Aesthetic Realism is a cult

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

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How cults recruit & indoctrinate their members

 by Michael Bluejay, ex-member of Aesthetic Realism
June 2013

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.

The 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.

2. Love-bombing

At 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.

The 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

At 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.

At 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

After 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?"

"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 to alcohol/etc.]?"

"Is it one of your goals to find a way to truly help the world?"

"What have you got to lose?  Isn't it worth [$x or y action] to find out whether this can really change your life?"

Once you agree, the cultists have sunk an important hook into you, and they'll use it.  By the way, notice some of the psychology here:  They don't tell you what you should want, they get you to 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 prize

By 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 Realism consultation.  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?

Student:  Yes.

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 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?

Student:  Yes.

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...

Student:  Right.

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?

Student:  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 things...

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 superior.

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 yourself?"

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

Okay, so the recruit is in the door, and no longer asking difficult questions.  The next step is to make the recruit feel guilty.  Yale professor Robert Lifton called this shaming the establishment of guilt in the landmark book about 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 recruits 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 ex-member's story.)

For the already-indoctrinated, playing the shame game ensures that they remain committed to The Cause.   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."

7. Carrot/Stick

Behavior is reinforced by rewarding "good" behavior and punishing "bad" behavior.  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

The 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

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.

Share your Aesthetic Realism story!

If you did time in AR, had or have a friend or relative in AR, or had some other run-in with the group, I hope you'll share your story on this site. If you'd like to write something that you don't want to appear on this site, then please write directly to my email address instead.


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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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Photo of Eli Siegel's gravestone from Find A Grave