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(Credit: David Doobinin)

It’s common knowledge that Hamptons artists like Jackson Pollock and other famed painters, sculptors, sketchers and writers, ran in many of the same circles out here on the East End. But what author Alexander Stille found in his new book, The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune, was that some of them — along with a multitude of other high-profile South Fork inhabitants — also belonged to an odd-ball cult, of which few knew the existence until Stille began to dig more deeply.

The Sullivan Institute is a somewhat lesser-known cult that is explored in great detail in The Sullivanians, the latest book from Stille, an Orient resident and Columbia University journalism professor. 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.

You’d be forgiven for not knowing about the Sullivan Institute, despite its long run in Manhattan and the Hamptons. In fact, Stille, 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,” Stille says. He was simultaneously 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, and not too far from his other residence on the East End.

The Sullivan Institute included “patients” ranging from celebrity artists to corporate figures — folks 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,” Stille says. “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 adaptor 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 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.

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 says. 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,” Stille says. 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,” Stille says. 

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 Bookhampton at 41 Main Street in East Hampton.