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 psychiatrist and cult watcher. "There was villainy here."
West and others believe that members of "totalist" religious 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 "convincing 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 contemporary society.
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 cult.
Divergent Impressions of Cult Members
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 of the 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 their actions. "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 studied extremist 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 pseudointellectual notions.
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 logic-defying tricks.
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 cult recruiter "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 gardeners.
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, says that 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 self-awareness cults, extremist forms espouse radically unorthodox views and demand total loyalty or subservience.)
Robert Balch, a University of Montana sociologist who briefly infiltrated the then-fledgling 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 'crew-mindedness.' "
While the "UFO cult" was "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 cults generally "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 blackmailed. "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 intergalactic system.' "
Motives of Leader Mysterious
It is not immediately obvious what Applewhite got out of leading Heaven's Gate. Unlike other 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.
Hecht discounts "the 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 another life.
"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 cult's "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 very 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.
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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.
Among the "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."