Aesthetic Realism is a cult
Who they are, how they operate • Written by former members

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How cults recruit and indoctrinate their members

by Michael Bluejay • June 2013

Ever wonder how someone becomes a cult member?  How exactly do they get sucked in?  The process is actually remarkably similar from cult to cult, and here I'll explain the basic recipe.  But before detailing the specific mind-control tricks, one thing to understand is that the indoctrination is typically a series of small steps.  No one goes from rational person to brainwashed devotee overnight; instead, they're gently led through the process, one step at a time, each step being not very far from the old step, so that no step seems like a big change.  Of course, once you take enough steps you're a mile from where you started.  It reminds me of that old idea that a frog in a pot of water that's slowly heated from room temperature to boiling never realizes it.  While I doubt that's actually true, it illustrates the concept.  Anyway, with that in mind, let's follow the path of a new recruit into a mind-control group.

1. Invitation to a non-threatening event

Cult recruiters never give you the hard sell right off the bat.  After all, if the pitch were, "Come be a part of our group, have it control most to all aspects of your life, possibly cut off ties with those you can't recruit into the group, and make the group the focal point of your life until you die," then most of us would run the other way screaming.  So instead, a potential recruit is invited to a workshop, a poetry reading, a "party", a peformance, or some other seemingly innocuous event.

The invitation might incorporate some other tricks.  For example, famed ex-cult member Steve Hassan originally accepted the invitation from the Moonies because the Moonies used attractive young women as the recruiters.

2. Love-bombing

At the event, cult members shower the potential recruit with attention and praise.  Psychologists call this "love-bombing".  The cult people are trying to create a positive association in your mind between attending the event and having a good feeling.  So when you're invited to the next event, you'll be more likely to accept because of the good feeling they instilled in you on your first visit.

The love-bombing might continue for a while.  As one AR recruit later said, "Those first months, all my new friends from the AR Foundation were unusually kind to me....Little did I realize, that within a short time, I would cave in to their pressure to be outwardly expressive of a gratitude that I just didn't feel and they didn't deserve."  Another ex-member, commenting on that story, said, "You really got it right as you explained how warm and friendly everyone can seem when they’re in recruitment mode..."

3. Dangling "The Prize" in front of you

At some point, cult members will suggest that if you join or study with them, you can attain something special, such as, depending on the cult, happiness (most cults), the answer's to the world's mysteries (Scientology), a "cure" for homosexuality (Aesthetic Realism), or fantastic wealth (various multi-level marketing groups).  This offer could come before, during, or after that initial event you were invited to, but it'll be there, because they need you to want something from them, otherwise they have no leverage over you.

At the event, the members will all seem very happy, and you'll probably be introduced to some "success stories", people whose lives have supposedly been totally turned around since joining the group, maybe either attaining the prize or being close to doing so.  Now, so these success stories say, they're finally really happy, or they understand how the world works, or they're no longer gay/alcoholic/whatever, or they've made lots and lots of money, etc.  You're supposed to look at them and imagine yourself attaining that same prize.

4. Extracting an agreement from you that you want the prize

After introducing the prize, they get you to agree that you want it.  This is actually pretty easy, because the prize is usually attractive (who wouldn't want it?), and because admitting your interest in it seems safe because you don't see any obligation attached.  The pitch might sound like any of these:

  • "You do want to become financially independent, don't you?"

  • "Wouldn't it be exciting to really know the secrets of the meaning of life?"

  • "Would your life be better if you were no longer [gay/addicted to alcohol/etc.]?"

  • "Is it one of your goals to find a way to truly help the world?"

  • "What have you got to lose?  Isn't it worth [$x or y action] to find out whether this can really change your life?"

Once you agree, the cultists have sunk an important hook into you, and they'll use it.  By the way, notice some of the psychology here:  They don't tell you what you should want, they get you to articulate it.  They're trying to get you to feel that the idea came from you.  In the future, you'll be less likely to argue, because you'd feel like you'd be arguing with yourself.  Once you say what you feel out loud, that becomes part of your identity.  Unfortunately, that means you've taken the first big step into identifying with the cult.

5. Shutting down your dissent by threatening to withhold the prize

By this point, the sell becomes a little harder.  You'll be encouraged to do things that you might rather not, like devote more of your time to the group, start recruiting for them, pay for expensive programs or study materials, or adopt more extreme beliefs.  Naturally, you might resist.  But the cultists are ready for that.  When you show any resistance, they simply threaten you that you'll never attain the prize if you keep up that kind of attitude.

This tactic is shown quite plainly in the transcript of an Aesthetic Realism consultation.  The cult leaders shoot down the student's questions by suggesting that he's doomed to a life of homosexuality if he doesn't stop being "difficult".

Teacher:  Did you study the tape of your last lesson? I'll be direct. Did you actually listen to it?

Student:  Yes.

Teacher:  Did you like yourself for the way you talked, the way you listened?  As you listened to yourself did you like the way you answered questions and even the way you asked questions?  Did you, do you were being argumentative for the purpose of not seeing what is true, and in fact thwarting?

Student:  Well, I guess, maybe it would be, if I tried to, I guess I would have to say I was disappointed in myself for not catching on quicker.

Teacher:  Yeah, but do you think there was anything argumentative?  When I began to study Aesthetic Realism I wanted to see, but I also made a mistake in wanting to be superior...I did not know Aesthetic Realism and the tremendous knowledge that Eli Siegel had came to — on one hand I was grateful that Aesthetic Realism was so big there was something for me to learn — and it was true about me, I was grateful for that. But on the other hand, I made the stupid mistake of resenting the, the size of Aesthetic Realism and the fact that there was something new for me to learn. And do you think anything like that is going on in you?

Student:  Yes.

Teacher:  Because think about it this way: If Aesthetic Realism was something you already knew...your life, you've got a situation in your life you want to change, homosexuality...

Student:  Right.

Teacher:  Right? So if what you know already, what you've met all these years, had helped you in this field, you wouldn't be homosexual, right?

Student:  Right.

Teacher:  So what's your hope? Does your hope lie in Aesthetic Realism being just what you already knew, or Aesthetic Realism being new, and big, and explaining things you haven't understood, though you've been troubled by them?

Student:  I want it to be new and big and explain things...

Threatening to withhold the prize isn't the only way the leaders shoot down objections, though.  Notice that they used another one in the transcript above:  They say that anyone who questions the teachings is simply trying to feel superior.

Actress Sarah Fazeli relates how the Landmark leaders threatened her with not getting the prize when she raised an objection.  Early on she tried to get her money back, and the Landmark rep came back with, "Let’s talk about this. Why do you feel this way? What could you be resisting in your life? What if 'I want my money back' is just a story you are telling yourself?"

Sarah then talked to another rep, who said, "Sarah, can you honestly say you are where you want to be in your life?"  That's exactly out of the playbook.  He followed up with, "What is really going on here? What are you resisting?"  Resisting, trying to feel superior, whatever, it's just always turned around as a criticism ofthe questioner.  And then back to threatening non-attainment of the prize:  "I hear you, Sarah, but I want you to be open to the possibilities that lay ahead for you...."

But maybe the most direct example of holding back the prize was at the seminar that Sarah attended, when a leader chastised attendees for taking unauthorized bathroom breaks:  "You get up and take a break? Don’t blame me if come Sunday everyone else 'gets it' and you don’t. I can’t guarantee the transformation that will happen Sunday at 5pm unless you are here and present every second."

6. Establishment of guilt

Okay, so the recruit is in the door, and no longer asking difficult questions.  The next step is to make the recruit feel guilty.  Yale professor Robert Lifton called this shaming the establishment of guilt in the landmark book about the brainwashing of prisoners of war.  The prisoners had so successfully been made to feel guilty that they came to blame themselves for their own incarceration.

Cult leaders shame their recruits because that makes the recruits feel vulnerable and more susceptible to further manipulation.  It's also used to guilt-trip recruits into getting more involved with the group.  (For example, see this ex-member's story.)

For the already-indoctrinated, playing the shame game ensures that they remain committed to The Cause.   As one ex-AR member said:

"We would sit, thirty or so people, listening to the leader tell us how much good he had done in our lives, and how we would never be happy until we acknowledged to the entire world our debt of gratitude to him.  I would sit as far to the back of the room as possible, tears of shame running down my face, bending my head down behind the person in front of me so I wouldn't be called on to speak, and vowing inwardly to be 'honest' from now on." (more...)


The Aesthetic Realists actually blew a third of a million dollars on a double-page ad in the New York Times to tell the world about AR, and in that ad they talked about their guilt for not having respected their cult enough:  "We ourselves, we say with shame, resented Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism because we respected them so much."  Another ex-member explains where that kind of thinking comes from:

"In almost any situation, one of the most surefire crowd pleasers was to 'express one's regret' for where one had been 'unfair' to the leaders or the group. The more eloquent and heartfelt one could be on this subject, the better. The people with the highest standing in the organization were those who were most adept at not only praising Siegel, Reiss and AR extravagantly yet convincingly, but also expressing, often with tears, their 'everlasting, searing regret' for having, in the past, been unfair to them."

An ex-member of Zendik had this to say:  "For me, the creepiest element of Zendik Farm was the way that shame was used as a control mechanism...if the Zendiks didn’t like something about you, they could shame you into submission by making your private shit a matter of public disapproval."

7. Carrot/Stick

Behavior is reinforced by rewarding "good" behavior and punishing "bad" behavior.  Since we naturally seek to minimize pain, this is a pretty powerful tool.  An ex-member of Zendik explains this clearly:

"[I was a vegetarian, but] I was pressured to eat meat by the Zendik Health Admininstrator and others in the community. I resisted for maybe a year. When I finally did eat some meat (chicken, I think) I received much praise. Other Zendiks took notice and gave me approving looks as I walked past with my plate of dead bird (or whatever it was). Vegetarianism was just another corrupting remnant of my old life (like my Led Zeppelin t-shirt and my name), something I needed to let go of in order to achieve happiness and enlightenment. Of course I felt better after eating the meat— I was being smiled at for a change."

8. Control of identity, information, environment

Once a recruit is firmly in, other techniques can be added to keep them in.  One of the most powerful is getting members to disassociate from the previous family and friends.  The #1 reason a member would leave is because a family member or friend gets them to snap out of it, which is exactly why cults try to sever members' ties with the outside world as soon as they can.  Similarly, they'll usually tell members that they can't trust the media, to get members to ignore any actual honest reporting that's critical of the group or its beliefs.  (Does that ring any bells in the current political climate?!)  Of course, no cult could get people to disassociate from family/friends and distrust the media right off the bat:  first they have to suck you in with the methods above, and then once you're committed to attaining the prize, then the apply the hard sell.

These techniques can work on anyone who's not prepared for them, no matter how intelligent they are.  Mind control is powerful stuff.  But now that you know how the recipe works, you're much more likely to be able to recognize if someone tries to use it on you.

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...
The best bits:  Cult aspects of ARDream to NightmareA journalist infiltratesAll the articles

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