The confrontation in Waco, Tex., like the mass suicide in Jonestown 14 years ago, is the tragic outcome of predictable events.
There are key psychological factors that lead people into belief systems, cults and self destructive situations. Hundreds of followers of Jim Jones, at his behest, drank poison en masse, believing that they would meet later on in another form of Utopia. His belief system was strong enough to override the human instinct for survival.
At Jonestown as in Waco, deprived childhood need is the glue that attaches the followers to the leader and vice versa. The followers are in the grip of something much stronger and much older than their powers of judgment. They are being driven by a matrix of unconscious feelings and unending neediness that renders them as naive and vulnerable as an infant turning toward its mother for warmth, sustenance, protection and guidance.
The needs I am referring to lie under the rubric of love. Children need to be touched, caressed and soothed. They need to be heard, protected and made to feel safe. They need parents who will allow them to express their feelings and who will help them with those feelings. When these needs go unmet early on, they turn into what I call Primal Pain. A child cries out from his crib for his mother. Instead of being attended to, he is met with angry eyes, a hostile voice and punishment for the "crime" of crying. He soon learns to put away his need. But it doesn't disappear; it is simply more pain than he can integrate. Repression rushes in to quell his feelings of need and make him feel more comfortable. He soon loses touch with his need, but the pain lingers on for a lifetime below the level of conscious awareness. In adult life, that unconscious need will be displaced onto others.
Can you imagine what it takes for a child to accept that he is not loved, that he never will be? That justice will never come, that it will never get any better? That all he has to look forward to is absolute nothingness, hopelessness and lovelessness for as long as he lives? We can see the pull of the belief system that defends against such feelings, and why brainwashing of all kinds works in the face of utter hopelessness.
The needy follower feeds on the leader, whose unfulfilled need is probably even more intense than that of the lowliest member of his flock. It is not an accident that many of the tyrants and demagogues of this world are typically products of broken, distorted childhoods, looking for fulfillment symbolically in the present.
The leader blots out the intolerable pains of his or her life through the control and manipulation of others; the follower finds relief through being controlled. A very stable symbiosis of mutually dependent parasites.
Defensive belief systems are welding devices. They weld members into a social unit so that they feel they belong. They can then share their private craziness with others. It is what I call socially validated insanity: My unreality is validated because many others believe it; and the more who believe, the more I am reassured and relieved not to be alone.
All this is not so different from the urban gang phenomenon. Gangs are welding. The need for approval, to belong and to be protected is similar to that in a cult. You are not going to talk someone out of a gang or a cult, because you can't talk someone out of his needs. They are hard-wired.
Few followers tried to leave Jonestown or, in the beginning of the siege, the Branch Davidian compound, because to leave is to feel forsaken, to be faced again with the early catastrophic feelings of rejection and abandonment, which drove the person to join up in the first place.
One way that defensive belief systems come into being, even fairly early in a child's life, is through being taught not to express feelings, not to speak thoughts that are unacceptable, not to express resentment, jealousy or other negative thoughts, not to speak badly of others and never to say what is in one's heart. Once installed, this censoring process continues automatically. The child comes later on to substitute ideas for what he or she really feels. Having unreal ideas as an adult is just a logical extension of what happened in early childhood.
All of us are programmed to some extent to reject and deny the voice of our feelings. That is the function of belief systems: to quiet the feeling that there is no one to care, to protect and to love. The drug of beliefs anesthetizes a lifetime of deprivation. A threat to the belief system is met with desperation; the needy are prepared to do anything, even to kill or, as at Jonestown, to end their own lives, to avoid being left open to pain without a defender.
I am not referring to a drug metaphorically. We are able to manufacture a morphine equivalent in our brains called endorphin whose secretion can be influenced by ideas. Ideas can be like a shot of morphine, in that certain ideas are calming: "You are wonderful. You are special, God's gift," and so on. The ideas must run counter to the real feelings of hopelessness, feeling unimportant, worthless, of no value to anyone. Once someone offers ideas strong enough to counter what one lacked in childhood, one is "under the influence."
Instead of trying to feel the void that lurks inside the hidden crevices of the unconscious, the believer rises above hopelessness and helplessness into "salvation." What is he saved from? His feelings. Himself.
It is not a matter of what belief, but the fact of believing. The endorphins whip into action irrespective of the content of the belief so long as implied in it is hope and avoidance of death. Those chemicals do not distinguish among Buddha, Jesus, Jones or Koresh. They just do their job when called upon.