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
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:
- Belief that they have the one and only true answer to
universal peace or happiness.
- Fanatical devotion to their founder/leader.
- Unquestioning acceptance of the group's teachings.
- Ultimate purpose is to recruit new believers, and members
are pressured to recruit family and friends.
- Belief that they're being persecuted or censored by the
rest of the world.
- Hysterical reactions to criticism (usually accompanied by
personal attacks on the integrity of the critic).
- Members discouraged from having personal relationships
outside the group, even with family members who couldn't be
- Shunning of those who leave the group, even if they're
- Members' whole lives revolve around the cult group.
- Members expected to be involved their whole lives, until
the day they die.
- Members required to renounce important aspects of their
identity or basic values--or at least keep them in a closet.
- Members' lives are controlled or directed, often down to
whom they can marry (always within the group, of course).
- Mind control techniques employed by the leaders
(otherwise, who would agree to all this stuff?).
- A peculiar way of talking, using specialized language,
often repeating special words or phrases.
- Bizarre beliefs (e.g., space aliens, the identity or
whereabouts of the Messiah, etc.).
- Members required or pressured to donate their assets to
the group, often for the personal enrichment of the
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
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
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".
New York Times, reviewing one of their books, said, "This is
less a book than a collection of pietistic
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
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
2) The study of AR is supposedly "...a
national emergency. It is a life-and-death matter." (source)
2. Fanatical devotion to their
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, 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
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'
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
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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",
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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. --
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
says that AR is a cult.
There are two sides to this debate, but let's put them into
- 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
what some former members and others have to say, courtesy of Jewish
"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
"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."
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
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
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
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
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."
the complete article from Jewish
Is that not enough for you? More statements by former
believers are listed below:
Former members describe Aesthetic Realism
- The ULTIMATE statement by a former member. Wow. A former Aesthetic Realism member who was involved for over ten years and into the 1990's sent us this incredibly detailed account of what life inside AR is like. This puts to rest once and for all any lingering question about whether AR is a cult - it is. The AR people will not be able to "counter" this on their Countering the Lies website because this account is from one of their own, and because it's so exhaustively detailed.
- A tale of getting sucked in. Another former member shares his experiences. This story is unique because he describes exactly how he initially got drawn in, and how he then kept getting more and more involved.
- Growing up in Aesthetic Realism. What it's like to be born into a cult.
- Aesthetic Realism ruined his marriage. "[It] introduced a level of stress in my marriage that had not previously existed....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." This former member also wrote about AR on Steve Hassan's Freedom of Mind.
- On having all the answers. A former member explains how AR members think they have all the answers, and feel qualified to lecture others about how they should view personal tragedy.
- Kicked out for remaining gay. A former student describes how he was kicked out of AR because he couldn't change from homosexuality. Powerful stuff.
- "Leaving, however, was only the first challenge.". One of the original teachers of Aesthetic Realism explains the cultic environment inside the group, and how she got out.
- "If I disappointed them, then I now consider that a badge of honor." A former member tells how AR try to change him from being gay, and convinced him not to spend Christmas with his family.
- "This is merely one example of the way people were controlled and humiliated if they stepped out of line...". The experiences shared with us by a member from 1974-80, now a Fortune 100 executive.
- "I want Ellen Reiss questioned!" A former member tells her story, and wonders why there hasn't been a class-action lawsuit against the foundation yet.
- They took his consultation tape. A former student describes how AR people kept his consultation tape with his most intimate thoughts on it, and told him he couldn't study any more unless he incorporated AR more radically into his life.
- "There isn't any question: Eli Siegel killed himself.". A former member who sought AR's "gay cure" describes how the group's leaders admitted that the founder took his own life.
- "I personally know at least half of the contributors to AR's Countering the Lies website and know them to either be fibbing or having a long-term memory problem.". A former member
from 1971-80, confirms that AR students don't see their families, are discouraged from attending college, and shun other members. He also offers that he was mistaken when he was involved about thinking that AR had changed him from homosexuality.
- Aesthetic Realism debunked. A former student explains the cult aspects of AR. Originally written for Steve Hassan's Freedom of Mind website.
- Michael Bluejay's description. This whole website is my statement about Aesthetic Realism. But in this article I describe my family's involvement in more detail.
- Members interviewed in Jewish Times. This lengthy article in Jewish Times quotes former students of Aesthetic Realism extensively.
- NY Post article. A series of articles in the NY Post quotes many former members who are now critical of the group.
Aesthetic Realism at a Glance
Aesthetic Realism Foundation
|Eli Siegel, poet and art/literary critic.
Committed suicide in 1978
|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.
|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
|New York City (SoHo)
|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).
- 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
- Odd, specialized language.
More about cult aspects...
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
York Songlines says AR is "a kind of philosophical
- 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
There are always belittlers,
who speak of Siegel as a Village guru and call his followers
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
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
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
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
"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
Google picks the ads, not me;
I don't endorse the advertisers.
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?
Google picks the ads, not me;
I don't endorse the advertisers.
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
Google picks the ads, not me;
I don't endorse the advertisers.