Aesthetic Realism is a cult

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

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The Aesthetic Realists' hysterical reaction to New York Magazine

May 2009 - December 2011

In 1976 Alan Rich of New York magazine reviewed a theater performance starring one of the Aesthetic Realists (whose name is changed below, since he has since left AR and presumably no longer wants to be associated with it).  The actor's bio in the playbill included the obligatory plug for Aesthetic Realism, and in the review Rich referred to AR as "a cult of messianic nothingness that hangs out somewhere in the Village".  The AR people then unloaded a torrent of angry mail upon New York magazine's offices, a whopping 173 separate letters, weighing several pounds, not counting envelopes, enclosures, or copies of other letters to other parties that they sent along because they wanted NY Magazine to see them.  Luckily, Mr. Rich supplied me with the whole file less than one year before his death.  It took me three hours just to skim this mess and another four hours to organize it all.  It's going to take me months to extract all the good bits for the website, but below is my first stab at it. Here are the takeaway points:

  1. Aesthetic Realism is a cult.  The gushing, over-the-top praise of AR and its founder in these letters, along with the hysterical reactions to criticism, provides some of the best evidence anywhere that AR is a cult.  It's ironic: the Aesthetic Realists wrote these letters to complain about being labeled a cult, but with these letters they breathtakingly revealed that that's exactly what they are.

  2. Aesthetic Realists are hypocrites.  AR people says that AR shows people how to be kind.  That doesn't square with the deluge of hate mail they sent to New York magazine and Alan Rich, crammed full of vitriolic insults.  (Not every letter was hateful, sure, but lots of them certainly were.)  It's funny how in the same letter, in almost the same breath, an Aesthetic Realism might say, "I know I have become a kinder person through Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism.... Your statement about Aesthetic Realism exemplifies cheapness and dishonesty...[Y]ou are unaware of the purpose of a critic, and incompetent in your profession."

  3. Aesthetic Realists are liars.  When Alan Rich said publicly that the AR people were sending him hate mail, the AR people denied that it was hateful.  The evidence below suggests that yet again, they were lying their asses off.

  4. Aesthetic Realists don't tolerate criticism.  On AR's "Countering the Lies" website, one of the things they say I'm supposedly lying about is that they don't tolerate criticism.  According to them, they just love criticism, they roll around in it and rub it all over their bodies.  So why then, when a reviewer makes a four-word slight against them, do they respond with a veritable deluge of hate mail, and a campaign to get the magazine's advertisers to cancel their accounts?

  5. AR people have delusions of grandeur.  Aesthetic Realists believe that one day everyone in the world will study AR and revere their founder Eli Siegel as the greatest person who ever lived.  This comes through strong and clear in the letters.  One of the writers says, "Because this letter is of historical importance I am keeping the original and sending you a copy." (!)

  6. Aesthetic Realists have paranoid feelings of persecution.  AR people believe there's a conspiracy in the press to not report about the wonders of Aesthetic Realism.  As such, nearly every single letter writer puts "Victim of the Press" under his or her name.  Many of the letters make outrageous claims of persecution; for example, one AR child suggests her mother is on drugs because NY Magazine won't cover Aesthetic Realism favorably.

  7. Aesthetic Realists pimp their children.  The AR people got their children, some as young as 2-1/2, to write letters to NY Magazine.  (When a kid was too young to write, the parents wrote out what the child said.)  This is one of the cases in which the term "brainwashed" comes to mind:  It's obvious to everyone else how ludicrous this is, but the Aesthetic Realists actually thought it was a good idea. Amazing.

  8. You can't trust an Aesthetic Realist.  This collection of letters exemplifies one of the five reasons you can't trust what an Aesthetic Realist says:  Most of them eventually snap out of it and leave the group (and of course, recant what they said).  Most of the people who wrote these angry letters to NY Magazine praising Aesthetic Realism in 1976 sure wouldn't say so today!  So it's kind of hard to place much faith in the words of those who haven't snapped out of it yet.  Today's zealot is tomorrow's former member.

It's going to take me months to extract the good bits from these letters for this website, but here are some to get the ball rolling.  In keeping with my practice, I omit the names of people who have left the group since they presumably no longer wish to be associated with it, or with the comments they made back when they were brainwashed.



The original slight in NY Magazine which provoked all the letters

Review of "Rich and Famous" play (New York Magazine, March 8, 1976, p. 77, by Alan Rich; name of the actor changed since he's no longer an Aesthetic Realist)

"As Bing, Donald Atkinson gives the same sandpapered, uninflected reading that looked positively heroic in The Day of the Locust. Mr. Atkinson, he wants it to be known, is an alumnus of Aesthetic Realism, that cult of messianic nothingness that hangs out somewhere in the Village. It figures."


Letters from the children

Dear Alan Rich,

I am a student of Aesthetic Realism I think your Article in new york was awful is not bigotted or religious cult it is based on truth and it teaches people to like the world and themselves. I am 11-1/2 years old and I think you should study it, it would do you a lot of good. I have seen something for myself even though I am so young this article was a liie, I think you should apologize in print cause you've hurt peoples lives, you have hurt mine

[name]
Victim of the Press
Note: This person has since left the group.


Dear Mr. Rich,

I am 14 years of age, and you probably never heard of me, but I think it's about time you did.... The way you described Aesthetic Realism as "that cult of messianic nothingness that hangs out somewhere in the village" is about as contemptuous as a person can get.

What gives you the right to talk that way about something you haven't bothered to study or see what it is about?! You are a victim of the press and you are not only hurting yourself, but many other people in the world who are looking for the kind criticism of Eli Siegel and Aessthetic Realism.

I came to New York to visit but I stayed to study Aesthetic Realism. The reason I stayed is because in Aesthetic Realism Consultations I am learning how to like things and people more and to make sense of my life.

It is your duty as a journalist to make a solemn apology to Donald Atkinson and Aesthetic Realism. You will respect yourself....

[name]
Victim of the Press
Note: This person has since left the group. Below is his follow-up letter.

Dear Mr. Glaser, [of New York Magazine]

On March 5th, 1976, I wrote a letter to Mr. Alan Rich about his slur on Aesthetic Realism.  A few weeks later I called him up.  I wass very affected by our conversation.  The way he was so smooth about Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism really ticked me off.  Since that day I have been angry and sick, off and on for the last two weeks.  Because of Mr. Rich, Mr. Sulsburger and all the other people of the press I have been miserable.

How do you think I should feel?  Aesthetic Realism has changed my life Mr. Glaser, but because the press does'nt write about that, I can't even talk to my school friends about it. Ethics isn't a hot subject at Robert Wagner Jr. High.  It's news, Mr. Glaser, and unfair reporters like Mr. Rich have hurt the lives of millions of people.

Because of the press boycott my father, my stepmother and my half sister are all having a hard time placing my coming up to N. Y. to study a thought.  Why are you so unfair?  What you want most is to study Aesthetic Realism.  Something should be done about a retraction of Mr. Rich's slur.  Out of all the 400 letters he has gotten he should know by now that Aesthetic Realism is true about all people .  An apology should be printed from Mr. Rich, because if he doesn't he will not be at ease with himself.  I can imagine what he goes through at nights, knowing that he is hurting lives all over the world.

People from all walks of life study Aesthetic Realism & feel their lives have been saved.  Print that, Mr. Glaser, instead of some jive, no good slur. Aesthetic Realism is true, and if you mess around with it, you will never have a large feeling about anything anymore.  You should want to know the facts.  Retract Mr. Wretch's, I mean Rich's, slur.  You will respect yourself.

[name]
Victim of the Press


Letters from adult Aesthetic Realists

Dear Mr. Rich,

We are writing you this letter in refrence [sic] to an articile [sic] appearing in the New York Magizine [sic] in which you mentioned Aesthetic Realism.

We feel that what you wrote about Aesthetic Realism was unkind and not true.  If you were willing to look and to study, your anger would be less and you would not have made such a statement.

Mr. Rich, we have come to love Aesthetic Realism and find our study necessary to complete our lives and our marriage.

Two and one-half years ago after a violent argument, we seperated [sic].  Through our study of Aesthetic Realism, we were able to see important things about ourselves, including our attitude towards the world which made for large changes in our lives.

After nearly two years of study we were able to resume our marriage.  This could never have been possible without our study of Aesthetic Realism.

Therefore, Mr. Rich, you are making a mistake by not looking deeper at Mr. Eli Siegel's thought Aesthetic Realism.  It is for this reason you have no right to make statements against that which you do not know, and so Mr. Rich, we demand a retraction.

[name] and [name]
Victims of the Press
Note: These people have since left the group.



Dear Mr. Rich,

I am writing in reference to your slurring comment about Aesthetic Realism, in New York Magazine.  Cheapness and dishonesty cannot go unanswered, your statement about Aesthetic Realism exemplifies cheapness and dishonesty.

In the first place you are not yet in any position to judge the value of Aesthetic Realism.  You have nothing to back up your statement.  This shows you are unaware of the purpose of a critic, and incompetent in your profession.

Editor's note:  Hank was one of the AR leaders, leading AR "consultations" with Dorothy and Chaim Koppelman.  He was later pushed out of the group amid a controversy.  In 2005, long after he left AR, he wrote a piece for AR's "Countering the Lies" site, disputing our claim that people who leave AR are shunned by those still in, saying that he's still in contact with his son who's still in AR.  Hank of course neglected to mention that he was kicked out of AR.  Those who are thrown out don't necessarily get the cold shoulder, but those who voluntarily leave the group absolutely do get shunned by those still in, including family members.  It's ironic that Hank's rebuttal is part of AR's "Countering the Lies" site, because his failure to mention why he left AR is pretty much a lie by omission.  Then again, the whole "Countering the Lies" site is chock full of such misrepresentations.

Hank passed in January 2010.  Here's his memorial page.
But this statement is not only incompetent it is vicious, and that cannot be excused.  Along with many other people who know Aesthetic Realism I have seen that it is true about people and the world.  We have seen this through honest study.  The press has an obligation to see why we say this.  I know I have become a kinder person through Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism, and I have seen this happen with many people.  When Aesthetic Realism is known, kindness will be seen as the hieght [sic] of education.

This is what you choose to call nothing.  You need to become a kinder person.  You can begin by retracting your statement publicly, and begin to see what the value of Aesthetic Realism really is.

Sincerely,

Hank D'Amico
Victim of the Press
[See editor's note at right.]



Dear Clay Felker [founder of NY Magazine]:

There has yet to be a retraction by Alan Rich and New York Magazine, of his careless and cruel comment about Aesthetic Realism in the Marth 8th issue.

Everyday that there is no retraction and public apology is another day that your magazine sanctions injustice, unethical journalism, and literally murders people's hopes.

There is something in America that people can trust, and that has been deeply hoped for.  That trust and hope is in the knowldege of Aesthetic Realism.  There have been 12,000 Aesthetic Realism consultations as of this date.

We see ourselves and our son Matthew age five as representative Americans who have met Aesthetic Realism.  We have seen that our son, like many other children that have met Aesthetic Realism, has a deep instinctive love for, and understanding of it.  He is fortunate to have met the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel, and wonders why other children have not been able to have this good fortune.

We have studied Aesthetic Realism; Mr. Rich has not.  People have a right to know what we have seen through our study, and not have hope destroyed by a cheap, careless statement of one who doesn't know.

We and our son are victims of the press, because this long injustice has encouraged suspicion where there should be trust; cycnicism [sic], instead of belief in what is beautiful.  You have stopped us from being as kind and as useful as possible to our son, as well as people in general.

Instead of asking people what they have learned, which would be the useful and just thing to do, the press has chosen silence.  This is cruelty at its utmost.  We hope this letter will appeal to your conscience, and encourage you to ask:  what is there to learn?

Sincerely,

Hank D'Amico
Victim of the Press

Barbara D'Amico
Victim of the Press

cc:  Arthur Ochs Sulzberger [publisher of the NY Times]
     Bob Weiner
     James Wechsler [editorial page editor of the NY Post]
     Aesthetic Realism Foundation

[See editor's note in the box above.]


Sirs,

I have read Alan Rich's review in the March 8th issue of the play "Rich and Famous".  I take great offense at his slurs about Aesthetic Realism.  It figures that he is in need of great help.  His whole article is so filled with his own contempt of the world.  I have met with the Three Persons in Aesthetic Realism and found great knowledge.

What Mr. Rich needs badly is Aesthetic Realism which teaches honest criticism without contempt.

I hope Mr. Rich is a big enough man to do some personal investigating.

[name]
Note: This person has since left the group.



Mr. Edward Meyer, President
Grey Advertising, Inc.

Dear sir,

I received the enclosed letter today as part of a voluminous campaign being waged against me and New York Magazine by Aesthetic Realism, a crackpot cult lodged in the woodwork down in Greenwich Village.

Whatever the merits of the campaign may be, it strikes me as highly improper that it be waged on Grey Advertising letterhead, and I think that this matter should be called to your attention.

Sincerely,

Alan Rich
Arts Editor
Dear Mr. Felker,

If you are interested in the well being and sanity of America you will retract that malicious slur, to put it mildly, made by Alan Rich about Aesthetic Realism, in your March 8 edition.

I have been studying Aesthetic Realism for the past 6 years, and have found it to be the most accurate, comprehensive and kindest thought that has been.  It has helped the lives of hundreds of people, my own included.  Being a natural skeptic I have given Aesthetic Realism a workout and found it to be true.  Isn't this good news?  Mr. Rich is not in a position to judge the value of Aesthetic Realism, because he has not taken the privilege to study it.  That is not professional.  Persons lives were hurt because of that slur, my own included, as well as his and your own.

This cheap dishonesty has got to stop now!  You can do something about it.  I hope you do.  People want and must know Aesthetic Realism!

Harvey R. Spears
Type Director
Victim of the Press

[This letter was sent on the letterhead of Grey Advertising, which provoked Alan Rich's response at right.]


Dear Mr. Rich,

I have been a student of Aesthetic Realism for six years.  I have taught Aesthetic Realism to persons ranging in age from six to seventy-eight for three years.  I have seen concrete evidence of the great value of Eli Siegel's thought to the lives of people in America.  Why is it I wonder that you, who as far as I know, have never even attended an Aesthetic Realism seminar, or read one book about Aesthetic Realism, feel you have the right to print anything you want?  Is this journalistic integrity?

You remind me of the critic who called Keats' "Endymion" impossible to read and made himself immortal through stupidity and snobbishness.  However much he hurts Keats, he didn't keep knowledge from people that they needed to have so that their lives could be whole and healthy.  If you knew, Mr. Rich, how hurtful your statements about Aesthetic Realism are I think you would faint from shame.

The citizens of Germany after World War II were appalled at what was found in the concentration camps.  They were frightened and weakly said "We didn't know what was going on."  But, Mr. Rich, they didn't want to know.  Does that excuse them?  Please, before you make any statements find out what you are talking about.  Find out of people's lives will be hurt by what you say.  You owe Eli Siegel and the American people a very large apology as do your colleagues of the press.  Why not make yourself immortal through your courage rather than through your lack of seeing?

Sincerely yours,

Heide Feller
Co-Director [this letter was on the letterhead of "Children's Day Care Center, Inc."]
Victim of the Press


Dear Sir,

When you write about Aesthetic Realism you should adhere to an eclectic philosophy that is working wonders for a great many people.  You are responsible for what you know, so do not slander when it is not pertinent to your way of life.  Examine thyself before examining others.

[name]
[This letter was sent by the father of a daughter he lost to Aesthetic Realism.  Parents members had to play the game of helping to write letters if they didn't want to be cut off from their children completely.]


Reader comments

Hal Lanse, Ph.D • March 21, 2010

I'm an AR survivor.  I want to comment on your report of AR's letter writing campaign against New York Magazine.  Such campaigns were common in the days when I was young, shame-based and suckered into the cult.  I thought I'd add some additional information I believe the public should know.

There was a letter writing campaign against the surgeon who operated on Eli Siegel.  Siegel's procedure was for prostate cancer.  Later, he claimed that "something went wrong" in the operation and he could no longer feel his feet when he walked.  Since my mother now suffers from neuropathy, I've recently learned of this fairly common disorder.  It's possible that this is what ailed Siegel. 

The AR leaders didn't see the problem as a common disorder.  One of them declared in a closed-to-the-public meeting (I was there) that the doctor didn't understand that there was a "different relation of mind and body" in Siegel than in the rest of humanity.  There were heated discussions in AR classes about Siegel's need to walk because his feet and mind were connected.  Given this line of logic it would follow that his feet and prostate were connected, too.  At the time, the weirdness of it all was lost on me.

And of course there was the usual AR paranoia:  People were out to get Siegel because they hated their respect for him.   The doctor's hatred of his great respect for Siegel (so the AR myth goes) caused him to botch the surgery.  I look back with amazement that I bought into all of this crap.  Many members did.

A letter writing campaign ensued.  AR insiders had to sign up for a mailing date.  The campaign was organized this way to ensure that the doctor received a new letter every day.  Later, we were encouraged to write to other medical people, many of whom had no connection to the case.  We were encouraged to demand that these medical people contact Siegel's surgeon and demand he "tell the truth" about the operation.

Looking back, I realize that the poor surgeon could have launched a libel suit against each member who wrote to another doctor.


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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Get a notice of updates to this site? (no more than 4x/year)

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...


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