Aesthetic Realism is a cult

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

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What is Aesthetic Realism?

by Michael Bluejay, ex-member • last update June 2015

Eli Siegel created a philosophy called Aesthetic Realism in 1941, and recruited a group of devotees to promote that philosophy as The One Great Truth.  Siegel died in 1978, but the group he spawned remains committed to his ideas, with cultlike fervor.

Unlike some cults, the teachings of Aesthetic Realism aren't particularly crazy.  The main idea is that we all have a tendency to be critical of other people and things as a way to make ourselves seem more important in comparison, but that that tendency actually poisons our minds and causes unhappiness.  The other idea is that beauty is found in the contrast of opposites, something most artists would probably agree with.  Most former members aren't critical of the group's beliefs (with the exception of the idea that homosexuality is caused by one's contempt for the world).  We're critical of the manipulative and hurtful way the Aesthetic Realism Foundation operates.

As with most cults, the main goal is to get the whole world to adopt the group's beliefs, and that starts with recruiting as many people as possible. A person typically gets involved in AR by first being invited to an art or drama presentation or exhibit at AR's Terrain Gallery in SoHo. From there the student will be encouraged to take Aesthetic Realism classes. After that the recruit will be strongly encouraged to have "consultations", a kind of therapy with three AR "consultants" vs. one student. (See a transcript of an actual consultation.)  The consultations are ostensibly to help the student learn more about Aesthetic Realism and to live their life better, but the real goal is to get the student to more strongly adopt the group's beliefs. Consultants ask probing critical questions that have only one right answer, and if students give the wrong answers they're worked on until they give the right ones. The whole process is designed to break down the self-identity of the student so that s/he will be willing to accept the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel as the One Truth and the greatest gift the world has ever known. (See more about this form of mind control.)  Students who show promise can train to become consultants themselves.

A former student describes consultations
"Three-on-one is a total power trip. They reinforce each other. It's utter persuasion, all three with the same point of view. If I expressed a doubt about what was happening, they would say, 'It's your contempt'. With three people telling you that, it's definitely going to affect you. Their technique is forceful in a subtle kind of way. They tap right into the negative side of your self-identity, all of them feeding off each other." -- Paul Grossman quoted in "Aesthetic Realism & Homosexuality", Boston Globe

Mind Control

By the time a student has gone through several consultations, the group has a fairly good grip on the inductee's mind, and can start to direct the student's life. They might start out with pushing the student toward a certain line of work, then directing them to whom they should marry (always within the group, of course), then whether they should have children, and then even having them cut off relations with friends and family who won't join the group.

People without cult experience have a hard time understanding how people can give up their autonomy so easily, and often think cult members must be stupid for not seeing what's going on, and for not leaving. But it's not about any lack of intelligence, it's about mind control. The key is that the inductee is drawn in gradually and slowly, step by step. No one would buy the opening pitch if it were something like, "Hi, come join our group and devote your life to it, let us decide how you should live your life, and cut off relations with friends and family who won't buy into into the group's teachings." Instead, the opening pitch is something like, "Hey, come to this drama presentation. It's really interesting." From there the inductee is moved deeper and deeper into the group, one step at a time. Each step is easy for the student to accept because it's not that large a change from the previous one. But by the end, of course, the change is massive. And once the student is "in", it's very hard for them to leave, because people tend to resist change, whether they're cult members or not. How easy is it for anyone to give up a deeply held belief? Pretty hard. The person would have to admit that they had been wrong, and who wants to believe they were wrong about something? Especially if they've been involved with it for many years! So given the choice between admitting they made a big mistake and wasted a good chunk of their life, or continuing their membership which requires no such uncomfortable realization, it's pretty clear why many people have a hard time leaving cults.

There's another, more insidious reason people are reluctant to leave. As another former member says, "One reason people stay in AR is that after breaking up their family relationships, with spouses, parents or siblings, there is little to go back to once the light comes on." Ouch.

But how does a person get involved in the first place? First, they may be attracted to the philosophy because it promises it has the secret to personal and worldwide happiness. Who wouldn't want that? As one former member said, "Many of us who got drawn in were idealists who really did want to help the world, which made us more susceptible to the message that promoting AR was the best way to do so. The AR people played on a noble aspect of our character, not a weak one." If the pitch is given by someone very charismatic, such as Siegel, then so much the better. Recruiters will also act especially happy so the recruit will be impressed with the effect the group has on people. If someone is depressed and then they encounter some people who say they have the answer to happiness and do appear happy themselves, that can be a powerful motivator. (Not all people who join cults were depressed at the time, but if they were, they were especially vulnerable.) Finally, there's the practice that cult psychologists call "love bombing", which is showing the recruit lots of attention and praise. Who doesn't like attention? As one former AR member said, "They flatter you to death and tell you that you're so wonderful, and you have all these qualities that others have never seen."

One former member wrote in to describe his step-by-step process of getting sucked in. "I believed in the possibility of there being a singular technique to achieve personal happiness. For me, there was something very appealing about a philosophy that promised to unify one's life in a way that imitated art. The other reason [I got involved] is that I knew two very sweet 'students' of AR -- sweet when they saw a possible recruit. They acted pretty balanced and normal and kept the Eli Siegel idolatry at a low volume, in the beginning." He goes on to explain how his involvement started with going to presentations, leading to classes, then leading to the fated consultations. (read his story)

Once an inductee begins consultations the mind control really starts. Consultants use a standard mind control trick to get a student to adopt a certain position, which I call directed origination. Simply telling a student what he should think isn't so successful. After all, the student might disagree, even if he doesn't say so. But if they can get the student to think he's the one who came up with the position, then he'll be much more deeply attached to it. So the consultants don't tell a student what to think. Instead they ask him how he feels about something. If the student gives the "wrong" answer then they ask him some leading questions to steer him to the "correct" answer. By having the subject voice the position himself the subject is more strongly committed to that position. It's insidious, and it works. Sometimes it's as simple as just asking yes/no questions. When the student answers, he's now got a certain ownership of that answer. On the directed origination page you can see how Eli Siegel, in very short order, gets the student to agree that:

  1. The student's mother is stupid for being devoted to him.
  2. That he doesn't respect her.
  3. That he has contempt for her (since AR's basic philosophy is that all problems are caused by contempt).

Another great example of the tactic of getting the subject to voice a position in order to believe it more deeply is found in the inquest of a student supposedly cured of his gayness, who was found to actually still be engaging in gay sex. In fact, when the subject says that he doesn't know the answer, the inquisitors thunder at him that he has to come up with it himself, they're not going to give it to him. They even use this tactic about the tactic, asking him:

Main Interrogator: ....Which do you think would take better care of Aesthetic Realism: if you came to a decision about something, or if you were told what to do?

Subject: If I came to a decision.

Scary stuff.

Incidentally, this particular cult's teachings have a built-in way of reinforcing compliance. The foundation of AR is that contempt is the root of all evil. Everyone inside has bought into that idea. So if anyone ever questions what's going on, she's simply accused of having contempt for AR or Eli Siegel. And since everyone believes that contempt must be purged, he's convinced that she must have been wrong to question. AR can thus shut down dissent faster than some other cults, just by using the group's teachings themselves. It's pretty insidious.


Aesthetic Realism's beliefs

Let's repeat something we said earlier, because it's important: It's not AR's beliefs that make it a cult. It's the fact that its members are subjected to mind control. There is nothing especially crazy about the group's main teachings (though some of the conclusions are, like the idea that homosexuality is a psychological problem).  Siegel actually had a lot to say that was especially insightful and valuable.  Unfortunately he and his followers took some useful ideas group to a scary extreme.

AR's main teaching is that all problems (personal and societal) stem from one's contempt for the world. AR says we all have a tendency to think less of other people and things as a way of making ourselves seem superior. This call this "contempt". They say that contempt makes you unhappy, because how can you be happy if you don't like the world?

That makes sense, and probably most people would agree with it. But they don't stop there, and that's where it gets questionable. Contempt doesn't just make you unhappy, according to AR, it can actually make you insane. AR's slogan is "Contempt causes insanity." In fact, they believe that all mental illness is caused by contempt:

"One of the greatest humanitarian and intellectual achievements of all time was the discovery by Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, that contempt causes insanity; in fact, that it causes all mental trouble." (source; emphasis added)

This is also where the idea for their gay cure came from. As AR's founder, Eli Siegel wrote:

All homosexuality arises from contempt of the world, not liking it sufficiently. (The H Persuasion)

And here's what they think of contempt:

"According to Aesthetic Realism, the greatest sin that a person can have is the desire for contempt." (source; emphasis added)

So homosexuals are both tremendously sinful and insane -- according to Aesthetic Realism. Man, that's just gotta suck.

So how do we deal with this problem of contempt?  AR's answer is that we have to learn that all beauty comes from the contrast of opposites. Once we realize that, we'll see the beauty in the world and we won't have contempt for it.  Here's "The Aesthetic Realism Imperative":

"[T]he only way you can like yourself is by liking the world, and the only way you can like the world is by seeing it as a oneness of opposites, aesthetically." (H Persuasion, p. viii)

And if the whole world will get in on this, then everyone will join hands and sing together in peace and harmony. AR says that it has the one and only answer to "end "loneliness, depression, boredom, learning difficulties, pain in marriage", racism — and of course, homosexuality. And let's not forget racism, poverty, and conflict between nations. Here's what the AR people said in their NY Times ad:

"[W]hen the United Nations studies Aesthetic Realism (it can begin today) there will not be war."

Here's AR in its own words, the "Four Statements of Aesthetic Realism":

The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.
  1. Every person is always trying to put together opposites in himself.
  2. Every person in order to respect himself has to see the world as beautiful or good or acceptable.
  3. There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.
  4. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves

The Aesthetic Realism Foundation website has an expanded definition of aesthetic realism.


You can't learn it in a lifetime

Aesthetic Realists are expected to study Aesthetic Realism their whole lives, to the day they die. First, AR people think you can't ever master AR completely, because no one could fully understand founder Eli Siegel's genius even in a lifetime. No matter how long they study, Aesthetic Realists are expected to say that they still don't get it all. (That's one of their ways of praising Siegel as having had the ultimate mind.) Quotes like this from The H Persuasion are typical:

"Even now, with ten years of Aesthetic Realism study behind me, I am far from understanding all of what Siegel means..." (p. viii)

And he won't ever do so. You won't find an Aesthetic Realist who admits to understanding Siegel completely.

The other reason that Aesthetic Realists are expected to "study" their whole lives is so they can recruit new members and promote AR in general. That's why the AR people get so flustered when anyone leaves. No one is supposed to leave. Here's what one former member said about this:

"[I]t is almost impossible to describe how filthy, disgusting, degenerate, and depraved we saw anyone who left AR. Take all the worst people throughout history you can think of, roll them into one, and you have what we were conditioned to think of them. I used to believe, for example, that while Hitler was evil because he wanted to kill all Jews and did succeed in killing 6 million of them, a person who left AR was even worse. They wanted to doom every person in the whole world for the rest of time to lives deprived of AR. There was no evil greater than that." (source)

As intelligent and insightful as Siegel was, it doesn't take very long to grok a tome like Self and World. The people in AR aren't learning more and more, year after year. They remain so they can defend AR (from critics like the ones on this site), recruit, and promote.  Incidentally, some of the members are public schoolteachers, and got some flak for trying to recruit in the classroom.


They're all married to each other

     In most cults you can't marry outside the group, and Aesthetic Realism is no exception. Every single Aesthetic Realist who is married (and most of them are), is married to another Aesthetic Realist. They're also generally at the same level, too. That is, consultants are married to other consultants, consultants-in-training are married to other consultants-in-training, and consultees are married to other consultees. As one former member said, "There was a time when the only way a guy could get a date with me was to attend the Saturday night program at the foundation."

     And back when AR was promoting its gay cure, students were declared "cured" and then pushed into marriages with other students. This was to prove to the outside world how successful the cure was. (It might have worked, too, if the "cured" didn't inconveniently keep deciding they were gay after all and resume having gay sex -- even if they were still married to another Aesthetic Realist and hadn't left the group yet.) These marriages were generally rushed along. No years of dating, no dilly-dallying thinking about it -- the "cured" were generally married off within two years once they began to study AR.

     Here's a question: What do you suppose an Aesthetic Realist would find most attractive in another person? Why, it's their love of Aesthetic Realism! This is from the first book about their gay cure:

"[W]hen I saw Sheldon Kranz listen to Eli Siegel's criticism and not run away, I began to care for him. Sheldon has told me since that it was my response to Aesthetic Realism that made him respect me....What I love most in my husband is his love for Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism." (Anne Fielding Kranz, The H Persuasion, p. 44)


The group's status

      Aesthetic Realism is dying, because the members who leave aren't being replaced. Previously, a substantial source of new members were the children of existing members. I was born into the group because my parents were members, and my mother was born into it because her parents were members. And as you might suspect, those who get in at a young age are generally more committed than those who start later in life.

      So what happened? Well, in a stunning blunder, in the 70's AR started discouraging its members from having kids. Children would demand time that could be better spent promoting Aesthetic Realism, after all. But this was short-sighted, because it meant a significant reduction in the most committed kinds of members the group could have, those who came to it out of the cradle (such as AR's current leader, Ellen Reiss). And this means that the group's demographic has been getting ever older and older....

      It's likely that most AR members are over 50 years old, and perhaps even over 60 years old. That presents a big recruitment problem: Older people are harder to recruit because they're more set in their ways and are more resistant to joining up with something. They also may lack energy to promote AR as energetically as a younger person would. But the group can't easily recruit younger people, because what younger person wants to hang out with a bunch of people old enough to be their parents or grandparents? So AR is basically aging itself out of existence.

     In 1971 AR had around 100 people studying. (The H Persuasion, p. xix) Throughout the 70's and 80's with people seeking the gay cure, membership perhaps doubled or tripled. But now it's back down to at most 106 people -- 33 consultants, 44 consultants-in-training, and 29 regular students, possibly fewer. I give AR another ten years, fifteen at tops, and then it's probably all over. But in the meantime, small as AR is becoming, they're still hurting people. I still get mail from people who lost a loved one to AR and haven't been able to talk to them in years. So as long as AR operates the way it does, I'll be here to let people know about that.

     Another interesting thing is that the group has never made it out of New York City, partially because the AR leadership is wary of anything they can't completely control directly. This is an amazing contradiction -- on the one hand the AR devotees have believed for decades that AR should be known and practiced worldwide, and that it's only a matter of time before that happens, but on the other hand they intentionally won't let it expand out of New York. So how is AR going to be a worldwide phenomenon if it never grows beyond SoHo?

     After my family moved to Texas (over AR's objections) when I was 5, my mother started an AR study group there. You'd think the AR people would be thrilled that mom was introducing AR to Texas. You'd think they would have aided and abetted her any way they could, providing her with materials, advice, encouragement, etc. But instead they didn't even talk to her. They weren't happy with her project, because they couldn't keep tight a control over it from New York. And when another student left the group but tried to teach AR on his own, the AR people put this worried notice on their website warning people against freelancers who weren't "authorized" to teach Aesthetic Realism. "Please note that the only persons authorized to teach Aesthetic Realism are those working under the auspices of and with the consent of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, Inc., a not-for-profit educational foundation. Any others presenting themselves as Aesthetic Realism teachers or consultants are not authorized to do so, are misrepresenting themselves, and may be 'teaching' something grossly different from and entirely out of keeping with what Aesthetic Realism truly is." Incredible.


Victim of the Press

Cults often promote the idea that they're being unfairly persecuted, and Aesthetic Realism is no exception.  ARists have always complained bitterly that there's a conspiracy in the media to not report the "wonderful news" about Aesthetic Realism and its ability to bring about world peace, harmony in marriage, an end to homosexuality, etc.  (Why?  Because, supposedly, people in the media want to feel that the're more important than Aesthetic Realism.  Riiiiight.)  Thus, ARists perceive themselves, and the whole world in fact, as victims of the media, and they adopted the slogan "Victim of the Press" to advertise their complaint.  They even signed their names that way—a member writing his name in the inside cover of one of her books would write "Jane Doe, Victim of the Press", and they'd sign their names the same way when they wrote letters to the editor.  Famously, they printed up Victim of the Press buttons, which they wore from the 1970s to the early 90s, until a newspaper article mocked them for the practice.  References to the buttons include:

  • Used to illustrate an article identifying AR as a cult in New York Native
  • Photo of me at age 12 wearing my button
  • Entry at The Button Museum 
  • Mentioned in the 5/5/93 St. Petersburg Times article "Minority protesters trash First Amendment" (which unfortunately I can't find online)

Socialist philosophy

AR is officially nonpartisan but their politics are far left, being highly critical of greed and profit in capitalisteconomics—with which I happen to sympathize, but not to the extent that the AR people take it.  Eli Siegel was actually a self-proclaimedsocialist, in the real meaning of the word (not the imaginary meaning where any effort by Obama to increase government services is called socialism by the right wing). AR even published a book in the 1970's based on Siegel's lectures called "Goodbye Profit System" predicting the fall of the free market system. (How's that working out?) Here's part of AR's summary of that book:

Eli Siegel showed in a series of lectures what no other economist saw, and what is true now and forall time: A way of economics based on contempt for man—though it went on for many centuries—no longer works.....Eli Siegel's knowledge ofhistory was unsurpassed, and he was humanity's greatest friend.

Jewish demographic

Religiously the group is non-denominational but a large number of its members and leaders are Jewish, perhaps the majority of them, with names like Siegel, Koppelman, Blaustein, Shapiro, Fishman, Rosen, Weiner, Weiss, Reiss Kimmelman, Kestenbaum, Bernstein, and my birth surname, Freedman. The Jewish involvement in the group is so strong that Jewish Times did a story on the controversy surrounding AR.

This is not a criticism, I'm just documenting various facts about the group.


Siegel's role

Many people have asked about whether Siegel promoted AR as the universal answer to everything and saw himself as deserving extraordinary praise, or whether his students just took his work and got carried away with it. The answer is the former: Siegel believed in the supremacy of AR and in his deserving a high status for having come up with it, and he wanted his students to promote these things.  One former student related to me how Siegel said, "You're supposed to be out there making me famous."  And here's another student's account of Siegel's lust for notoriety.

Former students also say that Siegel had quite a temper and could be particularly mean. Heck, in my lesson with him when I was two years old, he thought it would be a good idea to get all the adults in the room to taunt me to make me cry. Another former member writes in, "There were many classes and lessons in which Siegel literally yelled at people. I vividly remember him screaming at people with spit flying out of his mouth. I guess that's where 'spitting angry' comes from. That would often happen when he spoke about the press and others he saw as slighting him -- he would become so enraged as he spoke about it; he was wild with fury." Yet his current followers say that Siegel was actually the kindest person ever to live. Siegel was a formidable poet, critic, and philosopher, for sure, but he certainly didn't come close to being the kindest person, ever.

Others who had no involvement at all with Aesthetic Realism at all have been critical of Siegel. Harold Norse wrote in his memoirs:

Eli Siegel...founded a school of writing called Aesthetic Realism, which among other bizarre claims, professed to "cure" homosexuality. Thinking of Siegel, a man in his fifties whom I had known from the WPA Writers' Project as a mirthless, self-important intellectual, made me wonder who would discover a cure for heterosexuality. He enjoyed, if that is the correct word for a grim-faced maven whose long nose sniffed disdainfully at everything, a minor notoriety for a poem called "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana", which in the 1920s or 1930s won a prize in Nation. Based on long Whitmanesque lines, it was actually about the weather. But Williams was right to include him; the poem defied existing norms with a flat, bland insouciance that mocked conventional taste.

Before founding Aesthetic Realism, Siegel had been an emcee at a poetry club called the Village Vanguard.  Here's how the owner of that club remembered Siegel:

Siegel was putting [the Aesthetic Realism] movement together when he was the M.C. at the Vanguard. He told me this once when I ran into him on Jane Street almost forty years later.  "You need Aesthetic Realism in your life," he said, looking me in the eye. "I know the kind of man you are. It'll straighten you out. And not only you -- it can straighten out the whole world. Aesthetic Realism can straighten out the whole world, if ony the world will listen to me."

I see now what ailed Eli when he was the Vanguard M.C., why he was always getting so mad at the customers. He was trying to straighten them out, that's what he was doing. It's a good thing I got rid of him. (source)

Anyone reading Siegel can readily see a powerful mind at work.  It's easy to see how his followers found that to be both intimidating and attractive. But there's quite a difference in saying he was exceptionally intelligent (which is what most observers would say) and that he was the absolute greatest person ever to walk the face of the planet (which is what the Aesthetic Realists say).

Here's just one example of how he wasn't everything he was claimed to be.  One of his students writes about how Siegel was exceptionally dynamic:

"As a guest, I have attended many Aesthetic Realism lessons of people of all ages and professions, and coming from states all over the country.  I have never heard Mr. Siegel talk the same way to any two of them.  Nor have I ever heard him repeat himself in any mechanical or routine way.... [T]he questions and comments occur differently with each person because of a deep aesthetic instinct in Siegel that recognizes each person's individuality." (Sheldon Kranz, The H Persuasion, pp.41-42)

Yet in that student's own lesson detailed in that book, Siegel says this student thinks his mother is stupid for being so devoted to him (and that this is a big reason for the student's psychological problems). And then a few pages later, in that very same book, Siegel says the exact same thing to another student. Here are the two instances:

"Do you respect your mother?" Mr. Siegel asked.

"Of course," I said.

"I don't think you do. Did you feel as a child that you owned your mother, that she was utterly devoted to you?"

"Yes," I said.

"Do you think that was intelligent or stupid of her?"

"It was natural," I answered.

"But was it intelligent?"

"Not so intelligent," I said finally. (p. 34)

And then to the other student in a different lesson:

"I think you make your mother less intelligent than she is, because in so far as she needs you so much, you already downgrade her." (p. 66)


Cult aspects

So if it's not the teachings that make it a cult, what does? It's cult aspects like these:

  • They exhibit fanatical devotion to their founder/leader.
  • They believe that they have the one true answer to universal happiness if only people would listen.
  • Their ultimate purpose is to recruit new believers, and members are pressured to recruit family and friends.
  • They believe they are being persecuted or censored by the rest of the world. (Well, I guess I'm persecuting them, but I'm hardly the whole world.)
  • Members lives are controlled to a frightening degree, right down to whom they must marry (always within the group, of course).

These and other aspects are explained in more detail on the page cult aspects of Aesthetic Realism.


Aesthetic Realism and the cure for homosexuality

     One of the more controversial aspects of Aesthetic Realism was its depiction of homosexuality as a mental problem, the result of not liking the world. And they had the cure! Just study AR and you'll learn to like the world and then you won't be homosexual any more. (Of course it wasn't a very successful cure, with large numbers of the "cured" deciding later that they really were gay after all.) The gay cure was a big part of the group's message in its heyday in the 1970's and 1980's, but in recent years they have tried to hide that fact, realizing that such a message isn't very popular in today's more tolerant society. We have a separate page covering the Aesthetic Realism homosexuality cure.


Aesthetic Realism and the cure for racism

     Since the cure for homosexuality was a bust, they've moved on to having a cure for racism. Well, they call it the "answer" to racism, how racism can end. And you'll never guess how this cure is achieved. Yes, it's teaching people about Aesthetic Realism, so they'll learn to like the world, and then they won't be racist any more. They have a book out about this now. Me, I don't think it's quite that easy. I don't think racist people are sitting around thinking, "You know, I really hate being racist. If there were only some book I could buy that could teach me how to not have these feelings, then by golly I'd buy it!"

     I'm all for ending racism as much as the next person, but I'm skeptical that AR holds the magic key in that regard.


Aesthetic Realism in the schools

     Cult members teaching your children! Realizing how important it is to introduce young minds to AR, many AR members have become public school teachers, where they talk up Aesthetic Realism and Eli Siegel in the classroom. An award-winning investigate reporter for the New York Post did a series of articles about this, which are quite a scandalous read. As I update this page in 2009, it appears that most or all of the AR teachers identified in the article are still teaching. I'm currently seeing what I can do about that....


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.


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

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Aesthetic Realism at a Glance


The Aesthetic Realism Foundation




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


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.


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".


New York City (SoHo)


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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Other kinds of Realism

In art, realism is exactly what it sounds like -- the realistic depiction of the objects being painted, sculpted, etc. There's more about this, with several examples, on ArtLex, an online encyclopedia of art terms. ArtLex is really impressive!

The article Realism and Naturalism explains realism in music and fiction as well.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an article about realism in metaphysics and philosophy.

So what does aesthetic realism mean? To paraphrase Eli Siegel, reality is composed of opposites, and that reality is beautiful, or aesthetic. An expanded definition is available on the Aesthetic Realism Foundation's website.



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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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Photo of Eli Siegel's gravestone from Find A Grave