Copyright 1997 Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
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April 4, 1997, Friday,
SECTION: Part A; Page 1; Metro Desk
LENGTH: 3387 words
HEADLINE: COLUMN ONE;
FREE WILL, OR THOUGHT CONTROL?;
WERE THE DEATHS OF
HEAVEN'S GATE MEMBERS THE RESULT OF BRAINWASHING? THE DEBATE REFLECTS LARGER CULTURAL
QUESTIONS ABOUT THE ROLE OF CHOICE AND THE ISSUE OF VICTIMIZATION.
BYLINE: TERENCE MONMANEY, TIMES MEDICAL WRITER
In those now-familiar sun-washed video farewells, the members of
Heaven's Gate said they had made up their own minds. Even the parents of one young man found
among the purple-shrouded dead tried to reassure us about what happened in
Rancho Santa Fe, issuing a statement saying
"he was happy, healthy and acting under his own volition."
But despite claims that the 38 followers who committed suicide last week were
not brainwashed or bullied by their wild-eyed leader, there is evidence to the
contrary. Far from being freely thought-out final acts, the suicides are seen
by some mental health experts and
cult scholars as largely the result of a sustained, calculated and ruthless program
of psychological coercion.
"I see them as victims of a hoax," said Dr. Louis J. West, a UCLA
"There was villainy here."
West and others believe that members of
cults are subjected to a form of psychological manipulation known as undue
influence, coercive persuasion or thought reform. And their analysis of
Heaven's Gate practices, from the insistence that members forsake family to the
minute-by-minute schedules they had to keep, suggest that the
cult was structured to undermine individuals' identities, leaving them to ignore
misgivings and do the group's bidding no matter how irrational.
However, the role of
"thought reform" in
cult behavior is hotly disputed in academic circles. Some scholars challenge the
idea of psychological manipulation, arguing that followers are drawn to a
cult by its philosophy, as are observers of mainstream religions.
"I'm very dubious of the psychological interpretation" of the Heaven's Gate suicides, said Richard Hecht, chairman of religious
studies at UC Santa Barbara. A person is attracted to a
cult because it espouses a
narrative" in which the follower
"finds meaning," he says. By implication, a follower is not passively brainwashed but actively
"buys into" the message.
The question of free will in the Heaven's Gate deaths is more than academic: It
shapes our emotional reaction to the event, perhaps the largest mass suicide
ever in the United States. Beyond that, it reflects a struggle at the core of
It's commonly said that Americans too often avoid personal responsibility by
claiming to be victims. Advocates of welfare reform argue that cutting federal
aid breaks cycles of defeatist dependence. Many obstetricians say they can
hardly afford to stay in practice because of malpractice suits from parents
blaming their baby's defects on their doctors. Talk shows are an orgy of
finger-pointing, with one guest after another shouting that their faults are
someone else's fault.
But the irony would be painful, others say, if legitimate concerns about what
has been called the
"cult of victimization" numbed us to the possibility that some who died in Rancho Santa Fe were indeed
the victims of a
Divergent Impressions of
People who recently encountered Heaven's Gate, which was started in the
mid-1970s by Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles and Marshall Herff Applewhite, whose
body also was found in the rented hillside mansion, have divergent impressions
cult's hold over members. A Rancho Santa Fe neighbor, businessman Anthony Demopoulos,
recalled that cultists he met were slow-talking, deliberate, almost robotic in
"They were not normal people," he said.
"Something was done to them."
Demopoulos especially noticed that one cultist, John Craig, who was known as
"Brother Logan," held sway over the others.
"He would never let them
even be on the phone alone to talk to me. They couldn't breathe without him."
In contrast, Beverly Hills computer businessman Nick Matzorkis, who employed
about a dozen
cult members to design World Wide Web sites, had the impression that they were not
being coerced. His employee Richard Ford, or
"Rio," is the former cultist who discovered the bodies.
"The one thing that's been made very clear to me in conversations with Rio is
that anyone was free to leave at any time," Matzorkis said.
"They never had any restrictions if someone wanted to leave the group." He added:
"They were good, smart, well-intentioned people and they believed so strongly .
. . that they were willing to give their lives for it."
Since the suicides, experts have hastened to point out that
cults are not composed only of marginal people.
"It isn't just the crazies and crackpots who become
cult members," said Marybeth
Ayella, a sociologist at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, who has
cults in California.
"It's often otherwise normal people who are approached and recruited."
Researchers say that
cults tend to prefer sophisticated recruits, the better to woo them with fanciful
A noted authority on deception, magician James
"Amazing" Randi, said that sophisticates are often easier to deceive than street-smart
folks or, for that matter, kids.
"Children are notoriously hard to fool," he said, adding that youngsters do not know enough logic to be taken in by
Randi, author of
"An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds
& Hoaxes of the Occult
& Supernatural," said that recruiters working for deceptive
cults use a psychological strategy similar to that of confidence men: Giving the
"target" a chance to share in
an illicit gain. A con man offers a piece of tax-free action; a
"says that out of all the people on Earth, you're going to be one of the
selected few who ride the spaceship to heaven."
Comparisons to Religious Beliefs
On the theory that one person's religion is another's
cult, many scholars argue that there is little rational difference between the
beliefs espoused by mainstream Christianity and, say, Heaven's Gate. The
resurrection of Christ, though attested to in the Gospels, is no more
verifiable than is the cultists' belief that they would become intergalactic
Hecht, of UC Santa Barbara, says that
cults and religions put forth
"symbolic narratives" that make untestable claims to
"ultimate truth." And both serve a not always pleasant function of dividing a community into
"those on the inside and those on the outside." A
cult, he says, is essentially a religion that you don't like or understand.
But Hal French, religious studies scholar at the University of South Carolina,
cults often purvey a sense of
"spiritual paranoia," on the one hand, and are generally headed by a messianic figure claiming to
have a lock on the truth. That is in contrast to most traditional religions, in
which the important texts are open to all. Moreover, he said,
"churches try to help people live in the world, not take them out of it, help
them find meaning and not segregate themselves into tight little islands that
are not subject to the checks and balances most of us encounter."
Some psychologists say that followers of mainstream religions often engage in
what ethicists call informed consent: You evaluate the primary beliefs, texts,
and rituals before you make a
commitment to join in and worship. By contrast, followers of religious
cults are not quite sure what they are getting into. As one Heaven's Gate member
wrote on the Internet,
"conceptual understandings are given to us only on a 'need to know' basis."
The Heaven's Gate recruitment practices appear to have been low-key. The group
used posters, newspaper ads, satellite TV and the Internet to advertise
meetings and disseminate ideas. People who wanted to follow up left word and
were later contacted from one of the group's ever-shifting redoubts.
Anyone who has been buttonholed on the street by a member of a religious
cult and offered free literature or a chance to go on a weekend retreat--all
standard come-ons--can appreciate that the Heaven's Gate approach was
relatively laid-back. (In contrast to some New Age
cults, extremist forms espouse radically unorthodox views and demand total loyalty or
Robert Balch, a University of Montana sociologist who briefly infiltrated the
cult in 1975 and has studied it extensively, described the group's tactics in a
1994 article. The leaders, he said,
"emphasized the importance of free choice" in recruitment.
"Seekers had to want membership in the next kingdom more than anything else.
Those who had to be persuaded obviously weren't ready to leave the planet."
Nonetheless, experts say that extremist
cults practically never engage in pressure tactics at first. A typical used car
salesman, they say, comes on stronger in the first meeting than a
cult recruiter, who is more likely to employ flattery than fire and brimstone.
"There's no hard sell," said Margaret
Thaler Singer, a clinical psychologist and author of the 1995 book
"Cults in Our Midst." She estimated there are 5,000
cults in the United States
"and none do hard sell. They cajole people in, they're seductive."
Balch contrasts Heaven's Gate's seemingly low-pressure recruitment with the
"systematic social influence processes" used to engender commitment once a person joined up. Members were subjected to
"a highly regimented lifestyle where personal freedom was not permitted and
independent thinking was replaced with what a member characterized as
"an extreme case of religious totalism where activities were prescribed
literally down to the minute," members were not
"coerced," Balch says.
"They remained free to leave at any time, and some did."
But being allowed to leave isn't the same as having free will, says Singer. She
said that indoctrinated
members of extremist
"are really not free to leave in the psychological sense."
Emotional attachments to fellow members, fear of the leaders, fear over
abandoning loved ones and dependence on the
cult for food, money and shelter create hard-to-break bonds, said Singer, who has
interviewed 4,000 active and former
cult members, including some from Heaven's Gate. She believes the Heaven's Gate
suicides were the result of brainwashing or
"thought reform," of repeated drills and lectures about the
"next level" that
"desensitized" members to conventional ideas about death.
She recalled former Heaven's Gate members who had been psychologically
"They were told that if they turned their back, their nearest and dearest would
be hurt or would die. They would be 'breaking the faith with the whole
Motives of Leader Mysterious
It is not immediately obvious what Applewhite got out of leading Heaven's Gate.
cult heads, the celibate, ascetic Applewhite, 66, did not appear to be in it for
money, sex or access to movie stars. Also unlike some
cult leaders, he seemed to believe in the ideas he espoused.
Psychiatrists and psychologists suggest that he suffered from untreated mental
disorders, ranging from anxiety over his ambivalent sexuality to paranoia and
delusions. None of these experts examined Applewhite. But their diagnoses are
less important than the overall theory that the grandiose persona that he
created for himself somehow eased his mind.
As Singer put it, Applewhite was living in a fantasy world, and it must have
made him feel better to have others in it.
Critics of the purely psychological explanation for the
cult phenomenon do not dispute that many
cult leaders have megalomania. They just place much more emphasis on members'
willingness to participate in it.
psychology of the group's leaders" and instead focuses on the
"ability of the leader to articulate a powerful, convincing narrative in which
the individuals found meaning." Applewhite's narrative, he said, appealed to his followers because it
suggested that the
"cosmos is not empty, that there are positive forces in the universe that want
to do best by us."
As for the suicides, Hecht said he did not regard the members as
"victims." He makes no judgment as to whether the cultists' understanding of heaven was
wise or reasonable and takes their final act at face value: eagerness for
"A person buys into a narrative or not," he says.
"There's a mutual responsibility for those who act out narratives." Hecht objects to the
"thought reform" camp for moral reasons.
"If you buy into the psychological interpretation, it ultimately frees us of
responsibility for our actions."
There is perhaps a middle ground between viewing this
largely incomprehensible group suicide as either an expression of brainwashing
or especially powerful storytelling. Stanton Peele, a clinical psychologist
specializing in addiction treatment and theory in Morristown, N.J., compares it
to drug use. Though belonging to the group was ultimately destructive, he says
it must have also been rewarding in the sense that a narcotic or even alcohol
can temporarily allay anxieties. Not everyone who tries heroin becomes
addicted, he said, and not everyone exposed to an extremist
"thought reform" techniques is captivated.
In this view, the microscopic control exerted over the group members' lives
becomes for some susceptible people a kind of psychological or emotional salve.
"Obviously," said Peele, author of the book
"Diseasing of America," a critique of rampant victimhood,
"the reassurance and predictability of group membership was something that they
deeply sought and they were willing to give up everything for it."
Some support for that theory was furnished by a former Heaven's Gate member,
Justin Cooke, whose wife was among the dead.
"We wanted our brains washed," he told CBS.
"There's a lot of joy in it."
Times staff writers Greg Krikorian, Stephanie Simon and John Dart contributed
to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Thought Reform Methods
Clinical psychologist Margaret Thaler Singer, a professor emeritus at UC
Berkeley and author of the 1995 book
"Cults in Our Midst," has identified six methods common to
cults that engage in
"thought reform," which wards off individual doubts, erodes identity, fosters group bonds and
engenders obedience. Here are those techniques and corresponding Heaven's Gate
rules or activities:
Keep members unaware of actual agenda.
"offenses" outlined in a
cult rule book appearing on the Internet were
"second-guessing or jumping ahead of my teachers,"
"trusting my own judgment,"
"putting myself first" and
"having inappropriate curiosity."
Control time and physical environment.
One ex-member told a socioloigist that there was a
"procedure for every conscious moment of life," including a schedule that had one woman bathing at 5:57 p.m., drinking a
protein shake at 6:36 and going to bed for two hours at 9:54.
Create a sense of powerlessness, fear and dependency.
Heaven's Gate required members to give up belongings and outside incomes. And a
woman interviewed by The Times in 1975 said that the leaders, then known as Bo
and Peep, used fear tactics,
"telling us the spirit entities would kill or
maim or harm our friends and loved ones if we didn't go along with them."
Suppress old behaviors and attitudes.
Members were required to abandon loved ones, jobs, hometowns and clothing, and
to change their names.
Instill new behaviors and attitudes.
Members wore short-cropped hair and uniforms, lived in houses with fellow
"classmates" and studied such esoterica as
"the Evolutionary Kingdom Level Above Human."
Put forth a closed system of logic and authoritarian structure.
As a member's Internet memoir put it:
"Timetables and even conceptual understandings are given to us only on a 'need
to know' basis.... The premature introduction of more advanced concepts and
understandings early on would have completely 'blown' the circuitry of the
comparitively primitive human computers brains we were using."
GRAPHIC: GRAPHIC-CHART: Thought Reform Methods, Los Angeles Times PHOTO: (...)
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