A few months ago, I wrote an article titled Political and Spiritual Cults. My purpose was to show the commonalties among all cults, whether they are political, spiritual or psychological. In this article I want to narrow the focus to discuss a left-wing psychological cult, the Sullivanians, a countercultural organization that made its mark on the Upper West Side of New York City between 1970 and the early 1990s. Why bother to do this? Because as a socialist I have to face that any socialist organization I join, whether it be social democratic, Leninist or even anarchist, has the potential to become a cult. The more we know about the conditions under which cults emerge, the more we can combat them.
Overcoming Media Biases Against Cults
When mass media compares cult members to the general population, cult members are portrayed as:
- Mentally unstable
- Less educated
- From the poor and working-class backgrounds
- Physically intimidated into joining
- Drawn from criminal elements
- Less moral as people
Research has shown none of this to be true.
Plan of the Article
For the most part I will be following the architecture I built in my previous article, including what is a totalistic institution; the ten characteristics of cults; the stages cults go through; the mechanisms of control in each stage; why people stay; what kind of qualities the leaders have and what is the impact of leaving on cult members.
I will be adding a short section on the theoretical assumptions of the Sullivanians at the beginning. For each of these units I will say something about how it applies to the Sullivanians. Besides my article, I will be referring to two books on the Sullivanians: Amy Siskind's sociological analysis, The Sullivan Institute/Fourth Wall Community: The Relationship of Radical Individualism and Authoritarianism, and a book by a participant, Artie Honan How Did A Smart Guy Like Me". For my general understanding of cults, I owe the most to Margret Singer, Janja Lalich and Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad.
The Sullivanian Institute was a spin-off organization that broke away in 1957 from the work of Harry Stack Sullivan. Sullivan was sensitive to the social side of psychological dynamics and among other insights blamed the nuclear family for the formation of the ideal capitalist consumer. Both Dr. Jane Pearce and Saul Newton took these criticisms of the nuclear family much further. In 1963, Pearce and Newton coauthored a book called Conditions of Human Growth. In that book they identified the family as socially isolating the individual from developing healthy relationships with friends, especially in adolescence and adulthood.
Open-ended friendships, both sexual and otherwise, were the way out of the infantilization of the nuclear family and the road to maturity. For them, friendships are the first potential of experience of love between equals. A big part of therapeutic work was to get their patients to expand their friendships as they withdrew from their families. Newton and Pearce considered the desire for the security of exclusive relationships among their patients to be a neurotic symptom. In fact, one of the first things on the agenda of the Sullivanians therapists was to separate the patients from their parents. On the whole the two foundation stones of the Sullivanians community were:
- To break from their family of origin
- To have non-monogamous sexual relations among friends
WHAT IS A TOTALISTIC INSTITUTION?
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