Family  /  Book Review

Upper West Side Cult

In 1950, the Sullivinian Institute was created to push the boundaries of psychoanalysis. By 1980, its therapists and patients had become a small paramilitary.

The two broke from the White Institute and in 1950 bought a town house on the Upper West Side – Manhattan’s therapy district – where they began adapting the methods of Pearce’s late mentor. Sullivan, they believed, had stopped short of embracing the full implications of his insights. Having identified the stultifying ‘self-system’ created by social and parental pressure to conform, he had failed to mount the aggressive challenges to family and society that should have followed. Instead, like his more conventional colleagues, he had limited his goals to helping patients adjust to the world’s expectations. No such timidity would constrain Pearce and Newton. Therapy, for them, wasn’t about adjustment, but expansion: nourishing the ‘integral personality’, which ‘hungers after the infinities of growth’. Borrowing from the rhetoric of revolutionary politics, they forged a gospel of self-actualisation and social change, eventually systematising Sullivan’s intuitions into a manifesto, The Conditions of Human Growth (1963), in which the analyst’s role was to mobilise the patient’s inner ‘guerrilla fighter’ against the strictures of the nuclear family and the capitalist order. It was a kind of liberation psychology, progressive for the time, especially in encouraging women to break free from traditional roles, and in the embrace of political activism and collective living.

It wasn’t long before a community began forming around the Sullivan Institute. Plentiful sex, as you’d expect, was encouraged, while exclusive relationships were banned, even among married couples. More surprisingly, patients were placed in same-sex apartments. This was to promote what Sullivan had charmingly termed ‘chumship’ – the bond of same-sex friendship that he considered crucial to the development of a healthy psyche. Drugs were forbidden but alcohol was valued as a disinhibitor, especially during therapy sessions, where patients and therapists would often drink together copiously. Patients with children were allowed only limited time with their offspring, who were assigned multiple caregivers within the group. This was seen as a way of circumventing the repressiveness inherent in the nuclear family, and there were certainly parents and kids who thrived under the arrangement, at least for a time. But Newton’s loathing for his own parents was clearly lurking somewhere in the background, as was Pearce’s severe analysis of the postpartum depression she experienced with her own children, and a tint of irrational animus seems to have been present in the system from the start. As Stille summarises it: ‘the adjectives Pearce and Newton chose to describe the everyday life of mother and child are “phobic”, “psychotic” and “miserable”; common nouns are “anger”, “jealousy” and “blackmail”.’