Aesthetic Realism is a cult

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

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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 continuing to avoid having consultations.

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.

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.

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.

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 Aesthetic Realism 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


The most incriminating bits

The cult aspects of Aesthetic Realism. From fanatical devotion to the founder to the belief that they have the one and only true answer to world peace, it's all here.

A former high-ranking member spills the beans. Read about what life inside the group was really like.

"The Victims of Aesthetic Realism".  A journalist infiltrates the group and discovers how their mind-control methods work.

The transcript of a secret Aesthetic Realism meeting. It's an inquest of someone who didn't stay "cured" of his homosexuality.

Aesthetic Realism is a small mind-control cult group in New York City.  I was a member, as was my mother, my first father, and my maternal grandparents.  These days I'm telling the truth about how the group operates — along with lots of other former members.

Like all cults, Aesthetic Realists believe their founder was the greatest person ever to live, that his writings are more important than the Bible, and that he came up with the One True Answer for all the world's problems. The biggest sin one can commit in the group is to show insufficient "gratitude" for the founder or for Aesthetic Realism itself.  Members are expected to recruit family and friends, and generally have to cut off relations with family members whom they can't get to join (or with family and friends who join for a while, but then leave).  The group effectively controls every significant aspect of their members' lives — right down to whom they can marry.  But what AR is best known for is its alleged cure for homosexuality, which it was embarrassed into giving up after so many of the "cured" fell off the wagon. (Naturally, the cure involves professing undying devotion to the founder and his teachings.) And like most cults, the Aesthetic Realists also suffer from delusions of grandeur, obsessive paranoia, and wildly hysterical reaction to any criticism.

Newest exposés elsewhere

"I joined NYC's most boring cult". Scathing article about AR in Vice magazine.  Ex-members will find it very amusing.

New book about AR: "Erasing Reason".  Former AR member Hal Lanse, Ph.D, spills the beans about the group, with a special focus on AR's program of trying to turn gay people straight.

It's not just me saying Aesthetic Realism is a cult. It's also dozens of other former members whose stories are published here, well-known professional psychologists and cult experts (like Steve Hassan), and the media.  New York Magazine and New York Native both identified AR as a cult, and Harper's referred to them as "the Moonies of poetry". You can read what all these sources say about AR on this site.

But my best evidence against the Aesthetic Realists is what they say themselves. From their books, their letters, their newspaper ads, their private therapy sessions, and their secret meetings (which they blunderingly recorded to tape), the world can see how brainwashed they really are.

None of this would be an issue of the Aesthetic Realists were just a harmless group of eccentrics, but they're not harmless: They hurt people. They hurt the families who have lost a loved one to the group (and have thus lost meaningful contact with them), and they hurt the members themselves, who have a terrifying experience on the inside, and who need a considerable amount of therapy to recover from that experience after they leave.

From New York Native:

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

"By cultivating an individual's sense of negative identity, the program weakens the ego enough to gain admittance and eventual control over a person's mind....

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

There's lots of stuff on this site, but perhaps the most relevant are:

If you're a former member, I hope you'll share your story.

If you're a current member, I hope you'll consider leaving.

If you're a journalist or blogger, I hope you'll write about this scandalous group.

Thanks for stopping by. -- Michael Bluejay, editor


The newest additions and news:
  • AR trumpets its gay cure. Here's a typical letter-to-the-editor from an ARist promoting AR's "gay cure" back in the day. (Jan. 2015)
  • "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. (June 2012) (more...)
  • Recovering from your Aesthetic Realism experience.  Here's a list of books, counselors, and other resources to help you cope with what you went through. (December 2011) (more...)
  • "Aesthetic Realism — a crackpot cult lodged down in the woodwork in Greenwich Village".  The Arts Editor of New York Magazine doesn't pull any punches! (November 2011) (more...)
  • "The Victims of Aesthetic Realism".  We tracked down an old article by a journalist who infiltrated AR to discover the group's methods of mind control.  Powerful, scary stuff. (November 2011) (more...)
  • Growing up in Aesthetic Realism.  My own mother finally breaks her silence and describes what it was like to be born into a cult. (February 2011) (more...)
  • "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. (May 2010) (more...)
  • Village Voice ad from 1962.   The Aesthetic Realists deny that they're a cult in this ancient ad they bought in the Village Voice.  This shows that people were saying they were a cult as far back as 1962!  There are some more juicy bits, too.  (May 2010) (more...)
  • The Hypocrisy of the Aesthetic Realists.   Continuing my new series of calling a spade a spade, I list several examples of how the AR people are guilty of what they complain about in others — such as being full of hate, writing anonymously, and proffering falsehoods as though they were true. (May 2010) (more...)
  • Directed Origination -- AR's favorite mind control trick. How does a group actually get its hooks into someone's mind? Here's an exposé about AR's favorite trick. (Feb. 2010) (more...)
  • Five Reasons You Can't Trust an Aesthetic Realist. For starters, most of them eventually leave.  Today's zealot is tomorrow's ex-member. See this and four other reasons. (Feb. 2010) (more...)
  • Lies Aesthetic Realists tell. For the first six years I ran this site, I avoided using the "L" word (lie), preferring to just describe their dishonesty without using that particular pejorative. But their dishonesty is just so pervasive and extreme that the gloves are finally off. (Feb. 2010) (more...)
  • "The Moonies of poetry". I just found an old article from Harper's (1982) with some choice words about the Aesthetic Realists. Of course, whenever the media looks at AR, their conclusion is rarely favorable. (April 2009) (more...)
  • AR's double-page ad in the NY Times. The Aesthetic Realists probably blew close to a third of a million dollars on a double-page ad in the NY Times in 1990. They used that opportunity to tell the world that their founder, Eli Siegel, was "the greatest man in the history of the world". (April 2009) (more...)
  • Aesthetic Realism glossary. We explain the real meanings behind AR's loaded language. (April 2009) (more...)
  • Updated the "Cult Aspects of AR page". Added lots more examples and sources. (April 2009) (more...)
  • Transcript of a secret AR meeting. This might be the ultimate AR scandal, a transcript of an inquest of a person who didn't stay "cured" of his homosexuality. (March 2009) (more...)
  • Help for journalists - Media FAQ. After answering a lot of the same questions for reporters -- and seeing how the AR people are trying to mislead them -- I put together a page to help reporters covering AR stories (more...)
  • AR gets public funding -- and we get it canceled. AR was able to finagle a grant from the NY state budget. After we alerted the media it looks like the funding has been pulled. (more...)
  • Current AR member finally admits AR founder Eli Siegel killed himself! Do you suppose they'll now stop calling me a liar for saying that's what happened? Somehow I doubt it. (more...)

See the rest of the updates.

 

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. A former student describes how he was kicked out of AR because he couldn't change from homosexuality.

"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 instead.

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Your experience:

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Okay to publish your name?

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

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Aesthetic Realism at a Glance

Name

The Aesthetic Realism Foundation

Founded

1941

Founder

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

Purpose

To get the world to realize that Eli Siegel was the greatest person who ever lived, and that Aesthetic Realism is the most important knowledge, ever.


Philosophy

The key to all social ills is for people to learn to like the world. Having contempt for the world leads to unhappiness and even insanity. (Their slogan is "Contempt causes insanity".) For example, homosexuality is a form of insanity caused by not liking the world sufficiently.

Also teaches that "beauty is the making one of opposites".

Location

New York City (SoHo)


Membership

About 106 (33 teachers, 44 training to be teachers, and 29 regular students). Has failed to grow appreciably even after 70 years of existence, and is currently shrinking.

All members call themselves "students", even the leaders/teachers. Advanced members who teach others are called "consultants".

Method of study

Public seminars/lectures at their headquarters (in lower Manhattan), group classes, and individual consultations (three consultants vs. one student).


Cult aspects

  • Fanatical devotion to their leader/founder
  • Belief that they have the one true answer to universal happiness
  • Ultimate purpose is to recruit new members
  • Feeling that they are being persecuted
  • Wild, paranoid reactions to criticism
  • Non-communication (or at least very limited communication) with those who have left the group
  • Odd, specialized language.

  • More about cult aspects...

Open offer to debate

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

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

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

Official Aesthetic Realism sites

The Aesthetic Realism Foundation. The official website of the group. Read about AR in their own words.

Aesthetic Realism in the News. A sister site to the official AR site. AR in the News catalogs media articles mentioning Aesthetic Realism, usually editorials or online-only articles written by AR students. One gets the impression from reading some of these articles that they were written solely as an excuse to mention Aesthetic Realism. Fun game: see how many times Eli Siegel is identified with identical gushing praise across multiple articles (e.g., "the great American poet and critic Eli Siegel").

Countering the Lies. When I originally put up my site it was just a single page with only a little info and a link to another ex-member's story (Adam). When the AR people saw it, they started an entire site to combat what Adam and I said, called, ironically, "Countering the Lies"


Aesthetic Realism on other sites

Aesthetic Unrealistic Answer to Racism. A civil rights activist slams AR's new book against racism, saying that: "I have learned how important it is for analytical and critical thinkers to bring to light any organizations, doctrines or philosophies that would seek to 'pimp' Black peoples' struggle for racial justice and reparations. It is the moral duty of conscious individuals to expose anyone that would prey upon people's desperate hopes for an end to their oppression. In keeping with that, I would like to discuss a recent book that disturbs me greatly because the authors are guilty of the above."

Wikipedia. Aesthetic Realists have ganged up to delete just about anything critical that appears in the article.  I don't have time to fight them by myself any more, but if anyone wants to join me in getting the WP article on AR into a  fair, accurate, and unbiased form, please let me know.

Blogger Jenny Lohan.  Jenny found our site and blogged about it: "The cult is called the Aesthetic Realism foundation and it's full of old timer hipster weirdos in soho....I ended up on this website that had all these stories from former members and it scares the poop out of me."

What former members say...

I had to go through a lot of therapy getting out of this group.

Most people who formerly were in AR have wished to keep quiet about it, forget the miserable experience, and get on with their lives.

It was also the first glimmer in my mind that I let sprout in which I realized there was something terribly wrong with the AR foundation and I should get out. I am making an understatement of massive proportion when I say, I am very happy I did.

"He told me that he studied with Eli Siegel for around 6 years and that it's taken even more to get over it. His eyes started filling up."

When I left I immediately felt as though a 200 lb. weight was taken from my shoulders. Two years of tension between my family and myself rapidly eased. My father was thrilled that I "got that spark back".

When I left Aesthetic Realism and began to speak regularly with my older sister, she said with tears in her eyes, "I feel like you're finally back."

See former members' statements in their entirety


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Kudos

"Words can't do justice to describe how excellent your site is in both purpose and content....Your site really can do enormous good on the level of human happiness.   Just think of the countless people who will NOT get messed up in AR because they viewed your site before ever getting sucked-in.  And then there are those who are in the thick of it and just needed a little more courage or reality-based perspective to break free and quit.  You are doing a great service to people. Your site has the power to spare a lot of people a lot of anguish from a group of misdirected souls."

"Just want to thank you for your continued excellent work on this website. I seriously think of you as an American hero for standing up to the bullies at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.  I realize other people helped you by contributing their experiences and want to take a moment to thank them as well. I guess we will never know how many people were saved from being manipulated by ARs twisted logic but I'm sure its thousands of people (and likely many more than that) if they had their way in spreading their sick message unencumbered. I myself had not realized how much they had manipulated me until their tactics were explained here, suffice to say I am very grateful."

"There is a very interesting and rather warped dynamic among the students who left. To varying degrees, we're all wounded and in varying stages of recovery."

"Your site is a great source of comfort and excitement to all of us, probably more than you can tell from the silence of most."
-- former AR students

 

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Photo of Eli Siegel's gravestone from Find A Grave