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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.

April 04, 1997|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 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.

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