The Sullivanians by Alexander Stille

Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune

Founded by Dr Jane Pearce and her husband Saul Newton in 1957, the Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis began as an experimental therapy inspired by the work of renowned psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan. 

In operation for over thirty years, the Institute was based on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and drew members in droves with the idea of an alternative non-monogamous lifestyle, creative expression, and freedom from the expectations of society. Well-known clients included Jackson Pollock, Judy Collins, and Richard Price. 

As Stille writes, “they created a parallel world, living by precise rules and precepts almost entirely at odds with those of mainstream society. Under the direction of their therapists, the Sullivanians were trying to create a utopian world based on the principles of free love, collective living, self-actualization, and a commitment to socialism.” 

Many of the founding principles appealed to new Sullivanians, such as the ability to have multiple sex partners outside of marriage (exclusive relationships were forbidden), to have children without commitment to a partner, and to find meaningful friendships by dwelling in same-sex apartments.

There was a darker side to Sullivania, however, in which its founders believed the nuclear family to be destructive, and encouraged members to cut off all ties with their biological families. “While therapists like Cooper and Laing described the family as a kind of trap for shackling our desires and creative potential, Jane Pearce and Saul Newton actually tried to carry out their radical program of getting rid of the family on a large scale,” writes Stille. 

There are several painful instances throughout the book during which patients are pressured into writing letters to their parents to sever all ties. Another instance, a Sullivanian named Michael Cohen who appears frequently, cuts all communication with his only remaining family member, after his therapist convinces him every time he opens one of her letters, he is taking a year off his own life.

“To get patients to break with their families, it was necessary to convince them that their parents were not simply overbearing, difficult, or problematic figures (like most people), but positively malicious and dangerous,” Stille reports. 

When it came to children of the group, therapists pressured parents to send them away to boarding schools, away from their toxic influence. During the summers the kids would attend camps or stay with employees of their schools, engaging as little as possible with their mothers and fathers. The Institute believed it was creating an ideal world for children, free from the suffocating domination of their own parents, but this backfired, resulting in trauma, neglect, and sexual abuse for some of children of Sullivania. 

In reading everything that happened during the course of the Sullivan Institute, I wondered how this could have happened, hidden under plain sight, and for so long. As Stille writes, it was “one of the most radical social experiments of our times: a thirty-five-year attempt to reengineer family, sexual, and social life in what may have been the largest urban commune in the United States.”

With the narrative weaving through past and present day, and capturing the voices of more than sixty former patients of the Sullivan Institute and their family members, this is an impressive and shocking look at cult mentality, power dynamics, and the after effects of such an experiment.

Alexander Stille, Courtesy MacMillan

Alexander Stille is the author of Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism; Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic; The Future of the Past; The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country with a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi; and The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New York Times. Stille is the San Paolo Professor of International Journalism at Columbia University and lives in New York.

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