The Fourth Wall documentary series is a fascinating and timely exposé whose first episode received its world premiere screening at the Tribeca Film Festival 2023. Directed by Luke Meyer (Breaking a Monster) with cult founder Saul Newton’s son Keith Newton guiding the story, we learn the inside track of the secretive group called “the Sullivanians.” Meyer and Newton wrote the screenplay.
The Fourth Wall‘s filmmaker insightfully explores this unique ’70s and ’80s cult through interviews of former members. Narcissistic, charming, older leader Saul Newton established the group in an unlikely place: Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Young female and male acolytes fell under his spell, and the cult drew now-famous individuals (i.e. Wes Craven, Judy Collins). Interviews with Craven provide inside perspectives.
Emphasizing wellness through philosophy and psychotherapy, Saul Newton attracted many. Initially, it was a utopian free-love existence. But Newton’s despotism grew frightening.
Interviews with former Sullivanians
Through interviews of former members the filmmakers show how the cult came to believe that a nuclear family always encouraged a negative environment. Thus, at Saul’s direction the group discouraged children being raised by their birth parents.
At its height, the cult numbered around 400 members – men, women and children, doctors, lawyers and the educated. Emphasizing psychological healing, Newton applied his philosophical ideas and psychotherapy in group sessions. He manipulated the cultists, attracting many to a free-love, quasi-utopian existence. But it was his rules that directed the communal lifestyle. In the first episode, the filmmakers give us “intimate and exclusive” access to former members, therapists, and children raised by the group.
Saul Newton Began with Henry Stack Sullivan’s Theories
Searching for his own meaning and purpose, Saul Newton examined the theories of psychiatrist Henry Stack Sullivan. But he and Dr. Jane Pearce, his wife, changed Sullivan’s approaches and theories. By 1957 they had separated from the Sullivan-based William Alanson White Institute. Promoting their own therapies, they advanced their own beliefs and applications.
As most cults do, fearful of outside intervention and criticism, the group maintained secrecy. It reached its greatest numbers in the 1970s. It purchased three buildings on the Upper West Side that housed hundreds of members. The Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis (founded by Dr. Pearce) identified the group’s purpose. Connecting its own purpose with disseminating the cult’s ideas, a theater organization tied in with the Sullivan Institute. The Fourth Wall Repertory Company (in the East Village) produced plays by cult members.
Gradually, negative reports emerged
Though he rode on the back of Sullivan’s concepts initially, Newton created his own agenda. Distorting Sullivan’s original ideas, he merged utopian philosophies. Following timely trends, he drew in members with ideas of world transformation. But these amorphous concepts lacked direction and concrete activities to produce that broad goal.
The strongest parts of the first episode of The Fourth Wall are the interviews of former members discussing Sullivanian beliefs. Like many in the 1960s who believed in “changing the world,” the Sullivanians lacked action plans.Their grandiose ideas remained ungrounded. Not starting small, they didn’t start at all. Overcome by the big picture, they devolved, like many groups of the time, a time rife with exploiters, into purposelessness. Sex, drugs and music took over.
Nothing healthful evolved
Saul Newton debased any notion of evolving something healthful. The cult was not a shining example to a perverse world. Newton married six times, selfishly disposing of women he tired of and moving on. As with other groups, the “free love commune” of New York City’s Upper West Side debased itself. Sadly, the “exes” remained in the group looking for a crumb from their “master.”
The cult members reinforced each other. Fearful of exposure from the outside world, the members remained secretive. Sometimes, intimidation by Saul Newton became necessary to hold the group together.
The Fourth Wall provides an eye-opening portrait of how groups become cults that circle the wagons against outside influence. Director Luke Meyer and Keith Newton reveal the dangers of groups that resist outside scrutiny.
Look for this streaming documentary series. Meanwhile Gothamist has an interesting article on the cult.