Alexander StilleSep 4, 2023
Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2023
In the middle of the Ozzie and Harriet 1950s, the birth control pill was introduced and a maverick psychoanalytic institute, the Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis, opened its doors in New York City. Its founders, Saul Newton and Jane Pearce, wanted to start a revolution, one grounded in ideals of creative expression, sexual liberation, and freedom from the expectations of society, and the revolution, they felt, needed to begin at home. Dismantling the nuclear family—and monogamous marriage—would free people from the repressive forces of their parents. In its first two decades, the movement attracted many brilliant, creative people as patients: the painter Jackson Pollock and a swarm of other abstract expressionist artists, the famed art critic Clement Greenberg, the singer Judy Collins, and the dancer Lucinda Childs. In the 1960s, the group evolved into an urban commune of three or four hundred people, with patients living with other patients, leading creative, polyamorous lives. But by the mid-1970s, under the leadership of Saul Newton, the Institute had devolved from a radical communal experiment into an insular cult, with therapists controlling virtually every aspect of their patients’ lives, from where they lived and the work they did to how often they saw their sexual partners and their children.
Although the group was highly secretive during its lifetime and even after its dissolution in 1991, the noted journalist Alexander Stille has succeeded in reconstructing the inner life of a parallel world hidden in plain sight in the middle of Manhattan. Through countless interviews and personal papers, The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune (FSG, 2023) reveals the nearly unbelievable story of a fallen utopia.
Claire Clark is a medical educator, historian of medicine, and associate professor in the University of Kentucky’s College of Medicine.