychic pressures to stay within a group. Namely, that leaders are perceived as perfect, and we convince ourselves that we might be so by proxy. To have the ear or eye of the perfect one confers some perfection on us. Newton was such a leader. He supposedly invented his radical theory and—however he lived—was said to flawlessly embody it.

He constantly kept his patients working up a ladder toward that growth—the psyche as pyramid scheme. Of this arrangement, it is unfortunate that there isn’t a more, well, psychoanalytic read offered by Stille, either of group relations or the transference between supplicant and leader. Nonetheless, analysts who lived through the rise of fascism, and those who came along at midcentury—peers of Newton’s—stand ready to offer exactly this. One in particular, Heinz Kohut, thought that the charismatic leader acquired power from traumas in their earliest childhood and was positioned to seduce others who had similar experiences of deprivation. This was Newton’s simple parlor trick. He found those with his shared history—its broad strokes—and went for the kill.

Historians of social movements, particularly of Marxist organizing, could offer their own answers about what a collective might become, how the revolution might be painful (even before it fails), and why one might stay long after it lost any utopian luster. When Stille does try to account for the extent of buy-in to the group, he turns to psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who calls these “totalist” or high-demand groups, which often rely on a “cult of confession.” It is crucial, however, to note that psychoanalysis requires totalist individuals, those who are willing to lie on the couch day after day, year after year. What Newton and the other leaders of the Sullivanians did was rely on this attitude while removing the greatest safeguard of psychoanalysis in the name of the revolution: ambivalence. Ambivalence was necessarily absented to maintain the omnipotent charismatic leader and his otherwise untenable social structure.

That there is charisma in militancy is clear. True to psychoanalytic precepts, the whole situation at the Sullivanians was overdetermined. But to gain a more substantial understanding of its functioning, we would need to look beyond the fear that kept patients in line, beyond the mechanisms of control, to the dissonance and dissociation required to live within it. We would need a sense of the belonging and pleasures gained from living a project, from the very depth of surrender that kept members from breaking the fourth wall.

The Sullivanians instrumentalized the silence of the consulting room to make a society unto themselves. What Freud himself teaches is that the old cannot be merely forgotten or abandoned, for it will reappear in new guises. If we’re not careful, we will exchange our old bad fathers for new ones. It is this story, of the ills of the repressive family traded for the toxicity of a repressive cult, that Stille tells. The question remains, on the other side of his book, why we might make this exchange.

Hannah Zeavin is a historian at UC Berkeley. She is the founding editor of Parapraxis.