Who they are, how they operate Written by former members
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If this doesn't give people pause about Aesthetic Realism, we don't know what will.
The controversial legacy of poet philosopher Eli Siegel.
Melissa Goldman AUGUST 22, 2003Near the entrance to Druid Hill Park stands a stone-and-bronze memorial facing the lake. The monument is not large but understated, almost elegant. Many would likely pass right by the oversized boulder bearing the memorial, which has graced the park since late last summer, without so much as a nod in its direction.
As the sounds of the Prism Brass Quintet wafted through the trees, a crowd gathered in Druid Hill Park, brimming with joyful anticipation. Mayor Martin O'Malley had proclaimed Aug. 16, 2002, "Eli Siegel Day in Baltimore," and supporters on this day unveiled a memorial to the Baltimore poet and founder of the philosophy of aesthetic realism. Though Mr. Siegel died in 1978, his philosophy lives on through the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City.
"This was a tremendous day for the Jewish community," said Devorah Tarrow, a full-time consultant with the foundation. "Baltimore can be so proud that Eli Siegel grew up here, loved the city, loved its people, loved Druid Hill Park and began developing this kind, honest philosophy here."
Chaim Koppelman, designer of the bronze memorial plaque, was equally cheerful. "I was very thrilled to take on what I saw as an artistic scene and an ethical scene," said Mr. Koppelman, who began studying with Eli Siegel in 1940 and has artwork in galleries across the country. "When he would look at you, he was a person who would look within you. And where you were not at your best, he would criticize.
"What was encouraged in me by Eli Siegel, and I've been teaching myself based on aesthetic realism, if you really want to be completely fair to the object and accurately and honestly moved by it, the work that comes out of it will be the real thing."
Adherents to Mr. Siegel's philosophy see aesthetic realism as a way to improve relationships, end racism and cure the world's economic ills.
"Mr. Siegel actually defined it as a way of liking the world and oneself aesthetically," said Ms. Tarrow, who is Jewish but said that aesthetic realism is compatible with all religions. "The way to like oneself is through learning how honestly to know and like the world by seeing it aesthetically or as a oneness of opposites."
If you find it difficult to get your arms around this concept, you are not alone. And while Mr. Siegel's supporters all use similar language to explain his life's work, his detractors do not mince words.
"Eli Siegel was an evil person. And I don't use the word evil lightly," said 38-year-old Adam Mali, who left the organization -- and his family -- in his early 20s and now owns a restaurant in another part of the country, which he prefers not to reveal. "He was an incredibly manipulative, selfish, charismatic cult leader."
Mr. Mali's parents began studying aesthetic realism when he was only 2 years old, and he said that growing up under its influence has colored his entire life.
"I had to go through a lot of therapy getting out of this group," said Mr. Mali, who regrets that aesthetic realism proponents discouraged him from having a bar mitzvah ceremony or attending college. Mr. Mali even felt compelled to break up with his girlfriend of three years when she wouldn't buy into his family's philosophy. He also said that his family never traveled because it had to attend so many meetings at the foundation, a complaint of numerous former followers.
"All the meetings were lectures of Eli Siegel droning on for hours and hours. So you don't have a life outside of it," he said. And when he wanted to go to college, Mr. Mali found himself in the dreaded "hot seat."
"They criticize you -- they say, 'You have the greatest knowledge in the world in front of you. Is this what you really want? Do you think you can learn more in college?' Your peers basically get around you. It was like a little spider web in your brain. They get you to actually control yourself. A lot of people's lives have been hurt -- ruined.
"I find [the memorial] pretty baffling because I think he's nothing more than a child abuser," he continued. "I was screamed at. I was told I was evil. People are told that if they leave, they can never be happy. It was brutal.
"I was fortunate to get therapy to get back together. I thought I was going to die. I thought I was going to be punished, and that went on for years."
Experts in the cult awareness field affirm Mr. Mali's experience.
"I think that [Siegel] was a cult leader, and that like many other cult leaders, he had a narcissistic personality and was a control freak," said Steve Hassan, a licensed mental health counselor and author of two books, "Combating Cult Mind-Control" and "Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves."
"It's a very different picture from what you'll hear from the believers," Mr. Hassan added.
Apparently, the lure of such organizations is appealing to many Jews, who are notoriously over-represented among their ranks.
"We tell people to think critically about any group they join," said Scott Hillman, executive director of Jews for Judaism, a Baltimore-based counter-missionary and counter-cult counseling and educational organization. "Steve's been there!" he said with a laugh, adding, "You will find Jews over-represented in cults because Jews are constantly searching for meaning. That's a very interesting side of this that people don't realize. [Many Jews] don't bother as they get older and mature to check out the things that they only have a child's-eye view of -- especially if they get together with a group of people who are all of a like mind."
Mr. Hassan, who is Jewish, is a former member of the Unification Church, also known as the "Moonies." Since his parents intervened in 1976 and had him "deprogrammed," Mr. Hassan has become a leading cult-awareness activist.
"What's dangerous about them [is that] being in a mind-control environment, basically what happens to you is your identity gets assaulted, broken down, and a new cult personality is created," said Mr. Hassan. "You have a new set of beliefs that are a mirror image of Eli Siegel. You are constantly being manipulated by guilt and fear. I'm certainly not happy that there is any type of memorial to him."
So how did a memorial to Eli Siegel come to be? According to Annette Stenhouse, then public information officer for the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, the park board reviewed information submitted by the Aesthetic Realism Foundation as well as Mayor O'Malley's proclamation before approving the memorial. She was unaware of any controversy surrounding Mr. Siegel or his philosophy.
"If this was an issue, why wasn't it brought up a long time ago?" she asked. "If you're just speaking of the opposition of some folks who had some problems, I don't think the mayor would proclaim this if this was an issue."
Gail Walton, who works in Mayor O'Malley's office but declined to give her title to the Baltimore Jewish Times, said that she got the information for the proclamation from materials provided by the Aesthetic Realism Foundation and the Web site of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, which hosted a reading of Mr. Siegel's poetry by the foundation in April and had a flier posted on its site.
"We were not aware of the history of this organization. They presented themselves in a very positive light," said Raquel Gillory, press secretary to the mayor. "Like most requests [for citations] that come in here, we tried to accommodate the request. It is unfortunate that this group appears to have misrepresented themselves."
Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening also issued a proclamation, and his staff did not respond to inquiries from the Jewish Times.
Others were a bit more hesitant. "We entered into this whole thing quite skeptical," said Renee Cohen, who attended the monument dedication as a representative of Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-3rd). "They came on a bit too strong. We held back because we were not very comfortable with all they had to say."
In the end, Ms. Cohen felt that the organization's anti-prejudice message made sense, and since the mayor and governor had both issued proclamations, she agreed to issue a citation and have Mr. Cardin's name on the program as a supporter -- along with more than three-dozen other local politicians and community leaders.
Ms. Cohen is not the only one who has been skeptical over the years. Heide Krakauer, a teacher still living in the New York area, met Eli Siegel through her then-boyfriend in the late '60s when he began to study aesthetic realism.
"We were 23 and sort of floundering and not that happy, even though it was popular to be not that happy then," she recalled. "I didn't think [aesthetic realism] was that amazing. I did not like it at all, but I was kind of lost, and I figured [my boyfriend] and I were not on very good terms, and I figured maybe if I joined this, we would get back together. They flatter you to death and tell you that you're so wonderful, and you have all these qualities that others have never seen. And then there's this horrible criticizing."
Referred to by some cult-awareness experts as "love-bombing," this initial flattery and attention followed by various forms of judgmental behavior and disapproval are typical.
"It's hard for me to tell how it took control and when," continued Ms. Krakauer. "I never believed it was a cult. I didn't see my parents for 15 years, and I thought nothing of it. I used to plan trips to go home, and all the cult members would get around you and talk you out of it. My parents would be so heartbroken when I canceled at the 11th hour. The point is, people who are in it do not know they are under mind control even though everyone has their private reservations."
Others who signed on to the memorial as "supporters" admitted later that they had little knowledge of any darker side to aesthetic realism and its founder.
"I have to confess I don't really know much about him or his work," said Steven R. David, associate dean of academic affairs for Johns Hopkins University, who also agreed to be listed as a supporter of the memorial after checking out the foundation's Web site.
"I probably should have looked into it further. There is a kind of bandwagon effect -- you see the governor and the mayor signing on to something and you say, 'Sure, I'll sign on, too.'"
Livia Bardin, a licensed social worker who has run a monthly support group for former cult members and their families in Washington, D.C., said that many questionable organizations frequently solicit politicians and other respected members of the community for endorsements.
"It gives them a lot of credibility, and they use it, and use it and use it. It's very dangerous," said Ms. Bardin, author of "Coping with Cult Involvement."
Internationally renowned cult expert Mark Powers, former international director of Jews for Judaism, feels that focusing on such citations draws attention away from the real problem.
"Because the system is such that anyone who wants a proclamation can get a proclamation is not an issue. Every group goes for credibility, and that's one of the easiest ways in the world to gain credibility. And it's a no-brainer because anybody can get it. So what?" said Mr. Powers, who said he has worked firsthand with former adherents to aesthetic realism during his 23 years in the field.
Ms. Bardin also has counseled people who have left aesthetic realism, and she has attended one of the foundation's presentations. While she found its philosophy difficult to grasp, she was reluctant to call it a cult, allowing that there is no consensus definition of the term even among experts.
"It's a very high-demand group. I think it's a very questionable group," she said. "My feeling is, if I don't understand it, there's something wiggly there."
Ms. Krakauer is more direct. "Once it's starting to make sense to you, you're in trouble!" she said with a spirited laugh.
"Another sign that there is something wrong with this group is the paranoia -- that they think the world is against them -- that they're the elite, they've got the truth," added Ms. Bardin.
"Anybody can make up anything they want and say anything, and that is really ludicrous," said the foundation's Ms. Tarrow, when questioned about the foundation's and Mr. Siegel's detractors.
"There is no other side -- there is one thing that is true. Do you want to be an honorable person and present what is true? Is your purpose to present the kindness of this philosophy? It has a right to be presented that way. If you want to present a beautiful true story, dump the lies being told by whomever you spoke to. There's a kind, honest philosophy here that can end prejudice. This makes sense of the world. It shouldn't be slandered."
Ms. Tarrow said that the Aesthetic Realism Foundation is not a membership organization, and she could not provide statistics about how many adherents the philosophy has, nor how many people work in the foundation's building.
When asked why anyone would want to denigrate Mr. Siegel or his philosophy unjustly, Ms. Tarrow said, "People have been angry that they had to have respect beyond a certain point. It is a tribute to Mr. Siegel that narrow people haven't been at ease with his largeness."
Libbe Madsen, administrative supervisor of the Cult Hotline and Clinic of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, whose organization has a "fat file" on aesthetic realism, said that a number of people have an ongoing counseling relationship with her office about their involvement with the philosophy.
"When people are involved in a pretty intensive way, it can be extremely controlling, undermining of a person's capacity to trust their own judgments. It also leads to splits within families that are permanent," she said, and she believes the philosophy can be dangerous "for some people. And there's no telling ahead of time who they are. Certainly the people I've spoken to had very serious consequences."
Ms. Madsen said she believes that in its earlier years, aesthetic realism represented an interesting man's strongly held beliefs about society and ideas about how to make change that were very attractive to creative thinkers, people who wanted to make the world a better place.
"What happens not uncommonly in these types of groups, the power trip takes over and pushes aside those underlying values that are the original things that people got drawn to," she said. "It's a terrible, narcissistic injury. First, there is this intense desire to have a way of understanding the world and having a way of appreciating it. Then, when something starts to not fit and questions start to be raised, the blow is also very intense, and the loss is very intense, and the feeling about oneself -- that can cause really serious depression."
It appears that many new adherents to the aesthetic realism philosophy are teachers, a fact that disturbs many, including Ms. Madsen.
"I'm concerned that if a teacher believes that he or she has the right way of understanding the world, he would feel like the right thing to do is to pass it on -- that's true of any kind of true believer," she said.
"Certainly for teachers in the public school system, the responsibility is not to teach a belief system but to teach how to think. My experience with people involved with aesthetic realism is that people are explicitly taught not to do their own independent thinking, in the guise of learning a system of thinking. That's what's so insidious."
One former aesthetic realist has another word for it.
"I think it's repulsive," said the woman, who was active with the Aesthetic Realism Foundation for nearly a quarter-century, when learning of the memorial, "because [Eli Siegel] was a hurtful person. He was a sociopath. He was a control freak, and he was a cult leader."
(The woman chose not to be identified for this article because she said she has started a new life and does not want to bear the stigma of having been involved with a cult.)
"The main reason [I left] was because [my son] left, and I was not allowed to have anything to do with him. He was my only child, and there was no way I was going to live without my son," she said, noting that she was not specifically forbidden to see her child but felt a great deal of pressure.
"You're never told you cannot do something," she said. "They just ask questions -- 'Will you like yourself if you talk to someone who has abandoned truth? Will you be proud if you talk to someone who doesn't want to be completely fair to Eli Siegel?'"
The former supporter also was experiencing some health concerns, and she realized that she wanted to explore other options in her life she felt had been suppressed. "For some reason, something normal in me was coming to the surface. I didn't like the way people were being treated, excoriated -- not that I didn't participate."
She added that her ex-husband, who is still active with the foundation, will not speak to her or his son. "It's heartbreaking," she said. "[Her son] misses his father very much. [He] worries about him. It seems no matter how old you get, you would like to have a father in your life."
Fashion executive and aesthetic realism consultant Bruce Blaustein denied that anyone at the foundation has discouraged him from practicing his religion and said he was looking forward to his son's bar mitzvah.
"To me, it is ludicrous," he said. "First of all, as a Jewish man, I have more feeling for Judaism through studying aesthetic realism. When you study aesthetic realism, families become kinder and closer. You have a chance to tell the true story."
Many aesthetic realism supporters do elevate Eli Siegel to a status rarely earned by a mere mortal. Articles on the Internet abound, crediting Mr. Siegel with having the answers to everything from poverty, hunger and racism to family disputes, anorexia and suicide. This is ironic, since Mr. Siegel ultimately took his own life after complications from prostate surgery, according to one former adherent who was with him when he died.
The Aug. 16 dedication ceremony featured presentations on education, racism, art, labor and economics, and love from a notably educated group of adherents to both Mr. Siegel and his philosophy.
"He made knowledge warm and alive for people -- he encouraged people to love knowledge," said Ellen Reiss, editor of the foundation's newsletter, "The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known." "He was met with anger because he had so much knowledge and was so honest."
Timothy Lynch, who heads Teamsters Local 1205 in New York, spoke of Mr. Siegel's "beautiful rudeness" and quoted his mentor with statements like "Jobs should be for usefulness, not for profit" and "Labor is the only source of wealth."
Dr. Arnold Perey, who received his doctorate at Columbia University for his dissertation based on aesthetic realism, noted, "He was completely without prejudice. He had the keenest, kindest, eyes. He asked, 'Do you want to be better than other people or as good as you can be?'"
"People treated [Eli Siegel] more and more as a god, the perfect human. It was no longer a give-and-take -- it was the best, the greatest and the only -- and anyone who questioned that was seen as an enemy," said another person who left aesthetic realism when he felt his family was being hurt by its involvement with the organization.
"This is one of the characteristics of the organization that is cult-like -- you can't have reservations. Either it is the most important thing you have ever known and you have to devote your life to them, or you are an enemy," added the former supporter, who chose not to be identified for this article because he has only recently re-established contact with family members and does not want to jeopardize these tenuous relationships. "There is no such thing as privacy. Everything you do is public knowledge."
He said that even intimate moments were scrutinized and discussed in aesthetic realism meetings. Attendees were grilled about dates with others -- and as in the case of Adam Mali, they were often discouraged from seeing these outsiders if they did not embrace the aesthetic realism philosophy.
"People were told that if their families did not support aesthetic realism, they were not their families," added the former supporter, though he does feel some of Mr. Siegel's philosophy is useful. "I think Eli Siegel had an awful lot to say that was really helpful. He was a very unusually perceptive person, charismatic. If it weren't for all of this worship around him, it would be fine."
Heide Krakauer's sentiments about Eli Siegel are somewhat similar. "He was an intelligent man; he just got carried away with the power he had over people. He became this egomaniac. He wasn't happy unless you could think of new ways to praise him. People are very strange about cults -- they look the other way," she said in response to the Eli Siegel Memorial. "It alarms me that people care so little about cults."
When asked about her reaction to the many local leaders who signed on as supporters of such a controversial man, social worker Libbe Madsen said, "It worries me; it disappoints me -- it doesn't shock me."
Ms. Madsen summed up her own advice in the simple words of a favorite button on her bulletin board, "Be a critical thinker."
"If anybody comes along and has all of the answers," she said, "then there probably is something not right there."
After a great deal of critical thinking, Adam Mali, for one, has come out of his long ordeal a winner. Mr. Mali now has a college degree and has just opened his own restaurant.
And he recently reconnected with his girlfriend, whom he left so reluctantly two decades ago. After a brief courtship in his new hometown, they were married earlier this year.
Who Was Eli Siegel?
Eli Siegel, the son of Eastern European immigrant parents, was born in Baltimore in 1902. He graduated from Baltimore City College, and as a young man, he wrote for the Baltimore American.
Inspired by his youth spent in Druid Hill Park, Siegel wrote "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana," which won the Nation Poetry Prize in 1925. Soon afterward, Mr. Siegel moved to New York City, where he spent the rest of his life.
In the 1930s, he entertained patrons as the master of ceremonies for the Village Vanguard, where jazz greats like John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker eventually would perform. Max Gordon, founder of the now legendary Greenwich Village haunt, wrote in his book, "Live at the Village Vanguard," "Eli, pale, bent, dour, with the look of a Hasid, kept the show moving. I paid him thirty a week."
In this role, Siegel presided over a vaudeville-style cast of musicians, poets, dancers -- even a singing hat-check girl. He was frequently called on to recite his prize-winning poem for the crowd, to the delight of the hecklers; they reveled in reminding Mr. Siegel that he had never actually been to Montana. Sometime in the late '30s, Max Gordon found that his once jovial and entertaining emcee "was growing more dour and cranky than usual," and he decided to relieve him of his duties. "Eli later became the founder, leader, guru, rabbi -- take your pick -- of a movement he called aesthetic realism," Mr. Gordon wrote.
"Don't ask me what aesthetic realism is about. He ran it from a store on Greene Street in the Village. And he had a host of believers who followed the teachings of aesthetic realism. He was putting this movement together when he was the MC at the Vanguard. He told me this once when I ran into him on Jane Street almost forty years later. I didn't believe it.
"'You need aesthetic realism in your life,' he said, looking me in the eye. 'I know the kind of man you are. It'll straighten you out. And not only you -- it can straighten out the whole world. Aesthetic realism can straighten out the whole world, if only the world will listen to me.'"
"I see now what ailed Eli when he was the Vanguard MC, why he was always getting so mad at the customers. He was trying to straighten them out, that's what he was doing. It's a good thing I got rid of him. One thing I learned in almost fifty years of running a club in New York: You don't try to straighten people out in a nightclub. You leave them alone and hope they'll leave you alone."
Eli Siegel founded his philosophy of aesthetic realism in 1941 and reportedly gave thousands of lectures on topics ranging from poetry and literature to history and economics. He also gave thousands of individual lessons based on his principle: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."
Mr. Siegel committed suicide in 1978 after he became debilitated following prostate surgery. His teachings now form the basis of consultations available at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York and by telephone worldwide through a staff of dedicated "aesthetic realism consultants."
The foundation also offers public seminars, dramatic presentations, classes and workshops based on Mr. Siegel's philosophy.
-- Melissa Goldman
Who they are, how they operate Written by former members
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Photo of Eli Siegel's gravestone from Find A Grave