We don’t need education

“Manhattan Worship History”
spencer schneider
Arcade, $26.99

“We don’t need thought control.” Did you finish the rest of the verse? I bet you did. When you’re my age, it’s hard to stop this sequence of words once you start. All those years of FM radio rehearsal seem to set him in motion. Let’s do the last line together, okay? “Hey, teachers, leave those kids alone!”

Except in the case of Spencer Schneider’s new memoir “Manhattan Cult Story,” the line should be “Hey, teachers, leave those well-off, well-adjusted white yuppies alone!” I mean, hasn’t this band suffered enough?

Well, in this book we learn that there is now a formidable enemy on the food chain who is coming after them in the form of an underground cult disguised as an exclusive adult education classroom. The course is designed for people who seek a deeper understanding of themselves and their purpose in life, who have an unyielding desire for connection and community, and who, through nightly study and discipline everyday life, will eventually harness all of their true power.

That’s the pitch, anyway. What it ends up being is a kaleidoscope of Buddhist tango with Tony Robbins hitched to a pyramid scheme of swashbuckling, Scientology-style hierarchical group dynamics that eventually morphs into a grown-up version of “Lord of the Flies” in a Tribeca loft. All this for just $500 per month.

The cult is simply called “the school”, and their fearless and tireless introspection is called “the work” and, of course, “Hush, it’s a secret”, like “Fight Club”. I mean, you don’t just blurt out the meaning of life to the next slob on the subway, do you? Members are groomed and then gradually recruited, made to feel special, and chosen based on their radiant intelligence (maybe a sheepskin or two on the wall puts flippers in the water?) and a hunch by the recruiter of school they possess an eagerness and will to win. . . sorry, I mean learn.

To close them they add that these types of esoteric schools are of an ancient order dating back to the dawn of reason whose members included important shapers of our humanity such as Plato, Rembrandt and Shakespeare. Absolutely the old ones! So there you have it, a little ego massage with the added bonus of exclusivity, and . . . sold! It’s sales 101.

Alright, I’m having a little fun screwing up this sect, I admit it, but let’s face it, it’s hard to resist given who the brands are. How often do the wealthy intelligentsia get theirs? As sure as curiosity killed the cat, the school also killed Spencer Schneider, a corporate lawyer, of most of his time and money for 23 years. But the question is, do we care? Some demographics just don’t get much sympathy, truth be told.

We can all confess to enjoying the hell out of the Fyre Festival fiasco of a few years ago, where eight thousand wealthy social media serials, self-important narcissistic wankers were beaten by buying an “exclusive package of fraudulent luxury island music”. “, right? I’m sure they weren’t all like that, but the quotient was high enough to make the sweeping statement. I watched both documentaries on it. Simply delicious.

So sympathy isn’t easy here, at least not on my part, and it gets even harder when you discover that a fundamental tenet of the school’s philosophy is that the rest of the human race (that’s that is, us, friends!) are “asleep,” humble mammals walking from task to task, blissfully unaware of what’s at stake. That doesn’t make the school gang more cuddly to know that they walk among us, smile in our faces while considering us as troglodytes of the first order. But, that said, and now it’s going to look like a total of 180, I really enjoyed the book.

The reason I liked it is because it’s an uncommon story. It cuts a different strip through the usual cult narrative of: damaged and mushy at the entrance, then slowly buying into collective brainwashing, then total immersion in the warped hive mind crescendo to ultimate betrayal by a trusted cult friend (usually the person who brought you in) which causes a moment of clarity and the bubble to burst.

Mr. Schneider’s story is more subtle and insidious and he tells it with straightforward honesty, knowing full well that morons like me might judge him. It is indeed a very courageous undertaking, and it achieves its purpose of warning others of the trappings of a place like school. He’s not a flashy yarn spinner, but he’s a likeable guy who moves the narrative along quickly and efficiently.

However, I must advise that the subtitle “Manhattan Cult Story” of “My Amazing True Story of Sex, Crimes, Mayhem and Survival” somewhat belies the content inside. No such crucible exists in these pages outside of a vague IRS investigation into the school’s finances (which in the book is unresolved, so it’s uncertain even if there is never had an offense found), and there are no descriptions of insane group sex or passages of violent crimes of coercion being committed by cult fanatics (as has been reputed in Scientology, etc.) , as can be deduced from this slightly misleading subtitle. Instead, they engage in activities like attending retreats to build elaborate structures or hosting end-of-term concerts and plays at their hangout, not exactly “Eyes Wide Shut.”

The home of cult leader Sharon Gans on her 120-acre ranch in northwest Montana. Kevin Wetherell

What’s extraordinary is that you have a bunch of otherwise normal, honest New York white-collar professionals – lawyers and CPAs, real estate brokers and hedge fund managers – lapping up the outlandish bullshit line presented by their charismatic boozebag -bloviator -messiah, a certain Sharon Gans. Mr. Schneider and the other cult members blindly let their entire lives be ruled and then ruined by it, a fascinating ending.

Expect to meet her. She’s a moth-ridden former actress in her 60s with a moldy, scented fireman’s red mane, spawned and spat out into the world in Haight-Ashbury, who chain-smokes, compulsively eats cheese and vodka while the deranged and logically deluded spitting on her herd, the school’s faithfully paying students. She is considered by them almost a deity, on the same level as Buddha, but in fact it is more Joan Crawford in “Mommy Dearest” meets Bea Arthur in “The Golden Girls” with a series of Sam Kinison menacing comic evangelism .

She meddles in all of their lives, ordering them to leave their relationships and marry or simply fornicate with each other, all with disastrous results. Some leave, but most come back for more. She isolates them and dresses them up in class when someone stands up and challenges her opinion and calls them out for not “working on themselves” while the rest of the class then joins in a chorus of ridicule for that person, reducing it to a pile of rubble. tears and zero self-esteem. Then they get up the next day, go to their office and do your taxes. It’s crazy.

Reading this footage I couldn’t help but think of that old Monty Python bit where the guy walks into the argument clinic and walks through the office door in a ruthless ambush of insults by the person at the office, and the guy says, “I came here for an argument,” and the front desk person quickly apologizes, “Oh, I’m sorry. That’s abuse. The argument is next.”

That’s what it all sounds like to me, and they’ve made this Sharon Gans a multi-millionaire with their dues, clinging to her every word like it’s the New Testament of our day. She is more personality cult.

I am in disbelief at all of this, but I do not want to ignore the pain that Mr. Schneider suffered at the hands of Sharon Gans and the other teachers at the school. I know it’s real and it took some courage to tell his story. He also reveals a teenage trauma that may have even led him there. He’s to be commended for that, and I believe it might end up helping people. Who among us hasn’t been in a job or relationship for too long? How many of us have fallen under a spell where we ended up believing and listening to the wrong people way beyond the point where it made sense? We have all been enlightened to some degree in this lifetime at one time or another. Than those who did not throw the first stones.

At the end of the book, Mr. Schneider lists “Nine tell-tale signs you’re in a cult” to help those who might not recognize they’re part of it – conscientious public service and nice punctuation for his book. I will join him and offer you this. I lived without a cult for over five decades, and I did it by adhering to this simple thing. When someone approaches me claiming to have “the answer”, my response is always the same: “I didn’t ask the question, asshole.”


Christopher John Campion, singer-songwriter and regular visitor to Amagansett, is the author of “Escape From Bellevue: A Dive Bar Odyssey”, published by Penguin-Gotham.

Spencer Schneider lives in East Hampton. He will attend the Authors’ Night at Herrick Park on Saturday.

Sam D. Gomez