Family  /  Book Review

Where Egos Dare

The secret history of a psychoanalytic cult.

The ironic uses of psychoanalysis to repress desire was matched elsewhere in the culture until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. If, during the economic miracle of the ’50s and ’60s, the meaning of family life was under quiet reevaluation, the health of the family form became a settled science for some or else spilled over into a full-blown counterculture. As psychiatry became ever more anti-mother, both the New Left and the neo-communalists challenged conventional family arrangements and their role in social reproduction. The Sullivanians already had more than a decade of experience in basically destroying the families of their patients—and doing so intergenerationally. This was understood as being for the good of the psyche and for society. Carried out in accordance with Newton’s psychological doctrine, the policy of family destruction also made good sense for consolidating power in a group. If communes (and cults) posed themselves as a healthy alternative to the nuclear family—and one that many in the counterculture actively sought out—the Sullivanians’ policy did double work. Newton knew that the family’s abolition could ensure the health of the group—and consolidate his power. It was essential to prevent other primary attachments from forming, whether romantic or filial. Stille writes movingly of the children of the institute, “Their absence, in a sense, made the group possible.”

Birth control and abortion had made it possible to decide when to not have children, but analysts could determine whether patients were “fit” to mother at all (fatherhood was often separated from biology). What functioned as psychological eugenics had the added benefit of consolidating control, a power play. Stille tells us the story of how the practice of breaking the biological family finally resulted in a mother losing custody to her ex, who had fled life inside the Sullivanians (mostly a problem because it brought legal attention to the community); the formal separations then ceased. Yet, according to his informants, mother-infant bonds remained highly regulated for all but the upper echelon of analysts—who had many children and relatively normative access to them.