"Aesthetic Realism ruined my childhood"
by Gerri-Ellen Harmon, February 2011
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
I wrote a paper about the opposites in dance and presented
it at the Terrain Gallery. At the time, I considered it one
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
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
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
I started an
Aesthetic Realism Study Group in Texas, trying to make
sense of my past and the guilt I was made to feel.
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."
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
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
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
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.
needlessly as a child and who can say how much better my
life would have been without Aesthetic Realism. It took me
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
- The ULTIMATE statement by a former member. Wow. A former Aesthetic Realism member who was involved for over ten years and into the 1990's sent us this incredibly detailed account of what life inside AR is like. This puts to rest once and for all any lingering question about whether AR is a cult - it is. The AR people will not be able to "counter" this on their Countering the Lies website because this account is from one of their own, and because it's so exhaustively detailed.
- A tale of getting sucked in. Another former member shares his experiences. This story is unique because he describes exactly how he initially got drawn in, and how he then kept getting more and more involved.
- Growing up in Aesthetic Realism. What it's like to be born into a cult.
- Aesthetic Realism ruined his marriage. "[It] introduced a level of stress in my marriage that had not previously existed....I consider my 'study' of Aesthetic Realism to be one of the factors that led to the eventual breakup of my marriage, to my eternal sorrow." This former member also wrote about AR on Steve Hassan's Freedom of Mind.
- On having all the answers. A former member explains how AR members think they have all the answers, and feel qualified to lecture others about how they should view personal tragedy.
- Kicked out for remaining gay. A former student describes how he was kicked out of AR because he couldn't change from homosexuality. Powerful stuff.
- "Leaving, however, was only the first challenge.". One of the original teachers of Aesthetic Realism explains the cultic environment inside the group, and how she got out.
- "If I disappointed them, then I now consider that a badge of honor." A former member tells how AR try to change him from being gay, and convinced him not to spend Christmas with his family.
- "This is merely one example of the way people were controlled and humiliated if they stepped out of line...". The experiences shared with us by a member from 1974-80, now a Fortune 100 executive.
- "I want Ellen Reiss questioned!" A former member tells her story, and wonders why there hasn't been a class-action lawsuit against the foundation yet.
- They took his consultation tape. A former student describes how AR people kept his consultation tape with his most intimate thoughts on it, and told him he couldn't study any more unless he incorporated AR more radically into his life.
- "There isn't any question: Eli Siegel killed himself.". A former member who sought AR's "gay cure" describes how the group's leaders admitted that the founder took his own life.
- "I personally know at least half of the contributors to AR's Countering the Lies website and know them to either be fibbing or having a long-term memory problem.". A former member
from 1971-80, confirms that AR students don't see their families, are discouraged from attending college, and shun other members. He also offers that he was mistaken when he was involved about thinking that AR had changed him from homosexuality.
- Aesthetic Realism debunked. A former student explains the cult aspects of AR. Originally written for Steve Hassan's Freedom of Mind website.
- Michael Bluejay's description. This whole website is my statement about Aesthetic Realism. But in this article I describe my family's involvement in more detail.
- Members interviewed in Jewish Times. This lengthy article in Jewish Times quotes former students of Aesthetic Realism extensively.
- NY Post article. A series of articles in the NY Post quotes many former members who are now critical of the group.
Aesthetic Realism at a Glance
Aesthetic Realism Foundation
|Eli Siegel, poet and art/literary critic.
Committed suicide in 1978
|To get the world to realize that Eli Siegel was the greatest person who ever lived, and that Aesthetic Realism is the most important knowledge, ever.
|The key to all social ills is for people to learn to like the world. Having contempt for the world leads to unhappiness and even insanity. (Their slogan is "Contempt causes insanity".) For example, homosexuality is a form of insanity caused by not liking the world sufficiently.
Also teaches that "beauty is the making one of
|New York City (SoHo)
|About 106 (33 teachers, 44 training to be teachers, and 29 regular students). Has failed to grow appreciably even after 70 years of existence, and is currently shrinking.
All members call themselves "students", even the leaders/teachers. Advanced members who teach others are called "consultants".
Method of study
|Public seminars/lectures at their headquarters (in lower Manhattan), group classes, and
individual consultations (three consultants vs. one student).
- Fanatical devotion to their leader/founder
- Belief that they have the one true answer to universal happiness
- Ultimate purpose is to recruit new members
- Feeling that they are being persecuted
- Wild, paranoid reactions to criticism
- Non-communication (or at least very limited communication) with those who have left
- Odd, specialized language.
More about cult aspects...
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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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I don't endorse the advertisers.