Aesthetic Realism is a cult

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

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"There isn't any question: [Eli Siegel] killed himself."

written by a former member of Aesthetic Realism, August 2008

     I haven't thought about these people in years until I received some of their literature out of the blue.  I did an Internet search in a moment of morbid curiosity and I found all this fuss over Eli Siegel's death.   There isn't any question: He killed himself.  I heard this directly from Ellen Reiss, the person who became Aesthetic Realism's "class chairman" because (as Siegel said), "There's no one better."  (I heard Reiss say this, too.)

"I was a shame-based person who had internalized all of the negative stereotypes about gay people.  In other words, I was a perfect target for Aesthetic Realism."

     In the early 70s, I was young and gay.  This was still a difficult time to come out of the closet, though many brave pioneers were doing it.  I wasn't one of them.  I was clinically depressed but didn't know it at the time.  I was a shame-based person who had internalized all of the negative stereotypes about gay people.  In other words, I was a perfect target for Aesthetic Realism.

     In an Aesthetic Realism acting class, Anne Fielding, the instructor, referenced her claim to fame.  Was it her Obie Award?  No.  Was it her work with Kate Hepburn?  No?  Anne Fielding was the wife of Sheldon Kranz, the "first man to change from homosexuality through the study of Aesthetic Realism with Eli Siegel."  Kranz was often billed this way in his seminars about "changing from homosexuality."  In those days, the Aesthetic Realism Foundation took number counts.  Kranz was the first man to change, so and so the twenty-fifth, whoosis was number seventy-one, and so forth.

     I thought that maybe I could be "normal" and learn to like myself.  Years later after some therapy and a bit of living I finally realized that I'm okay just as I am.  Life has gone on--and very well.  But at the time, my pain drove me into a cult that did a nasty job on my already damaged sense of self.  I joined and started taking "consultations."

"After months of consultations I complained that I wasn't changing [from being gay]. The consultants said that this was because I didn't want to be 'grateful' to Eli Siegel."

    There was much talk of my so-called "contempt team" with my mother.  I supposedly "used her" to have contempt for all women.  This, the consultants said, was why I was gay.  After months of consultations I complained that I wasn't changing.  The consutants said that this was because I didn't want to be "grateful" to Eli Siegel.  This was always the pat answer (read excuse) when Aesthetic Realism didn't work.  

     I was badgered into "admitting" that I really had changed.  I was so desperate for acceptance, that I began claiming that I had "changed from homosexualty."

     Next thing I knew I was signing a statemet for publication in the New York Times and I was accepted into the inner circle of "consultants-in-training."

     Eli Siegel had already had his operation by this time and had resumed a partial teaching schedule.  When attending a class with Siegel, it was almost like a day in court. You were expected to rise to your feet when he entered the room.  He talked about the operation claiming that "something went wrong."  There was no actual medical evidence that the operation was botched; at least none that was mentioned in any of the classes I attended. I do know that the Aesthetic Realism Foundation received a letter from the hospital saying that they had conducted an investigation and found no evidence of a mistake.  

     To the best of my knoweldge no other medical doctors were called in to challenge the hospital's claim. Simply, a depressed Siegel said that something had gone wrong,so you were expected to believe it.  Every week, Siegel's followers wrote letters to his surgeon demanding that he come clean.  Later, we were pressured to send letters to other doctors (not necessarily anyone who was associated with the case) to demand that they ask the doctor to come clean.

     The question remains: Was Siegel the best judge of his own medical condition?  Talking of his life, Siegel said at the time, "What used to have color is now coated with gray."  I said to a psychologist once, "Doesn't this sound like clinical depression?"  "Yep," he said, "That's clinical depression."  So Siegel's loving followers agreed to allow a depressed man to take his own life.

     Aesthetic Realists' claims to the contrary, this is not what experts mean when they talk of dying with dignity.  If you believe in assisted suicide (as this probably was) ethics require that you make damned sure that the individual can't be relieved of their pain in any other way. And you make damned sure that the individual is a rational judge of his own needs.  If Siegel was indeed clinically depressed, then treatment for depression was called for, NOT suicide.

"The letter said, in no uncertain terms that Siegel had taken his life through 'pills designed for sleep'."

     So now, let's get down to brass tacks.  How do I know that Eli Siegel killed himself? His widow, Martha Baird began reading a letter she had written to the consultants and consultants-in-training.  She began weeping and passed the letter to Reiss, to read the bulk of it aloud.  The letter said, in no uncertain terms that Siegel had taken his life through "pills designed for sleep."  (Followers, even Siegel's own wife, often imitated his peculiar writing style.  Heaven forbid she would just say "sleeping pills".)  

     The question remains: Who gave Eli Siegel the pills?  He couldn't walk, and he was living in the home of one of his students.  It's not likely that he popped down to the drug store for a bottle of Sominex under his own power.  It's not likely that he even took delivery of the pills without somebody knowing about it.

     So despite his follwers claims that the operation killed him, Eli Siegel was probably helped out of this world by one or more of them.  Who gave Eli Siegel the pills?  I have no idea but of this I'm sure: The Grim Reaper had help, and it wasn't from the doctor.

Editor's Note:  I'm always happy when another former member decides to share their story, and I'm grateful for this contribution.  It's a valuable addition to our library of ex-member testimonies.  About where Siegel got the pills, there's not really any mystery there: His students supplied them.  Other former members have confirmed this.

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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?


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Photo of Eli Siegel's gravestone from Find A Grave