The Sullivan Institute Was A Psychotherapy Cult Based In New York's West Side That Demonized Nuclear Families

The Sullivan Institute may not be as notorious as other cults in America, but that doesn't mean its intent or practices were any less sinister. The group emerged in the 1950s with an agenda to demonize the nuclear family, specifically women's roles as mothers. Much like the Grail Movement in Germany blended elements of Christianity with the New Age movement, the Institute's founder, Saul Newton, took pieces of psychotherapy, teachings from Marxism and Communism, and his idea of polygamy to form a uniquely cultish ideology. 

The appeal of the cult started to dwindle in the 1980s. Media outlets began detailing the cult's multiple custody fights as defectors attempted to get their children back from the sect. After Newton's passing in 1991, the Sullivanians appeared to be no more. Unlike other cults that maintain an online presence, the Sullivan Institute remains only in news reports and the lives of people affected by its message of family destruction and maternal scorn.



  • The Institute Forced Polyamory And Assigned Partners To Its Members
    Photo: Boxflip / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    The Institute Forced Polyamory And Assigned Partners To Its Members

    Saul Newton's then-wife, Helen Fogarty, led the Institute at the side of her husband, working as a therapist to its members. During these sessions, Fogarty sometimes instructed members to have intercourse with Newton. If a woman expressed her desire to have a child with Fogarty, she made sure the future mother accepted the cult's mandate of including multiple potential fathers in the conception process. 

    A piece in New York magazine further outlined the strictly enforced intimacy regulations. Ex-members shared stories of being forced to share their beds with new partners on a nightly basis. Married couples were not permitted to live together. Former member Paul Sprecher recalled Newton engaging in relations with a woman for whom he cared deeply, simply out of spite. 

  • Members Needed Permission To Have Children

    Former member Michael Bray recalled to People that Sullivan Institute therapist Alice Dobosh approached him about having a child with her. The request was approved by Saul Newton and the other leaders. The pair had twin girls. Once born, the children spent the majority of their time with babysitters in the commune and only an hour or two per day with their parents. Once they reached an appropriate age, the twins, like the rest of the children, were forced to attend boarding school.

    Another member, known only as Josephine, told New York magazine she followed instructions to place her two daughters in boarding schools, leaving them with minimal contact with their mother for 13 years. 

  • Member Finances Were Tightly Controlled And Collected For The Cult

    Some of the cult members received instructions as to which jobs they should take in order to make money for the Institute. The leaders levied fines against members who did things like show too much interest in their own children ($10,000). Other times, members received orders disguised as requests to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cult to assist in their "personal growth."

    Although members cut off communication with family members outside of the cult, they did receive encouragement to beg for money from them to line the Institute's pockets. Moreover, members worked multiple jobs to assist the growth of the cult and pay for required babysitters and boarding school for children. 

  • Mandatory Weekly Therapy Sessions Had Members Pushing Away Their Families And Outside Friends

    Institute members and therapists all lived together commune-style in three Upper West Side buildings. This allowed Newton to keep the women and men apart while also ensuring followers took part in the weekly mandated therapy sessions. Several ex-members said during these therapy sessions, they were told an array of horrible things, from the notion that their mothers loathed them to suggestions that they were as evil as the SS during the Holocaust.

    Ex-members Paul Sprecher and Michael Bray said during some of these obligatory meetings, therapists showed them old childhood photos, insinuating their mothers were disgusted by them. Bray was so convinced by this manipulative tactic that he started obeying all of the Institute's orders, including divorcing his wife so he could abide by the free-love tenet of the cult.