With the Heaven’s Gate tragedy still so fresh in all of our minds certain questions seem to come up: What kind of person joins a cult? Why do they stay and put up with the abuse? How could anyone be SO devoted that they would kill themselves? Can’t they see that what they are doing is crazy? Are THEY crazy?
I feel that I am in a unique position to address these questions as I spent 10 years with a communal cult. Yet, now being out for 11 years, I also can look at the horrors that happened at Rancho Santa Fe and ask, along with the rest of a stunned nation, “Why did they die like this?”
For eight and a half of the ten years I was with my former group, each payday I would sign my check over to the group. I would receive a meager allowance in return and would have to beg for the basics of life such as clothing and medical care. Often I lived in substandard housing with rats, filth, and overcrowded conditions in neighborhoods with extremely high crime rates. After working a full day at work, I often would have to spend several hours on the street proselytizing. After returning, I would have to sit in meetings that lasted to the wee hours of the morning. These meetings were intense. Public humiliation was common place, and sometimes we would sit in silence for hours on end believing ourselves to be too reprobate even to speak. After getting an insufficient night’s sleep, I would be expected to repeat the same routine of work and group activities all over again. In other words, there was no doubt that I was in a cult. Yet, if you had passed me in the street during the 10 years that I spent in the group, I can tell you that I wouldn’t have been all that different from others in the crowd. My skin had not turned green, and I did not grow antennas. I had eyes, ears and a nose just like anyone else. I looked both ways before crossing a street. If somehow we got in an idle conversation that didn’t involve my trying to recruit you, you may have been shocked to know that I had likes and dislikes just like any other person. I still liked pizza (even if I didn’t have much access to it) and still hated pork sausage. Blue was still my favorite color, and I still loved sunsets. People who are in cults are just that – PEOPLE—although sadly cults suppress much of what makes an individual unique. Heaven’s Gate, I believe, has forced all of us to come to grips with the realization that they were people not too unlike us, and that is indeed something tough to face. Whether one has been in a cult or not, the realization deep in our hearts that perhaps we could have shared a similar fate makes us want to turn away and believe that they had to be made of different stuff than we are. I am here to tell you that they are not.
Why did the people in Heaven’s Gate seem to go willingly to their deaths? Why did I stay in a clearly abusive situation for 10 years? The activities I felt trapped to do while within the group give some generous clues to how this can happen. And, when we can come to understand how one person can gain control over another, we can peer into the world of an average cult member. Indeed, one human being controlling another is nothing new to civilization. We need only look at the Biblical story of Cain and Abel to see the lengths that a person will go to in order to be “on top”—even if that means murder. It is no secret that sleep deprivation hinders clear thinking and decision making abilities. Through instituting a poor diet and strenuous routines, a group can break persons down further, making them even more vulnerable to the group’s ideologies.
While the specific techniques may differ, almost every group has a way of inducing hypnosis. In my former group this was accomplished through the format of our meetings which in reality were the focal point of what had become an intense system of peer scrutiny. Sitting in silence for hours affected me. I remember leaving many a meeting in which we had not spoken for hours with heaviness in my heart and feeling like my head had been put between two cymbals. Having to stand in front of my peers to be critiqued by them would seize me with panic. We would have to present ourselves one by one in front of a group of several hundred of our peers, stating what we did and where we were at in our hearts. The group would vote on us and the final vote became our guideline…it did not matter how we felt about things in our hearts. Often I was found to be deficient and would have to endure taunts by my peers between meetings. All of that was very intentional, coming from the leader himself and carried out through the ranks. There was no going home to escape all of this. I was home, and there was not a minute of privacy. I often could not think clearly and if I could get through a day feeling I held onto my sanity that was a major accomplishment.
My mind was too under siege to even think of packing my bags and leaving. This was purposeful as cults know that no one would make a rational decision to live like this and thus create an environment in which a person has no time or freedom to think. I have heard life in a cult compared to living in a fire constantly. Most of us can invoke images of people we’ve seen on the news who have lived through a fire. When persons are in the middle of a fire, they simply do not have access to certain parts of their thinking that they normally would have. However, when the fire is over, we see them collapse and say things like “Oh my God, I can’t believe what happened. It was so terrifying.” They are able to reconnect emotionally to their experiences and likely will be able to integrate what happened to them, thereby dealing with the trauma. Cults do not allow you to reconnect. I was kept so busy and off balance that the fire was never allowed to be over. Thus, outsiders could look at the way my fellow members and I lived in sheer horror; yet, while living in the midst of it, I simply could not get it. I get it now because I have been out, and as a person after a fire begins thinking again, I now have my critical thinking abilities back. Along with everyone else who hears about what happened to me, I am horrified to have spent 10 years of my life like that.
What could have been done to “reach” me during the 10 years I was in the communal group? What can we do to reach others who are in groups who may be heading down paths similar to that of Heaven’s Gate or the other groups in recent times who have committed mass suicide? The biggest mistake people can make in reaching out to persons in a cult is forgetting that they are people too and that there are some logical reasons behind what on the surface appears to be bizarre behavior. If we remember that outside of the group’s influences we would likely be dealing with a totally different person, he or she becomes less scary and more reachable to us. The dynamics of a cult are not too different from that of a battered wife staying with an abusive husband, or what happened in Nazi Germany or the Cultural Revolution in China. On the outside, they all seem to be beyond comprehension, but as we look at the underlying dynamics, their tactics are not that hard to understand. In our society today, all of us are being bombarded with huge amounts of information and people vying for our every dollar. Learning about techniques of influence and control can only benefit all of us as we are trying to navigate our way through an increasingly complex world. When it comes to understanding someone in a cult or other controlling situation, it can literally be life saving.
The people who had the biggest impact on me were not the ones who screamed at me “You’re in a cult!” (Believe me, I had plenty of those.) Rather the ones who made me think were those willing to care about me as a person, whether I stayed or left. Despite their initial allure, cults do not offer unconditional love. When I saw people on the outside acting differently toward me than my own supposed all-loving peers, it affected me. I may not have left right away, but I could not shake that there was someone who would be willing to be my friend and care about me with no strings attached. Like anyone else faced with a decision, someone “decides” to join a cult based on the information available to him or her. Unfortunately, cults are notorious for not letting a potential recruit know about the full package. What I thought I was joining and what I actually joined were vastly different from each other. In other words, if the group had been up front about the kind of life I was going to have to live and what was going to happen to me, I would have never joined. Helping a person make a decision to leave a cult in reality is educating them by filling in the blanks that the group deceptively didn’t. With more information, there is a good chance that a person will make an informed choice to leave. The information such a person needs includes understanding techniques of manipulation and control— particularly how this may be practiced in his/her particular group.
People in cults are not stupid. After leaving my former group, I was so convinced that I had to be intellectually deficient that I actually took an I.Q. test. Much to my surprise, instead of scoring way below average, I scored in the 97th percentile. As I have learned more about the kinds of people cults recruit, I have found that I am the rule and not the exception. Because the rigors of cult life are arduous, these groups do not want someone who will break down easily. Cults go after the best and the brightest—robbing all of us of people who could be making a huge difference in this world.
Who joins cults? They are anyone you could meet anywhere. I was a teen living in a small town when I had been recruited. I may have been naive and not able to see through the deception as someone older may have been, but most teens are naive and easily impressed by those who are slicker than themselves. I was not a drug addict or a prostitute, but rather I had been a good student in school who worked two jobs.
So, the next time you are approached by someone whom you strongly suspect may be living in a far out commune somewhere, remember you are likely to be dealing with a highly intelligent person who was deceived into joining what may appear to us as a bizarre cult. Instead of looking at such people as freaks or crazies, keep in mind that if they had access to more information and saw that there was a life outside for them, they probably would leave.