Two Anxious Fathers Battle a Therapy 'Cult' for Their Kids
07/25/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
New York seemed a city of infinite possibilities to Paul Sprecher. A Wisconsin farm boy, he'd gone east for the first time to attend Harvard. Graduating in 1972 with highest honors, he landed a private-school teaching job in Manhattan and answered an innocent-looking ad for a room in a group apartment on the Upper West Side. Delighted to find his three new roommates intelligent and introspective, he confided to them that he had trouble making friends. They suggested he try the psychotherapy they swore by. Sprecher agreed.
Michael Bray had also come to New York from the Midwest, from Sioux City, Iowa. In 1972 he was a graduate student in psychology at Fordham University, living with his wife in the Bronx. The Brays The leaden Saul Newton were having marital problems, and Mike decided to get counseling. A fellow student referred him to a psychiatrist on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Vulnerable and unwary, Sprecher and Bray had been lured into the twilight world of the little-known Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis, which both now call a "psychotherapy cult." It would take them more than a decade to find their way out, and even then, they had to leave their children behind. Sprecher's child-custody battle, on the New York State Supreme Court docket this week, and Bray's, this fall, will put the Institute's allegedly bizarre practices on trial.
Sprecher and Bray's therapists were no ordinary psychoanalysts. Their goals, according to the two men, were to use—or misuse—analytic techniques to influence young patients to join a brave new world. Sprecher and Bray would become obedient and high-level members of a group of well educated, successful adults who live in three Institute-controlled apartment buildings and follow the orders of a charismatic and tyrannical 82-year-old psychoanalyst named Saul Newton.
Bray says that, along with three other leaders—Newton's ex-wife Joan Harvey, his current wife, Helen, and Harvey's husband, Ralph Klein—Newton directs, through a cadre of nine loyal therapists, the living arrangements, professional lives, finances, marriages and sexual practices of about 200 patients. "We were told by our therapists that the nuclear family was the source of all evil," recalls Bray, who was directed to divorce his wife, and did. In court documents and interviews, Bray and Sprecher describe conditions of Sullivanian life: Patients are instructed to have no contact with their parents except to ask them for money—which they are often ordered to do. Monogamy is taboo, and members are required to sleep with a different group member every night. "Sleeping alone is considered an act of hostility toward the group," says Bray.
Newton, a longtime leftist who fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, allegedly led members to believe that mothers unconsciously hate their children. To prove the point, the two men say, some of his therapists advise patients to return home for one "last look" and to bring back childhood photos. As Newton's therapists interpret them, the pictures always reveal the same thing. Bray, who served for a time as Sprecher's therapist, told him, "Look at the way your mother is holding you. Her contempt is obvious." To eliminate such destructive emotions, Bray and Sprecher claim, Newton took complete control of procreation within his Institute, selecting pairs Of patients to mate.
Bray, who earned his PhD in psychology in 1976, was anointed a Sullivanian therapist in 1979. Two years later, he says, he was asked by fellow therapist Alice Dobosh to father a child. "This had been decided by Newton," Bray says. "I thought to myself, 'I must be doing better than I imagined if I've been chosen to have a kid. What a neat thing! 'It was clear that this was a definite elevation."
That same year, Sprecher, who had become a computer consultant, and his Newton-approved wife—Julia "Dee Dee" Agee, daughter of the late writer James Agee—were deemed fit to be parents. Bray and Sprecher say that, like all parents, they were permitted an hour or two a day with their babies. The rest of the time the children were tended by Sullivanian baby-sitters. "We were all in such thrall to Newton," says Bray. "If he had told me to drink the Kool-Aid during those years, I would have done it."
If Newton was revered by his patients, he was also feared. For infractions of his rules, according to Sprecher, Newton levied fines of up to $10,000. If parents displayed possessiveness toward their children, they were berated for becoming too "focused." Ultimately, a child could be taken away altogether. "I was instructed to take an infant away from its mother because she wasn't 'fit,' " recalls Bray. "Finally, in 1985, I realized that they could do this to me and my children too. That's when I decided to leave."
Sprecher—who fled the Sullivanians in 1986—is trying to wrest his 5-year-old son from his ex-wife, Agee, whom he claims he married, and later divorced, at Newton's instigation. Bray seeks custody of his 5-year-old twin daughters, who remained behind with Dobosh when he left. Says Sanford Katz, attorney for the two men: "The issue in these cases is whether the entire life-style of the Sullivanians is injurious to the health of children. We think it is."
Bray and Sprecher aren't alone in their pain. People Against Cult Therapy, composed mostly of family members cut off from their Sullivanian relatives, has rallied around the two men. "Just because these people don't wear robes and chant doesn't mean they aren't a cult," says Barbara Antmann, whose sister joined the group 17 years ago. Yet court-appointed psychiatrists have found the mothers fit and recommended that they retain custody. Both women are remarried—Dobosh to Newton's son, Robby—and Agee's lawyer claims she is raising her children in a traditional family. Responds Bray: "The court psychiatrists didn't look at the larger issue of how the group affects the children. The Sullivanians are chameleons. I remember apartments being moved to create the impression that a 'family' lived together."
In response to the upcoming cases, the Sullivanians have grown even more secretive. Group leader Joan Harvey declined to be interviewed, and Newton has called Sprecher a "paranoid schizophrenic" and the two men's claims a "pack of lies." The mothers' lawyers attempted in vain to exclude the press from the trials, citing possible harm to the children. An attorney for 4th Wall Repertory, a politically radical theater company to which all patients belong, submitted a motion calling the fathers "apostates" and asking that testimony about "theater company members" be barred. Says Agee's lawyer, O. Stephen Paganuzzi: "The fathers' attack on the life-style of the members is akin to saying that child-rearing practices of middle-class New Yorkers or Republicans should be examined in custody cases."
The Sullivan Institute wasn't always the authoritarian cult ex-members say it is now. It was founded by Newton and his then wife, Jane Pearce, in 1957, as a progressive psychoanalytic training school named for one of Newton's teachers, the prominent psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan, who died in 1949. The Institute's approach—which diverged radically from Sullivan's own ideas—attracted prominent artists such as abstract painters Kenneth Nolan, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons and Jackson Pollock. Its experimental vision of relationships suited '60s rebelliousness. Judy Collins became a patient (though she never moved in), as did writer Richard Price. But the Institute was widely known for its wild Saturday night parties and sexually free summer house in Amagansett, Long Island. Gradually, ex-members say, Newton's iron grip transformed the group into a reclusive army.
The moment of truth for Sprecher came when he returned to his group apartment to find his 35 male roommates convened at a house meeting to vent their rage at him. They accused him of "psychopathic behavior" for rearranging the living room furniture without permission. As a result, they banned him from the apartment for three days—and even threatened to keep him from his son's birthday party. "I suddenly realized that my property, my home, even my ability to see my child were beyond my control," says Sprecher. "I asked myself how, if I couldn't even control my own life, would I be able to be a parent to my son?"
Sprecher's and Bray's lives were first united by the Sullivanians in 1974. Today the two men are united again, sharing a house in Brooklyn with their children, who are staying with them, by court order, for a few weeks this summer. "For years I followed Saul Newton's orders," reflects Bray. "I enforced Sullivanian rules about parent-children relationships. There was just one little problem Paul and I came across. We fell in love with our kids."