Meet Karen Bray
| Meet: Karen Bray Native: New York City Occupation: Assistant Professor of Religion & Philosophy, Wesleyan College |
When Karen Bray talks about her defiant teenage years, she doesn’t immediately call to mind the usual struggle – “I did a year at the University of Richmond,” she says. “It’s the kind of college campus with sororities, frats, lots of tradition – it wasn’t that authentic to who I am, and I ended up dropping out after freshman year, but I was rebelling against my lefty hippy parents.” Okay, so there was a nontraditional, Alex P. Keaton-esque situation here – subverting the usual paradigm of wild kids sloughing off the burdens of stodgy conservative parents by being the traditionalist kid defying the hippies. She goes on to talk about her life after finishing her undergrad degree at the New School in NYC: “I was working as a union organizer, and wasn’t sure yet what I wanted to do with my degree – public policy, psychology, communications, political speechwriter. I went to see a family friend get ordained as a Unitarian minister, and something shifted in me as I heard people talking about what it means to be a minister, how you walk with people in intimate moments like marriage and death, how you’re called to give a talk each Sunday that inspires and challenges. I started to think that intellectually maybe there was something to that kind of work. I didn’t name it that at the time, but now I see it as a call from God to become a minister.” She pauses for a beat before continuing: “I was raised for the first nine years of my life in a Communist psychotherapy cult on the upper west side of Manhattan, and my parents were ardent atheists,” she says. “So I didn’t know what I was doing. I cried for two weeks, and didn’t tell anybody anything.”
The Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychotherapy – Sullivanians for short, though Karen grew up calling them the Fourth Wall, after the East Village theater of the same name that they owned – was a radical experiment in communal living; part therapy clinic and part polyamorous commune, Sullivanians – who counted several famous people, such as Jackson Pollock, Wes Craven, and Judy Collins among their ranks – believed that the nuclear family and binary bonds were damaging and dangerous, and its leaders worked with a heavy hand to control and reprogram members. “They’d have people go on thirty dates a month, so they wouldn’t get focused on any one person,” Karen says, and parents weren’t permitted to bond with their children in the traditional ways – in fact, most children, even very young ones, were sent away to boarding school. Not Karen and her twin sister, though – their mother got permission from leaders to “do a baby project” and was subsequently encouraged by leaders to sleep with multiple men to facilitate the pregnancy. This led to the fascinatingly rare heteropaternal superfecundication – that is, Karen and her twin sister have two different biological fathers. “You know that movie Twins, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito? I used to joke with my sister that she was Danny DeVito – even though now I gotta say I wouldn’t mind being Danny DeVito – but that actually is, in a way, what happened with us,” laughs Karen.
It will come as no surprise that growing up as a Sullivanian has had lasting repercussions for Karen. Children of higher-up leaders were given special treatment; one of Karen’s childhood babysitters told her later in life that those kids got to eat first, while less-important children waited for what was leftover – “That’s how you train dogs to know who’s the alpha,” says Karen grimly – and if she ever got into an altercation with a leader’s child, she automatically lost. “I never got to be Barbie – I always had to be Skipper,” Karen says. “This narrative of ‘you are less than they are’ has totally affected me going forward, and I still sometimes live in fear that people around me will find out that I’m supposed to be a peripheral figure – it’s just ingrained.”
Karen’s family left the Sulivanians in 1992, when she was nearly ten years old – her father had broken with the cult and sued her mother for custody of her and her sister, and the story had become very public, with coverage in every major newspaper, People magazine, The Joan Rivers Show, Larry King, and many others. Finally her parents settled on joint custody, and just like that, they packed up and moved to New Jersey, where they were expected to move forward as ‘regular’ kids and leave the past in the past. “That was hard,” Karen says, “and now as a result I overtell the story, I’m very low-boundary about who I share all this with, because the silence was as traumatic to me as the actual experience.” She’s had lots of opportunities to share her side of things – while she was a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, she was given money to research and write about it, which was useful – “Being able to put a narrative to it made me feel like I had some control over things,” she says – and currently, Keith Newton, whose parents were two of the highest-up Sullivanian leaders, is making a documentary entitled Fourth Wall about the group, and Karen has been interviewed extensively for that.
As an adult, Karen has successfully worked her way through the traumas of her childhood to carve out space for herself in a career that’s gratifying for her and her students alike – her initial call to be a minister transitioned slightly into a call to teach. “I think of it as a ministry still,” she says, “I get to midwife other people’s difficult philosophical and theological work, and by far the place I come most alive is in the classroom.” She’s currently in her second year teaching at Wesleyan, where she’s taught courses in ancient philosophy, postmodern philosophy, race and religion in U.S. ethics, and post-humanist thought. Her specialty is feminist, queer, and political theology, and her dissertation – titled Unredeemed – may be landing a book contract soon. Her vigorous intellect, obvious passion for what she does, and dynamic, insightful classroom presence won her the student-nominated award for Professor of the Year last year at Wesleyan, which is high praise in a career that can often be exhausting and all-consuming.
Transitioning socially into a new and different environment proved to be a little more difficult for Karen – she did have one good friend here, First Baptist Church of Christ pastor Scott Dickison, and that was of course helpful, but building a true nurturing community took time and work. “I just started to relentlessly put myself out there,” she says. “I used my organizing skills to connect with other people, and I started to feel different and deeper connections – those kinds of authentic relationships are what I crave. I felt like a Martian for awhile, being 34, single, and childless, but now I’m starting to feel like I’ve found my people.” Karen Bray has one of the more fascinating life stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing, and she’s able to discuss difficult topics with quick, fluid depth and introspection – though her childhood spent in a therapy cult has left some dark imprints on her, it’s also brought some positivity with it. “I know that community matters,” she says, “and that it is possible to build friendships that are like family. I know that silence in times of strife isn’t an option and I’m not afraid to speak up. And I’m not freaked out by anyone else’s story, because I’ve lived through something that could easily destroy someone. I know some people are able to compartmentalize things, but that’s not me – so I had to face it, process it, try to understand it.”