'I threw out 15 years of my life,' says ex-follower

New York Post/February 1, 1998

Former followers of Aesthetic Realism brand it a "cult" that controlled their minds and manipulated every aspect of their lives - from money to sex.

They told The Post that their innermost feelings were scrutinized and condemned - and that they were pushed to submit to the group's beliefs ultimately losing their free will.

They said Aesthetic Realism leaders told them where they should live and with whom, what friends and relatives to talk to, and how to use their spare time - all to ensure complete devotion to the group's beliefs and its charismatic founder, Eli Siegel, who died in 1978.

"I feel I threw out 15 years of my life," said Heide Krakauer, a former city schoolteacher who lectured on Aesthetic Realism at the foundation. "It was the biggest mistake of my life."

Krakauer said she joined the group after she finished college and was unsure about her future. She said she was indoctrinated by Siegel and was completely enthralled - until she was criticized for wanting to start a family.

"I wanted to have a regular life. But they didn't want that. They thought all I should do is be out there proselytizing."

Krakauer, who married another follower, said she had no privacy.

"They were in every aspect of your life. Every minute of your life was observed. I was criticized for buying too many clothes."

She said she and her husband were pressured to live with another couple - so they could keep an eye on each other.

"I feel very sad for the people still in there," said Krakauer, who has a young daughter. "I'm speaking out because I don't want other people to get sucked in."

Another ex-follower, Ann Stamler, a Manhattan fundraising executive, agreed.

"It hurt me. It muzzled my expression," said Stamler, who left the group 13 years ago. "It's a system only allowing activities and thoughts that Aesthetic Realism would approve of."

Stamler, raised in the group from childhood, said her parents still belong and refuse to speak to her.

"For years, my parents and I had nothing to do with the rest of our family because they didn't believe that Aesthetic Realism is the most important thing in the world," she said.

Former followers say life revolved around the foundation's three-story SoHo headquarters, where seminars, classes and "personal consultations" are held.

They were required to pay $40 for the consultation, which they described as a grueling session at which they were bombarded with probing questions.

"The consultee [was] ganged up on to adopt certain ideas," said one former follower.

The Post spoke to former AR adherents who said they gave the foundation up to $20,000 a year.

Nothing was off-limits. Followers say they were told that marital sex can be a way of encouraging love for Aesthetic Realism.

Homosexuality and masturbation were acts of "Contempt" - an Aesthetic Realism term used to explain social ills. Oral sex was taboo.

Adam Mali, a former follower who was raised in the group from birth, broke free at age 23 in 1988. now a ski instructor in Vermont, he said, "I was very lonely. I was getting yelled at all the time. My learning, my growth and my development were interfered with."

He said his high-school years were miserable because he couldn't go to dances, play baseball or keep friends who were not involved in Aesthetic Realism.

He said he finally fled after leaders pressured him to drop college courses. "They said everything I needed to know I could learn at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation."

He said his final days were horrific, with followers warning he would die, get cancer or suffer other "terrible things" if he left.

When he did, he said, his father, who still belongs, disowned him.

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