ICSA Today, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2022, 27-29
Book Review - Manhattan Cult Story: My Unbelievable True Story of Sex, Crimes, Chaos, and Survival
Arcade, July 5, 2022. ISBN-10: 1950994554; ISBN-13: 978-1950994557. Hardcover, 264 pages, $15.95 (Kindle, $17.99; also available as an Audiobook), Amazon.com
Reviewed by Donna Lamb
I was so gripped by this memoir I practically inhaled it in about two days. One reason was personal: I spent thirty-two years in a similar, though not secret, group—highly intellectual, philosophical, and educational—headquartered in SoHo, just one neighborhood to the east of Tribeca where Spencer Schneider attended Sharon Gans’ “School.” I'm in the process of writing my own memoir about my experience in the cult of Aesthetic Realism, founded by Eli Siegel. Therefore, I know just how difficult it is to do what Schneider has done: Explain cogently for people who haven’t “been there, done that,” how you get drawn into a cult (not realizing it is one, of course); what keeps you there despite incredible mental, emotional, and, in some cases, physical abuse (still thinking it’s all to make you a better person or create a better world); and what finally breaks the cult’s hold on you, brings you to your senses, and gets you out. Truly, my hat is off to Schneider for having the emotional courage, generosity of spirit, and skill to write such a book, so that his twenty-three-year ordeal can benefit other people’s lives.
Over the last few years, I’ve read many excellent exposés by people who escaped cultic groups. The majority have been about ultra-religious establishments, what could be called hippie-type groups, or organizations that looked and sounded peculiar in some obvious way—the stereotype of what most people think of as a cult. One thing that makes Schneider’s memoir useful is that it is about a cult that does not outwardly fit the popular conception. That is partially due to the fact that the Sharon Gans’ cult maintained the deepest secrecy. There was no clearly identifiable personal or public proselytizing that would tip someone off to what it was and warn them away. Perhaps even more important, due to the group’s terrifyingly well-honed recruitment methods, the people in it were intelligent, well-educated, highly successful individuals—doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, architects, and multiple other well-respected professionals—all of whom looked and behaved perfectly “normal,” according to our society’s standards.
In Schneider’s telling, the Gans’ group “fished” (and is still fishing under another name) for candidates who fit certain criteria. His description of these criteria, based on notes he took during his own training, is important because he not only makes them explicit, but explains the reasoning behind them. I paraphrase some of the points in what he calls “the ‘Recruitment Manual’” (pp. 91-92).1 Qualified candidates, he says, should be:
· Between twenty-five and forty because “they are already somewhat established in life but are not crystalized or set in ways which are hard to change.”
· Gainfully employed, earning at least $100,000 annually. “No losers allowed.”
· White and straight, for, as Sharon Gans put it, “People of color and gay people tend to have a ‘chip on their shoulder’ and are skeptical and unwilling to be open to the Work.” (In some cases, a gay person will be considered if they are open to being converted to a straight life and getting married to someone in the group of the opposite sex.)
· Not already involved in any religious, spiritual, or other groups because School should be “their prime place for spirituality. The Work is a jealous mistress. No dabblers.” Nor does the group want anyone who is in therapy, uses drugs, or is disabled because “these people are damaged goods. Sharon does not have the energy to help them.” Also excluded is anyone who is employed as a journalist, author, or in any kind of law enforcement—or has a member of their immediate family in one of these professions—because they “tend to be curious or nosy by nature and it could pose a risk to the invisibility of School. If someone wrote about School, it would kill it.” And no candidate can be living with a parent or sibling.
And Schneider articulates one of the most frequent circumstances in which people are attracted to cultic groups:
Candidates must be “disappointed” in their life or at a crossroads and looking for answers. This is probably the most crucial qualification. The candidate needs to be unhappy or dissatisfied about something important in their life and looking for answers, meaning, and help. Not despairing, but disappointed: empty. (p. 91)
In his description of how he became involved, Schneider does us a great service: he traces explicitly the steps by which he was pulled in. In 1989 at the age of twenty-nine, Schneider was working as a corporate lawyer at a Park Avenue law firm. The twelve-hour days and long weekends doing grunt work to help large corporations had nothing to do with the noble Atticus Finch-type work he had envisioned himself as doing when he chose the profession. And even though it had been four years since his father died, he was still grappling with his grief over that loss. Most of his closest friends were getting married and moving to the suburbs. Even though he lived in a fine Greenwich Village apartment, had all the wonders of Manhattan at his fingertips, and earned a salary many would envy, he felt isolated, bored, and lonely.
When an acquaintance he calls Bruce first told him about the School’s existence and invited him to a class, Schneider was skeptical and even said it sounded cultish. However, Bruce assured him it was the farthest thing from a cult: People were free to come and go; all he needed to do was commit to a one-month experiment. After that first free month, tuition was only $300 per month.
Schneider decided to check it out, more out of curiosity than any serious interest. As he found out, School was based on the philosophy of G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, two Russian mystics who cobbled together several Eastern and Western spiritual theories. The theory of “the Work” or “Fourth Way” as it was called, was that with the assistance of a teacher within a school setting, a student could achieve, through many years of sustained effort, a high level of self-awareness that would transform their life.
Schneider writes that he found the first class he attended almost impossible to follow, and he left rather unimpressed. What happened next is, again, a frequent recruitment method of cultic groups. It is unlikely he would have returned if he hadn’t gotten a phone call the next day from a man whom he calls Morton, a “friend” from School, who said he would be Schneider’s sustainer. He explained that a sustainer is an older student with whom a new student would be able to talk outside of class, one on one, about everything discussed in class, the readings they would be doing, and anything else the new student wished to talk about regarding himself.
For the next year and a half, Morton called Schneider every single day. Schneider had never had anyone take such an interest in him before. Very soon, he became dependent on Morton’s calls, in which Morton never told him anything about himself; they only spoke about Schneider and his problems. He revealed everything about his life to Morton—not knowing that Morton was reporting every word back to Sharon Gans.
Schneider began looking forward to classes. He had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and the classes provided some of the intellectual rigor he had missed after his college days. They read and talked about ideas, ideologies, and ways of life. He also thought that some of the teachings of the Work seemed helpful, such as self-observation, the act of trying to step back and see what thoughts, emotions, and sensations he was experiencing at any given moment.
Almost immediately, in classic cult fashion, Schneider began spending less time with any of his old friends and his family, all of whom he came to see as less important than his “essence friends,” as the people in the cult referred to themselves. After all, he wasn’t allowed to speak about School and the Work with anyone outside, plus he thought they wouldn’t understand even if he did. He was being drawn deeper into the cult’s magical thinking, such as believing that School protected him from the “pain factory” of life and that every positive event in his life was the direct result of being in School. Conversely, anything bad that happened to him was because he wasn’t yet sufficiently proficient at the Work.
It was only after having attended school for a while that Schneider actually saw Sharon Gans for the first time. His first impression of her was that she looked “positively nuts.” She had a “wild mane of Halloween-orange hair” piled high atop her head, wore a flowing black dress with a silk scarf, and was bedecked with jewelry. However, influenced by others’ adulation of her, he soon fell under her spell:
We revered our teacher—whose name we were forbidden to utter outside her presence—referred to simply as “S.” There she was, upstairs in the Space, recumbent on her leather recliner, surrounded by sixty of us seated on white stackable metal chairs, hanging on every one of her words… We weren’t engrossed—we were transfixed, under her total command. We felt her brilliance, her emanations, her love (or wrath), her ferocity, her power…. (p. 14)
Because he describes so successfully the external and internal dynamics through which someone becomes a devotee, the reader is able to believe the result:
For S we would do anything. She gave us detailed directions on how to live our lives. ... Where to work. Who of our classmates to sleep with, marry, divorce. What to think. What scientific truths should be disbelieved. What social conventions should be ignored. Whether someone’s child should be given up for adoption to other students. Whether a gay male student should be married off to a female student in order to be “straightened out.” Whether to cut off relationships with family and friends. She instructed some of us to cheat on our spouses and sleep with other students. She married off some of us to complete strangers. She had us labor on huge construction projects for free. Some were privileged to help her launder cash and commit tax fraud. We would do anything for her. Some would have gone to jail or killed for S, our teacher, Sharon Gans. (pp. 14-15)
Schneider tells very movingly of the long, complicated, and excruciating process of becoming disillusioned and finally leaving. Since, over time, his law practice had become dependent on work for one fellow group member, at the age of fifty-three, he literally walked away with nothing. I quote the following passage because it says so much about what I, and I believe countless others, have felt upon leaving our respective groups:
I was free… I could do anything. Yet this was a freedom not unlike that of the prisoner who, having served a two-decade sentence for a crime he didn’t commit, walks out of the prison gates and is met by no one, has nowhere to go, has nothing but the clothes on his back… My nerves and emotional state were in free fall. I was having nightmares that I was still in School being humiliated and ridiculed by Sharon and my classmates… My thoughts were still School thoughts, centered on the conviction that I alone had caused my misfortune, that my flaws were permanent, and that I didn’t have any answers. My “self” had been ground away, snuffed out during the past twenty-three years. My dignity, self-esteem, pride, and self-reliance were distant memories. I was unable to discern reality: I thought that all I had accomplished in my life were gifts from School and that all the troubles Sharon caused me were my fault. Now, I had nothing. It dawned on me it was going to be harder to get over School than it was to get out. I didn’t have the tools, energy, or the will to do this on my own. I called [a psychiatrist] to schedule an appointment. I told him it was urgent, and what was going on. He told me to come in the next day. (pp. 233-234)
With the help of this excellent mental practitioner and the loving support of the family and friends whom he had pushed away for so long, Schneider slowly began to make his way towards reclaiming his self and his life. We can be very glad he did, too, not only for him but for the rest of us. In addition to being an engrossing page-turner, Manhattan Cult Story is invaluable because it helps explain how even the strongest, smartest, and most highly educated among us can become entangled in an abusive relationship, a coercive control group, or a full-on cult. It says, “If you think you know exactly what all cult followers look like, feel sure you can recognize a cult from a mile away, and would never be so gullible as to get duped into joining one, think again!”
1Note: Page references in this review are to the Kindle version of the book.
About the Reviewer: Donna Lamb was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. As a teenager, she moved to New York City where she became involved with Aesthetic Realism for the next 32 years. Her journalism began with a weekly column on Aesthetic Realism for an African American newspaper in San Antonio, Texas. Due to the group’s strict control over her writing, she authored a piece under the pen name Laura Douglas to help save a Harlem bookstore, which won a prize from The New York Association of Black Journalists. After leaving Aesthetic Realism over her staunch disagreement with its approach to racism and reparations, she became a staff writer for Caribbean Life and a contributor to several other local publications, covering the New York City Council and social justice issues. She wrote about her experiences getting arrested protesting police brutality; visiting an inmate in a maximum-security prison; and standing at her brother’s bedside after he had been declared brain dead as he was being prepared to become an organ donor—all in the hope of giving courage to others. Now retired, Donna is a churchwarden at Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan and a volunteer at the church’s soup kitchen and food pantry, which provides thousands of meals each week to homeless individuals and low-income families. Her article “From Dream Come True to Nightmare, My Aesthetic Realism Experience” appeared in ICSA Today 12.2.