ICSA Today 12.2, 2021, pg. 16-20
From Dream Come True to Nightmare: My Aesthetic Realism Experience
From as early as I can remember, maybe from the bedtime stories my mother read to my brothers and me, I’d always wanted to be a really good person and to do something with my life that would benefit humanity. I wasn’t sure exactly how I would accomplish that, but when I was about twelve, I started to think maybe I could contribute something by becoming a really good actor, singer, dancer.
By the age of 20, I was already completely on my own after having graduated from high school in 3 years and then dropping out of college following only a semester and a half, to move to New York to study acting. But things were not going the way I had expected. Despite my rather straitlaced upbringing, I’d become a hippie who smoked pot regularly and tried almost any drug a friend offered me. Meanwhile, I was becoming concerned about the effects of the drugs; yet I didn’t have the motivation to stop. What’s more, I had a boatload of issues regarding men, and I’d finally realized, to my relief, that I was gay when I fell in love with a woman while on tour with a play. The problem was, she lived more than a thousand miles away, and the long distance situation was a real problem. As for my theater aspirations, I landed a couple of small parts; but I was increasingly aware I lacked something crucial: the courage to expose my innermost self to bring life to a character. Basically, I was worried about myself and where my life, including my art, was heading. I was very mixed up and fearful about my future.
Not knowing what else to do to try to fix things, I decided to return to acting classes. When I signed up, no one told me the teacher was a follower of Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism. That I would have to find out for myself.
When I arrived at the first class, I was immediately set upon by one of the students, whose rapturous facial expression reminded me of religious paintings of women who had just seen God. Her eyes glowed and her voice quivered with emotion as she asked me if I was going to be in the class. When I said yes, her head tilted to one side as her hand flew to her chest. “Ohhh,” she breathed out. “This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to you!" I smiled politely, but I thought, "What is with this chick? The greatest thing that has ever happened to me? Oh, come on!”
The assistant proceeded to press some Aesthetic Realism literature into my hand and explain the philosophy until I was practically cross-eyed. I was relieved when the teacher finally arrived.
He began by reading Eli Siegel’s statement, which he used as the basis of his teaching: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Right off the bat, I was favorably impressed by the depth of the teacher’s critiques, not only of my performance but also of the others.
I left the class feeling very thoughtful and happy. I really liked it that this approach to acting was based on an impersonal philosophical idea, a theory of opposites about beauty and the self, instead of just the individual teacher’s personal opinion, as in all the other classes. Maybe this was something I could grab onto to help my life and art.
In these classes, the teacher always made sure to emphasize in one form or another that the reason we had never heard of Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism before was because members of the press, with their puny little egos, brutally boycotted them. But hey, this was the late 1960s, the height of the counterculture movement when bucking the system was not only acceptable, but also fashionable. By the millions, youth across the nation were turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. Members of the Moonies and Hari Krishnas roamed the streets of New York City with impunity. With my counterculture mentality, far from driving me away, the mainstream establishment’s disapproval of Aesthetic Realism was a plus!
I decided to attend a Saturday evening presentation of Aesthetic Realism at the Terrain Gallery, which, back then, was located on Grove Street in Greenwich Village. Although I don’t remember a word that was said at that first program, I do vividly remember the intermission. I leaned stiffly on a counter in a stationary pose I hoped would give the appearance of ease as I looked around at the 80 or so other all-White attendees. What I noticed most was that everyone there seemed to exude self-confidence. In contrast to the confusion and anxiety I was feeling about my life, they looked like they knew exactly what they were doing and where their lives were going. They’d found truth and had it all together. All I could think was, “I want some of that!”
At these presentations, it was evident that Eli Siegel’s followers believed with absolute certainty that he was the greatest human being in the history of mankind and his ideology was indisputably The Truth. Every program contained unceasing praise of his brilliance, accompanied by a constant drumbeat of criticism of the press for its unjust treatment of him. I felt those present were hitting this thing about the boycott a little too hard and should ease up on it; however, I was willing to roll with it because I wanted Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism to be as great as his students said they were, so they could help me improve my life. Therefore, I stifled the inward voice that whispered, “What if the press doesn’t write about Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism because they see something wrong that I’m missing?”
One of my favorite segments on the Saturday evening programs was always the enactment of a 15- to 20-minute excerpt from a 50-minute Aesthetic Realism lesson with Siegel (portrayed by one of his followers), in which he addressed specific issues people were dealing with in their lives. In these excerpts, Siegel was unfailingly charming, beneficent, insightful, and often humorous as he asked critical questions. Based on these tremendously appealing snippets, I thought, “Who wouldn’t want to study with this man?”
It was only later that I found out what sometimes went on during the rest of those 50 minutes that never appeared on public programs. One minute Siegel was that reasonable, knowledgeable teacher speaking deeply and kindly to the lesson recipient; the next minute, he was lashing out at us, screaming that we weren’t grateful enough to him, and that we weren’t doing enough to have his importance known. Out of the blue, his voice, manner, and attitude turned on a dime, and suddenly there he was, spit flying from his mouth, eyes flashing fire, and his face contorted in anger as he blasted us to smithereens for our unfairness to him and our complicity with the boycotters. Sometimes his rage was directed at one person; but at other times it was directed at all of us as we sat recoiling in fear, hoping and praying he wouldn’t single us out specifically as the object of his ire.
Not knowing the above initially, I continued taking the acting class, attending public presentations, socializing with Aesthetic Realism followers, and reading my way through the literature. As I became more and more immersed in the Aesthetic Realism subculture, I became convinced that not only could its teachings better people’s personal lives, but that it also could bring about much-needed societal change, including politically and economically. I honestly believed that, were it known, Aesthetic Realism could change the world. And that was when I decided I wanted to become a formal student with Eli Siegel myself so that I, too, could assist in having Aesthetic Realism known worldwide and all human beings could have the lives they hoped for.
I “took out a Study Form,” as the process is called, and, in answer to the questions on the form, I basically stated in my own words and with detail that I saw Eli Siegel as the greatest person who ever lived; that I was sure Aesthetic Realism was the knowledge all humanity had been waiting for; and that I would consider it a privilege to be allowed to devote the rest of my life to working to have Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism known globally. In other words, with this document, I literally pledged the rest of my life to Aesthetic Realism.
In 1973, Siegel’s followers began to look for a larger headquarters. The Terrain Gallery’s director had the foresight to see that SoHo was the next up-and-coming New York City neighborhood in which property values would shoot up exponentially and convinced everyone else that it would be a great investment to buy the three-story building with a cellar at 141 Greene Street, right off Houston Street. Here the group would launch the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, combining the Terrain Gallery and an Aesthetic Realism school. Even before the ink was dry on the contract, the call went out to all of Siegel’s followers to prepare to give every spare moment of our lives to whipping the place into shape so the staff could move in and get to work as quickly as possible.
I soon found myself in charge of priming and painting the inside of the entire building. I was required to accomplish this strictly through the volunteer labor of my fellow students, many of whom, unlike me, had never even held a paint brush or roller in their hand. But I was undaunted. I threw myself into the project, giving it everything I had because I was thrilled that Aesthetic Realism was growing, and we were taking it to the next level.
During the whole process, I felt more alive than I had in my entire life before. The nonstop work, though grueling, brought together my love of physical activity, enjoyable interaction with other like-minded people, and a conviction that what we were doing had meaning for the entire world and would ultimately benefit all humanity.
In the end, my dedication to this project led to Siegel indicating to the people in charge of the Foundation that they should put me to work there. At that period of my life, I was cleaning apartments for a living, which provided me with a flexible schedule so I could go to auditions and also take classes to continue honing my performance skills. Therefore, someone pointed out that the Foundation’s large building would need regular cleaning, so why not get me to do that? When another person suggested that perhaps they should pay me a token salary because I obviously didn’t have much money, the person was told, “No, Donna is very devoted. We can save that money for other more important things.”
So I was offered a job cleaning the Foundation twice a week for free. And just as they were counting on, I snapped it right up. Even though I could have certainly used another paycheck no matter how small, the thought of payment never even entered my mind. I was over the moon; I could hardly believe something this wonderful was actually happening to me—that I had the honor of being considered worthy of working in any capacity whatsoever at the most important educational institution in the entire history of humanity. Heck, I would have been willing to pay them to let me work there! I would gladly, gratefully scrub bathroom floors with a toothbrush (which I actually did end up doing on occasion, by the way) or anything else they wanted me to do!
Five years later, in 1978, Eli Siegel died. The individuals he had designated as his successors assumed leadership of the movement, including complete governance of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
In many respects, my years of working at the Foundation were something of the classic “start at the bottom and rise (almost) to the top” scenario. The only thing was, as I rose through the ranks and was entrusted with jobs that carried with them ever-increasing responsibility, I soon came to understand this: Each additional job was a double-edged sword because (a) it increased the sheer quantity of duties I could fail to execute to the leadership’s satisfaction, and (b) the more important the job, the more ruinous the mistake if I made one. Next stop: the fiery pit.
I suffered several major falls from grace; but especially in the earlier years, each time I fell, I believed that, no matter how miserable I became, I had to take my beat-downs and stay the course. I had to “keep my mind right,” as I called it, and not even entertain the thought of leaving. For, as weird as it seems now, I had come to believe that to betray Eli Siegel was the worst thing any human being could do because God had sent him here to save the world. And I would be selling out all humankind if I left. I believed that any person who abandoned Aesthetic Realism—which was the ultimate betrayal of Siegel—gave up all hope of salvation and would burn in everlasting hell. Even though I sometimes felt I was already living in hell right here on earth, I still didn’t want to spend all eternity in the other one down below!
In what I have since learned is a common pattern in cultic groups, my falls from grace became more and more severe. I was subject to public lashings from the leadership, joined in by other followers hoping to escape my fate. Each time, feeling like death warmed over, I showed up for work the next morning at the Foundation and dragged myself through yet another day, surrounded by people who couldn’t wait to sink their claws into me. Eventually, too toxic to keep on staff, I was fired from my Foundation job.
If that weren’t enough, my Aesthetic Realism roommate decided that, because of her unbounded love for Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism, it was unthinkable for her to allow the likes of me to remain under her roof. She gave me a 2-week deadline to move out, knowing full well that I had almost no money, and that no other consultant or associate (as teachers and teachers-in-training of Siegel’s philosophy were called) would let me move in with them. By the skin of my teeth, I found someone who had a tiny bedroom to rent out in her sixth-floor walk-up in the East Village. A little later, I also found a part-time job that paid more than my full-time salary at the Foundation.
So I went from being seen with considerable respect within the organization to being branded a saboteur. The only time anyone spoke to me was to give me criticism. The rest of the time I was shunned.
When I entered the building three times a week to attend classes, something resembling the parting of the Red Sea took place, as other followers moved away from me as though I had the plague while trying to pretend they weren’t even aware of my existence. No one made eye contact.
After I sat down, a virtual moat of empty chairs formed a ring around me in every direction because, if anyone sat near me, other Aesthetic Realists might interpret that action as a sign of approval of me. People were also afraid that, if they sat close enough, I might lean over and say something to them, and others might mistake it as their being friendly to me, which could land them in hot water for consorting with the enemy. As one who had helped part the Red Sea and form a moat around others in disfavor, I understood all of this very well.
It’s beyond my writing abilities to describe just how excruciating this shunning was, so I’m not even going to try. And the situation brings up a question you probably can’t help but ask: “Why did she stay?!” Frankly, by then, I was in such a bad place mentally I can’t tell you a whole lot about what I was thinking—other than that, for the most part, I wasn’t thinking. I was basically on autopilot, a zombie just walking through the motions, doing what I’d been programmed to do throughout my many years in the group: Go to class, sit there, and take whatever was dished out. And while I was there, my body was present, but most of the rest of me was absent. That was the only way I could get through it.
I do know I no longer felt motivated to stay because I saw Aesthetic Realism as magnificent and needed by the world. Those words rang hollow. No, what kept me from leaving at that point was that I simply couldn’t bear the thought of the people whose approval I craved almost more than anything else in the world thinking of me with complete contempt. For it is almost impossible to describe how filthy, disgusting, degenerate, and depraved we saw anyone who left Aesthetic Realism as being. Take all the worst people throughout history you can think of, roll them into one, and you have what we were conditioned to think of people who left.
I used to believe, for example, that while Hitler was evil because he wanted to kill all Jewish people, and because he did succeed in killing 6 million (plus about 5 million others), those who left Aesthetic Realism were even worse because they wanted to condemn every person in the entire world for the rest of time to live out their lives deprived of the knowledge they most desperately wanted and needed. There was no greater evil than that! So even though I felt I was already the lowest of the low within Aesthetic Realism, that was nothing in comparison to the sheer, utter contempt other people would have for me after I was gone.
The picture that kept coming into my mind was of one evening when I heard a consultant telling with great glee that he’d just found out that his former best friend Marcus (not his real name), who had left Aesthetic Realism a few years back, was dying of AIDS. The consultant’s face was lit up, his eyes glowing, as he regaled his colleagues with the gruesome details of Marcus’s symptoms, finishing up with the fact that his former best friend didn’t have long to live. I knew that the way this person talked about Marcus—as the other consultants hung on his every word—was how they would talk about me, as a creature so base I didn’t deserve to draw breath in this world.
The upshot was, instead of my saying, “To hell with all of you; I’m out of here!,” all I wanted was to be accepted back into everyone’s good graces and for everything to be nice again (as if it was ever really nice before). So pathetic, right? But by then, after two decades of psychological manipulation and coercive control, I simply wasn’t capable of freeing myself.
Without my seeing it at the time, the beginning of the end for me was in the mid-1990s when Siegel’s followers decided we would no longer look to any journalist to write an article that was “completely fair to Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism.” Instead, we would become reporters ourselves, blanketing the nation with “honest” letters and articles about Eli Siegel and his thought, Aesthetic Realism.
Among the many articles I wrote and succeeded in getting published widely was one proclaiming that “Aesthetic Realism Can End Racism.” In it, I put forth the Aesthetic Realism precept that racism doesn’t begin with race or ethnicity; it begins with the desire to have contempt for the world different from oneself. When people see that their true importance comes from respecting the world in all its diversity, racism will end.
This article eventually led to Edwin Glosson, Editor and Publisher of the San Antonio Register, inviting me to write a weekly column on Aesthetic Realism for his newspaper’s Black readership. I felt that to live up to the responsibility Mr. Glosson was entrusting me with, I needed to give myself a crash course on issues facing African Americans, such as “shopping while Black”—which I realized for the first time were remarkably absent from any discussion in the weekly Aesthetic Realism classes on current events.
As I persevered with my efforts to learn more, including reading such local Black newspapers as the New York Amsterdam News, the Daily Challenge, and the New York Beacon, almost immediately I saw that, as a White woman living in the lily-White ivory tower of Aesthetic Realism, I didn’t know squat about what it was really like being Black in America. Realizing this felt like someone had taken a huge bucket of ice water and thrown it in my face, jolting me out of my complacency. For the first time, I endeavored to look straight at the issue of racism, no Aesthetic Realism filter between it and me, and to comprehend just how deeply and thoroughly racism is woven into the very fabric of this nation at every level, institutional and personal, infecting and dirtying everything it touches, including me and my way of seeing people who aren’t “melanin challenged,” as I am. I was both stunned and electrified by everything I was learning.
In time, I could no longer bear having to be what I felt the Aesthetic Realism bubble required me to be: a nonintrospective, liberal, White person who, when I had a moment or two and was in the mood, could trot out my opposition to racism in order to feel good about myself. I was meant to churn out an occasional article that decried racism but had as its real agenda to advance Aesthetic Realism on the backs of people of color, using their pain to promote Siegel’s philosophy.
I soon felt as if I was barreling headlong into the headlights of an 18-wheeler driven by the Aesthetic Realism leadership, particularly after I expressed my intention of writing about my support of reparations for slavery. A few hours after I first mentioned to someone, almost in passing, that I wanted to write about reparations, I got a phone call from one of the leaders, who asked me, “Don’t you realize that if you express support for reparations, you will make a lot of good White people angry at Aesthetic Realism? I am sure you don’t want to do that! Don’t you think you should reconsider?”
In a very unusual move for me, with my heart in my throat, I stood my ground and said that I felt that chattel slavery was one of the most hideous confluents of racial and economic injustice that had ever occurred, and I felt it was fully in keeping with Aesthetic Realism’s core beliefs to take a public stand against it. I was told that if I went ahead, I must preface my column with a disclaimer making it clear that what I said was my opinion alone and in no way represented the views of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
Then, in February 1999, the unarmed Guinean immigrant, Amadou Diallo, was murdered by four policemen, who ruthlessly mowed him down in a hail of 41 bullets as he stood in his apartment building’s entranceway. The New York City newspaper the African Sun Times, which had been publishing some of my articles on Aesthetic Realism, asked me to do one on the murder of Amadou Diallo, which was front and center in every newspaper and newscast at that time. I felt it would be weird for all of us Aesthetic Realists who presented ourselves publicly as deeply concerned about racism to suddenly go silent when it came to this slaying. I screwed my courage to the sticking point and asked for permission to do the article. Man, did I get a tongue-lashing for even thinking of such a thing!—My doing so could cause trouble and endanger the Foundation’s nonprofit standing, and I needed to start getting my priorities straight again or things would not go well for me.
It probably goes without saying that I did not write the article, but I did begin surreptitiously taking to the streets to mobilize, including getting arrested protesting Amadou Diallo’s murder. I was in custody for 25 hours. I then wrote an anonymous article about what I, a White woman, had learned from this experience. The article was snapped up by several newspapers, including the African Sun Times.
Then, when the trial of the four police officers was moved from the Bronx to Albany to avoid the killers getting the justice they deserved, I secretly took the bus once a week up to the capital with Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network to bear witness to the horrendous miscarriage of justice taking place there that resulted in all four officers being acquitted and allowed to return to police duty. I made these trips on the day of the week I was supposed to be safely tucked away in my apartment working diligently on my column on Aesthetic Realism for the San Antonio Register.
While all this was going on, the pale, barely legible handwriting on my wall was gradually morphing into flashing neon. I knew I had to get out of Aesthetic Realism so I could reclaim my voice, both written and spoken, and live a life dictated by my own conscience, not by the dictates of the Aesthetic Realism leadership. And that is exactly what I did and am doing now.
And one thing I can assure you: I have never regretted for one single moment my decision to leave. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner!
Donna Lamb was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. She moved to New York City in 1967 while still a teenager, with aspirations of going into theater. This goal was derailed 2 years later when she became involved with Aesthetic Realism, which subsumed her life for the next 32 years. Donna left the group in 2001 over her staunch disagreement with its approach to racism and opposition to reparations for slavery. She went on to become the communications director for the all-volunteer organization Caucasians United for Reparations and Emancipation, speaking at conferences, colleges, churches, and on TV and radio all over the country. She also conducted workshops on White privilege. Now retired, Donna is church warden at Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan and a volunteer at the church’s soup kitchen and food pantry, which provides thousands of meals each week to homeless individuals and low income families.