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

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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.

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