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Tyler Comrie for The Washington Post

‘The Sullivanians,’ by Alexander Stille, is the riveting and troubling story of a psychoanalytic cult founded in 1950s New York

The era of New York City as a municipal ruin — a period stretching from the late 1960s to the early 1980s — has remained a source of fascination in American culture for so long that it seems to be fulfilling a mythic need. For one thing, New York run amok is the template for the current hysteria, a kind of wish in some quarters, that posits America’s cities as unspeakable hellholes. But to think of it only politically is to deprive this wish of its full power as a metaphor — 1970s New York as a kind of dark id rising to the surface, throwing off sparks like punk rock and hip-hop, hastening civilization’s collapse. Of course, the very idea of a repressed wish is a Freudian concept, and this primal fear of and fascination with fallen New York can seem an extension of a fear of and fascination with all the shrinks (and Jews) running around within it.

It is this gritty, out-of-control (and cheap!) New York that is the principal setting for Alexander Stille’s wonderful and troubling new book, “The Sullivanians,” about a renegade psychoanalytic institute that evolved into a kind of urban commune and then into a frighteningly insular and sadistic cult that held its members in its grip for two generations.

We tend to think of cults as apart from society, removed from the very idea of geography. (Where was it again that Jim Jones had his followers drink that Kool-Aid?) But the Sullivanians lived in a bunch of apartments and a townhouse on the Upper West Side. Stille’s meticulous reconstruction of the personal history of those whose lives were profoundly shaped by the group has a thumping, almost thriller-like question propelling its plot: How were such otherwise bright people seduced into these radical and ultimately tragic living arrangements?

For a while the unusual lifestyle promoted by the Sullivanians seemed quite in tune with the counterculture and offered a kind of paradise to those who embraced it. Members included, in the group’s early years in the 1950s and ’60s, a number of prominent cultural figures, such as the art critic Clement Greenberg; the singer Judy Collins, who did therapy for many years but didn’t live in a communal apartment; and the novelist Richard Price, who did both therapy and communal living. Collins wrote in her memoir of feeling a sense of shock when she first heard, in a taxi, the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” which she recognized as Stephen Stills’s lamentation of her adherence to the Sullivanian ideal of what would now be called polyamory. Collins would later write, “I sure got a lot of mileage out of the Sullivanian belief that alcohol was good for anxiety, and that having multiple sex partners was a political statement and a healthy lifestyle.”

Price’s account of how he fell in with the Sullivanians is emblematic. He was young, with creative ambitions; smart, but at sea. He was enrolled in the MFA program at Columbia and living with his parents in the Bronx when Richard Elman, his writing professor, suggested he go into therapy at the Sullivan Institute. His therapist, in turn, suggested he go to one of the group’s parties. Price arrived at the event to find a group of people his own age or slightly older “who all seemed easy with one another and friendly toward him, a newcomer and outsider,” Stille writes. He quotes Price about his initial confusion when a woman approached him and asked for a date. “It was eleven o’clock at night. Wasn’t a date when you arranged to go to the movies?” The woman suggested they go home together. The effect was immediate. “All of a sudden,” Price said, “you’re sleeping with some woman and you’re twenty-two and God just hit you with a lucky God stone.”

The Sullivan Institute was founded by a married couple, Jane Pearce and Saul Newton, in 1957. It was located in their home, a townhouse bought with Pearce’s family money. It was named after the psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan, one of the “neo-Freudians” who opened up psychoanalysis to be practiced by therapists without a medical degree. Sullivan’s ideas were also instrumental in expanding the notion of what shapes a person’s identity. Sigmund Freud focused on the family. Sullivan wanted to take the social and cultural world of the patient into account. “Personality can never be isolated from the complex interpersonal relationships in which [a] person lives,” he wrote. He placed a great deal of importance on the development of friendships. He even had a special word for this: “Chumship.”

As the Sullivan Institute grew, it began to create a world of chumship in which patients were encouraged to move into apartments together. It was, in its own way, as hierarchical as a Stalinist collective, a kind of psychoanalytic pyramid scheme in which strict rules applied to everyone except the tiny group at the top, composed of Newton and his current and former wives. (As in all New York stories, real estate plays an important role: The expanding commune was possible because in the 1960s and ’70s, large, multiroom apartments on the Upper West Side were cheap and getting cheaper.) As the Sullivanians began to have children, their domestic setups became increasingly baroque.

At the time of the institute’s founding, psychoanalysis was at the apex of its prestige and power in American culture, and so was the traditional nuclear family. To what extent these two facts reinforced each other, or were in opposition to each other, is open to interpretation. It might have been that in the newly affluent world of postwar America, people began to ask themselves why they weren’t as happy as they felt obliged to be and turned to psychoanalysis. It could have been that World War II had traumatized a lot of people and their parents — both those who arrived in America as refugees, many of whom ended up in New York, and those who had fought in the war.

But there was a school of thought within psychoanalysis that believed Freudian analysis was itself part of the problem; that it was too invested in helping people accommodate themselves to the problematic structure of society. Even if the mass culture of the time (“Father Knows Best” and all the rest) suggested a calm, prosperous, patriarchal world of stability, the era is also famous for the rumbling of dissent in movies like “Rebel Without a Cause” and books like “On the Road” and “The Catcher in the Rye.”

Pearce, from a prosperous family in Austin, had a PhD from the University of Chicago and had trained as a psychoanalyst. (She had been a student under Sullivan, though he died several years before she co-founded the institute that borrowed his name.) Newton had a more ambiguous background, with much less formal education. Born as Saul Bernard Cohen in New Brunswick, Canada, his father was a shopkeeper until he came up with the idea of being a dairy farmer, sold everything, moved his family to Upstate New York and put his two sons to work on the farm. The older son, George, was an amateur boxer. He often practiced on his younger brother, who took a lot of punches but also apparently learned how to throw them. Saul later claimed that his nickname at school had been Jack Johnson, after the Black heavyweight champion of the time.

After a couple of years Saul, who had been uprooted from Canada just as he was about to finish high school, became fed up with his penurious, arduous life on the farm and fled. He changed his name to Saul Newton, became a communist and fought in the Spanish Civil War against the fascists. Wiry, with dark, smoldering eyes, he was apparently very attractive to the ladies. “A classic American type,” Stille writes. “A self-invented figure whose shadowy biography is a blend of myth and fact.” Pearce was his fourth wife. He would go on to have two more.

Newton increasingly abused the women in the commune. What started among the group as a sense of guilt-free sexual possibility, characteristic of the era, gradually became something creepier and more compulsory. Newton’s repulsive demands on the women became more violent over time and continued into his old age.

At the core of Pearce and Newton’s analytical philosophy was the idea that parents were toxic influences that needed to be escaped. In 1970, the couple released a paper in which they wrote, “The concept of sexual fidelity or even serial monogamy, which is central to the nuclear family, is also central to the restriction of spontaneous interpersonal interaction.” Parents were the enemy, and needed to be brutally and totally cut out of patients’ lives with no explanation. This philosophy eventually extended to the children born to Sullivanians, and it is here, in the realm of the second generation, that the book’s trenchant power fully takes hold.

At first glance, this book seems like a departure from Stille’s previous work, which has concerned Jewish families in Italy during World War II, the mafia, archaeologists, Silvio Berlusconi’s effect on Italy and, most recently, Stille’s father and mother, in a brilliant book called “The Force of Things.” But “The Sullivanians” revisits a central theme: complicated families. And it is perfectly emblematic of the strange magic of Stille’s narrative style. He is a meticulous, dispassionate journalist and researcher, his tone calm and measured to a degree that it can feel almost cold. Yet within it is a warmth and compassion not just for human frailty and foibles, but for the hope people feel about their future, about their potential. It is a voice particularly sensitive to, and very good at portraying, youthful hope.

Stille’s father, a famous Italian journalist stationed in New York, invented his own byline, Ugo Stille, the last name of which translates into “silence.” An ironic name for a writer, though his son Alexander does often sublimate his voice to let others tell their own stories. The Sullivan Institute ran for more than three decades, and many of the children raised in its communal setting had only a foggy idea, if any idea at all, about who their biological parents were. Many of those children grew up to become bewildered adults who wrote memoirs, and Stille is masterful in the way he makes space for their words. In their searching confusion and occasional bitterness, they are all moving, but I was particularly moved by the story of Deedee Agee, who entered the Sullivanian orbit as a young woman in her early 20s, in a difficult marriage to a man she had met when she was 15. After her first session with Pearce, she never went back to him. Her life was intensely marked by the early death of her father, the writer James Agee, when she was 8 years old, and burdened by his posthumous fame for the novel “A Death in the Family,” which begins when a young boy learns of his own father’s death.

Agee was involved with the Sullivanians for so many years that she lost, for a long period of time, not one but two children to the mire of the group. A custody battle with the father of her younger son was one of several that began to penetrate the cult’s insular world in the late 1980s, and began a process that brought about the group’s demise in the early 1990s, though it’s impossible to ignore the concurrent fact that the diabolical Newton died in 1991, at 85. Most of the remaining leadership — including his current and past wives — would end up surrendering their licenses to practice therapy.

“The Sullivanians” has a novelistic depth, and is so filled with voices that at times it reads like an oral history, but throughout the book, the careful, restrained voice of Stille — Mr. Silence — guides the narrative. Paradoxically, it’s a story that culminates with the tremendous efforts people will make to connect with, and create, exactly the kind of nuclear family the Sullivan Institute was so intent on destroying.

Thomas Beller is an associate professor and director of creative writing at Tulane University. He is author of several works of fiction and nonfiction, including “J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist” and, most recently, “Lost in the Game: A Book About Basketball.”

Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 418 pp. $30

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