A survivor of an ultra-secretive "cult" that preyed on New York City's elite has revealed how the group's "insane" leader brainwashed members into manual labor and seized control over every inch of their lives.
Spencer Schneider, now 62, was 29 years old when he was introduced to the group, then known only as School, by an Ivy League-educated friend called Malcolm in the spring of 1989.
Unbeknown to Schneider at the time, School - otherwise referred to as the Odyssey Study Group - was an alleged cult run by one-time actress Sharon Gans who siphoned cash from her loyal followers to fund her and her husband Alex Horn's lavish lifestyles.
The couple, who have both since died, first co-founded the group in San Francisco in the 1970s under the name "The Theatre of All Possibilities".
However, they were effectively run out of town in 1978 after the San Francisco Chronicle published a story exposing the physical and verbal abuses members of the group had been subjected to.
Gans and Horn then reopened shop in New York City in the early 1980s under a new name and preached the teachings of Russian philosophers George Gurdjieff and Piotr Ouspensky, who believed hard labor and intentional suffering were the keys to self-improvement.
In his new book, Manhattan Cult Story: My Unbelievable True Story of Sex, Crimes, Chaos, and Survival, Schneider also discloses how Gans, who held herself in the same esteem as "Christ and Buddha", dispensed what she called "ancient oral wisdom."
It was through these "wisdom" forums that Gans seized complete control of her followers' lives, Schenider says, advising people on their sex lives, telling them where they could and couldn't work, who they could marry, whether or not they could have an abortion, and even forcing couples to divorce.
"The amount of control Sharon Gans had over us was significant, total," Schneider told The US Sun.
"She really controlled how I thought about things and she had ultimate authority on all important decision-making in my life - I ran everything by her.
"I was single, she knew I wanted to get married, and she knew a woman in the group who wanted to get married, so she put us together and within nine months we were husband and wife."
Calling the union to his now ex-wife an "arranged marriage" Schneider said many members of the group got married even faster at Gans' instruction, some within just days.
"But my situation was no way near as bad as others," he added.
"She had gay people marry straight people, because she believed in gay conversion which of course doesn't exist, and she would also break up marriages.
"I didn't realize how bad it was until I was about 10 or 15 years in and I finally saw how mercilessly she treated people, and how they weren't trying to improve anyone's lives but instead hurt them.
"But I couldn't get out because of how wrapped up my whole life was in that group.
"I was very afraid of leaving."
MYSTERIOUS STUDY GROUP
At the time of his introduction to the secret sect in 1989, Schneider was a big-shot corporate lawyer who was also in the throes of a quarter-life crisis.
Having endured the nonstop grind of college and law school before graduating to work 60 plus hours a week in the Big Apple, Schenider was looking for a reset, a new purpose, and a new sense of direction.
He was also mourning the loss of his father who had died suddenly four years earlier and contending with a growing sense of loneliness - watching on as many of his friends moved out of the city to start families while he was still single, married only to his job.
One night a friend by the name of Malcolm offered him the chance to change his life as he knew it.
Malcolm told Schneider he was a member of an "esoteric school" that met a few times a week, which was inviting very select people to join their ranks.
The group, Malcolm told him, met to discuss two niche Russian philosophers and applied their teachings to their lives in an effort to improve themselves.
He also referred to School as the most important thing in his life.
"I was a philosophy major in college and I had never heard of the people he was talking about," Schneider said.
"I'd never heard of the group either and nor did I initially have any interest in it because of how secretive it all was.
"I was very suspicious and told him the group sounded like a cult, so I told him I wasn't interested and I kind of stormed out."
A few days later, Schneider called Malcolm to apologize for his abrupt exit, and during the same conversation, his friend insisted School was not a cult but rather an unconventional study group from which he could benefit a great deal.
The first month of membership was free, Malcolm added, and each month after would cost around $300, which would buy him lectures with Gans, in addition to things such as boxing and acting classes, and parties and retreats.
A reluctant Schneider agreed to go and check School out for himself but was forbidden from mentioning it to anyone else.
SCHOOL IN SESSION
Around a week later Schneider arranged to meet Malcolm outside of an old industrial building in downtown Manhattan.
The two men stepped into an elevator up to the third floor, where the doors opened up to a loft with around 40 smartly dressed people - in their late 20s and early 30s - sitting on plastic lawn chairs in a circle.
Any fears Schneider had that School was a cult were allayed when he looked around the room at the seemingly sophisticated and well-to-do crowd - made up of fellow lawyers, doctors, teachers, and heiresses - that was gathered inside the room.
These people weren't strangely dressed individuals who lived on a commune and shaved their heads, he thought, nor were they the kind of extremists who branded themselves for supreme leaders like Charles Manson.
And while School didn't have any of the traditional trappings of a cult, a cult it was, Schneider now believes.
But the extent of his miscalculation that night in 1989 wouldn't be realized for more than two decades.
For now, School was in session; and Schneider believed his path to a better and more enlightened life was about to begin.
GANS 'COMPLETELY NUTS'
Quickly, Schneider found himself swept up in the group's belief system as he was introduced to Gurdjieff's The Fourth Way principle, requiring him to subject himself completely to the will of others.
This period of "brainwashing", as Schenider calls it, started slowly with him surrendering small decisions to longer-serving members in the group at first.
But before long, "you really started to obey them in really big life decisions, like where you worked, who you married, decisions about your children and your friends," he said.
"They used this method to take control of your mind."
After a year of attending "class" at the shadowy school, Schneider met its enigmatic leader Sharon Gans for the first time.
He attended one of her rituals in which she would sit in the center of a circle of students, issuing lavish praise and cruel criticisms to her followers as they shared intimate details about their lives in an open forum.
With her fiery-red hair, strange clothes, and even stranger demeanor, Schneider said his first impression of Gans was that she was "completely nuts."
"Imagine like someone who dresses like they're in a Shakespearean period piece who acted like they were Lady Macbeth.
"And she had this flaming red hair, very pale skin, and this sort of regal manner about herself ... she looked crazy.
"But we were told she was the leader of the people who were our leaders, and they showed such deference and love to her, so we thought we were missing something, maybe she's okay.
"We just didn't get it ... but turns out I wasn't wrong - she was completely nuts."
Despite his initial reservations, Schneider went to form a close relationship with Gans, to the extent that he would run every decision in his life by her so she could instruct him on what to do.
The group also started to rapidly expand, with its membership reaching the hundreds in both New York City and Boston, as Gans continued to mainly target the wealthy.
Schneider was tasked with recruiting affluent new members, while also acting as Gans' chauffeur around the city for free.
While calling the work exhausting, Schenider acknowledged he was let off lighter than other members of School, many of whom were forced to provide slave labor to build her properties in Montana and Upstate New York.
Many of the workers were forced to do so for 24 hours at a time without a break, with men stripping logs and installing plumbing and electricity - none of which they were professionally trained to do.
The women, meanwhile, were forced to cook and clean for free, for both Gans and the working men.
Numerous injuries were sustained in the building of Gans' properties with one member almost losing an arm.
She also sourced revenues of income beyond just membership fees, seeking to exploit her loyal followers out of even more cash.
In his book, Schneider writes about one young finance executive bragging about a $20,000 bonus he'd just received.
Gans, according to Schneider, made him sign it over to her on the spot.
'A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE'
Despite the various abuses of power Gans was allegedly indulging in before their very eyes, members of School didn't question her rule believing their personal suffering was all for a greater good.
It was a facade Schneider blindly bought into until around 15 years into his "studies" when he said he was left particularly disturbed about an interaction he'd shared during a conversation with Gans.
At the time, Schneider and his wife, the woman Gans had selected for him to marry, were having trouble conceiving a child.
According to Schneider, Gans' solution to their problem was for Schneider to attempt to impregnate his 19-year-old step-daughter instead.
"When she said that to me it just shocked me," Schneider told The US Sun, "and I realized at that moment I wasn't willing to go that far for her.
"I was very unhappy and I just began seeing Sharon in a different light, as something eviler than I had before, but I still felt very stuck and I couldn't just leave.
"I didn't want to lose my marriage because the people who were married in the cult if one of them leaves, she forced them to divorce.
"So I was really stuck between a rock and a hard place."
As the years continued, Schneider became increasingly disillusioned by School and Gans, and the ways in which members were abused and humiliated.
There were "constant" public humiliations, he said, and increasingly members were ordered by Gans to do bad things, such as "giving children up for adoption instead of having abortions" or coercing women into having sex with men who were already married or forcing gay men to marry straight women.
Such instructions caused Schenider to really question Gans' morality.
When his marriage started falling apart in 2010 he also became increasingly more concerned about the hold she had over his life, resulting in him having a nervous breakdown.
"I think it was just so many boundaries of mine that had been crossed by sharing all at the same time and they just reached a crescendo that I couldn't cope with anymore because my mind and life were so controlled by her," Schneider said.
"By the end of 2012 I was very depressed and I went to a therapist. That's when I realized this thing called School was actually really harmful.
"I then decided to leave and only after my exit did I realize that it was a cult."
NO ORDINARY CULT
More than a decade after freeing himself from Gans' shackles, Schneider said he's still in the process of rebuilding his life, calling the project a "working progress" through laughter.
Looking back on his 23 years inside the cult, Schneider said it's difficult to believe he surrendered so much of himself to the group while being in what he called a "hypnotic state of brainwash."
"It has none of the physical trappings of a cult: we’re not on a commune, or shaving our heads, or being physically branded," Schneider said.
"It was just a cult where businessmen and women met in the evenings to talk about philosophers.
"But what the leader did to us in our minds and our bodies was every bit like any other cult."
Gans died from Covid-19-related complications in January 2021 at age 85.
She passed away in her $8million apartment inside the Plaza Hotel, funded by the money summed over to her by Schneider and the hundreds of other members like him.
While once seeing Gans as an incredibly charming individual, he now views her as someone who was "very troubled and very dangerous, who also ruined a lot of lives and hurt a lot of people."
The School is still in existence today, according to Schneider, and is run by a small group of followers who inherited it from Gans in her will.
Following the release of his book, Manhattan Cult Story, Schneider is the first former follower of Gans to come forward with his story.
Speaking of his decision to tell all, he told The US Sun: "I was apprehensive at first but felt compelled to do it because I thought it was important to pull back the curtain on these people and to help save other people who were in the group.
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