It was 1991, and Spencer Schneider, a 31-year-old corporate lawyer, was face to face in the boxing ring with Morton, an “Ivy League nebbish” who suddenly hit him in the face with shocking savagery.
“I looked down 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 doctor and fellow member at “School” — the secretive cult that had recruited Schneider the previous year — forbade Schneider from seeking medical help, counseling him to “use [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 to build her compounds in Kalispell, Mont., and upstate New York. Often laboring for 24 hours at a time without a break, the men stripped logs, installed plumbing and electricity — none of which they were trained to do. (One man suffered a serious injury, nearly losing his arm). The women cooked and cleaned for free. Cult members would also recruit new members, and bankroll her lavish lifestyle, including an $8 million Plaza Hotel apartment. (This was the apartment where she would die of COVID-19 in 2021, at the age of 86. Gans’ reign over her exploited students spanned more than 40 years, and the cult continues today.)
Many of its adherents are New York City big shots, according to Schneider, whose fascinating exposé of School — also known as Odyssey Study Group — is the first ever to be 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 penalty of physical abuse, and directed members whom to marry and reproduce with.
By the early 1980s, they had decamped to New York, where they rebranded 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, upon their first meeting, as “completely nuts.”
He nevertheless fell under his spell—for 23 years.
Schneider was groomed for School by an MBA student named Bruce whom he met in a bar in the late 1980s. He was further drawn in over lunch at the trendy Blue Water Grill restaurant on East 16th Street, where both Bruce and a beautiful investment banker named Heather asked him about himself. “Heather and Bruce listened so intently. In my life, who had listened like this?” It felt like being in on a seductive secret, and “like falling in love.”
Schneider was then invited to attend classes he was forbidden to talk about, discussing esoteric Russian philosophers George Gurdjieff and Piotr Ouspensky (who, despite his philosophy degree from Washington University in Saint Louis, Schneider had never heard of) as well as “ancient oral wisdom ” dispensed by Gans, who described herself as almost at the “level of Christ and Buddha.” He paid a monthly “tuition” of $300 in cash, which included boxing classes — that were supposedly to teach him “what it means to be courageous and a hero” — acting classes, fishing trips, parties and retreats.
Schneider first saw Gans a year into his indoctrination, at a ritual where she reclined, pontificating, with platters of fruit, cheese and vodka by her side. Dispensing lavish praise and blunt, cruel put-downs, Gans behaved like a dominating, abusive parent whose erratic behavior keeps the kids on edge.
Gans mainly targeted the wealthy for her cult; some were heirs or heiresses with family money, while others were high-salaried professionals. One young executive boasted about his $20,000 bonus — and Gans made him sign it over to her on the spot.
Wildly intrusive into the personal lives of her “students,” Gans regularly dispensed unsolicited advice to people about sex (she ordered one married man to “find a young girl to jog with and get [oral sex]” and advised a married family woman to “go to Italy . . . Stand at the fountain. Wait for a man. Have an affair.”) She arranged marriages (including Schneider’s) and even told Schneider to impregnate his 19-year-old stepdaughter. (Thankfully, he rejected his advice).
At one point, Gans offered Carol, a wealthy student, her choice of “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 heaped praise on Alice for relinquishing her husband. As the students applauded, Alice’s tears of humiliation “streamed down.”
While Gans had chosen “Beth,” with whom Schneider has one son, to be his wife, he nonetheless “valued [his] marriage” of 13 years, which made him reluctant to leave the cult. His gradual awakening — and his exit from the group in 2012 — was prompted by reading online accounts of other members’ escapes, and by Gans’ own increasingly volatile behavior, including her shrieking attack on a dignified, respected actress who was hosting an arts festival in the Republic of Georgia (“It would be like doing this to Helen Mirren,” says Schneider). Gans’ heavy-handed intrusion into Schneider’s divorce in 2010 also put him off.
Schneider says the cult, 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 provided slave labor to Gans.
“Sharon got off on controlling people’s lives, and it wasn’t just anybody,” says Schneider. “It was your doctor, lawyer, architect, money manager, the owner of your children’s private school.”