Dreaming of Community: The Fourth Wall

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When we returned to Manhattan, we were told we all had to make up stories of where we’d been to tell our employers. If we’d told the truth, people would think we were nuts, and, more importantly, they’d realize we were part of some strange cult. Since many had invented large pieces of job history, backed by other group members, to get computer industry jobs, there was a serious possibility of being caught in a lie; our means of making a living (and supporting our life in the group) destroyed. One patient was disturbed enough by the whole experience that he required psychiatric hospitalization. The story he told the hospital — of this group of a hundred people leaving NYC en masse for Florida — sounded bizarre to the hospital staff. Two of his friends were called and confirmed that this event was not a delusion.

A meeting was called at the theatre. Saul sat on the stage, outlined what had happened, and said that the hospitalized patient and his friends had endangered the entire organization and should be expelled immediately. A vote was taken. It unanimously affirmed the expulsion. Yeh, I guess it’s fair to say we were a cult.

Three Mile Island also ushered in another new phenomena in the group: monitoring radiation. As odd as what we did was, I still feel a modicum of pride about this particular effort. In the days immediately following the accident, teams of men (women were excluded because of the danger of exposing their ovaries to radiation) began gathering air samples, around-the-clock in the area surrounding plant. While the EPA appeared to have a single truck in a stationary position, we roamed the area following the wind patterns. One of our test samples came back positive for particle radiation, suggesting that more might be coming out of the plant than was being acknowledged by the government.

Back in New York, a group of about a dozen or so men were selected (by Saul, of course) to rotate going out as much as possible every night for the entire night to monitor radiation around New York’s Indian Point and New Jersey’s Oyster Creek, as well as far afield as Connecticut Yankee and Delaware’s Salem nuclear plants. So approximately once a week I and another male member would drive around all night in a VW Rabbit with a hole in its roof (for a gamma ray detector), a generator and motor we’d roll down a customized ramp to take air samples, helium and balloons to track wind direction, a geiger counter and log books to write down our findings. We’d follow a complicate route that looked like instructions for a scavenger hunt that would lead us to some thirty or so stakes we’d set in the ground to standardize the itinerary. In all our nights doing this work over several years, I never saw the EPA out trying to take measurements. To be fair, we didn’t find much evidence that the plants were leaking, but I still feel a sense of pride that we went out there and tried to determine the facts rather than relying on a government agency to “protect” us.

I have to admit that there were some “rewards” for these bizarre all-night expeditions. The group was moderately health conscious in terms of what we ate, so these all-nighters gave an excuse for guilty pleasures like microwaved burritos at Seven-11’s. Driving around all night gave me a chance to hear details of my monitoring partners’ lives and histories that I would never have known. And the group’s pro-sex attitude meant that, on occasion, there’d by a woman willing to have an all-inclusive “breakfast date” before both of us headed off to work.

Like so many things in the group, there was of course a dark side to the group tenet that sex is good. The tenet included everything from the anti-monogamy stance to the idea that a first date should usually include sex in order to “get that issue off the table” and avoid courting. It meant that sex was usually to be expected if heterosexuals were getting together with the opposite sex or homosexuals getting together with each other. While for some this was exactly what they wanted, others felt more compelled than excited. Apart from the fact that sex was sometimes more desultory than thrilling, the whole ethos was certainly more in line with a male perspective than that of most women.

The non-monogamy norm was generally strictly “enforced,” primarily by therapists insisting that any intense one-to-one relationship that overshadowed other relationships was psychologically unhealthy. (Notably, the leaders felt free to violate this injunction, engaging in long-standing primary relationships.) But when two people became deeply “into” each other, their therapists would intervene to break them up. A few managed to leave the group together, some stayed in the group and kept the intensity of their partnering under wraps, but most abandoned their relationships and many potentially long-lasting couplings were destroyed. There are many former members who, to this day, feel that this injunction against forming a primary love relationship ruined their emotional lives.

It was not a simple matter to oppose one’s shrink’s directives. Therapists in the group were expert at manipulating their patient’s self-esteem in such a way that the vast majority remained continually in therapy over the entire life of the group, in some cases as long as twenty-five years. Being in therapy was, for all intents and purposes, required to stay in the group. This meant that all one’s sexual, social, theatrical, political activities were dependent not only on the group but on being in therapy as well. This, of course, guaranteed the shrinks a steady and comfortable income stream. But beyond the simple necessity to be in therapy in order to continue being in the group, therapists were generally expert at making their patients feel utterly worthless and desperate for their therapists’ support. By intermittently boosting and undermining their patients’ self-esteem, the Institute therapists maintained enormous control over their patients — and guaranteed an enviable income stream.

Throughout the life of the group, the cruelest blows were often struck not directly by the leaders, but by one’s friends and peers. Time and time again group members turned against their closest friends when they’d run afoul of the group’s leaders. Any individual who began to have some stature in the group was very likely to become the target of such an attack. Suddenly an incident was defined by the leaders as indication that the previously respected friend was not to be trusted, was psychopathic, was a danger to the group. The willingness of friends to jump to this rejection of their most intimate friends testifies to the cultish control group’s leaders held over its members.

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