Aesthetic Realism is a cult

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

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Wondering why there hasn't been a lawsuit

“I want Ellen Reiss questioned!”

written January 2006

     Hi Michael. I really appreciate the work you are doing to try to help people who suffered from the AR cult. I wish we could have coffee cuz this is the first time I have every talked about this....ever.

     What makes me angry is not the philosophy, but its misuse, which is really, really shocking.

"I studied for several years and it took me away from my family and screwed me up in all sorts of ways that I have really preferred not to think about."

     I studied for several years and it took me away from my family and screwed me up in all sorts of ways that I have really preferred not to think about. Perhaps the most painful part was that I joined because I was very much in love with another member, and after I left he was discouraged from seeing me, because I was then considered outside of Aesthetic Realism. His AR consultants asked him, in a tone that you would use when asking a child, why he was playing with fire? "Why are you still seeing her?" Of course after hearing this consultation his AR roommate also encouraged him to ask himself questions about whether the relationship should continue. This kind of peer pressure is brain washing, and the AR people should STOP doing stuff like that. So my relationship was destroyed, and it was a long-term relationship that could have ended in marriage. He left later too, but by then it was too late for us.

     Another thing I found disturbing was that my roommate's consultant was really mean to her, under the so-called guise of trying to help her. There is criticism that is meant to help someone, for sure, and then there is a woman on a power trip who uses her position as a consultant to be nasty to someone she doesn't like. But the consultant never gets critcised herself for it, she is above that, and even before I studied Aesthetic Realism and heard those consultations, I knew the difference between the two things. I always thought she really hated my roommate because I heard the horrible things she said to her on the consultation tapes. I think the other consultants were strict, but this one, well, she really made my roommate feel like hell, and even with constructive criticism you can go way, way too far. Someone should have told her so.

      Moreover, I was in the cult for a number of years and didn't realize that Eli Siegel killed himself! I only learned that from reading your site. They would often start seminars by apologizing for his death which they said they caused by their giving him bad advice to have an operation because, er, they "hated their respect for him." That is simply not logical. I didn't realize he had a mistress, either, which I don't think is ethical, or that he had an appetite for women other than his wife, which I also think is not so great. And I didn't know that Ellen Reiss was jealous of some rivals or that there was a competition among some women to control the foundation. What I do know is that when I studied AR, it was way disproportionately full of women, and that the single ones were not exactly encouraged to date like

"The that no one challenges the consultants or Ellen Reiss....I ask Ellen Reiss, Ms. Reiss, is it good for you that no one challenges what you say?"
normal people. They were all too busy with going to AR classes, where there were not so many men to meet. This was before Internet dating, and bars were not really looked upon so well, and women who did show a desire to meet men were viewed as too focused on men. It was all very unhealthy and weird. Relationships were always the subject of discussion by roommates and friends and to stay "in" with the AR crowd you had to basically get everyone's tacit approval for everything you were doing, whether it was a trip or a boyfriend or even living alone, which was frowned upon. The AR consultants can argue that they never tell anyone to do anything. What they're failing to acknowledge is that they still make it very clear what they prefer that you do, and you get criticized relentlessly if you go against their wishes. If you have no other friends but AR friends and they hear a consultation tape where your consultants question the merits of, say, your going to Boston, then if you actually go to Boston your friends will look down on you too. That is how it works. No one in AR would ever say, "Hey, maybe your consultants are wrong, there's nothing wrong with the trip!" Never. The problem with the way the AR foundation works is that no one challenges the consultants or Ellen Reiss. You don't argue in a consultation. You get told stuff or asked leading questions and then other people hear it and ALWAYS take the consultants' viewpoint. Is that healthy? I ask Ellen Reiss, Ms. Reiss, is it good for you that no one challenges what you say?

     If it is true that students of Aesthetic Realism encouraged a cancer patient to commit suicide and ostracized her when she refused, that is one of the sickest things I have ever heard. They should be answerable for this.

     I have often wondered why no one has brought a class-action suit against the center to shut it down once and for all. If you ever played some of those consultation tapes in court, anyone could see that I was being pressured. Yes, it was voluntary, but there is something very, very wrong all the pressure to influence students. The whole Ellen-Reiss-as-god thing is disgusting and should be stopped. It would be great to have our day in court. I want Ellen Reiss questioned!

     I lost my family for a few years by studing AR but they easily forgave me. Not so for many friends from college who thought I went nuts and I never heard from them again.

“Do I get my
  three years back?”

(I thought it would be funny to quote the similar line from the 70's sci-fi movie "Logan's Run".)

     I would like my three years years back...but equally important, I would like that place not to do to other people what it did to me! I just don't want anyone else damaged the way I was and I want the truth to be out there.

     Thanks for all your hard work Michael. I am very, very glad you exist! All the best to you.. .

P.S. I was thinking I was like to get in touch with some of the people who I think were indoctrinated at the time I was but I have no idea how. Maybe you could have a forum on your site where we could say who we were and who we were searching for? I guess I think it would be nice if some of us could talk to each other and find out how we deal or dealt with certain issues like re-immersion into normal life or getting back our lost years or feelings of anger at the cult...

 P.P.S. I just read: "A former Aesthetic Realism student involved for over a decade speaks out" Now there's a person who says it all. I hope one day in court, or at least in memoir about a cult that no longer exists.


[Editor's note: Thanks very much for sharing your experiences. Others have made the same request as you, to have a way to get in touch with other former members. Unfortunately if I let people put up a note saying, "I'm looking for former member Joan Blow...", well, then, they've just outed Joan as a former member. And if we had a discussion forum then participants would have to be ever vigilant to not say anything making themselves or others personally identifiable to the AR leadership, which would mean that the forum dialogue would be all but neutered. And if anyone ever slipped and said enough to identify themselves you can be sure the AR people would publicly ream them on, the way they did with me and the few other critics who dared to be public about who they are. Now, what I *can* do is set up a private, anonymous mailbox for everyone who posts a statement on this AR is a Cult website, so anyone reading the statement can contact the author. I'll try to get around to that eventually... Of course, if I set this up, such critics will probably get hate mail from the AR people, and I wouldn't be surprised if the AR people tried to pose as someone else to try to feel a critic out to find out who the critic really is.... ]

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Former members describe Aesthetic Realism

Aesthetic Realism at a Glance


The 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 opposites".


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).

Cult aspects

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

  • More about cult aspects...


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Open offer to debate

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

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

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


What former members say...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See former members' statements in their entirety

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Photo of Eli Siegel's gravestone from Find A Grave