My Life in A Cult

For 23 years, he says, he was trapped in an ultra-shadowy group that stole from him his dignity, his youth, and his psychological freedom. Here, for the first time, Spencer L. Schneider writes frankly about his secret life in the School of Sharon Gans

 

Editor’s Note: To protect the identity and privacy of individuals the author knew when he was involved in the group in question, members’ names have been changed. East reached out to Sharon Gans and the School, but they declined to comment.

 

I get flashbacks passing a certain dead-end street that cuts through the Water Mill farmlands. It triggers memories of a clear, cool autumn afternoon in 2007 when I sat at a huge picnic table in the shady backyard of one of the unassuming wood-shingled houses there with two dozen friends, toasting, feasting, and recalling the life of the recently deceased co-founder of our ultra-secret organization.

The memory is difficult for me, bringing up feelings of fondness and friendship but also anger and shame — an emotional paradox that defined a large part of my adult life and still weighs on me today. By the time I left in 2013, it had consumed my life for 23 years.

That afternoon, we had just returned from burying Alex Horn at the Shaarey Pardes Accabonac Grove, a cemetery off Old Stone Highway in Springs that — like everything about our group — is hidden away, almost unseen. The atmosphere at the shiva was somber but also celebratory. Whenever we gathered, we worked together like a well-oiled machine (a “microcosmos” we called it). Some cooked, others served, everyone cleaned up, and two senior members were granted the privilege of doing “teacher service” for the home’s owner, the widow, our leader, and our world: Sharon.

At the peak, there were hundreds of us. We were invisible. We did not live in an Upstate hippie compound with kids running around in rags with faraway gazes. We did not engage in satanic activities, have loaded weapons, have apocalyptic visions, or believe in aliens coming to save mankind. We didn’t do anything you expect a cult might. We didn’t even have an actual name. 

We met two nights a week for discussions in loft spaces in Lower Manhattan. We were highly educated, skilled professionals living in the city and going about our lives, many of us with spouses (some involved, some not) and children (who had no involvement, thank God). We were successful business owners, money managers and investors, scientists, doctors, teachers, heiresses, artists, authors. Savvy people. None of us would have been caught dead in a cult, nor did any of us think we were in a cult, exactly. Most of us were recruited when we were going through trying times, hitting roadblocks in our lives, looking for community. A friend or acquaintance invited us to check out an exclusive group that, they said, was studying philosophical ideas; we told ourselves we were being open minded. 

We called what we did School. We studied, discussed, and tried to adhere to “the Work” or “Fourth Way” philosophy of G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky. These were Russian mystics who pieced together Eastern and Western spiritual theories that were to be put into practice by students in their everyday lives. The theory of the Work was that with help of a teacher within a school setting, a student could achieve, through years of effort, a high level of self-awareness that would transform his or her life. We were not required to hand out leaflets in the subway or shave our head and sing Hare Krishna in Union Square. Quite the opposite. We were sworn to secrecy about the very existence of School, and that suited us just fine. 

I never told a soul about it until I left in January of 2013. 

It all started for me in the spring of 1989 when I was 29. I was a corporate lawyer working at a big Park Avenue law firm — but I was having a quarter-life crisis. After the nonstop slog of college and law school, then working in Silicon Valley for nine months, followed by 60-hour work weeks in New York City, I really needed to stop, to rest and reassess my priorities. I was still trying to come to terms with the death of my father, four years earlier. And, while a lot of my friends were getting married and moving to suburbia, I was pretty lonely.

Enter Malcolm.

Malcolm was an Ivy League graduate student who tended bar on the weekends at a neighborhood dive in newly hip Tribeca; I played bass in a blues band there some nights. One day he called and asked me to meet him at a tavern in the Village to “discuss something personal.” Suspicious but intrigued, I found him at a back table, and he confided that he was the member of an “esoteric school” which was inviting select people to check it out. Malcolm said it was a study group that met a couple evenings a week, and that it was the most important thing in his life.

I told him that it sounded weird and like a cult and I wasn’t interested. I walked out. 

But it nagged at me: What was he talking about? 

I had been so blunt. I felt guilty having walked out on poor Malcolm. 

So I called him. He insisted School was not a cult but an admittedly unusual study group, with great teachers, people like me, and interesting ideas and philosophies that, he said, were part of an “oral history handed down through the ages.” That part did sound nutty, but he said it was the farthest thing from a cult: We were free to come and go yet needed to commit to a one-month experiment. Tuition after the first free month was only $300 per month. Okay, I decided, I’d check it out — more out of curiosity than serious interest. 

So a week later, on a muggy July evening in Manhattan, I found myself being escorted down a deserted Broadway from the Canal Street Station, where Malcolm had asked me to meet him. He insisted that he could not simply give me the address to what he called “the space” — and the mystery was killing me. I was also nervous. 

We arrived at an old industrial building on the corner of Franklin Street in Tribeca that had a wholesale-fabric store on the first floor. He led me into a small, rickety elevator that carried us slowly to the third floor. It opened onto a raw but tidy loft. There, an audience of about 40 neatly dressed men and women in their late 20s and early 30s sat quietly, reflectively, in plastic lawn chairs arranged in four rows facing an empty brown-velvet recliner and a side table that held a single lily in a vase, a snack plate, and a large wine glass filled to the brim with what looked like ice wate. (I later found out it was Absolut Vodka.) Several of the students looked up and smiled at me as I took an empty seat in the front row. This was the classroom. 

My suspicions were allayed because everyone looked normal, and I noticed no kids in rags with faraway gazes. And then the class began. Out from an office door walked a woman in her early 60s, escorted by a large man in his 40s who resembled the 1980s late-night host  Tom Snyder, but with a nervous twitch. The class stood at attention as the woman was helped by Tom Snyder (who actually turned out to be the now-deceased Frederick Mindel, another teacher at School) into her recliner. She pulled the lever and eased herself back. This was Sharon Gans. 

She revealed nothing about herself, not even her last name. Nobody recognized her from her part in the 1972 sci-fi classic Slaughterhouse Five, or from the Off-Off Broadway plays she’d acted in during the 1960s. Her hair — piled high and bright orange-red — framed a pale face. She had a hawk-like nose and penetrating turquoise eyes. Wearing a floor-length low-cut dress with gaudy jewelry and makeup, she looked like a character from a John Waters movie. But she was well-spoken, intelligent, confident, funny, and full of energy. She had a madcap air (or perhaps an air of madness) about her. I was fascinated. 

What I didn’t know then — and what most couldn’t know in those pre-internet days — was that in the late 1970s, Sharon and Alex Horn (now buried in the aforementioned Springs cemetery) had left San Francisco following a series of articles in The Chronicle alleging that they ran an abusive cult that extorted money and free labor from members.

So how did I go from joining a seemingly innocuous discussion group for self-improvement to being trapped in a cult? Slowly, and without my realization. First came the honeymoon. 

After about a week of classes, I got a surprise call at my office from a stranger named David who said that he was also in School and that he was going to be my “sustainer.” Every new recruit in School was assigned a sustainer, who, like an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, would be there to talk to the student outside of class time. For about a year and a half, David would call me every day — at home, in the office, and, if I was out of town, at my hotels. He was kind, affable, amusing, and very bright. He told me nothing about himself, not even his last name, and I never had his phone number. (We finally met in person six weeks later, again, at the old tavern on University Place. David was in his 30s then, six feet tall and skinny, wearing a work shirt and suspenders.) 

Until David phoned me, I had never had any peer take such an interest in me. I looked forward to his calls, became dependent on them, and he helped me and cared about me. We only spoke about me and my problems. I revealed anything and everything about my life with him. I did not know at the time that he was reporting every word back to Sharon. 

I started to look forward to coming to classes. I had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and they provided some of the intellectual rigor I missed from my college days. We read and talked and debated about ideas, ideologies, ways of living. Some of the Work teachings seemed practical and helpful. “Internal considering” was the concept for worrying what people thought of you and offered a way not to. “Self observation” was the act of trying to reflectively step back and seeing what thoughts, emotions, and sensations one was experiencing at any given moment. Each month we each made a new “aim” to focus on some new interest outside of class: taking dance lessons, learning a new instrument, or building a chair; if we wanted to, we could present our new skills in class. We also functioned as a book club of sorts. When not reading the books of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, we would read something like The Odyssey. Because we were encouraged to make ideas practical, some of us met in the early morning by the East River to experience the “rosy-fingered dawn.” 

At the time, I had just started my own law practice — a bold and scary move. I was able to discuss this in our classes and recieved encouraement from the  teachers. My classmates were successful in their own walks of life, thoughtful, kind, and intelligent. I wasn’t so lonely anymore and certainly not bored. Spending time many evenings in this environment created a unique community — a supportive community bound by a desire to grow in a spiritual sense. I came to feel that only with people in School could I experience this kind of community. And this filled a void I hadn’t known I had. 

But because School was seeking to make students “essence friends” — held together not by life values but by the Work ideas — we went along with the rule that barred socializing with one-another outside of class. Occasionally we would get to have parties at the loft or go on surprise trips (to a square dance, or an overnight fishing trip, or bowling). These were the good times. Eventually, too, some of us were given permission to date. Over time, I came to consider my classmates my most cherished friends. I was allowed to play in a band with some of them and even performed with others in an Off-Off Broadway improv group, under the direction of a character actor — a veteran of 1970s sit-coms — who was an acolyte of Sharon Gans. 

Around my first anniversary, it all changed. Fred announced that we’d worked together so well that we had earned the privilege to do a “third line of Work.” According to the Work, the only way you could actually experience the benefits of the ideas, and take your next step toward evolving, was to bring someone new to School to take your place, so you could ascend. It wasn’t optional. School was going to evolve, and you couldn’t miss the train. So we were trained by older students — including Malcolm, who was not in my class, but in another section of more experienced students — to bring in newcomers. 

It was a system designed to lure and screen a certain type of person: He or she should be in their late 20s or 30s, successful, bright, and at a crossroads or place of disappointment in their life (bored, lonely, vulnerable). They also had to be able to keep a secret. Given the need for invisibility, we were only to discuss the existence of School after a lengthy process that would ensure we could trust the person to keep their mouth shut. 

We ended up spending about 20 hours a week trying to meet and befriend strangers in book shops, museums, bars, or even the subway. Next would come a series of private meetings to screen and entice them, and if they met all the requirements, give them something like Malcolm’s spiel. 

I was spending less time with my old friends and family, who I came to view as less important and less “for me” than my essence friends. Indeed, I wouldn’t even speak about School and the Work with family because not only was it forbidden, they wouldn’t understand. And like many of us, I had become wrapped up in magical thinking — for example, believing that there was a causal relationship between our internal thoughts and events, and, more specifically, that there was a correlation between being in School and our well-being. Sharon and Fred indoctrinated us into believing that School protected us from the “pain factory” of life and that all the positive events now occurring to us were the result of being in School. And, conversely, bad things were still happening to us because we weren’t yet sufficiently proficient at the Work.

So even though I was free to come and go from School at any time, for me, and for most of us, we didn’t want to — and really couldn’t. In hindsight, it really wasn’t that much different from being trapped in that imaginary Upstate compound with the kids in rags. Here, in the middle of the most populous city in the United States, in the 1990s, I had become psychologically isolated from my previous life and connections and addicted to this cult that I didn’t even understand was a cult. For many of the 23 years I was in School, I thought it was great and that the more I worked on myself the happier I would be. It was only later that I concluded that the Work ideas were of no utility, a placebo at best, leading to nothing. 

Added to this dependency and isolation was the very nature of the Work, which was, essentially, gaslighting — a form of psychological abuse in which the victim is made to doubt their own perceptions and is slowly driven mad. According to the Work, we were asleep and in order to awaken and become “actualized,” we needed to be completely receptive to our teachers and friends’ perceptions, advice, and instructions, no matter how wrong they seemed. Because of my blunt  nature, I waslabeled as “impetuous.” This forced me to reconsider all of my actions and words and impulses, so I could evolve into Sharon’s version of a calm and likeable person. The constant second-guessing of our own feelings and thoughts made us more susceptible to being controlled. 

Through the years, I witnessed a lot of psychological abuse by Sharon, and these episodes still haunt me.  

Sharon started to deeply meddle into our personal lives, pressuring us to do demented things. When married women who already had older children got pregnant, Sharon pushed them not to keep the baby or abort it, but to give it up to other couples in School who were unable to conceive. (I heard of at least two private adoptions entered into at Sharon’s urging.) Sharon arranged several marriages among students, coerced couples to divorce, and pressured several gay men to marry women. (One of my good friends today was once in such a marriage, but is now living a happy, free life.) It was all truly evil. 

Far from leading to happiness and self-realization, Sharon’s advice was often incredibly bad: She told Steve to sue his ex for child-support, only to have the judge order him to pay. She told Karen to visit an Upstate New York prison to apologize to the stranger who had broken into her home, raped her, and tried to murder her — so she could learn to “let go” of the past.

Sharon was totally lacking in empathy. Money and power were what interested her. This was a business for her, and also an outlet for her urge to bully. 

For years, we were indoctrinated to believe that one of the best ways to evolve was to engage in hard physical labor for the benefit of School. If we were lucky enough, we had the privilege of being selected to toil on construction projects — at select houses belonging to older students, and, of course, at Sharon’s many properties (including the one in Water Mill). We worked day and night. I can remember watching Connie, who was in her mid-60s and had chronic illnesses, standing on a 10-foot ladder in a loft on 25th Street at 2:30 a.m. with a paint roller in her hand, furiously painting the ceiling.  Many of us were given the privilege of cooking all of Sharon’s meals. I was given the privilege of being one of Sharon’s chauffeurs. The group spent months and months, sometimes around the clock, preparing for an annual Christmas extravaganza at which Sharon was feted as the guest of honor.

I have copies of a couple of rare color photographs from one of these Christmas parties, circa 1997. I wasn’t at that one. The photos are one-of-a-kind, because Sharon permitted no photos, ever. Everything in the festive scene was created specially for this one night, including the elaborate stained-glass windows, the curtain swags, the banquet tables elaborately laid with flowers and greenery. The teachers are gathered at the head table in formal dress and tuxedos, with Sharon at the center.

Sharon thrived on chaos and drama. During one meeting, she instructed two students — let’s call them Jason and Mary — to get a hotel room that night after class, which they did. They were both married to other people at the time. Her favorite pastime was to humiliate us, especially the women. She publicly attacked people, forced them to break up in front of the rest of the School. Lori and Bob were engaged, but Sharon insisted Bob break off the engagement — which he did, in public. Sharon publicly upbraided Janet right in front of her husband for being a “bitch” and horrible wife. When Beth received a large inheritance, she was pressured to donate a portion to help purchase an Upstate retreat for Sharon and the cult. Sharon persuaded a number of her wealthier members to buy her an $8 million condo at the Plaza Hotel.  

After years in the group, we had come to believe that this behavior was evidence of Sharon’s “conscious” mind. Those of us who had reservations were so gaslighted we couldn’t trust our own instincts: She must have her reasons. We can’t possibly understand. 

This is why nobody batted an eye when Sharon claimed to be close to the spiritual level of Buddha. Why nobody openly challenged her insistence that she was personally responsible for the elections of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. To have called Sharon out would have led to a severe tongue-lashing, followed by rage from fellow members who would defend her at all costs. 

I know all this sounds nuts. Today, looking back, it’s hard to believe that I didn’t see it for what it was. But what I have come to understand is that these kinds of groups don’t function under the same, sober logic of the rest of the world; they are ruled by the irrational, mercurial dynamics of abusive relationships. Like junkies, we were powerless to the drug which we needed just to feel normal. We were so thoroughly gaslighted by Sharon that we believed leaving would be worse than staying.  

Why and how I eventually managed to get out (and recover) is an even more complicated story.  It was a process that took several years, and began with the feeling that School was messing with my mind and destroying my self-worth. But there was one moment, one incident, that broke the camel’s back. 

It was a common event: Sharon treating a woman like dirt. This time, it was Connie, the School friend who suffered from diabetes and was one of the kindest people I knew. During class one evening, Sharon lashed out at Connie for no apparent reason, and it continued for hours; then my classmates piled on, insulting and degrading this fine woman, who was reduced to tears and begged in vain for forgiveness. I sat there in the front row with my arms crossed and a frown on my face. Sharon saw me and said that I needed to snap out of my negativity. I never came back to class again.   

Years and years in a cult had left me with depression, anxiety, and mountains of stress. Sharon was not only completely unsympathetic but, like a sociopath does, blamed me for what she had done to me. I was lucky. Hardly anyone who stays as long as I did escapes. 

My journey out involved a lot of love and support from family and friends whom I had kept at arm’s length for so long. It took resilience, help from a brilliant psychiatrist, and, unexpectedly, from a flight attendant named Kimberly who helped me understand my predicament (that’s another story for another day). Plus, a lot of therapeutic swimming time in the East Hampton YMCA RECenter pool and the Atlantic Ocean.  

It has taken me many years to recover from this 23-year trauma and attack on my very dignity. I didn’t just drink the Kool-Aid, I mainlined it. 

I was 53 when I escaped. I had to start from scratch. I thought my best days were behind me, and that without School I would no longer be “protected.” I know better now. I’ve learned that these feelings of self-loathing and hopelessness are common among abuse survivors. I survived.

I feel empathy for those who are still stuck in Sharon’s web, many of whom have been trapped for decades (as did Connie); some will die before they escape. Ironically, as I’ve realized, the freedom and happiness I sought in School are not possible when in it, only away. I have a new community of friends in the world of athletics, in swimming and running. I am closer to my family. I am physically healthy, too, having lost about 60 pounds, and am sleeping better at night. I no longer second-guess myself constantly, or blame myself for every unpleasant thing. I no longer try to live up to some impossible standard, and don’t feel guilty about just  being a mere imperfect human being. I don’t let others tell me what to do, or how to think. I do keep in touch with some fellow survivors, and find it helpful to connect occasionally.  

But still, even today, when I walk past that loft on lower Broadway and Franklin Street in Tribeca, I feel traces of anger about what those people did to us, and shame for letting myself get involved. (Shame, of course, is common among victims of abuse.) 

Of the several hundred people who passed through the group, only one other former “student” has written about the experience under their own name, aside from me. I want to be open about my experience. When I first left, I told very few friends, mostly because of the shame and because it was so hard to explain. But now I will tell anyone (including you, readers), because I want everyone to know how easy it is to get caught in something like this, and to understand that the trappings of the cult are beside the point. Everyone is shocked that I, a successful attorney and nice Jewish boy from Long Island, was in a cult, and most respond with genuine interest: Tell me more. 

I have not put this experience behind me yet, and probably never will. It was 23 years out of my 59. It’s a source of grief, but my recovery is a source of pride. 

And Sharon? She’s now in her 80s, confined to a wheelchair, and shows up in classes less frequently — but she still rules over School through her lieutenants. She lives in the Plaza Hotel. When she dies, the plan is for her to be buried next to her husband in the Shaarey Pardes Cemetery, off Old Stone Highway.  

This article is part of a book-length memoir the author is writing about School. There was much he would like to have included here but could not, due to space constraints; for the same reason, the time frame of his introduction to School and to Sharon Gans has been compressed here.

Spencer L. Schneider