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For a politician, sponsoring a pork-barrel item to fund seniors' classes should be a simple, feel-good, voter-friendly action, as easy as shaking a hand or kissing a baby. What could go wrong?
Brooklyn assemblyman Felix Ortiz is finding out. He sponsored a $4,000 earmark in the state budget for a Soho nonprofit called the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, which has the incredibly bland-sounding goal of assisting "people throughout America and the world to see each other and reality fairly."
The Aesthetic Realism Foundation was founded by poet Eli Siegel in 1941 to educate the public about his philosophy, which includes such radical ideas as that "all beauty is a making one of opposites" and that humankind's "largest desire is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis." Today, the organization promotes his philosophy through dramatic presentations and classes on art, poetry, music, and marriage. The foundation also offers "consultations"—a kind of personal therapy in which students are individually counseled by a group of Aesthetic Realism teachers.
In a statement released on April 23, Ortiz said that the foundation "was well-regarded in my community for the services it provided to senior citizens," which is why he carved off a chunk of the state budget to fund some additional workshops at a Brooklyn senior center. And who could possibly criticize him for helping the elderly through such an innocuous-sounding nonprofit?
Turns out that several ex-students are happy to do just that. "It sounds to me like the assemblyman got duped. I don't think the taxpayers should be paying for their enterprise," says Michael Bluejay, who was born to devotees of Aesthetic Realism and attended consultations as a child and teen. "They determine who you marry, whether or not you can go to school—it's definitely mind control." Bluejay believes the workshops would be used to recruit seniors into the group's controlling grip.
Adam Mali, who was also raised by devotees of Aesthetic Realism, calls the funding "baffling." His mother was the director of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation for a time, but both she and Mali left the group around 1990. "Typically, you were excoriated in the public meetings if they didn't like what you were doing," he says. "Your decisions had to be made [on the basis of] what was best for the group." Mali says he was pressured to break up with his girlfriend, who wasn't part of the group, and to bypass college because everything he needed to know could be learned at the foundation. "My father is still in there, and he doesn't talk to me anymore because he thinks I betrayed the group, " Mali says.
Both Mali and Bluejay admit they don't know much about how the foundation is run these days, but say they doubt that things are much different. Bluejay now runs a website tracking the foundation's activities and posting narratives from other ex-students.
Steve Hassan, a former Moonie and the author of two books on controversial religious groups, describes Aesthetic Realism as a "psychotherapy cult." He has counseled eight former Aesthetic Realism students over the last two decades and says the foundation employs all the typical methods of undue influence: "The group was cutting people off from loved ones, regulating all aspects of behavior—their thoughts and feelings—and encouraging the idolization of Eli Siegel."
Aesthetic Realism Foundation spokeswoman Devorah Tarrow turned down requests for an interview—and an employee of the foundation refused to let the Voice into its office. However, in a written statement, Tarrow called the accusations "an attempt to change something wide, cultural, and very kind—the philosophy [of] Aesthetic Realism—into something it definitely is not." Regarding the seniors' classes that Assemblyman Ortiz helped fund, Tarrow insisted that "to say they're for the purpose of 'recruiting' is ludicrous! They're on such subjects as 'Every Person Can Tell You Something About Yourself'; 'Love Is for Liking the World'; 'Memory Shows That We're Connected to the Whole World.' "
Had Assemblyman Ortiz or his staff investigated the group, they might have discovered that from the 1960s through the '80s, the Aesthetic Realism Foundation ran a program intended to turn gay people straight, and claimed to have successfully "changed" 150 people. (The foundation ended that program in 1990, and today insists that "Aesthetic Realism is for full, equal civil rights for everyone.") Later, its members held regular silent vigils in front of the New York Times building, claiming they were "victims of the press" because no one would write about their philosophy.
Apparently, neither the assemblyman nor the director of the RAICES senior center had any inkling of the group's odd history or the accusations against it until last week.
When the foundation previously conducted a health workshop for seniors at RAICES, "there were no overt problems," says director José Ortiz Ortiz. However, he adds that he hasn't spoken with anyone from the foundation in at least a year, and wasn't aware that it had requested state money to do more workshops at the RAICES center. "I would have to look into the organization in greater detail before I would even contemplate [allowing] that," he says.
As for Assemblyman Ortiz, he says he's investigating the charges. "Should the outcome of the investigation reveal any substance to these allegations," he adds, "I will take the appropriate action."