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

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Born and raised in Aesthetic Realism

    by Ann Stamler, MA, MPhil • 2011-14

There are four versions of this article:
  1. The original that appeared in the magazine of ICSA (the Intl. Cultic Studies Assoc.), 2011.
  2. The revised version that appeared in ICSA in 2014.
  3. A version combining the above, and edited for chronology and clarity
  4. This abbreviated version of #3 above (what you're reading now)
ICSA editor's note:  "The account offers insights into how intelligent, educated people can be persuaded to behave unintelligently and provides examples of how a leader’s narcissism inflicts damage on followers’ bodies and minds. The author attributes her survival and subsequent prospering to (a) the fact that her critical voice would not die, and (b) her attendance at an ICSA workshop where, for the first time, she met other people like herself, born and raised in high-demand environments."

Ann Stamler

My purpose in this paper is to tell how my involvement impacted my life, and also, to explain how I was finally able to break free.  I hope my story will help others better understand people who have been victims of mentally abusive movements, especially those who, like me, were born and raised in them.

How Aesthetic Realism started

Born in 1902, Eli Siegel got some notoriety for one of his poems in the 1920s.  In the 1940, he started teaching artists and writers in his Greenwich Village studio about what he thought made art successful and how art could help people in their lives.  He called his teaching Aesthetic Realism

Siegel believed there was a war in each of us as individuals between liking ourselves because we respect the outside world, or feeling important by having contempt for the outside world.  He believed contempt was the source of war, poverty, racism, crime, and mental illness.

My family gets involved

My parents became Siegel's students in the 1940s.  While I was still an infant, my mother would bring me with her to sessions with Siegel.  The day I was born, my father was fighting the war in Europe.  When he returned home, I am told, he visited Siegel before he came home to see my mother and meet me.

From my earliest years, Siegel was a dominant force in my family.  My parents would take me out of nursery school to go to sessions.  When they fought, they would call Siegel on the telephone to mediate.  He advised them on their families, friendships, jobs, money, me, where to live, their dreams, and their fears.

My parents’ families did not share my parents’ opinion of Siegel.  We grew more and more distant from those relatives relatives, and by the time I was an adolescent had nothing to do with them at all.  When my mother’s father was dying of cancer, she refused to visit him, and she did not attend his funeral.  Siegel praised her for this approach, calling it “the new kindness.”

Eli Siegel's narcissism and need for praise

Siegel used his philosophy to serve a consuming need to be praised.  Siegel said, and we agreed, that his philosophy was the most important truth, answering all the problems of mankind, and that he was completely honest and beautiful.  Therefore, people's happiness in life depended on their attitude toward him.  Aesthetic Realism subordinated the identity, goals, behavior, and autonomy of the individual to the vision and psychological needs of the leader.

Siegel seemed to be two different people.  One was charming, warm, and often quite funny.  The other became enraged because people were not sufficiently grateful to him and didn't tell the rest of the world how important he was.  He believed he represented beauty and ethics, and so our attitude to him was our attitude to beauty.  I grew up believing Siegel’s explanation that the reason for whatever problem I had—in life, at school, with friends, was that I did not like myself because I was ungrateful to him.

Siegel believed that what he taught could solve the world’s most urgent problems, and that his philosophy was the culmination of all philosophy throughout time.  He thought it could end war, racism, poverty, and crime.  The world was not receptive to his ideas, especially the art world.  The New York Times and Art News either disparaged Siegel or ignored him.  He was bitter that the world didn't recognize his greatness.  He thought he was singled out for hatred because he knew more than the authorities in every field. He said he knew more about art than the critics, and the critics did not want to learn from him.  He believed the art world boycotted him because he explained beauty and they could not.  He stopped going out because he said he did not want to meet people who reminded him of how unfairly he was seen.

In meetings with Siegel, we would sit, thirty or so people, listening to him 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, and vowing inwardly to be "honest" from now on.

Things evolved so that the students would all rat on each other.  Siegel would talk to person A, and person B would pass him a written note about something person A had done.  There was no such thing as privacy.  Husband would tell on wife, mother on child, friend on friend.  And no subject was exempt.  Notes were written and tales told about every aspect of a person’s life—dreams, sex, career, eating habits, casual conversations.

One night when I was a teenager, Siegel entered the room to give a lecture, and a new student stood and began to applaud.  Others quickly followed, and this response became a regular routine.  At the end of lectures, this same new student would deliver eloquent speeches of praise for Siegel. We followed this action too, each of us trying to top the praise of the person before.  Siegel would look a little bemused, put his chin on his hand, and smile.  As he left the room, we all stood and clapped again.

My teenage years

My mother started an art gallery to promote Siegel's work in 1955.  On the day it was to open, my father was rushed to the hospital with a life-threatening emergency.  My mother went to the gallery opening anyway, and I went with her.  Later that night, we learned that my father had survived.

When the gallery had a major exhibition of my mother’s paintings, the Times reviewer praised her work but pointedly did not mention Eli Siegel or Aesthetic Realism.  My mother knew she had to make a choice between having a successful career as an artist or being faithful to Siegel.  She made her choice:  Siegel had helped her be a better artist; she would be loyal to him.

Yet Siegel continually berated her for not being “proud” of her gratitude to him.  She would hear his criticism and sink into a deep depression, going off by herself for hours or even days.  She had given up her life for him, but it wasn't enough.  It was never enough.

Since I was born, we lived in various group homes with other Aesthetic Realists.  At one point we started having house meetings to criticize each other’s ingratitude to Eli Siegel.  I would sit on the floor in our living room, watching the faces of the grown-ups as they criticized each other and telling myself I should do more to “have Eli Siegel known.”

In high school at Hunter College, I enjoyed the academic demands tho school made of me.  I also made friends.  My best friend Claire and I would talk on the telephone every night, letting the receiver hang while we each went to supper, then returning afterward to pick up where we had left off.  After exams, we rode the carousel in Central Park and played at FAO Schwartz on Fifth Avenue.  Siegel said I was a snob, using my intellectual Hunter girlfriends to feel superior to him.  If I was honest, he said, I would be telling my friends about him.

Siegel started a poetry group for young people.
  I invited Claire.  She enjoyed the group at first.  I began pressuring her to expand her involvement in Aesthetic Realism, but she said she could just not devote herself to Siegel or his ideas.  Claire and I had ridden the subway to and from school together for years.  We advised each other on boys.  We got drunk for the first time together and shared secret cigarettes.  We slept at each other's houses.  Now, I told her that if she could not agree with Aesthetic Realism, I could not ride the subway with her.  We broke up.  She was the last real friend I had outside the movement until I left—about twenty-five years later.

College years

By the time I started college, I had become zealous on behalf of Eli Siegel.  I used my straight-A average as an advertisement for what Aesthetic Realism could do.  I talked about Aesthetic Realism in classeso, and no essay I wrote was just about history, or Galileo, or Moliere; the upshot of my papers was always Eli Siegel explains this, and therefore his work is most important of all.  As you might expect, I was in constant tension with my teachers about this.  When my Latin professor told me I was accepted into Phi Beta Kappa, she also said the committee was concerned about my involvement in Aesthetic Realism.

Siegel held me up as an example, saying I had compared him to my professors and he came out ahead.  I graduated near the top of a class of several thousand, with a full major in French and another in Latin, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, with prizes in classics and French.  But I was mortified when Siegel said he was disappointed in me. “I taught you how to use your mind,” he said, “and you didn’t say a word about me at your graduation.”

Although I received offers from graduate programs out of state, I needed to stay near Aesthetic Realism, so I applied for and received a fellowship in classics at Columbia University.  That summer, I became somewhat obsessed about an artist I had dated through most of college, also one of Siegel's students, James.  When James wanted to join the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, Siegel said that James wanted to go to escape Aesthetic Realism criticism.  James went anyway, so I broke up with him.

Siegel became increasingly obsessed with how unfairly he was treated.   He said people resented him because he was such a force for beauty, and completely honest and incorruptible, and because he was a threat to our desire for contempt.  There was no room for criticism, no ethical ambiguity; either you wanted to respect him, or you were a slave to contempt.

Several months later, James returned to Aesthetic Realism and began dating another woman.  I was distraught.  I wrote a letter about my feelings to Siegel.  He told me my distress was not really about James, it was shame because I was using Columbia University to feel superior to Aesthetic Realism.  I took to my bed, pulled the blanket over my head, and cried for hours.  I would not talk to anyone.  Only my mother’s coaxing and finally a telephone call from Siegel got me back in circulation.  I went to graduate school, but my grades fell.  I did earn a master’s degree and completed all the exams for a PhD, but I gave up academics to teach Aesthetic Realism.


Students of Siegel appeared on TV saying that they had stopped being gay as a result of studying Aesthetic Realism.  Siegel named three of the (supposedly) formerly-gay men to teach as a trio in what he called "consultations".  He appointed my parents to a trio of "consultants" teaching artists.  I was in a trio teaching professional women.

Siegel’s demand for confirmation grew.  Being "fair" to Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism was a holy grail, always sought, never attained.  We picketed in front of The New York Times building and publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s home to demand that the paper write about Siegel.  We wrote letters, visited critics, and jammed telephone switchboards at popular magazines.

My mother told Siegel we should buy a building for an Aesthetic Realism school.  Siegel said buying a building was a substitute for gratitude.  Somehow my mother prevailed, and in 1974, when I was 30, the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in SoHo began.  My mother was director; I was treasurer and registrar.  Consultants gave classes in marriage, art, music, all showing the truth and beauty of Aesthetic Realism.  A new leadership formed, composed of people Siegel had praised for their ethics and honesty.

At Monday night “opinion meetings” of 30 or 40 students at the Foundation, we confessed our failures and endured searing public criticism.  Leaders measured every aspect of life, every activity, by the yardstick of gratitude.  One woman my age—mid-30s—wanted to start a family.  Wanting a baby, the leaders told her, was a way of avoiding gratitude.  One day I arrived to give a seminar with my face swollen from an abscessed tooth; if I wanted to be honest, I was told, my face would not be swollen that way.

Things get even crazier

Around 1977, Siegel developed a prostate condition.  He refused medical treatment.  When he finally went for surgery, it was too late to restore the use of his feet, and he could not use his hands to write.  He entered a profound depression that culminated in his committing suicide.

Before he died, Siegel told the students who had recommended he have surgery that they had killed him.  They reported this to the rest of us.  We were all supposed to feel responsible.  Some members, including many of those who cared for him at the end, soon left the movement.  But those who remained drew renewed energy from his accusation, vowing to weed out the ethically impaired and, with the remaining stalwarts, to achieve the recognition for Siegel after his death that had been denied him during his lifetime.

After the surgery and before his death, Siegel stayed at the home of one of the new leaders.  I was among the students who helped her care for him.  To my shock and bewilderment, I heard the woman in whose home Siegel stayed make fun of his weakness and confusion; of his wife, who was dying of emphysema; and of other students.  This was someone who functioned as the supreme ethical monitor of other people, yet I heard her be hypocritical and cruel.

Then, another student revealed to me with great pride that for years she'd been having a physical relationship with Siegel.  She said he'd now given her permission to talk about it.  Her husband talked to me cheerfully about staying in a room with Siegel’s wife while his own wife was in another room with Siegel “in various states of undress.”  Other young women said they, too, had been “initiated.”

In the years just before and after Siegel’s death, the new leaders began to do things Siegel had never done, such as take children away from their parents, tell students whom which other students they should marry, or separate them, regardless of what the individuals felt.  They hired and fired people at a moment’s notice from jobs at the Foundation.  They enjoyed managing people’s lives.

Siegel had chosen one of his students to be "the class chairman" to continue his teaching.  She began a campaign called “Do you want to be completely fair to Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism?”  She said either we wanted to be completely fair, or we wanted to kill Aesthetic Realism to make ourselves feel superior.  The campaign consisted of students standing in a class at the Foundation and trying to convince the rest of us that they were sincere.  The few who were believed became the new aristocracy.  The rest of us cowered and braced ourselves to try again.

I began to feel there was something crazy going on,
although I could not say this to anyone except my mother, who confessed she agreed with me.  As we sought each other’s company, we were increasingly shunned.  We were accused of being in a team against Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism.  As the first person born into Aesthetic Realism and one of the first people to teach, my failure to convince anyone I wanted to be completely fair was worse than other people’s failures.  I was in constant despair.  I had never known any other life.  I couldn’t see any life ahead for myself.

The new leaders maneuvered to have my mother fired as Director of the Foundation. They falsely accused her of financial and ethical improprieties.  I watched her as she took the telephone call in which they fired her as an editor of Siegel’s books.  She was devastated.  She had sacrificed her painting career because the critics who praised her would not accept her praise of Siegel.  I'd watched her my whole life trying to measure up to Siegel’s ethical criteria and internalizing his criticism to the point that she felt she was responsible for his suffering.  Now she was accused of sabotaging his work.

Enough was enough

These things began to drive me away.  I resigned as an officer of the Foundation, though I still continued with AR classes.  On the outside, I took a temporary typing job.  For the first time as an adult, I was functioning in the outside world.  I met people who seemed to value me, not because I spread the world about Aesthetic Realism, but just because I was me.

I began to lead a double life.  By day, I advanced rapidly in position and salary.  By night, in a class full of people at the Foundation, I heard excoriating criticism:  I was a bad seed; I wanted to murder Aesthetic Realism.  Outside, I began having adult relationships with men.  Inside, people cautioned men to stay away from me because I was unethical.

I became increasingly uncomfortable with the worshipful praise of Siegel and the uncritical agreement with his ideas.  People who never read Hegel or Aristotle called Aesthetic Realism the greatest thought of all time.  I left a note at the reception desk in the Foundation, addressed to the class chairman, saying I wanted a leave of absence—which I knew would never be granted.  I walked out of the building.  I never went there again.

Because I left, my parents ceased all communication with me.  The sole exception was thirteen years later after I was quoted in an article in the New York Post critical of Aesthetic Realism.  I received a five-page vitriolic letter, most likely written in committee, but over my parents' signatures.  The letter compared me to Brutus assassinating Julius Caesar, and to Benedict Arnold.  Today, if I pass former colleagues on the street, they look past me as if I do not exist.

My father remained in the group until his death.  I do not believe my mother, after 70 years, can leave.

Coincidentally, the very same day I left, a man I had briefly dated in AR, but who had been told to stay away from me because I was a bad influence, also left.  A few days later, he called me; we began dating again and soon married.  We have remained happily married since 1987.

The path to recovery

I was lucky. I escaped because somehow my critical voice wouldn’t die.  The inner critic of that insanity, the self I once thought was evil, was in fact my sanity.

Leaving, however, was only the first challenge.
  The mental damage done by a dogma whose manipulations are so well disguised can be especially difficult to understand and undo.  I still struggle with garbage imposed on my mind over 41 years, with inherited views and limitations.

Once I was out, I began to learn that what I thought was a unique experience had parallels in other movements: a powerful leader playing on peoples’ fears and guilt; a common enemy—in our case, the press; a claim to sole possession of universal truth; lack of privacy; and a building of mental and sometimes physical walls against the outside world.

Ten years after leaving Aesthetic Realism, I started therapy at the Cult Clinic in New York City with a therapist trained in cult-recovery work,
and I learned about the parallels between Aesthetic Realism and other high-demand groups.  I began to understand what the dynamic of my upbringing had in common with all families, which was extremely beneficial.  I previously thought everything about my experience was unique.  Through therapy, I felt less different from other people.  As profound and necessary as this stage was, in retrospect I realize I was hovering at the edges of what I might see.

In 2006, when I was almost 62, I accepted an invitation to attend the first ICSA workshop for people born into cult groups, people known as "second-generation adults" (SGAs).  That experience turned me 180 degrees.  Until that workshop, I had not met anyone else born into a cult.  I felt, as much as cult educators did understand, that there was something in my experience they could not grasp.  I felt that even my husband, who had been in Aesthetic Realism for 14 years, could not understand.

When you choose to join a group, you have experience prior to your joining that is part of your mental and emotional makeup.
  There is something, no matter how deeply buried, to compare the group to, and there are usually friends and family in the “outside” world. When you are born into a group, there is no other experience.  You are totally invaded and violated, without even an unconscious memory of being your own self.

Meeting others who shared the second generation experience was life-changing.  I felt a connection with the others I had not felt anywhere before, and a bond with those people I will never lose.  There is an emotional level only one who has shared the experience understands.  A door opened for me.  It was a beginning point for trust, for opening up inner areas of myself to myself, and also, however slowly, to the outside world.

I hope my story will help others who have been victims of deceptively benign organizations.

About the author:  Ann Stamler, MA, MPhil, graduated from Brooklyn College summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1965, and earned graduate degrees in Latin from Columbia University. She was in the Aesthetic Realism movement from birth until she left at age 41, in 1985. In 1987 she married Joseph Stamler, whom she had first met in Aesthetic Realism. From 1985 to 2006 she was a senior executive of a nonprofit agency in New York that worked with the labor movements in the United States and Israel. She has served on the boards of various civic and cultural organizations.  In 2007 she was elected to the legislative body of her town in Connecticut, a position she held until 2013.  From 2008 to 2011 she served as founding administrator of a new Jewish high school in Connecticut.  She has been on the editorial board of ICSA’s magazine ICSA Today since its inception and in 2012 was named Associate Editor.

Ann's story forms the basis of the final chapter in Nori Muster's Child of the Cult, a collection of studies of Second Generation Adults.
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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