“MANHATTAN CULT STORY”

When Spencer Schneider was a 29-year-old Manhattan corporate lawyer, he was invited by an acquaintance to attend a secret meeting of a group known by its members simply as, “School.”  Brought in by its charismatic leader, he joined other highly successful New Yorkers but soon found himself trapped in one of the nation’s most secretive and abusive cults.  Spencer Schneider joins us tonight to discuss his new book, “Manhattan Cult Story: My Unbelievable True Story of Sex, Crimes, Chaos, and Survival”, in which he tells how and why he joined the cult, and how he got out after 23 years.

Aired on August 2, 2022

TRANSCRIPT

> WHEN SPENCER SCHNEIDER WAS A 29-YEAR-OLD MANHATTAN CORPORATE LAWYER, HE WAS INVITED BY AN ACQUAINTANCE TO ATTEND A SECRET MEETING KNOWN BY ITS MEMBERS SIMPLY AS SCHOOL.

DRAWN IN BY ITS CHARISMATIC LEADER, HE JOINED OTHER HIGHLY EDUCATED AND SUCCESSFUL NEW YORKERS, BUT SOON FOUND HIMSELF TRAPPED IN ONE OF THE NATION'S MOST SECRETIVE AND ABUSIVE CULTS.

IN HIS NEW BOOK, A CAUTIONARY TALE ENTITLED 'MANHATTAN CULT STORY, MY UNBELIEVABLY TRUE STORY OF SEX CRIMES, SURVIVAL,' HE TELLS HOW HE JOINED THE CULT AND HOW HE GOT OUT AFTER 23 YEARS.

SPENCER, THANKS SO MUCH FOR JOINING US.

HAPPY TO BE HERE, JACK, THANKS FOR HAVING ME.

IT IS A FANTASTIC BOOK.

IT'S ONE OF THOSE BOOKS WHERE I THINK QUITE HONESTLY, IF YOU DIDN'T KNOW FROM THE BEGINNING IT WAS A TRUE STORY, YOU WOULD SAY, WELL, THIS IS INTERESTING THAT SOMEONE WOULD FABRICATE THIS STORY.

BUT I CAN'T IMAGINE IT REALLY WOULD HAVE HAPPENED THAT WAY.

WE KNOW IT DID.

SO, GIVEN THAT QUICK INTRODUCTION, LET ME ASK TO YOU START BY EXPLAINING TO OUR VIEWERS WHO YOU WERE BACK THEN WHEN YOU WERE 29.

QUICK, BRIEF RESUME, IF YOU WILL, OF WHO YOU WERE.

SURE, JACK.

I GREW UP ON LONG ISLAND, YOU KNOW, IN A MIDDLE CLASS FAMILY.

GREAT PARENTS WHO SENT ME TO COLLEGE, SENT ME TO LAW SCHOOL.

I STARTED WORK IN MANHATTAN WITH A FAIRLY BIG FIRM, AND I WAS WORKING, YOU KNOW, MANY LONG HOURS, BUT I HAD GREAT FRIENDS, YOU KNOW, SUCCESSFUL LIFE, AND WAS DOING EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED TO DO.

WHEN WE THINK OF CULTS, I THINK THE FIRST VISION WE ALL COME UP WITH ARE LOST SOULS, WAYWARD SOULS WHO HAVE NO SUPPORTIVE FAMILY, NO DIRECTION IN THEIR LIVES.

CLEARLY THAT WAS NOT YOU WHEN YOU WERE 29?

THAT IS CORRECT.

I HAD EVERYTHING I NEEDED.

I WASN'T LOOKING FOR ANYTHING.

AND, YOU KNOW, IF ANYTHING, YOU KNOW, ANY KIND OF GROUP OR, YOU KNOW, SEARCHING CONCEPTS WAS FOREIGN FOR ME, AND I HAD NO INTEREST IN ANYTHING LIKE THAT OF ANY SPIRITUAL NATURE WHATEVER.

I MENTIONED IN THE INTRODUCTION AN ACQUAINTANCE KIND OF BRINGS YOU INTO THIS.

GIVE US A SENSE OF -- TALK ABOUT YOUR FIRST MEETING.

WHAT DID I LOOK LIKE?

WHAT DID IT FEEL LIKE?

WHAT WAS IT THAT BECAME ATTRACTIVE TO YOU?

WELL, THE FIRST MEETING OF THE GROUP WAS EXTREMELY BORING, I SHOULD SAY.

YOU KNOW, I WAS EXPECTING, YOU KNOW, AN ESOTERIC SCHOOL THAT MET TWICE IN MANHATTAN.

THAT IT WAS MEANT TO BE SECRET, THAT WE WOULD BE TALKING ABOUT TWO RUSSIAN MYSTICS AND THEIR IDEAS OR COSMOLOGY, AND THAT WE COULD USE THESE TO HELP US IN OUR LIVES, CAREERS AND LOVE LIVES AND WHAT NOT.

WHAT I FOUND WAS A BORING DISCUSSION THAT I DIDN'T REALLY FOLLOW AND DIDN'T PLAN TO RETURN.

WHAT WAS IT THEN THAT DREW YOU BACK IN?

WELL, I PROMISED THE FRIEND WHO INVITED ME THAT I WOULD DO A ONE-MONTH COMMITMENT.

SO I HELD MY NOSE AND WENT BACK TO A FEW MORE BORING CLASSES.

BUT I SUFFERED A CRISIS IN MY LIFE, WHICH WAS THAT I LOST MY JOB.

AND WHEN I WENT TO CLASS THAT EVENING, I FOUND A LOT OF SUPPORT AND CARE, WHICH I WOULD NOT SAY I WOULD GET FROM MY FAMILY.

IT WAS A SPECIAL INTEREST IN MY WELL BEING.

WHEN YOU EXPERIENCED THAT -- LET ME ASK YOU AGAIN, GIVE US A COMPOSITION OF THE GROUP.

WHO ARE SOME OF THE PEOPLE?

I DON'T NEED NAMES, BUT ESSENTIALLY IDENTITIES.

WHAT WERE THEY?

YES.

THAT'S -- I SHOULD ADD TO THE DESCRIPTION, WHICH IS YOU KNOW, THERE WERE OTHER PEOPLE DRESSED IN SUITS AND TIES, MEN AND WOMEN IN THEIR LATE 20s, EARLY 30s, WHO WERE WELL EDUCATED PROFESSIONAL PEOPLE.

I WAS HAPPY THAT THERE WAS NO ONE IN ROBES CHANTING AND THERE WAS NO SACRIFICES GOING ON, BECAUSE I WAS AFRAID THAT IT WAS A CULT.

IT SOUNDED STRANGE, AND IT WASN'T SOMETHING I WAS LOOKING FOR.

BUT THERE WERE FOLKS JUST LIKE YOU AND I.

YOU KNOW, LAWYERS, DOCTORS, HEAD FUDGE MANAGERS, FOLKS WHO WENT TO IVY LEAGUE SCHOOLS.

THE PERSON WHO INVITED ME WAS A VERY ESTABLISHED YOUNG MAN, IVY EDUCATED.

AND I HAD NO REASON TO DOUBT THAT, YOU KNOW, THE GROUCH PEOPLE THERE WOULD BE SIMILAR TO ME.

GOES BACK TO WHAT I MENTIONED BEFORE, AND YOU TALK ABOUT THIS -- IN OUR MINDS WHEN YOU MENTION THE WORD CULT, YOU THINK OF THEM, NOT US.

YET YOU WERE SURROUNDED BY US, BY YOU IN THESE MEETINGS, SO THAT'S THE INITIAL PHASES FOR YOU.

AND AGAIN, I JUST WANT TO UNDERSCORE, THE BOOK IS FASCINATING, RIVETING.

IT ELABORATES SO MUCH MORE ON THESE STORIES.

BUT JUST TO GIVE PEOPLE A SENSE OF IT, HOW THEN DID YOU FIND YOURSELF BECOMING COMPLETELY DRAWN INTO THIS?

AND WHAT DID YOU AND THE OTHERS END UP DOING AS PART OF THIS CULT?

SURE.

WELL, I THINK THE INITIAL THING, LIKE I SAY, THAT DREW ME IN WAS THE SUPPORT AND THIS COMMUNITY THAT I FOUND OF LIKE MINDED PEOPLE WHO WERE ALSO INTEREST IN THE IMPROVING THEIR LIVES.

AND WE USE THE TOOLS OF THE -- WE CALLED IT SCHOOL OR WORK -- TO SORT OF IMPROVE OUR LIVES.

AND PEOPLE FELT LIKE WE WERE GAINING MORE CONFIDENCE, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LED THE GROUP AT THAT TIME WERE EXTREMELY HELPFUL TO US.

YOU KNOW, IN NAVIGATING, YOU KNOW, YOUR YOUNG LIFE IN NEW YORK.

IT CAN BE VERY LONELY, AND IT'S VERY HARD WHEN YOU'RE JUST FINDING YOUR WAY IN LIFE.

SO THEY HAD ANSWERS FOR US.

UP TO NOW, THIS SOUNDS LIKE A WONDERFULLY SUPPORTIVE GROUP OF PROFESSIONALS.

AS YOU SAID, YOUNG PROFESSIONALS IN NEW YORK CITY HELPING YOU NAVIGATE YOUR LIFE.

AT SOME POINT IN TIME, THIS BECOMES FAR MORE SINISTER, IT TURNS.

CORRECT.

TELL ME HOW IT TURNS.

TELL ME ABOUT THIS CHARISMATIC LEADER AND WHAT DIRECTION NOW IT TOOK YOU ON AS OPPOSED TO THE DIRECTION YOU SUGGESTED EARLY ON.

IT TURNED WHEN THEY STARTED ASKING US TO RECRUIT OTHER MEMBERS, OTHER PEOPLE, WHICH INVOLVED A GREAT AMOUNT OF TIME, AND IT INVOLVES A METHOD THAT WAS, FRANKLY, UNETHICAL, BECAUSE WE WERE GOING ABOUT AND BEFRIENDING FOLKS AND TRYING TO CREATE THESE MATTERS OF TRUST WITH PEOPLE, WITH STRANGERS REALLY.

AND THEN, YOU KNOW, SLOWLY LURE THEM IN TO THE GROUP.

AND WHEN WE FELT THEY WOULD BE RIGHT FOR IT, IN TERMS OF, YOU KNOW, THEIR PROFILE AND HOW MUCH MONEY THEY MADE AND WHAT NOT, WE WOULD LET THEM IN ON THE SECRET.

SO IT FELT A LITTLE OFF.

GIVE ME A LIST, IF YOU WILL -- BECAUSE AGAIN, IT'S FAR TOO EXTENSIVE SO GET INTO ALL OF IT.

BUT GIVE ME A LIST OF SOME OF THE THINGS YOU AND MEMBERS OF THE SCHOOL FOUND YOURSELF DOING WHICH MADE THIS NOW THIS MORE SINISTER CULT.

YES.

SO, WE SPENT A GREAT DEAL OF TIME DOING PROJECTS FOR THE LEADERS.

THE MAIN LEADER WAS SHARON GANS, AND WE HELPED BUILD HER HOME, BUILD THE SPACES WHERE WE WORKED IN.

LIKE I SAID, WE WORKED ON RECRUITING, WHICH WAS HOURS AND HOURS A WEEK.

AND WE GAVE A LOT OF MONEY, ALSO, EACH MONTH TO HER.

YOU KNOW, I ESTIMATE SHE LEARNED ABOUT A MILLION DOLLARS A YEAR IN TUITIONS.

FROM THE MEMBERS, CALLED TUITIONS.

A TALK ABOUT INSTANCES OF EMOTIONAL ABUSE, PHYSICAL ABUSE, SEXUAL ABUSE, ORDERED MARRIAGES, ORDERED DIVORCES.

THIS ALL CAME FROM THE LEADER?

YES, SO THE PHYSICAL ABUSE, YOU KNOW, WE WERE ASKED TO ENGAGE IN BOXING.

AND WE DID THESE BOXING MATCHES, BUT THEY WERE VERY BRUTAL.

AND WE WERE TOLD THAT THIS WOULD BE, YOU KNOW, CHARACTER BUILDING.

BUT A LOT OF US GOT VERY HURT, INCLUDING ME, AND WE WERE DISCOURAGED FROM GETTING MEDICAL HELP.

I WAS IN AN ARRANGED MARRIAGE.

OTHER PEOPLE WERE IN ARRANGED MARRIAGES.

ARRANGED BY THE LEADERS OF THE CULT.

BASICALLY YOU WERE TOLD SOME PEOPLE, GET RID OF OUR CURRENT WIFE OF HUSBAND, YOU'RE GOING TO BE MARRIED TO THIS PERSON OR HAVE AN AFFAIR WITH THIS PERSON?

THESE ARE THE DIRECTIONS YOU'RE GIVEN?

CORRECT, AND IT WAS VERY COERCIVE.

BY THE TIME WE WERE DEPENDENT ON THE GROUP.

WE FOUND COMMUNITY THERE AND REALLY ADMIRED THE LEADERS.

SO WHEN THEY ASKED US OR TOLD US TO DO THINGS, WE WOULD OFTEN DO IT.

EVEN IF THEY WERE AGAINST OUR OWN INTERESTS.

FOR INSTANCE, WOMEN WERE DIRECTED TO HAVE, YOU KNOW, AFFAIRS WITH OTHER MEN IN THE GROUP, WHICH, YOU KNOW, ON REFLECTION, LOOKING BACK ON IT, THAT'S COERCIVE, IT'S NOT A CONSENSUAL THING.

AND PEOPLE WOULD DO THIS, FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS, INCLUDING LEAVING MARRIAGES.

LET ME ASK YOU -- WE COULD TALK FOREVER, BUT I'VE GOT A LITTLE LESS THAN TWO MINUTES.

YOU WERE IN THIS FOR 23 YEARS.

RIGHT.

HOW DID YOU DECIDE -- WHEN DID YOU DECIDE YOU HAD TO GET OUT AND HOW DID YOU GET OUT?

SURE.

SO I DECIDED WHEN I FELT THAT, YOU KNOW, A BETRAYAL BY THE LEADERS.

THERE WERE SEVERAL INSTANCES WHERE IT WAS CLEAR THEY WERE GOING THINGS THAT WERE AGAINST MY INTEREST, INTERFERING IN MY MARRIAGE, INTERFERING IN MY WORK LIFE, AND IT BECAME UNTENABLE.

AND ALTHOUGH I LOST A LOT WHEN I LEFT IN TERM OF -- YOU KNOW, I WAS DOING WORK WITH SOMEONE IN THE GROUP.

AND I LOST MY COMPLETE BUSINESS.

I WAS REALLY HAVING A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, AND I WAS AT MY WIT'S END, AND I JUST FELT I HAD NOTHING TO LOSE, SO I FELT I HAD TO LEAVE, WHICH I DID.

IS THIS CULT STILL IN EXISTENCE?

YES, THE LEADER SHARON GANS PASSED AWAY A YEAR AND A HALF AGO OF COVID, BUT THE GROUP IS LED BY FOUR PEOPLE WHO ARE HER ACT LITES AND MEETS IN MANHATTAN.

AND I WOULD GUESS THERE'S A COUPLE OF HUNDRED PEOPLE WHO ARE STILL IN THE GROUP.

THIS IS THE FIRST, THIS BOOK -- AND AGAIN IT'S CALLED' MANHATTAN SEX STORY', IT'S THE FIRST TIME THAT SOMEONE HAS OPENED UP THE PAGES, IF YOU WILL, ON THIS CULT.

LAST QUICK THING FOR YOU IS, HOW ARE YOU DOING NOW?

OH, I'M GREAT.

I GOT, YOU KNOW -- YOU KNOW, PSYCHOLOGICAL HELP.

I SAW A THERAPIST, WHICH HELPED ME TREMENDOUSLY AND FOUND NEW FRIENDS AND NEW INTERESTS.

YOU KNOW, I DISCOVERED OPEN WATER SWIMMING.

I BECAME A LIFE GUARD.

AND I HAVE A RICH LIFE.

I HAVE ALL THE THINGS THAT I WANTED NOW THAT I WAS PROMISED THEN.

RIGHT, AND SPENT 23 YEARS FIGHTING AGAINST.

SPENCER, AGAIN, THIS IS A FASCINATING STORY, AND PEOPLE SHOULD READ THIS STORY UNDERSTANDING THAT THIS IS TRUE.

THIS IS NOT SOMETHING THAT CAME -- IT'S NOT FICTIONALIZED.

THIS IS A TRUE STORY, AND AGAIN AS I SAID IN THE BEGINNING A CAUTIONARY TALE FOR OTHER PEOPLE WHO WILL SEE THEMSELVES IN YOU.

SPENCER, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US.

GOOD LUCK TO YOU.

I KNOW YOU'RE DOING SOME LONG MOTION SWIMMING OUT THERE.

KEEP SAFE.

FROM ONE FORMER LIFE GUARD TO ANOTHER, YOU KEEP SAFE, AND WE'LL TALK SOON.

YOU BE WELL.

THANKS, JACK.

I APPRECIATE IT.

©2022 WNET. All Rights Reserved. 825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019

WNET is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Tax ID: 26-2810489