Family Tatters

A social experiment gone wrong

Suzanne Szasz (National Archives/Wikimedia Commons)
Suzanne Szasz (National Archives/Wikimedia Commons)

The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune by Alexander Stille; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 432 pp., $30

It’s almost amazing that not once in his intensely readable new book does Alexander Stille quote Philip Larkin’s most (in)famous line of poetry: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” That sentiment was, essentially, the motivating principle of the communal Sullivan Institute, a rogue psychotherapy outfit on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that—over the course of its more than 30-year existence, from the late 1950s to the early 1990s—grew into a sex cult committed to abolishing within its midst the nuclear family, on the grounds that close romantic and familial bonds were psychologically harmful to adults and children alike.

But Stille has equally pungent material to work with. One Sullivanian is quoted saying of his own forebear, “It’s easy to be an anti-Semite when you grow up with a father like that.” Another’s mother is referred to as “that old womb with a built-in tomb.” The latter quotation comes from painter Jackson Pollock, who’s among a small parade of notables who wander like oddballs through this strange milieu. (Others include art critic Clement Greenberg, singer Judy Collins, and novelist Richard Price.)

Dishy as it is, however, Stille’s book is hardly an exercise in name dropping. The true heroes and villains in this story—most individuals, children excepted, take turns being both—are everyday people whose dramas are sometimes darkly amusing but more often heartbreaking. These are real members of nontheoretical families who found themselves at once the victims and willing enforcers of disastrous social theories that were explicitly, vilely antifamily. Through all phases of the story, from the kinky, free-love eccentricity of the early years to the insularity, paranoia, and criminality of the later years, Stille maintains an admirable, almost tenacious sympathy for his subjects—a sympathy some of those subjects, in retrospect, aren’t sure they deserve. But as the cognitive dissonance grows, so too does the tension, making the book an improbable thriller, propelling us from chapter to chapter to see how these unfortunates will extricate themselves (if they can) from a Gordian knot of their own creation. Will anyone make it out emotionally intact, reasonably functional? Will they be reunited with their own blood, whom they’ve been conditioned to regard with indifference if not hostility?

One cavil: Stille places the origin of his story in a typically caricatured version of 1950s America, an unsophisticated place marked by little more than stifling convention (Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet), but with a hint of rebellion on the horizon (Rebel Without a Cause, On the Road ). The implication being that the Sullivan Institute was part of that incipient rebellion, a harbinger of the revolutions to come in the ensuing decade. This is misleading on two fronts.

The members of nontheoretical families found themselves at once the victims and enforcers of social theories that were explicitly, vilely antifamily.

First, 1950s America was not some sheltered national virgin whose inaugural orgasm awaited in the mind-blowing, consciousness-raising ’60s. The conventionality we associate with the ’50s was partly a return to normal after the 1940s, a decade that—owing to war-related domestic upheavals—saw myriad social and sexual pathologies rise, some drastically. (Jack Kerouac’s dionysian On the Road, it should be remembered, was a chronicle of journeys taken mostly in the late ’40s, though the book wasn’t published for another decade.) Given this recent anomie, the return to conventionality in the 1950s was akin to what Stille observed among former Sullivanians, who left behind the commune’s deliberate parental chaos and loveless promiscuity to find shelter in the old-fashioned romantic and family structures the commune had forbidden.

Second, the ideas that animated the Sullivan Institute weren’t born in reaction to 1950s American convention. They were a proactive (if kooky) extension of theories that had emerged partly from the Frankfurt School in the prewar years. One of the Sullivan Institute’s founders claimed to have learned at the feet of, among others, the social psychologist Erich Fromm, who himself had participated with a Frankfurt School colleague, philosopher Max Horkheimer, on Studies on Authority and the Family (1936). That publication is a heady mix of Freudianism and Marxism that placed the family—its dynamics, dysfunctions, sublimations, and pathologies—firmly within a web of larger social and historical forces that acted on it. Those forces chiefly related to capitalism, under which fathers were seen to enact a kind of small-scale ownership and exploitation of their own families. If the surrounding society could be made more just and egalitarian, it might, in Horkheimer’s words, “replace the individualistic motive as the dominant bond in relationships,” giving rise to “a new community of spouses and children,” in which children “will not be raised as future heirs and will therefore not be regarded, in the old way, as ‘one’s own.’ ”

That’s a pretty fair approximation of what the Sullivanians fancied themselves pursuing. How did it go? “There was a feeling of pressure,” said one cult member, “that was really unpleasant, of having to conform in a certain way to unconformity.” Women endeavoring to get pregnant were required to sleep with multiple men while ovulating, to obscure paternity, which—said one male Sullivanian remorsefully—made it “easier to dissociate from the possible offspring.” Maternal bonds were broken as well, as children were taken from their mothers and raised in other parts of the commune by groups of men or women, with biological mothers being granted ruthlessly limited interactions with their offspring—and those offspring ultimately being denied knowledge of their origins. Per Horkheimer, children were not, in the old way, one’s own. Many of the children themselves came to regard their parents as “insane,” “basically a bunch of zombies.” In the long aftermath, one remarked, “I’ve thought three different men were my father in the past three years. I’m exhausted by having to relive the mistakes of my parents.” Another felt that he had been treated like an “experimental subject”—his childhood and his tender, developing psyche deformed by others’ commitment to validating a theory.

The Sullivan Institute insisted that every family—categorically—was a source of Larkinesque psychological damage. Then the institute became a scaled-up version of one and proved it.


Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jon Zobenica lives in Carmel Valley, California. His writing has appeared in such publications as The Atlantic, Quillette, The New York Times Book Review, and the Scholar.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up