“We were invisible. We had to be. We took an oath of absolute secrecy. We never even told our immediate families who we were. We went about our lives in New York City. Just like you. We were your accountants, money managers, lawyers, executive recruiters, doctors. We owned your child’s private school and sold you your brownstone. But you’d never guess our secret lives, how we lived in a kind of silent terror and fervor. There were hundreds of us.”
Right under the noses of neighbors, clients, spouses, children, and friends, a secret society, simply called School—a cult of snared Manhattan professionals—has been led by the charismatic, sociopathic and dangerous leader Sharon Gans for decades. Spencer Schneider was recruited in the eighties and he stayed for more than twenty-three years as his life disintegrated, his self-esteem eroded, and he lined the pockets of Gans and her cult.
Cult members met twice weekly, though they never acknowledged one another outside of meetings or gatherings. In the name of inner development, they endured the horrors of mental, sexual, and physical abuse, forced labor, arranged marriages, swindled inheritances and savings, and systematic terrorizing. Some of them broke the law. All for Gans.
“During those years,” Schneider writes, “my world was School. That’s what it’s like when you’re in a cult, even one that preys on and caters to New York’s educated elite. This is my story of how I got entangled in School and how I got out.”
At its core, Manhattan Cult Story is a cautionary tale of how hundreds of well-educated, savvy, and prosperous New Yorkers became fervent followers of a brilliant but demented cult leader who posed as a teacher of ancient knowledge. It’s about double-lives, the power of group psychology, and how easy it is to be radicalized—all too relevant in today's atmosphere of conspiracy and ideologue worship.
About the Author
Spencer L. Schneider is an attorney who specializes in corporate litigation in New York. A native of Brooklyn, Mr. Schneider is an open water marathon swimmer and ice water swimmer. He works as an ocean lifeguard, operates a lifeguard training academy, and co-founded a water rescue group. He lives in New York and East Hampton and has one son and one dog. He is the only member or former member of School to have published his experience in the cult. He was a member of School’s inner circle for twenty-three years.
Advance Praise for Manhattan Cult Story “An extremely valuable, cogent addition to the cult memoir canon. Schneider pens his haunting story not only with vividness and vulnerability but also with an eye to humanizing the cult experience and helping survivors of such abuse—and all of us, really—understand (and forgive) behavior that seems inexplicable.” —Amanda Montell, author of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism
“Captivating and veracious, Schneider has written a book I’ve long been waiting for, a lionhearted, soul-searching tale that flips the script of cult memoir, revealing that no one is immune to the siren call of belonging, and that any feet, no matter how well-shod, can stumble down the slippery slope of radicalism. Manhattan Cult Story is a book America desperately needs.” —Shawna Kay Rodenberg, the author of “Kin: A Memoir”
“Schneider delivers this scintillating story on a silver platter, offering a meticulous exploration of the seductive hook of meaning and fulfillment which cults and demagogues so readily promise to their faithful. His book will be powerfully healing for those who have been lured, educational for those who haven’t, and insightful for voyeurs into the delicious details of a secret world. Manhattan Cult Story is a vibrant, cohesive template, of how the sticky tendrils of coercive control operate.” —Sarah Edmondson, author of Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult That Bound My Life
“An intense and chilling account of an egregious underground cult of young New York City professionals, one of the most secretive groups I’ve encountered. In this outstanding book, Schneider not only exposes the destructive nature of this cult but eloquently reveals how, sadly, anyone can be drawn into one. Aside from a cautionary tale, this is also the story of unlikely survival, liberation, and hope. An important contribution to the literature on cults.” —Dr. Steven Hassan, author of Combating Cult Mind Control and The Cult of Trump
“It takes courage to share the stories of how we were dupped, but even one voice can break the silence and expose the perpetrators. Schneider speaks out about his experiences in a manipulative and abusive cult, not hidden on some compound in Texas, but thriving among the educated elite of NYC. This sinister cult lures people with what they long for––community, belonging, higher purpose, and elitism––but ultimately demands full obedience and control of their life. Think it couldn’t happen to you?” —Faith Jones, author of Sex Cult Nun
“If the psychology of cults and cult leaders hold even a minor fascination, I heartily endorse Spencer Schneider's debut memoir of a little-known Manhattan underworld. As Schneider peels back the curtain, he brings the reader along on his journey of self-discovery. It's a story of friendship and connection, of brainwashing and trauma, and his attempt to make himself whole in the years since his daring exit.” —Amanda M. Fairbanks, author of The Lost Boys of Montauk: The True Story of the Wind Blown, Four Men Who Vanished at Sea, and the Survivors They Left Behind
“No genre is more popular today than true-crime, and nonfiction stories about cults, from NXIVM to Rajneeshism, captivate us with a particular intensity. But what Schneider has done is different, and probably without parallel: He has written a highly intelligent, highly detailed, and extraordinarily compelling account from a follower's perspective. With dispassionate clarity, he takes the reader by the hand and leads them step by step down the ladder of his own subjugation. This book is an act of great bravery, and students of the cult experience owe him a debt of gratitude for it.” —Bess Rattray, publisher of EAST Magazine
“This penetrating and often painful personal account written by a cult survivor details the inner workings of a secretive cult that preyed upon sophisticated, educated, and affluent New Yorkers. Spencer Schneider’s twenty years of experience in ‘The Work,’ led by former actress turned philosopher queen Sharon Gans, demonstrates how anyone can be tricked and trapped by a deceptive cult, even those among us that seem too smart and accomplished to be taken in. This book is a deep dive into a hidden cult’s world of sexual and financial exploitation, manipulation, isolation, and personal destruction. Schneider spares no one including himself. Riveting and insightful.” ––Rick Alan Ross, author of Cults Inside and Out: How People Get in and Can Get Out
“Written with candor, self-knowledge, and good humor, this account of Spencer Schneider's long captivity by a group of pseudo-mystic predators is first a reminder of the perils of surrendering your skepticism and finally a tale of self-liberation from the illusions any of us might create. Manhattan Cult Storypulled me in and threw away the key.” —Mike DeCapite, author of Jacket Weather
“Manhattan Cult Story is a study of human psychology, group behavior, adulation, and domination, and about how a community that at first nourishes you can come to feed on you. It is a must read for anyone interested in cults, swindlers, and charlatans but also in the human yearning for deeper meaning, love and community. The lessons of this astonishing book resonate long after the reading.” —Spencer Wolff, author of The Fire in His Wake “Manhattan Cult Story is one of those gripping tales of personal struggle and perseverance you simply cannot put down.” —Andy Ostroy, director of HBO’s Adrienne
“Intelligent, witty, and utterly terrifying. An intimate look at the breakdown of everyday individuals through systematic methods of coercion and manipulation...for the unspoken and sole purpose of lining the twisted leader’s pockets and boosting her ego. Spencer’s heartfelt account of his experiences shows how cults can and do exist all around us and are, unknowingly to most, made up of typical people you pass by every single day. Let Spencer’s published voice be the first of many sincere survivors who come forward to shed light on this darkest of secret groups” —Kacey, Host of The Cult Vault Podcast
“This is a gripping story about being pulled into a cult that was masked as an enrichment course, a heartbreaking tale of manipulation, power, and greed. Spencer Schneider’s well-crafted narrative is masterfully told through the lens of time, healing, and introspection. I couldn’t get enough!” —Frances Badalamenti, author of the novels I Don’t Blame You and Salad Days
"An uncommon story. It cuts a different swath through the usual cult narrative ...Schneider's tale is subtler and more insidious and he tells it with a straightforward honesty, full well knowing that [readers] might snap-judge him. That is a very brave endeavor indeed..."--East Hampton Star