Aesthetic Realism is a cult

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

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Recovering from Aesthetic Realism

How to deal with the after effects


Anyone who's spent any time in a mind-control cult will be impacted psychologically by the experience, and AR is no different.  This shouldn't be a surprise: The purpose of a cult is to get its members to believe that the group is the most important thing in the world, and to do that they have to get inside your head.  They weaken your ego, so they can induce powerful feelings of guilt.  You get criticized a lot.  And any time you question the group at all, they tell you it's because of a personal failing inside yourself.  Anything bad that happens is your fault.  If they're successful then you wind up blaming yourself for things even if the group leaders don't.  That kind of experience is incredibly damaging.

Could anyone come out of that experience and not be affected by it?!

Maybe you think that now that you see your group for the cult it was, everything's better now.  If so, then great.  But for a lot of people, simply knowing that their group was in fact a cult isn't enough to erase the damage.  Your mind can know that you have nothing to feel guilty about, but that doesn't necessarily mean you won't feel it anyway.  You can't choose your feelings.

Here are a couple of (non-cult) examples.  My mom took me to see Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory when I was three years old.  There's a scene where a little girl eats some purple candy she wasn't supposed to, and she balloons up to be ten times her normal size.  That scene freaked me out and I started crying and screaming, and my mother had to take me out of the theater.  Years later when I was in high school I saw the movie again, and when that scene came around, I wasn't scared, but my stomach knotted itself anyway and I certainly felt uncomfortable.  Even though I knew I had nothing to fear, I felt it anyway.  As another example, there's something from my childhood which I know wasn't my fault, but to this day I still have dreams about it.

Margaret Singer, who pioneered research into destructive cults, came up with some characteristics of post-cult trauma syndrome.  Here's a partial list:

  • fear of going insane
  • confusion about right and wrong
  • sexual conflicts
  • unwarranted guilt
  • spontaneous crying
  • sense of loss
  • panic disproportionate to one's circumstances
  • depression & suicidal thoughts
  • fear that not obeying the cult's wishes will result in God's wrath or loss of salvation [or in AR, the ability to know the truth and to be happy]
  • alienation from family, friends
  • sense of isolation, loneliness due to being surrounded by people who have no basis for understanding cult life
  • fear of evil spirits taking over one's life outside the cult
  • scrupulosity, excessive rigidity about rules of minor importance

She supplemented with some other effects that ex-members often experience:

  • simplistic black-white thinking
  • disassociation (spacing out)
  • difficulty concentrating
  • incapacity to make decisions
  • mental confusion
  • low self-esteem
  • dread of running into a current cult-member by mistake
  • loss of a sense of how to carry out simple tasks
  • dread of being cursed or condemned by the cult
  • difficulty managing time
  • trouble holding down a job   (see Singer's complete list)

Cult experts recognize that people who leave cults have special challenges for getting over their experience.  Most counselors and therapists aren't equipped to help ex-cult members in this way.  If you seek counseling, it's crucial to choose a counselor who has specific training and experience in helping ex-cult members.  Here's a list of some resources:


Books

Counselors & Therapists (rates per session as of Jan. 2017)

Articles

Conferences & Workshops

  • ICSA: "After the Cult: Recovery Workshop for Former Group Members"
  • ICSA: Workshop for those born into cults ("Second-Generation Adults: Surviving and Moving On After a High Demand Group Experience")

Live-in programs

Community (discuss with other recoveress)

Videos

  •  Steve Hassan (10-17-10)  One of the most well-known experts on cults talks about how he got into the Moonies, and then out.
  •  Recovery from Cults (Margaret Singer, 1991)


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.

Name

(We won't publish your name unless you say it's okay, but we have to have it in order to verify submissions.)

Email Address


(We won't publish your email address, but we have to have it in order to verify submissions.)

Your experience:

Yes   No

Okay to publish your name?

Yes   No

Okay to identify your gender? (e.g., "his story", "her story")

Yes   No

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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?

 

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

 

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?

Last updated:  May 2012

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Photo of Eli Siegel's gravestone from Find A Grave