'I Was in an Elite Manhattan Cult for 23 Years'

I was stuck in Manhattan traffic one afternoon in early 1998 when the leader of my cult, Sharon Gans, phoned me to tell me to impregnate my teenage step-daughter. Sharon said that she felt my wife was too old to bear a child and that my step-daughter would be "happy to do it."

Sharon demanded a lot from her hundreds of disciples, but this was an especially appalling idea. I refused. She pressured me, but finally relented and never brought it up again. Still, it scared me. We would normally do anything without question.

My introduction to this cult was innocent enough. In 1989, I was a 29-year-old lawyer working for a Manhattan corporate law firm. I lacked nothing. I came from an affluent family in Long Island, had lots of friends, and played bass in a bar band on weekends. The bartender there was an Ivy-educated grad student. He befriended me and we had intellectual conversations about art, philosophy, and history.

After several months of these conversations, he told me he had a secret he wanted to share. After he swore me to secrecy, he said he belonged to an "esoteric school" which existed to help people "achieve higher consciousness."

He invited me to come along. I was suspicious but agreed to meet another student from what he called "School." He said they studied the "Work," founded by a philosopher named G.I. Guirdjieff, who I—despite being a philosophy major in college—had never heard of. I did not have the internet in 1989.

The bartender's friend Heather, also an Ivy-educated professional, was serious but friendly and took great interest in my life, my background, and my "aspirations." I was drawn in by their connection to each other, their passion about "School," and the mystery of it all. They said that School would help me to achieve personal and professional goals and find true happiness. I wondered if there would be other attractive women there like Heather. I agreed to go to a class, and was sworn to absolute secrecy.

Class was held two evenings a week in a nondescript loft in lower Manhattan. There were about 60 people, also young, highly-educated professionals. There were two teachers who led a class which lasted until midnight.

Spencer Schneider in Car with Dog
Spencer Schneider in New York in 2022. Schneider has written about his experience of being in a cult in Manhattan for 23 years. Claire Hunter

Students were forbidden from speaking to each other outside of class, had to pay $300 per month, and come to class on time prepared to discuss their personal lives in order to get "help" so they could evolve. Like Fight Club, we were forbidden from telling anyone about School.

In my first month of classes, I was laid-off from my job. But I found incredible support from this new community and was encouraged to start my own law firm. I became successful in my practice and I believed, as the teachers suggested, I owed it all to School. My classmates also claimed that their recent successes in their professional and personal lives were attributable to School.

We discussed the works of Gurdjieff during classes and tried to apply his psychological ideas to ourselves, such as "self-remembering," which was never fully explained. School started to dominate my life. I spent less time with friends and family. My energies were focussed on School and my new law practice.

A year into attending classes, a new teacher appeared. Introduced simply as Sharon, she was in her sixties, short and stocky, and dressed as if she were the Queen in a Shakespeare period piece. Her pasty white skin was framed by piled-high bright orange hair; her deep-set eyes were cerulean and piercing. And although she looked like a mad-woman, the other teachers, my classmates and I were completely transfixed by her confidence and command of the room.

She told us to use our "sex energy" for our "evolution." It wasn't clear at the time what she meant by this, but I later learned that she used this concept to encourage and pressure people to have sex with each other, including leaders.

We also had no idea at the time that Sharon Gans was a washed-up actress who had been run out of San Francisco 10 years before for running a cult accused of sexually abusing women and harming children. Again, I did not have the internet in 1990.

School operated in a hierarchical structure, with Sharon at the top and a handful of close lieutenants who acted as "teachers" and enforcers of her rules. Seniority was determined by loyalty to Sharon. As Sharon began to trust me, she invited me into her inner circle. She did not elevate me to the status of a teacher but she often confided in me.

School ran on free labor. We worked night and day on construction projects: building Sharon's ranch in Montana, her homes in the Hamptons and Manhattan, the meeting spaces, homes of other leaders, a compound upstate New York.

The manual labor was difficult and the projects were time-consuming and cut into my personal and business time. But I was too afraid not to do the manual labor because there would be consequences: public humiliation and psychological abuse and pressure.

We were constantly working on recruiting new members, too, which involved befriending unsuspecting strangers, gaining their trust, and letting them in on a "secret." I spent years working on these projects. It drained me of my money and energy.

I stayed in School for 23 years because I enjoyed the community and the intellectual stimulation. I was also under the impression that it was helping my life. I had made durable friendships and was also married to someone in School. It was an arranged marriage; there were many arranged marriages in School.

If I left School, these friendships and my marriage would have had to end, per School rules. Even as School dominated my life, I stayed out of fear of losing my marriage, as well as an important business relationship I had with another member.

While my wife and I cared deeply for each other and had a good loving relationship, we didn't have a strong foundation and Sharon constantly interfered. The unraveling of my marriage in 2010, Sharon's meddling in my divorce, and the end of my business relationship with another member motivated me to leave in early 2013.

Additionally, my mental state was spiraling: I was in a deep depression and had suicidal thoughts. On my last night in class, I witnessed a woman being ridiculed by Sharon for two straight hours for no reason. That was the last straw.

After I left, I never heard from anyone from School again. But I reconnected with several people who left before me. They left because their boundaries were crossed by Sharon. They lost their savings by being forced to turn over money to her for her personal use, as well as their dignity and, in some cases, their family. Some said they were physically and sexually abused by leaders in the group.

Although I immediately felt better after leaving, I was still depressed and felt rudderless. My mind had been poisoned by the cult and I needed to untie the knots. I started therapy with a doctor who helped me slowly regain my self-confidence.

After many years of therapy and finding meaning in other pursuits, I now feel happy and fulfilled for the first time in decades. The self-awareness which eluded me while in School, I have now found as a survivor.

Spencer Schneider is the author of Manhattan Cult Story, which is available to order now.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.