The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy and the Wild Life of an American Commune 
by Alexander Stille.
Farrar, Straus, 418 pp., $30, June, 978 0 374 60039 6
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In April​ 1986, the Village Voice published a long piece about a cult-like community on New York’s Upper West Side led by a group of psychotherapists. The therapists had somehow persuaded several hundred well-educated ‘patients’ to give them almost total control over their lives: most sensationally their sex lives, but also their work, finances, friendships and children. The community, known formally as the Sullivanian Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis, had been in existence for almost thirty years, over which time it had attracted some notable members, including Jackson Pollock, Richard Price and Judy Collins. But its more disturbing practices had passed unnoticed by the wider world until the Voice ran its exposé. Even then, as members defected and word spread of the grotesque cruelties perpetrated in the name of its supposedly utopian ideals, it lingered on into the 1990s.

There were some minor exaggerations in the Voice article – for instance, there was no actual rule that members couldn’t sleep more than five hours a night, though in practice they seldom had time for more – but as Alexander Stille’s amazing excavation of their largely hidden history makes clear, the piece mostly erred on the side of understatement, so extreme was the megalomania of the group’s patriarch and his associates.

The project began with noble intentions, at least on the part of one of its two founders. Jane Pearce was a public-spirited Texan from a prominent Austin family with department store money on one side and intellectual distinction on the other (her father was an academic and prison reformer). After qualifying as a doctor, she went to New York to train as an analyst at the White Institute – ‘a revolutionary alternative to mainstream, orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis’, according to the institute’s official history – under the then renowned Harry Stack Sullivan. Where orthodox Freudian practice focused on the internal dynamics of the individual psyche, Sullivan stressed the importance of patients’ social context: ‘what people do with each other’, as he put it. He and his colleagues (who included Erich Fromm) rejected the Freudian posture of detachment – the analyst as ‘blank screen’ – in favour of a more responsive relationship with patients. His ‘interpersonal’ methods achieved positive results with schizophrenics – considered untreatable by Freud – and in a hospital in Maryland he created a ward for them where active fellowship was cultivated between patients and staff. His attentiveness to social context opened him to the psychological impact of forces such as institutionalised racism (he collaborated with the Black sociologist Charles S. Johnson), while his democratic instincts in general introduced a note of human warmth into the chilly atmosphere of the American psychoanalytic establishment.

Sullivan died in 1949, by which time Pearce had a thriving practice of her own. She had also succumbed to the charisma of Saul Newton, who worked in the White Institute’s bursar’s office. Whether Newton’s intentions were noble even at the outset is open to question, but they were certainly backed by a formidable ego. ‘He just exuded power,’ his adopted daughter recalled, ‘and I was afraid of him.’ When he wasn’t yelling at people, he was often punching or slapping them or treating them to exhibitions of fender-ripping road rage. ‘The threat of violence, and a willingness to act on that threat,’ Stille writes, ‘were a central part of Saul Newton’s persona.’ But so, it appears, was a hunger for status, and perhaps a touch of genuine idealism, which required him to find reputable channels for his belligerent energies. After an explosive rupture with his parents, both of whom he believed had murderous intentions towards him (he certainly did towards them), he studied social work in Chicago, joined the American Communist Party, and went off to fight in Spain, where he later claimed to have killed lots of anarchists and Trotskyists, before serving in the Second World War.

Psychoanalysis was at the height of its prestige when he returned to the States, and those working in the field were treated with deference. The White Institute was a natural draw, and Newton quickly got a job there. By then he was living with the woman who was soon to become his third wife, but that didn’t stop him from seducing Pearce, who would become his fourth. The poems she wrote about him suggest that Pearce was besotted (‘Now I know what ecstasy is’), but for Newton the relationship was at least in part a career move: with her money and credentials, Pearce presented the possibility of a field of operations on a scale commensurate with his sense of his own importance. He considered himself the equal of Freud and Marx.

The two broke from the White Institute and in 1950 bought a town house on the Upper West Side – Manhattan’s therapy district – where they began adapting the methods of Pearce’s late mentor. Sullivan, they believed, had stopped short of embracing the full implications of his insights. Having identified the stultifying ‘self-system’ created by social and parental pressure to conform, he had failed to mount the aggressive challenges to family and society that should have followed. Instead, like his more conventional colleagues, he had limited his goals to helping patients adjust to the world’s expectations. No such timidity would constrain Pearce and Newton. Therapy, for them, wasn’t about adjustment, but expansion: nourishing the ‘integral personality’, which ‘hungers after the infinities of growth’. Borrowing from the rhetoric of revolutionary politics, they forged a gospel of self-actualisation and social change, eventually systematising Sullivan’s intuitions into a manifesto, The Conditions of Human Growth (1963), in which the analyst’s role was to mobilise the patient’s inner ‘guerrilla fighter’ against the strictures of the nuclear family and the capitalist order. It was a kind of liberation psychology, progressive for the time, especially in encouraging women to break free from traditional roles, and in the embrace of political activism and collective living.

It wasn’t long before a community began forming around the Sullivan Institute. Plentiful sex, as you’d expect, was encouraged, while exclusive relationships were banned, even among married couples. More surprisingly, patients were placed in same-sex apartments. This was to promote what Sullivan had charmingly termed ‘chumship’ – the bond of same-sex friendship that he considered crucial to the development of a healthy psyche. Drugs were forbidden but alcohol was valued as a disinhibitor, especially during therapy sessions, where patients and therapists would often drink together copiously. Patients with children were allowed only limited time with their offspring, who were assigned multiple caregivers within the group. This was seen as a way of circumventing the repressiveness inherent in the nuclear family, and there were certainly parents and kids who thrived under the arrangement, at least for a time. But Newton’s loathing for his own parents was clearly lurking somewhere in the background, as was Pearce’s severe analysis of the postpartum depression she experienced with her own children, and a tint of irrational animus seems to have been present in the system from the start. As Stille summarises it: ‘the adjectives Pearce and Newton chose to describe the everyday life of mother and child are “phobic”, “psychotic” and “miserable”; common nouns are “anger”, “jealousy” and “blackmail”.’

In 1955 Clement Greenberg, critic-in-chief to New York’s avant-garde art scene, had a breakdown after being dumped by the young Helen Frankenthaler. He was referred to Ralph Klein, a therapist who had recently begun working under Pearce and Newton. Greenberg became so attached to Klein that when the therapist left with Pearce and Newton for the summer house they’d built in Amagansett, he went out there himself, staying with his friends Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, who lived nearby. Before long he had the boozy, brawling couple enrolled at the Institute too, with Pollock assigned to Klein. The Sullivanian line on parents, sex and alcohol went down especially well with Pollock, who was soon hitting the bottle harder than ever, referring to his mother as ‘that old womb with a built-in tomb’, and following Klein’s advice to ‘act out his sexual impulses’. He began a public affair with a 26-year-old called Ruth Kligman. One afternoon in August 1956, Kligman brought a friend along on the trip out to Amagansett, expecting Pollock to take them to the beach. Instead, Pollock dragged them to a bar, where they spent the afternoon watching him drink. On the way home his driving became erratic. The friend, Edith Metzger, begged to be let out. In response the irrepressible Pollock gunned the engine, causing the car to skid off the road and flip over, killing Metzger as well as himself. (Kligman survived and took up with Willem de Kooning.)

Undeterred, Greenberg went on to steer more of his protégés to the Sullivan Institute. It soon became almost obligatory for artists seeking his approval to get a Sullivanian therapist: ‘There was pressure,’ the sculptor James Wolfe recalled, but if you did it, then suddenly ‘you had access.’ Among those who signed on were the artists Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Larry Poons. Some were just dabbling, but Olitski went all in, bringing his wife and daughters with him, and thereby supplying the institute with the first unqualified success in its mission to blow up the nuclear family. Within a year all four Olitskis, including the youngest, who was ten, were living separately and seeing their own therapists. Soon after that the two daughters stopped speaking to each other, remaining estranged for most of their lives.

The art world connection gave the institute the sexy glamour of an in-crowd scene, while its political stance brought a counter-cultural cachet that helped attract a new generation of patients in the 1960s and 1970s. Among these was the novelist Richard Price, who was introduced to the group by his writing teacher at Columbia. For a physically awkward aspiring novelist from the Bronx, the sudden vista of endless chumship and free love was transformative: ‘It felt to me like this is just: add water and it’s instant friends … instant sex life,’ Price told Stille. ‘It’s like somebody opened the gates of heaven.’ Much the same held for Deedee Agee, James Agee’s daughter, who drifted into the Sullivanian orbit in a state of despair at her life of boiling nappies in a freezing house while her sculptor husband, Bill Bollinger, went off drinking and philandering. ‘Seems to me your problem is you’re not promiscuous enough,’ Pearce told Deedee over a large Scotch during their first consultation. The comment hit her, she later remembered, ‘like an explosion of light’.

Many other young men and women pursuing personal growth, intimate connection, vibrant community and other perfectly reasonable goals found their way into this secret urban utopia with its bucolic outpost at the tip of Long Island, where the whole group now summered each year. It’s a period looked back on fondly by even the most embittered former members. Artistic collaborations flourished. Dancers and musicians joined the mix: the dancer Lucinda Childs, the guitarist Elliott Randall (who played with Steely Dan), members of Sha Na Na. Women were encouraged to take the initiative in sex and to explore their own sexuality (there was a sign-up sheet for the vibrator in one of the all-women houses, so popular was the newly introduced gadget). The group took part in anti-war protests, and the leaders wrote letters for patients seeking to avoid the draft. If the practice of consciously repeating childhood developmental stages while simultaneously engaged in distinctly adult pastimes produced a slightly kinky, Henry Dargeresque flavour – assignations were referred to as ‘sleepover dates’, and for a while patients could be seen wandering around Amagansett with stuffed animals while drinking martinis from baby bottles – it seemed to be largely harmless, or at worst weirdly infantilising.

Precisely​ when and how things soured depended on what you were willing to put up with – or turn a blind eye to. But there were developments in the leadership that seem to have precipitated it. In 1964, Newton, still married to Pearce, fathered a child with a patient called Joan Harvey, a former soap opera actress, whom he then trained as a therapist. In 1969 they had a second child, and around the same time Newton began an affair with another patient, Helen Moses, who also wanted to train under him. The two mistresses, feuding from opposite ends of the same apartment, were joined there by a former student (and girlfriend) of Jules Olitski’s called Susan Crile, who soon caught Newton’s eye herself, despite being in therapy with Pearce.

‘In other words,’ as Stille writes in one of several bemused summaries of the group’s primordial entanglements, ‘Crile was in therapy with Newton’s fourth wife while carrying on an affair with Newton, which took place in an apartment occupied by Newton’s two principal mistresses, future wives number five and six.’ Pearce was shattered by the break-up of her marriage, as well as by her increasingly marginalised role in the group as Harvey and Moses moved centre stage. Her poems took on a rueful, if necessarily stoic, tone: ‘The pain/in Jane/is mainly/in the brain.’ She was hardly an untutored Eliza Doolittle, but Newton, who by now was stipulating that his female patients give him blowjobs, had certainly put the pyg in Pygmalion. With the unleashing of his proclivities, the institute began its transition into what sociologists call a ‘high-demand’ group.

Members’ lives were increasingly regimented. Guidelines stiffened into rules, with punishments for infractions, and patients were encouraged to inform on one another. Any couple suspected of monogamous tendencies would be accused of getting into a ‘Focus’ or forming a ‘Hostile Integration’, for which they could expect to receive a ‘Summary’ – Sullivanian for a public denunciation by one of the therapists – along with a fine, and possibly a slap or punch from Newton. The affirming attitude to sex morphed into an effective ban on saying no, especially if the person asking for it was a therapist.

One by one the seemingly enlightened departures from therapeutic convention revealed their darker implications. Harry Sullivan’s minor heresy of interacting with his patients evolved under Newton into a deliberate, saturating infiltration of patients’ lives, all the way to the question of whether (and with whom) they should be allowed to have children. His well-intentioned use of ‘lay analysts’ lacking a medical degree (as was the case with Fromm) degenerated into a system of dangling traineeships in front of favoured followers with no psychiatric knowledge and no understanding of the ethical dimensions of what they were being taught to do. Where Freudian orthodoxy called for analysts to work scrupulously against the effects of transference, Newton and his colleagues taught their followers to do precisely the opposite, i.e. exploit the potent dynamics of the process to gain increasing control over their patients’ psyches. ‘You are their link to life,’ Harvey told her trainees, ‘and, you know, that dependency can go on for ever.’ She and Newton also taught their trainees to drum into their patients that they would never survive if they quit therapy. Stille gives the example of Penelope Barrett, a young woman who had been offered a low-paying but coveted position at the New York Review of Books by Elizabeth Hardwick. Her therapist told her she wouldn’t be able to afford therapy if she accepted the job, ‘and I would therefore wind up on the street, a drug-addicted prostitute.’ Terrified, she turned down the offer.

But it was the warping of the commonplace idea that growth naturally entails discomfort that gave the Sullivanians their most dangerous conceptual mechanism, the ‘not-me experience’, whereby patients were persuaded that anything that made them uncomfortable was by definition something to be embraced. This was how Newton got his blowjobs, but it had a more far-reaching impact as part of the ongoing campaign to get patients to break with their families. Members were forbidden from contacting relatives except to ask for money, bewildered parents were deprived of deathbed visits and loving siblings were told to fuck off. A typical anecdote features Pearce persuading Carol Q., one of the few Black members of the group, to write a letter telling her parents – crucially supportive figures for her in the largely white world she had entered – that she never wanted to see them again. Carol remembered Pearce watching from her office window to make sure she posted the letter.

More brutal still was the twisted logic decreeing that, since parents were toxic for children, members should be separated as early as possible from their own kids – if they were allowed to have them in the first place. Children as young as three were routinely sent off to boarding schools unscrupulous enough to accept them: places such as Treehaven, notorious for an incident where staff strapped a toddler who wouldn’t eat her oatmeal to a chair, and then dumped the oatmeal on her head (the school was closed in 1980). The children were expected to wangle invitations from other boarders for the spring and Christmas holidays, while in summer they were shunted off to camp for double stays (and then often sent back early to school before it reopened). Those who did spend time at home were required to enter therapy themselves from the age of five, where they were fed such nourishingly Sullivanian sentiments as ‘Andy, your mother is a bitch.’

A long sequence of events beginning in the mid-1970s illustrates the institute’s peculiarly devouring vampirism with regards to motherhood. After three years in the group, Agee sent her five-year-old boy to boarding school. Teddy (not his real name) was unhappy there, and Agee’s estranged husband removed him, taking him to his house in Poughkeepsie. Newton, jealous of his prerogatives in the management of his followers’ offspring, sent word instructing Agee to get Teddy back. She and three other members drove upstate and grabbed the boy, speeding off with him as a distraught Bollinger smashed the car windows with a baseball bat. Far from being restored to the maternal embrace, Teddy was returned straight to boarding school. ‘I was told I was so dangerous to [Teddy] that I shouldn’t even spend time with him on vacations,’ Agee recalled. Bollinger sued for custody and eventually won.

Some years later, Agee and a fellow Sullivanian called Paul Sprecher fell in love, and Agee had another son. The baby had some trouble feeding. Already under a cloud for being in a Focus, Agee was soon being informed on by her assigned babysitter (a spy for Harvey), who accused her of being ‘a shit and a violent mother and a psychopath’. Her roommates started taking charge of the infant, while a strict feeding limit of seven minutes per breast was set by no less a child-rearing authority than Newton himself, making the baby even fussier. Terrified of losing a second child, and too scared to leave the group after her therapist convinced her she would become ‘depressed, fat, alcoholic, suicidal’, Agee sought protection by agreeing to become a full-time cook for Newton and Moses. Newton, now 77, soon asked her for a ‘date’, and she duly became his mistress, leaving Sprecher – who was Newton’s patient – no choice but to surrender or lose contact with his child (he surrendered).

In 1985 a group member called Marice Pappo gave birth to a daughter without having cleared her pregnancy with the leadership. Agee, following the script on those to whom evil is done, was among the most vicious of the scolds descending on the new mother, who arrived home one day to find her baby removed to the care of a babysitter, and herself under threat of expulsion if she indulged in any ‘hateful acting out’. Her therapist, Ralph Klein (Pollock’s guy), told her it would be best if she didn’t see the child again until the girl was three.

All of this was supposedly for the good of the children, and there was a certain amount of quasi-reputable psychiatric opinion at the time that lent support for the idea of breaking nuclear bonds. Bruno Bettelheim, not yet discredited, had put the concept of the ‘refrigerator mother’ into general circulation. R.D. Laing’s sense of the family unit as a ‘protection racket’ further buttressed Sullivanian thinking. There was also Engels, whose political critique of the family provided a useful decoy for Newton to throw at Sprecher when the latter admitted to feelings of jealousy over Newton’s relationship with Agee. But as Stille observes, the entire Sullivanian experiment in ‘extended – potentially infinite – adolescence’ was predicated on the absence of children, who might have interfered with the bed-hopping in Amagansett. ‘Their exile was the price,’ Stille writes, ‘that needed to be paid for the freedom and self-fulfilment their parents acquired.’

When the children finally got to tell their side of the story (much of it directly – and devastatingly – to Stille), it turned out that Newton and Ralph Klein were sexually abusing them too, molesting girls as young as eleven. Parental atavism boiled over in the Marice Pappo case; the custody battle was what prompted the Village Voice article, which in turn led to the awakening of the remaining parents from their Sullivanian stupor, and the eventual collapse of the institute.

In​ 1975, under the direction of the former actress Luba Elman, some members formed a theatre group, the Fourth Wall, working up a repertoire of Brechtian skits and plays for the amusement of their fellow patients. The performances were a great success, and within a couple of years a third of the group had joined the Fourth Wall. The leadership soon saw its popularity as a threat. Their first counter-move was to organise a concert for a group of musicians that had formed in parallel with the theatre troupe. Attendance at the concert was compulsory, with car keys taken on arrival to prevent early exits. The under-rehearsed performance dragged on past midnight. When a couple of people asked for their keys back at 1 a.m., Harvey was furious. ‘I heard later that she punched one of them, a woman, in the stomach,’ a member recalled.

Changing tactics, Harvey and Newton decided that instead of competing with the Fourth Wall they would take it over, declaring that revolutionary political theatre would henceforth be the entire group’s core activity. Elman was prevailed on to announce, as if voluntarily, that she was stepping down as director, and to propose that Harvey take her place. Duly elected, Harvey suggested that Newton – who knew even less about theatre than Stalin did about poetry – come on board as ‘our consultant’. Idyllic Amagansett was summarily replaced with a crumbling former hotel in the Catskills, requiring regular dues from members to pay for repairs. Elman, relegated to ‘producer’, was soon airbrushed altogether out of her project, and she left the institute. ‘She’ll probably be dead in a year or two,’ Newton assured his flock. Unfortunately, his prediction proved accurate: she died of cancer a year later.

Without her, the Fourth Wall was transformed into a vehicle for Harvey’s ego, and a new way for Newton to indulge his old fondness for violence. With a single, unifying project now occupying most of his followers, he was able to impose a more martial discipline and begin turning at least some of them into a kind of thespian guerrilla army. Their first battle consisted of an attempt to take possession of a theatre on the Lower East Side by force. The invasion was successful. Audiences for the shows that followed had to be bribed with free tickets or corralled from classes taught by Sullivanian college professors, but Newton emerged more powerful than ever. ‘We’ve got a tight little army,’ he purred. Subsequent missions, including a savage attack on some young neighbours who’d spilled paint on the Fourth Wall building, suggest it was only a matter of chance that the group never actually killed anyone.

By now the institute had perfected its own versions of love-bombing, gas-lighting and the other manipulative techniques associated with cults like the Rajneesh commune in Oregon and the Branch Davidians of Waco. But until 28 March 1979, they seem to have avoided the full-on paranoid style. Why the meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, which took place that day, should have tipped them over the edge isn’t clear (perhaps it was just that triggering word ‘nuclear’), but the event had a deranging impact on the group. Moses, Newton’s sixth wife, was pregnant, and several other women were trying to conceive in order to bear playmates for her child. The reactor was 150 miles from New York, and most New Yorkers remained calm. But the group’s leaders believed the government was hiding the real extent of the danger, particularly for pregnant women, and Newton ordered a total evacuation to Florida. Within a few days around 250 members had taken over a Howard Johnson’s near Orlando, where they engaged in an ‘apocalyptic bacchanalia’ of drunken sex, breaking off intermittently to comfort the incessantly weeping Harvey.

After the mass casualties they’d been expecting failed to materialise, the group returned to New York. But far from admitting they’d overreacted, the leaders immediately ordered that preparations be made for the next meltdown. For their own escape they procured a Cadillac ambulance with flashing lights and outrider motorcycles. For the rank and file, a mechanically minded follower called Mike Bray was tasked with assembling a fleet of school buses and installing new tanks so that they could go three hundred miles without stopping. Patrols were sent out in a special van to monitor radiation levels at reactors up and down the East Coast. When Armageddon persisted in not occurring, the murder of John Lennon outside the Dakota (just a few blocks away from the Sullivanians) provided Newton with grounds for renewed panic. Proclaiming that he, too, was in danger of assassination, he had a security desk installed at the ‘Kremlin’ (as the older children were now privately calling the main building), and ordered a bodyguard detail to protect him and Harvey whenever they went downtown to the theatre, where a one-way mirror was installed so that the audience could be scanned for potential assassins. Harvey began work on a film about the nuclear arms race, and soon became convinced that the CIA was after her. A steel-walled, bazooka-proof bunker was built for her in the Catskills, with a trapdoor to an underground passageway leading to a permanently stationed getaway car.

The emergence of Aids in the early 1980s added some genuine concerns to the imaginary ones, though most of the measures taken in response had less to do with actual dangers than the usual Sullivanian histrionics (no food to be consumed unless prepared by fellow members; dog paws to be washed on entry into any of the buildings). By now Newton and his cohort seem to have been deliberately cultivating the state of permanent crisis beloved of the authoritarian leaders they so admired (Harvey had Lenin up on her wall, while Newton favoured Mao). Members were burdened with constantly mounting demands: levies for Harvey’s vanity projects; incessant theatre activities on top of full-time day jobs; study groups to discuss such topics as who was capable of love (unanimous resolution: ‘only Saul was capable of love’); late-night meetings followed by the usual ‘dating’ obligations and sexual demands from therapists. (Moses, eight months pregnant, solicited sex from the newly prominent Mike Bray, who felt obliged to comply. She then decided that he should father a child with one of her trainee therapists.) Members increasingly relied on Dexedrine to get them through the long and grinding days. Some grumbled, but most were too persuaded of their inability to survive outside the group to risk being informed on and expelled – a common occurrence (‘never underestimate the power of purging,’ Newton told Michael Cohen, one of the therapists). And the rules kept proliferating. One member was fined $500 for eating a salad with co-workers at a new job. Another was expelled for succumbing to the crudités at a workplace reception. After another was fined $2000 for phoning Helen Moses too early in the morning, someone suggested that there should be a written rulebook, but Joan Harvey nixed the idea: ‘They might think we are some crazy cult if they ever get hold of it.’

Looming over​ the entire saga is the question of why anybody would go along with this lunacy, in some cases sticking it out for decades. It’s a question Stille addresses at many points in the book, and to which he offers different answers, depending on the individual. For some, like Sprecher, it had to do with what behavioural economists call sunk cost: ‘Many of us had been in the group for twelve, fifteen, twenty years, by then you’ve sunk a lot of your life into it and you feel like what will I have left?’ For others it was habituation to a form of cognitive dissonance or Orwellian doublethink: ‘I knew the radiation thing was bullshit and that we were not going to die,’ Steve Meshnick recalled, but he still went along on the panicked flight to Orlando. And for people like Richard Price, whose desirability as a successful novelist at one point had him juggling six girlfriends, the benefits outweighed the less palatable aspects – until they didn’t (he quit after Orlando, turned off by the group’s militarisation). Entanglement through children shared with diehard members kept others from leaving.

But fear was a large factor, especially in later years, when those who did leave faced credible threats of violence: one defector was hunted down in the subway by Newton’s goons, who dangled him in front of an oncoming train. Some members, at a loss to account for their own actions, attributed them to mind control. Janie P., who had obeyed an order not to visit her dying mother, bleated feebly: ‘I mean I could have, but they brainwashed me.’ Penelope Barrett’s sister Ellen, an exceptionally pitiless therapist who had reportedly told a teenage patient to kill herself, urged Stille to read up on brainwashing. ‘For twenty years I wasn’t myself,’ she told him. It sounds ludicrous, and yet perhaps there is some truth in it. Culpability, which interests Stille greatly, is always hard to establish in circumstances where victims turn into perpetrators, but the more one hears of Barrett’s twenty years in the same building as Newton – ‘a giant blow-job factory’ in her words, from which she emerged with significant damage to her jaw – the less one feels like blaming her for anything.

Early in the game, when Newton was asked at a party of artists whether he was one himself, he replied: ‘Yeah, a bullshit artist.’ Later he confided to Cohen: ‘This is a pretty good job. I control the whole situation. I have X amount of money per patient. I get sex from patients.’ Was he admitting he was a con man, or was he trying to come across as a tough-guy intellectual, confident that he would be taken ironically? He obviously was a con man, whether he could admit it or not, and Stille’s account of his last years – impotent, incontinent, addled, dumped in a hospital and forgotten – makes for satisfying reading. But the story is more than just another sorry tale of the cynical in pursuit of the gullible. The sense that important information is being conveyed – not least about the susceptibility of good minds to bad ideas – simmers under the text, surfacing in quick, provisional appraisals of what the project really amounted to.

‘I joined a movement that turned into a business, that became a racket,’ one member concluded. Stille points out that the institute emerged at a time of ethically dubious psychological research, and draws interesting parallels with the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments, which tested how much pain people were willing to inflict on one another out of deference to a perceived authority. A non-Sullivanian analyst who treated several of the women assaulted by Newton framed it in more squalid terms: ‘Saul Newton was a phallic narcissist: he basically wanted his phallus to be worshipped.’ I found myself thinking at times of Rosemary’s Baby, with its clammy Upper West Side Satanists and the fixed, libidinous leer on John Cassavetes’s face as he struts around the ill-omened Dakota. But perhaps the last word should go to Newton’s daughter Esther, who summed up the group’s mixture of aspiration and mediocrity with admirable bluntness: ‘They combined the worst of Marxism, psychoanalysis and the musical theatre.’

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Vol. 45 No. 17 · 7 September 2023

James Lasdun created a false persona for me in his review of Alexander Stille’s book on the Sullivanians (LRB, 27 July). I am Janie P., a former member of the Sullivanian group, and Stille interviewed me for his book. Describing the fear that motivated much of our behaviour while in the group, Lasdun writes: ‘Janie P., who had obeyed an order not to visit her dying mother, bleated feebly: “I mean I could have, but they brainwashed me.”’ Stille doesn’t say that I ‘bleated feebly’, and I would never have intoned the phrase that way. This seemingly minor misrepresentation indicates that Lasdun wants to convey that those of us who were in this cult remain helpless and weak. To the contrary, many of us, since leaving, have led accomplished and fulfilling lives, having learned from Sullivan’s theories and gained – despite the horrors of the leadership – from the experience of communal life.

Janie Paul
Ann Arbor, Michigan

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