The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune by Alexander Stille (Non fiction)

A comprehensive and detailed account of The Sullivan Institute — a (somewhat secret) urban commune in New York City that ran a 35 year “experiment” to reengineer family, sex, and social life.  Starting in the 50s as a combination of psychotherapy and radical politics, it evolved into an oppressive cult before finally crumbling in the early 90s (largely as a result of various salacious court cases).

Stille compiled the narrative from extensive interviews, written member accounts, and court case documentation.  He proceeds linearly through time covering various motivations and experiences as well as the long dissolution into a bit of a nightmare and the “waking up” of those who went mainstream once it all fell apart.

Begun in the 50s by avowed Marxists, the goal of the Institute was partially to bring the “human” into Marx.  The founders came to see: “the nuclear family as the basic unit of capitalist production, the means by which the system perpetuated itself to the detriment of individual growth.  Parents tamed and squelched their children’s most vital needs in order to turn them into obedient and productive citizens.”  They felt that growth could only occur only through interaction with others.  Unusually for therapy at the time, therapists encouraged complete patient dependence — telling patients what to do in every aspect of their life.  Members were forced to break all bonds with those outside the group, they were not allowed to form pair bonds, and were not allowed to raise their children, being told that they would be “poison” to those children.

What fascinated me was how the group fit into the times — starting with Marxist theories and communal living and progressing through the 70s where alternative therapies— EST, TM, rebirthing, etc. — were thriving.  And the way initial egalitarianism devolved into hierarchical conformity with a controlling personality at the top.  The pattern matches those of cults, certain religious orders (ultra-orthodox Jews, strict evangelical Christians, …), and true communist countries as a whole: impose a demanding lifestyle on members, maintain a boundary between the group and the outside, and ostracize those who want to leave.  And the people in this group were intelligent and well-educated.  In its heyday, the group boasted famous members such as Jackson Pollack, Lucinda Childs, Richard Price, members of the musical group Sha Na Na, etc.

Completely fascinating.

Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 20th, 2023