July 28, 2023


Chumship: a review of The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy and the Wild Life of an American Commune  by Alexander Stille (James Lasdun, 7/27/23, London Review of Books)

In April​ 1986, the Village Voice published a long piece about a cult-like community on New York's Upper West Side led by a group of psychotherapists. The therapists had somehow persuaded several hundred well-educated 'patients' to give them almost total control over their lives: most sensationally their sex lives, but also their work, finances, friendships and children. The community, known formally as the Sullivanian Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis, had been in existence for almost thirty years, over which time it had attracted some notable members, including Jackson Pollock, Richard Price and Judy Collins. But its more disturbing practices had passed unnoticed by the wider world until the Voice ran its exposé. Even then, as members defected and word spread of the grotesque cruelties perpetrated in the name of its supposedly utopian ideals, it lingered on into the 1990s.

There were some minor exaggerations in the Voice article - for instance, there was no actual rule that members couldn't sleep more than five hours a night, though in practice they seldom had time for more - but as Alexander Stille's amazing excavation of their largely hidden history makes clear, the piece mostly erred on the side of understatement, so extreme was the megalomania of the group's patriarch and his associates.

The project began with noble intentions, at least on the part of one of its two founders. Jane Pearce was a public-spirited Texan from a prominent Austin family with department store money on one side and intellectual distinction on the other (her father was an academic and prison reformer). After qualifying as a doctor, she went to New York to train as an analyst at the White Institute - 'a revolutionary alternative to mainstream, orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis', according to the institute's official history - under the then renowned Harry Stack Sullivan. Where orthodox Freudian practice focused on the internal dynamics of the individual psyche, Sullivan stressed the importance of patients' social context: 'what people do with each other', as he put it. He and his colleagues (who included Erich Fromm) rejected the Freudian posture of detachment - the analyst as 'blank screen' - in favour of a more responsive relationship with patients. His 'interpersonal' methods achieved positive results with schizophrenics - considered untreatable by Freud - and in a hospital in Maryland he created a ward for them where active fellowship was cultivated between patients and staff. His attentiveness to social context opened him to the psychological impact of forces such as institutionalised racism (he collaborated with the Black sociologist Charles S. Johnson), while his democratic instincts in general introduced a note of human warmth into the chilly atmosphere of the American psychoanalytic establishment.

Sullivan died in 1949, by which time Pearce had a thriving practice of her own. She had also succumbed to the charisma of Saul Newton, who worked in the White Institute's bursar's office. Whether Newton's intentions were noble even at the outset is open to question, but they were certainly backed by a formidable ego. 'He just exuded power,' his adopted daughter recalled, 'and I was afraid of him.' When he wasn't yelling at people, he was often punching or slapping them or treating them to exhibitions of fender-ripping road rage. 'The threat of violence, and a willingness to act on that threat,' Stille writes, 'were a central part of Saul Newton's persona.' But so, it appears, was a hunger for status, and perhaps a touch of genuine idealism, which required him to find reputable channels for his belligerent energies. After an explosive rupture with his parents, both of whom he believed had murderous intentions towards him (he certainly did towards them), he studied social work in Chicago, joined the American Communist Party, and went off to fight in Spain, where he later claimed to have killed lots of anarchists and Trotskyists, before serving in the Second World War.

Psychoanalysis was at the height of its prestige when he returned to the States, and those working in the field were treated with deference. The White Institute was a natural draw, and Newton quickly got a job there. By then he was living with the woman who was soon to become his third wife, but that didn't stop him from seducing Pearce, who would become his fourth. The poems she wrote about him suggest that Pearce was besotted ('Now I know what ecstasy is'), but for Newton the relationship was at least in part a career move: with her money and credentials, Pearce presented the possibility of a field of operations on a scale commensurate with his sense of his own importance. He considered himself the equal of Freud and Marx.

No, that was Darwin.

Posted by at July 28, 2023 6:52 AM