Dreaming of Community: The Fourth Wall

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For all the trumpeted “sexual freedom” of the sixties, this was still a radical idea in the latter part of that decade and the beginning of the 1970’s. While promiscuous sex was common in some quarters — in this rare interlude in human sexual history between the discovery of effective contraception and the onset of AIDS — but the proposal that this was a way of developing and maintaining long-term intimacy was something different. That it was being put forth by a psychotherapist as a solution to interpersonal difficulties was certainly something different.

Over time it became clear that this was not my particular shrink’s solution to my specific issues, but something all patients of Sullivan Institute therapists were encouraged to explore. “Encouraged” puts it too mildly: Therapists “trained” by the Sullivan Institute went far beyond subtle suggestions of potential alternatives. It would be more accurate to say that they insisted that a particular plan of action was the only appropriate way to handle a given situation. Since this was hardly the “norm,” it was all but inevitable that it was among other Sullivan Institute patients (and therapists, as it turned out) that one would find partners willing to adopt this unconventional life-style.

There were other aspects of the therapy approach that set it dramatically apart from other therapies. Most significant was a relentless assault on patients’ views of their parents as anything other than heartless monsters. Nearly every patient heard their therapist say, usually early in treatment, that their therapists had “never heard anything so horrible” as how their patients‘ parents had treated them as children. While nearly all psychodynamic therapies delve into their patients‘ early upbringing, frequently uncovering deeply disturbing memories, Sullivan Institute shrinks took this much further, consistently finding no redeeming qualities in apparently “normal” family relations. Therapists insisted, often vehemently, that patients were “covering up” their parents faults if they refused to accept that their parents had been hateful people dedicated to warping and restricting their children’s growth. The therapists urged, to the point of demanding, that their patients confront their parents with how disastrously they’d been raised and cut off all connection with them.

This break from family remains a deep, unhealed wound for many in the group. While there are likely some who still feel that cutting themselves off from their families enabled growth that would have been impossible otherwise, after the group ended many re-united with family members who were alive and willing to reconnect. In retrospect, many felt that their schism with their family was more about tightening the grip of the group’s leaders than a genuine assessment of a psychological need for independence. My mother and father both died before the group began, so my own reconciliations were with step-mother, and with my brother and his family. Speaking for myself, I feel remorse about the degree and violence of my cutting myself off.

Taken together, the socio-sexual ethos of the group and the intensity of the rejection of anything positive in patient-parent relationships, set virtually everyone in the group dramatically apart from anyone outside of it. Increasingly, beginning in the late ’60’s through the group’s disbanding in the early 90’s, people in the group related to each other intensely and to everyone else through a screen of lies. It was assumed, with a fair degree of accuracy, that those not enmeshed in the group would be horrified by its sexual mores and by our blanket alienation from our families. Even in the early days of the group, New York Magazine published a sharply negative article. There was intense antipathy from other New York psychiatric institutes, particularly the William Allison White Institute. Since the White Institute also considered the psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan as their key progenitor, they were outraged at the interpretation of his theories by the Sullivan Institute gang. Even to this day, long after the group ceased to exist, the White Institute goes to great pains to distinguish itself from the Sullivan Institute.

There were other elements that made it difficult to argue that the group was not a cult. It had a charismatic leader in Saul Newton, a man with no advanced training in psychology whose word was all but sanctified. His prescription for an individual could alter the course of that person’s relationships and career. His word to the group could radically alter nearly everyone’s lives. Beneath Saul, there was a clearly identifiable hierarchy. The degree of dependency on this hierarchy’s authority still makes me shudder.

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