Sneak Peek: Cultic Identity Theft, Defined

Welcome to the sneak peek series, which features excerpts and ideas from The Gentle Souls Revolution. Installment 1 outlined an emotional life hack that I call, The Guilt Experiment. This sneak peak explores a concept that I call, Cultic Identity Theft.

When it comes to describing cult indoctrination, language falls short. Phrases like brainwashing, thought reform & mind control focus exclusively on cognitive hijacking, without including body, heart, spirit and soul. For me cultic indoctrination is a wholistic hijacking: cults steal personhood. Cults poison the mind then, insidiously seep into heart, body and soul.

This is psychological and social violence. It evicts individual agency and fosters dependency on a false savior. Cults peddle false hopes. You lay down your money, and a never-ending theft unfolds. The hierarchy weaponizes your trust along with any uncertainty or fear you feel; your hopes and dreams; strengths, weaknesses, attachments and relationships. Cults betray and the top-tier narcissist benefits at everyone else’s expense. That is the nature of the beast.

In the midst of my personal misadventure, I clearly remember being stuck in commuter traffic, crawling toward the job I hated, with the thought, my life is no longer my own popping into my consciousness. It still took me another two years to leave. If you ever find yourself thinking something akin to, my life is no longer mine, the time to take your life back has arrived! I don’t recommend waiting another two years.

To learn more about reclaiming your life CLICK HERE to BUY The Gentle Souls Revolution. I’ll be posting more about reclamation soon.

For now, inhale, exhale. As always, I welcome your comments.

Four apostates meet at a pub …

The rule breakers!

Last Thursday night, sources spotted 4 “disgruntled ex-students breaking rules!” The heretics met at an Irish pub called, The Burren, in Somerville’s Davis Square. Between Guinness, chips, and live music, they talked, like grownups! One source heard them wonder, “…when did ignoring each other in public to ‘protect the invisible world’ become normal? That’s a little bit culty, isn’t it?

Speaking of cults, I have two exciting future cult-busting things to report:

1- Kacey, the brilliant host of The Cult Vault Podcast, interviewed me about my book, The Gentle Souls Revolution, on Friday! That conversation will be aired in early August. More to come on that!

2-Last weekend, a documentary filmmaker interviewed me as a “cult expert” (Ha! Who knew;-) He wants to document how his uncle became a deprogrammer back in the groovy 70s, when panicked parents hired people to snatch kids-turned-cult-members off street corners. I can’t wait to learn the whole story!

When he asked how I left “school” – I described myself circling a soccer field, over and over, pre-dawn, contemplating the demise of all good in my life, as echoes of Robert’s voice announcing… “… those who leave the source, regret it. Believe me!” reverberated in my rattled mind. (This was his go-to proclamation when “students” disappeared.) I looked at the sun rising, and thought, “… but that’s the source.”

So, full circle back to the 4 disgruntled(s). They look pretty miserable, don’t they? They left “the source” & look at how they are suffering through the unbridled, unmonitored conversation, the beers, the cheers, the food. Sigh …

If you’re among the “disgruntled”, or (alternatively) not – yet disgruntled, but considering it, break some rules. Meet your “school mates” outside the hallowed halls, or reach out to me, persona non grata. Maybe you’ll enjoy your free speech as much as “they” (cough) enjoyed theirs. 🙂

Happy spring! Esther

Book: The Gentle Souls Revolution !

Hello Book!
I can’t believe it’s finished and published!!
AND, you can BUY it on Amazon 🙂

And THIS endorsement!!!

“A masterful storyteller, Friedman’s narrative has layers that render her book both instructive and entertaining. As dark as her experiences are, she injects humor, humanity and yes, ‘gentle spirit.’ Friedman reflects on her experiences, then steps off the page to teach us about cults, coercive control, and the dynamics of power and greed. She gives us a candid assessment of her own vulnerabilities, behaviors, realizations, disengagement, and lessons learned. 

The Gentle Souls Revolution holds the reader beyond the final page. We come away with a better understanding of human nature, the predators who take advantage of vulnerabilities, and the possibility for renewed strength and independence in recovery.”

Debby Schriver,

President, International Cultic Studies Association 
Author of Whispering in Daylight: The Children of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries and Their Journey to Freedom 

Holiday Season Lawsuit: Fa, la, la, la, la

Hello fellow “Disgruntleds”

A holiday-season lawsuit has been filed against the Gans estate, naming several defendants. The case lays out “school’s” Ponzi scheme in plain language. Here’s the boiled down version, if you don’t feel like reading the 50-plus pages (like I did):

Accusation: it accuses defendants of violating human trafficking laws to benefit financially and otherwise through forced labor and services. It states that they knowingly used coercion, manipulation and various threats.

Motivation: the defendants are beneficiaries in Sharon’s Will. Her estate grants them membership interest in OSG,LLC. It conveys “a strong desire and hope for business to continue to operate successfully.”

Brief history: it explains how in 1978 the San Francisco press exposed a so-called theater group’s “child abuse, sexual abuse, forced labor and bilking of money.” Loyal members, including some named defendants, shuttered the stage and escaped east. In 1980, it morphed into a secret “school,” re-opening in NYC, eventually spreading to Boston, Mass; Copenhagen, Denmark; Condon, Montana; Pawling, NY.

The $$$: From 1980 – 2001, “school” took cash, only. In 2001, it incorporated as OSG, LLC (aka, Odyssey Study Group). It started accepting checks, too. It reported the cash, but not the checks. Some of the defendants oversaw finances and collected “tuition.” Conservative estimates, from NYC alone, calculate that OSG took in $14 million over 20 years.

Some defendants created and directed the following intricate, sophisticated and deceptive recruitment:
1)Target young, affluent, professionals.
2) Engage in conversation to identify those who are dissatisfied and searching for meaning, healthy and open-minded. If yes, say, “Let’s get together!”
3)Set up meetings. Vet further over time. Vaguely offer “tools that enrich lives, improve well-being, help people achieve success…
4) Introduce to other “friends.”
5) Invite to a “class” (aka a “free five-week experiment.”)
6) Reel ’em in.
7) Bring to a class.
DO NOT mention the group, rules, “tuition,” demands, isolation, hierarchy, annual holiday hijackings, or future requirement to recruit others.
Sound familiar?

INDOCTRINATION: requirements, rules and surveillance:
A)Requirements: “3 lines of work.”
1) For self: experiments designed to “awaken” participants.
2) For others: help “classmates” to “know themselves.”
3) For group: contribute to “school.” According to “teachers,” the third line “benefit students the most!” Students who neglect this line do not advance.

1)Secrecy -“protect the invisible world” from those who are “threatened by the work.” Secrecy hid the cult’s history.
2)Strict attendance – go to class twice a week, from early evening til late night or early mornings. Absences, even illnesses, are not excused.
3) Arrive early. Stay until dismissed.
4) No bathroom breaks, lest you miss critical info while peeing.
5) Non-fraternization – ignore fellow students if seen outside the “classroom.”
6) The hour of silence – “seal in the work” after classes; don’t speak for one hour.
7) No therapy – you have “school” ideas. You don’t need therapy.
8) Shun former students as pariahs and apostates.
9) Obedience – comply with “teacher” directives. Pushback, questions or contradictory advice are “hostile” and intentional efforts to “sabotage the work.”
10) Cede all personal decisions to the leadership. The “teachers” will eventually tell you how to live.

C)SURVEILLANCE: Minders introduced as “sustainers”these long-term loyalists meet with newer members under the guise of supporting and answering questions, in confidence. Really they are mining, documenting and sharing personal information with “teachers.”

Isolation: Requirements and assignments devour more and more time. Leaders pitch their demands as “necessary for development.” They berate, badger, criticize and bully over alleged failures.

Teachers characterize non-members who expressed concern, as inferior, jealous, un-evolved saboteurs, who, “don’t get it” and are “threatened by the work.”

The demands build up to the late fall, early winter, Christmas party — a secret hijacking of the holiday season; touted as a gift to honor the teachers. The seasonal uptick widens the wedge between members and non-members.

The Tool Kit: secrecy, isolation, indoctrination, subjugation, shame, humiliation, degradation, sleep deprivation, gaslighting, negative information/collateral and economic abuse.

The more isolated members become from non-members, the more they fear expulsion and alienation from “school” and the more power and control the leaders wield over them.

Eventually, everyone is expected to recruit.

BENEFITS for defendants: “school’s” privileged inner circle had free labor & services though the third line of work requirement, including: construction; meal prep and services; house cleaning; personal assistant services; accounting; chauffeuring; massage; “opportunities for sexual and romantic relationships.”

One defendant owns a staffing company and “school” provides ready line of available workers. Teachers also have access to vacation homes constructed and upgraded by students.

Of course, the more newbies recruited, the more profit for top tier leaders.

Conclusions: Since leaving “school”, I’ve researched, read and spoken with cultic studies experts, obsessively. Still, I’m amazed by the power of social influence. We are wired to connect. In the wrong hands, trust becomes weaponry.

Our social levers set us up. Leaders lambast followers for “failures” and credit themselves for “successes”. They sabotage personal relationships, to then wield threats of alienation and expulsion. Under threat, many give up their lives for an undefined “mission.” These tactics work. That is why all cults use the same toolbox.

It was really something to see this legal filing lay out the bullet points of my five-year bilking so clearly. It helped me forgive myself for not seeing it sooner. I know that as a Boston, OSG person, I dodged a bullet. The satellite branch indoctrinated slowly and insidiously. It tamped down the shaming of those who got sick and missed class, or took bathroom breaks, or got therapy.”

I may have left sooner if exposed to the Gans-Horn hammer. Seedy, in-class massages, or messages like, “… use your sex to promote the School” might have sent me scrambling. On occasion a teacher would insert, “It doesn’t matter who you marry if you are working on yourself.” (barf).

Thankfully, I left before I wound up on a psych ward (very possible) or the cult sabotaged my marriage. I guess we’ll see what happens as this former “student” joins a global fight for justice against cultic abuse.

Fingers crossed for a happy 2023!

The Book Teaser Series: Stupid Narcissism

My book, The Gentle Souls Revolution, is inching towards completion & publication. So, while waiting, I’ve decided to float out book teasers — windows into some content.

MAGA - Stupid Narcissism
“I’m a very stable genius.”

Today, we will explore Stupid Narcissism:(verb) a selfish action or statement that most people would recognize as inconsiderate, egregious and and in the most extreme cases, incriminating. So, behaviors or things that most people would never do or say.

For example, raising money for legal fees by selling self-aggrandizing “trading cards” that depict the stupid narcissist in several fantasy lives – superhero, cowboy, astronaut; falling from “president” to crypto-con — that’s long way down.

While too often malignantly self-serving people lie, abuse and commit crimes without accountability, I started noticing that the more desperate a narcissist gets, the more likely he or she is to do something that is, well, just stupid. So I started calling those things Stupid Narcissism.

For example, Keith Raniere (malignant narcissism’s current poster child) is now serving a 120-year prison sentence for his crimes. Despite his steep fall from “vanguard” to convict, his delusions of grandeur march on. In the docu-series, The Vow, you can hear Raniere pontificating documentary advice to the producers over the phone from his cellblock. In a slow, deadpan, drippy, voice, he proclaims, “There are many ways of presenting a documentary. Your side is only the very top layer. And depending on what you’re willing to present as the truth, it can go very deep. So, talk to me…”

This level of self aggrandizing is impossible to comprehend: Stupid Narcissism.

Cult leaders, like Raniere, lose control by underestimating their targets. They overplay their hands when soon-to-be former members start realizing, I don’t need this person/group; they need me, or at least the cult version of me. Then narcissistic leaders panic & Stupid Narcissism kicks on.

Robert’s (somewhat) more covert version of Stupid Narcissism kicked on when I told him that I was leaving “school” to save my marriage. He tried to brow beat me back into the cult trotting out two tactics:

Strategy 1: The demonize husband tactic: “Your husband will always try to control you, you know,” He told me. “These. Things. Don’t. Happen… in a vacuum.” The irony of Robert calling my husband a controlling bully, while trying to bully and control me, was too funny to ignore.

I remember thinking, …anyone who meets my husband for five minutes, will see that controlling other people is not his thing. Didn’t Robert stop to think that my husband had put up with this weird group lurking in the background of our marriage for five years–as well as the $20,000 expense??? No, of course not, because … well … Stupid Narcissism.

Strategy 2: The empathy ambush tactic: Robert’s voice slowed and softened (like Raniere’s phone call voice). He said, “I’m trying to put myself in your husband’s shoes.” It was so transparently disingenuous, that I felt insulted. I thought, hey, Mr Evolved, I have insomnia. I’m losing weight. I can’t find work while I’m spending our money on “school” — I don’t know my ass from my elbow and you, ‘evolved man,’ are wondering why my husband is worried???

My “school” coma snapped for good. I recognized what Robert J Lifton calls dispensing of existence. You see, for Robert, my well-being didn’t matter. I was inconsequential unless in service to “school.” Stupid Narcissism doesn’t care about me, or you, or anyone else.

So I woke up and said to myself, You know, if I’m going to fuck up my life, I’d rather do it on my own terms.

The most extreme example of Stupid Narcissism that I stumbled over while researching cults came from Charles Manson. During his murder trial in 1969, his desperation accelerated. AP reporter Linda Deutsch recalled: “In court, Manson choreographed a spectacle that included his three co-defendants jumping to their feet and singing songs mocking the judge. At one point, he propelled himself across the table, brandishing a pencil and shouting at the judge: ‘Someone should cut your head off, old man.’”

Mason surely sealed his fate with the dog and pony show. Trial judges don’t suffer fools. Stupid Narcissism.

Stupid Narcissism announces, “Don’t you know who I am!” Social norms, boundaries and safeguards disappear. Then we do, indeed, see who they are. Selfish, shameless and callous people. People incapable of empathy, and bereft of morals, principles, civility, decency, or souls. The pathologically selfish are empty, desperate parasites, who cling to fallacies.

Whether malignant or covert, at the end of the day, all narcissistic cult leaders share an insatiable need to control others. They are all the same. All destroy lives and families and leave messes behind them, in the wake that follows a storm of selfish stupidity.

I don’t know how to keep a check on Stupid Narcissism — what is the societal correction? I don’t have the answer. But education is a good place to start.


Indoctrination Podcast – I talk “School” / Odyssey Study Group with Rachel Bernstein 

Happy fall …ish? I guess we’re not quite there, yet. I, personally, love autumn. That’s me.

I’m so excited to share this interview! In the cult-i-verse world, Rachel Bernstein is a household name. She’s a highly respected cult recovery expert, marriage and family counselor and cult interventionist.

She’s also an excellent interviewer and brilliant podcast hostess. As a truly gifted therapist, she asks thoughtful questions, listens deeply and offers feedback that hits the mark.

So, whether you are interested in my cautionary tale, or have other reasons to understand cultic misadventures, I hope that this conversation is helpful!

Here it is: A Safety Guide for Gentle Souls

More to come on my book, The Gentle Souls Revolution, soon! It’s getting close to launching.

That’s it for today!

Thanks for reading,


The little things & gratitude

Good evening, fellow “disgruntled” ex “students”,

It’s Tuesday night. I’m home cooking, listening to music, drinking a Voodoo Ranger, Hazy IPA, a little buzzed. It’s been so long since I left the “hallowed” / hollow halls, the sometimes I forget.

“School” claimed my Tuesday evenings for 5 f***king years. Damn, it feels good to have them back. I’m so happy to be home, a little buzzed, cooking and listening to tunes. Cheers! I’m just hoping (yep, I typed it … JUST …) that some of you are feeling as free & happy as I am!

So … here’s to your “School”-free Tuesday night!

Cheers, Esther

Book update, Podcast recommendation & more…

In 2016, I started writing a book. Part cult memoir, part research & most importantly, part recovery guide, I’m calling it The Gentle Souls Revolution. I just sent my completed manuscript to the proofreader. Fingers crossed, I will publish it this fall.

While writing I came to my own definition of the word Cult:

a group-perpetrated socio-pathology in which a narcissistic leader fabricates a self-aggrandizing tale, attracts adherents & then directs his/her well-intended believers, as the cast and crew, to act out his or her delusions of grandeur, in a theater of absurdity, produced for an audience of one.

All narcissistic relationships are fictional fiefdoms — narcissists desperately need their delusions of grandeur. So they target, manipulate and assert power over others. Narcissists need others to cater to their needs.

That’s why, if you’re recovering from your “school” misadventure (or any other cult) I recommend the podcast Navigating Narcissism.

In the episode, No Such Thing as a Good Cult, narcissism expert Dr. Ramani Durvursula interviews film maker and NXIVM whistle-blower, Mark Vicente. The parallels between Raniere/NXVIM & Sharon/Robert/ “school” are obvious:

1) The “hope” market: “School” & NXIVM both marketed hope to seekers & idealists. People who were seeking meaningful lives and community and struggled with their own sense of worth the most were more vulnerable.

Vicente was in search of human goodness & he suffered from the all-too familiar “Never good enough syndrome.” His film What the Bleep Do We Know, popular in new age circles, made him a public figure. His spoke of his dream was to “…use media to make the world better” in various interviews. NXIVM recruiters listened. The cult sought him out & groomed him – He told Dr. Ramani, “They studied me very carefully …they told me everything that I wanted to hear.”

2) The love bombing: Like my “school” recruiter (also known as “new friend”) his recruiter got to know him & customized the bait: We really see you! We believe in you! We can help you do the thing, become the person & realize your potential. We applaud your dream. We are aligned with you!

Cults/narcissists leverage hopes. This tactic has a name: future faking. They promise the moon, but never deliver, because they are promising a fiction. The point is to leverage the fiction and use your needs against you. They claim that you’ll get the moon, if you work hard enough. You earn it by (as they said in “school”) “working on yourself.” Over time, it becomes clear that you can never do or be enough. That moon will always be out of reach.

3) The grooming: Vicente calls this process “Data-mining insecurities …” Pathologically selfish people, or social groups, present what you want to see, convince you to trust them and then gather intel on your vulnerabilities. Then they weaponize your vulnerabilities. They all claim that if you quit trying to earn the moon, you let down your (again, in “school” language) yourself, your “essence friends” & teachers.

4) The cultic identity theft: Vicente calls this, Codified gaslighting. Cults & narcissists tell you that normal emotions are only for the lowly, proletariat. You are supposed to float above your feelings, dismiss and disregard them. Emotions are only for the “inferior”. When you deny your emotions, you deny your own healthy internal signals. This gives abusive people license to abuse. When you express healthy angry or hurt, they frame it as proof that you are flawed. You need to “work harder”. You need to “fix your flaw.” If you’re really committed you will “do what it takes.”

“School” called this the fatal flaw and /or the essence flaw. All cults practice codified gaslighting, i.e. identity theft. In School, teachers characterized normal human responses, emotions, thoughts, perceptions as “suspicious sets of I’s,” or “lazy I’s,” or “denying force.” 

5) The self-gaslighting: Every former member, or survivor of narcissistic abuse, I’ve spoken with to date, describes self-gaslighting. They internalize the gaslighting. They doubt themselves and question their own sanity. It’s easier to control people who are insecure & scrambling to fix their “flaw(s)”: “how am I seeing the world that’s inaccurate?” They start to deny themselves.

Eventually, the tradeoff becomes group or self–you can’t have both.

Vicente’s recovery also followed a familiar path. It reflected my recovery process.

1) He faced the shock and accepted the traumatic betrayal. He let go of a dream, a belief in the allegedly altruistic mission. This is especially difficult when surrounded by people who are still clinging to that belief. That is why people struggle with staying or leaving.

Vicente said, “I wanted there to be goodness … .” He saw that Raniere and his top lieutenants were hijacking his wish to create goodness and funneling it into Raneire’s self-aggrandizing delusion.

Vicente explained that accepting traumatic betrayal feels threatening to the self. He said, “You’re trying to keep your psyche glued together, when you know, on a very deep level, that something’s not right.”

I remember clinging to “school’s” fiction, until I no longer had the energy. The irony, I discovered, was that it was the letting go and accepting that the leaders betrayed me, intentionally, that saved my sanity.

2) He accepted NXIVM leaders intentionally deceived him, to usurp his talent, passion, money, time, energy and everything else. These a**holes break concepts of love, goodness and trust. It is a loss of innocence and is painful to face. But, once you do, a lot of other things start to come together and make sense.

That’s when you begin trusting yourself over the cult / narcissist–a critical piece in recovery. When I admitted to myself that Robert never cared about me, my mind started reintegrating.

Clarity replace my confusion. Inner conflict fell away. My mind quieted and calmed. I found peace.

Facing that heartbreak, empowered me to put my psyche back together again.

3) When Vicente let go of the dream of creating goodness in the world through NXIVM, he said, “I no longer felt crazy. Because I had felt crazy for 12 years.”

4) He worked through the denial and made space for the heartbreak. Then came healthy rage, “Something had been done to me. I’d been damaged.”

My parallel version came when I declared to myself, No More Secrets. “School’s” secrets protect Sharan and Robert and damaged everyone else.

5) Rage led to the obsessive research and reading into narcissism and cults. The psycho-education was critical. All cults and narcissistic abusers use the same tactics. Once you know this you can protect yourself.

Betrayal trauma is surreal. The pain is emotional and psychological. You must accept that you trusted untrustworthy people. You trusted people who were so endlessly self-serving that they were callous to you. Pathologically narcissistic people aren’t capable of caring about others. They are impervious to other people’s suffering.

If you are a Gentle Soul the concept of such callousness seems impossible. Sadly, not only is it possible, but we’re seeing increasing evidence of the selfish and the stupid inflicting all kinds of societal damage without a care in the world. You will often hear the selfish and the stupid say things like, “Well, it doesn’t effect me.”

The silver lining: once you accept that this evil does exist and you know how to spot the danger signals, you have the tools that you need. You will recognize these parasites sooner and realize that these people deserve, exactly, nothing from you.

The Gentle Souls Revolution is a book written for the Gentle Souls; the empathic people who, like me, (unfortunately) trusted untrustworthy people–it details tools for Self Recovery and Self Preservation. The headline is that the revolution starts with boundaries — just say no.

So, more to come in the near future.

The invisible world? Not so much: 2 more OSG articles

Good morning fellow “disgruntled ex-students” –
I hope that you’ve got air conditioning these days. Don’t “intentionally suffer” these climate-change temps if you don’t have to. Just say no!

Speaking of saying no to “intentional suffering”, the NYC press is blowing the lid off of corporate headquarters & nudging the lid off the Boston branch, thanks to a cleverly insincere new recruit, who went all 007 with recording devices hidden inside a pen.

I’m not making this up — read about the pen, and other no longer “invisible school” things here:

Also published in the U.S. Sun, July 23rd: Twisted Society: Inside NYC’s secret cult that forced gay people into conversion therapy & brainwashed high-achievers into manual labor.

The Sun article centers on Spencer Schneider’s book, Manhattan Cult Story. But, in my opinion, this is the most pertinent quote from it: “Any fears Schneider had that School was a cult were allayed when he looked around the room at the seemingly sophisticated and well-to-do crowd – made up of fellow lawyers, doctors, teachers, and heiresses – that was gathered inside the room.”

“School” is what my dear friend and fellow cult buster, Gerette Buglion would call an Everyday Cult. Read about her parallel misadventure in her memoir, An Everyday Cult.