JakeOffenhartz in Arts & Entertainment
On the evening of July 29th,1985, members of a mysterious group called the Sullivan Institute broke intoand terrorized an apartment at 100th Street and Broadway. Dressed in darkcolors and stocking caps, some beat the tenants with sticks, while others slitopen mattresses and smashed the sink, toilet, and television set. It was acoordinated revenge attack, intended to send a message to the group’sneighbors, who allegedly started the drama by spilling paint on the institute’swall.
After the raid, thepillagers returned to their seven-story co-op at 2643 Broadway. “We wereprepared for them to invade,” says Paul Sprecher, a member of the SullivanInstitute for over a decade. “We had security down at the front door to makesure they would be duly chastised. I don’t remember, I think one guy showed upto complain and he was manhandled.” (According to a 1989 New York Magazinearticle, the complaining tenant was “beaten by more than a dozen members,” oneof whom “broke four knuckles punching the young boy in the face.”)
The paint splatter that startedthe ordeal is still visible today, on the brick wall just above the Metro Dineron 100th and Broadway. It is perhaps the last physical reminder of apsychotherapy cult—informally known as the “Sullivanians”—that once had 500members living in three buildings on the Upper West Side.
Sprecher, who now works asUnitarian minister, tells me over the phone that he prefers the term “highdemand group,” though he’s willing to admit the group had “a lot of hallmarksof a cult.”
For one, there was thechimerical leader, Saul B. Newton, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War whofounded the Sullivan Research Institute in 1957 with his wife, Dr. Jane Pearce.A Marxist with no formal training as a therapist, Newton sought to create analternative to the traditional nuclear family, which he viewed as the rootcause of social anxiety. The institute—part therapy center, part polyamorouscommune—began attracting members in the late 1960s, many of them well-knownartists and intellectuals, including writer Richard Price and singer JudyCollins. Jackson Pollock was also a proto-member—according to his biography, hestarted seeing Ralph Klein for therapy in 1955. Klein was a close friend ofNewton’s, and would go on to become a leader of the group.
Sprecher, a recent Harvard graduateseeking roommates in a new city, joined the institute in 1974, almost byaccident. “I found this group and it just so happened that all of them were inSullivanian therapy,” he says. “It was this incredibly neat experience for anewcomer in New York City. Suddenly I had a social life. There were women whowanted to date me. We spent the summer in Amagansett. It was very loose inthose days, just people hanging out in apartments.”
The purpose of the group, aspitched to Sprecher and others, was to expand on the revolutionary promise ofthe 1960s. Members would find a social circle of likeminded people—mostlywell-educated, secular, leftist, and Jewish—committed to a brand ofpsychotherapy imbued with radical politics and sexual liberation. “The therapistsdid not regard therapeutic boundaries with any respect at all,” says Sprecher.“Everyone slept with everyone.”
While he now recognizes thatmany of those relationships crossed a line, Sprecher didn’t think anything ofit at the time. “We created a living context like a tiny village that wasmostly cut off from the world. The bizarre thing, of course, is that you’re inthe middle of New York City, but the dynamics of control and so on are like avillage.”
Despite the seemingly laxnature, this village still had plenty of rules. Most members lived insex-segregated apartments on the Upper West Side, where they were forbiddenfrom engaging in exclusive relationships, unless approved by Newton. Childrenborn in the group were shipped off to boarding school or given to caretakers,with their parents only allowed to visit for an hour or two a day. In mandatedweekly sessions, therapists advised patients to cut off all contact withoutside friends and relatives, except when in need of money. It took only a fewmonths in therapy for Sprecher to sever his relationship with his parents.
As ranks swelled in themid-’70s, the group took on an increasingly authoritarian nature, even as theyexpanded into new ventures. Many attribute the shift to the departure of Dr. Pearceand the arrival of Newton’s second wife, Joan Harvey, a soap opera actor andaspiring stage director. It was Harvey’s idea to merge the therapy group with apolitically progressive theatre collective called the Fourth Wall. In 1978, thebudding troupe signed a lease at the Truck and Warehouse Theatre in the EastVillage (at 77 East 4th Street). When the previous company refused to vacatethe theatre, hundreds of Sullivanians took over the space and destroyed theirsets, leading to three arrests.
“All of the members wereinvited to come down and occupy the theatre. The cops came in the middle of thenight and we had barricaded the doors. It was very exciting,” recalls Sprecher.“Saul wanted to teach people how to stand up to cops. He liked that kind ofconfrontation.”
The leadership’s tendenciesfor erratic behavior finally came to a head in 1979. Following the partialnuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the group migrated enmasse to Orlando, Florida, to await the destruction of Manhattan. When the 250or so members returned to New York a few weeks later, things were different.Anyone who didn’t go on the trip was ostracized by Newton, and members whopublicly spoke of the incident could be kicked out. “This was the moment thatthe Fourth Wall smashed closed,” says Sprecher. “It was very scary.”
Mike Bray joined theSullivan Institute in 1972, on the recommendation of a fellow classmate inFordham’s clinical psychology program. Within two years, Bray divorced hiswife, cut off contact with his parents, and moved into one of the Upper WestSide apartment buildings, where he would remain until 1985.
After the Three Mile Islandincident, he tells me over the phone, “paranoid beliefs and distortions ofreality began to set in,” particularly among Saul Newton and Joan Harvey. Thegroup had recently acquired a resort in the Catskills, where Bray was soondispatched to build a “secret, steel lined room with quarter inch plates sothat Joan Harvey could edit her film” without interference from the CIA. Braydidn’t buy into the surveillance panic, but he remembers deriving a sense ofpurpose from the mission. “There was the technical manpower of succeeding atthis task, subsumed under this desire to be approved of,” he says. “It was asuspension of critical thinking.”
Another one of his jobs wasto oversee the fleet of school buses and motorcycles, which the group kept incase of some dire emergency. “We had a very planned out escape route thatinvolved walking to the George Washington bridge,” he says. “In terms of theleadership’s children, it meant putting them in backpacks and then riding themout in off-road motorcycles, which we had about six of.” At this point, thegroup owned approximately $12 million in property, including the Catskills resort,a house in Vermont, and two buildings on the Upper West Side (the third was arental). This wealth came directly from members, who were instructed tocontribute most of their money for the benefit of the group.
As the leadership grew morepowerful, they also became more controlling. “The therapists tried in somecases to control people’s relationships romantically,” remembers Amy Siskind, amember of the group for 21 years, beginning when she was 13. “They wanted tocontrol whether I had children. They wanted to control who I was with.”
She recalls being frightenedby Newton, whose violent tendencies only escalated in the ‘80s as he beganexhibiting signs of dementia. “He had this idea of how to deal with people whowere against you. And his idea was basically intimidation and violence,” shesays. “There were many incidents throughout the history of the group ofintimidation.”
One such incident involvedSiskind’s current husband and former therapist, Michael Cohen, who attempted toleave the group in 1985. As Cohen would later testify in court, twoSullivanians—one of them Newton’s son—tracked Cohen down and assaulted him inthe Union Square subway stop. According to court documents, the pair dangledCohen over the subway tracks and threatened to kill him.
Today, the two aggressorsare successful New York professionals—one works for the New York Times, theother as a professor at Columbia. “No one ever was prosecuted for that,” saysSiskind. “It would’ve been nice if they had been. It’s too late now.”
The group began to crumblein late 1980s, as two custody suits filed by Michael Bray and Paul Sprecherbrought public attention to the group’s violent tendencies and controversialchild-rearing practices. Newton’s death in 1991 marked an official end to the institute,though some claim that Joan Harvey and her husband Ralph Klein continuedoperating a similar community out of their home in New Rochelle.
With the exception of anacademic book published by Amy Siskind in 2003, almost nothing has been writtenabout the Sullivan Institute/Fourth Wall Community in the years following itsdissolution. A few longtime residents of the neighborhood have vague memoriesof the group, but otherwise it’s been mostly forgotten. Most of the survivingex-members are in their 60s or 70s by now, and are understandably wary ofdiscussing this chapter of their lives.
The exception here is EricGrunin, a self-described recluse who spent 12 years in the group, beginning in1979. He has only positive memories of the experience and argues that, withrare exception, most others feel the same. “If you really wanna get a sense ofwhat it’s like,” he says, “you have to talk to the people who have no interestin talking to you.”
Of the half dozen people, Ispoke with, Grunin is by far the most interested in talking. He is a ferventdefender of the institute and scoffs at my use of the term cult. He alsomaintains a certain level of bitterness toward those who describe it in suchterms. “Do I feel like Mike [Bray] particularly went over to the dark side?” hesays, unprompted. “Yeah.” He has similarly harsh words for Siskind andSprecher.
A few years ago, Gruninstarted a private Facebook group to connect with ex-members. He envisioned thepage as place to post old photos and obituaries, and occasionally to planmeetups. Everything was going fine until someone started using the group toshare bad memories of Joan Harvey. Grunin deleted the comment, igniting afirestorm.
“Some people said, ‘Butyou’re censoring us,’ and I said, ‘start up your own group, it’s easy.’ Andthis was important because half the people had something to complain about andwent to the other group, and the other half didn’t want to hear any of this,what they felt was stupid repudiated negativity. So the other group was there,and people yelled and screamed and bitched and moaned, and sometimes they hadimportant things to say and mostly they just didn’t.”
Grunin’s role as moderator,he tells me, is not unlike the minister who arrived in Salem during theaftermath of the witch trials. The village had divided into rival factions bythen, a problem the new minister managed to solve by assigning the communitymembers random seats within the church. “All of a sudden people started to calmdown,” says Grunin. “They started to un-demonize each other and see each otheras people again.”
It’s a confounding analogy,considering Grunin’s choices as moderator seem to have brought about moredivision, not less. But the idea of Facebook as a village is one that seemssignificant. In its own way, social media promises the same sense of communitythat attracted so many members to the Sullivan Institute, but without the rigidhierarchy that eventually brought the group’s destruction. A world where peoplecan join and leave a group at the click of a button is probably not what theseutopian dreamers once envisioned, but it’s at least a step in the rightdirection for individual freedom.
Before I get off the phonewith Grunin, I ask him if a group like the Sullivanians could exist in New Yorkagain. “Of course it will happen again,” he replies. “People want that. Peopleneed alternatives.” On this last point, both Grunin and his enemies would seemto agree.