Dreaming of Community: The Fourth Wall

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The directiveness and meddling in patients’ lives took several ominous turns. From its earliest days, therapists and patients mingled, socially and sexually. While, with some very notable exceptions, most therapists did not have sex with their own patients, intense relationships, including sex, between therapists and other therapists’ patients was the rule rather than the exception. With patients, patients’ therapists, and therapists’ supervisors utterly intertwined in social relationship, patient confidentiality was more often breached than respected. Opposing the leadership was all but unheard of. When it did occur, often without the person knowing what they’d done wrong, the results were quick and devastating. A person could go from being a well-liked and respected member of the group to persona non grata for doing anything that was perceived as challenging the leaders’ authority.

While initially the only “politics” of the group were sexual politics, around the middle of its life the group morphed into an overtly political organization through its theatre, The Fourth Wall Repertory Company. Formed initially in the mid-seventies primarily for amusement and creative expression, the theatre company increasingly became the key arena of the group’s political activism. Joan Harvey, a Sullivan Institute therapist and a former actress of little note, seized the leadership of the theatre company and became its Artistic Director, managing what became an operation involving nearly all of the group’s members. Harvey increasingly demanded content that challenged the political process from a radical left perspective. The group put on as many as a dozen performances per week in the Truck and Warehouse Theatre on New York’s East Village as well as providing music and skits in support of marches and demonstrations throughout New York City.

The group became increasingly all absorbing. I worked on Wall Street as a programmer by day and taught psychology as a full-time, tenured professor at night, got home at 11:00 pm in time for a rehearsal that ran until 1:30 am and then trotted off to a “date” at that started at 2:00 am. For a couple years I was Head Stage Manager, a role that meant I was directly under Joan Harvey’s imperious, tempestuous rule. We had a beeper system at that time that meant that she might beep me at 3:00 am to rant at how I’d screwed something up and better fix it immediately. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much in those years. Four straight hours of sleep was an exceptionally good night.

The theatre company wasn’t our only project. After the near meltdown of Three Mile Island, Joan took on making films. The first, We Are the Guinea Pigs, consisted of interviews with people living near the Harrisburg nuclear plan and with anti-nuclear activists and received some critical acclaim. Later films became increasingly strident and, in the eyes of most viewers, increasingly boring and impossible to sit through.

The meltdown catalyzed a mass migration of nearly the entire group out of NYC, following the leaders, to Orlando, Florida, for fear that if fallout headed toward Manhattan, total chaos and horror would result. One of my closest friends describes this moment as a crucial turning point from group to cult. We were about a hundred people at this time. Once members of the group heard that the leaders had gone to Orlando, everyone followed.

For a week, we were all staying at a Howard Johnson’s motel in Orlando. For me, it was actually quite a nice time. I got to take my son to Disney World and Sea World and the rest of the family attractions our group ordinarily disparaged. (I’d recently “claimed paternity” for my son, who, though I’d known for a while to be my son, was being raised by his mother as a single parent up to about this point. This is, of course, another long story.) It gave me a chance to spend an extended time just enjoying my child than I could ever have in the insane life we led back in New York.

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