Stories About Myself: The Narratives and Realities of my Childhood in an Urban Commune
Pamela Newton Reflects on Alexander Stille's The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune
As the oft-quoted Joan Didion line goes: We tell ourselves stories in order to live. This habit, Didion suggests, is a kind of crutch, even a necessity for survival. And it has occurred to me that perhaps the more disordered and confusing your life has been, the more you feel the need to find a story that will bring some order to it, even if the endeavor is inevitably flawed.
So many of the people I grew up with in a now-infamous urban commune on the Upper West Side of Manhattan seem compelled, more than 30 years after the group’s ugly, acrimonious breakup, to produce accounts of our life together. My older brother is working on a television docuseries, another friend is writing a graphic memoir, and several former members have quietly published personal accounts or thinly veiled novels in recent years. At one point, I was working on a memoir of sorts myself, each chapter an attempt to examine a different aspect of the group, to answer a different question.
Outsiders have also found us fascinating, most recently the author Alexander Stille, who explores the history of the group in a new book, The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune. Stille’s account may simply be the latest attempt to do the very thing that Didion described: to find a neat narrative shape for an unruly series of events. But for those of us who lived through it, especially for the kids, I think something more is at stake. There was always so much covering up and massaging of facts, so much spin; we were being told the story of the group even as it was unfolding. The passage of time affords us a chance to finally understand exactly what this thing was, to catch this slippery fish—the experience of growing up in the commune—to pin it down and dissect it and look at its guts.
The group began as a psychotherapeutic training institute in the 1950s, run by my father, Saul, and his then-wife, Jane. (I learned as an adult, long after Saul had died, that he wasn’t actually my biological father.) Saul and Jane based their theories on the teachings of the American psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan, whom they both idolized. Their core philosophy, an exaggeration and distortion of Sullivan’s “interpersonal theory,” was that the nuclear family was at the root of most mental illness and that the corrective treatment was to maximize social interaction and foster a multiplicity of relationships. With a heavy-handed therapeutic approach, Saul and Jane instructed their acolytes and patients to live in group apartments, to have open sexual relationships, and to cut off ties with their families, who were ostensibly toxic and had stifled their development.
Children presented a particular problem for the group, one they initially tried to ignore by sending them away to boarding schools under the pretext of saving them from the hostile influence of their mothers. By the time I was born, in 1976, the boarding-school practice had gone out of fashion and had been replaced by a child-rearing system that was meant to reflect the group’s ideals. Saul preached that limiting our time with our parents, providing us with multiple caretakers (in the form of other group members, who served as babysitters), and keeping us constantly engaged in play with other children would ensure that we grew up to be healthy adults. My friends and I became the guinea pigs in a kind of laboratory experiment, testing my father’s theories about human development, while the group simultaneously became more insular and isolated from mainstream society.
When I was 10, in 1986, we started attracting attention. A few members had left and done media interviews, reporting that they had escaped a harmful cult that controlled every aspect of their lives. Then they began to try to get their children out by way of high-profile custody cases. One member even kidnapped her own baby from outside a group building and fled in a car down Broadway.
One night I was watching one of my usual sitcoms, probably Family Ties or Growing Pains, and an ad for the tabloid TV show A Current Affair came on. A cult is thriving on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Maury Povich said (or something to this effect). He described how members were forced to live communally and be in open relationships. They were told whom they could have children with and how to raise them. The whole thing was run by an egomaniacal cult leader, who used therapy as a form of manipulation. Tune in tonight, Povich intoned ominously, for “West Side Scary.”
Around this time, reporters began waiting outside for me, my siblings, and the other kids who lived in the building on 91st Street and Riverside Drive, the de facto headquarters of the group. Most of the “bad press,” as my mother called it, was directed at my father, who sat at the top of this mini-society that had become more and more hierarchical over the years, and at the adults who were his followers. But the kids felt the effect too; suddenly alien and tainted, we became pariahs at our various private schools. My friends whispered about me on the bus to gym class and told me they weren’t allowed to come over to my house anymore.
In the press, they called us Sullivanians, but that wasn’t a word we used. Because the commune didn’t exist in any official capacity, if the members and kids referred to it at all, we mostly called it the Fourth Wall—a shorthand for the name of the political theater company the adults ran in the East Village, the Fourth Wall Repertory Company.
Stille, the author of the new book, learned about the Fourth Wall only recently, despite having lived on the Upper West Side for decades, “unaware,” he says, in the first chapter, “of what was, in effect, an alternate society in our midst, hidden in plain sight.” In The Sullivanians, he attempts to reconstruct the entire arc of the Fourth Wall, from its origins through its demise and its legacy, using an approach that patches together snippets of interviews, court records, published and unpublished memoirs, letters and journals, therapy notes, and other sources.I was prepared to dislike The Sullivanians, partly because I feared that Stille would seek out the juiciest, most scandalous details (mostly, he doesn’t, or at least not gratuitously) and partly because of my ambivalence about the project itself.
Given his reportorial distance and the steady accumulation of facts, Stille’s greatest potential strength lies in his ability to paint the big picture, but he has a tendency to get stuck in place or to repeat the same detail multiple times throughout the book. And he inevitably remains just outside the real experience of being in the Fourth Wall, peering in through a series of keyholes in doors that remain locked to him. He sometimes makes meaningful connections or offers passing insights, but, except for brief instances, he doesn’t capture the texture of life in the group—the way it looked, sounded, felt to someone who lived in it. None of the complex and quirky characters, the dogs and cats and parakeets, the health food and the constant games with other children that filled my childhood really comes to life. Nor does the chilling experience of getting viciously yelled at by one of the leaders for some minor infraction that had offended them—something that befell both children and adults.
Stille quotes frequently from an unpublished memoir by a now-deceased former member, Deedee Agee (the writer James Agee was her father), and Deedee wrote beautifully about the group, with deep wisdom and honesty: “Looking back, it seems like a case of mistaken identity—my own mistaking of myself as someone too small.” I sometimes wished I were reading Deedee’s memoir instead, as she seems to shine a light on some of the harder-to-reach psychic corners of the group that elude Stille.
At the same time, though, thanks to his meticulous research, I learned some things about my childhood. Stille gives a lot of attention to the origin story of the group, carefully mapping its journey from a training institute in the 1950s to a collection of communal apartments and nonstop parties in the ’60s to, essentially, a cult (with a theater company) in the ’70s and ’80s. Most of this unfolded before I was born, so I have always understood it only sketchily. Indeed, Stille seems much less interested in the child-rearing experiment than in the dynamics among the founding adults and the establishing of core principles, what he calls “behavioral codes,” into which the kids were later enfolded. (A late chapter titled “The Children of the Fourth Wall” is only about seven pages long.)
I was particularly surprised to discover how dug-in the group already was in the early years. The painter Susan Crile, one of many modern artists who got into Sullivanian therapy in the ’50s and ’60s (Jackson Pollock and Jules Olitski among them), told Stille about the rituals around same-sex friendship: “It almost felt like you weren’t allowed to not want to have a date with someone because you didn’t happen to like that person. There was some weird sense of a low-key pressure to be extremely egalitarian in a way that’s not really quite natural.” I could have spoken these exact words about my childhood social life, which involved rotating “dates” every night with different kids to ensure maximum socialization (we used the same word as the adults; their dates could be either sexual or not, while ours were designed as opportunities to play) and the mandate that we include any kid who wanted in. It turns out that the child-free world of the adults perfectly mirrored ours, back when they were somewhat naively moving into group apartments and spending their summers together in rented beach houses in Amagansett.
While I read, I also had many stomach-turning moments when I was forced to revisit the more egregious acts and painful episodes of the Fourth Wall’s history, stories that I had been only vaguely aware of as a child and have filled in more as an adult, but that Stille brought into stark relief: the children from the generation before mine, sent off to boarding schools as early as age 3, often thrust into abusive environments; the therapists who wielded their power to demand sexual favors from their patients; the insistence on members’ total rejection of their families of origin, which sometimes resulted in people not seeing their parents or siblings before they died.
Especially in its second half, as the cult gets more cultish, Stille’s book becomes a brutal and unrelenting catalog of offenses. Although none of the revelations was exactly new to me, it was harrowing to see them all in one place, without the mitigating effect of my childhood innocence and ignorance to create a buffer. Reading Stille’s account, even if tempered by my more positive memories of time spent with close friends and babysitters, makes it hard to deny the ways that the group had become dangerous to both the adults who had signed up for it willingly and the children who were born into it without any say.
I was prepared to dislike The Sullivanians, partly because I feared that Stille would seek out the juiciest, most scandalous details (mostly, he doesn’t, or at least not gratuitously) and partly because of my ambivalence about the project itself. Stille interviewed me early on, but he told me that he was working on a podcast. I later found out through the Fourth Wall grapevine that he had used the material he had collected to write a book instead. When I confronted him about the switch, Stille apologized and offered to show me the quotes he planned to include. He does quote me accurately, almost to a fault (my likes and you knows have been faithfully transcribed), but it is unsettling to see my words divorced from my voice and codified in print, when I had originally intended them for the airwaves (so to speak).
As it turns out, in spite of my feelings about Stille’s methods, I appreciate that the book provides the opportunity to step back and look at the group whole—something I haven’t often been able to do with the Fourth Wall. The Sullivanians may be heavy on facts, but Stille manages to assemble all those hard-won bits and pieces into a pattern. Perhaps it took an outsider to provide this bird’s-eye view (more of a magpie than the vulture I feared), someone with no grievances or resentments and nothing to lose.Reading Stille’s account makes it hard to deny the ways that the group had become dangerous to both the adults who had signed up for it willingly and the children who were born into it without any say.
I was especially struck—not for the first time but perhaps with new force—by the irony of the fact that so much of the unhappiness the therapists said they were preventing by eschewing the nuclear family was visited on the kids anyway. Like the children of many “normal” families, we were expected to follow rules we didn’t understand, and we lived in fear of getting in trouble if we failed to do so. We may not have had overbearing mothers or stifling family units, but we had unstable and unpredictable networks of caretakers and the consciousness of our own parents’ absence from our care—arguably more damaging for children than a parent who is too involved.
On top of that, we each have our own version of the trauma that comes from growing up inside an authoritarian community, one that was in tension with mainstream society, and being asked to navigate that dual existence from a very young age. Just like the people Saul was supposedly trying to save with his therapeutic interventions, we have turned out to have varying degrees of anxiety, depression, addiction, and a lot of anger toward our parents.
In that same meditation on storytelling that kicks off The White Album, Didion refers to a destabilizing period during which, she says, “I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.” As an adult, in all this writing and thinking and talking—and reading—about the Fourth Wall, I am trying to look beneath the stories that so many others have told me and perhaps uncover some truths about my childhood, always hoping to make sense of it so I can make sense of myself.