“Mr Stille carefully documents the institute’s unravelling and eventual collapse in the 1990s...The author is sensitive to the human cost of this experiment. He elicits zinging critiques from his sources—not least one of Newton’s daughters, Esther, who remarks that her father’s project ‘combined the worst of Marxism, psychoanalysis and the musical theatre.’”

– The Economist

" [The Sullivanians] is the kind of compulsive read meant to be devoured on a fire escape in the
sultriest August heat.”

– Town & Country

“Juicy and fascinating...I tore through ‘The Sullivanians’ in two sittings.”

– The New Yorker

“[A] riveting narrative . . . A brilliantly written, sobering investigation of a secret society within plain sight.”

– Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

“An intimate and engrossing look at the Sullivan Institute, a radical polygamous therapy group that emerged in 1950s New York . . . Doggedly researched and thoroughly compassionate, this is a page-turning exposé.”

– Publishers Weekly

"Alexander Stille’s 'The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune'...tells the mesmerizing and harrowing story of the Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis, which sprang up in the late 1950s, a decade before the flowering of the counterculture, in a town house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and was dissolved in 1991. Stille’s artfully structured account reads like a suspenseful psychological thriller or, as it may be, a baffling cautionary tale."

Daphne Merkin, "Air Mail"

“The Sullivanians”… is perfectly emblematic of the strange magic of Stille’s narrative style. He is a meticulous, dispassionate journalist and researcher, his tone calm and measured to a degree that it can feel almost cold. Yet within it is a warmth and compassion not just for human frailty and foibles, but for the hope people feel about their future…, about their potential. It is avoice particularly sensitive to, and very good at portraying, youthful hope.

“The Sullivanians” has a novelistic depth, and is so filled with voices that at times it reads like an oral history,but throughout the book, the careful, restrained voice of Stille ...guides the narrative. Paradoxically, it’s a story that culminates with the tremendous efforts people will make to connect with, andcreate, exactly the kind of nuclear family the Sullivan Institute was so intent on destroying."

Thomas Beller, “The Washington Post.”

“[An] authoritative account of counterculture family re-engineering gone wrong . . . Engrossing and mesmerizing . . . This gripping tale of an attempted societal shift will entrance readers.”

– Library Journal

“Stille interviewed multiple Sullivanians and poured over personal papers and court documents to develop a linear account of the group’s astonishing rise and decline . . . [An] in-depth, endlessly absorbing history.”

– Booklist

"Though there were always whispers on the Upper West Side about our neighborhood cult, the Sullivanians kept their secrets well. Now Alexander Stille exposes their truth and it’s more awful and bizarre than anything we’d imagined―a gothic tale of Boomer dreams for a better world twisted into control, abuse, and yes, even some amateur theater. But The Sullivanians doesn’t stop there. Ultimately the questions it asks aren’t just about cults; they’re about the nature of family and what it means to belong."

– Thomas Dyja, author of New York

"The tragic history of the notorious pseudo-psychoanalytic group known as the Sullivanians and the lives of its leaders and members is chronicled here by Alexander Stille with great clarity, without ever sacrificing complexity. The reader is given a carefully nuanced, insightful history of a social experiment begun in the 1960s that went horribly out of control over a period of 30 years. Each person described in the story is given dimensionality and humanity, which creates a far more moving and meaningful picture of a cult than the typical salacious accounts offered in the media. Stille's portrait of the Sullivanians, a group that is emblematic in so many ways of the human potential movement of the late 20th century, is fully relevant today. Cults and conspiracy theories have never been more prolific than now, in a (maybe) post-COVID world. Stille tells this fascinating history masterfully."

– Daniel Shaw, psychoanalyst and author of Traumatic Narcissism

The Sullivanians

The devolution of the Sullivan Institute, from psychoanalytic organization to insular, radical cult.

In the middle of the Ozzie and Harriet 1950s, the birth control pill became available and a maverick psychoanalytic institute, the Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis, opened its doors in New York City. Its founders wanted to start a revolution, one grounded in ideals of creative expression, sexual liberation, and freedom from societal norms, and the revolution needed to begin at home. Dismantling the nuclear family—and monogamous marriage—would free ki you could if you want to edit the main content here when you come back to this and you open up the content section here you can edit the title and subtitle or they’re the book description hereds from the repressive forces of their parents. The movement attracted many brilliant people as patients, including the painter Jackson Pollock and a swarm of other artists, the singer Judy Collins, and the dancer Lucinda Childs. By the 1960s, it had become an urban commune of hundreds of people, with patients living with other patients, leading a creative, polyamorous life.

By the mid-1970s, under the leadership of its cofounder Saul Newton, it devolved from a radical communal experiment into an insular cult, with therapists controlling virtually every aspect of their patients’ lives, from where they lived to how often they saw their children. Although the group was highly secretive, even after its dissolution in 1991, Alexander Stille has reconstructed the inner life of this hidden parallel world. Through countless interviews and personal papers, The Sullivanians reveals the nearly unbelievable story of a fallen utopia in the heart of New York City.

Listen to audio intervews

Listen to a curated selection of audio interviews from people who were involved with the infamous Sullivanians cult from New York in the 1970s. Gain unique firsthand insights and a deeper understanding of what life was like within the cult.

Listen to author interviews

About Alexander

Alexander Stille is a journalist and author of six books as well as a professor of international journalism at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

Meet the author