Review: Inside New York's 20th Century Psychotherapeutic Cult

The Sullivan Institute trapped members and broke up families.


The postwar era saw many attempts to find new ways of thinking and living that avoided the dissatisfactions and interpersonal nightmares that often arose in more traditional structures. Since human happiness and flourishing are difficult and can't be hacked with a mere transvaluation of older values, some of those experiments created more dissatisfaction and misery—especially for children—than the traditional family usually did.

With The Sullivanians, Columbia University journalism professor Alexander Stille has produced an interesting account of a Manhattan-based psychotherapeutic quasi-communal cult that flourished from the 1950s through the 1980s with ideas loosely based on the work of psychoanalytic pioneer Harry Stack Sullivan.

This group trapped its members in endless therapy (with endless fees to support the leaders' real estate, moviemaking, and theatrical dreams) while stressing that parents were always the enemy, and by extension that the patients were their own children's enemies. The solution: Send them away to boarding schools and camps, forever.

The circle of abstract expressionist painters surrounding Jackson Pollock were early devotees, but the story mostly focuses on average New Yorkers driven to grief by the Sullivanians' obsessive need to break up families and to play reproductive Russian roulette in an attempt to obscure dangerous facts about paternity.