Aesthetic Realism is a cult
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Aesthetic Realism founder Eli Siegel killed himself

by Michael Bluejay • Original: 2005 • Last update: April 2022

 Eli Siegel's grave

It's significant that the man who claimed to have the ultimate answer to personal happiness wound up taking his own life, in 1978.  One would have to be inanimate to miss the irony.  When someone who says he has the ultimate answer for happiness winds up killing himself, it does give you pause.  Especially since Siegel had previously spoke against suicide:

There are only two things we can do about the world. One is respect it more and more; the other is to have contempt for it....As Aesthetic Realism sees it, contempt for the world is the cause of insanity and also the cause, often, of the condition accompanying insanity or accompanied by it, suicide. ["The Right to Be Known", #229, and #604 (Oct. 31, 1984)]

To be clear, I'm not critical of Siegel for choosing to end his life.  That was his call, and that's not the scandal.  The scandal is that his followers have tried to hide that fact from the public.

The details of Siegel's death

Doctors told Siegel that he'd die without prostate surgery, so he had it.  He was dissatisfied with the results, because it didn't restore his ability to walk easily.  He might also have been in pain from the surgery—current members say he had been (of course they would), though one former member says that it seemed to just be normal post-operative pain and that Siegel was impatient.  According to another former member, Siegel was certainly depressed:

Talking of his life, Siegel said at the time, "What used to have color is now coated with gray."  I said to a psychologist once, "Doesn't this sound like clinical depression?"  "Yep," he said, "That's clinical depression."  So Siegel's loving followers agreed to allow a depressed man to take his own life. (source)

Siegel tried to overdose with prescription medication, but instead was rushed to the hospital.  Later, he tried to overdose a second time and was successful, ending his life at age 76.


Trying to hide Siegel's suicide from the public

Eli Siegel's death merited a 13-paragraph obituary in The New York Times, excerpted here:

"Almost from the beginning of Aesthetic Realism in 1941, Mr. Siegel and his followers — who prefer to be called students — insisted that the philosophy was being boycotted by the press and that it was thus impossible for them to propagate their views and gain a wide following.

"The Aesthetic Realism Foundation, which teaches Mr. Siegel's beliefs, refused yesterday to give the clinical cause of his death.  But it said in a news release that he had 'died of a broken heart, having suffered for over 50 years from injustices of the press and literary world.'

"Dorothy Koppelman, the president of the foundation, said she traced the injustices to Mr. Siegel to 1925, when, after winning a poetry contest conducted by Nation magazine at the age of 22, older writers criticized him and his work as being unworthy of special acclaim." (source)

After I first put this page up, AR members insisted on AR's Countering the Lies website that they have not been secretive about the nature of Eli Siegel's death.  That's one of the "lies" I'm supposedly propagating.  But there it is in the New York Times in black and white: The Aesthetic Realism Foundation...refused yesterday to give the clinical cause of death.  There is also no mention of it anywhere on their website.  That's the dead giveaway that this wasn't a normal death.  Had it been, they would have said so.

Here's an example of AR's claiming that they've been up front about Siegel's cause of death, in this article by Wayne Plumstead:

A final misrepresentation I want to refute here is the manner in which those attempting to discredit Eli Siegel have portrayed his death.  The twist they give to it could only have been conceived by persons with a malevolent purpose.  The events that led to his dying have long been knowledge in the public realm, because Ellen Reiss has described them, often in detail, in the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known [TRO] at least once every year since 1987! (source)

No, she hasn't.  TRO has never contained any such admission that Siegel took his life.  If it did, Plumstead might have actually quoted some edition of TRO, but he can't quote it, since no such published admission exists.  In fact, Reiss suggests in TRO that Siegel did not take his life.  For example, in the November 3, 2004 edition, she says:

"I have written every year at this time about the operation Mr. Siegel underwent in May of 1978, which was the cause of his dying 5-1/2 months later."

That implies that Siegel suffered complications from the surgery and the doctors couldn't save him.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  This is a typical obfuscation from the Aesthetic Realists: The reality is that Siegel killed himself because he was unhappy with the results of the surgery, so the AR people feel justified in saying that the surgery was the cause of his death.  That's just flat-out dishonest.  And it's from this that they're claiming that the details of Siegel's death have "long been knowledge in the public realm".  According to the Aesthetic Realists, everyone should somehow know that Siegel killed himself because Ellen Reiss said that an "operation...was the cause of his dying".  Wow.

They pulled the same B.S. in their double-page ad in the New York Times:

Eli Siegel, who was completely honest and completely kind, died tragically in 1978.  In May of that year a so-called simple operation was performed on him by a surgeon at a hospital in New York City.  After the operation, Mr. Siegel's life was ruined.  He died November 8, 1978.

And the mention of the suicide is where?

But anyway, I'm game:  Let's see it!  Let's see this alleged unobfuscated admission of Siegel's suicide from AR's journal.  AR people, put it online so everyone can see that you're right and I'm wrong.

Here's Arnold Perey's statement on AR's Countering the Lies, which comes closer to admitting the truth but still fails to explicitly do so:

And Michael Bluejay adds more lying of his own.  He claims that there has been "deception, since AR members have refused to reveal how Siegel died."  For two decades, Ellen Reiss and others have described publicly, in print, the cause of Mr. Siegel's death.  In 1978, surgery was performed on Mr. Siegel for a benign prostatic condition by a doctor who admitted later he had been angry at his respect for Mr. Siegel.  This operation damaged him irreparably and ruined his life.  It was the reason for his death later that year, on November 8, 1978: it is apparent that Mr. Siegel chose to die with dignity, as other courageous persons have done, including, it seems clear, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and George Harrison.  About Harrison, his friend Eric Idle wrote, "He passed away—here in LA—with beauty and dignity surrounded by people he loved."

Perey repeatedly censors any mention of Siegel's suicide in the Wikipedia article on Aesthetic Realism.  Yes, the same Arnold Perey who above calls me a liar for saying that AR supporters are being deceptive about how Siegel died, is repeatedly censoring the fact that Siegel took his own life.  I'd like to nominate Dr. Perey for the Hypocrite of the Century award.

Denying that Siegel killed himself

If the AR people were simply vague about how Siegel died that would be bad enough.  But they go beyond obfuscation, they actually deny that Siegel killed himself.  One of the Aesthetic Realists who's calling me a liar on AR's Countering the Lies, told my mother point-blank that Siegel did not kill himself.  And in 2008 one of the AR leaders, Dale Laurin, outright denied Siegel's suicide in a Q&A following an AR presentation at a library. (He didn't realize he was being recorded.)

Audience Member:  You'd mentioned Eli Siegel and his views on contempt and selfishness.  And, I was reading just a little bit about him before I came here.…Uh, one thing that was interesting, though, he said that he believed homosexuality was a form of contempt and selfishness.  Did he ever recant that before he committed suicide?

>Dale Laurin:  Uh, first of all, ah, he didn't commit suicide...

Here's some audio of that quote.  The reason there's a sound change before the first time that Laurin starts speaking is that his voice was barely audible, being far away from the questioner, so I boosted the volume and added some noise reduction.

Admitting that he killed himself, but fudging their words

After the pressure I've been putting on them to come clean, the AR people have finally essentially admitted that Siegel killed himself, while in the same breath attacking me for saying that he did.   At the library presentation above, a different audience member pointed out that while Laurin claimed that Siegel didn't kill himself, Laurin didn't say how Siegel did die.  So how about that?  Here's how Laurin responds.  By the way, I love how the questioner realizes right away that Laurin is nuts and tries to get away but Laurin won't shut up.

Audience member: [mostly inaudible] You didn't say...I couldn't understand why all of a sudden this guy wondered...

Dale Laurin:  Do you know how many people die in this country, and they're in the hospital, and they are suffering tremendously?  And every person has the right to end their life when they feel that they have been tortured.  That's what happened to Eli Siegel.  And there's a person on the Internet who used the word "suicide" to describe the kindness of a person having the right to end their life in dignity.  That is what occurred with Eli Siegel.

Audience member:  Okay, thank you....

Dale Laurin:  Exactly.  See, and don't you think it's malicious that a person would turn that into suicide, with a reckless abandon?

Audience member: [quickly] Yeah, yeah, thank you...

Dale Laurin:  This was a man who suffered at the hands of doctors who had ill will for him, who like this person I'm referring to, had anger at their respect for him.  And this doctor actually admitted this after the fact.  Mr. Siegel's life was ruined in the operation.  He valiantly lived and continued to teach for many months after that until it became unbearable.  And then he did what every person I feel has the right to do.

Okay, so if Siegel actually did choose to end his life, how exactly am I a liar for saying so?

By the way, when I first played this audio for a friend, she asked, "What does Siegel killing himself have to do with kindness?"  Good question!  The thing is, AR people believe that Eli Siegel was the kindest person ever to live.  If Eli Siegel did something, then it was kind by definition.  Siegel criticizes you in front of the group?  Kindness!  Siegel has a bagel?  More kindness!  Siegel kills himself?  That's got to be the epitome of kindness.

Another Aesthetic Realist spoke more plainly:

Mr. Siegel made a rational and I believe courageous decision to bring his life to a peaceful and dignified end. (source) 

That's not bad, except he still attacks me for saying that Siegel killed himself:

A final misrepresentation I want to refute here is the manner in which those attempting to discredit Eli Siegel have portrayed his death. The twist they give to it could only have been conceived by persons with a malevolent purpose.

AR member Arnold Perey also essentially admitted the truth about Siegel's death on a Wikipedia talk page:

"Eli Siegel died with dignity.... What death with dignity means to people today, thanks to the Hemlock Society and other Death with Dignity organizations, is that one has died by his own hand.

Of course, at the same time he was censoring any mention of Siegel's suicide from the Wikipedia article.  So there's that.

Another Aesthetic Realist admits on AR's Countering the Lies that Siegel "died with dignity", and alludes to assisted suicide — in the same breath as she continues to call me a liar for saying that Siegel took his own life:

That a person chooses to die with dignity when he or she has been fatally injured or is fatally ill is something that is now respected and accepted worldwide.  This choice has been made by persons whose names many are familiar with, including very recently, the fine actor Jerry Ohrbach, following a long illness.  A newspaper reported his agent as saying, "When he was ready to leave, he left—with dignity."  There is the popular and much respected film Million Dollar Baby, whose main character, Maggie Fitzgerald (played beautifully by Hillary Swank), asks the character Frankie Dunn (played by Clint Eastwood), who is her manager, to help her to die after she is paralyzed in a boxing match.  He does assist her, and she is grateful; she wanted to live with dignity and she wants to die with dignity.... The motive of those attacking him is to be seen in their lying about even this most large, deep, and personal matter.

Do you suppose they'd take it back if I said instead that he "died of his own hand with dignity"?  Nah.

Special mention for Arnold Perey

On AR's Countering the Lies, Arnold Perey says:

To falsify a man after he has died and can no longer reply—could anything be more cowardly or show more baseness of character? If so, I haven’t seen it. (source) 

I have.  That would be Arnold Perey, refusing to stand behind the B.S. he spews.  I publicly invited the Aesthetic Realists repeatedly to debate these issues, but they wouldn't reply.  Finally, I went to AR headquarters and when Arnold Perey emerged, I asked him repeatedly to debate.  He ignored me, hurried into his car, and sped away, as I have the video to prove.  But according to him, I'm the coward.  Right.

I'd also say that he's got some baseness of character in calling someone a liar for telling the truth.

More info on Siegel's suicide from former students

April 9, 2005:

Just a quick note on the suicide of Eli Siegel.

  1. It was never quite clear that Siegel was suffering physical pain beyond normal post-operative pain.
  2. He said he was in agony because the way his feet met the earth was changed.  And because of that he found it hard to walk. And walking was necessary for him to think and create.
  3. People did try and reason with him, advising him to give his recovery more time.

Also previous to his surgery he had been suffering from horrible swelling in his legs and feet.  There was no question that he was in enormous physical pain. It was during that period where he tried to heal himself without going to doctors.  (Though he did ask us to get him pain killers.)  It was also during this period that he hardly walked at all.

After the prostate surgery when his legs and feet were no longer swollen he expected that walking would be possible. However, something felt off to him.

I doubt we will know the whole truth around what happened to Siegel.  There have been a number of cases where prostate surgery caused temporary or permanent impotence; this was never discussed. H owever, Siegel definitely liked women.  There were rumors of him asking various attractive women to sit on his lap and the women complying and accepting his fondling. [Editor's note: That definitely happened.]  So I could imagine that impotence might have an even more devastating effect on Siegel's pysche than the business of walking.  It just doesn't sound as good.

By the way, there may have been legal implications surrounding a detailed admission of Siegel's suicide.  After all it is a crime to assist a suicide.

Keep up the good work. I didn't intend this note for publication but feel free to use all or none of it as you see fit.

May 10, 2005:

     I am sending this statement because of the angry statements made against Mr. Bluejay (whom I've never met) and others who speak about the death of Eli Siegel. It is all well and good to pretty things up 25 years after the fact, but it doesn't change what occurred at the time, and no amount of denial can lessen the anger and torment that festered within the "student body" of AR at the time.

      I was present for much of the period prior to Eli Siegel's death.  The idea for his suicide was talked about long and hard among students as we met in the home where he resided after his operation and up to his death.  We fought bitterly; there was a faction who felt he should go ahead with it and then a larger faction who couldn't make sense of his desire to die.  I was part of the latter.  People left Aesthetic Realism because in what seemed like an about-face, those closest to Siegel finally agreed that suicide was the proper option.  It was a horrible time for people who really believed in his philosophy.

      And Eli Siegel is not the only person involved with AR who ended his life.  There were others, and there was at least one person I know who was encouraged to commit suicide because of a terminal cancer.  Since contempt was seen as the cause of all illness, it was seen as more contemptuous for her to remain alive.  This person was ostracized when she would not go along with this. Only a very few people were allowed to attend her funeral.  She was a lovely woman and deserved so much more.

      It's a shame that AR pretends that this period did not happen.  Of course, I am not in a position to say what is going on now.  What I do know is that even with the valuable tools for living I heard about during my "study," I am so grateful that I got out when I did.  I have never once regretted my decision.  It is a shame what the present regime is doing to a philosophy of value, but it only goes to affirm my decision made in 1980.

August 2008:

I did an Internet search in a moment of morbid curiosity and I found all this fuss over Eli Siegel's death.  There isn't any question: He killed himself.  I heard this directly from Ellen Reiss, the person who became Aesthetic Realism's "class chairman".

[One day, Siegel's] widow, Martha Baird, began reading a letter she had written to the consultants and consultants-in-training.  She began weeping and passed the letter to Reiss, to read the bulk of it aloud.  The letter said, in no uncertain terms that Siegel had taken his life through "pills designed for sleep."  (Followers, even Siegel's own wife, often imitated his peculiar writing style.  Heaven forbid she would just say "sleeping pills".)  (more...)

March 21, 2010, by Hal Lanse, Ph.D.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aesthetic Realism at a Glance


The Aesthetic Realism Foundation




Eli Siegel, poet & 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.


We have a tendency to look down on others to make ourselves seem superior by comparison (contempt).  Every single problem in the world (including homosexuality) is the result of contempt.  By studying AR, we can learn to purge our contempt so the world will be perfect.  Also, beauty comes from the contrast of opposites.


New York City (SoHo)


About 66, as of 4/22, as ~23 teachers + ~43 teachers-in-training.  (In 2009 it was ~77 (33+44), and ~29 regular students.  You could consider them members, but I'm not including them in the total.)  Anyway, with only ~66 committed members, much for world domination.

All members call themselves "students", even the leaders/teachers.  Advanced members who teach others are called "consultants".
StatusIn serious decline.
They might have ten years left.

Method of study

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

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, and family members who refuse to join
  • Odd, specialized language.

  • More about cult aspects...

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' stories in their entirety
The best bits:  Cult aspects of ARDream to NightmareA journalist infiltratesAll the articles

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