Foes Accuse teachers of 'cult'

Aesthetic Realism center of storm

New York Post/February 1, 1998

At least two dozen city teachers are spreading the beliefs of a group some consider a "destructive cult" to schoolchildren and co-workers in hopes of attracting new followers, The Post has learned.


Supporters of the tightly controlled Aesthetic Realism Foundation idolize the group's dead founder, Eli Siegel.


They are bent on giving Siegel the widespread respect they feel he deserves for his insights into the human heart and for his remedies for social ills ranging from war and racism to bad marriages.


The SoHo-based group gained notoriety in the 1970s for claiming it could convert gays into heterosexuals. It has since dropped that inflammatory issue and now focuses on denouncing the "profit economy" and pushing the "Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method" in schools.


City teachers trained by the foundation inject Aesthetic Realism and Siegel's name into classroom discussions and fervently praise his philosophy among colleagues whenever and wherever they can - from teachers' lounges to professional workshops.


"It's a kind of recruitment," said Ann Stamler, a former longtime follower who used Aesthetic Realism in teaching college courses in New York.


"The idea was that other teachers and ultimately the students and parents would see how true Aesthetic Realism is and feel as worshipful as I did."


Heide Krakauer, a former city teacher who left Aesthetic Realism 14 years ago, called the teaching method a way to draw more followers. "The goal is to get teachers and parents involved."


She said followers were pushed by leaders to use Aesthetic Realism in their jobs and to spark interest among co-workers.


Krakauer said some teachers "thought it was too weird even laughed at us," but other teachers and principals were taken in.


Foundation leaders insist that they only want to share "the greatest knowledge and kindness in history."


But there's a dark side, former followers said - the group's charismatic leaders demanded total devotion and dictated how they should live.


"I think they did harm to me, my family, and other people - and are still doing it," said Stamler, a Manhattan fund-raising executive who left the group 13 years ago.


Arnold Markowitz, who runs a cult hot line for the Manhattan-based Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, said Aesthetic Realism "Has elements of a destructive cult, such as controlling the behavior, activities and choices of the members."


"Over the years, I have met with 20 to 30 former members and families who have complained that they were seriously and adversely affected by the group's practices and beliefs," he noted.


"It's scary," said Steve Hassan [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.], a former Moonie and the author of "Combating Cult Mind Control," who has counseled several former Aesthetic Realism followers.


"These are cult members who are trying to promulgate and recruit," Hassan said.


Reached by telephone, two teachers associated with the foundation refused to speak to a reporter. Others did not return phone calls.


In a letter to The Post, foundation leaders said the teachers would consider granting interviews only if The Post assured them it had "good will for the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel."


Spokespeople insisted the foundation has no "members" or "followers," only "students" and "consultants" who teach Aesthetic Realism.


City teachers who use Aesthetic Realism have identified themselves in letter to The Post and other newspapers and in the group's literature.


They say they proudly use the "Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method" in city schools and believe it helps kids learn, abstain from drugs, and get along with each other.


The group's efforts to get the city school system to adopt the method have met with repeated failure.


For years, literature and letters sent by the group to the city schools chancellor asking for a meeting have been ignored.


"It's not the purpose of the Board of Ed to advocate any particular school of thought," explained spokesman J. D. LaRock.


In an essay in a Texas newspaper, Monique Michael, a first-grade teacher at PS 30 in Harlem, claimed the method works with kids "horribly brutalized by our ugly, unjust profit economy."


She wrote that she uses opposites like straight lines and curves to help kids identify the alphabet. She said she explained that opposites are found in people, too, and succeeded in teaching them that prejudice is wrong.


"I told the children what I was so grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism, that when we use the fact that other people look different from us to feel we are better than they are ... we are having contempt."


Last Thursday, at is headquarters on Greene Street, the foundation held its annual education seminar, "Through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, students choose knowing the world, not fighting with it!"


Moderator Arnold Perey compared Aesthetic Realism founder to Siegel to Darwin, Newton and other scientists whose theories were debunked before finding acceptance.


He blamed the press and the "educational establishment" for maligning the group's teaching method and preventing the city's children from benefiting from it.


Four city school teachers told the seminar audience of more than 100 how they used the method in the classroom.


Barbara McClung, a science teacher at JHS 56 in Manhattan, said she taught her students to think of their lives as similar to the stars in that sometimes they're turbulent ad sometimes at rest.


"But the two opposites are at one in the world," she explained.


The other speakers - Lori Lerner, a kindergarten teacher at PS 59 in Manhattan; Donita Ellison, an art teacher at LaGuardia HS; and Leila Rosen, an English teacher at Norman Thomas HS - also described how they worked "opposites" into their lessons.


No matter what the subject - art, history, math or science - students get an earful about Siegel and Aesthetic Realism from the teacher-followers who sometimes show up for class wearing the group's white button that says "Victim of the Press."


La Guardia HS senior Lauren Rabinowitz said she wrote to the foundation at the suggestion of biology teacher Rosemary Plumstead.


"She talked about it so much, I just had to figure out what could possibly make a person so devoted," Rabinowitz said.


"She forced it on us," said LaGuardia senior Yana Suzanova, who had Donita Ellison as her art teacher.


"From the first day of class she started talking about it, and didn't stop until the end of the term."


A Norman Thomas HS student described teacher Leila Rosen as soft spoken and sweet. "She mentions it [AR] all the time, that it makes the world a better place."


Norman Thomas HS Principal Joanne Frank told The Post she considers Aesthetic Realism "a wonderful means of instruction." But she conceded that she didn't know how to explain it.


Myron Liebrader, a principal of Grover Cleveland HS in Queens, said he would be concerned if any of his teachers brought up Aesthetic Realism extensively.


Earth Science teacher Larry Rabinowitz, in a union newsletter to other teachers, advocated Aesthetic Realism and explained how he used it to lead a lesson about sedimentary rock into one about self-analysis.


Noting that rocks break down and build up again, Rabinowitz wrote that he asked his class: "Can we break something down in ourselves so we can build up something more beautiful later on?"


He wrote that his students "spoke about mistakes they seemed to repeat, habits they were ashamed of and wanted to break. We saw that the way the Earth puts these opposites together gave us more hope for our own lives and had us feel more related to things."

The principles


These are the four principles of Aesthetic Realism, as outlined in the group's literature:

  • Every person is always trying to put together opposites in himself.
  • Every person in order to respect himself has to see the world as beautiful or good or acceptable.
  • There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.
  • All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making on of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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