Manhattan Cult Story: My Unbelievable True Story of Sex, Crimes, Chaos, and Survival by Spencer Schneider - Book Review

Monday, May 23, 2022

Image showing the book cover of Manhattan Cult Story: My Unbelievable True Story of Sex, Crimes, Chaos, and Survival by Spencer Schneider and featuring a quote from the book.

"When Schneider was a twenty-nine-year-old Manhattan corporate lawyer, an acquaintance invited him to a secret meeting of an “esoteric school for inner development,” known to its students simply as “School.” Suspicious yet curious, he went. At first, he found support, community, and meaning among other highly educated New Yorkers. But soon, he found himself trapped in one of the nation’s most secretive and abusive cults. In the name of personal development, hundreds endured decades of sexual and physical abuse, forced labor, arranged marriages, swindled savings and inheritances, and systematic terrorizing. Some of them broke the law. All for their charismatic and demented leader Sharon Gans, a washed-up actress who claimed to be on a spiritual par with Buddha. 

This is Schneider’s story of how he got entangled in School, why he stayed, and how––impossibly––he got out after twenty-three years. It’s a cautionary tale about the power of group psychology and how anyone can be radicalized. It’s also a story of surviving traumatic abuse and ultimately finding a path to healing." - Goodreads

 Manhattan Cult Story: My Unbelievable True Story of Sex, Crimes, Chaos, and Survival by Spencer Schneider is expected to be published on July 5th, 2022. A big thank you goes to Netgalley and Skyhorse Publishing for providing a free copy of this book for me to review.

This was a surprisingly easy read. The subject is harrowing and dark, yet the style of writing makes it feel like you've sat down for coffee with a friend and they've just started telling you about their past. There are several instances in the book that make you ask, "Why didn't you simply leave?" or "Why didn't you stand up and do something?" yet Schneider does an excellent job of conveying the trapped feeling that many people experience when they find themselves in similar situations. The cult relationship appears to be extremely similar to the type of relationship found in domestic abuse cases. This is something I had never considered before, and I am grateful that this book has helped me better understand both survivors and those who remain trapped in the deception.

I do think that the title of the book is a tiny bit misleading. It sets it up as a story full of depraved cult behaviors. While there is quite a bit of abuse described in the book, the way it is written about is very tame. As a result, the sensationalist title comes across as a little gross. I also have to wonder if the author was granted permission to tell some of the accounts of those involved.

Schneider's inclusion of the resources at the end of the book, as well as the list of signs you may be in a cult, was a great touch. Someone who may be in a similar situation may randomly pick up the book to briefly glance through and find a way to escape (or just realize they need to). Of course, the most important thing about this book is that it gives hope. Spencer was in the Odyssey Study Group/School/Theater of All Possibilities for decades but he still managed to finally leave. Writing this book and starting his blog gives hope to those still stuck that things can get better and it is possible to find freedom again.

Rating:  ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Book Information: Goodreads

Author Information: Goodreads, Official Site

Is it worth reading?

👍 Those interested in true crime or cults will enjoy this book. It may also be valuable for cult survivors.