Who they are, how they operate Written by former members
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A former Aesthetic Realism student involved for over a decade speaks out
written January 24, 2005
I had fully intended to continue my silence about my experience in Aesthetic Realism as I have in the years since I left it. However I came across the website CounteringTheLies.com and felt that in the face of all the half-truths and slander the "friends of AR" have written, I could no longer be silent.
I think any intelligent person who has visited that site and seen how they drag through the mud the name of anyone who dares criticize them will easily understand why I choose to make my statement anonymously. Also, frankly, I really would not want most people to know that I was ever associated with AR, since most people would consider that fact to undermine my standing and credibility.
In this statement, after some preliminary clarifications, I shall take up several of the most often repeated misrepresentations on the Countering the Lies website. This will include my personal observations as to AR and the family, vacations, shunning former students, how it sees homosexuality, whether the organization really welcomes criticism, with excursions into several more topics along the way. I shall conclude by saying something about what I believe is going on behind the scenes of this entire Countering the Lies campaign and what led to my departure.
I was in AR for well over a decade, into the 1990s. Especially at the beginning, I got some good things out of it. I also thought it would save the world. I continue to believe that if a person keeps a lot of distance between him/herself and the organization and can avoid getting sucked into its vortex, they can get some benefit from studying AR's principles, which are not as original to Eli Siegel as I once thought. The ideas themselves are not harmful, some are charmingly put, and some of the immediate things about AR that reach the public are, in their way, instructive. I also think there are some well-intentioned, intelligent people involved in it, people who, like me, got drawn in because it seemed to have "the answers to their questions" (one phrase in their extensive AR-speak which I shall continue to feature), but they were never able to extricate themselves from it and move on with their lives as I am so glad I have.
The part of my study that I wish to describe most is the part when I was in classes for AR consultants and consultants-in-training taught by the Class Chairman Ellen Reiss. I focus on this because people studying with Reiss have a much more grueling experience than those who simply undergo consultations (the consultees). The consultees are allowed to lead more independent lives. This is important because many of the people on Countering the Lies are defending AR by saying they were not discouraged from attending college or staying in touch with their families. That may be true, because they never rose high enough in the organization. Had they become consultants-in-training or actual consultants it would have been a different story. Consultees also usually exhibit much better judgment in how they interact with other people in the world outside of AR, including with former students and members of their own families. The people who run AR are smart enough to know that if they try to put the same pressures and control on consultees that they do on consultants and consultants-in-training they would lose most of them.
Though everyone who studies AR in any way is called a student, in the section below my use of the term student refers to those of us who were consultants or training to become consultants.
From my experience on both sides of the line, consultees have no idea what really goes on inside AR. Consultees have an unrealistic picture of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation and the people at the top of it. They do not know, for instance, that essentially everything they see and hear at the AR foundation is the result of direct orders from Ellen Reiss. She has ultimate control over everything because AR's founder, Eli Siegel, appointed her class chairman. Consultees 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.
Yet, as you will see from my statement, the disdain we had for other people did not really draw us together. Gossiping about each other, backbiting, and jockeying for position were staples of life inside AR. It is not surprising when one's whole world has been reduced to and revolves around a little group of fewer than 100 people (and shrinking), most of whom would never have associated with each other were they not trapped in AR together, that in-fighting would become the order of the day.
From what I read on Countering the Lies, it appears that since I left some of Ellen Reiss' instructions regarding how students are to behave have changed cosmetically. However, these instructions have not changed because Reiss and the people working under her have altered their way of mind and no longer want to control people's lives. I am certain that way of mind has remained intact. Rather, the directives have changed in order to refute the negative statements about AR that have appeared in the press and on the Internet. Therefore, even though it may appear as though students are being given more freedom, they are not. I am sure their lives are still under as much control as when I studied. That is why I believe that what I have to say about my experience in AR still has currency. I would be very glad if my being honest could help some good people who are still there see clearly enough to break free.
I want to expose the way writers on the Countering the Lies website are distorting the truth when they say that the picture they present of AR is the way it has always been. There would have been some honesty in saying "In the last few years I began associating with my family again," or "Very recently my wife and I have begun going on trips together." But they do not say that. As you will see from my experience, whatever they are doing now, it is certainly not what students were doing in past years. They are not being honest when they make it appear as though it was. Since some of the "trips" written about appear to have occurred while I was still there, I have to assume that much of the freedom touted in their statements is exaggerated fiction.
Aesthetic Realism and the Family
One thing that is mentioned ad nauseam on AR's Countering the Lies website is that AR does not keep people from associating with their families. In fact, 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."
It gave a boost to a person's standing in AR if they had parents who were "good about AR" and did things like write a letter of gratitude to the class chairman and make contributions to the annual fundraising. But if someone's family was seen as ungrateful and disrespectful the student was very strongly discouraged from having anything to do with them. They were not told directly that they could not see their family, but the pressure not to was so great that very few students had the fortitude to buck the tide and do it anyway. As you will see below, another way of raising one's status was by showing how completely one was shunning a family that was deemed "an enemy." Enemy status was not hard to acquire for family members. Simply writing too many times "We miss you and would like to see you" was likely to be interpreted as an attempt to lure a student away from "truth" (and that always and only meant AR).
Most social interaction in AR consists of students getting together and spending time criticizing at least one of the people present, usually as a follow-up to criticism they had already received from Reiss in class. I took part in many "critical conversations" and was present at and sometimes participated in countless AR classes and Opinion Meetings in which we were successful at making people feel that if they wished to maintain contact with family members who were "cheap about ES and AR" then there was something gravely wrong with those students. 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. I could name names but there is really no point. Some of the parents of AR students became so desperate they even wrote to Ellen Reiss herself pleading to be permitted to see their sons or daughters. It was to no avail.
As we worked to cut people off from their families, we always told ourselves that our purpose was "beautiful" because we were standing up for truth. We also told ourselves that we were encouraging the student to be kind to their parents because allowing them to be "ugly about truth" would harm their parents' lives. I remember saying things like, "Don't you think you would hurt your parents if you let them feel they can kick around truth?"
I believe there were students of AR who became sincerely convinced that what they were doing was right and just. But I also believe that everyone's motives were mixed, in varying degrees, with the desire to obtain the approval of Ellen Reiss and other AR students. We were taught they were the greatest ethical judges in the world. A student won points by demonstrating their loyalty to AR through their willingness to cut off their family if their family was deemed insufficiently grateful and respectful. 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.
As a side note to explain further the above, it is important to understand that the AR organization has an exceedingly strong hierarchy and people are very much aware of their own rank within it and the rank of others. There are various ways to increase one's standing, and other things that will make one's standing fall. However, they all have at their core proving one's great undying love, respect and loyalty to Eli Siegel, Aesthetic Realism, and Ellen Reiss. That is the key to so much: One has to prove constantly that one's love, respect and loyalty to these three takes precedence over everything else in one's life. And woe be to the person who did not show this but was considered instead to have manifested contempt for and betrayal of Siegel, AR or Reiss by doing something like paying a visit to an ungrateful parent.
It is hard to even describe the miserable fate that befell a person who was out of favor in AR. Their life became a living hell with a constant barrage of criticism in AR classes and the censure from their fellow students backing it up the rest of the time. They became the proverbial whipping boy and everyone proved their own supposed love, respect and loyalty by alternately striking out at them and shunning them. No signs of friendliness were to be shown to a student in disfavor. Everyone was expected to jump on the bandwagon and heap on the criticism. Anyone who did not add to the criticism became suspect themselves. This poor soul was ostracized. While entering and exiting class people would avert their gaze, and everyone avoided sitting next to them.
Other than Reiss herself, I cannot remember one student who did not, at one time or another, commit some major perceived offense against ES and AR for which they made this trip to the bottom of the abyss where disapproval from all quarters rained down on them. There were some people who never seemed to quite crawl out of the hole, and I wondered why they continued to study. However, most students eventually redeemed themselves and slowly regained some esteem from Reiss and the other students. But once a person had been down there in that pit, their spirit was broken. From then on, they would do almost anything to avoid landing there again, although that was almost impossible for anyone who studied for any length of time. When a person who never underwent the AR experience grasps this whole dynamic, they are in a better position to understand why the students were willing to go along with things that can only seem cruel and bizarre to an outsider.
Unlike the families of many students, my family was "good" about AR so I got to be in contact with them, primarily by telephone. In fact, when I left AR, I was afraid to tell my mother and father because I thought they might be upset. It turned out to be quite the contrary. They were ecstatic that I got out. I then found out that over all the years they had just pretended to be pleased about my study of AR. They knew that if they did not show approval of it I would cut them off. They knew that they had to feign interest in AR's doings, attend programs at the AR foundation occasionally, and act as though they liked reading the foundation's publication The Right Of if they were to get to see me.
When I left Aesthetic Realism and began to speak regularly with my older sister, she said with tears in her eyes, "I feel like you're finally back." That is because even though I did stay in some contact with my family over the years, like most students of AR I still considered the other students my real family. I also knew I must not say this to people outside of AR since they would not understand and might "misuse" it. Supposedly (and how far from the truth I now see this was) the students of AR were "the kindest people in the world," and because we shared this great love for ES and AR, they were the people I should feel closest too emotionally and want to be with all the time. Spending time with my biological family (or anyone else who did not study AR) was always supposed to be just second best to spending time with students. If we ever gave the impression that there was anyone else whose company we preferred over students of AR, we would be in for excoriating criticism. Therefore, when I came back from seeing my family, I always had to act as though it was not enjoyable to be with them and that I was so glad to be back with my true family. I strongly suspect that this is still the case now. If your family members do not also study AR in some form, you might be allowed to visit them dutifully, not enthusiastically. It was also preferred that we only visit our family when accompanied by another student. I now understand that this was so they could help make sure we did not have such a good time with our family that it called to our real self. If our non-mind controlled self began to emerge on these visits, it could weaken AR's control over us.
Another reason my family felt they got me back when I left AR was that while I was in AR, I did not talk like a human being. I would never come home and just talk about things the family was doing, how our favorite sports teams were faring, or other matters of ordinary conversation. Instead, from the moment I arrived I was always looking for the chance to insert AR, pushing my point of view, and making sure that I had said all the right things so that my report to "persons" at the AR foundation would garner me approval and praise.
Incidentally, this is another example of the specialized AR language. They loved to say, "I have spoken to persons" when they really meant, "I am acting on orders from Ellen Reiss."
As to AR and the family, for me to believe what the Aesthetic Realists say now I would need to see verifiable statements from the family members themselves who are considered by the Aesthetic Realists to be ungrateful and disrespectful. I want to see these people state that their sons or daughters are allowed to associate with them and that they always have been while in AR. I would also like to know what their visits with their children are like from their own point of view. Do their sons and daughters make the visits enjoyable? And do they exchange ideas freely as people in other families do? I did not see any such statements on Countering the Lies.
Eli Siegel vs. Christ
I am from a very religious family. After I left AR my mother told me for the first time about a tremendous worry she had had while I was in AR. She felt I was worshiping Eli Siegel. She felt we Aesthetic Realists were putting him above Christ. She was very relieved when I began to see that Siegel was a mortal with imperfections like any other human being. Perhaps part of what had frightened my mother, who revered the Bible, was Martha Baird's statement in her introduction to 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." Though I have not seen a recently sold copy of the book myself, I have it from a reliable source that several years ago the AR foundation had that page cut out of all the unsold copies of Self and World and another page inserted that omits those sentences.
While I was in AR, I did believe that Eli Siegel was greater than Christ, even though I never told my mother so. It would have been accurate to say I "worshipped" him. And I believed that to sell him out or betray him in any way was the worst thing any human being could do. It made one even worse than Judas who betrayed Christ because, as I said, to me Siegel was greater than Christ. I believed that any person who left AR, which was the ultimate betrayal, gave up all hope of salvation and would burn in everlasting hell.
As I think back now, I can only remember a handful of consultants or consultants-in-training who professed to any deeply religious feelings and went regularly to church or synagogue. The prevailing, though unstated, attitude was "You have ES and AR so what would you want with religion?" We were supposed to study and praise Siegel's lectures on religion, see how magnificently he understood the mysteries of the universe, not become religious ourselves. Too great a need for religion would have indicated a lack in one's devotion to ES and AR. The general feeling was that if our devotion was as complete as it should have been, we would not have needed anything outside of AR. I would be very surprised if even today any of the consultants-in-training or consultants other than Rev. Plumstead and his wife spend much time inside a house of worship.
Aesthetic Realism and Vacations
On the Countering the Lies website, another issue students talk about incessantly is how many vacations they supposedly take. If it is true this is a complete turnabout from when I was studying. In fact, at least one of the "vacations" mentioned occurred when I was still there, and the person who took the vacation was criticized severely for having taken it. The only excusable reason for travel I ever saw while in AR was business travel. If you were going to make money through taking a trip, you could go. However, if a person's spouse wanted to go also, the spouse was intensely questioned about their motives. Was it to "get away from their large respect for Siegel, AR, and Reiss?" You should know that some of the happy traveling families listed on Countering the Lies are people who travel for business. Apparently, it is now "good for AR" to have it appear that these are "family vacations."
I would like to know when AR consultants and consultants-in-training started taking these trips and bought these vacation homes they write about. My guess is that it is all quite recent and that one reason it came about was because Ellen Reiss et al. wanted people to do it so the press could not continue to say otherwise. And based on my knowledge of the organization, I also wonder whether most of these vacation homes are clustered near each other so students will not have to be away from each other while they are at them. I have friends who live near the Pennsylvania state line, and they told me that the Aesthetic Realists have what looks to them like an entire compound in New York State's Sullivan County.
I even had the thought that perhaps Ellen Reiss, like so many New Yorkers after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, got frightened and wanted a place outside the city where she could retreat to for safety in the event of another attack. I know she considers herself, and other students consider her, the most valuable person alive today because she is the keeper of "the greatest, most important knowledge in the world." She is "precious cargo." But other consultants and consultants-in-training are also considered extremely valuable because they carry the knowledge of AR in them. That is why, as I distinctly recall, students were criticized if they wanted to do anything Reiss considered dangerous. I actually heard people raked over the coals publicly for wanting to go skiing or canoeing. We were told that we did not belong only to ourselves; we had an obligation to the world.
I once heard a tape recording in which Siegel said to a roomful of students that "the knowledge that is in this room could change the world." Therefore, it is possible that these so-called vacation homes are actually out of town emergency shelters so they can make sure the knowledge of AR will be preserved no matter what happens to New York City. But they may have decided it would look too paranoid to admit that this is what they are, so it is "better for AR" to call them vacation homes. Whichever they are, vacation homes or emergency shelters, I think it is a safe bet that investing in one of these places has become a new way for students with enough money to win approval from Reiss and everyone else by demonstrating their loyalty to ES and AR.
I also seriously doubt that students are allowed to go to these places to relax and "put aside AR." Even if they do have an enjoyable time, just as with a visit to the family, the students probably have to act like they were merely fulfilling a duty to AR. They likely have to report back that while they were there they worked hard on a paper or something else related to AR. At the very least they have to be able to say that while there they felt closer than ever to ES and respected his thought even more as they saw how everything around them "was explained so magnificently through the opposites," etc., etc.
In my own experience, after I had been studying AR for a number of years I was speaking with one of my other sisters and she asked me if my partner and I might like to take a vacation with her husband and her. Without seeing anything questionable about it, I said that we never went on vacation because we loved our study of AR so much that we did not want to be away from it even for a few days. I will never forget the strange look that came over her face as she tried to cover up what she thought. At the time I did not actually understand my sister's response because I had become so immersed in AR that I had lost track of how normal people on the outside perceive things. It did not occur to me that it might seem odd for persons never to actually go anywhere on vacation but instead to see it as an honor to be allowed to spend the time doing volunteer work at the AR foundation, as many students did.
Since it was supposed to be the greatest, most ethical workplace in the world, I also did not see anything wrong that people who worked at the AR foundation never got a vacation from their jobs at all. After I left, I learned from another ex-student that the foundation employees (all of whom were AR students), who lived on the very small salaries they earned working full-time at the foundation would not have been able to afford to go away on a vacation anyway. Many people working there were not paid at all, even those whose spouses earned very little money.
When I studied AR, a student would have set themselves up for a huge amount of criticism if they showed any desire to take a trip somewhere and miss a week of AR classes. We all knew better than to have it look as though there was any place else we preferred to be than at the AR foundation. Supposedly this was the greatest education in the world and the hours we spent in classes, seminars, and programs were the high point of our lives. That is why there are classes even on major holidays like Christmas and New Year's Day. We were supposed to feel supremely honored and privileged to be allowed to attend these classes (and some of us felt superior to all the others who had not yet made it to this stage of their study). As Eli Siegel himself had said in an oft-quoted statement to a student about the knowledge one obtained from AR, this was "the real gold, the real diamonds."
The Intensity of the Commitment
Beyond not seeing one's family and never taking vacations, there were the Monday night Opinion Meetings, which were originally called Respect Meetings because their purpose is to discuss what is wrong in how students see ES and AR, and Tuesday and Friday night classes also taught by Ellen Reiss. We were also expected to attend the Thursday public seminars, the Saturday evening public programs and when there was one, the Sunday Special Events. We were criticized if we missed any of them unless we were very sick or had work directly related to the AR foundation that prevented our being there. That was because, aside from the fact that we were supposed to look forward to attending them, we were to attend them as part of preparing to teach AR. We were reminded that when we had taken out our Study Form as it is called and asked to become a consultant-in-training, we had knowingly committed ourselves to a very serious course of study and we should hold ourselves to that commitment. It was a course of study that would continue unflaggingly even after a person was "appointed" a consultant. It was to continue until the day we died.
I know of some people who actually welcomed getting sick as a means of being able to miss these unending classes and others who were suspected of pretending to be ill so they could stay home. That was taking a risk, however, since when one became ill in AR, and especially if they got sick often, it was taken as a sign that their attitude to ES, AR and the world was unhealthy, which meant contemptuous and unaesthetic. Therefore, people were often criticized when they were sick. I remember students calling me up when I was home with a terrible cold and asking me such things as whether I thought a contributing factor might be that I was "too cold to Siegel, Reiss, and my fellow students of AR." When I had the flu and was vomiting my guts out, someone asked me whether I "wanted to puke at some things in my attitude to ES and AR." It was suggested that I write down things I thought were amiss and read them to others. This was all supposed to help me recover. I also knew that if my illness turned out to be too virulent, I would likely hear critical questions when I returned to class. There were some students who actually had serious illnesses, but were so afraid of what would be made of them that they either put off seeking medical help for a very long time or sought it in secret. Whenever Ellen Reiss herself became ill, however, it was always because the way students saw ES and AR had made her sick, and we should all feel very self-critical because we had done this to her.
It would have been taken as extremely contemptuous of AR to even think of going away for the weekend and missing the Friday night class and Saturday night program. If a person did so, in all likelihood it would have instigated a class discussion with them, though, as was often done, they might not have been told that this was why they were suddenly on the hot seat. For no apparent reason they would have found themselves being asked very critical questions about the state of their gratitude to ES and AR and whether there was "something working in them that wanted to get away from AR." (Being suspected of "wanting to get away from AR" was always a very bad thing in AR, whether a person was suspected of spending more time than they really needed to at their job, spending too much time with people who did not study AR, engaging in too many activities that did not directly revolve around AR, etc.) About all we could do was take a Sunday outing if there was no Sunday presentation that weekend. And even that was only possible if Reiss had not assigned us to write a report of one of her AR classes to be presented on the Saturday night program or a paper to be given in a Thursday seminar.
I will not even go into the hell of writing a class report or a paper. Writing a report of a single class could take months. Every word that one wrote had to pass a board of censors (called the Presentations Coordinating Committee or the PCC) who were then answerable to Ellen Reiss. Some of the editors were so nervous about missing something or allowing something improper to be said that they would actually shake.
Aesthetic Realism and Living within Walking Distance
The entire time I studied AR, as did practically every consultant and consultant-in-training, I lived within walking distance of the AR foundation. As with everything else, even though I was never told straight-out that I could not live further away, I knew better than to try. (I should say "we" because there was enormous pressure on all of us to live with other students, and there was also input on who it should be.) Whenever I and whoever I was living with at the time looked for an apartment, without mentioning it to each other, we knew that taking an apartment too far away would open us up to a very rigorous line of questioning about our motives. We would be asked questions about "how were we using each other: to be closer to ES and AR or to make less of our great emotion about them?" Of course if someone already owned a home in Brooklyn or elsewhere when they came to study they were not expected to sell it and move near the AR foundation. However, the degree to which one wanted to live close to the foundation was seen as an important indicator of one's attitude to AR.
This is another thing that I think has changed a little outwardly in recent years, but only as a means of countering AR's critics. I believe that "in order to take care of ES and AR" students may now be encouraged to live further away so no one can say that everyone lives nearby (even though I will wager that many still do). There are people on Countering the Lies who tell of living outside of walking distance to the foundation. They neglect to mention that this was when they were studying in consultations, but now that they are consultants-in-training they definitely live within easy walking distance. Also, the neighborhood where the AR foundation is located on Greene Street in Soho and the surrounding areas have become super-expensive, so it is much more difficult financially to live nearby than when I was studying. My guess is that some people have been allowed to move to the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, New Jersey and elsewhere because of economic necessity, but they must keep professing to other students how they yearn for the days when they used to live close by.
Shunning Former Students
Another thing students of AR say on their Countering the Lies website is that they do not shun people who leave AR. That is not true. When I was in AR I shunned people who left, and since I left I too have been shunned.
Early in my study of AR I spoke to a former student on the street. I casually mentioned the brief conversation to another student. I was surprised at how critical she was of me about it. Her voice dripping with contempt for both him and me as she questioned my motive in having spoken to him. On another occasion I told a consultant who is very high up in the organization that I had spoken to a former student when I ran into him at my place of work, mentioning this because the two of them had been very close friends. Again, this consultant/faculty member was excoriating in his criticism of me for having talked to the former student, and it led to additional criticism from other students also.
There are two instances of my own shunning people that I am most ashamed of. One time I was shopping in a store with narrow isles and my umbrella handle caught on the strap of someone's carrying case. When I turned and saw that the person whose case I was caught on was a former student, I unhooked my umbrella as though I did not even realize the strap was connected to anyone. Another time I was in a conversation with an acquaintance when a former student walked up and spoke to the person. Again I pretended to be unaware of the ex-student's existence even though he had been a really good friend of mine. It was awkward, but I felt proud of standing up for ES and AR by letting them know that because he had left AR, I saw him as too low to even notice.
I wish I could apologize to both of these people now.
Some of the people on the Countering the Lies website who claim 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.
One of my more interesting experiences was when I was sitting in a very small office waiting area waiting to be called in for a job interview. An AR consultant came in. It was impossible not to see and recognize me, but she sat down and was obviously prepared to act as though she did not know I was there. However I opened a conversation and she responded. Once we began to speak, I knew that she was glad I had taken it out of her hands and started the exchange. It was obvious that she had not been doing what she herself wanted to do but was following orders when she pretended not to know me.
A few years later a co-worker who did not know I had left AR met someone at a party who mentioned he studied it. She asked him to say hello to me. She was stunned and troubled by the look of contempt that came over the student's face at the mention of my name. When my co-worker told me about it, I had to explain to her that because I left AR, I was considered to have "betrayed truth and beauty," and that this student felt he was being ethical in exhibiting this behavior. To him, it was like showing what he thought of a Nazi. That is how I, like most other consultants and consultants-in-training, saw people who left AR. No matter what they say now, I believe most still do.
There have also been students of AR who have answered when I greeted them, but in such a way that it was clear that they found my existence repulsive and they were only acknowledging me because other non-students were watching and they felt they had to. This includes people who had once been my closest friends. There were others that I had been very close to when I was in AR who said hello in a friendly manner and even exchanged a few words. However, while they did, they looked terrified that another AR student would catch them being too friendly. I felt sorry for them because they looked so petrified.
More recently there have been some rather funny instances of people giving me a big hello like we are bosom buddies. Their hello was much bigger than anything I got from them while I was in AR. These are people who treated me like I was totally beneath them the whole time I studied. This makes me suspect that Ellen Reiss has sent word down that in order "to protect ES and AR" one should now act friendly to ex-students so no newspaper can print articles accusing them of shunning them.
Discouraging Higher Education and Other Self-Advancement
Another thing that appears repeatedly on the Countering the Lies website concerns people obtaining higher education and getting college degrees. When I was involved with AR, if it was deemed "good for Aesthetic Realism" for someone to get a college degree then they were encouraged to do so. If it was not seen as to AR's advantage, they were discouraged from doing so. For instance, I am sure that Arnold Perey was encouraged to get his PhD because his doctoral dissertation was based on the AR approach to anthropology. This is a fact he conveniently fails to mention in his statement. [Ed. note: It's mentioned in his statement now, though it might not have been in there before.] But while I was studying, there were teachers who needed to get advanced degrees so they could earn more money who were strongly discouraged from doing so because it was not considered as being to AR's advantage. In their cases, it was seen as taking their time away from AR. The attitude was that they were already doing good for people by using the "Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method" where they currently taught and they were getting by on their salaries, so what was their purpose in wanting to obtain a different position or make more money? It brought up serious questions about their values and whether they had the wrong notions of importance. I also knew other students who wanted to go to college and get a degree or go on to get a more advanced degree. Their motives were questioned too. They were told that they wanted to be superior to Eli Siegel because he did not have a degree.
On Countering the Lies it is very unclear, and I think intentionally so, in the AR students' statements as to exactly when they took college courses and got their degrees. Were they even studying AR when they did it? If so, were they just having consultations, or were they at a higher level (i.e., a consultant or consultant-in-training)? This is important because in almost all cases the education happened before a person became a consultant-in-training, or else they never became a consultant-in-training at all. Once someone moved up to the level of studying with Reiss, that usually ended any chance they had of pursuing a degree.
Another important question is, Was their college study before criticism of AR on this point appeared publicly or after it? This is important because after AR was criticized in the press for discouraging their followers' achievements, it is likely AR started letting some students attend college in order to be able to "prove" that AR did not discourage achievement.
I also believe it is not so much a question of whether the Aesthetic Realists allows people to get college degrees and make other advancements. It is a question of what their purpose is when they do: Is it for the good of the person, or is it to have one more thing they can exploit to promote AR? AR has a very dual attitude to people advancing themselves in any way, be it in education, career, or anything else. On the one hand, the Aesthetic Realists constantly accuse people of using personal achievements or outside interests to "make themselves important" or as "an offset to their great love and respect for ES and AR." (The second means that they resent how huge their respect for ES is so they are looking for things to use against him.) But on the other hand, the AR foundation is always ready to exploit a person's impressive credentials or achievements to promote themselves and show what important people they have studying and teaching AR. See the bios of their faculty members on the original AR website. Since I knew many of these people, I know that some are being made to sound like they are practically the company's CEO instead of the rather low-level executive assistant they are in reality. Since leaving AR I have shared a good laugh with several other ex-students as we recalled how our own credentials were inflated when we were introduced on programs at the AR foundation. Even though one student told the program's director that the importance of his position had been exaggerated, the director disregarded his demurs and left the introduction as it was.
Along with embellishing our achievements (and also making it appear as though they had come about solely because of our association with AR), when telling about our lives before we "met" AR we had to play down whatever good there had been and play up the pain and confusion so that "the magnificent lives AR has given us" would look even more resplendent in comparison. If a couple already had a solid marriage or if a teacher was already successful in the classroom for instance (both things Aesthetic Realists refuse to acknowledge could exist outside of AR), they were discouraged from speaking about that. Instead, 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. If one was accused of being ungrateful for what AR had done for them, they might be told to "have a courageous memory" and recall how awful their life had been before AR.
When I was in AR, a big question we were taught to ask about everything we did was, "Is this good for Aesthetic Realism?" We were told that if it was good for AR, it was good for us. That was to be the decisive question for everything in my life, large and small. Everything I did should have at its basis to protect, advance, and most of all illustrate "the success of ES and AR in my life." I was made to feel that my only value as a human being was as a tool for demonstrating ES and AR's greatness and beauty. I took pride in trying to be the best advertisement for it that I could be. My hope was that any time anyone looked at me, they would love and respect ES and AR more because of what they saw in me. That is how all students of AR were encouraged to see themselves. If we were suspected of using any of our talents or accomplishments for our own personal glory instead of for the greater glory of AR, we were criticized. I believe that is why, even though AR is supposed to be the greatest encourager of art in oneself, such a small percentage of people in AR have achieved critical success in any art field outside of presentations at the AR foundation. Many people in the arts have given up their professional careers for the "honor" of being on the AR stage. It is actually very sad.
In AR, being ambitious about anything that did not directly or indirectly have to do with AR was looked on with disfavor. While we were supposed to be successful in various ways so AR would look good because of it, the things we were supposed to be ambitious about were:
The question, "Is this good for AR?" also applies to who is allowed to study AR and who is not. Even though the main purpose is to bring more people into AR, the Aesthetic Realists also push people out if it does not seem to AR's advantage to have them in the organization. There are people who are denied consultations and kept at a distance from the beginning. This now includes people who acknowledge that they are homosexual. I will write more on that subject later on. There are also consultants and consultants-in-training who studied and even taught it for many years who were pushed out. And there are consultees who have been eased out. Sometimes consultees are eased out so gently they do not realize that that is what happened. Since leaving AR I learned that one technique is telling the consultee that before they can request another consultation, they must complete their assignment. Then they are given a multi-faceted assignment that will require an enormous amount of energy over a long period of time to complete. When they fail to complete the assignment, they blame themselves for not being able to have AR consultations.
Controlling the Students' Personal Relationships
When a student became interested in someone romantically they were in great peril of becoming subject to the criticism that they were "looking for an offset to their great love and respect for Eli Siegel and AR." This criticism often came even if their interest was in someone inside AR, not just if the interest was in someone who did not study. Consultants and consultants-in-training were supposed to love Eli Siegel more than anyone else in the world, so much so, that we would be incapable of loving anyone who did not share that emotion. Students often include in their wedding vows their promise to use each other to love ES and AR more. And if one of the married partners eventually left AR, the other spouse was expected to divorce them. During my entire study in classes taught by Reiss, I never saw an instance where one spouse left AR, the other spouse stayed, and their marriage continued. This would have been unthinkable among consultants and consultants-in-training. Divorce was inevitable when one's spouse left.
When two people "became interested in each other" in AR, they had to prove continually that their love for ES and AR was the basis of their relationship. If Reiss was not convinced, she would begin to work to have it end, though, of course, she was not up front that this was her purpose. The couple would hear frequent criticism in classes on the subject of "how they were using each other," whether they were "in a team to make less of AR," and a myriad of other things. The more criticism they heard in class, the more they were expected to make social plans to go out with other students "to discuss what they had heard." Of course everyone took their cues from Reiss, so the couple's motives with each other were continually scrutinized and criticized by all the students, and the longer they persisted in the relationship, the lower their standing fell. If they did not cease and desist they became pariahs. No one could hold out against all that, so sooner or later these relationships crumbled. This treatment also occasionally included couples who were already married. While I studied, there were many marital separations brought about in just such a manner. Since the entire situation was overseen by Reiss, the couple either eventually got back together or got divorced, depending on what she decided "was good for AR."
Sex, like everything else in an AR student's life, was supposed to be used "to give form to one's unbounded love for ES and AR." Even when in the grip of passion, one was supposed to be impelled to express gratitude to Siegel, AR and Reiss for making the union possible. If one did not feel that impulsion, it meant they were misusing sex. In sex, there were many things that were off limits because Siegel had declared them disrespectful. Masturbation was verboten, and AR couples were definitely not supposed to engage in oral sex, for example. Homosexuality was the worst crime.
Aesthetic Realism and Homosexuality
The majority of people who have been pushed out of AR were men who were supposed to change from homosexuality through their study of AR but did not. They were contemptuously referred to as "Cling Ons" by the AR faculty. They were seen as reflecting badly on AR, so they had to be gotten rid of.
Looking back now, it is clear to me that AR is an extremely homophobic organization in the fullest meaning of the word's definition, "Disliking and/or fearing homosexuals to an unreasonable degree." While I was with AR, people in it were terrified of the "H lobby" which they thought was out to get them. The vitriol on the Countering the Lies website now directed at people who have left AR used to be directed at the H lobby. As you may have deduced, there is always a current "enemy."
Even though they claim on Countering the Lies that AR never saw being gay as an illness and that they did not try to "cure" it, it is obvious that this is semantics. Clearly AR sees homosexuality as arising from a deleterious way of seeing the world and especially women. Eli Siegel stated, "All homosexuality arises from contempt of the world, not liking it sufficiently. This changes into a contempt for women." He also stated, "Contempt causes insanity." However no one is supposed to put two and two together and call homosexuality a form of insanity.
In AR, being gay is seen as a huge defect in one's character, to say the least. Homosexuality is seen as something a person should want to change from, and if a person did not want to change, or did not seem to be trying hard enough to change, the AR foundation did everything it could to keep them away. And especially after a man had been prevailed upon to say he had changed from homosexuality, if he confessed to having had thoughts about sex with a man or had actually had sex, there would be a meeting where he was criticized by other men who had "changed." In some instances the man was thrown out of AR.
The largest amount of national publicity AR ever got was for its claim to change homosexuality. For that reason the Aesthetic Realists did everything they could to promote this aspect of AR, even as they made statements that this was not the main thing AR was about. In their public stance they also claimed that they believed in gay rights, including the right to change, and that they did not believe in discrimination against homosexuals.
Meanwhile, among AR students in private conversations with each other there was a great deal of anti-gay prejudice. There was a contingent of straight men who could barely conceal their contempt for gay men and were obviously very unhappy that AR was in the spotlight because of this subject. They were very uncomfortable with having so many gay men around studying to change. There were also many conversations, especially among the wives and girlfriends of men who were supposedly changing or had changed from homosexuality, in which a lot of contempt was shown for gay men. Much of the derision revolved around what Siegel had said about homosexuals having contempt for women. Speaking as though all gay men are exactly alike, they made comments such as, "A gay man can spot a pimple on a woman's nose from a block away."
It would have been unthinkable for any consultant or consultant-in-training to have a gay person as a friend who was not "studying to change."
How Well Aesthetc Realism Tolerates Criticism
Another thing that appears on the Countering the Lies website are protests that AR likes and welcomes criticism. I am particularly interested in this point because I used to say it also, even though after I left I realized that I had seen no evidence whatsoever that Eli Siegel, Ellen Reiss or anyone else running the organization wanted criticism or accepted it when it was given. Therefore, I am puzzled about how I came to buy into it, but I did. Maybe this is an example of a "Big Lie" told over and over again until people believe it.
In my experience, beginning with consultations, the criticism went one way, from the consultants to the consultees. Even at public seminars, during the discussion period the people on stage tried not to call on anyone they thought might say or ask anything critical. If a person who was a student had done so, it would have been seen as "an attempt to sabotage AR."
As consultants-in-training and consultants we heard tape recorded lectures by Eli Siegel every Friday night. It would have been seen as sacrilege to criticize anything Siegel had said, or even to show skepticism, though we were encouraged to ask neutral questions. In the same way, on Tuesday nights after Ellen Reiss lectured, the discussion period was a time not to express criticism of what we had heard, but a time to see who could speak most eloquently and convincingly in their praising comments. This is not to say that no one liked what they heard or meant what they said. Some students appeared to actually enjoy the lectures while others could barely stay awake. However, we were all very aware of the need to "comment well in class" and that if a person "did not comment well" or did not comment often enough, they would hear criticism about being "grudging in their expression." And when it came to praise of Siegel, the hyperbole knew no limits. Occasionally, during one of the tape-recorded lectures, he would sing a line from a song. To be honest, he could not carry a tune. But in the discussion following the lecture, we were expected to sit straight-faced and nod our heads in agreement as person after person commented that they were moved to tears by his singing and said things like "Mr. Siegel was the greatest singer who ever lived" and "He had the most beautiful singing voice I ever heard." That is but one example of the willing suspension of disbelief that was expected of each of us. We all knew we needed to pump it up, yet deliver our comments as though what we said was our careful assessment arrived at with our most critical, exacting mind. But it is doubtful that even God himself could have helped the person whose critical mind had caused him to arrive at an unfavorable opinion of something in the lecture and he was foolhardy enough to say so.
In classes in which Ellen Reiss gave students criticism, if someone had tried to object while being criticized or if someone else said something that even hinted at defending them, they would have been in big trouble. No one was to "show disrespect for the class chairman" whom Siegel himself had appointed after all, and if one did so blatantly, the entire student body would have risen up against them. Just as with the lectures, of course there must have been students who liked what was said to them and felt grateful instead of humiliated while being criticized publicly. But again, we all knew that while getting criticism from Reiss, even if we disliked and disagreed intensely with what she was saying, the only way not to get crucified was to try to appear as though we welcomed every word and were grateful for the discussion. And for persons attending the class, the best thing they could do was to raise their hand and say how great they thought Miss Reiss' criticism of this person was and then tell on them about something that backed up Reiss' criticism. They could add another criticism of their own, and if Reiss thought it was valuable, they were praised. Thus these critical discussions provided a golden opportunity to everyone who was not the recipient to boost their standing in the hierarchy. If you had been in deep trouble for some time, one of the surest ways to redeem yourself was to deliver a crushing volley of criticism against the person currently being attacked, while making a relation in some way to your own misdeeds and trenchantly renouncing your own heresy.
In almost any situation, one of the most surefire crowd pleasers was to "express one's regret" for where one had been "unfair" to Siegel, AR, and/or Reiss. The more eloquent and heartfelt one could be on this subject, the better. The people with the highest standing in the organization were those who were most adept at not only praising Siegel, Reiss and AR extravagantly yet convincingly, but also expressing, often with tears, their "everlasting, searing regret" for having, in the past, been unfair to them.
After a person "had the honor of hearing criticism in an AR class," in the next class or very soon thereafter, they were expected to raise their hand and "express their gratitude" for what Reiss had said to them. They could also send her a "gratitude note," which would be read aloud in class. When the "discussion" had been particularly extended, the notes were sometimes accompanied by flowers. The best way of expressing one's gratitude was by including a generous check to the AR foundation with the note. Occasionally students made a contribution of $1,000 or more.
I cannot even imagine what would have happened if someone ever came back to class and said something like, "Miss Reiss, I have been thinking over what you said to me, and I have to say, with all due respect, that I believe you got some things wrong," or "I question whether you had good will when you said such and such to me." They would have been torn limb from limb. It was unthinkable for a student to question Eli Siegel or Ellen Reiss' motives, knowledge, statements, actions or anything else about them.
Even when history has proven them wrong, Aesthetic Realists do not admit it. For example, Eli Siegel stated in May of 1970, "The profit system [capitalism] is finished. We have with us the triumph of good will. If people knew it, they would be dancing in the streets." And in his poem "The Approaching Years," he predicted that AR would be standard knowledge by the end of the 1990s at the very latest. He also said that students of AR would be the most important people in the USA and the world and that when "AR was known" the AR consultants would be the highest paid professionals there are. None of that has happened, and yet there is no acknowledgement of error.
Aesthetic Realism as a Group or Cult
As is clear from AR's Countering the Lies website, people in AR do not want to be called a group (which I never thought warranted such a huge objection) and especially not a cult (which, however, I did think was a total outrage since I was thoroughly convinced, even to the end, that AR was not a cult.) The Aesthetic Realists want the AR foundation to be seen as an institute of learning like Columbia University. But as I think about it now, I have to ask: when did Columbia meddle in its students' lives about such things as their relationships with their families, who they can become romantically involved with, what is "respectful" to do in sex, where and with whom they live, whether or not they should have children, what job they take, how to allot their free time, and so much more? And as far as I know, Columbia does not expect a person to continue attending it for their whole lives. Nor does Columbia believe that if a person got any good from attending it, they owe it to the university to use the rest of their lives proselytizing for it and telling people how grateful they are to it and trying to get them to attend it also. If AR does not want to be called a group or a mind control cult, they should stop acting like one.
Why the Countering the Lies Website?
I shall now say something about what I think is going on behind the entire Countering the Lies campaign. I experienced many such campaigns while I was in AR.
First of all, one reason I chose to remain silent after I left AR is because I know that cults need an enemy to attack in order to rally the troops. Hitler's propaganda ministers knew that. Everyone knows that the best way to keep people unified is through fighting a common enemy. Now that the Aesthetic Realists are no longer calling themselves "victims of the press," they need new targets to keep everyone well motivated and behind the cause. I am sure the Aesthetic Realists would much prefer that no one ever said a bad word about them, but they also know that there is much to be gained from having a clear enemy to attack.
They know too that having to protect oneself from enemies is also an excellent justification for tyranny. We had all learned that Eli Siegel was a staunch defender of Joseph Stalin's tyranny over and mass murder of his country's own citizens in the early days of the Soviet Union because, as Siegel explained, Stalin had to protect the nation from its enemies not only from without but from within. When one is under siege, one must rule with an iron fist. Why should AR be any different?
Knowing that this is the case, I did not want to play into their hands by providing them with a target they could exploit to rev up patriotism and justify oppression within their organization. However, I decided that while my concern about this is valid, it was too easy an out. I feel I owe it to others to tell the real story and perhaps prevent other people from getting entrapped as I did, having many of their best years taken from their lives. Besides, AR created their Countering the Lies site in reaction to Michael Bluejay putting up the Aesthetic Realism is a Cult site, so the cat was already out of the bag. AR is already rallying the troops against this site, and that being the case I felt I might as well add my story to the ones already here.
It is an ironic side note that most people who formerly were in AR have wished to keep quiet about it, forget the miserable experience, and get on with their lives. In fact, it has been pretty clear to outside observers that the organization is falling apart on its own and will simply fade away as its aging members die off. But since the Countering the Lies website went up with its outrageous statements, exaggerations, fabrications, and vilifications, some people, such as myself, are beginning to come out of the woodwork and say, "Something has got to be done to protect people from this cult."
As the Aesthetic Realists see it, criticizing ES and AR is the most heinous crime anyone can do since they are convinced, as I once was, that "this is THE knowledge the whole world is waiting for." Ellen Reiss believes this most of all. She truly does think, "Eli Siegel...is...the greatest human being ever to live" and that the best use of one's life is to have him and his work known to the world. Therefore, the current students see it as an unforgivable offense if ES and AR are criticized and anyone "who has benefited so greatly from them" fails to stand up and protect them. Not standing up is taken as an indirect attack as well. Even though consultees are normally permitted greater freedom and there is more permissiveness towards them than towards consultants-in-training and consultants, when it comes to standing up against "an enemy of AR" consultees are also expected to fight to defend ES and AR or they do not deserve to study any longer. As I see it, these latter persons are the most innocent and pitiable of the offenders.
Having studied AR when various campaigns against AR's critics were underway, I know that there has been a virtual reign of terror going on inside AR at this time. Everyone's loyalty is on the line. There have been endless discussions at Opinion Meetings and in other classes about what to do to defend AR. There are discussions about it in consultations also. Based on their ability to come through with a statement worthy of posting on Countering the Lies, some people's stature in AR is rising while others' is falling. People have been scrambling to write good statements, and those who have succeeded are basking in the approval of Reiss and the people at the top of the hierarchy. Then, there are those poor individuals who are having trouble with their statement and who are in agony about it. Everyone has to demonstrate as Dale Laurin put it so well (I am sure his status went through the roof for having written this "great" sentence), "My outrage at the lies that have been told about Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism is exceeded only by my happiness in refuting them."
For a person who is a consultant or consultant-in-training there is enormous and ongoing pressure to make "taking care of ES and AR" the central thing in one's life, and that mandate intensifies when there is a campaign. I cannot remember exactly which campaign it was since there were so many, but years ago the press had said something against AR and we were all supposed to be obsessed with figuring out how to counter-attack. For many hours one Sunday my partner, who also studied with Ellen Reiss, and I, in preparation for the next night's Opinion Meeting, had been discussing what to do. At the meeting, we were all supposed to say how we, personally, planned to stand up for ES and AR. However, that Sunday evening one thing led to another and the two of us ended up "being close" as the Aesthetic Realists call having sex. Since nothing in AR is private, AR students are even expected to keep other students informed as to this aspect of their lives. If they are secretive about sex, it means they are using it against ES and AR. We, unfortunately, had the poor judgment of letting someone know we had had sex that evening. There was hell to pay. How could we even think of going after our own pleasure while our best friend was under attack! It brought us under suspicion of being part of what Ellen Reiss liked to call "A Fifth Column," which referred to traitors from within during a war.
The biggest reign of terror I experienced during my study of AR was when Ellen Reiss came up with "The Four Questions." Though I do not recall what instigated this campaign, I still remember the questions now as though it were yesterday. The questions were:
Class after class was devoted to discussion of these questions. All of us consultants and consultants-in-training worked feverishly on statements in answer to them, and one by one we each had to stand up in class and deliver a convincing statement in the affirmative as to the first two questions and give a detailed answer to the last two. When a student read their statement, everyone else sat in judgment and declared whether they believed that this student truly wanted to be "completely fair" or not. Some people (the ones in highest standing with Reiss) sailed through, but a lot of us barely "squeaked over the line." Some students were never able to get to a statement that convinced other students they wanted to be completely fair, so they went to and remained at the bottom of the pecking order for a long while. The whole thing was horrible. Even in consultations, instead of spending time speaking about how the principles of AR could be useful to the consultees' lives, which was supposed to be the purpose of a consultation, consultees were asked these questions. Even consultees had to be able to show they were standing on the right side or they would find themselves in hot water.
Instead of tying people closer to AR as I believe Ellen Reiss intended, many people left. The AR foundation went from having overflow audiences at the public seminars and Saturday night programs to being sparsely filled. The entire maneuver was a tactical error since it showed too baldly that the AR foundation's real purpose is not to improve people's lives. It exists for the purpose of winning over more adherents for AR who will see that "Eli Siegel is the greatest man and the greatest thinker who has ever lived," and for the purpose of ensuring that Ellen Reiss is the sole existing absolute power in the organization. She has actually written in The Right Of that she is "proud" that when there was a power struggle for who was going to control AR, she did not allow any of her detractors to win.
Why I Stayed for So Long
I have asked myself many, many times why I remained in AR for so long. For one thing, I saw some value in many of the principles Eli Siegel put forth about life and art. I liked learning about poetry and the visual arts, and I also believed that some statements in AR could help the world. (As I discovered after I left AR and began comparing my experience with that of others who had joined cults, I came to see that there is a kernel of goodness in almost every cult's core beliefs. That is what draws people into them in the first place.) So everything taken together, for a long time what I got out of it appeared greater than the almost constant discomfort of one type or another that always seemed to accompanied the study of it.
Another very powerful reason that I understand better now is this: If there is anything the Aesthetic Realists are good at, it is convincing a person that if he thinks he sees anything wrong with Siegel, AR, Reiss or how the organization is run, there is really something wrong with himself. 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: I must be "on a contempt binge." I like, the press, must be having "terror of respect." I must not like the "size of my respect for ES and AR" and was "looking to have contempt." This even included times when, as I see it now, I became aware of things that were obviously, glaringly wrong. However, I had so bought into the idea of the perfection of Siegel and AR and of Reiss as representing them that even when things were right before my eyes, I could not see them.
When I had thoughts that were "against ES and AR," even though I was tormented by them and felt they meant I was an evil person, I was usually too scared to tell anyone about them since, as I mentioned previously, there was no such thing as telling another student something in secret. To keep a secret in itself was seen as against AR and unaesthetic, "not in keeping with the opposites of hidden and shown." People were conditioned to believe that they should tell on each other for the good of the person and for the good of AR. All of us, even husbands and wives and best friends, informed on each other regularly. Being willing to inform on people was also a way to curry favor with Reiss et al.
Another reason I believe that I (and I surmise many other students) stayed in AR so long was because of the enormous stigma attached to leaving it. I could not bear the idea of the people whose approval I craved thinking of me with such contempt. For 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.
I also believe that part of why I and many other people stayed was because of both ambition and terror of what would happen to us if we left. We were constantly told that ES and AR were on the brink of being known and that the people associated with it would soon be acknowledged and revered as the greatest (read "and richest") people in the world. We were afraid that if we bailed out, we would be left out in the cold. Furthermore, as we discussed with glee, we were convinced that "after AR was known" those who had left AR would be marked men, hounded throughout the world for their assault on humanity. When people knew what they had done, they would be unable to find a job or a place to live unless they succeeded in concealing their identity. Some would skulk and hide while others, like the Ancient Mariner who shot the albatross, would dedicate the rest of their lives to expressing their regret for having betrayed ES and AR. We were led to believe that there would be tribunals like the Nuremberg Trials in which people in the press who had boycotted AR and "kept this lifesaving knowledge from the world" would be dealt with. That is, if mobs who were out of control with rage when they found out what these people had done did not get to them first.
We were also made to feel that if we left, we would never again be able to have a large emotion, because it was AR that had enabled any big emotion or feeling we had. We were made to believe that we would wake up every day with the ache of knowing that we had "betrayed truth." We were taught that once we left we would never again have a close friendship, because only AR could provide us with the basis for being close to another human being. We were made to feel that we could never again be useful to anyone, because unless we were still in AR "the knowledge we had gained would be useless to us." We were also threatened with the idea that if we "betrayed truth" that our bodies would react to our unethical behavior and that any manner of disease or insanity could ensue. We had all heard that Siegel himself had foreshadowed the unspeakably terrible things in store for ex-students when he stated, "I can't be responsible for what happens to a person when they leave Aesthetic Realism."
I am very glad to say that all of the above, ingrained so deeply in my fearful self by AR, was a complete lie. There has not been a moment since I left that I have had the slightest feeling of anything but relief and excitement about my departure.
As I look back over my years in AR, though I doubt anyone would admit these things, I believe there were some people in it who lived to rat out other people and give criticism, the tougher the better. They enjoyed being enforcers for Ellen Reiss. They liked inflicting pain. There are others who were social climbers and wanted to be in with the right people. When they sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with other students of AR, they wanted it to be at the right table: the table where Reiss and the other members of the elite ate. Therefore, they did what was required, even though it often entailed being unkind. They may not have relished it like some others and they might have even felt pained by it occasionally, but it was worth it to stay on top. However, I believe that the majority of consultants and consultants-in-training are just people trying to protect themselves and make it through in a difficult situation. In the process, we all did mean and hurtful things to each other and to others outside of AR.
I also believe we all had, to different degrees, some idealism about becoming better people and improving the world. However, as strange as it may seem, in the stifling atmosphere of AR those good desires were often choked out of us. Instead of increasing with time, they decreased because it was hard to maintain idealism when so much time and effort was spent trying to avoid making mistakes that would bring us into the critical glare and lower our standing in the organization. No one wanted to go into that pit and be spit on by everyone. Most of us looked to see which way the wind was blowing and treated students accordingly, kissing up to the right people and ostracizing students who were "not doing well." And I am sure I am not the only one who at times felt sympathetic toward someone who was out of favor because I felt they were being seen unjustly, but I was afraid to show it or do anything about it.
Sometimes I even received directives from people at the top (which made me feel very important) about what to criticize a student for. That is what happened one evening when a whole table full of students went out after the Thursday seminar. Several of us had been told by the top brass (which I took as meaning the instructions had really come from Reiss herself) what criticism to give one student. I did not see the criticism as true and even thought it was rather petty. I knew, however, that I had better do what I had been sent to do or it would be bad for me. After the food came, we all launched in on her. She got so upset and angry she almost caused a scene in the restaurant. I felt awful. I knew that what we had done had been cruel and wrong. That evening I promised myself that was the last time I would ever do that: never again would I follow orders and give criticism I did not believe in. This was not the kind of person I had come to study AR in order to become.
It was also the first glimmer in my mind that I let sprout in which I realized there was something terribly wrong with the AR foundation and I should get out. I am making an understatement of massive proportion when I say, I am very happy I did.
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Former members describe Aesthetic Realism
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Photo of Eli Siegel's gravestone from Find A Grave