Aesthetic Realism is a cult

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

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"Aesthetic Realism ruined my childhood"

by Gerri-Ellen Harmon, February 2011

Editor's note. My maternal grandparents were members of Aesthetic Realism, so my mother was born into the group, and then I was born into the group. Mom left the group slowly, completely severing her allegiance when I was a teenager. She and I rarely spoke of Aesthetic Realism after that, because the subject was too painful for her. So when I started this site in 2005, I didn't tell her about it. She learned about it only when her sister Alice (who is still in AR) called to complain about the site.  This was the first time that Alice had spoken to my mother in 20 years! (So much for AR's denial that the group breaks up families.) For some time after that, my mother still preferred to keep her silence about AR, because most ex-members prefer to put their terrible experience behind them. But now, my mother has broken her silence and is sharing her story.  This is crucial because of all the former member statements on this site, this is the only one told from the perspective of someone who was born into the group and experienced it through her whole childhood. After reading it, I think it will be clear why I'm trying to get the truth out about this group.

In older articles on this site I say that my mom hadn't contributed anything to the site, to counter the Aesthetic Realists' claim that mom was really the mastermind and that I was just the webmaster. But she's sharing her story now, and for that I'm grateful. --Michael Bluejay

     I am writing my story of how Aesthetic Realism was in my life as a young person and how detrimental and painful my childhood was until I was able to break away from it in my early twenties.  After all these years I feel compelled to share this with others so that they can avoid the pain and suffering I experienced. 

     My parents belonged to this cult beginning in 1947 and continuing until the 1980’s.  All the members denied it was a cult, but it was marked by hero worship of the founder, Eli Siegel.  Aesthetic Realists were known for making outrageous, all encompassing statements such as, “Eli Siegel is greater than Jesus and his body of work is greater than the Bible.”

"I never felt that I could have relationships with friends at school, or do any of the normal things that children do.

     I was subjected to this environment starting at the age of two.  I was made to believe that Aesthetic Realism was the answer to all the world’s problems and that I was a member of an elite group.  We never were friendly with outsiders and I never felt I could be myself, have relationships with friends at school, or do any of the normal things that children do.  Because of Aesthetic Realism I watched as my parents broke off relationships with their families, ceasing to have any contact with them.  The group leaders told us that our families were poison and we had to stay away from them because they would taint our enthusiasm for the philosophy.  Years later I re-met some first cousins on my father’s side and they told me how sad they were that we were not in their lives.

     Life in Aesthetic Realism meant 3-4 classes per week where Siegel lectured on literature and poetry from the AR point of view.  My parents would take us to lessons with Eli Siegel on the weekend where family matters were discussed.  We never knew what mood Siegel would be in and it was hard to decide what to say because we were alternately berated for being too sad (because Aesthetic Realism was supposed to be the answer to happiness, and if we weren’t happy it meant we weren’t grateful to Siegel),  or too happy (because we shouldn’t act as if everything was perfect because if we did we weren’t grateful to Siegel for answering our life questions)!  Needless to say the anxiety before a lesson was palpable.  You just prayed that Eli Siegel would be in a good mood and that we wouldn’t be attacked.  Since my parents were privy to the same criticism they didn’t protect me.  The adults in AR aired all their problems in front of their children, robbing us of our childhood.

"Again, my parents didn't protect me."

     When I was in junior high I was voted Teenager of the Month.  The school newspaper interviewed me and I mentioned Aesthetic Realism as a hobby because I didn’t know how to explain it any other way.  When I showed the article to Eli Siegel he berated me for being “ambitious,” and said I was putting myself above the philosophy.  Again, my parents didn’t protect me.  I was thirteen years old.  From that time forward I was made to believe that any of my accomplishments were not mine but belonged to Aesthetic Realism and Eli Siegel.  I grew up lonely, feeling separate from others because of this weird thing in my life thrust upon me in which I had no choice. A counselor told me 45 years later that I had been depressed since that time in my life.

     The atmosphere around the Aesthetic Realism Foundation was dysfunctional.  I was required to invite people to the Terrain Gallery where programs were held to introduce people to the philosophy.  If a small amount of people showed up it was our fault and we had to break out into smaller groups and discuss why we weren’t getting more people to come there.  I also had to stand on street corners and give out flyers about the programs at the Gallery.  Or we would camp out at the entrance to the New York Times (a favorite target of AR) and protest unfair treatment of Eli Siegel.

     Another area that was truly dysfunctional was on Siegel’s notoriety.  He had some renown but wanted more.  He never gained acceptance by his peers in the literary world because he shunned the establishment (he was really a recluse) and never acquired a college degree.  The strange thing was that ES expected his “students” to be responsible for having him and his philosophy known.  Again, the idea was that if we were grateful to Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism we would make it known.  As a young person all this weighed heavily on me and was a burden I carried around for years even after I left the group.

"I tried to be a good little Aesthetic Realist but the craziness of the environment ran counterproductive to the goal.

     In college I wrote a paper about the opposites in dance and presented it at the Terrain Gallery.  At the time, I considered it one of the best things I had ever done.  Eli Siegel praised me but other members were jealous and the atmosphere was hostile.  I also choreographed an evening of dance and poetry for my master’s thesis at Columbia University. I tried to be a good little Aesthetic Realist but the craziness of the environment ran counterproductive to the goal.   There were the “in-people” who Siegel praised and favored.  This gave them the power to criticize others and be in control, mirroring ES.  You could never do enough or say enough to stay in Siegel’s or these privileged people’s good graces.  The balance of power was constantly shifting and people spent a lot of time making sure they were in the in-crowd.

     I was engaged to someone in the cult mainly because my parents would never allow me to marry someone from the outside.  I got pregnant and we married early. I was concerned about my young son when I realized that he was showing signs of stress by being in the AR environment. He had a lesson with Eli Siegel at the age of two.  I could only imagine the unspoken pain and confusion it caused him.

     The marriage was a sham.  My husband was not ready for a wife and child and we divorced when our son was three.  Divorce was the greatest sin a person could commit in Aesthetic Realism because the philosophy was supposed to be the answer for all problems in marriage. I left the cult on my own without encouragement or support.  My sister threatened me at that time that if I didn’t stay in the cult I would never dance again or worse go crazy because I supposedly knew more through AR than any psychologist out there.  Her style was like the serpent in the Garden of Eden:  sly, vicious and deadly.   I met her on the street after this and she instructed her daughter who was four years old not to talk to me.  That was funny because Aesthetic Realism is supposed to be the ultimate way for people to learn to be kind to one another. My sister’s maliciousness was characteristic of people studying AR. I’ve never seen anyone change for the better in Aesthetic Realism.  My sister has been in AR for over sixty years and seems to be the same as she was back then.

"My parents were angry at me for leaving the cult.  They would get the whole family on the phone and rip me to shreds on a routine basis."

     When my son was five I married a good man not in the cult and we moved to Texas.  My parents were angry with me for leaving NY and the cult.  They would get the whole family on the phone and rip me to shreds on a routine basis.  They told me if I didn’t come back into the cult, I would go crazy.  I began having anxiety attacks knowing these phone calls were coming and there was nothing I could do about it.  In the AR environment I had never rebelled as a teenager and didn’t know how to stand up for myself.  It took me quite a while to realize that without AR I was doing just fine and nothing terrible was going to happen to me.  The pain I suffered at the hands of Eli Siegel and the Foundation is regrettable and I’m sure has been multiplied many times over by other people in the same situation. 

     I started an Aesthetic Realism Study Group in Texas, trying to make sense of my past and the guilt I was made to feel.  Interestingly enough no one from the Foundation gave me encouragement even though I would send letters telling of my success in “having Aesthetic Realism known.”  You’d think since their mantra was having Aesthetic Realism known they would have encouraged me.  This is another example of the dysfunctional environment.

"I didn't hear from my parents for 6-7 years....Visiting me would have been an AR crime."

     I didn’t hear from my parents for 6-7 years.  They finally came to visit in Texas after making plans 3-4 times and canceling the night before.  The Foundation never smiled on anyone who dared leave NYC, even for just a visit someplace else.  Visiting me was an AR crime.   I saw professional actors in Aesthetic Realism criticized for taking roles on Broadway or in summer stock out of town.  Siegel always had to have control over his flock.

     My father died a month later in 1977 and I remember being grateful that I had seen him and things were better between us.  I went to New York for the funeral, which surprised my mother.  I don’t think with all her Aesthetic Realism education she really knew who I was.  Going to my father’s funeral is what a loving daughter does.  The Aesthetic Realists had a plan for me back in NY.  They kept me away from my mother so I wouldn’t “pollute” her and manipulated me from further contact with her by making me get into a taxi with two other members while my mom was escorted to another taxi or separating me from sitting with her in the synagogue while I was holding her hand.  It was so clear to me having been away from Aesthetic Realism for six years that I did a good thing by leaving the cult.

     Then I didn’t hear from my mother for 6 more years.  She came back in my life suddenly in 1983 without too much explanation.  She didn’t want to talk about Aesthetic Realism and I imagined that there was a rift and she left the cult.  She moved to Texas and we had 6 years together before she died of emphysema.  I took care of her during her last year and it was our best time together.  My sister knew that my mother was suffering but she never showed any concern.  The one time Alice did talk to our mother by phone Alice wound up yelling at her, making her cry.  Alice did not try to contact my mother again or take a hand in caring for her before she died a year later in 1989.  She did not come to the funeral but a few months later I got a coy letter from her asking for my father’s journals.  That was just so typical.  

     I suffered needlessly as a child and who can say how much better my life would have been without Aesthetic Realism.  It took me years to shake off the guilt and become a whole, healthy human being.  The Foundation is still trying to have this philosophy known but their numbers are dwindling, as they should be.  I hope my story will encourage others to tell theirs and avoid the pain I suffered.


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Former members describe Aesthetic Realism



Aesthetic Realism at a Glance

Name

The Aesthetic Realism Foundation

Founded

1941

Founder

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

Purpose

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


Philosophy

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

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

Location

New York City (SoHo)


Membership

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

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

Method of study

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


Cult aspects

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

  • More about cult aspects...

 


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Open offer to debate

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

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

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

 

 
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Photo of Eli Siegel's gravestone from Find A Grave