How cults recruit & indoctrinate
by Michael Bluejay, ex-member of
Ever wonder how someone becomes a cult
member? How exactly do they get sucked
in? The process is actually remarkably similar from
cult to cult, and here I'm going to explain the basic
recipe. But before detailing the specific mind-control
tricks, one thing to realize is that the indoctrination is
typically a series of small steps. No one goes from
rational person to brainwashed devotee overnight; instead,
they're gently led through the process, one step at a time, each
step being not very far from the old step, so it doesn't seem
like a big change. Of course, once you take enough steps
you're a mile from where you started. It reminds me of
that old idea that a frog in a pot of water that's slowly heated
from room temperature to boiling never realizes it. While
I doubt that's actually true, it illustrates the concept.
Anyway, with that in mind, let's follow the path of a new
recruit into a mind-control group.
1. Invitation to a non-threatening event
Cult recruiters never give you
the hard sell right off the bat. After all, if the
pitch were, "Come be a part of our group, have it control most
to all aspects of your life, possibly cut off ties with those
you can't recruit into the group, and make the group the focal
point of your life until you die," then most of us would run the
other way screaming. So instead, a potential recruit is
invited to a workshop, a poetry reading, a "party", a
peformance, or some other seemingly innocuous event.
invitation might incorporate some other tricks.
For example, famed ex-cult member Steve Hassan originally
accepted the invitation from the Moonies because the Moonies
used attractive young women as the recruiters.
the event, cult members shower the potential recruit with
attention and praise. Psychologists call this
"love-bombing". The cult people are trying to create a
positive association in your mind between attending the event
and having a good feeling. So when you're invited to the
next event, you'll be more likely to accept because of the good
feeling they instilled in you on your first visit.
love-bombing might continue for a while. As one
AR recruit later said, "Those first months, all my new friends
from the AR Foundation were unusually kind to me....Little did I
realize, that within a short time, I would cave in to their
pressure to be outwardly expressive of a gratitude that I just
didn't feel and they didn't deserve." Another ex-member,
commenting on that story, said, "You really got it right as you
explained how warm and friendly everyone can seem when they’re
in recruitment mode..."
3. Dangling "The Prize" in front of you
some point, cult members will suggest that if you join or
study with them, you can attain something special, such
as, depending on the cult, happiness (most cults), the answer's to the
world's mysteries (Scientology), a
"cure" for homosexuality (Aesthetic Realism), or fantastic
wealth (various multi-level marketing groups). This offer
could come before, during, or after that initial event you were
invited to, but it'll be there, because they need you to want
something from them, otherwise they have no leverage over you.
the event, the members will all seem very happy, and you'll
probably be introduced to some "success stories", people
whose lives have supposedly been totally turned around since
joining the group, maybe either attaining the prize or being
close to doing so. Now, so these success stories say,
they're finally really happy, or they understand how the world
works, or they're no longer gay/alcoholic/whatever, or they've
made lots and lots of money, etc. You're supposed to look
at them and imagine yourself attaining that same prize.
4. Extracting an agreement from you that you want the prize
introducing the prize, they get you to agree that you want it.
This is actually pretty easy, because the prize is usually
attractive (who wouldn't want it?), and because admitting your
interest in it seems safe because you don't see any obligation
attached. The pitch might sound like any of these:
"You do want to become
financially independent, don't you?"
Once you agree, the cultists
have sunk an important hook into you, and they'll use it.
"Wouldn't it be exciting to really know the secrets
of the meaning of life?"
"Would your life be better if you were no longer [gay/addicted
"Is it one of your goals to find a way to truly help the
"What have you got to lose? Isn't it worth [$x or y
action] to find out whether this can really change your life?"
By the way, notice some of the psychology here: They don't
tell you what you should want, they get you
articulate it. They're trying to get you to feel that the
idea came from you.
In the future, you'll be
less likely to argue, because you'd feel like you'd be arguing
with yourself. Once you say what you feel out loud, that
becomes part of your identity. Unfortunately, that means
you've taken the first big step into identifying with the cult.
5. Shutting down your dissent by threatening to withhold the
this point, the sell becomes a little harder.
You'll be encouraged to do things that you might rather not,
like devote more of your time to the group, start recruiting for
them, pay for expensive programs or study materials, or adopt
more extreme beliefs. Naturally, you might protest.
But the cultists are ready for that. When you show any
resistance, they simply threaten you that you'll never attain
the prize if you keep up that kind of attitude.
This tactic is shown quite
plainly in the transcript of an Aesthetic
The cult leaders
shoot down the student's questions by suggesting that he's
doomed to a life of homosexuality if he doesn't stop being "difficult".
Teacher: Did you study the
tape of your last lesson? I'll be direct. Did you actually
listen to it?
Teacher: Did you like yourself for the way you talked,
the way you listened? As you listened to yourself did
you like the way you answered questions and even the way you
asked questions? Did you, do you think...you were being
argumentative for the purpose of not seeing what is true, and
in fact thwarting?
Student: Well, I guess, maybe it would be, if I tried
to, I guess I would have to say I was disappointed in myself
for not catching on quicker.
Teacher: Yeah, but do you think there was anything
argumentative? When I began to study Aesthetic Realism I
wanted to see, but I also made a mistake in wanting to be
superior...I did not know Aesthetic Realism and the tremendous
knowledge that Eli Siegel had came to -- on one hand I was
grateful that Aesthetic Realism was so big there was something
for me to learn -- and it was true about me, I was grateful
for that. But on the other hand, I made the stupid mistake of
resenting the, the size of Aesthetic Realism and the fact that
there was something new for me to learn. And do you think
anything like that is going on in you?
Teacher: Because think about it this way: If Aesthetic
Realism was something you already knew...your life, you've got
a situation in your life you want to change, homosexuality...
Teacher: Right? So if what you know already, what you've
met all these years, had helped you in this field, you
wouldn't be homosexual, right?
Teacher: So what's your hope? Does your hope lie in
Aesthetic Realism being just what you already knew, or
Aesthetic Realism being new, and big, and explaining things
you haven't understood, though you've been troubled by them?
Student: I want it to be new and big and explain
Threatening to withhold the prize isn't the only way the leaders
shoot down objections, though. Notice that they used
another one in the transcript above: They say that anyone
who questions the teachings is simply trying to feel
Actress Sarah Fazeli relates how
the Landmark leaders threatened
her with not getting the prize
when she raised an
objection. Early on she tried to get her money back, and
the Landmark rep came back with, "Let’s talk about this. Why do
you feel this way? What could you be resisting in your life?
What if 'I want my money back' is just a story you are telling
Sarah then talked to another rep, who said, "Sarah, can you
honestly say you are where you want to be in your life?"
That's exactly out of the playbook. He followed up with,
"What is really going on here? What are you resisting?"
Resisting, trying to feel superior, whatever, it's just always
turned around as a criticism ofthe questioner. And then
back to threatening non-attainment of the prize: "I hear
you, Sarah, but I want you to be open to the possibilities that
lay ahead for you...."
But maybe the most direct example of holding back the prize was
at the seminar that Sarah attended, when a leader chastised
attendees for taking unauthorized bathroom breaks: "You
get up and take a break? Don’t blame me if come Sunday everyone
else 'gets it' and you don’t. I can’t guarantee the
transformation that will happen Sunday at 5pm unless you are
here and present every second."
6. Establishment of guilt
so the recruit is in the door, and no longer asking difficult
The next step is to make the recruit
feel guilty. Yale professor Robert Lifton called this
shaming the establishment of guilt
in the landmark
the brainwashing of prisoners of war. The prisoners had so
successfully been made to feel guilty that they came to blame
themselves for their own incarceration.
Cult leaders shame their
because that makes the recruits feel
vulnerable and more susceptible to further manipulation.
It's also used to guilt-trip recruits into getting more involved
with the group. (For example, see this
For the already-indoctrinated,
playing the shame game ensures that they remain committed to
As one ex-AR member said:
"We would sit, thirty or so
people, listening to the leader tell us how much good he had
done in our lives, and how we would never be happy until we
acknowledged to the entire world our debt of gratitude to
him. I would sit as far to the back of the room as
possible, tears of shame running down my face, bending my head
down behind the person in front of me so I wouldn't be called
on to speak, and vowing inwardly to be 'honest' from now on." (more...
The Aesthetic Realists actually blew a third of a million
dollars on a
double-page ad in the New York Times
to tell the world
about AR, and in that ad they talked about their guilt for not
having respected their cult enough: "We ourselves, we say
with shame, resented Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism because we
respected them so much." Another ex-member explains where
that kind of thinking comes from:
"In almost any situation, one of
the most surefire crowd pleasers was to 'express one's regret'
for where one had been 'unfair' to the leaders or the group.
The more eloquent and heartfelt one could be on this subject,
the better. The people with the highest standing in the
organization were those who were most adept at not only
praising Siegel, Reiss and AR extravagantly yet convincingly,
but also expressing, often with tears, their 'everlasting,
searing regret' for having, in the past, been unfair to them."
An ex-member of Zendik had this to say: "For me, the
creepiest element of Zendik Farm was the way that shame was used
as a control mechanism...if the Zendiks didn’t like something
about you, they could shame you into submission by making your
private shit a matter of public disapproval."
is reinforced by rewarding "good" behavior and punishing "bad"
Since we naturally seek to minimize
pain, this is a pretty powerful tool. An ex-member of
Zendik explains this clearly:
"[I was a vegetarian, but] I was
pressured to eat meat by the Zendik Health Admininstrator and
others in the community. I resisted for maybe a year. When I
finally did eat some meat (chicken, I think) I received much
praise. Other Zendiks took notice and gave me approving looks
as I walked past with my plate of dead bird (or whatever it
was). Vegetarianism was just another corrupting remnant of my
old life (like my Led Zeppelin t-shirt and my name), something
I needed to let go of in order to achieve happiness and
enlightenment. Of course I felt better after eating the meat--
I was being smiled at for a change."
8. Control of identity, information, environment
above explains how a recruit gets sucked in. Once
a recruit is firmly in, more advanced techniques can be used to
keep them in. One of the most powerful is getting
members to disassociate from the previous family and
friends. Not all cults do this, but those which do are
able to hold a tighter rein on the members. However, these
and other methods are a bit beyond the scope of this article,
which was to explain how even rational, intelligent people can
slowly get sucked into a cult group. Now you know.
What's on this site
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
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
AR bought huge ads in major newspapers to trumpet
their ability to "fix" gays.
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".
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.
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!
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
The ultimate statement by a former member, who
was involved for well over a decade.
of getting sucked in.
This former member describes exactly how he
initially got drawn in, and how he then kept getting more and more
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.
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."
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.
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.
were controlled and humiliated if they stepped out of line...".
The experiences shared with us by a member from 1974-80, now a Fortune
Ellen Reiss questioned!" This former member wonders why there
hasn't been a class-action lawsuit against the foundation yet.
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.
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.
description. Your webmaster describes his own family's
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.
Realism debunked. A former student explains the cult
aspects of AR. Posted on Steve Hassan's Freedom of Mind website.
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.
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
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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