Aesthetic Realism is a cult

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

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The Victims of Aesthetic Realism

    by Paul R. Grossman • Originally published in New York Native

Editor's note:  This article provides fantastic insight into Aesthetic Realism's mind-control methods.  With an expert, laser-like focus, the author nails down exactly how the group gets its hooks into its members' heads.  This is valuable not just for researchers and the general public, but also for former members who are still trying to figure out how they got sucked into the group in first place, and are trying to make sense of their experience.  And while the piece is written in the context of AR's supposed gay cure, its lessons are important about Aesthetic Realism in general.  The article is long, but invaluable.  I can't recommend it enough.

"It was at that point that I began to see what Aesthetic Realism was, in fact, about.  The dogmatism, the loaded phraseology, the Godlike reverence his students demonstrated—these spelled out one thing: that this was no philosophy.  This was a cult, genuine and bona fide, employing all the subtle and manipulative techniques of mind-control used by such masters of the genre as the Moonies [and] the Scientologists..."


At precisely 9:07, audience members in the Terrain Gallery—the Aesthetic Realism headquarters at 141 Greene Street in Soho—crush out cigarettes and begin to settle down.  A cloud-like hush travels across the room as if some secret signal has been given that I, the outsider, cannot detect.  A moment later, the lights are dimmed.  The program is about to begin.

From the back of the room two men and two women begin a brisk single-file march up the center aisle.  Upon reaching the podium in the front, they do an about-face and quickly take seats: one behind a speaker's stand, three behind a long wooden table.  Their faces are stern and uncompromising.  Their dress is strikingly similar.  Each one wears a blazer, trim and tailored, with a small black-and-white button pinned to the left lapel near the heart.  The buttons bear a terse slogan: "Victim of the Press."

In a haunting mechanical voice, the master of ceremonies welcomes the crowd.  Tonight's feature presentation, he announces, is an Aesthetic Realism lesson created by the founder of the movement—the late poet and critic Eli Siegel—entitled, "Do You Trust Women?"  It will be followed, after a brief intermission, by another reading: "Fourteen Things About Homosexuality: Particularly in its Relation to Good Will."

In my lap is a pamphlet handed out by someone at the door.  It is a periodical of "Hope and Information" entitled "The Right of Aesthetic Realism to be Known."  Its banner headline reads simply: Contempt Causes Insanity.

"Dear Unknown Friends," the pamphlet begins.  "When Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism said, 'The World, Art and Self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites,' he gave to man what the centuries have searched for: an explanation true about our lives, true about art, and true about the puzzling, contradictory, often painful world we are in.  That is why we believe Aesthetic Realism ensures the future sanity of man."

The emcee's bland voice drones on.  After proclaiming that he is "one of the more than 150 men who have, through the study of Aesthetic Realism, changed from homosexuality," he introduces Devorah Tarrow to read the weekly press and media report.

Miss Tarrow slides forward in her chair.  She smiles somewhat.  Tonight she has good news to report.  Finally, after nearly forty years of silence and "contempt," the press has begun to pay attention to the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel, to give it the "respect" it so rightly deserves.

She refers to an article printed in the City section of the March 15 Daily News: "Gays Who Have Gone Straight."  In it, reporter John Lewis at long last reveals news of the unique "educational program" being offered to homosexuals by Aesthetic Realism.  The audience becomes excited as Miss Tarrow recites a list of results already evident from this "major breakthrough."  ABC television has called, interested in a story.  Tom Snyder has called.  WPLJ radio has called.  A woman has even called from Wichita, seeking help for her son.  A hearty round of applause breaks out.  A sigh of relief—of ecstasy, almost.  At last, someone has written something honest about the "bigness" of Aesthetic Realism.

When her report is finally over, Miss Tarrow slides back into her chair.  Instantly, her face becomes expressionless, as if someone has pulled a plug.  At the same moment, the man sitting next to her suddenly springs to life.  Now it is his turn to recite.


In the Village, one can hardly avoid noticing these stern-faced, primly dressed individuals marching up and down the streets with their Victim of the Press buttons.  Or, for that matter, the cardboard placards taped to streetlights and letter boxes with names and faces proclaiming the "truth" about their change from homosexuality.

My first encounter with the Aesthetic Realists, however, came only a few weeks ago when I walked into the door of their gallery and announced at the desk that I was interested in doing a story about just how it was that they turned gays straight.  A pair of oval glasses and tightly pursed lips informed me quite brusquely that I would first have to speak to someone from the Press Committee.

Several minutes later, not one but two members of the committee arrived from their offices upstairs and flanked me on either side.  One was Anne Fielding Kranz—wife of Sheldon Kranz, the man who, back in 1941, was the first one to "make the change."  My other escort was Devorah Tarrow.

"It was at that point that I began to see what Aesthetic Realism was, in fact, about.  The dogmatism, the loaded phraseology, the Godlike reverence his students demonstrated—these spelled out one thing: that this was no philosophy.  This was a cult, genuine and bona fide, employing all the subtle and manipulative techniques of mind-control used by such masters of the genre as the Moonies, the Scientologists, and yes, even the evangelical Christians."

For nearly twenty minutes I was subjected to a stereophonic interrogation about the "nature" of my intentions.  Besides asking me if I was a "Moonie," they insisted on knowing: was I going to be "fair" to Aesthetic Realism?  Would I give this philosophy the "respect" it deserved?  Would I be open and realize that maybe I had something to learn from Eli Siegel?  And finally, if they did permit me to write an article, would I be willing to submit it before publishing to ensure that it was "fair" and "accurate"?

I told them quite bluntly that rather than being victims of the press, they seemed to me to be the victimizers.  I had every intention, I said, of being open and honest—but also fully critical.  The next day Miss Tarrow informed me that my request had been rejected.

After some time, I obtained a copy of a book by Eli Siegel.  I studied it diligently, paying close attention not so much to the ideas themselves but to the way in which he chose to express them—and, in particular, to the way his students responded to them.  It was at that point that I began to see what Aesthetic Realism was, in fact, about.  The dogmatism, the loaded phraseology, the Godlike reverence his students demonstrated—these spelled out one thing: that this was no philosophy.  This was a cult, genuine and bona fide, employing all the subtle and manipulative techniques of mind-control used by such masters of the genre as the Moonies, the Scientologists, and, yes, even the evangelical Christians.

It was then and there that I decided if I wanted to learn more about these people, infiltration was the only approach possible.


The following Thursday night at one of their twice-weekly public meetings, I ran into Miss Tarrow once again.  In as solicitous a manner as I could manage, I told her that I had read Mr. Siegel's book and had liked it very much.  I felt, I said, a kind of "inner attraction" to it.  She studied me with suspicion in her eyes.  She did notice, so she said, that a change had occurred in me.  I seemed to her less "malevolent."  I nodded my head.  She looked at me again.  If I wanted to, she said, I could come upstairs during the intermission.  She would introduce me to one of the evening's keynote speakers, Reg Houser*—a man who had "made the change."  [*In keeping with my practice, names of those who left the group (and presumably no longer wish to be associated with it) have been changed.]

The program that night was "Homosexuality, Love and Education."  Once again, the speakers—each with a Victim of the Press button—marched up the center aisle in paramilitary formation.  They sat behind the podium reading papers for up to twenty minutes at a time in voices so monotonously automatic, I found myself being lulled toward the edge of sleep.  Or, perhaps, hypnosis.

Reg Houser struck me instantly with the pallid color of his cheeks and the mincing—if I may be so bold—manner of his carriage.  Presenting a lengthy biography of the Russian pote Serge Essenin, one-time husband of Isadora Duncan, he detailed how, according to the "aesthetic theory," Essenin's homosexuality had driven him insane.  The audience groaned aloud with each account of his slip into the hell of "contempt."  They seemed genuinely sorry for Essenin.  If only Eli Siegel had been around at that time....

During the intermission I went upstairs, where Miss Tarrow was waiting to introduce me to Mr. Houser.  He looked into my eyes and smiled.  "I think," he said, "there is something inside you that likes Aesthetic Realism, Mr. Grossman."  I smiled in return.  His eyes widened.  He understood.  Despite my pro-gay attitude, he knew that, secretly, in my heart, I longed to make the change from what, in their lingo, they simply refer to as "H."  The bait had been swallowed.

I was granted an interview for the following week.  At first, I expected it to be with Mr. Houser alone.  I soon learned, however, one of the chief modi operandi of Aesthetic Realism: never meet one-on-one.  When I arrived for my appointment, I found myself sitting across a desk from three (count 'em, three!) Victims of the Press—all of whom had "made the change."  They were anxious, unbearably anxious, to make me understand that Aesthetic Realism was not just about changing from homosexuality.  It is an entire "mode" for seeing the world.

My hour with them was a grueling experience.

"As we see it, Mr. Grossman, Aesthetic Realism is true in a way that nothing else is.  And I can tell you, as I'm sitting here talking to you, that we are trained in a certain way.  After a while, I begin to see things, Mr. Grossman.  A look in the eye, something present in the face...."

A man who has been introduced as Mr. van Gelder* speaks to me in a soft, sing-song voice—like Daddy reading a bedtime story to his little boy, except that the tales he's telling aren't very benign.  He never takes his eyes off me, letting me know, in his own absolute way, that he understands me.  All of me.

"At our first meeting," I say, "Miss Tarrow told me she thought Aesthetic Realism was the best friend the gay community had.  How do you explain that?"

Mr. Houser responds.  His voice is also Daddy's.

"You know something, Mr. Grossman, in 1971, the first time we had trouble with what I guess you'd call the gay community—after our appearance on the David Susskind Show—I was very surprised that people wouldn't like Aesthetic Realism.  Even gay people.  It might look as if we're against gay rights, but Lord knows—we're not!  I was once a homosexual.  I know what it feels like to have someone look at me in a funny way.  We want gay people to have all their rights: live where they want to live, have the jobs they want to have, so that the main question can be asked: 'Is the way I see the world good enough for me?'  We don't call homosexuality 'ugly, ugly.'  We do criticize it.  But if homosexuality represents incompleteness in a person, then in questioning that, we would be being friendly, wouldn't we?"

In Aesthetic Realism, this technique is called "Criticism as Kindness."

About halfway through the interview I finally ask something I have been wanting to all along:

"Why do you call me Mr. Grossman every other sentence?  All of you do that—address each other constantly in the impersonal."

Mr. van Gelder:  "Why are you asking that question, Mr. Grossman?  In the midst of what I was saying?"

"For whatever the reason, I'm asking."

"Look, you may not like this, but we don't get anywhere if we're not direct.  You have a tendency—if I might say so—-especially after an important answer, to switch the subject and ask a less important question."

"Yes.  But can you answer the question anyway?"

"I can.  But what I'm trying to tell you is this—this tendency of yours has to do with the fight that's going on inside you between contempt and respect."

"Oh," I say.

Now, more clearly, I'm beginning to understand.


The belief system taught by Aethetic Realism can, at best, be termed reductional; at worst, convoluted fascism.  Still, like all "modes of seeing the world," its logic rings of a certain small truth that, in the end, can be applied to absolutely everything.

The gospel according to Eli Siegel can roughly be said to go as follows:

Man is born with innate and natural dichotomy:  the desire to "like" the world—to "respect" it on an "honest basis"—and, opposing this, the desire to have "contempt" for the world, to make it look "ugly" so that you, by comparison, seem more important than it.  Aesthetic "Reality," therefore—that which every person longs to attain—is the making one of these opposites.  This can be accomplished scientifically by "knowing" the world—i.e., recognizing your contempt for it and then consciously accepting that what you really want is to respect it.  Since Eli Siegel was the first and only human being ever to recognize this, it follows that only by incorporating his teachings can that oneness ever be attained.

"The Aesthetic Realists themselves are, needless to say, the last to recognize that a catch-all system such as the above is the perfect tool for mind-control.

The Aesthetic Realists themselves are, needless to say, the last to recognize that a catch-all system such as the above is the perfect tool for mind-control.

"Good Christ, Mr. Grossman," exclaims Mr. van Gelder.  "I do not see myself as any kind of cultist.  I dislike them very much.  I happen to be listed in Who's Who in the Theater.  I was educated quite impressively."

That much is for sure.


Aesthetic Realism is taught by several different methods.  There are the weekly public meetings.  There are seminars offered in art, poetry, literature, even science.  But most effective are what they call "consultations."  Here, a "student" is put into a room with an Aesthetic Realism trio—as I was—whose singleminded purpose it is to make him see that he has been poisoned by that ugly thing called contempt.

"What I'm trying to tell you, Mr. Grossman, is that this tendency you have has to do with the fight inside you between respect and contempt."

"In actuality, 'consultations' are slyly packaged sessions for mind-control—what Yale psychiatry professor Robert Lifton describes as 'thought-reform' or 're-education.'  More bluntly stated, it's brainwashing."

In actuality, "consultations" are slyly packaged sessions for mind-control—what Yale psychiatry professor Robert Lifton describes in a classic study on the subject, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, as "thought-reform" or "re-education."  More bluntly stated, it's brainwashing.

In the case of Aesthetic Realism, the student is subjected to a tightly organized barrage of accusations—veiled by layers of politeness—from three separate but clearly unified voices.  Lifton calls this Identity Assault.  The mesage they deliver is both existential ("You have contempt!") and psychologically demanding ("If you want to be whole, you must learn to see your contempt.")  After some time, the "consultee" has little choice but to accept this syllogism and begin to feel—unconsciously at first—that, yes, his life is permeated by contempt.  Thus begins, to use Lifton's term, the Establishment of Guilt.

As the consultations continue, any feelings of resistance on the part of the student can be labeled as further evidence of contempt.  If what the student wants is "respect," he begins to see the criticism as wholly necessary—in fact, begins to welcome it as an integral part of his "cure."  At this point, the thought-reform process has been internalized, and the work of the consultation trio is lessened as the student adopts the belief system and takes it as his own.  The new Victim of the Press dons a button and goes out into the world to espouse the teachings of Eli Siegel—which one of them called, "The summation of all human knowledge."

                    

The Aesthetic Realists are not interested merely in homosexuals.  They want anyone who is seeking to perceive the world "as it really is."  However, one need only observe the audience at any given Aesthetic Realism meeting to deduce why the "Case of H" has been so heavily accented.  Aside from the location of their headquarters on the edge of the largest homosexual community in the world, those who are attracted to them—particularly the men—are, nearly without exception, gay.  Excuse me—formerly gay.

According to Eli Siegel, homosexuality is, simply, "bad aesthetics."  Like "biting one's nails, depression, excessive gambling," it arises out of a "disproportionate way of seeing the world," Siegel wrote.

"Homosexuality has arisen often from a son's contempt for the way a mother showed 'love' to him.  This contempt, based on an easy conquest of the mother, changed to a contempt for, and a deep indifference to, women."

Sound familiar?  It's early Freud all over again, only couched in Eli Siegel-isms.  (Siegel, understandably, had great "contempt" for any form of psychotherapy.  "It doesn't work" is the usual logic.)

"That love was had on such easy terms," continues Siegel's revolutionary concept, "encouraged likewise a contempt for that which was different from oneself—that is, the world."

Siegel reveals the patriarchal side of himself when he muses that while lesbians too can change, same-gender love between females is "somewhat more justifiable" because of the "sense of mystery" women have.  Such mystery apparently does not exist inside of men.  "After all," I was told, "there is no male equivalent to the Mona Lisa."

So men who wish to "make the change"—but for a few instances, it is always men—can accomplish through Aesthetic Realism what no amount of psychotherapy ever will:  by admitting they have contempt for their mothers, they can turn that contempt into respect and live a normal life.  Excerpts from Aesthetic Realism's manual on homosexuality, entitled The H Persuasion, illustrate how a student is made to see how deep his contempt really is.

Q.  When don't I trust myself the most?
A.  When I am in the presence of H people or in an H relationship.  Also, when I am in the presence of my mother.

Q. Do I have contempt for women?
A. I don't have contempt for all women.  Only my mother.  She encourages the weakness in me.

Q. Aside from the fact that I know H isn't good for me, what about it do I dislke most?
A. The slickness, the insincerity, the cultness, the sex act, and the fact that it takes two to tango.

Q. Am I frightened of being alone?
A. Yes

Q. Is being alone and death synonymous?
A. Yes.

Q. Does H encourage a feeling of aloneness, thus encouraging a feeling of death?
A. Yes.  After sex I have the desire to be by myself, to feel sorry for myself.  It certainly doesn't help me like the world more.
The manipulation used by Siegel and later adopted by all consultation trios—guided questions designed to provoke not introspection but a learning of the "technique," is even more clearly exemplified from this excerpt of Reg Houser's first Aesthetic Realism lesson:
Eli Siegel:  What do you think is your greatest conflict?
Reg Houser:  My greatest conflict?
Siegel:  Which would you rather do, fool the world, or know it?
Houser: I think I'd rather know it.
Siegel:  Are you sure?
Houser: I'm not positive.
Siegel:  That's what we're talking about—where you're not positive.  So how do you fool the world?
A mere two weeks after his first consultation, Houser wrote the following letter home to his father in Alabama:
. . . I have hated myself since I was sixteen years old and first realized I had questions.  BUT I DON'T HATE MYSELF ANYMORE!!!  Eli Siegel and the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism see changing the way I are changing the way I see the world.  Mr. Siegel has shown me that I have contempt for women, and that when I was young, it was so easy for me to please Mother that I now do not see it as a challenge to try for a woman.  The lesson was kind, and at the same time critical.  This is the basis of how you change the way you see the world—criticism with kindness.  I am grateful to Eli Siegel for this and I want more and more to show that gratitude.  Aesthetic Realism must be known by everyone in America and the world!
Mr. Houser, obviously, was a very rapid learner.  [He also later fell off the wagon—leaving the group and divorcing himself of it.]

"The question of whether Aesthetic Realists have actually 'changed' their sexual orientation is best answered by the facts.  Nearly a third to one-half of all who make 'the change' engage and marry within several months after their 'conversion.'  Of these, not a single case of which I am aware involved an 'intermarriage' with someone who wasn't an Aesthetic Realist."


The question of whether Aesthetic Realists have actually "changed" their sexual orientation is best answered by the facts.  Nearly a third to one-half of all who make "the change" engage and marry within several months after their "conversion."  Of these, not a single case of which I am aware involved an "intermarriage" with someone who wasn't an Aesthetic Realist.  A statement made by Anne Fielding after fourteen years of marriage to Sheldon Kranz sums up their relationship:  "What I love most in my husband is his love for Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism."

Reg Houser, in an unusually revealing document, acknowledges in the H Persuasion that even after the "change" is made, it isn't all a bed of roses.
"At various times since I began to study Aesthetic Realism," he confesses, "I found that I wanted to have an H experience again.  As I see it now, this is because I thought Eli Siegel was taking something away from me.  I felt that I had to show that I hadn't lost power."
Houser hit the nail squarely on the head.  What Eli Siegel took away from him was not his homosexuality.  It was his power—and his ability for critical, independent thinking.  By now his ego has been intruded upon to the extent that he has been reduced to a child-like state of unthinking powerlessness.  Big Daddy is doing all the thinking.

Houser explains how this is accomplished—how he takes part in his own self-reduction:
"The desire for contempt that is in every person was strong in me.  I sadly enough wanted revenge for having to respect something more than I wanted.  Fortunately, the desire for contempt is well understood by Siegel.  He not only made it possible for me to change from H, he also understood and criticized the resentment I had about changing, so that the change could be complete."

"This sense of coercion—of feeling made to respect something more than he had wanted to—is, in fact, a common symptom of mind-control victimization."

This sense of coercion—of feeling made to respect something more than he had wanted to—is, in fact, a common symptom of mind-control victimization.  Houser must now convince himself that he has been made "complete" by surrendering into the hands of Siegel.  Using the techniqe of repetition, he fulfills his self-delusion:
"I used to think I was born a homosexual and that it would never change.  It has changed.  I am no longer a homosexual and I am more myself, the way I was meant to be, truly want to be.  I belong in this world and I like being here more than ever.  I like the world more, and as I was promised, I also respect myself more.  I got what I came for and I am rejoicing."
I must believe; therefore, it must be so.


As with any group of zealots, religious or otherwise—the Aesthetic Realists need an outside enemy against which they can muster and channel the anger caused by the stifling clutch of their own rigid dogma.  It is for this reason that the press—which has, until the Daily News article, universally ignored them—has been singled out as the oppressor.  Hence, the Victims of the Press crusade.

According to the Aesthetic Realist doctrine, the press has refused to recognize them and aid in their mission to spread the Word because it is afraid of the "bigness" of Aesthetic Realism.  Afraid that it might have something to learn from Eli Siegel.  It is plagued with what, in Aesthetic Realism, is called "Terror of Respect."

Not only does each individual Aesthetic Realist "choose" to identify himself every single day by wearing a Victim of the Press button, but they have, en masse, gone so far as to picket institutions such as the New York Times, demanding their right "To Be Known."

"Like all cults, Aelthetic Realism reduces the wonder and complexity of the world to a strict polarity of black-or-white reality.  By cultivating an individual's sense of negative identity, the program weakens the ego enough to gain admittance and eventual control over a person's mind. "

"The students of Aesthetic Realism understand the terror of respect," says their exposé, which is entitled The Press Boycott of Aesthetic Realism.  "We too have resented our respect for Eli Siegel.  We are ashamed of this resentment, proud to end it, and use our knowledge to stop the greatest cruelty we know.... Aesthetic Realism is the God-given right of every human being."

But the God-given right of every human to do what?  To slander homosexuals?  To plead victimization while turning confused individuals from self-reliance to a robotistic subsistence?

Like all cults, Aelthetic Realism reduces the wonder and complexity of the world to a strict polarity of black-or-white reality.  By cultivating an individual's sense of negative identity, the program weakens the ego enough to gain admittance and eventual control over a person's mind.  Put most succinctly by a woman whose friend had "made the change":  "I liked him better when he was gay.  At least then he was a person.  Now he's just an Aesthetic Realist."


I have saved the most personal and ultimately, the most revealing aspect of this article for the end because I feel—for gay people, anyway—that it is the most important.  Despite some advance knowledge of the manipulation process that I subjected myself to, I did not, in fact, go home from the Aesthetic Realists totally unscathed.

After my grueling hour-long session pitted against three "reformed" homosexuals, I found myself walking toward my Christopher Street apartment wondering:  Maybe this is true.  My mind began to interpret things around me in terms of "contempt" and "respect."  I passed a person on the street and thought, "He has contempt."  Or overheard a conversation:  More contempt.  Eventually, the question became internal:  Do I have contempt for women?  Am I, in fact, "indifferent" to them because of the way my mother showed me love?  Suddenly I found myself quite frightened.  Had they managed to persuade me? I wondered.  After only an hour—and with everything I knew?

Finally, after a long and thorough conversation with a friend who knows me quite well, I recognized something terrible, yet intriguing in my self-identity.  I saw that I did, in fact, have deep contempt inside me.  Not for the world.  Not for women.  But for myself still—for being gay.  They had not persuaded me of anything; they had only plugged into a belief that I myself agreed with.

The news was rather shocking—to realize after five long years of working on a positive gay identity that part of me still wanted to be straight.  It was doubtless the same part of me that still believed being gay to be naughty.

When I considered my life in relation to the world, though, the revelation became less shocking—when I remembered, for instance, all the years of denial.  Of hatred.  Of believing I was naughty.  Then, my contempt made total sense to me.

Gay people—all of us, I believe—to some extent or another have internalized the values of homophobia.  In a fundamental way, this is what I learned through the study of Aesthetic Realism.  If we want to "like ourselves" (to borrow a bit from Eli Siegel), our personal liberation must extend beyond the realm of the intellect.  It must touch us in the deepest possible emotional way, transcending even time to cleanse the scars of the distant past.  Otherwise, we will always be vulnerable, subject to the will of those who would rid us of the way we love.

                         

*Names marked with an asterisk have been changed, since those people have left Aesthetic Realism and presumably no longer wish to be associated with it.

This article originally appeared in the New York Native, April 6, 1981.
It will surprise no one that the author is a critically-acclaimed writer.


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

Name

The Aesthetic Realism Foundation

Founded

1941

Founder

Eli Siegel, poet and art/literary critic.
Committed suicide in 1978

Purpose

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.


Philosophy

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".

Location

New York City (SoHo)


Membership

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...

 

Open offer to debate

Since 2005 I've had an open offer to debate the Aesthetic Realists publicly in a formal format at any time to defend what I've said on this site, and to answer their own charges against me. But the AR people won't do it. Their excuse is, "He's not worth debating." But if that's true, then why did they put up a ninety-six page website to try to snipe at me and to try to rebut what I'm saying? I think the answer is that they're content to hide behind the cover of the Internet, but they know how bad they'd look in a live format where anyone actually got to ask any pointed questions.

You know what's really funny? Someone went to one of their public presentations, said he'd seen this site, and asked about the cult allegations. The AR person said, "It's very easy to say crap like that on the Internet and never have to be challenged." Oh, the irony is killing me!

Anyway, Aesthetic Realists, as for a public debate, I'm ready when you are. And to everyone else, when the AR people won't stand behind what they're saying, why should anyone take what they say seriously?

 


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I don't endorse the advertisers.

 

What former members say...

They reeled me in like a brook trout... Guilt was introduced into the experience. They told me I was "not showing respect for this great education I was receiving" by [not getting more involved].

If there is anything the Aesthetic Realists are good at, it is convincing people that if they think they see anything wrong with Siegel, AR, Reiss or how the organization is run, there is really something wrong with them. Any time I began to question things or think I saw something amiss, I had been programmed to think that what it really meant was that something was terribly wrong with me.

My new AR friends were starting to apply the hard sell a bit more so the word "cult" did come to mind , but I naïvely believed that it couldn't be a cult because it wasn't religious in nature.

They get you to actually control yourself. A lot of people's lives have been hurt --ruined.

So, there was Eli Siegel, who came up with all these rules, but to whom none of the rules applied, and there was everybody else.

[Eli Siegel] was a hurtful person. He was a sociopath. He was a control freak, and he was a cult leader.

Poor John then would be the subject of an onslaught of criticism to help him see his own contempt for Eli Siegel.... This is merely one example of the way people were controlled and humiliated if they stepped out of line or didn't conform to accepted behavior.

We all had to present ourselves as essentially miserable failures whose lives were in shambles until we found the glorious "answers to all our questions" in AR.

It was very difficult for me to surrender to AR in the total fashion they seemed to want.

I received a call from one of the AR bigwigs asking me to donate money to the foundation.  When I told him I was low on cash I received a considerable verbal drubbing.

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.

I felt a bit raped psychologically.... if you are thinking of getting into the AR consultation process, realize that they could end it all suddenly, and that you could find your most intimate thoughts on tape in someone else's possession.

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.

That's when I finally knew for sure: AESTHETIC REALISM IS A CULT.  I swore on that moment that if I was ever given the opportunity to tell the world what these people did to me, I would.

When I left I was definitely shunned by other students. I would meet people in the NYC streets -as I still do to this day - and they would turn the other way to avoid me, or some even made derogatory comments about me.

[New AR students] would be shocked if they knew that the lives of the people they are supposed to learn from are very different from the principles they are taught in consultations. Even though publicly the AR foundation preaches respect for people and like of the world, inside the organization the message is very different. The underlying feeling is, "People who do not study AR are inferior to us, and the world is our enemy, out to get us." We had contempt for outsiders and were scared of the world. We huddled together for safety, secure in our sense of superiority.

When I was studying, we were allowed to associate with our families only if they continuously demonstrated that they were grateful to and respectful of Eli Siegel and AR. This did not include going to visit them if they lived far away because then we would have had to miss classes, and that would have meant we were "making our family more important than AR."

Some of the students I remember going at most intensely and viciously to stop them from associating with their families, (and whom we succeeded in stopping for many, many years), are people who are now bragging on the AR website about how great their relationships with their families are and writing as though that was always the case.

There were even instances of students refusing to visit their parents when one of them was dying because the parents did not "express regret" and renounce their unfairness to Eli Siegel and AR. There were parents who literally begged their son or daughter to relent so they could see them one more time, but the child refused. The parent died without ever seeing their child again. Far from being criticized for such behavior, students who went this far were seen as heroes in AR. They received public praise from Ellen Reiss.

While I was in AR, I did believe that Eli Siegel was greater than Christ.... It would have been accurate to say I worshipped him.

People were told that if their families did not support aesthetic realism, they were not their families.

Some of the people with statements on the Countering the Lies website claiming that AR students do not shun former students have actually passed me on the street, looked straight at me, and pretended they were seeing right through me. This includes people in the highest positions in the organization.

More and more the AR zombies demanded that I express gratitude to ES and AR. Every paper that a student wrote had to end with the obligatory "I am so grateful to ES and AR for..." along with "I deeply regret that I have met this great knowledge with contempt..."

Eli Siegel was an evil person. And I don't use the word evil lightly.

See former members' statements in their entirety

 


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Open offer to debate

Since 2005 I've had an open offer to debate the Aesthetic Realists publicly in a formal format at any time to defend what I've said on this site, and to answer their own charges against me. But the AR people won't do it. Their excuse is, "He's not worth debating." But if that's true, then why did they put up a ninety-six page website to try to snipe at me and to try to rebut what I'm saying? I think the answer is that they're content to hide behind the cover of the Internet, but they know how bad they'd look in a live format where anyone actually got to ask any pointed questions.

You know what's really funny? Someone went to one of their public presentations, said he'd seen this site, and asked about the cult allegations. The AR person said, "It's very easy to say crap like that on the Internet and never have to be challenged." Oh, the irony is killing me!

Anyway, Aesthetic Realists, as for a public debate, I'm ready when you are. And to everyone else, when the AR people won't stand behind what they're saying, why should anyone take what they say seriously?


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Photo of Eli Siegel's gravestone from Find A Grave