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 Scientology or 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.
A basic tenet of Saul Newton's teachings laid the blame of mental trauma at the feet of mothers. Former member Chris Cherney so fervently believed this that he told his sister that their mother wished she wasn't alive an infant; she was sickly and a challenge to raise. The therapy continued to infect his mind, and soon enough, he believed his mother was the sole reason for his family's dysfunction.
Another ex-member, Paul Sprecher, recalled a similar procedure. Bray, who was actually Sprecher's therapist briefly, told Sprecher to look at old photographs of him and his mother. Bray had Sprecher convinced his mother had nothing but disdain for everyone in the photographs. According to Sprecher, the therapist suggested his mother's buried resentment informed the way he interacted with the world, and his warped functionality is what brought him to seek help at the Institute.
The Sullivan Institute peddled the idea of communal living to its members. The cult's therapists and members shared three neighboring buildings on the Upper West Side of New York City. Leader Saul Newton viewed the collective living situation as a solution to the high cost of living in the area.
Newton kept the men and women in separate quarters, and the children were situated in yet another area and were mainly looked after by caretakers. To make up for the division, Newton required each man, woman, and child to have dates on a daily basis. For the children, this meant playdates. For the adults, this meant intercourse.
While living on the Upper West Side, the Sullivanians reportedly got into heated disagreements with their neighbors. One such incident involved people in an apartment on 100th and Broadway on July 29, 1985. The Sullivanians believed the residents poured paint on their buildings and decided to retaliate. Cult members allegedly beat their neighbors with blunt objects and smashed their possessions before fleeing.
After signing paperwork for a lease on the building that became the Fourth Wall Theater, the cult members pushed out the previous occupants by damaging their property and harming a few people.
After the Three Mile Island catastrophe in 1979 - an incident in which Reactor 2 of the island's Nuclear Generating Station experienced a partial meltdown - Newton and approximately half of the Institute members fled to Florida. They believed Manhattan's destruction was imminent, given its proximity to the Harrisburg, PA, nuclear facility. After several weeks in Orlando, the group returned to New York. Those members who did not travel to Florida were ostracized by Newton.
Newton and new wife Joan Harvey began accumulating property in the Catskills to continue the Institute's growth. They ordered a room built on the property's resort for Harvey to work on films, but the specifications read more like a fallout shelter with thick steel walls. Other instances of paranoia became apparent; Newton made wild escape plans that involved large buses for the adults and motorcycles for individuals carrying children separately in knapsacks.