The graves of Alex Horn and Sharon Gans in East Hampton. SPENCER SCHNEIDER
Author Spencer Schneider. KENN LICHTENWALTER
Cover of "Manhattan Cult Story" by Spencer Schneider.
Sharon Gans, escorted into the "Space" by her acolytes, circa 2015. COURTESY SPENCER SCHNEIDER
Karnak in Montana. COURTESY SPENCER SCHNEIDER
Falls Creek Ranch in Montana. COURTESY SPENCER SCHNEIDER
Back in 1989, when an acquaintance invited Spencer Schneider, then 29, to a nondescript unmarked building on lower Broadway in Manhattan for his first meeting, he was at not all that impressed. Referred to simply as School, the group adhered to the teachings of two esoteric Russian philosophers, George Gurdjieff and Piotr Ouspensky, and on that first night, Schneider, who had never heard of the pair despite being a philosophy major at Washington University, found the lecture uninteresting and difficult to follow.
In short, nothing about that initial meeting made him think he’d return, and he certainly didn’t think he was on the verge of being swept up into a movement that would become an all-encompassing part of his life.
But that’s exactly what happened.
Though that first session was less than inspiring, there was something about the people in the group — which was also called “the Work” or “Fourth Way” — that intrigued Schneider. The morale boosts and affirmations that group leaders and fellow members provided compelled him to come back for a second meeting … and then a third. And Schneider kept coming back, for 23 years, paying tuition the entire time, until he finally recognized School for what it was. A mind-controlling organization led by a charismatic leader named Sharon Gans that ultimately drained participants of their autonomy, self-determination and money. After rising through its ranks, by 2013, Schneider finally had had enough and abruptly left the group. In late 2019, he shared his experiences publicly in a story that appeared in EAST magazine (a publication of the East Hampton Star). When Gans, who claimed to be immortal, died of COVID-19 in January 2021 at age 85, Schneider set out to expand his story into book form.
That book is his new memoir, “Manhattan Cult Story: My Unbelievable True Story of Sex, Crimes, Chaos and Survival” published July 5 by Arcade Publishing/Simon & Schuster. On August 3, at 5:30 p.m., Schneider, who has a home in East Hampton, will be at Amagansett Free Library to talk about the book and his experiences in the group, something that he could have never done while he was still in it.
“Just like ‘Fight Club,’ one of the rules of the group was never to talk about it and no one has written about it with their name on it, though there have been a few thousand people in it over the years,” said Schneider. “I was in therapy and learned talking about things was helpful. I started a blog and writing about the group. I wanted to get it out and pull back the curtain, but I also wanted justice and I wanted people still around held accountable — that’s why I started writing it.”
Schneider is a Manhattan lawyer by trade and one of the first questions that inevitably comes to mind is how can it be that a smart, well-educated upper middle class, savvy person like Schneider fell prey to such a group — in New York City, nonetheless?
He chalks it up to a need and longing for connection. At the time he first encountered the group, Schneider, who grew up on Long Island, was a young lawyer just starting his career and life in Manhattan. It’s no accident that many of the others he met through the group were a lot like him — successful professionals who were new to the city and living away from their hometowns and families. Loneliness was often a defining characteristic of the members, and School became a new family, where participants were bolstered by encouragement and a sense of belonging at a time when they were not yet entirely settled in their professional or personal lives.
“A big component is friendship and support,” Schneider agreed. “They offered what I have never experienced — people interested in my life and well-being. They had these intense connections and friendships that I have never seen, people really genuinely helping each other, the way they’d speak to each other so politely.”
Like Schneider, others in the group were successful in their careers, but a little lost socially as is typical for young professionals who have left behind high school and college friends to enter the next phase of their life. At School, he soon found his tribe, so to speak.
“Those friendships in the early years were genuine, and the leaders were genuinely kind — at least at the beginning,” he explained. “That was a big attraction and I liked it a lot. Who wouldn’t? Then there was this other bond that was amazing, this intellectual aspect of it. They said they were a ‘School,’ I liked studying and learning. I had never heard of Gurdjieff before, I didn’t love him, but it was interesting. That intellectual stimulation is important. It was really a draw, when you combine those things plus the fact that it was secret and exclusive, it became a little oasis in my life.”
As he rose in the ranks, Schneider became a recruiter for the group. He was sent out into the city to attend cultural events where he was likely to meet like-minded people who might be open to joining. Schneider describes the detailed method of recruitment that had been designed by the leaders that people like him used when looking for new members.
“It’s highly sophisticated and designed to deceive people into thinking they are joining a ‘School.’ That’s the façade and the way you pitch it while you’re in it,” he said “You’re always learning and doing these things that are supposedly in your interest, but they aren’t. It’s a real mind game. It’s like Bernie Madoff.”
Schneider notes that the group was really adept at recruiting and retaining a lot of Catholic and Jewish members, individuals who had perhaps come from strict religious homes, but had moved away from religion, yet were still looking for something spiritual in their lives.
“When I joined in the late ’80s, people thought this was one of the ancient esoteric schools that had been picked up from an old method of passing down knowledge,” he explained. “If you mentioned any kind of great leader or teacher— Shakespeare, Pythagoras, Jesus, whatever you like — they’d say, ‘Oh, they were in the School.’ I loved Rembrandt, and they said he was in it.”
In truth, Schneider later learned that Sharon Gans had started the School on the West Coast in the late 1970s with her then husband, Alex Horn, but bad press had driven them to New York, where they took the organization underground. There was a second outpost of the group in Boston and occasionally, members from that branch took part in events with the New York members.
“They focused on Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, these 19th century philosophers and were into new age shit. It was Est with a Zest,” said Schneider, referring to Erhard Seminars Training (EST), a pop-psychology phenomenon popular in the early 1970s. “It was really punishing, secretive and it’s funny — I thought about EST and I always thought it was bullshit, but I thought School was the real thing, like old time stuff, and wasn’t new age.”
But over time, Schneider came to recognize disturbing patterns among the group’s leaders — the berating and humiliation of students who asked pointed questions, the dictating of friendships (members weren’t to socialize outside of class), the limiting of contact with family and friends, and even dictating sexual partners and the adoption of members’ children.
Then there was the money. In his book, Schneider recounts how Gans got rich off the sweat and bank accounts of members. When one group member happily reported at a meeting that he had just received a $20,000 bonus at his job, he was ordered to promptly sign the check over to Gans, which he did.
Schneider was one of the favored students, and each summer, he was part of a select group who would fly out to Montana (on their own dime) and stay at Gans’s 124-acre ranch, where they ostensibly went to “improve” themselves. Those improvements were largely focused on building projects, and Schneider recounts putting in brutally long hours for no pay on construction projects at the ranch that he and the others were unqualified to perform, sometimes resulting in serious injury. But it was all for the betterment of their character, Gans explained.
Eventually, the initial good-feelings generated by School wore thin.
“Watching Trump, I had a good perspective on his techniques and narcissism and grandiosity. It was similar to Sharon Gans,” he said. “The outrageousness and lies. If you’d met Sharon, you’d think she’s nuts. But the tactics are similar and the victims are similar.”
But there remains the fact that the group did boost and support Schneider, especially in the early years, giving him confidence to take chances in his career and take on new challenges. When asked to reconcile those two aspects of the group, Schneider said, “Sharon Gans was like a broken clock — she was right twice a day. She could make you feel so good about yourself. She was so important and admired by everyone, that any attention she gave you felt really good. She would take you on and could be super encouraging and praiseworthy.”
But like any abusive relationship, her unprovoked anger or uncertainty about how a seemingly innocuous statement or question could get you banished kept surfacing in the group.
“As I was in it longer and longer, there was always an infraction you could commit. I found out pieces of truth here and there. The financial crimes and other people’s experiences and clues I found out after I left. While you’re in it, you can’t talk to others who left. When I left, I found out unbelievable stories,” he said. “About halfway through my time with the group, a bunch of my close friends left because of Sharon’s behavior, which became more erratic. She was just much more violent and vicious.
“Once someone left the group, they were dead to you. This was a huge problem for me because I loved a lot of people who left,” said Schneider. “I never thought it was a cult until I left. There was a period of time where it just seemed like it was a bad place to be. But there were too many things that kept me in it. Sharon set up my marriage. We eventually got divorced, and I left a couple years after.”
For Schneider, there were a lot of last straws, but the final event that drove him from the group came the night Gans abused an older and ill female member in front of the whole group.
“I thought the woman was going to have a heart attack because she was so publicly humiliated,” he said. “I never went back.”
The group never came after him and he doesn’t believe they will.
“They won’t pursue it. Nobody until me has spoken publicly and nonanonymously about them,” said Schneider, who has spent the intervening years regaining his life. “I was having severe depression, anxiety and such deep mental health issues I had to see a psychiatrist, who really helped me. I knew it was a cult, it just hit me right after I got out. He helped me unwind and see the harm that it had caused to my very negative thinking. I thought my best days were behind me when I got out because they said you’ll lose everything if you leave. I had been so gaslighted, I second guessed everything.”
In addition to intense therapy, much of Schneider’s healing has come simply from time he has spent on the East End since buying a home here in 2010.
“The East End was integral to my survival. Number one, I discovered swimming, which is a major part of my life,” he said. “I’m happier than I’ve ever been. The therapy helped a lot and finding a new community of friends in the world of swimming, which is what I do a lot, and lifeguarding. My old friends and family also welcomed me back into their lives.”
Schneider has also been in touch with a lot of survivors from the group, including one who lives in Montauk. What he hopes to ultimately accomplish with his new memoir is to talk in a broader sense about abuse of all types.
“I explain how you fall into something and the facts as best as I can remember them,” said Schneider. “I’m told it helps people who were in bad relationships with narcissists and other demented people, that’s a great thing.”
Ironically, both Alex Horn (who died in 2007) and Sharon Gans are buried in East Hampton — in Shaarey Pardes Accabonac Grove cemetery on Old Stone Highway in Springs. When asked to offer some insight into warning signs that people should be aware of in order to avoid getting swept up into a group like he did, Schneider said, “It’s really hard to detect fraud. Sometimes — most of the time — people can smell when it’s fraudulent. But sometimes, that person who can smell it won’t because it’s designed to offer them something they really want.
“If you’re offered something you really want, that’s when the red flags should go up. That’s when to do the due diligence, ask questions and talk to others about it, including trusted friends,” he added. “Be very careful of people who are very charming and charismatic and people who make absolute statements that go against what you’ve heard and say things like, ‘I alone can answer your prayers …’”
Author Spencer Schneider discusses “Manhattan Cult Story: My Unbelievable True Story of Sex, Crimes, Chaos and Survival” at Amagansett Free Library, 215 Main Street, Amagansett, on Wednesday, August 3, at 5:30 p.m. Visit amagansettlibrary.org to register. Schneider will also take part in East Hampton Library’s Author’s Night on Saturday, August 13, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. outdoors under a tent at Herrick Park in East Hampton Village. Visit authorsnight.org for tickets.
One fine body…