Aesthetic Realism is a cult

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

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“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.”

written by a former AR student, May 7, 2005

I'm ready to share my experiences because I've been to the Countering the Lies website and I have seen that I'm being attacked all over the place for remaining anonymous [for my posting about AR on Steve Hassan's Freedom of Mind].  I'd like to explain why I choose to do so, so that your readers will see that I'm not some evil, nefarious monster, but just a guy who got burned by a cult.

 I began studying Aesthetic Realism to change from homosexuality.  Actually, I'm bisexual; I was married at the time, and extremely conflicted.  When I began my "study," I had to agree to their terms, which stated that I would be allowed to study AR as long as I did so respectfully.  Note that the terms did not state that I promised to express feelings that I did not honestly feel.  Of course, had they stated that, I would never have studied it in the first place.  I had also read Eli Siegel's appeal to people to give Aesthetic Realism a hard, critical look (I can't remember the exact quote, but that's what he meant), and I resolved to do so.  In fact, I could not have done otherwise, for that is the type of person that I am.

Right from the start, I found myself feeling very depressed after my consultations.  The message I got from my consultants was that I was no big deal.  I supposed this would have been easier to take if it hadn't been coupled

“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.”
with the constant praise of Eli Siegel.  I was frequently told that I was incredibly angry at Eli Siegel because he was so much more intelligent, so much greater than I.  At the same time, if I mentioned anything at all that led them to suspect that I thought myself more intelligent than some other person, I was severely criticized and admonished to remember that Eli Siegel always said that all persons are equal.  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.

Just a few weeks into my study, something happened that really left a bad taste in my mouth.  I received a call from one of the AR bigwigs (I think it might have been Ellen Reiss's husband at the time -- how many husbands has that woman had, anyway?), asking me to donate money to the foundation.  When I told him I was low on cash (after all, I wasn't rich and I was already paying them decent money for consultations), I received a considerable verbal drubbing.  Here was this person with whom I had never spoken before, telling me that I loved Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism more than anything in this world, but I was so angry at my respect for ES and AR that I didn't want to give them money, blah blah blah.  I gave him his stinking money, but I felt that something clearly wasn't right here.

My consultants encouraged me to talk more with my wife about my homosexual feelings and my gratitude to ES and AR.  Even though my efforts were halfhearted at best, these discussions introduced a level of stress in my

“...these discussions introduced a level of stress in my marriage that had not previously existed.”
marriage that had not previously existed.  My wife no more wanted to hear about my homosexuality than I wanted to tell her about it, and even my puny attempts at idolizing Eli Siegel made her see me as weak, which is precisely how it made me feel.  As any former student will tell you, that "Aesthetic Realism persona" I adopted was a crashing bore.  I can't tell you how many arguments we had because she did not want to study Aesthetic Realism.  Why the hell would she?! All I did was criticize her for allowing me to have "adoring contempt" for her, for letting me feel that "I could sweep the floor with her," and all of the other AR speak clichés I had been saddled with.  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.

If I had had any sense at all, I would have stopped having anything to do with AR after a few consultations.  However, I was so desperate to change that I ignored my gut feelings and tried to blind myself as much as possible.  Actually, it was more complicated than that, because AR did say many things which I found to be very insightful.  At some point, I tried to resolve this conflict by telling myself that Eli Siegel was on the right track, but his students had somewhat lost their way after his death.  Despite my misgivings, I kept going back for more consultations and more criticism because I honestly believed that it would be good for me and my marriage in the long run.  I could not ignore my doubts, but I always tried to give AR the benefit of

“One day, when I started my consultation, I received a tremendous shock...”
those doubts, keeping in mind my initial promise to study AR respectfully.

One day, when I started my consultation, I received a tremendous shock: one of my consultants had abruptly departed from AR.  All my consultants would say is that he had "written a horrible letter to Ellen Reiss, stating that he no longer wished to be completely fair to Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism."  They were clearly extremely uncomfortable with the whole issue and eager to turn the conversation to their usual criticism of me.  Things were never the same after that.  I had the feeling that something had changed internally at the foundation, but of course, nobody would discuss something like that with me.  I was deeply suspicious and disillusioned and I took a few months off.  When I went to resume my consultations, I was told I had to write some huge paper first, detailing how I had been unfair to ES and AR and expressing my "regret" over this.  I wrote my paper as fairly and honestly as I possibly could.  In other words, I expressed my gratitude for all the things I had learned, but I absolutely refused to express feelings that I did not honestly feel, period.  After all, if I had done so, I would have been studying (and paying to study) just to please them, and why on Earth would I do that?  Needless to say, I was denied any further consultations. 

I was completely devastated.  I felt I had really gone out on a limb with my wife and had basically been left hanging there.  I felt they had failed to live up to their end of the bargain, the bargain we made when I began my study.  My devastation quickly turned to anger when I read about their new stance on the issue of homosexuality.  I mean, who the hell were these people who had gone on TV in search of people like me, who promised me they had all the answers, promised me that they would never abndon me as long as I studied their philosophy respectfully, who strung me along for years and took a

“That's when I finally knew for sure: Aesthetic Realism is a cult.”
considerable chunk of money from me, then dumped me out of the blue because I no longer suited their purposes?  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.

These days, I don't think about AR very much.  However, when I saw Steve Hassan's site, then your site, I felt I had to honor the promise I made to myself some thirteen years ago.  I think it needs to be put as bluntly as possible: It's time to recognize that the whole AR/homosexuality thing was a miserable flop.  They know it and we know it.  Unfortunately, they don't have the HONESTY to admit it.  This, coming from the self-proclaimed guardians of honesty.  To be fair, I think they're just too brainwashed to know any better.  If the philosophy doesn't work, blame the student, not the philosopher.  Gee, wouldn't it be great if all scientists did that?  Just declare something true because, if the experiments don't confirm it, the experiments were flawed. Well, sorry, Ellen Reiss, but the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.  The fact is, all those years of "study" didn't change my feelings for men one whit.  There are theories, then there's reality.  Lots of theories, from B.F. Skinner to Marx and Engels, sound great on paper.  Only problem is, they don't work.

So, that's my story.  I'm almost 50 years old now, and a lot more comfortable with who I am.  However, I'm still not willing to out myself in front of the whole world.  That's my choice, and I have a right to that choice. That does NOT, however, mean that I'm not going to try to warn people about a cult.  I hope that people who read "Countering the Lies" will also read this.  Then, they can decide for themselves.  There are several people on this website who have courageously listed their names.  How does my story stack up to theirs?  Does it really sound as if I'm making all this up?  Do I sound like the bad person I'm portrayed as on Countering the Lies?  Again, to everybody out there, read this and decide for yourself.  More than anything, be glad you have a mind of your own with which to decide.

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What's on this site

Cult Aspects

What is Aesthetic Realism?
An explanation about both the AR philosophy and the group that promotes it.

Cult aspects of Aesthetic Realism
Fanatical devotion to the leader, cutting off relations with families who aren't also believers -- it's all here.

AR and Homosexuality
The AR group used to try to "cure" people of being gay. They stopped that in 1990 because high-profile success cases kept deciding they were gay after all and leaving. AR has never said their gay-changing attempts were wrong.

AR's founder killed himself
AR's founder Eli Siegel killed himself, but the AR people have been trying to hide that fact. They can't hide any more, since enough former students have come forward to confirm the truth.

Attempts to recruit schoolchildren
Some AR members are public schoolteachers, and yep, they do try to recruit in the classroom.

How cults recruit new members.
Explains how a rational person can unwittingly get sucked into a cult group.

Mind control tricks
This article explains AR's use of Directed Origination, a classic tool for brainwashing. Also see the article where someone infiltrated the group to learn about their mind control methods.

Five reasons you can't trust an Aesthetic Realist
One reason is that most people who were in AR eventually woke up and got out. See more about this, plus four other reasons.

Lies Aesthetic Realists tell
They say they never saw homosexuality as something to cure. They say the leader didn't kill himself. They say my family left the group when I was an infant. These and more are debunked here.

Hypocrisy of the Aesthetic Realists
It takes some serious brainwashing for the members to not realize that they're guilty of what they accuse others of.

Aesthetic Realism glossary
We explain the real meanings behind the loaded language that AR people use.

AR in their own words

Actual AR advertisment
The AR people spent a third of a million dollars for a double-page ad in the NY Times to tell the world that the press' refusal to cover AR is just as wrong as letting hungry people starve to death.

Ad for the gay cure
AR bought huge ads in major newspapers to trumpet their ability to "fix" gays.

Actual letters from AR people
When a theater critic casually dissed Aesthetic Realism in New York magazine, the AR people responded with hundreds of angry letters, calling the article "a crime against humanity".

Actual internal meeting
The AR people blunderingly made a tape recording of a secret meeting they had, where they lambasted a member who had supposedly been "cured" of his gayness, but then found to still be cruising for gay sex. Their screeching hostility towards him is matched only by their fear that the secret will get out.

Actual AR consultation
For the first time the public can see what really happens in an Aesthetic Realism "consultation" (thanks to a former member sharing his tape with us). In the session the AR counselors tried to help the member not be gay, explaining that the path to ex-gayness was to express deep gratitude to AR and its founder.

Actual AR lesson
I had a lesson with the cult leader, Eli Siegel, when I was two years old, which, like everything else, they made a tape of. The highlight is Siegel taunting me with "Cry some more, Michael, cry some more!"

Ad in the Village Voice from 1962
The AR folks try to deny that they're a cult in this ancient ad -- showing that people were calling them a cult as far back as 1962!

AR responds to this website
The AR people have tried to rebut this website with their own site called Countering the Lies, whose title ought to win some kind of award for irony. Here we explain the story behind that site.

What former members say

Aesthetic Realism exposed
The ultimate statement by a former member, who was involved for well over a decade.

A tale of getting sucked in.
This former member describes exactly how he initially got drawn in, and how he then kept getting more and more involved.

Growing up in a cult. An ex-member who was born into AR tells what it was like growing up in the group, and how she got out.

Aesthetic Realism ruined his marriage. "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."

On having all the answers. A former member explains how AR members think they have all the answers, and feel qualified to lecture others about how they should view personal tragedy.

Kicked out for remaining gay. Former students describe how they were kicked out of AR because they couldn't change from homosexuality. Ron Schmidt and Miss Brown.

"Leaving, however was only the first challenge.". One of the original teachers of Aesthetic Realism explains the cultic environment inside the group, and how she got out.

"If I disappointed them, then I now consider that a badge of honor." A former member tells how AR try to change him from being gay, and convinced him not to spend Christmas with his family.

"...people were controlled and humiliated if they stepped out of line...". The experiences shared with us by a member from 1974-80, now a Fortune 100 executive.

"I want Ellen Reiss questioned!" This former member wonders why there hasn't been a class-action lawsuit against the foundation yet.

They took his consultation tape. Describes how the AR people kept his consultation tape with his most intimate thoughts on it, and told him he couldn't study any more unless he incorporated AR more radically into his life.

"There isn't any question: Eli Siegel killed himself."
A former member who had sought AR's "gay cure" explains how the group's leaders admitted that the founder took his own life.

Confirms all the criticism. A former member from 1971-80, confirms that AR students don't see their families, are discouraged from attending college, and shun other members. He also offers that he was mistaken when he was involved about thinking that AR had changed him from homosexuality.

Michael Bluejay's description. Your webmaster describes his own family's involvement.

Members interviewed in Jewish Times. This lengthy article in Jewish Times quotes former students of Aesthetic Realism extensively.

NY Post article. A series of articles in the NY Post quotes many former members who are now critical of the group.

Aesthetic Realism debunked. A former student explains the cult aspects of AR. Posted on Steve Hassan's Freedom of Mind website.

Other Goodies

Thinking of leaving AR?
If you're thinking of leaving the group, you're not alone. Let's face it: Most people who have ever studied AR have left -- and not come back. There's got to be a reason for that. Curious about what they figured out? Worried about the fallout if you do decide to leave? Here's everything you need to know.

Recovering from your AR experience.
People who leave cults often need special therapy to cope with what they went through. Whether you decide to seek counseling or choose to go it alone, here's what you need to know.

Media Reports
NY Mag called AR "a cult of messianic nothingness" and Harper's referred to them as "the Moonies of poetry". We've got reprints of articles, plus some help for journalists researching AR. (And here are shortcuts to the landmark articles in New York Native, the NY Post and Jewish Times.)

Site News / Blog
Here's some news and commentary that I add from time to time.

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