Who they are, how they operate Written by former members
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Thinking about leaving Aesthetic Realism?
What current students of AR need to know
Promise me just one thing. Promise me you'll read this page to the end. You don't have to agree with it, promise you'll just read it. After all, words can't hurt you, can they? And I can't force you to believe something just because I wrote it, right?
I say this because I know the tendency will be to click off this page, either out of guilt or fear. In fact, if you're unable to read this whole page, that's evidence of how deeply they've got their hooks into your mind. And if you can't read this whole page now, then please just promise you'll come back another time and try it again, okay?
And since I'm asking you to promise something, let me offer a promise of my own: I promise that you can leave the group and still believe in Aesthetic Realism. When I talk about "leaving AR", I mean leaving the group and its constant pressures, not abandoning your belief in the philosophy. As I've said elsewhere on this site, I make no secret about the fact that I believe that Eli Siegel was especially insightful and that he had a lot of valuable things to say. You can easily continue to trust that beauty is found in the contrast of opposites and that a person's deepest desire is to like the world, without being a part of the group at 141 Greene Street.
By the way, this is one of the hooks the group gets into you. They say that if you agree that Siegel's teachings are important, then certainly you want to be a part of the group devoted to them, right? ... Danger! Danger! Will Robinson! Doctor Smith! If there were no downside to being a formal student then I'd agree. But there's definitely a downside, as many of you are already aware, and certainly as all those who left figured out. What I'm saying is you can have "All of the philosophy, without the bitter aftertaste."
Another reason you'll be tempted to click off this page is because some of this might sound insulting. It's not, but it will sound that way. That's because I'll be challenging beliefs that you hold strongly. And when your beliefs are questioned, the implication is that you've been wrong about them. And if you've been wrong about something, that's just a step away from your feeling I think you're dumb for having those wrong beliefs.
But it's not like that. I think you're involved in the group because of powerful psychological forces, not because of any defect in your intelligence. After all, Aesthetic Realists are accomplished artists, architects, writers, and teachers. These aren't the province of stupid people, not by a long shot.
But let's talk more about that idea of being wrong. Obviously, nobody wants to be in a position where they have to admit they were wrong about something. After all, admitting a mistake is an uncomfortable proposition. It means we have to admit that we're flawed, and that we don't always make the best decisions. And this is precisely why people are so reluctant to admit their mistakes. So, when you're faced with having to decide that you made a mistake, which is painful, or to believe that you made the right choice -- you have a clear incentive for believing it wasn't a mistake after all. Psychologists know this concept is so important and powerful they have a name for it, cognitive dissonance, which you've probably heard of. Here's a good book on the subject. It explains why we often make the conclusion that is more comfortable rather than the one which is more logical.
Realize that this force is at work inside you right now. If you're reading this page at all, it's because some part of you is questioning whether your life inside Aesthetic Realism is really the best choice. But if you decide to leave, that's tantamount to admitting that you were wrong to get involved in the first place. That's an uncomfortable conclusion. So your mind will have a tendency to seek comfort by rejecting the idea that you might have done something wrong.
Would you believe that Eli Siegel himself spoke to this? In a radio interview he said:
Aesthetic Realism says that a human being has a great temptation to choose truth which makes him comfortable.... In every instance, we lessen the value of all reality to be comfortable or important ourselves.... We tend to choose one aspect that gives us comfort, seems to glorify our complacency.
The irony here is staggering: People stay with AR because it's more comfortable to think that devoting one's life to it must have been the correct choice, though AR itself denounces this kind of cop-out.
Make no mistake, cognitive dissonance is a major reason people stay in Aesthetic Realism. And the longer they stay, the harder it is to leave. The longer they're in, the bigger the mistake they feel they'd have to admit to if they decided to leave. But even though this force is powerful, it's not absolute. After all, we know that most people who used to study AR don't do so any more, so somehow they were able to leave.
Why you got involved
You likely had a good reason for getting involved with AR in the first place. And perhaps you've used that reason as a justification for staying. After all, if it made sense to start, then why would you want to stop? Well, in a minute I'll give you a long list possible reasons for leaving, but the point is, knowing that you had a good reason for joining tends to justify the decision to stay. What I will suggest is that even though you had a good reason for starting, the case for leaving is even stronger. That is, you didn't get what was promised, and the downsides of being in outweigh the advantages you thought you'd get.
There are three main reasons people get involved in AR. First, it promised the answer to both personal happiness and world peace. Who wouldn't want that? As one former member said, "Many of us who got drawn in were idealists who really did want to help the world, which made us more susceptible to the message that promoting AR was the best way to do so. The AR people played on a noble aspect of our character, not a weak one." Another says, "I believed in the possibility of there being a singular technique to achieve personal happiness. For me, there was something very appealing about a philosophy that promised to unify one's life in a way that imitated art."
A former member of Scientology says, "Every cult, no matter how sinister it seems, has something positive about it that is used as bait to attract people. After all, if everything about a cult were negative, nobody would join. I don't believe that it is human nature to be masochistic; people don't want to suffer the humiliation and degradation that is rampant in cults. People join cults because they believe that the cult has something that will help them, in some way, to change some unwanted condition in their lives and to grow as a person so they can live happier and more fulfilling lives."
The next reason people get involved is that it's interesting. Maybe you first went to an art exhibit at the Terrain Gallery, and the art was good. Maybe you went to a presentation that kept you thinking about it long afterward. Maybe you picked up a volume of Siegel's poetry or Self and World and found it to be quite thought-provoking. None if this would be surprising, because this really is some interesting stuff. (It becomes less interesting when you eat, drink, and sleep it, but initially, yeah, it can be quite compelling.) So if you saw some interesting things, it piqued your desire to know more.
Finally, groups like AR appeal to the desire to be part of a group, to be accepted, and to have a purpose in life. Not everyone is looking for these things when they meet AR, but if they are then AR will be more appealing to them than normal. And most people aren't depressed when they meet AR, but if they are then they're especially vulnerable. If you don't feel well and along come some people who say they have the answer to happiness, and they seem pretty happy themselves, well, isn't that pretty compelling? And what if something happened that left some kind of hole in your life -- you just moved and don't have many local friends, or you just left your church or temple for some reason, or you just had a breakup with a partner. In those cases you might be more susceptible to picking up something to fill that void.
So these are all reasons you might have gotten involved. And like I said, they all make sense. I don't fault you for getting involved. You had no way of knowing at the time how things would turn out. But now that you do know, now's a good time to reflect and re-evaluate. Are the reasons you got involved strong enough to make you continue? Are you getting what you want out of it? Are the reasons for leaving even stronger than the reasons for staying?
I have a hard time even asking these questions because I know you've been told to feel that when you think about your own feelings in that way, you're having contempt and being selfish. Well, think about that for a moment: Wasn't the word "Self" part of Siegel's masterwork Self and World? Don't personal feelings matter? And if personal feelings don't matter, can Aesthetic Realism really be the answer to both personal and worldwide happiness? If AR wants what's best for you, then shouldn't it let you consider what you want for your life, not guilt-trip you when you start thinking along those lines?
So with the idea that your happiness is actually important, let's look at what you might get out of leaving.
Reasons for leaving
People who have left AR have given a laundry list of reasons for doing so. You might not agree with all of these, of course, but that's okay, because you only need one. If you're reading this page then probably you've thought of at least one of these already. Here's a complete list to ponder, of why people say they chose to leave, or benefits they realized after they left.
So much for the stupid lying of Mali, Bluejay and the other liars.... Why is he doing this? Feeling himself to be a failure in his own life, and joining with others also seeking revenge for essentially the same reason--notably Adam Mali--"Michael Bluejay" seeks the triumph of making himself important by looking down upon others. He is attempting to assuage his feeling of unimportance by attacking the persons and philosophy he very well realizes best represent truth and beauty.
This is the stunning lack of contempt you get by studying AR?! The truth is, AR has tremendous contempt for me, for anyone else who left AR, for the doctor who performed Eli Siegel's operation, for the press, and basically for the entire rest of the world outside of AR which has been too "superior" to see the supremacy of Eli Siegel's work. AR thinks it's above everything else. That's contempt. And it's not good to carry around so much contempt for the world. After all, contempt causes insanity.
Why you've stayed
We've looked at why you got involved, now let's look at why you stayed -- that is, why you haven't left sooner.
We already covered the first reason: cognitive dissonance, the tendency to think that whatever path we're on must be the right one, because it's uncomfortable to realize we might have made a mistake in choosing that path. And we talked about reasons for joining in the first place, which are often used as justifications for staying. But there are many other things that could have kept you in AR.
Let's tackle a hard one first. One ex-AR student has said, "One reason people stay in AR is that after breaking up their family relationships, with spouses, parents or siblings, there is little to go back to once the light comes on." Ouch. However, this isn't necessarily true. My experience is that friends and family are not just forgiving when someone leaves AR, they're delighted. As another ex-student said, "When I left I immediately felt as though a 200 lb. weight was taken from my shoulders. Two years of tension between my family and myself rapidly eased. My father was thrilled that I 'got that spark back'." If you worried that there's no one to go back to, you're almost certainly wrong. And if you're certain that there's no one left on the outside for you, remember that you can make relationships with new people. After all, do you want your only friends for the rest of your life to be people who are constantly criticizing you and questioning the depth of your devotion to AR and Eli Siegel? Or would you enjoy having company around whom you can truly be yourself?
Another likely reason you stayed is because they used manipulation to get you to buy into the idea that this is where you should be, and that leaving is heresy. If it sounds like an insult to say that you were manipulated, it's not. Certainly it wasn't obvious that that was happening. After all, no one ever said to you, "Hi, we're going to play games with your mind to get you to adopt positions you might otherwise not agree with with." If they had you would have run the other way!
But instead here's what they did: They got you to take consultations. Maybe you were already convinced that consultations were a good idea. If you weren't, you know how they worked on you until you agreed to them, right? Weren't you showing disrespect for this great knowledge but not studying it more detail? They guilt-tripped you. After all, the main AR teaching is to not have contempt, and any time you didn't do what they suggested, well, you were having contempt, weren't you?
And then when you got into the consultations, they used another trick on you: They asked you lots of questions, and they steered you towards the "right" answers. By getting you to voice the answer, you were then invested in that answer. After all, you said it, didn't you? They didn't outright tell you what position to take, they walked you towards it and got you to volunteer it yourself.
How many thousand times did you go through that process? Do you think anyone could go through all that direction and not feel pretty strongly in the conclusions they think they'd come up with themselves? Don't underestimate how powerful this is. This practice isn't limited to AR, either. It's a standard mind control technique, and there's a reason it's standard: It works.
Another reason you might have stayed is that they used the group philosophy itself to get you to self-censor any criticism you had. Everyone in AR believes that purging contempt is a person's most urgent need, so whenever you questioned anything, they simply said you were having contempt. And you know you're not supposed to have contempt, so that was a pretty quick way to shut you down. If everyone can be made to think that any dissent is contempt, then there can never be any dissent. Does this not seem horribly manipulative to you?
And here's yet another reason you might have stayed: Fear. If you've already talked about leaving, then you already know what I'm talking about. They told you you'd never be happy again. They might have even said you'd get horribly ill, maybe even get cancer. In this TV interview Steve Hassan says, "...specifically, phobia indoctrination, wherein people are made to believe in their programming that if they ever leave the group or sever their affiliation with the practices of the group, horrible things will happen to them. They will be insane, they will be possessed by demons, they will have diseases.... This type of phobia programming is universal...."
The "possessed by demons" threat doesn't happen in AR, since it's not a religious group, but I know for a fact that people thinking of leaving AR have been told specifically that they'll go insane or get horrible diseases, just like Steve Hassan said. AR isn't the only group that uses these lines, which is why Hassan is familiar with them. At the time of the interview above he'd likely never even heard of Aesthetic Realism.
But none of those threats is true. No one has ever gotten sick by leaving AR! And people who leave AR are glad they did so -- otherwise why wouldn't they hurry back? And saying that your thoughts of leaving are rooted in contempt -- that's their answer for everything whenever you try to think for yourself. Let me quote another former member here: "Recovering my self confidence and ambition, I started my own successful business. I began speaking like a free thinking person again, not with the group speak that the ARealists use. I didn't monitor every thought and word. I didn't use the group facial expressions.... Life seemed to have more ease, like running after taking off the ankle weights." Another says, "It was also the first glimmer in my mind that I let sprout in which I realized there was something terribly wrong with the AR foundation and I should get out. I am making an understatement of massive proportion when I say, I am very happy I did."
Some people have a special reason for staying: They were born into the group, or got involved as children. It's extremely difficult for such people to leave, for this reason: When I talk above about leaving and "going back to" a place where you own your thoughts and feelings, that doesn't apply to people born into AR. They've never known anything else, so they have nothing to go back to. If these people are well into adulthood, they'll likely never get out. Consider this: Is it just coincidence that most people have the same religion their parents do? That is, in India are people Hindu because they carefully evaluated all the available religions and chose that one as the best, or are the Hindus Hindu because their parents were? And of course I'm not picking on Hindus, this applies to every religion in the world. And it applies to AR. Which is more likely, that you just happened to be born into the group practing The One Great Truth, or that you believe it's The One Great Truth because that's what you were brought up to believe? I know, I know, you think it's the former. So I guess that means everyone else who was born into some (non-AR) belief system, they're just following along with their parents and following some belief that isn't the real path to enlightement. But you, you're different, aren't you? You believe because AR because AR is truth, and you were just lucky that you happened to be born into it, right? Man, that's the kind of luck you take to Vegas.
And now let's look at the final reason for staying. In my mind this is the only possible valid reason to stay, although it hasn't stopped many people from leaving anyway: You're in a relationship with an AR person you care about, perhaps even being married to them. You know you can't continue the relationship if you leave but your partner stays. Even if you were willing to accept that, the other AR people won't be. They'll get your partner to believe that (s)he can't associate with you because you have so much contempt inside you.
I don't have an easy answer to this one, but I do have a suggestion: You can try to get your partner to leave too. This isn't a joke, that very thing has happened. There's one rather famous case you probably know about where one person left because someone they really cared about left first. In another case, two former members I know had wanted to be significant others while in AR, but weren't allowed to be. Eventually each of them, unbeknownst to the other and for reasons unrelated to any possible relationship with each other, decided to leave AR at the exact same time. When they each discovered the other had left they became involved and have now been happily married for more than 20 years.
So leaving AR doesn't necessarily have to mean ending your relationship. Maybe your partner has been having secret feelings about leaving too, but has been scared to say so out of fear that you'll be the one to tattle on them. Wouldn't it be ironic if you both wanted to leave and neither of you knew about it? So consider broaching the subject. And if it turns out that they hadn't considered leaving before, maybe your leaving is what it takes to get them to think about it. If they won't leave, it's a tough choice. You might have to choose between living a life you don't want just so you can live it with someone you love, or living the life you want to live but giving up your relationship. If you find yourself in this situation, I don't envy your choice.
Is it mind control or not?
Psychologists have studied mind control techniques of cults for a long time. And AR employs a lot of those same techniques. It's up to you to decide whether this is sheer coincidence, or if there's really something to the fact that AR has these same characteristics of the other groups that have been studied. Here are a few I pulled from the standard lists. See if any of them look familiar.
Larger lists available at PhinnWeb, Wikipedia, and Steve Hassan's site. But actually, you don't have to believe that mind contrtol is at work in order to leave the group. If you just have reasons for wanting to leave, that's certainly good enough.
The proof of the pudding....
Let me ask you to consider something fairly powerful: Most people who have studied AR, have given up studying. That's pretty telling, isn't it? Probably close to 1000 people have started studying AR through the years. But how many people are still studying? 100? Even with all the things we just discussed that keep a person from leaving -- most people leave! Most people find something in themselves that allows them to break free. And with rare exception, when they do leave, they don't come back.
So you have to ask yourself, which is more plausible: That 100 people really have it right, that lifetime devotion to AR is the only way, or that the hundreds and hundreds of people who used to believe the same as those 100 decided that they were wrong? I'm going to speak to you plainly right here because if you've gotten this far I think you can handle it: It's just not logical to believe the former. Look around you at the people who believe so fervently. Then remember that there are way more people out there who used to believe just as fervently but now they feel they were wrong about it. I'm not talking about believing in AR the philosophy, I'm talking about believing that life in the AR group is the only way one should live his or her life. That's what the people around you believe, but even more people who used to believe the same thing don't believe that any more. That's telling!
Look at it from my perspective. AR people have reamed me up and down the street on Countering the Lies. You're probably one of them. (It's okay, I can take it.) But really, how am I supposed to take any of that seriously when any day now one of my critics there will be the latest person to leave AR and say, "Yeah, I was really wrong about that"?
But let's say you really believe that the 100 people in AR have it right and the thousand or more people who left have it wrong. Then okay, let me ask you another question: If AR is the greatest knowledge since sliced bread, how is it going to become known and practiced worldwide if most people who have "met" it have abandoned ship? AR has been around since 1941. Why isn't it growing? It's not even standing still, it's shrinking. So how is it going to became global when most students have up and left?
I know the standard answer. Those who left were just angry at their great respect for Eli Siegel, yada yada yada. Okay, fine, let's say that's true. But if that's true, it means most people can't handle Aesthetic Realism. They can't see its value, so they wind up having contempt and rejecting it. Okay, so under these circumstances, how exactly is AR going to be universally accepted? How are you going to get AR embraced and practiced worldwide if most people can't handle it? How will AR become universally accepted if most people who study it, sooner or later decide they don't want to have anything to do with it any more?
The answer is it won't. That's why AR's numbers are dwindling. Most people who have studied have abandoned ship already. I just sincerely hope you're not the last one on the boat when it goes down.
Deciding to leave
I realize that most people don't up and decide to leave suddenly. Usually they've been thinking about it for a while. If you're reading this article you're almost certainly in that camp. So your first step is deciding whether leaving is right for you. How do you make that decision?
For heaven's sake, don't look for counsel within the group on this subject. By now you're used to getting feedback on life's issues from the group and from no one else, but seriously, is any one going to encourage you to leave? You already know their answer: Those who leave are betraying Aesthetic Realism and will never be happy again, etc. Telling anyone in the group is pointless. You'll just be giving them an opportunity to flex the hooks they've gotten into you and to talk you out of it.
Second, call your friends and family and tell them you're thinking about leaving. You might be worried that they don't want you any more, but that's almost certainly not the case. What you'll likely discover is that their response will be, "Yes, yes, good God yes, please leave, what can I do to help?" This should give you some confidence that if you do leave you won't be alone.
Next, consult some former members. Surely you know of some. If you don't, I can put you in touch with them. Tell them your fears about leaving. Ask them if they're happy with their decision to leave. Ask them if they got ill when they left. Ask them why they didn't come back. Ask them for any advice they have for you. In my experience, people who've left are only too happy to counsel others who are thinking of leaving. Even if you shunned them when they left. They understand why you did so.
Would you like to talk to a professional? I can arrange that too. I'll pay for your initial phone consultation with Steve Hassan, a licensed mental health counselor and author of two critically-acclaimed books on cults. He's counseled people who have left AR too, so he understands your situation very well. You don't have to reveal your identity to me, either. Just call or email me without telling me your name, and I'll give you a code you can give to Steve Hassan to let him know I'm paying for your consultation. You can reach me at 512-402-4364 or by email.
If you've decided to stay, that's your choice and I respect it. You can stop reading now, since the rest is only for people who've decided to leave.
How to leave
Congratulations on deciding to leave! I'll help you any way I can.
First, if you have access to any documents in the building you think the group could use against you (e.g., recordings of your consultations), take them with you if you can. We don't know for sure that the group would actually make it public out of spite, but there's no reason to take that chance if you can help it -- and it will be a big load off your mind if you know they can't get to you.
Be polite when you leave. Don't make any threats, such as saying you'll go to the media (even if you intend to). You probably know the unwritten policy that AR leaves people alone who leave "quietly" without making a fuss. The only people reamed on Countering the Lies are the ones who dared to speak out. I suggest you just say that you don't have any plans to write or interview about your experience, because that's probably true of most people when they leave anyway. If those who leave decide to share their experiences that usually comes much later, and if that happens, then it was still true that you didn't have any plans to do so at the time you said so. If the AR people insist that you promise not to write or interview ever, tell them quite honestly that you don't know how you'll feel in the future. Don't throw away your opportunity to ever speak out. AR insiders are terrified about even more members leaving and spilling the beans, so it's to their advantage to try to extract a promise from you, when you're still vulnerable. Don't let them do that, even if your feeling at the moment is that you don't care to talk about your experience with anyone else. You don't know how you'll feel in the future. Let your refusal to promise never to talk be your first act of taking ownership of your own rights, rather than going along with what the group wants. If they counter by saying that if you ever go public they'll tell your secrets, just walk away. Let the ugliness of their blackmail attempt ring in their minds as the last thing that was said.
Here's the experience of someone who left Scientology:
Next, call your friends and family. Tell them you've left, and tell them you're sorry for not being in contact so much while you were in AR, and that you want to make up for it. You will probably be surprised at how quickly all is forgiven and how happy they are to have you back.
Next, read up on cult recovery. I recommend Steve Hassan's two books which are both critically acclaimed and praised by laypersons as well. Check out the reviews on Amazon for both Combatting Cult Mind Control and Releasing the Bonds. They're almost unanimously positive. It's rare to see any book on Amazon get such consistent, glowing reviews, so this says something. (Ignore any negative reviews posted after April 4, 2009, which is when I started linking to the reviews section, because now that the AR people see I'm pointing out the excellent reviews, they might hurriedly try to add some negative ones.)
Finally, get counseling, preferably from someone with specific experience with cult survivors. Your experience in the group was not a minor event in your life, and neither was leaving. Counseling can help you get comfortable and get closure on your experience. This whole thing probably did a bigger number on your head than you realize, and counseling can help you understand that and resolve it properly. I can't pay for all your counseling, but I'll pay for your first session with Steve Hassan. (See the previous section for more.) It's important to get counseling from someone with specific experience in cult recovery. General therapists don't understand what you've been through and aren't as equipped to help you get over it.
While I'm not qualified to counsel you, I'm happy to talk to you, confidentially. I hear from lots of former members who have never written anything for this site. If you want to talk, even anonymously, I'm only an email or phone call away. (512-402-4364). I can also put you in touch with other former members if you prefer.
I'll leave you with something from a former student about leaving, taken from the much longer piece about AR in general that student submitted.
Former members describe Aesthetic Realism
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Photo of Eli Siegel's gravestone from Find A Grave