Dreaming of Community: The Fourth Wall

“To live outside the law you must be honest / I know you always say that you agree.” – Bob Dylan, Absolutely Sweet Marie

I’m in a large, sprawling apartment with many rooms. I know the men who live in this apartment, but none are close friends. I need to use the bathroom, but the only one I can find is plugged up and disgusting.

I’m in a similar place with many bedrooms. It’s late and I’m very tired, but what bed can I find to sleep on?

I’m with some people whom I knew well when I was in “the group” with them. I thought the group was over, disbanded, but it seems it still exists and is about to put on another theatre production. Apparently I have a role in the play, but I have no idea what my lines are and I start to panic.

It’s been nearly twenty years since that the group in my dreams disbanded. The group, known by its members as The Fourth Wall or The Sullivan Institute, and by its detractors as the “Sullivanians,” lives on in my dreams and nightmares and in the minds of many others of its former members. There are at least two current Facebook groups devoted to sharing memories and continuing to debate the group’s virtues and horrors.

In its day, the group was unknown to most outside of it, infamous and disparaged by many, and virtually all-consuming to those who were in it. Based in Manhattan, the group grew from around fifty members in the late sixties to more than two hundred and fifty in the early nineties. Seen by most of its members at the time as an attempt to revolutionize social and sexual relations by rejecting monogamy in favor of sexual relationships with multiple partners and to affecting political change through radical theatre and music, it was seen by critics as a strange psychotherapy-based cult with bizarre mores that cut members off from their families and from anything resembling a normal existence. Highly public sensational revelations and court cases emerged, particularly focused on the dramatic interference of the group’s therapist leaders with parents raising their own children. With the deterioration and death of one of the group’s founders and ultimate authority, Saul Newton, the next level of leadership fought viciously among themselves with nearly everyone feeling obliged to take sides. Though some members tried to hold keep it going after the negative publicity and this internecine warfare, all but a tiny subset went their own ways.

Many have tried to write about the life of The Fourth Wall/Sullivan Institute, including a doctoral dissertation, but with limited success. Some have tried to fictionalize the story, while others have written personal memoirs. Few of these have seen the light of publication. The difficulties are numerous: Each of us not only has our own particular perspective, but most of us have significant ambivalence about our own experience that belie the black and white of the printed word. It is one thing to have lived such an intense experience and quite another to express it in a way that means something to others.

The most “sensational” aspect of the group, its particular take on sexual freedom, might attract readers (Penthouse Magazine plastered a teaser for an article about the group on their cover), but the reality was both too complex and unexciting to maintain readers‘ prurient interest. After a acquaintance read over an early draft of this essay she was disappointed, “I wanted to hear the springs creaking and the flesh slapping!” Sorry, I have neither the inclination nor the talent for erotic prose.

I use the term “the group” here reluctantly. This is how most of us referred to ourselves at the time. Referring to the group by the name of the theatre company, The Fourth Wall, though convenient, isn’t exactly accurate. It obscures the fact that the theatre company was an outgrowth of what more essentially tied everyone together: being associated — as therapists and patients — in a particular radical interpretation of the therapeutic approach fashioned by the founder of the interpersonal theory of psychiatry, Harry Stack Sullivan.

The group could be said to have a set of “mores,” unwritten codes that were known by all. The dictum that was most immediately striking was the virtual prohibition against monogamous relationships. I first became aware of this shortly after I began seeing a therapist associated the small group of shrinks calling themselves The Sullivan Institute. I was suffering through the break-up of yet another relationship that had been exciting at first and inevitably declined into bickering and mutual dissatisfaction. In addition to being a far more directive mode of therapy than I’d ever heard of in clinical psych graduate school, the nature of my therapist’s suggestion shocked me: “Maybe the problem’s that you only have relationships with one woman at a time. Why don’t you try seeing several women simultaneously?” He wasn’t suggesting simply dating several people, but trying to establish ongoing relationships, including sex, with several women at the same time.

Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning