It was 1991 and Spencer Schneider, a 31-year-old corporate lawyer, found himself face to face in the boxing ring with Morton, an “Ivy League nebbish” who suddenly punched him in the face with shocking ferocity.
“I looked at my brown gloves, which were now wet with blood,” Schneider writes in his book, “Manhattan Cult Story: My Unbelievable True Story of Sex, Crimes, Chaos, and Survival” (Arcade). Schneider’s nose was broken. Glen, a physician and fellow member of “School” — the secret sect that Schneider had recruited the previous year — forbade Schneider to seek medical attention, advising him to “take advantage of [his] pain” as an “opportunity to practice non-identification with the body”.
It was this kind of masochism, packaged as self-help, that allowed Sharon Gans, the cult’s charismatic leader, to ensnare hundreds of young professionals in Manhattan and Boston to provide slave labor for her settlements in Kalispell, Mont., and New York State. York to build. The men often worked 24 hours straight without a break, stripping the logs, installing plumbing and electricity—none of which they were trained to do. (A man was seriously injured and nearly lost his arm). The women cooked and cleaned for free. Cult members would also recruit new members and fund her lavish lifestyle, including an $8 million Plaza Hotel apartment. (This was the apartment where she would die of COVID-19 in 2021, at age 86. Gans’s rule over her exploited students lasted more than 40 years, and the cult still continues.)
Many of its supporters, according to Schneider, are big names from New York City, whose fascinating reveal of School — aka Odyssey Study Group — is the first ever published by a survivor.
Gans and her husband, Alex Horn, started the cult in San Francisco in the late 1970s as The Theater of All Possibilities. They reportedly forced people to sell tickets to their critically panned plays on pain of physical abuse, and told members whom to marry and procreate.
By the early 1980s, they had moved to New York, where they renamed themselves and began meeting in apartments, then at a loft on Lower Broadway, where Schneider recalls going to “class.”
Gans, a red-haired former actress, was a magnetic pseudo-intellectual sociopath whom Schneider judged as “totally insane” upon their first meeting.
He nevertheless fell under her spell – for 23 years.
Schneider was being groomed for school by an MBA student named Bruce, whom he met at a bar in the late 1980s. He was further donned over lunch at the trendy Blue Water Grill restaurant on East 16e Street, where both Bruce and a beautiful investment banker named Heather asked him about himself. “Heather and Bruce listened so intently. Who in my life had listened like that?” It felt like I was in a seductive secret, and ‘like I was falling in love’.
Schneider was then invited to attend classes he was not allowed to talk about, during which he spoke of esoteric Russian philosophers George Gurdjieff and Piotr Ouspensky (of whom, despite his degree in philosophy from Washington University in Saint Louis, Schneider had never heard of ) and on “Ancient Oral Wisdom” published by Gans, who described himself as almost on the “level of Christ and Buddha.” He paid a monthly “tuition” of $300 in cash, including boxing lessons – which supposedly taught him “what it means to be brave and a hero” – acting classes, fishing trips, parties and retreats.
Schneider first saw Gans a year after his indoctrination, during a ritual where she sat back, pontificating, with bowls of fruit, cheese and vodka by her side. Gans lavished praise and blunt, cruel remarks and behaved like a domineering, abusive parent whose erratic behavior keeps the kids on their toes.
Gans mainly targeted the wealthy for her cult; some were heirs or heirs with family money, while others were highly paid professionals. A young executive boasted of his $20,000 bonus – and Gans had him hand it over to her on the spot.
Wildly intrusive in the personal lives of her “students,” Gans regularly gave unsolicited advice to people about sex (she ordered a married man to “find a young girl to go jogging with and [oral sex]’ and advised a married family woman to ‘go to Italy. † † Stand by the fountain. Wait for a man. Have an affair.”) She arranged marriages (including Schneider’s) and even told Schneider to get his 19-year-old stepdaughter pregnant. (Luckily, he rejected her advice).
At one point, Gans, a wealthy college student, offered her picks for “any man she wanted”, and arranged for her to marry Bob, who was already happily married to another cult member, Alice. Gans held an engagement party and praised Alice for relinquishing her husband. As the students applauded, Alice’s tears of humiliation “flowed down.”
Although Gans had chosen “Beth”, with whom Schneider has one son, as his wife, “he nevertheless appreciated” [his] marriage” of 13 years, which made him reluctant to leave the cult. His gradual awakening — and his departure from the group in 2012 — was prompted by reading online accounts of other members’ escapes, as well as Gans’s increasingly volatile behavior, including her shrieking attack on a worthy, respected actress who runs an arts festival. organized in the Republic of Georgia (“It would be like doing this to Helen Mirren,” says Schneider). Gans’ heavy-handed breach of Schneider’s divorce in 2010 also deterred him.
Schneider says the sect, now called “The Study,” is led by four people who inherited it from Gans, who was estranged from her two children when she died. These new cult leaders are named in a class-action lawsuit filed last year by two women who say they supplied slave labor to Gans.
“Sharon started controlling people’s lives, and it wasn’t just anyone,” Schneider says. “It was your doctor, lawyer, architect, money manager, the owner of your children’s private school.”