Sometimes You Want to Go

She was not particularly happy living alone, yet it had never occurred to her there was any alternative but marriage. It could be fun living with a group of friends like these, so full of ideas, so full of life … –Marilyn French, The Women’s Room

I was raised in a commune on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that had its roots in a psychotherapeutic training institute run by my father, Saul, in the 1960s. His acolytes, patients, and trainees gradually gelled into a collective, with about 200 members at its height, living in two buildings we owned and a smattering of shared apartments nearby. I lived with my family in a four-story townhouse on West 91st Street, which served as group headquarters, because my father was the de facto guru. It was a fluid living arrangement, with “a family on each floor,” as I used to tell my friends at school to try to normalize it, but no divisions between the floors and no boundaries. A stream of children, adults, and pets used to wander in and out of my room, to my varying delight and irritation.  

The group started out as a loose collective but became increasingly insular, rigid, and controlling in the 70s and 80s, as I was growing up. In addition to living together, going on vacation together, and doing therapy with each other, the adults had mandatory “dates” with different people every night and were not allowed to sleep with anyone outside of the group. Although the kids went to normal schools (in my case a private school on the Upper East Side), back home we were on a rotation of nightly playdates, mirroring the sexual dates of the adults, designed to ensure maximum socialization. We all spent summers at a sprawling property the group owned in the Catskills, where the adults workshopped the plays they would bring back to their political theatre company, the Fourth Wall Repertory Company, housed in a dingy off-off-Broadway theatre on the Lower East Side. 

We got negative media attention in the mid-80s, when a handful of members defected and talked to the press in an effort to shine light on the cultish nature of the group and get their kids out. The articles and TV news exposés started referring to us as the “Sullivanians,” because my father’s psychoanalytical approach was based on the theories of his idol and teacher, Harry Stack Sullivan. The hyper-social practices Saul encouraged—and enforced—were supposed to be the real-life applications of Sullivan’s theories of interpersonal development: maximizing positive relationships, Saul preached, could heal mental, emotional, and societal ills. But “Sullivanians” wasn’t a name we ever used among ourselves. To this day, the former members and the kids of the group—now adults in our 30s and 40s—still refer to it using a shorthand of the theatre company’s name: the Fourth Wall. 

As far as how we talk about the Fourth Wall, it depends on who you ask and where that person is at in their personal journey. The dominant feeling among us, though, is that we are all survivors. That we got out (or, more accurately, the group fell apart) before it could do any more damage than it had already done.  

Now, as an adult—one who looks back skeptically on the whole experiment and who questions the way it’s shaped my own adult life—I’ve thought a lot about the particular crop of people who joined the Fourth Wall. Who were these folks who found their way into the group in the 1960s, and who stuck around in the 70s and 80s, as it became stranger and more oppressive, staking their lives to this self-contained micro-society? 

Fourth Wall members weren’t the only ones drawn to these kinds of arrangements. The country was dotted with communes and group living experiments at the time—hippies, utopians, back-to-the-landers—and most of these commune-goers were refugees from nuclear families, who felt failed by the American promise of a comfortable, thriving middle-class existence. It hadn’t delivered the happiness it had promised, either to their parents or to them. They were also young and stirred up by the various struggles for equality and social justice they had joined in their student days—the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Lib, the Vietnam War protests—and they wanted to keep fighting the good fight, to preserve their political idealism in some concrete form. Like other joiners of intentional communities, many of the people who joined the Fourth Wall had some combination of this political idealism and disillusionment with the American family. All my life I heard tales of their adventures—they had joined up with Students for a Democratic Society, they knew the Weathermen and the Black Panthers—as often as I heard stories of parents grounding them, hitting them, and kicking them out of the house.   

I also feel that the people who joined the Fourth Wall were, in a sense, lost. I hear them say these days that even though they are angry about parts of the group, especially about the way my father and other members of the leadership controlled their life choices, at the time the therapy and the communal living “saved their lives.” I’ve heard my mother say this about my father; I’ve heard several people say it about falling in with the group generally and about particular therapists and mentors. I’m always afraid when I run into former group members that they will resent me because they associate me with my parents, and I can’t deny them the righteousness of their rage. But then someone will pull me aside and say that at the time the therapy with my mother really helped them. It doesn’t vindicate the leadership; it just tells me that the members were searching, and that somehow they found what they were looking for in the Fourth Wall.  

Many of them were quite young, in their 20s, and had suddenly been sprung on the world from childhoods in Michigan, Oregon, New Jersey. Some were anxious or depressed or overwhelmed; they didn’t know how to date or make friends or get a job. They were alone in New York City, and all the unknowns of adult life loomed large. As a man named Daniel put it in a recent New York Magazine article about a group of college kids who got seduced by a charismatic guru, “Part of why I got in a cult at all was because I had no idea how one finds a place to live in New York.” Perhaps people who join groups like this feel a little more adrift in the concrete jungle and a little less equipped to cope than your average post-collegiate 20-something. Building a new life in a big city is much less scary when you are making decisions collectively—or when decisions are being made for you. 

Over the last couple of decades, intentional communities have gone out of fashion, often regarded as an aberration or a holdout from another era, and everyone’s cult radar is on high alert. But I’ve also noticed that all sorts of people who would never join communes—and would certainly not join cults—are nonetheless drawn to communities: yoga centers, food coops, churches, Zen monasteries, Alcoholics Anonymous, “co-living” homes (a new trend in urban housing, with single rented rooms in big, shared dorm-like buildings). My friends spend their vacations attending workshops at spiritual centers like Kripalu in the Berkshires and Ananda Ashram in upstate New York. In the heartland people might be drawn to evangelical Christianity, and in cities on the coasts it might be Eastern philosophy and wellness, but it’s the same instinct. Not just spiritual seeking, but also belonging.

In the book Tribe, the journalist Sebastian Junger studies early American settlers, survivors of wars, and veterans of military service and concludes that humans evolved to live in small communities—supporting each other, sharing resources, and protecting each other from danger. He argues that, with the exception of the military and the ravages of wartime, modern society has become “de-tribalized.” It has effectively cut us off from each other, isolated us, leaving people feeling depressed and rudderless. 

The basic premise of the book rings true to me, even if it tells a somewhat reductive story. The point about the dangers of isolation especially rings true at this Covid moment, when we are all “social distancing” by design, marooned in our own apartments and houses, like the perfect embodiments of the modern problem Junger identifies. And it was perhaps never more true on a cultural level than in the 1950s, when the whole structure of daily life revolved around isolation within a family unit. A successful middle-class life at that time—especially in the rapidly expanding American suburbs—meant your own house, your own car, your own square plot of grass. This certainly wasn’t the way everyone actually lived—see apartment-dwellers and nomadic Beat poets, for two obvious counter-examples, not to mention people of color and immigrants who were explicitly prevented from purchasing homes by redlining practices—but at least in the Zeitgeist of the decade, the nuclear family was king. 

In the 60s, along with the cultural and political changes in the air at the time (music, fashion, sex) came the idea that there was a better way to do it. People didn’t have to box themselves up in their pretty little houses, mired in the neuroses of the two or three other people to whom they happened to be related, gradually deepening the loneliness that was already inevitably part of the human condition. They could, instead, live together. They could share their resources, counsel each other through difficult times, help each other raise children. On top of this, the sexual revolution taught them that they didn’t have to restrict themselves to one partner—an idea that was liberating and thrilling, perhaps especially for products of unhappy monogamous marriages.

The group of women friends in Marilyn French’s novel The Women’s Room, published in 1977, are a perfect manifestation of this dream. They were prisoners of the bleak world of 1950s housewifing, and now they have found their way out of this hell and into a glorious paradise of free love, friendship, and togetherness. Although they never totally succeed in the novel in fulfilling the “vision of community” they’re always fantasizing about, never manage to actually set up a life together, many real people in that era did—or, at least, tried.

The 60s communitarians may have felt that they were doing something radically new, but in fact America has always been a staging ground for utopian experiments, from the Shakers in the eighteenth century to the neo-Christian Oneidas (a free-love commune with some uncanny parallels to the Fourth Wall) and  the first wave of back-to-the-landers in the beginning of the twentieth century, a precursor to the hippies who resurrected the movement 50 years later. From the mid-1700s through to today, there has also been a steady appearance (and disappearance) of various mini-communes in the States inspired by the social utopian thinking of Europeans like Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint Simon—the most famous probably being Brook Farm, founded by Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Transcendentalists in the 1840s. The Fourth Wall differed from many of these experiments because it was in an urban setting and not predicated on the idea of removing oneself from society, but it drew on this same spirit of reinvention. (And, given the fact that we were right in the middle of Manhattan, you’d be amazed at how removed we managed to be. There was no ambiguity about whether people were in or out, and if they left the group, they disappeared from my life completely.) 

Maybe this long history of utopianism is because, in a sense, America sees itself as a utopian experiment, an attempt to chart a brave new world. Or, looked at through Sebastian Junger’s lens, perhaps these 1960s seekers and their forebears were going back even further—to something primal, something essentially human, that they felt had been lost along the way in modern life. In simultaneously returning to and pioneering a mode of communal living, they were reclaiming their basic capacity for happiness.

I’ve also come to believe, though, that there is something in human nature that delights in being told what to do. We want leaders, guides, gurus. We want tutors, life coaches, therapists. We want the doctor to tell us to take two and call him in the morning. Ultimately we want to be happy, and if we can’t figure out how to get there on our own, we start to look to other people to tell us how to do it. Someone must have the answer key. There must be a little man sitting on a mountaintop somewhere who knows what it’s all about. And I think that although this desire to be led exists in everyone to a certain extent, it is more prevalent in some people. And perhaps these people are particularly vulnerable to authoritarian communities—where you not only find like-minded folks who share your burdens, but you all decide to put your faith in the authority of a particular person, text, or system of belief. 

A college friend of mine loved the band Phish. He talked about them obsessively: how many concerts he had been to, what bootleg tapes he had scored, the mysteries and riddles built into their lyrics, the cult of personality around the members. He also smoked a lot of pot and wore 70s-style leisure suits and tie-dye to go with his shoulder-length hair and scraggly beard. About five years after college, this friend became a Hasidic rabbi. You could say he was a seeker, that he wanted to find purpose, that the Phish mania was a stand-in for what would eventually be revealed as his calling. You could also say that he wanted to be told what to do, how to dress, and what to believe in by an authority outside of himself. Does it matter whether it was Phish or Hasidism? Same guy, same beard, different suit. 

It’s not necessarily a sign of weakness of character; some of the most creative and dynamic and intelligent people I know seem to have this tendency. They are searchers, adventurers, thinkers. They want to tap into wisdom. They are motivated to continually recreate their own lives. Look at Cat Stevens: he has said that in the 70s, he toyed with Buddhism, astrology, Zen, numerology, and tarot cards, before discovering the Koran and converting to Islam. Did it have to be the Koran, or could something else have finally seized his imagination? In an interview in Salon, he said that the Koran was “a guidance that would explain everything to me—who I was; what was the purpose of life; what was the reality and what would be the reality; and where I came from.” All his questions were answered, all his problems solved.

If history had aligned such that I was an adult in the 70s—similar to the adult I am now—would I have joined the Fourth Wall? Of course it’s an impossible hypothetical. Who would I be without my communal childhood behind me? But, still, in my little thought experiment, I like to conclude that I’m not that type. I look at my mother who, to this day, nearly 30 years after the break-up of the group, is still eager to be told what to do—by doctors, journalists, and friends. No wonder she fell for my father, who was originally her analyst and then her teacher: he told her he had all the answers and that he would live forever, and on some level she believed him. She used to repeat this line to me when I was little: “I think if anyone can live forever, Saul can do it.” He was husband and guru in one—a charming, compelling know-it-all, who apparently had a touch of the divine. 

I like to think that I wouldn’t have fallen for such a trick, that I’m the kind of person who doesn’t believe in an easy fix, who doesn’t think that gurus or texts (or rock bands) have the key to my happiness. That I’m someone who not only would have been resistant to the power grabs of the Fourth Wall leadership, but who wouldn’t have even been tempted to join the group in the first place. But, again, it’s impossible to know how much of this aversion grows out of my own experience growing up inside the Fourth Wall. I have described myself as being “allergic to cults,” and I have left jobs and avoided social situations because they had whiffs of my childhood. I regard any sweeping, overarching faith with suspicion; I will never find religion. 

Still, a part of me craves community. I desire to live among others. I remember the adults in the Fourth Wall laughing and talking in large groups, dancing wildly at our country place in the Catskills, performing in rock bands together, taking the plays and musicals on tour to Europe, going skiing in Vermont and Colorado. I also see now that I’m an adult (though not a parent) how much easier it was for them to raise their children with other people. I see how hard my friends are working at raising their children on their own, in households with only their partner or, in some cases, by themselves—a task that has become infinitely more challenging (because lonelier) in the Covid era.

I heard a conversation on the subway recently; one young guy was trying to explain to another his dream of living in New York City with friends. “If we could just buy a building together, just to have people upstairs and downstairs who you knew, and you could just say, ‘Hey, can you watch my kid for a couple hours?’ How cool would that be?” I have that thought all the time when I think about childrearing—what a relief it would be if there were people—not just nearby, but right there, in the building—who you could trust with your kids.

My friend Sarah spends summers with her husband and two children in a cottage on a lake in Vermont, part of a little bungalow colony, a remnant of a bygone mid-century era (perhaps one that was slightly less “de-tribalized” than ours is now, in which summer colonies were still in fashion). The parents in the cottages spend time together at the lake—boating, swimming, grilling food—while the children play and catch frogs and put on improvised shows. Sarah is happier on this lake than anywhere else, and she is always trying to find ways to make her life in Brooklyn look more like her summers in Vermont. Her dream, I think, would be to live in a New York City building like the one dreamt of by the man on the subway, where parents take turns caring for each other’s children, where families eat their meals together, where the kids play while the adults drink wine. 

It turns out that Sarah had something a lot like this in her early childhood: her parents were part of an alternative-health community, with a holistic doctor at its center, and they all spent time together at a large Massachusetts property that one wealthy member of the group rented for them (although they didn’t live there). She has joyful memories of playing with the other kids, potluck dinners with them, living with them for brief periods when her family was between houses. For her, the summers in Vermont re-create this idealized time. 

But I don’t think this desire is limited to those of us who had a communal upbringing. I encounter it frequently as a kind of basic human urge funneled into a pipe dream: if only we could find a way to live together. Recently, it has taken on an edge of desperation, with people scrambling to determine who is in their Covid “pod” so that they can ensure some human interaction. It’s the closest to community we can get right now.

Several popular TV shows have been built around this same wish fulfillment, so they must be tapping into something widespread. In the Reaganite 80s, when the country once again went into a 1950s-style social lockdown, hailing the family unit as the backbone of American life, many sit-coms chronicled the adventures of one family in a suburban home, but several others veered in another direction, celebrating unconventional and oddball communities. Cheers had huge success (it ran for 11 seasons, from 1982 to 1993), offering an alternative to the boxed-in worlds of those nuclear-family sit-coms. In Cheers, a group of social misfits, either set free from their families or without families of their own, form a little community in a Boston bar. The appeal of the show lies in the group’s mutual love and support, its tribal nature. As the iconic theme song says, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”

Cheers was my favorite show growing up. I also loved Three’s Company, which looked a lot like the Fourth Wall in miniature: single, sexually liberated twenty-somethings living together in a group apartment and hanging out with the sleazy guy upstairs and the succession of wacky landlords downstairs. (The Golden Girls, another hugely popular show in the 80s, could be seen as a kind of counterpoint to Three’s Company, with the single, sexy roommates turned into 70-somethings instead.) At age 8, way too young for all the sex humor on the show, I would rush home from my after-school gymnastics class to catch Three’s Company, crying if I missed an episode. Years later, in middle and high school, I stayed up late watching re-runs of Cheers every night on the TV in my bedroom. It was comfort food for an anxious, insomniac child. Both Cheers and Three’s Company kept counterculture, sexual freedoms, and friend-driven narratives alive in the American imagination throughout the 80s. They catered to a fantasy about a way of living that, to most Americans at that moment, had an exotic quality, even if the worlds they portrayed were mundane. To me, it was not exotic; it looked like home.

The same could be said for Friends and Seinfeld, the most popular sit-coms of the 90s, two shows that found their joy in groups of friends who spend all their time together, take care of each other emotionally and financially, and sometimes sleep with each other. As with Three’s CompanyFriends and Seinfeld were a bit like microcosms of the Fourth Wall, but they were more conservative shows, always careful to present communal life in a form that was palatable for American TV viewers, one that didn’t call into question the basic assumptions behind traditional family values. The shows, especially Friends, imply that these people are spending so much time together because they haven’t found their spouses and formed their own families yet. But still, both shows suggest, these are the good times. 

Many Americans, particularly those with middle or upper-middle-class upbringings, get glimpses of this kind of thing at summer camp, boarding school, or college. Is college the proverbial “best time of our lives” simply because we are young and on our own? Or is it because there’s an element of communal life that we never manage to create again as adults? That we can only channel in fleeting moments—a weekend away with friends, a family reunion, a cottage on a lake—but never integrate into the basic structure of our lives? 

Of course, poverty or necessity sometimes drive people into these kinds of group living situations. For people who live with family members of many generations, or who live in overcrowded buildings or housing projects where they can’t help but go where “everybody knows their name,” the dream may be, instead, more space, more isolation, a room of their own. But, ironically, there is something in these strained circumstances—some element of tribal living—that those with more money and more access to resources are deliberately trying to re-create. In a similar vein, some urban studies scholars have pointed out the strong kinship networks and systems of interdependence found in poor communities and have bemoaned the loss of them when supposed slums are cleared for “urban renewal.” 

The people who joined the Fourth Wall may have been in one sense lost, or even cowardly, looking for someone to tell them what to do. But in another sense they were brave—manifesting in daily life what many others only wish for or look back at wistfully. They threw off the mantle of monogamy and conventional family life and created their adult lives in the image of their dreams.

This may account for a certain nostalgia and even pride I hear in the voices of the members now when they talk about their time in the group, even if it is mixed with a healthy dash of bitterness. I was at a party recently with several former members—a 70th birthday party for one of them—and they seemed thrilled to see each other again. They screamed with delight, they hugged, they danced in a big circle to the band. Seeing them on the dance floor again, 30 or so years later, reminded me of the joyful part of the group, the celebratory air, which was perhaps as real as the darker parts, even if it doesn’t get as much attention from us now.

Somehow living together all that time kept them young. If you look at pictures from the Fourth Wall, no one really seems to have aged during the 20 or more years they were in the group. The members extended their childhoods into adulthood, turning Saul and Joan—the other key member of the leadership, one of my father’s ex-wives, who ran the theatre company—into their surrogate father and mother. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that they extended their adolescence. They had grown up, but they hadn’t given up teenage pleasures: sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. 

They also hadn’t given up that adolescent embrace of friends, that deep love for the people you’ve surrounded yourself with socially, a phase that for many precedes the adult milestones of partnership or parenthood, after which we sequester ourselves with a chosen few to whom we are bound by blood or law. In the world of the Fourth Wall, no one splintered off into exclusive unions; in fact, if they ever wanted to partner up monogamously, the leadership would quickly push them back into what my mother calls the “group marriage.” And the kids were taught this lesson, too, in big and small ways: friendship is family.

Perhaps if the Fourth Wall had ended much earlier, it would be something we could look back at fondly. Many of the communes from the 60s and before were fleeting, and this was part of their charm. Paul and Percival Goodman, two sibling-scholars, wrote that typically early American utopian societies would disintegrate and then “irradiate society with people who have been profoundly touched by the excitement of community life.” Groups that were shorter-lived, like my friend Sarah’s alternative-health commune, have fared better in the memories of former members, conjuring a more innocent, idealistic time.

But the Fourth Wall only solidified its contours. Instead of collapsing early on, along with most of the other communes, it became more determined to survive, to prove it could withstand the pressures of conventional life, and the effect was ever-greater restriction and control. Saul and Joan, along with their spouses, formed the core of the leadership, and they gradually began to determine the course of members’ lives: who they could date, have children with, live with, or even whether they were fit to be parents at all. In therapy sessions with the leadership and their trainees, members were advised to adhere to certain behaviors—including radical non-monogamy and cutting off ties with their families—and outside of therapy sessions, they were shunned if they made a misstep or questioned authority. Everyone began to live in fear of the leadership’s censure, trying in all things to toe the line. And since their whole social, financial, and personal lives were caught up in the group, it was hard to leave, even if they had admitted to themselves they wanted out. Things got steadily worse over the years, until the group broke apart, suddenly and spectacularly, in the early 90s, shortly after Saul died, when I was a junior in high school. 

On the other hand, perhaps the Fourth Wall never really was as innocent as many of those other groups, even in its early days. In some communes—like in some Communist governments—a leader rises slowly to the top, gradually transforming an ostensibly egalitarian community into a dictatorial one; in the case of the Fourth Wall, the group never could have existed outside of Saul and Joan, two megalomaniacs, who were running things from the moment there were things to run.

At one point in his book, Junger describes how pre-civilization, nomadic humans probably lived: “They would have practiced extremely close and involved childcare. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would have almost never been alone.” That is a strikingly accurate description of my childhood in the Fourth Wall. And it points to what I most loved and most hated about the group. I enjoyed being “in the company of others”—of the babysitters, group members who were much more present than my parents, and of the other children—and I still cherish the relationships I formed with them. But it meant that I was “almost never alone.” I was even taught that the urge to be alone was dangerous and indicative of some personality flaw. I used to invent creative ways to get alone time, my favorite being staying up till 2 or 3 AM, trying on outfits, watching TV infomercials, and rearranging the stuffed animals on my bed. 

When I think about my childhood now, it seems so rich, so vivid, so full of adventures and play. I’m almost afraid to admit this truth because it runs directly counter to another truth about the trauma of a cult childhood—specifically my cult childhood. I want to hold onto my resentment toward my mother for her absence and her willingness to give me up to a cadre of babysitters to raise; my horror at some of what was perpetrated by members in the name of group loyalty, both on each other and on those perceived as outside threats; my knowledge of the damage done to the children by the careless and self-deluding way the adults were living their lives, by their refusal to grow up; and my anger at Saul, my father, for tyrannizing all of us with his so-called wisdom, but what was mainly just his outsized ego and his temper.

It would be misleading to say that I had a happy childhood. I had a confusing and destabilizing and in many ways fearful childhood. I missed my mother, and I was scared of getting in trouble most of the time—getting yelled at by my father or another adult—knowing that there were rules I was meant to follow but never quite understanding what they were. But there is another truth alongside this one: I had a lot of fun living with so many people. I often miss it—although I don’t always miss it. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, but sometimes you just want to go live your own life. There are many days when I cling to being alone as if it’s going to be taken away from me at any moment, when I delight in going to a movie by myself, or sitting alone in a café with a book, or being with my husband in our own apartment, knowing that no one is going to open the door, walk through the living room, and start rifling through our fridge. 

I keep thinking I can’t have a child of my own until I can figure out a way to surround myself with people I know and trust in close proximity. I simply don’t know if I’ll be able to do it without them; I have no childhood models for conventional parenting, and, from what I’ve seen, I’m not sure I find it appealing. I think about what Junger says about close and involved childcare and about mutual dependence, and I wonder if the nomads—and the members of the Fourth Wall—were onto something. I want the commune without the cult, but some days I’m not even sure I want the commune.

“Most primates,” says Junger, “including humans, are intensely social, and there are very few instances of lone primates surviving in the wild.” In this current moment of enforced social isolation, we are all a bit like lone primates. And I guess I’m a particular breed of modern, urban primate, out in the wild of the city, feeling from time to time like a tribe would make it easier to survive.

Pamela Newton teaches in the English department at Yale University and the Humanities faculty at Cooper Union and coordinates pedagogical outreach in the Center for Writing at Cooper Union. She has written essays, reviews, and cultural criticism for publications including The New York Times Magazine, Time Out New York, American Theatre, National Book Review, O the Oprah Magazine, and the Huffington Post. She is working on a book about her childhood, from which this essay is excerpted.