Fourth Wall sullivanians sex cult

The Sullivanians, the psychotherapy sex cult at the center of the new docuseries The Fourth Wall, offered a pitch that may sound grimly appealing to any sleep-deprived parent who has had to calm a screaming child, or break up a fight between their toddlers:

The nuclear family is the root of all evil, and someone else should be raising your kids for you.

The cult’s argument is even more darkly alluring when you consider how much time people spend in psychotherapy talking about how their parents ruined them. But the Sullivanians took the “it takes a village” concept to the extreme, separating kids from their biological parents to be raised by volunteers, who provided childcare in exchange for psychoanalysis.

But: Watching The Fourth Wall, you might quickly come to feel about nuclear families the way Winston Churchill felt about democracy — that it’s the worst system, except for all the others.

Keith Newton, one of the creators of The Fourth Wall, which just premiered at the Tribeca Festival, is in a unique position to critique the Sullivanian system: He is the son of the cult’s founder, Saul Newton, who died at 85 in 1991, the same year the cult fell apart. His mother, Helen, was also a Sullivanian.

Also Read: No, Mel Gibson Is Not Making a Jeffrey Epstein Doc

Saul Newton’s New York Times obituary noted that he was “a psychotherapist who ran an unorthodox commune in Manhattan that was assailed by ex-members as an abusive cult,” and detailed how members were taught that traditional family ties were the source of mental illness, lived in group apartments, and were expected to sleep with different sex partners. Married couples could not love together, and parents saw their children, who were mostly raised by babysitters, for an hour a day and one evening a week.

By the group’s peak in the 1970s and ’80s, it hid in plain sight, with hundreds of members living communally in three buildings on the Upper West Side. Through interviews with former members, Keith Newton and the film’s director, Luke Meyer, lay out how it all worked.

The Fourth Wall Sullivanian Sex Cult
A performance by the Sullivanians, as seen in The Fourth Wall

Some former followers of Saul Newton still have some fond memories — at least of the sex. But many were deeply traumatized by the rules, control, and breakdown of marital and parent-child relationships. The group’s demise included grim custody disputes, and many questions about whose children were whose.

The group took its name from prominent psychiatrist Henry Stack Sullivan. In 1957, Saul Newton and Dr. Jane Pearce, his wife at the time, split off from the Sullivan-oriented William Alanson White Institute to form their own group, though, the Times notes, outside experts felt that they distorted Sullivan’s ideas.

The Fourth Wall details how Dr. Newton would offer free psychotherapy to youthful New Yorkers, asking them to perform babysitting or other jobs in exchange. They would be given positions of increasing responsibility, and made to feel, in classic cult fashion, as if they controlled their destinies, and had escaped the rules of society at large. They were smart and artistic, and Dr. Newton encouraged them, inviting them to take part in avant garde theatrical productions and other creative pursuits.

You may wonder if the world needs another cult docuseries. You need look no further than countless Netflix documentaries and the HBO series The Idol to see the publication fascination is there.

But The Fourth Wall offers a level of commitment and understanding that many films about cults do not. It empathetically explains how so many smart, well-meaning people could make so many mistakes. They were earnestly looking for a better way. And their leader exploited that.

The Fourth Wall premiered over the weekend at the Tribeca Festival.

This post, first published earlier this month, has been updated with a preview from the docuseries.