Born and Raised in Aesthetic RealismAnn Stamler, MA, M.Phil.
Aesthetic Realism revolved around founder Eli Siegel (1902—1978), a figure at the heart of the Greenwich Village scene in the
mid-twentieth century. My father began studying poetry with Siegel in 1941, my mother by 1943. In his Greenwich Village studio at that time, Siegel was teaching mostly artists and writers what he thought made art successful and how art could help people in their lives. Those teachings became the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism, which he continued to teach in Greenwich Village until his death, in 1978.
My mother founded an art gallery in the Village in 1955 to promote Siegel’s work and helped start the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in Soho in 1974. My parents and I were among the first people Eli Siegel authorized to teach Aesthetic Realism in the 1970s. I finally left in 1985, at age 41.
The philosophy, as I learned it growing up and as it is described today on the group’s Web site, is based on three principles: 1) “The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis”; 2) “The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world…”; and 3) “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”1
On its surface, Aesthetic Realism appears benign. Its teachings are humanistic, reflecting Siegel’s wide knowledge. For years after I had left the movement, I thought if only Siegel’s teachings were freed from the possessive adoration of his followers, Aesthetic Realism might be recognized as useful knowledge.
I no longer believe the philosophy is benign. There is a fundamentalism, a black/white thinking in Aesthetic Realism, that promotes distortion. I believe the seeds of behavior that critics and ex-members have perceived as cultic2 are in the philosophy.
And I believe that 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 the problems of man, and that he was completely honest and beautiful; therefore, people’s happiness in life depended on their attitude toward him.
My purpose in this paper is twofold: first, to tell how elements of this environment, particularly the demand for conformity to one man’s beliefs and the insistence that people devote their lives to praising him, impacted my life; and second, to explain how I was finally able to break free.
I am not familiar with the group’s current functioning; however, during the years I was there, Aesthetic Realism was an outwardly benign, culturally dressed group that inwardly could mangle people’s minds. Although Aesthetic Realism may not have demonstrated all of the features commonly associated with the term cult, it was a high demand environment that tended to subordinate, at least in my case, the identity, goals, behavior, and autonomy of the individual to the vision and psychological needs of the leader.
I’m lucky. I escaped this dominating environment because somehow my critical voice wouldn’t die. 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 all the garbage imposed on my mind over 41 years, with “inherited” views and limitations that cause me to hesitate or stumble more than twenty-five years after I left. I hope my story will help others who have been victims of deceptively benign organizations.
A Child’s Story
When I was born in 1944, my father was on a troop carrier off Normandy. I first saw him when he returned from Europe in 1945. Before he came home to my mother and me, I was told, he went to visit Eli Siegel. For the next 10 years, we lived in different group homes with other “students,” until we settled in a brownstone in Greenwich Village within walking distance from Siegel’s studio. Here, I lived with my parents and 10 other adults.
I remember from the earliest time that Eli Siegel was like two people. When he talked to me and to my parents in what were called “sessions,” he could be funny and charming. I admired his ideals. He said we couldn’t live with ourselves if we didn’t care about other people. Even when I was very young, I heard him talk about literature, history, politics; and he talked to me as if he really expected me to understand. This was one Eli Siegel.
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 The New York Times refused to write about him because reporters and editors didn’t want to learn from him. He believed the art world boycotted him because he explained beauty and they could not. He believed what he taught could end war, racism, poverty, and crime, and that he was singled out for hatred because he knew more than the authorities in every field.
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, 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.
In 1955, my mother started an art gallery because she thought the art world should know what Siegel said about beauty. This gallery became central in our lives. That same year, I started seventh grade at Hunter High School in Manhattan. I enjoyed the demands Hunter made on me, and I made friends. My best friend and I would talk on the telephone every night, letting the receiver hang while we each went to supper, and then returning to pick up where we had left off.
I did not know then how attractively Bohemian my life looked to my schoolmates. I envied them. They had busy homes, visited relatives, traveled—and they did not have to go to sessions and hear criticism of their contempt. Siegel said I was a snob, using my intellectual Hunter girlfriends against him. If I was honest, he said, I would be telling my friends about him.
While I was in high school, Siegel started a poetry class for young people in Aesthetic Realism. I brought my Hunter friend, who enjoyed the meetings until she felt pressured to become an advocate for Eli Siegel.
Close as we were, she could not do this. We had shared first dates, first drinks, first cigarettes, first romantic involvements. We had ridden the subway to and from school together for almost five years. Now, I told her if she did not agree with Aesthetic Realism, I couldn’t ride the subway with her. We broke up.
Outward Success, Inward Failure
By the time I started college, I had become zealous on behalf of Eli Siegel. I was an honor student, and I used my straight-A average as an advertisement for what Aesthetic Realism could do. Teachers wrote me flattering notes, and I was interviewed by newspapers. Siegel held me up as an example, saying I had compared him to my professors and he came out ahead. Secretly, I envied the life of other students, even the pain they experienced dating, smoking pot, leaving their homes—at least they were free.
I was also in a constant tension with my teachers. 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.
I graduated from Brooklyn College 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. Although I received offers from graduate programs out of state, I needed to remain near Aesthetic Realism, so I applied for and received a graduate fellowship in classics at Columbia University.
That summer, I felt growing excitement at the prospect of graduate school. I envisioned myself in those grand, old buildings, talking with people about ancient literature, studying the Latin poetry I loved.
Eli Siegel told me I was using Columbia University to feel superior to him. I became anxious, and took to my bed. I cried for hours. I would not talk to anyone. Only my mother’s coaxing and finally a telephone call from Mr. Siegel got me back in circulation. I went to graduate school; but my grades fell, I was ill at ease on campus, and ultimately, although I earned a master’s degree and completed all the exams for a PhD, I gave up academics to teach Aesthetic Realism.
Siegel became increasingly obsessed with how unfairly he was treated. He said people resented him because he was such a force for beauty, 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.
He conducted classes three nights a week: two on some cultural subject, and one about the ethics of people in the room. It was here that a new procedure began. People began to tell on each other. Siegel would talk to person A, and person B would pass 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—dreams, sex, career, eating habits, casual conversations—was exempt.
In 1974, my mother persuaded Siegel to let his followers buy a building in Soho to start an Aesthetic Realism school, and the Aesthetic Realism Foundation began. By this time, being fair to Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism was a holy grail, always sought, never attained. I was in a leadership role. I directed public programs, wrote papers, and helped other people write them; I helped prepare the application to become a nonprofit foundation. I was admired because I had studied so many years with Eli Siegel, but I rarely lived up to the person everyone expected me to be. We had to adopt a set of attitudes—to the press, our family, other students, replete with language we were expected to use. Even when I used the right words, I did not convince myself; and I was in constant expectation of the criticism, which always came.
Finally, I Walked Out
Around 1977, Siegel developed a prostate condition. He refused medical treatment. When he finally went for surgery, it was not successful. In the months leading up to his death, he lived in the home of one of his students. I was among the people who helped take care of him.
During this time, a few individuals rose to new positions of power in the organization. These were people Siegel had praised for their ethics. But I saw them doing things that Siegel had not done, such as telling people whom to marry and where to live.
Another circle of people acted as enforcers for this leadership. I was part of this. I, too, thought I knew what was right for people better than they did themselves. Meanwhile, I heard the same people Siegel had praised talking scornfully about him, and about other people. In public, they functioned as ethical monitors. In private, they seemed to me power hungry and cruel.
Also during this time, a female follower talked about being physically close to Siegel for many years, and claimed Siegel’s wife and the woman’s husband knew of the arrangement and allowed it to go on. 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.
Following Siegel’s death, the new leadership accused my mother of ethical and financial impropriety and forced her out as the Foundation’s director. My mother had sacrificed her painting career because the art critics who praised her would not accept her praise of Siegel. I had watched her all the years I grew up, trying to measure up to Siegel’s ethical criteria, and internalizing his criticism to the point where she felt she was responsible for his suffering. Now she was accused of sabotaging his work.
This situation, as much as anything else, drove me away from Aesthetic Realism. I resigned as an officer of the Foundation and took a temporary typing job at a nonprofit Jewish agency. For the first time as a mature adult, I was functioning in the outside world. I met people who seemed to value me, not because I spread the word about Aesthetic Realism at Brooklyn College and Columbia University, or because I was one of the first people to teach the philosophy, but just because I was me.
I began to lead a double life. By day, at my job, 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.
Finally, I walked out.
Coincidentally, I and a man I had briefly dated, but who had been told to stay away from me because I was a bad influence, left the same day. A few days later, he called me; we began dating again and soon married. We have remained happily married since 1987.
My father remained in the group until his death. I do not believe my mother, after 70 years, can leave. Because I left, my parents cut me off. The exception was in 1998 when critical statements I made about Aesthetic Realism were quoted in an article in the New York Post, and 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.
Recognizing Myself As an SGA
While still in the movement, I had been uncomfortable with the inside-versus-outside mentality, with the rhetorical praise of Siegel, and with the frequently uncritical agreement with his ideas. People who had never read Hegel or Aristotle called Aesthetic Realism the greatest thought of all time. Although I opposed anyone who called Aesthetic Realism a cult, I had to agree inwardly that much of our behavior justified the word. I just didn’t have the courage to say what I thought until I was circulating in the real world.
When I began discussing this issue with my husband, he encouraged me to visit the Cult Hotline & Clinic in New York City. However, I vowed to stay away from cult-recovery work because I didn’t want to be anywhere near a group of any kind, and certainly not one that I feared would share the evangelical spirit I now scorned.
Then, as I approached my fiftieth birthday, I felt something was holding my life back. Ten years after leaving Aesthetic Realism, I began to work 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.
Yet, as much as cult educators understood, I felt there was something in my experience they could not grasp. There was a wound that would not heal. I thought it was a weakness in me, something to be ashamed of not overcoming; and so I hardly ever talked about it, even to people who had left my own movement.
Then, in 2006, when I was almost sixty-two, I accepted an invitation to attend the first ICSA workshop for second generation adult ex-cult members (SGAs). That experience turned me 180 degrees.
When you choose to join a group, there is experience prior to 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. When I walked into that room filled with people who shared that specific experience—being born to parents who already belonged to a movement, never knowing anything other than that environment from day one—I felt a connection I had not felt anywhere before, and a bond with those people I will never lose. Others may grasp intellectually what occurred, but there is an emotional level only one who has shared the experience understands. A door opened. It was a beginning point for trust, for opening up inner areas of myself, to myself, and also, however slowly, to the outside world.
My involvement with ICSA, attending conferences and workshops, and as an editor for ICSA Today, is a way to add to people’s understanding of the dynamics of high demand groups, and to turn my painful experience into something of value to the world.
About the Author
Ann Stamler, M.A., M.Phil, 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 – 2006 she was a senior executive of a nonprofit agency in New York that worked with the labor movements in the U.S. 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 continues to hold. In 2011 she retired from her job as a senior administrator at a new Jewish high school in Connecticut to devote her time to local government and her volunteer work with ICSA. She is Ex-Member Editor of ICSA Today.