Dreaming of Community: The Fourth Wall

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Of all the cult-like aspects of the group, the most devastating was the leaders’ interference with having and raising children. Starting from the premise that parents nearly universally screw their kids up, it’s already difficult to contemplate having kids of one’s own. A quite intended side-effect of manipulated patients’ self-esteem was that, for a long time, very few people in the group had children of their own. Not having a monogamous partner, let alone a partner with whom one had committed to spend one’s life, also made having children problematic, to say the least. As many women in the group approached or entered their forties, holding off on having children until was “healthy enough” became increasingly untenable. Women, who significantly outnumbered men in the group, began a sometimes desperate attempt to find partners. Though there were some exceptions, these had to be partners their shrinks would accept. This meant that most were steered away from people they were deeply attracted to and many highly unlikely pairings were formed, most of which turned into protracted and sometimes hostile relations when the group ended. These pairings did make it possible for some gay men to have children, but the lack of a solid relationship between the parents often created serious problems for them as well.

Therapist interference did not end with the forming of the partnership, but only intensified once a child was born, or, in some cases, was adopted. This is one subject that remains too painful and too infuriating for me to write about extensively. Just as we’d learned to virulently attack our own parents’ child-rearing, so did new parents find themselves under a harsh magnifying glass for their every interaction with their child. Children of the leaders were always given preferential treatment and children of the rest of the group were nearly always subordinated to the leader’s children. Parents were constantly subject to harsh criticism, often for truly trivial details.

This interference in child-rearing ultimately led to the unraveling of the group itself.
Some parents were told they were unfit to raise their own children. Parents where sometimes told to “take a break” from raising their own children and let communal groups take over for an indefinite period of time, sometimes over more than a year until they were “prepared” to reassume their parental role. In a few cases, parents actually signed over their parent rights to be adopted by another. Some parents fought back. A group broke off and went to the press and courts to regain custody of their children. This public struggle was ugly. Children who remained in the group often found their non-group playmates no longer willing to get together with them. The struggle was ugly with no one emerging unscathed.

With all this said, it may be hard to believe that I still have warm places in my heart not only for specific moments and specific individuals in the group, but even for the experience as a whole. It may be hard to imagine that anything as manipulated by its leaders for their own benefit — and sometimes for their own sadistic pleasure in watching others squirm and suffer — could have any redeeming features, any enduring positive aspects. It may well be that I simply cannot admit to myself that more than twenty years – half of my adult life to this point – was wasted adhering to a misguided and ultimately destructive party line. Yet, I do see values that are worth thinking about, perhaps even worth preserving. Though I intensely regret much of what occur, much of what was done to me and many things that I myself did, I do not see these years as wasted.

I know that in many ways I am one of the luckier members of this group, that for all the pain and indignity I suffered at the group’s worst, the two decades following the group have been rather satisfying for me — and I have to give at least part of the credit for that to things I learned in the group.

Most important to me is the sense that at least we tried to live differently. I came of age in the mid-sixties at Berkeley. It was a time of intense upheaval in the U.S., a time in which most young people, not just those at Berkeley, were questioning the assumptions that had guided our parents. “Adjustment” and “making it” had become dirty words, while sexual freedom looked a helluva lot better than sexual repression. It’s been said that the sixties were a time of experimentation, not solely because LSD arrived on campuses and marijuana use sky-rocketed, but because many more people were challenging traditional views of everything from racial relations to nuclear family living arrangements to conventional “career development.” But for all the challenges to conventional wisdom, there weren’t any clear answers. If there was an idea that psychoactive drugs would free the mind, there was also the reality that people who got high all the time got crazier and crazier. Being “on the road” might lead to enlightenment for some, but to despair and even death for many others.

By the mid-seventies, Woodstock (“An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music”) was over, the war in Vietnam was winding to its end without the “free world” collapsing, and the vast majority of communal experiments of the sixties were gone. Yet the problems that gave rise to the questioning of the sixties remained. These raised questions that still don’t have fully satisfactory answers: How can psychotherapy be more consistently effective in changing people’s lives for the better? How can a people build a careers for themselves that are fulfilling as well as meeting their economic needs? How can we raise our children to be creative and emotionally open and strong? Is marriage the only viable context for long-term sexual relationships? If our government is failing to meet the needs of our society and serving primarily to enrich those who already have the most, what can we do to promote progressive change?

Apart from its unconventional approach to sexual relationships, the group consistently stressed the importance of intimacy. There was consistent support for deepening one’s friendships, both sexual and non-sexual, by trying to know one’s friends intimately, trying to understand what they were struggling with, trying to be honest and straightforward, to be critical without being cruel. After the group dissolved it was a long time before I found friends I could relate to beyond relatively superficial camaraderie. I had learned to value openness about the more difficult aspects of life and something about how to go about building this kind of a relationship with a friend.

The group that evolved from the Sullivan Institute and became The Fourth Wall Repertory company was too twisted by its leadership and too limited by the self-involved grandiosity of members like myself to achieve anything of lasting import. But at least we tried. At least we gave our all to trying to make heavy handed skits both funny and relevant, even if we had to beg people to come to our shows for free. At least we tried to build relationships that we intimate without being possessive.

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