I think part of the problem is that the Ephraim-associated monasteries seem to do things more traditionally, and most Americans aren't used to that. Many Orthodox who are Americans have probably never been given a difficult penance, let alone one that can stretch on for years. In earlier centuries, in places where Orthodoxy was the norm, this was not uncommon. How many lay people would have followed through faithfully, I don't know, but certainly there are plenty of examples of such things being talked about.
To the traditional person the more modern way looks lax to the point of putting someone's soul in peril; and to the ordinary Joe the traditional way can often seem absurdly exaggerated and needlessly harsh. I think the main problem is false or misplaced expectations. If you go to a monk, elder, or even parish priest who you know might give you a difficult teaching or penance or bit of counsel/advice, then you can't really blame him/her for doing so. And if you get advice you don't think you can follow, you shouldn't treat it like an infallible rule (unless that is the relationship you have with them, such as some monks have--but even here you would not void your free-will, just be in willing obedience to another).
If you find what was said or ordered or advised is too difficult or harsh, then by all means talk to your priest, or bishop, or spiritual father, or whoever, but when it comes to judging the adviser let the bishop decide if it was too harsh in general (ie. if the person is doing harm and needs to be corrected or stopped). Your main concern should merely be to be honest, and whether the thing at issue is too much for you (and those impacted by your activity/life).
I'm not saying cover your eyes to abuses, and certainly not to abuses of a more damaging kind, only that something seeming overboard doesn't necessarily equate to someone being nuts or cultish. People are called to obedience, exercising free-will responsibly, and following the order/system that God has guided the church to set up. Until that system breaks down, it would seem to be best to stick to it.
That system doesn't include excusing crimes and harmful mistreatment, but neither does it include blind obedience and intellectual slavery, nor 'outing' people you think make unreasonable demands. If you wish to be obedient to someone then be obedient; if you are unable to do so then come to terms with that and do as you must. It is good to seek guidance, even if it is difficult, but not at the expense of damaging your mind or soul.
'If your hand offends, cut it off'--what is your 'hand'? Something that is generally good, but for you is causing a serious fall. It is something good for many or most, yet for you it is harmful. We think this means to speak of sins like lust or greed. But what if the sin is obedience or doing things a certain way? A good thing misused or warped can be a sin. Indeed, many would say that this is essentially the substance of sin. Obedience is good, but only if it's healthy. Discussing what such-and-such elder/priest/etc. can be good, but it can also be harmful and/or misleading.