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American Cult: 5 Spiritual Groups That Went Too Far

From the Heaven's Gate tragedy to a sect that allegedly encouraged sex between kids and adults, a look into some utopian communities gone wrong

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Sullivanians (1957 – 1991)
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Barbara Antmann, sister of a Sullivanian follower, in front of the sect's Upper-West-Side headquarters. Marianne Barcellona/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty3/5

Sullivanians (1957 – 1991)

Saul B. Newton founded The Sullivan Institute in 1957 with his wife, Dr. Jane Pearce, in an attempt to create a viable alternative to the traditional nuclear family, which he viewed as the root of all social anxiety. Located in three buildings on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the Sullivan Institute operated as both a therapy center and a polyamorous commune, despite the fact that Newton, the leader, had no formal training as a therapist. Unlike other practicing therapists who worked under a strict code of ethics, there were no such boundaries for the Sullivanians, as the members of the Institute were known, with therapists and other members of the community sleeping with each other regularly. In fact, they were forbidden from engaging in exclusive relationships. Any children born to Sullivanians were sent away to boarding school or caretakers with very little visitation from their parents. All members were encouraged to cut ties with their former friends and family members. In the 1970s, the group – which had around 500 membersmerged with a progressive theater collective call the Fourth Wall and relocated to Orlando in 1979 following the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island. After seeing a decline in membership in the 1980s, the Sullivan Institute ended with the death of Newton in 1991.

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