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Orient author explores little known cult

On the cusp of the sexual revolution in the 1950s and ’60s, the New York-based Sullivan Institute purported to be a positive psychotherapy group that believed in sexual freedom, non-monogamy and creative expression. By the early 1990s, the group had dissolved, but not before exploiting its members by controlling their lives, from finances to sexual abuse to isolation. The Sullivan Institute is a somewhat lesser-known cult that is explored in great detail in “The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune,” the latest book from author and Orient resident Alexander Stille.

Readers would be forgiven for not knowing about the Sullivan Institute, despite its long run in Manhattan and the Hamptons. In fact, Mr. Stille, a journalism professor at Columbia University with an interest in off-the-beaten-path history, only heard about it through friends. 

“Initially, I got interested because I simply heard about it, rather by chance, through friends who knew people who’ve been in this group,” Mr. Stille said, “and realized that most of their friends who would gather around their dinner table on Thanksgiving had also been in the same group, and that it had been this really big fundamental experience with these people.”

Mr. Stille was fascinated and taken aback that there was this large collection of people who had lived such a unique experience just a few blocks from his home on the Upper West Side. The Sullivan Institute included “patients” ranging from celebrity artists to corporate figures — folks who would be considered quite “successful” in the mainstream. 

“These people were not in an ashram in India or in rural Idaho, but in the densest, most populated city in our country and worked during the day as high-functioning professionals and came home at night to this very different world,” Mr. Stille said. “It was really intriguing to me and I couldn’t believe I didn’t know anything about it. I got very intensely interested and began researching and reporting and found dozens of people who had been in this group in one way or another, [including] as children, as relatives of people in the group, and began to reconstruct the story.”

An early “patient” of the Sullivan Institute was Jackson Pollock, who lived in Springs. He was one of many Hamptons artists who became Sullivanians, and the institute operated from Amagansett during the summer from the 1950s to the mid-1970s.

As Mr. Stille researched the book, he discovered dark, deeply disturbing truths about the Sullivan Institute. Founder and leader Saul Newton subjected “patients” to sexual abuse, forced women who wanted children to have sex with multiple partners to block men from developing fatherly instincts, and generally controlled every element of their lives.

While Mr. Stille received a little pushback from some sources while researching “The Sullivanians,” one interesting exchange involved the children that were born into the cult. 

“I remember a woman [I interviewed] still had a very favorable view of the group and was angry with me and urged me not to write it. She said, ‘Think about the children’ … the children who were in this group are now in their 40s and 50s. They were not protected when it really mattered, when they were children. It seemed almost laughable that she’d talk about protecting them now.”

Mr. Stille originally researched the topic as a podcast, but the pandemic put a stop to any projects requiring collaboration. “I holed up here in my house in Orient and worked pretty solidly for the better part of 18 months,” he said. And today, he continues to learn about the Sullivan Institute, even after releasing the book.

“After the book came out, someone who was doing research on architecture in the Hamptons wrote to me and said, ‘Could this be a Sullivanian house?’ and sure enough, it was,” Mr. Stille said. The house was built by a man, his wife, and her ex-husband, who lived together in a kind-of menage a trois, but all had separate bedrooms with views of the bay, each with a small consulting room to see patients and small rooms for children and babysitters. “It was designed for a polygamous life. And it’s a quite lovely, modernist piece of architecture,” Mr. Stille said. 

While many of the stories Mr. Stille heard were difficult and questionable — especially when it came to the children — he found the most effective way to write the book was to avoid judging his sources. 

“It was important for me to not pass judgment and just understand. As best I could, I [tried to] park my judgment at the door … there’s no way not to have very strong moral judgments about the leadership who profited from all of this, engaged in what was, objectively speaking, horrible — if not absolutely criminal — behavior.”

“The Sullivanians” is out now and available wherever books are sold, including Burton’s Bookstore in Greenport.