International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 5, 2014, 37-44.
Her Critical Voice Wouldn’t Die
International Cultic Studies Association
Aesthetic Realism revolved around its founder Eli Siegel, who was born in Latvia in 1902 and immigrated to America with his family. Siegel stirred controversy in the literary world in the 1920s with a poem some called a masterpiece, others illiterate nonsense, and with essays on socialism, evolution, art, and mental health. My father, an artist, began studying poetry with Siegel in 1941; my mother, also an artist, 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. He called his teaching Aesthetic Analysis, which countered, as he saw it, the dominantly Freudian psychoanalysis of that era. Later, he renamed his teaching the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism, which he continued to teach in that same Greenwich Village studio until 1978, when, following surgery that left him unable to walk or write, he took his life.
My mother founded an art gallery in the Village in the mid-1950s to promote Siegel’s philosophy and later helped start the Aesthetic Realism Foundation. My parents and I were among the first people Siegel authorized to teach his philosophy. I finally left the movement in 1985, when I was 41 years old. My father remained until his death at age 89, in 2009. My mother, at age 92, is still there at the time of this writing.
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: a) “The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis”; b) “The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world…”; and c) “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves” (http://aestheticrealism.org/aesthetic-realism-mission-statement-06.html).
On its surface, Aesthetic Realism appears benign. Its teachings are humanistic and reflect Siegel’s wide knowledge. For years after I left the movement, I thought that if only Siegel’s teachings were freed from the possessive adoration of his followers, then 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 cultic behavior are in the philosophy. And I believe that Siegel used his philosophy to serve a consuming need to be praised. 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.
My purpose here is twofold: first, to describe how elements of this environment impacted my life; and second, to explain how I was finally impelled 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.
My Early Experience
The day I was born, my father was on a troop carrier off the coast of Normandy. My mother was living in a loft in Greenwich Village. While I was still an infant, my mother would bring me with her to sessions with Siegel. When my father returned from Europe, 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—literally, and their fears. We lived on the Upper East Side and then in Brooklyn with other adults who studied with Siegel. There were “study groups” in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. There were a few other young children involved, but I was the first, and for years the only one born into the movement. Three of us from that time remained until adulthood. The other two are still there.
Siegel was a constant source of dissention with my parents’ families, who did not share my parents’ opinion of Siegel. We grew more and more distant from my parents’ 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.”
Also from my earliest years, Siegel seemed to me to be two different people. One was charming, warm, and often quite funny. He talked as if he expected me to understand, and he criticized my parents when he felt they did not respect or understand me.
Other times, he became angry to the point of rage because he believed we as his students were not sufficiently grateful for the good he was doing in our lives, and we were not doing enough to tell other people about him. 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.
When I was about ten years old, my parents and some of their friends bought a brownstone on 16th Street in Manhattan, within walking distance of Siegel’s studio. My mother wanted to start an art gallery to promote Siegel’s teachings about art.
The Terrain Gallery opened on February 26, 1955, with a program of readings from Siegel’s work. Earlier that day, my father had been rushed to the hospital in agony. As the gallery program began, we didn’t know whether he would live or die. My mother went on to the opening anyway. I was too young to attend, but I sat on the brick steps outside the gallery looking through the window. Later that night, we learned that my father had survived.
The Terrain Gallery published a manifesto by Siegel called “Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?” Siegel believed he had discovered the role of opposites in beauty and their connection to life. The art world was not receptive. The New York Times and Art News either disparaged Siegel or ignored him. Siegel said that was because he knew more about art than the critics, and the critics did not want to learn from him.
When the Terrain Gallery had a major exhibition of my mother’s paintings, the Times reviewer praised her work but pointedly did not even mention Eli Siegel or Aesthetic Realism. She knew that she was going to have to make a choice between having a successful career as an artist or being faithful to Eli Siegel. I watched her struggle over this dilemma as the art world’s animosity to Aesthetic Realism quickly hardened, and Siegel’s demand for loyalty became ever more intense. Ultimately, 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. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t satisfied.
As an adolescent, I turned to food to deal with the pressure and confusion I was subjected to constantly in my family and the cult. I had been thin as a child, but by the time I started Hunter College Junior High School, I had become pudgy, given to eating serving-sized bowls of butterscotch pudding. I hid packages of Oreo cookies in a piano bench to enjoy while I watched movies on television.
At Hunter, we were told that we were intellectually gifted children. I never saw myself as especially gifted; but I had been exposed to the arts and literature from an early age, and I enjoyed the demands Hunter made on 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 told me that if I were honest I would be telling my intellectual Hunter friends about him and Aesthetic Realism. He said I was a snob, using my connection to the girls at Hunter to feel superior to him.
The people in “the house,” as we called our group residence, began having meetings to criticize each other’s ingratitude to Eli Siegel. Not everyone agreed. I was shocked when one man said outright that Siegel was a devil. These dissenters soon moved out. 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.”
By the time I was 14, I weighed 192 pounds. That year, I lost more than seventy pounds, and then kept losing. Now, instead of eating secretly, I secretly stopped eating. I would monitor my falling weight and pin my skirt tighter around my waist. Pretty soon, I lost the use of my right leg. My mother took me to our family doctor, who said he wanted me to gain 10 pounds before he saw me again. I did gain some weight, and my leg recovered. However, I didn’t change my eating habits to be balanced. I was still obsessed with my weight, eating alone and differently than other people.
While I was in high school, Siegel started a poetry group for young people. My friend Claire loved words, so I invited her. She enjoyed the group at first, and Siegel wrote her a note of praise. I began pressuring her to expand her involvement in Aesthetic Realism. She resisted and explained that she just could 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.
What Became Destructive, Traumatic, Growth Inhibiting
By 1960, as the Terrain Gallery continued promoting Siegel’s work, a few more people began studying with him; but despite some notoriety, the press, the academic world, the art world did not come around.
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. He 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 stopped going out because he said he did not want to meet people who reminded him of how unfairly he was seen. He stopped buying The New York Times because it “refused to learn from him.” He said he did not understand why he was the person entrusted with this knowledge, but that it was his responsibility to have it known.
Although I was not yet 18, I asked permission to attend Siegel’s evening lectures. On Wednesdays and Fridays, he lectured on poetry, science, history, sociology, music, pop culture, current events—showing how everything supported his theory of opposites. He was a powerful and entertaining speaker.
One night, when he entered the room, a new student stood and began to applaud. Others quickly followed; 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.
On Tuesdays, Siegel held what he called an Ethical Study Conference, where he spoke to individual people about their lives. He would draw on literature and poetry and use poetic language as he talked to couples about their fights and resentments. He criticized selfishness, narrow-mindedness, and mental laziness. He was insightful and, I believe, helped people understand themselves better and like themselves more. Then, gradually, as his impact on a person deepened, he would begin talking about the person’s attitude to him. As Siegel railed about how ungrateful we were, I would sit as far back in the room as possible, bending my head behind the person in front of me, tears streaming down my face, vowing inwardly to be more honest. But even when I used the right words, I did not convince myself; so I was in constant expectation of the criticism, which always came.
It was in these Ethical Study Conferences that a new procedure began. People began to tell 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.
By the time I graduated from high school in 1961, the cooperative home on 16th Street had broken up, and the building was sold. My parents bought a loft building in SoHo, then still a desolate industrial neighborhood, and my mother moved the Terrain Gallery to the West Village. I entered Brooklyn College zealous on behalf of Aesthetic Realism. I was a fair student at Hunter, but at Brooklyn I earned straight As and got a lot of attention. I talked about Aesthetic Realism in classes and wove it into all my papers. Siegel held me up as an example, saying I had compared him with the professors and he had come out ahead.
I graduated from college summa cum laude near the top of my class, with full degrees in French and Latin, and with awards in language and humanities. 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. I felt a hint of worry when I heard this, but I quickly pushed it away. Then, at a class just after I graduated, 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 to study classics at Columbia University. That summer, as I read the orientation manual, 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.
That summer, too, I became somewhat obsessed about an artist I had dated through most of college, a student of my father’s at the School of Visual Arts who then studied with Siegel. When James wanted to join the civil-rights march in Selma, Alabama, Siegel said that James wanted to go to escape Aesthetic Realism criticism. He went anyway, so I broke up with him.
Several months later, James returned to Aesthetic Realism and began dating another woman. I wanted him. I was distraught. I wrote a letter about my feelings to Siegel. He told me my distress was not about this man at all—it was shame because I was using Columbia University to feel superior to Aesthetic Realism. He said I had “architectural snobbishness,” that I was using the impressive buildings at Columbia against his small room in Greenwich Village.
I became terribly anxious and took to my bed. I 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 was ill at ease on campus, and ultimately, although I had earned a master’s degree and completed all the exams for a PhD, I gave up academics to teach Aesthetic Realism.
This increased attention on Aesthetic Realism all came about as part of the new openness about homosexuality following the historic 1969 riot at the Stonewall Inn. For the first time, gay men and women took to the streets to protest police brutality. Two years later, students of Aesthetic Realism appeared on prime-time TV, saying that through studying with Siegel, they were no longer homosexual. Hundreds of people called the Terrain Gallery to learn more about Aesthetic Realism. Siegel named three of the men who said they had changed to teach as a trio in what he called consultations. My parents were in a trio teaching artists. I was in a trio teaching professional women. We gave individual consultations and public seminars about how Siegel’s work had changed our lives, and now was changing the lives of people learning from us.
As Aesthetic Realism became marginally better known, Siegel’s demand for confirmation grew. We picketed in front of The New York Times building and also Arthur Sulzberger’s home to demand that the paper write about Siegel. We wrote letters, visited critics, and jammed telephone switchboards at popular magazines.
SoHo was now a cultural center, and my mother told Siegel we should buy a building there for an Aesthetic Realism school. Siegel said buying a building was a substitute for gratitude, but somehow my mother prevailed; and in 1974, when I was 30 years old, 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. Along with others, I directed public programs, wrote papers, helped others write or wrote for them, and helped prepare the application for the Foundation to become a nonprofit organization. Siegel continued to teach in his West Village studio. At the Foundation, 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.
How I Chose to Leave
In the late 1970s, Siegel developed a prostate condition. He refused to see doctors and eventually, unable to walk, stopped giving classes. When he finally submitted to 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 taking sleeping pills, once unsuccessfully and a second time ending his life.
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. We worked in shifts, two people at a time, sleeping in a guest bedroom to be available at a moment’s notice. One night, the first time Siegel tried to take his life with sleeping pills and was taken to the hospital, I heard his wife talking with him over the telephone. He was saying he wanted to die. She said, “What about Aesthetic Realism?” He said, “I don’t care about Aesthetic Realism.”
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, and I heard her be hypocritical and cruel.
Then, as Siegel was dying, a woman I taught with revealed with great pride that for years, with the full knowledge of her own husband, she had had what she called a “personal emotion” about Siegel, “organic gratitude”; this meant, she told me in a telephone call, that her gratitude took a physical form. She said Siegel had now given her permission to talk about their relationship. However clear this was to anyone else, I couldn’t take in the meaning of the words. 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.”
I began to feel that something crazy was going on. I confided this to my mother, who confessed she agreed with me.
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 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 in his lifetime.
In the years just before and after Siegel’s death, the new leaders began to do things he had never done, such as take children away from their parents, put couples together, 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 a woman I grew up with, a poet like himself, to continue his teaching. He called her “the class chairman.” This woman 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. 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.
My mother and I sought each other’s company and 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 another life. What these people wanted felt like my soul, and I couldn’t give it to them. I felt as if I was in a dark tunnel, with no light at the end. I would lie on my bed, waiting for the next barrage of criticism, crawl through it, and lie down again. I never wanted to take my life; but I couldn’t see any life ahead.
The new leaders maneuvered to have my mother fired as Director of the Foundation. They accused her of fabricated financial and ethical improprieties. I watched her as she took a 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 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 that she felt she was responsible for his suffering. Now she was accused of sabotaging his work.
This series of events pushed me over the line. 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 began to lead a double life. By day, at my job, I advanced rapidly in position and salary. By night, at the Foundation, I heard excoriating criticism: I was a bad seed; if Aesthetic Realism fell apart, it was because of my family. Outside, I began having adult relationships with men. Inside, people cautioned men to stay away from me because I was unethical.
A senior executive where I worked, born in Germany, had fought against Hitler’s army and in Israel’s War of Independence. He said he could not stand to see anyone brainwashed and made it his mission to pry me loose. I was ready to be pried. For years, no matter how I tried, I could not become the person Siegel and now his followers insisted was the real me; but I could not imagine myself outside Aesthetic Realism. Now I was living with one foot in, one foot out, and I didn’t disintegrate. In fact, for the first time, I saw a future for myself.
On Christmas Eve, 1985, after a Tuesday class at the Foundation, I had planned to go with my parents as we had gone for many years to hear a midnight performance of the Messiah at Carnegie Hall. My father said, “You can come with us if you agree to go out and talk with other students afterward.”
I refused and went home.
That Friday, 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.
My parents had told me that, if I left, it would be the end of our relationship. They remained true to their word.
Struggles and Achievements
For a long time, while still in the movement, I had been uncomfortable with the inside-versus-outside mentality, 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. Although I opposed anyone who called Aesthetic Realism a cult, I had to agree inwardly that much of our behavior justified the word.
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.
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. When people say I was courageous to leave, I say it wasn’t courage. It was desperation. It was either leave or 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 garbage imposed on my mind over 41 years, with inherited views and limitations. I will turn myself almost inside out to avoid confrontation; I am terrified of seeming to offend; it took me many years to even recognize the concept of boundaries. I still cannot watch painful movies, or movies set in World War II. I still sometimes war with food.
One of the most difficult problems I carry with me arises from a skill I developed to cope with the difference between the self I felt inside me and the self I felt compelled to show. Out of sheer self-preservation, I learned how to say exactly what someone wanted to hear, to understand the role someone wanted me to play, and to play it convincingly.
This skill has served me well professionally. I have excelled as an assistant to a chief executive, knowing before I am asked what that person needs and being comfortable staying in the background, deflecting praise or recognition. I am so good at compliance that, at one agency, I became the director of compliance with grant guidelines and government regulations. I have been able to work well with some people others fear because I understand and can even empathize with them. As I work in local government, I am able to reach across party lines because I grasp other people’s perspectives.
But this very skill often leaves me bewildered about what I really feel. I can be persuaded in one direction, and then persuaded in the opposite direction. When I agreed to marry my husband, I asked him not to tell anyone because I was afraid as time went on I would not agree with myself, and I wanted the space to change my answer.
The fact that I was able to marry at all, and that I did so less than two years after leaving Aesthetic Realism, now seems almost a miracle to me. Siegel taught that criticism is love, and watching up close the pain my parents were encouraged to inflict on each other left me sure I would never be permanently connected with another human being. Today, I accept, love, and trust my husband even more than I did 25 years ago.
I have gone through stages in reflecting on and understanding my life. The first, for 10 years or so, was shutting the door on anything that recalled my past. The second stage began when I turned 50 and felt that, although I had made great progress in my personal and professional life, something inside me was stalled. I started therapy at the Cult Clinic in New York City and began to look at the past, but still at my own pace, controlling how much I looked at and how deeply. As profound and necessary as this stage was, in retrospect I realize I was hovering at the edges of what I might see.
The third stage began 7 years ago with the first workshop sponsored by ICSA for people born or raised in cultic movements—second-generation adults. 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 which to compare the group, 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.
When I walked into that workshop 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. This workshop is where I first felt not entirely alone. 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.
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.