Aesthetic Realism is a cult

  Who they are, how they operate • Written by former members

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The Cult Aspects of Aesthetic Realism

by Michael Bluejay, former member  •  Original: Dec. 2004 • Last Update: March 2014

"Aesthetic Realism is a cult...employing all the subtle and manipulative techniques of mind control used by such masters of the genre as the Moonies, the Scientologists and, yes, even the evangelical Christians. Like all cults, Aesthetic Realism reduces the wonder and complexity of the world to a strict polarity of black-or-white reality.

"By cultivating an individual's sense of negative identity, the program weakens the ego enough to gain admittance and eventual control over a person's mind. Put most succinctly by a woman whose friend had made the change: 'I liked him when he was gay. At least then he was a person. Now he's just an Aesthetic Realist.'" -- New York Native

What is a cult?

A cult is a group of people who believe they have special knowledge of great importance, and who are fanatically devoted to their beliefs—often to the extent that members will break off relations with family and friends who can't be recruited into the group.  A hallmark of cults is that the members are manipulated through mind control, which is not as difficult to do as you might suspect.

A common misconception is that what makes a group a cult is that the members have crazy beliefs.  Many cults are indeed like this, but lots of them aren't.  Aesthetic Realism is one such cult.  AR members don't believe in the end of the world or space aliens, for example.  It's not the beliefs that make a group a cult, it's the crazed obsession with the beliefs—whether those beliefs are ridiculous or reasonable.  In fact, most cults are extremely similar; only the belief set is different.

Here are some common characteristics of cults:

  1. Belief that they have the one and only true answer to universal peace or happiness.
  2. Fanatical devotion to their founder/leader.
  3. Unquestioning acceptance of the group's teachings.
  4. Ultimate purpose is to recruit new believers, and members are pressured to recruit family and friends.
  5. Belief that they're being persecuted or censored by the rest of the world.
  6. Hysterical reactions to criticism (usually accompanied by personal attacks on the integrity of the critic).
  7. Members discouraged from having personal relationships outside the group, even with family members who couldn't be recruited.
  8. Shunning of those who leave the group, even if they're family members.
  9. Members' whole lives revolve around the cult group.
  10. Members expected to be involved their whole lives, until the day they die.
  11. Members required to renounce important aspects of their identity or basic values--or at least keep them in a closet.
  12. Members' lives are controlled or directed, often down to whom they can marry (always within the group, of course).
  13. Mind control techniques employed by the leaders (otherwise, who would agree to all this stuff?).
  14. A peculiar way of talking, using specialized language, often repeating special words or phrases.
  15. Bizarre beliefs (e.g., space aliens, the identity or whereabouts of the Messiah, etc.).
  16. Members required or pressured to donate their assets to the group, often for the personal enrichment of the leader(s).

That's Aesthetic Realism to a T, except for the last two.  Not every cult has every single characteristic.

Cults don't have to be religious in nature.  Aesthetic Realism is one such example.  The AR beliefs are centered around philosophy and psychology, not religion.  In fact, AR boasts that it is "compatible with all religions".  The Cult Information Centre of London broadly classes cults into two groups, religious cults and therapy cults, and Aesthetic Realism is clearly one of the latter.  Incidentally, although AR is not religious in nature, a large number of its members and leaders are Jewish, perhaps the majority of them.

While communal living is common in religous cults (e.g., David Koresh/Waco), it's rare in therapy cults like AR.  AR's headquarters is its classroom and meeting space at its building in Soho in Manhattan, but nobody lives there.

Other useful lists of cult characteristics include Steve Hassan's BITE model, the Bonewits list, and the Cult Checklist.  AR fits squarely into all of these.

Of course, one huge clue that a group may be a cult is when magazines, newspapers, and other credible sources describe it as such.  So let's look at what others say about Aesthetic Realism
 

The associate editor of Literary Times says:

"[The Aesthetic Realists] should be considered liars.
  I made my appraisal of Aesthetic Realism only after extensive thought, research, and field trips.  I could only conclude that as philosophy it is primitive and, as religion, worse than having none at all.  I sadly decided most people who think about aesthetics, ethics, or the cosmos do far better than the AR devotees or even the guru himself, assuming he believes in his system.  The absurdity of the movement is well illustrated by its propaganda." -- Harry Smith, Associate Editor of Literary Times, in a letter to the editor in the Village Voice

The verdict is in

The Aesthetic Realists are falling all over themselves trying to discredit me for saying they're a cult...as though I'm the only one saying it.  The truth is, they're regarded as a cult by pretty much everyone outside of the group, including the media, former members, and of course, cult experts.  Let's start with the media:  New York Magazine called them a "a cult of messianic nothingness", Harper's called them "the Moonies of poetry", and the Virginian-Pilot described an Aesthetic Realist they encountered as "deranged".  The New York Times, reviewing one of their books, said, "This is less a book than a collection of pietistic snippets by Believers." New York Native said, "Like all cults, Aesthetic Realism reduces the wonder and complexity of the world to a strict polarity of black-or-white reality. By cultivating an individual's sense of negative identity, the program weakens the ego enough to gain admittance and eventual control over aperson's mind."  There's even National Lampoon, which ran a cartoon about "Positive indicators of a bona fide nut", with one of the panels showing a person wearing one of the Aesthetic Realism "Victim of the Press" buttons.  (There are plenty more examples of AR being called a cult on our media page.)

Then of course there are the scads of former Aesthetic Realists who left the group and are now speaking out about it, both on this site as well is in interviews with the New York Post, Jewish Times, and elsewhere.  And Steve Hassan, probably the best-known expert on mind-control cults, said this about the group's founder:  "I think that [Siegel] was a cult leader, and that like many other cult leaders, he had a narcissistic personality and was a control freak."

The idea that Aesthetic Realism is a cult is nothing new. People were saying that long before I was born, as evidenced from this ad from 1962, where the Aesthetic Realists try to deny it.  The founder of AR himself, Eli Siegel, talked about the perception that AR was a cult in the lesson I had with him when I was two years old.

So with that out of the way, let's talk more specifically about Aesthetic Realism's cult aspects. 

Cult aspects of Aesthetic Realism

I could probably write a small book on each of the traits listed above, so let me give just some brief examples.

1. Belief that they have the one true answer to peace and happiness if only people would listen.

According to the Aesthetic Realists, AR has the solution to all the world's problems. It can supposedly put an end to loneliness, depression, boredom, learning difficulties, pain in marriage, racism — and of course, homosexuality. It can also supposedly end all conflict between countries, if only the United Nations would take notice. The AR people write, "[W]hen the United Nations studies Aesthetic Realism (it can begin today) there will not be war."

AR people believe that those who teach AR have "the most useful profession there is".  Further, the Aesthetic Realism Foundation is supposedly "The most important educational institution in America."  According to an AR brochure, the AR Foundation's purpose "is to have the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel studied by the people of America, to have it be the basis of the educational system of America." (source 1, source 2)  The study of AR is supposedly "...a national emergency. It is a life-and-death matter." (source)

2. Fanatical devotion to their founder/leader.

The image at right is a letter to the editor published in the New York Times on Oct. 3, 1971, in which current AR leader Ellen Reiss says that Eli Siegel was worthy to teach Socrates!  But we're just getting started.

Aesthetic Realists actually believe that Eli Siegel was the greatest person ever to live.  Not one of the greatest, the absolute greatest, bar none.  Here's what AR leader Ellen Reiss had to say about Eli Siegel.

"Eli Siegel, founder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, is, in my careful opinion and that of a growing number of people, the greatest human being ever to live.  That means the person fairest to the world and most useful to it.  This means the person kindest, most learned, most ethical, most imaginative, and most desirous of learning; the greatest fighter against ugliness in people, the greatest encourager of beauty; the person at once most unified and diverse, most serious and humorous, powerful and subtle, magnificent and democratic." [emphasis added; from the afterword of AR's second gay cure book]

This isn't an isolated opinion; all the Aesthetic Realists believe this.  For example, someone secretly recorded a presentation at a NYC library that the AR people gave in 2008 and asked some pointed questions.  Here you can hear both presenters admitting they believe that Eli Siegel was the greatest person in the history of the world. Listen to audio

Wow.  It's hard to top that one.  But if so it's not for lack of trying.  Here's what Martha Baird said about Eli Siegel's Self and World:

"I believe Self and World is the greatest book ever to have been written. If you think I'm saying greater than the Bible or Shakespeare -- yes, I am." [emphasis added]

A former AR student says something similar: "While I was in AR, I did believe that Eli Siegel was greater than Christ...It would have been accurate to say I 'worshipped' him." [read about this former student's experiences]

The AR people also took out a double-page ad in the New York Times to tell the world of Eli Siegel's supremacy:

"Eli Siegel was the greatest man in the history of the world. His mind had the greatest scope and the greatest kindness; he was completely honest."

Of course Eli Siegel was supposedly also "the greatest educator in history", the "greatest of all literary critics", "his knowledge of history was unsurpassed", he explained in his economics lectures "what no other economist saw", he understood poetry in a way "no other critic saw", he was "completely honest and completely kind", and he was "humanity's greatest friend". (the first bit from AR.org, the rest from their double-page ad in the NY Times)  I've yet to see them proclaim he was also the greatest astronaut, pro football player, or jazz drummer, but it could be only a matter of time.

You think I'm exaggerating?  Only barely.  Siegel could have also made the largest contributions to medicine of anyone, according to the Aesthetic Realists:

"When we see how much he was able to do without recognition or acclaim, imagine what he might have done if he had had them!  He thought, for example, if he had been able to work with doctors, he could have found the cause of cancer.  I think that is likely true.  I am quite sure that when his work is known, no one will ever again be insane." -- introduction to Self ond World, p. xi

AR maintains a collection of articles and editorials about AR that believers have managed to get into the popular (or not-so-popular) press.  Check out those articles and see how fawning they are in their praise of Eli Siegel.  Notice also how they often use the same, identical gushing praise across multiple articles -- they praise him by rote.


5. Paranoid feelings of persecution

AR students believe that there is a conspiracy in the news media to not share the beautiful news about Aesthetic Realism with the rest of the world.  Until recently they complained about this by wearing buttons that said "Victim of the Press". (They stopped shortly after being ridiculed for the practice in a New York Post article.) At right is a picture of me at age 12 dutifully wearing my VoTP button.

Here's how AR people describe their persecution by the press, from the double-page ad they purchased in the New York Times (emphasis added):

"Eli Siegel was the greatest man in the history of the world.  His mind had the greatest scope and the greatest kindness; he was completely honest.  This is why the press has kept Aesthetic Realism from you: press persons are furious that there are something and someone in this world they cannot look down on, even a little; they are furious that they respect Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism without limit and need to learn from Aesthetic Realism about everything."

"We say what history will say: the American press has blood on its hands, has caused misery and death, because for years it has withheld the news that men and women have changed from homosexuality through study of Aesthetic Realism."

"In keeping Aesthetic Realism—in all its grandeur, all its kindness—from you, the American press has committed a crime against humanity as much as if it deliberately kept from starving people the news that the food they needed was available for them."

And I found the following quotes in articles on the official AR website in January 2005:

"The reason people are in agony about racial inequality, and so much more that could have changed decades ago, is this: persons on the press have blocked America's access to Aesthetic Realism.... Because press persons can't be superior to the knowledge of Eli Siegel, and because he stands for a democracy and respect for people that many press individuals fear, they have tried to do away with that which makes their egos so uncomfortable -- principally by boycotting it.  The press has embodied hate of what is new and kind long before this time." -- Arnold Perey

"The education of Aesthetic Realism--so vital to people everywhere--has been kept from them through a cruel press boycott of over five decades." -- Marion Fenell

"I accuse the American press of preferring the continuing pain of children and even death to being honest about Aesthetic Realism." -- Robert Murphy

Whoa.

Incidentally, a former member wrote to us, "Did you know that the National Lampoon in 1991 had a cartoon that read 'How to recognize a nut' and showed a person wearing a slew of buttons including one that read 'Victim of the Press'? I had the humiliation of seeing that cartoon cut out and taped to the company bulletin board and highlighted in yellow."  I didn't know about that but I was able to track it down:

 

6. Hysterical reactions to criticism (usually accompanied by personal attacks on the integrity of the critic).

AR claims that it welcomes criticism. The reality is that when you criticise them, they put up a website trying to discredit you, calling you a liar, and describing you, personally, in unflattering terms.  That's what happened to me and Adam Mali after I put up this page. As just one example, here's what AR supporter Marvin Mondlin said about me and my efforts with this website:
"So much for the stupid lying of Mali, Bluejay and the other liars....Why is he doing this? Feeling himself to be a failure in his own life, and joining with others also seeking revenge for essentially the same reason--notably Adam Mali--'Michael Bluejay' seeks the triumph of making himself important by looking down upon others.  He is attempting to assuage his feeling of unimportance by attacking the persons and philosophy he very well realizes best represent truth and beauty."

So much for AR's philosophy of not having contempt for others!  This is how well AR tolerates criticism -- that is, not at all.  Oh, and incidentally, one of the things I'm supposedly "lying" about is that AR doesn't tolerate criticism!  Go figure.  There are many more such examples of AR's "tolerance" of their critics on their CounteringTheLies website.

Mondlin's statement above, and those of the other members on Countering The Lies, tells you everything you need to know about how the AR people judge and insult former members who dare to be critical of the group.  It's why many of the contributors to this site choose to make their posts anonymously, and I don't blame them.  Who would want to subject themselves to the kind of thrashing listed above?

Here's another example, sent by some anonymous AR person to my mother on Oct. 8, 2005, even though my mother had zero to do with this website:

I studied Aesthetic Realism for only 9 months, and I could tell that it is an incredible philosophy.  You are so cruel to your son, as you use him to get back at what you respect so much, yet can't be superior to, and making him look like an angry old man, and a stupid one at that.  Your ego has taken over you.  I am your son's age and I am glad that I have a mother and father who understood my study of Aesthetic Realism.  YOU know Aesthetic Realism is not a cult, but you probably ARE a cultist.

I whithold my name because you and your son seem so bitter and nasty.

That last line should win some sort of prize for irony.

Again, my mother has had zero input into this website, because she prefers to put her AR experience behind her and not talk about it any more.  But the AR people insist on believing my mom is behind the site somehow -- and persecuting her for it.  Really classy.


7. Members discouraged from having personal relationships outside the group, even with family members who haven't also been recruited.

Many AR members have gone decades without speaking to family members.  As former member Aesthetic Realist Heide Krakauer said in Jewish Times:
"I never believed it was a cult. I didn't see my parents for 15 years, and I thought nothing of it. I used to plan trips to go home, and all the cult members would get around you and talk you out of it. My parents would be so heartbroken when I canceled at the 11th hour."

My own aunt Alice, who is still involved with AR, didn't talk to my mother for over twenty years because my mother had left AR.  In fact, Alice recently telephoned my mother for the first time in twenty years only when she saw this website and thought my mother had put me up to writing it!

Contact with family members is permitted if those family members give proper deference to Aesthetic Realism and Eli Siegel.  Some family members fake an appreciation for AR just so they can continue to see their children or siblings who are involved with AR.

A former AR student who was involved for over a decade has given an excrutiating account as to exactly how and to what extent students were denied contact with their families.  This account explains how AR is twisting the truth on Countering the Lies when they deny that members can't see their families.  They neglect to mention, for example, that some members are now permitted to see their families specifically so AR can give examples of family visits, on websites like Countering the Lies.

There's something very telling about AR members' claims that they're close with their family members: their families don't agree. Most of the claims about family closeness on CounteringTheLies.com come from AR members themselves, not from the family members who aren't a part of the cult.

AR members' claims that they supposedly see their families and are supposedly close to them are meaningless.  Let's see the family members' statements! Let's hear from the people not involved in Aesthetic Realism, and see if they agree that their family members in AR are in normal contact with the rest of the family.  I challenge every AR member who has a statement page on CounteringTheLies to provide a corroborating statement by a family member at the end of that page.  We're waiting.

The reason I know the family members don't agree is that I hear from them.  They tell me about the loved one(s) they've lost to AR.  And they never let me print what they write to me, because they're worried it will jeopardize their efforts to get in contact with their loved ones again, even if it's been years or decades since they've spoken.  But the family members' fears are probably justified, and I can't blame them for choosing to remain silent.

Incidentally, after the New York Post ran an article describing the cult aspects of Aesthetic Realism and specifically mentioned the non-communication with family members, AR allowed members to communicate with their families a little bit, so they could claim that they are in contact with their families. That's where most of the examples of supposed family closeness on CounteringTheLies.com come from. 

 

8. They shun former members.

This quote from a former AR student says it all: "It is almost impossible to describe how filthy, disgusting, degenerate, and depraved we saw anyone who left AR. Take all the worst people throughout history you can think of, roll them into one, and you have what we were conditioned to think of them. I used to believe, for example, that while Hitler was evil because he wanted to kill all Jews and did succeed in killing 6 million of them, a person who left AR was even worse. They wanted to doom every person in the whole world for the rest of time to lives deprived of AR. There was no evil greater than that.

"Some of the people with statements on the Countering the Lies website claiming that AR students do not shun former students have actually passed me on the street, looked straight at me, and pretended they were seeing right through me. This includes people in the highest positions in the organization." [read about this former student's experiences]

Sadly, this shunning of former members extends to spouses. Once you reach a certain level within the group, you're expected to marry within the group, if you do marry. Consultants and consutants-in-training simply don't have spouses who are not also involved in AR. And if a couple is in AR and one leaves the group, they get divorced, plain and simple.


9. Their whole lives revolve around the cult, and nothing else.

Here's a good example:  My aunt Alice, who still a member, published a website supposedly honoring her mother and father.  On that page she links out to no less than 36 other websites.  And every single one of those 36 is an Aesthetic Realism-related site.  Every last one.  There is no place in her list for even one thing that's not directly related to AR.  Incredible.


11. Members' lives are controlled, right down to whom they can marry.

Aesthetic Realists have to marry other Aesthetic Realists.  Back when AR was running its purported gay-cure program, gay students were periodically declared to be no longer gay and quickly married off to one of the other members.  As journalist Paul Grossman wrote, "Not a single case of which I am aware was an intermarriage outside the group." ("Aesthetic Realism and Homosexuality", Boston Globe)


15. Bizarre beliefs?

Some cults have really wild beliefs, such as in space aliens or Armageddon.  Aesthetic Reailsm isn't that kind of cult.  They do have some weird beliefs, but not nearly that extreme.  They don't believe that their founder and leader Eli Siegel was the actual Messiah, although they do say he was "the greatest human being ever to live", that his book Self and World is "greater than the Bible", and that he was greater than Christ. Their belief that homosexuality is a mental illness I feel is simply objectionable, not bizarre. And their belief that there's a vast media conspiracy against them I've already counted under another bullet point ("They believe they are being persecuted or censored"), so it wouldn't be fair to count that again in another section.  They do believe that one's contempt for the world is the cause of all mental trouble (including insanity) (source 1, source 2), and that had their original leader lived long enough, he would have found the cause of cancer (presumably related to contempt), which is really pushing it, but Aesthetic Realism can't hold a candle to groups like UFO cults when it comes to bizarre beliefs.

Still, seven firm cult aspects is pretty cultish.

 

Mind control techniques

Cults use many techniques to get control of their members' minds.  I have an entire page on one such technique AR uses, directed origination.

Here's a list of mind control techniques from PhinnWeb that are especially relevant to Aesthetic Realism.
  • REJECTION OF OLD VALUES - Accelerating acceptance of new lifestyle by constantly denouncing former beliefs and value.
  • CONFESSION - Encouraging the destruction of individual ego through confession of personal weaknesses and innermost feelings of doubt.
  • FINGER POINTING - Creating a false sense of righteousness by pointing to the shortcomings of the outside world.
  • ISOLATION - Inducing loss of reality by physical separation from family, friends, society and rational references.
  • NO QUESTIONS - Accomplishing automatic acceptance of beliefs by discouraging questions.
  • GUILT - Reinforcing the need for 'salvation' by exaggerating the sins of the former lifestyles.
  • CRITICISM AND SELF-CRITICISM - The subjects are supposed to feel uncertain; under the constant threat of being humiliated and despised.

And the relevant ones from the Lifton model:

  • Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.
  • Sacred Science. The group's doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.
  • Doctrine over person. Member's personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
  • Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group's ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.

And the relevant bits from Steve Hassan's BITE model:

  • Need to ask permission for major decisions
  • Need to report thoughts, feelings and activities to superiors [consultants]
  • Individualism discouraged; group think prevails
  • Access to information critical of the cult and to former members is discouraged or disallowed
  • Pairing up with "buddy" system to monitor and control
  • Reporting deviant thoughts, feelings, and actions to leadership
  • Need to internalize the group's doctrine as "Truth"
  • Us vs. Them (inside vs. outside)
  • Adopt "loaded" language (characterized by "thought-terminating clichés"). Words are the tools we use to think with. These "special" words constrict rather than expand understanding. They function to reduce complexities of experience into trite, platitudinous "buzz words". [e.g., "contempt", "being completely fair"]
  • No critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate
  • Make the person feel like if there are ever any problems it is always their fault, never the leader's or the group's.
  • Excessive use of guilt
  • Fear of leaving the group or being shunned by group
  • Phobia indoctrination : programming of irrational fears of ever leaving the group or even questioning the leader's authority. The person under mind control cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the group.
  • Never a legitimate reason to leave. From the group's perspective, people who leave are: "weak;" "undisciplined;" "unspiritual;" "worldly." [Or in AR, "selfish and full of contempt"]

Incidentally, this particular cult's teachings have a built-in way of reinforcing compliance. The foundation of AR is that contempt is the root of all evil. Everyone inside has bought into that idea. So if anyone ever questions what's going on, they're simply accused of having contempt for AR or Eli Siegel. And since everyone believes that contempt must be purged, they're convinced that they must have been wrong to question. AR can thus shut down dissent faster than some other cults, just by using the group's teachings themselves. And it's especially powerful when they combine it with their favorite mind control trick, directed origination

 

Cult experts weigh in

Here's a telling quote from cult expert Steve Hassan:

I think that [AR founder Eli Siegel] was a cult leader, and that like many other cult leaders, he had a narcissistic personality and was a control freak. ... What's dangerous about [AR is that] being in a mind-control environment, basically what happens to you is your identity gets assaulted, broken down, and a new cult personality is created. You have a new set of beliefs that are a mirror image of Eli Siegel. You are constantly being manipulated by guilt and fear. -- Jewish Times

Hassan is probably the most-recognized authority on mind-control cults.  He's a Nationally Certified Counselor, licensed Mental Health Counselor, former member of the Moon cult (the Moonies), and is the author of two critically acclaimed books, Combatting Cult Mind Control: The #1 Best-selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults (1988) and Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves (2000).  He's been featured on 60 Minutes, Nightline, Dateline, Larry King Live, and The O'Reilly Factor.

See also the sidebar on this page where another non-member says that AR is a cult.

There are two sides to this debate, but let's put them into perspective:

  • Who says AR is a cult: Numerous former members, non-members, cult experts, and the media
  • Who says AR is not a cult: Current members, former members who were pushed out of the group against their will

 

Former members weigh in

Here's what some former members and others have to say, courtesy of Jewish Times:

Adam Mali:

"I had to go through a lot of therapy getting out of this group," said Mr. Mali, who regrets that aesthetic realism proponents discouraged him from having a bar mitzvah ceremony or attending college. Mr. Mali even felt compelled to break up with his girlfriend of three years when she wouldn't buy into his family's philosophy. He also said that his family never traveled because it had to attend so many meetings at the foundation, a complaint of numerous former followers.

"All the meetings were lectures of Eli Siegel droning on for hours and hours. So you don't have a life outside of it," he said. And when he wanted to go to college, Mr. Mali found himself in the dreaded "hot seat."

"They criticize you -- they say, 'You have the greatest knowledge in the world in front of you. Is this what you really want? Do you think you can learn more in college?' Your peers basically get around you. It was like a little spider web in your brain. They get you to actually control yourself. A lot of people's lives have been hurt -- ruined."

Heide Krakauer:

It's hard for me to tell how it took control and when. [When I was in it] I never believed it was a cult. I didn't see my parents for 15 years, and I thought nothing of it. I used to plan trips to go home, and all the cult members would get around you and talk you out of it. My parents would be so heartbroken when I canceled at the 11th hour. The point is, people who are in it do not know they are under mind control even though everyone has their private reservations.

Livia Bardin (licensed social worker who runs a support group for former cult members and their families):

It's a very high-demand group. I think it's a very questionable group.... Another sign that there is something wrong with this group is the paranoia -- that they think the world is against them -- that they're the elite, they've got the truth. [In fairness, Bardin does not use the word "cult" to describe Aesthetic Realism, because there is no consensus definition of that term even among the experts. But her criticism of the group itself is clear.]

A former member involved for nearly 25 years:

"[AR founder Eli Siegel] was a hurtful person. He was a sociopath. He was a control freak, and he was a cult leader." (The woman chose not to be identified for this article because she said she has started a new life and does not want to bear the stigma of having been involved with a cult.)

"The main reason [I left] was because [my son] left, and I was not allowed to have anything to do with him. He was my only child, and there was no way I was going to live without my son," she said, noting that she was not specifically forbidden to see her child but felt a great deal of pressure.

"You're never told you cannot do something," she said. "They just ask questions -- 'Will you like yourself if you talk to someone who has abandoned truth? Will you be proud if you talk to someone who doesn't want to be completely fair to Eli Siegel?'"

The former supporter also was experiencing some health concerns, and she realized that she wanted to explore other options in her life she felt had been suppressed. "For some reason, something normal in me was coming to the surface. I didn't like the way people were being treated, excoriated -- not that I didn't participate."

She added that her ex-husband, who is still active with the foundation, will not speak to her or his son. "It's heartbreaking," she said. "[Her son] misses his father very much. [He] worries about him. It seems no matter how old you get, you would like to have a father in your life."

Another former member:

"People treated [Eli Siegel] more and more as a god, the perfect human. It was no longer a give-and-take -- it was the best, the greatest and the only -- and anyone who questioned that was seen as an enemy," said another person who left aesthetic realism when he felt his family was being hurt by its involvement with the organization.

"This is one of the characteristics of the organization that is cult-like -- you can't have reservations. Either it is the most important thing you have ever known and you have to devote your life to them, or you are an enemy," added the former supporter, who chose not to be identified for this article because he has only recently re-established contact with family members and does not want to jeopardize these tenuous relationships. "There is no such thing as privacy. Everything you do is public knowledge."

He said that even intimate moments were scrutinized and discussed in aesthetic realism meetings. Attendees were grilled about dates with others -- and as in the case of Adam Mali, they were often discouraged from seeing these outsiders if they did not embrace the aesthetic realism philosophy.

"People were told that if their families did not support aesthetic realism, they were not their families," added the former supporter, though he does feel some of Mr. Siegel's philosophy is useful. "I think Eli Siegel had an awful lot to say that was really helpful. He was a very unusually perceptive person, charismatic. If it weren't for all of this worship around him, it would be fine."

Here's the complete article from Jewish Times.

 

 


Is that not enough for you? More statements by former believers are listed below:

Former members describe Aesthetic Realism

Share your Aesthetic Realism story!

If you did time in AR, had or have a friend or relative in AR, or had some other run-in with the group, I hope you'll share your story on this site. If you'd like to write something that you don't want to appear on this site, then please write directly to my email address instead.

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Aesthetic Realism at a Glance

Name

The Aesthetic Realism Foundation

Founded

1941

Founder

Eli Siegel, poet and art/literary critic.
Committed suicide in 1978

Purpose

To get the world to realize that Eli Siegel was the greatest person who ever lived, and that Aesthetic Realism is the most important knowledge, ever.


Philosophy

The key to all social ills is for people to learn to like the world. Having contempt for the world leads to unhappiness and even insanity. (Their slogan is "Contempt causes insanity".) For example, homosexuality is a form of insanity caused by not liking the world sufficiently.

Also teaches that "beauty is the making one of opposites".

Location

New York City (SoHo)


Membership

About 106 (33 teachers, 44 training to be teachers, and 29 regular students). Has failed to grow appreciably even after 70 years of existence, and is currently shrinking.

All members call themselves "students", even the leaders/teachers. Advanced members who teach others are called "consultants".

Method of study

Public seminars/lectures at their headquarters (in lower Manhattan), group classes, and individual consultations (three consultants vs. one student).


Cult aspects

  • Fanatical devotion to their leader/founder
  • Belief that they have the one true answer to universal happiness
  • Ultimate purpose is to recruit new members
  • Feeling that they are being persecuted
  • Wild, paranoid reactions to criticism
  • Non-communication (or at least very limited communication) with those who have left the group
  • Odd, specialized language.

  • More about cult aspects...


Yet more people who say
Aesthetic Realism is a cult
  • Rabbi Steven Greenberg, in his book Wrestling with God and Men, referred to AR as "the once popular cult of Eli Siegel". (PDF p. 293)
  • New York Songlines says AR is "a kind of philosophical cult".
  • Shaun Aisbitt, who writes, "I accidently met two [AR] members while having a quick snack on a hot day in Central Park, New York. Their talk, mannerisms and deceptive attempts to get me to come on over led me to check out their group. Aesthetic Realism followers hold to a thinly disguised form of Taoism with teachings that opposites are dependent on each other like Ying-Yang, good & evil, male & female.  The group is based in lower Manhattan and members display all signs of cultic mind manipulation (persecution complex, loading the language or 'inside terminology', cutting off the 'old life', shunning former members, unable to accept simplest questioning of / or criticism that may appear to go against their beliefs, deceptive recruiting practices)." (source)

James Bready of the Baltimore Evening Sun made reference to the cult idea in a 1982 article:

There are always belittlers, who speak of Siegel as a Village guru and call his followers a cult.

Of course, I think if this website were around in 1982, Bready would have concluded that AR's critics amount to more than "belittlers". :)


A reader writes...

Hello, I have never been involved with AR or any cult, but I wanted to send you a note responding to your site. I was made curious about the organization in the early 1990s when I had a job as a photographer's assistant in the building next door to AR's headquarters. I remember that something about the look of the building and the "literature" and posters displayed made me suspicious (I never did enter the place). Maybe my upbringing in Los Angeles around that other so-called "non-cult," Scientology, spurred both my curiosity and my suspicions. I can't remember what kind of research I did at the time, but somehow the anti-homosexual nature of the cult was revealed to me, and I began to tell people what I had discovered to be the truth behind that mysterious SoHo building masquerading as some kind of arts-related organization (as a student of both philosophy and poetry, I was particularly offended by the misappropriation of these pursuits....) After the passage of many years and a move to Brooklyn, I had forgotten all about AR -- until I found myself working the table of a small press I'm involved with at the International Small Press Fair in midtown Manhattan late in 2004. The AR people also had a table, right across from ours. They were hawking their new book that claims AR holds the answer to beating racism. (!) I spent the entire two-day fair stealthily checking them out, trying to figure out whether these were the hateful people I imagined — I also started telling my friends again about what I had once learned about AR's dirty secret. But I kept disclaiming my statements, saying "I'm not sure about this, but somehow I have the idea that this is basically a disguised anti-gay cult."  Since I didn't want to spread rumors, I decided to do a little research and hit upon your site. I just wanted to write you a note so you will know that a site like this can be interesting and valuable even to those of us who have never been involved in a cult. I see it as a matter of personal duty to discredit groups that spread false science and fuzzy logic. Thanks for putting up such a nice site, and I hope that it continues to help and inform. — Jan. 16, 2005

AR recruits on dating sites?

A reader writes on October 25-26, 2005:

I have run across several women sourcing men on dating web sites to recruit them for various organizations including one who was in AR. About four years ago, I was contacted by a woman who was an AR "member" and she took me to their location on Greene Street in NYC. I Googled AR after this to get the low down on this organization, because I was very suspicious.

She got to the point of finally telling me she could not date me because she did not respect what I did for a living. I am in systems development working for a tax compliance firm, making a stable and very good living.

My suspicion is that she was sourcing dating sites, for men, so that she could recruit them into this organization. This is a common recruitment technique. Some other woman a short while back did the same thing, but it was for some other group.

I told the gal I was with last night [about AR and that] I'd google AR again and send her info on it. I read most of the stuff on you site about AR and it is right on. Thanks for writing back and great web site.


Editor's note: I'm skeptical that the AR woman was really "recruiting," for the sake of recruiting. I think it's more likely that she was really looking for a partner, but any potential partner also had to be a potential convert. When you rise high enough in the group it's expected that if you marry it will be to another member, but sometimes there's slim pickings within the group, especially as their size is shrinking. If that's your situation and you want a partner, then you have to look outside the group for someone you can bring in. As another former member told me, "There was a time when the only way a guy could get a date with me was to attend the Saturday night program at the [AR] foundation."

I mentioned to our reader that the AR person's objection to his job was probably because AR members are leftists who oppose capitalism and don't like lots of things the government spends money on. (I'm definitely sympathetic to the latter, by the way.) He confirmed that that was pretty much what she said.

And yes, he did tell us the name of the AR person he dated, but there's no need for us to repeat it here. This site serves to expose the Aesthetic Realism group as a whole, not to intrude into the personal lives of individual members.

AR book reviewed on Amazon.com

Here's someone who confirms what we've been saying: that Eli Siegel's ideas may have merit, the problem is in the way they're being promoted. This is an excerpt from a reader's review of Siegel's Self and World posted to Amazon.com in Sept. 2003:

"I don't see how [Siegel's] students in Soho (he has been dead for decades) have been able to turn what is found in this book and in Siegel's other writings (most of which I have read) to the rather dogmatic ends to which they put it. For example, they used to insist a few years ago (I don't know what they say nowadays) that this book was the greatest book ever written, and that Siegel was basically the greatest person who ever lived. And they would say such things without the least apparent smidgen of uncertainty, diffidence, or consciousness of the possibility that they might, just possibly, be mistaken. At least, the students I met were like that, and my sense of the situation was that they were typical of the students in general. They go around, or used to go around, with buttons saying, 'victimized by the press', because they felt that the mainstream press, the New York Times, the Washington Post should be reporting on Eli Siegel's writings and teachings. The fact that this was not happening, the students thought, was a kind of assault perpetrated on the students of Siegel's teaching, on the deceased Siegel, and on the human race itself.

"So, in my view, one should beware of the students, but read the book, it's a very important piece of writing, up there with the classics, I think, both in the high degree of perfection of its literary style, and in the simple beauty and yet profound complexity of its content. If you seek self-knowledge and profound knowledge of the world, there are few writers or books to compare with this one. Just don't stop with Siegel."

(read the full review...)


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Open offer to debate

Since 2005 I've had an open offer to debate the Aesthetic Realists publicly in a formal format at any time to defend what I've said on this site, and to answer their own charges against me. But the AR people won't do it. Their excuse is, "He's not worth debating." But if that's true, then why did they put up a ninety-six page website to try to snipe at me and to try to rebut what I'm saying? I think the answer is that they're content to hide behind the cover of the Internet, but they know how bad they'd look in a live format where anyone actually got to ask any pointed questions.

You know what's really funny? Someone went to one of their public presentations, said he'd seen this site, and asked about the cult allegations. The AR person said, "It's very easy to say crap like that on the Internet and never have to be challenged." Oh, the irony is killing me!

Anyway, Aesthetic Realists, as for a public debate, I'm ready when you are. And to everyone else, when the AR people won't stand behind what they're saying, why should anyone take what they say seriously?

 


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What former members say...

They reeled me in like a brook trout... Guilt was introduced into the experience. They told me I was "not showing respect for this great education I was receiving" by [not getting more involved].

If there is anything the Aesthetic Realists are good at, it is convincing people that if they think they see anything wrong with Siegel, AR, Reiss or how the organization is run, there is really something wrong with them. Any time I began to question things or think I saw something amiss, I had been programmed to think that what it really meant was that something was terribly wrong with me.

My new AR friends were starting to apply the hard sell a bit more so the word "cult" did come to mind , but I naïvely believed that it couldn't be a cult because it wasn't religious in nature.

They get you to actually control yourself. A lot of people's lives have been hurt --ruined.

So, there was Eli Siegel, who came up with all these rules, but to whom none of the rules applied, and there was everybody else.

[Eli Siegel] was a hurtful person. He was a sociopath. He was a control freak, and he was a cult leader.

Poor John then would be the subject of an onslaught of criticism to help him see his own contempt for Eli Siegel.... This is merely one example of the way people were controlled and humiliated if they stepped out of line or didn't conform to accepted behavior.

We all had to present ourselves as essentially miserable failures whose lives were in shambles until we found the glorious "answers to all our questions" in AR.

It was very difficult for me to surrender to AR in the total fashion they seemed to want.

I received a call from one of the AR bigwigs asking me to donate money to the foundation.  When I told him I was low on cash I received a considerable verbal drubbing.

I consider my "study" of Aesthetic Realism to be one of the factors that led to the eventual breakup of my marriage, to my eternal sorrow.

I felt a bit raped psychologically.... if you are thinking of getting into the AR consultation process, realize that they could end it all suddenly, and that you could find your most intimate thoughts on tape in someone else's possession.

They flatter you to death and tell you that you're so wonderful, and you have all these qualities that others have never seen. And then there's this horrible criticizing.

That's when I finally knew for sure: AESTHETIC REALISM IS A CULT.  I swore on that moment that if I was ever given the opportunity to tell the world what these people did to me, I would.

When I left I was definitely shunned by other students. I would meet people in the NYC streets -as I still do to this day - and they would turn the other way to avoid me, or some even made derogatory comments about me.

[New AR students] would be shocked if they knew that the lives of the people they are supposed to learn from are very different from the principles they are taught in consultations. Even though publicly the AR foundation preaches respect for people and like of the world, inside the organization the message is very different. The underlying feeling is, "People who do not study AR are inferior to us, and the world is our enemy, out to get us." We had contempt for outsiders and were scared of the world. We huddled together for safety, secure in our sense of superiority.

When I was studying, we were allowed to associate with our families only if they continuously demonstrated that they were grateful to and respectful of Eli Siegel and AR. This did not include going to visit them if they lived far away because then we would have had to miss classes, and that would have meant we were "making our family more important than AR."

Some of the students I remember going at most intensely and viciously to stop them from associating with their families, (and whom we succeeded in stopping for many, many years), are people who are now bragging on the AR website about how great their relationships with their families are and writing as though that was always the case.

There were even instances of students refusing to visit their parents when one of them was dying because the parents did not "express regret" and renounce their unfairness to Eli Siegel and AR. There were parents who literally begged their son or daughter to relent so they could see them one more time, but the child refused. The parent died without ever seeing their child again. Far from being criticized for such behavior, students who went this far were seen as heroes in AR. They received public praise from Ellen Reiss.

While I was in AR, I did believe that Eli Siegel was greater than Christ.... It would have been accurate to say I worshipped him.

People were told that if their families did not support aesthetic realism, they were not their families.

Some of the people with statements on the Countering the Lies website claiming that AR students do not shun former students have actually passed me on the street, looked straight at me, and pretended they were seeing right through me. This includes people in the highest positions in the organization.

More and more the AR zombies demanded that I express gratitude to ES and AR. Every paper that a student wrote had to end with the obligatory "I am so grateful to ES and AR for..." along with "I deeply regret that I have met this great knowledge with contempt..."

Eli Siegel was an evil person. And I don't use the word evil lightly.

See former members' statements in their entirety

 


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Photo of Eli Siegel's gravestone from Find A Grave