By Craig Branch –
Thirty-nine people (twenty-one women and eighteen men) were recently discovered dead. All but two were ceremonially draped in purple shrouds, in what appeared to be a cult ritual suicide. Was it assisted suicide or was it murder?
Their ages ranged from twenty-six to seventy-two. Some had been in the group for more than twenty years, some only a few years. The media labeled the cult, “Heaven’s Gate” though they had gone by many names. Names weren’t important to them. Names were “too human.”
Their deaths were meticulously planned. Over a three day period, they took poison in groups of three, with someone placing plastic bags over the heads of the victims, just to make sure.
There were no physical signs of violence. They even left farewell videos attempting to explain that they were happy and excited about leaving this level and departing to the next. They also tried hard to convince everyone that they were doing this entirely voluntarily.
These people believed a strange mixture of science fiction, UFO beliefs, New Age channeling and Theosophy, and perverted Christian theology. There was much evidence of extremism, particularly as autopsies revealed that six of the men had been surgically castrated.
As their testimonial videos were released, a disturbing observation and question arose: “These people weren’t depressed. They were happy, almost euphoric, and chose to do this peacefully, with their own free will. They didn’t hurt anyone. So what’s wrong with what they did?” Equally disturbing and widely diparate responses have come from television and print media reports from surviving and ex-members, families of those who died, cult apologists (defenders of cults), academics, Christian and secular cult watchers.
One member, Wayne Cooke, who continued to believe the group’s doctrine even after his wife died with the others, said that he was sorry that he didn’t die with the group. Cooke told CBS’s 60 Minutes, “I wish I had the strength to have remained . . . to have stuck it out and gotten stronger and continued to be part of that group.”
He continued, “I’m not suicidal. . . but I have no problem in laying down my shell or my body as they did that day. I don’t consider it suicide.” On May 6, 1997, Cooke ended his life in the same way as his thirty-nine fellow members had done in Rancho Santa Fe.
Cooke and his wife had abandoned their ten year old daughter Kelly twenty years ago when they joined the cult. Kelly, who is now thirty, accepts her mother’s death by concluding that she didn’t commit suicide, that she had graduated to the next level, an event she had worked for most of her life.
Another surviving cult member, Sawyer, who was encountered by Watchman Fellowship’s Bob Waldrep while the cult was recruiting in Birmingham in April of 1994, agreed with Cooke. He stated that it was not a traumatic thing but a natural, even peaceful event.
Add to the confusion sociologist Stuart Wright’s comments criticizing “anti-cultist” for spreading “fear and misstatements,” and stating that “99.9% [of cults] are benign and those unfounded generalizations [of mind control] are ridiculous.” (Los Angeles Times, March 29, 1997, p.1)
Most people instinctively understand this as a terrible tragedy. Yet with no understanding of the spirituality and psychology behind it, they do not understand why it happened. As the details of this shocking event began to unfold in a massive media blitz, almost everyone began to ask the same questions: “How can something like this be explained? How could seemingly intelligent and talented people believe and do something so bizarre, so foolish?”
Such questions demonstrate the fact that too many people still do not understand the dynamics and consequences of spiritual deception and mind control in cults. Such systematic thought reform programs seriously impair the members’ ability to make independent, thoughtful, critical choices, causing them to obey even irrational decrees by their leaders.
If people ask “Why?” or “How could they?” or “What’s wrong with making a free will choice that made them happy and didn’t hurt anyone?” it reveals that they are holding some faulty presuppositions.
The faulty presupposition is that these people acted with a free will, without coercion. A significant aspect of cultism is mind control. These cult followers were not acting with a free or healthy range of choices. Their ability to reason had been seriously impaired. Humans are designed to live and grow and experience a harmonious relationship with God, with others, and within themselves. Applewhite’s requirement that members sever all ties to anyone but himself disrupted their normal human relationships and impaired any action or thinking not approved by him.
Another wrong conclusion is that no violence was committed. Christians understand that all death is violence to living. Death is in opposition to Life. Death is an enemy. Inflicting death is violence, with or without the consent of the victim. The Heaven’s Gate members committed a violent act upon themselves, against Life, usurping God’s prerogative.
Also there was frequent and ongoing violence to the families deserted during the cult induction and in the aftermath of the suicides. The triune God is relational and designed humans to be relational. God is covenantal and designed humans to be in covenantal family relationships. Because of sin, not all family relationships are wonderful, joyful, etc., but there is always the opportunity to grow, to redeem, to move on and make something constructive out of the ashes. From any perspective these suicides must be seen for what they were – tragic and unnecessary violence.
Were these suicides the result of free and independent choice? Contrary to the propaganda of the cult apologists, there has been much scientific academic study done in the mental health field demonstrating the cause and effect relationship of thought reform or mind control on behavior.
Psychiatrist, Dr. Louis West of the Neuropsychiatric Institute at U.C.L.A., and Dr. Paul Martin, clinical psychologist and director of Wellspring Retreat and Resource, are two of the most experienced people dealing with cult victims in the world. They define a destructive cult as:
“A cult (totalist type) is a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical, manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g. isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressure, information management, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, suspension of individuality and critical judgment, and so on, designed to advance the goals of the groups leaders, to the possible or actual detriment of members, their families, or the community” (Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1996, p. 130).
When one reviews the history of Heaven’s Gate and the processes to which its members were exposed and compares them to standard mind control processes, one can better understand why people left and cut off contact with their families, why they believed and practiced so many bizarre things, why they systematically dehumanized themselves, and why they eventually committed the irreversibly destructive act of killing themselves.
Totalistic cults or groups which employ a mind control program strongly influence the evolution of a new identity, a new pseudo-identity. Drs. West and Martin explain that, “This personality superimposed upon the original which, while not completely forgotten, was enveloped within the shell of the pseudo-identity.” (ibid., p. 129).
The effects of any thought control program are not absolutely predictable. There are differences depending on how many influence activities are used, their intensity, and how adept or inept the cult leadership is at applying them. Other factors are the individual constitutional differences of each person, their own predisposition toward susceptibility and vulnerability through their own life’s experiences.
This explains why many cults experience many defectors (walk-aways). The Heaven’s Gate cult lost over 75% of its followers over time.
A Christian world and life view is informed primarily from scripture. Scripture teaches that human beings have three enemies which war against their full potential growth and eternal life – a fallen world, their own sinful flesh (thoughts, desires, actions), and the devil or his principalities (Ephesians 2:1-3; James 3:15; 1 John 2:15-17).
Any of these or combinations are capable of producing heinous acts against ourselveventually es and others. Thus the Christian world and life view teaches that people can be either victims of others’ sinful choices and/or responsible for our own choices, in varying degrees.
It is clear in scripture that both believers and non-believers can be deceived, whether by Satan or the greed and corruption of sinful people (Matthew 24:24; 2 Peter 1:1-3), or even self-deception (Jeremiah 17:9; Proverbs 28:26).
What Christians can learn from the so-called “secular” model of mind control are the processes used to produce the deception, harm and destruction. This may also help explain why, even when one leaves the cult, much of the cult’s mindset and damage is still with the person. Some of those who left the Heaven’s Gate group, whether recently or years ago, still believe the group’s teachings and feel guilty for leaving.
Sociologists Robert Balch and David Taylor infiltrated the group in 1975 for seven weeks and continued to track them into the 80’s. They wrote a description of their time and an analysis in the American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 20, No. 6, July/August, 1977.
Later Balch wrote a chapter in the 1995 release of The God’s Have Landed, which ironically was edited by long-time cult apologist and supporter James Lewis. In the book Balch elaborates on the practices mentioned above describing them as a “brainwashing model,” a “social influence model,” which was marked by the introduction of systematic social influence processes (p. 161).
Lifton’s Model and Heaven’s Gate
Applewhite’s mind control dynamics may be more clearly seen by comparing some of Heaven’s Gate’s techniques and practices (found in published reports and the group’s own literature) with Robert J. Lifton’s Eight Points of Mind Control (see article p. 12).
The Early Phase
Applewhite and Nettles began recruiting people into their fold in 1975. Claiming to be the two witnesses prophesied in Revelation 11:3, they began to put their followers through an evolving regimented structure to help them in the “overcoming process,” “turning in to the next level.”
The highest priority in this early phase was to get the message of “the Two,” then called “Bo” and “Peep,” out to the public. Much of the recruitment phase was not overtly coercive, but did involve giving up all attachments to the “human level,” including family ties.
One of the coercive elements was the urgency of joining as the “demonstration” was about to be manifested. The demonstration was to be the death, resurrection, and ascension of “the Two,” followed by spaceships transporting the overcomers to the “Father’s” kingdom.
According to Balch and the short biographical sketches of the 39 victims published in media stories, “most of the people who joined the UFO cult were spiritual seekers who shared a worldview where reincarnation, lost continents, flying saucers, and psychic phenomena were taken for granted” (The God’s Have landed, p. 145).
A question often asked is, “Could this kind of cult tragedy happen again?” The necessary factors and conditions are now more ripe than ever before.
Gallup’s research and other major polls indicate that the belief in reincarnation has grown to 30%. Many other New Age categories have significantly grown, such as belief in astrology, channeling, and psychic phenomena. Gallup research indicates that 48% of Americans believed in UFO’s as of September, 1996. Gallup records that 16% of adults and 12% of teens believe that an apocalypse will occur in the very near future.
Our culture is adrift without a moral compass. There is now far more divorce, physical abuse, violence, drug abuse and relativism than there was in the 70s. There are many even more bizarre cults, including other UFO groups, on the scene. Yes, there is a very real possibility for repeat performances.
Early on, Bo and Peep began to implement some of the steps of an undue influence and coercion program. Some of the “guidelines” required were discouragement or restrictions on contact with the outside world, including family, TV, newspaper, and old friends. There were also rules which severed all “worldly” ties and even personal identity, such as no sex, no human-level friendships, no socializing on a human level, change of name, and getting rid of clothing and jewelry which symbolized the old life (Lifton: Milieu Control).
Although there was rapid growth during this time, even with the initial control patterns, the growth wasn’t sustained. The “demonstration” failed to materialize and soon after that Bo and Peep disappeared from the group. Many lost faith in them, and the cult began to fragment and lose most of its members.
The Reorganization Phase
In late 1975 and early 1976, Bo and Peep returned from seclusion and began to implement significant changes in the group that would serve to solidify and hold the members. They first announced that the “doors to the next level are closed” which seemed to curtail contact with the outside and gave the group a sense of elitism.
Bo and Peep engaged in revisionism by claiming that the “demonstration” had not failed but had been canceled. They shifted the blame to the followers, saying that they had not been working hard enough on themselves (Lifton: Demand for Purity, Mystical Manipulation, Doctrine over Person).
Bo and Peep began to emphasize their connection with the members of the upper level. Rather than any members getting individual revelation, now revelation would come through Bo and Peep alone (Lifton: Sacred Science).
Members’ lives began to revolve around numerous drills and exercises including continually focusing on a tuning fork tone throughout the day. This is an induction technique commonly used in eastern meditation to achieve an altered state of consciousness. Such states make people highly suggestible and blur the distinctions between fantasy and reality.
Members had to “strive for chastity” by following a rigid “formula for perfection.” They had to totally overcome all earthly pursuits, and constantly, carefully, re-examine every thought, every aspect of their lives (Lifton: Demand for Purity). Bo and Peep attempted to exert control over every moment of their day. One exercise involved a camp routine of watching the clock and reporting every 12 minutes to learn what members from the Upper Level might have them do (Lifton: Milieu Control).
During one part of this monastic life a bell would ring every ten minutes and they were to stop and rededicate themselves to their commitments (Lifton: Milieu Control, Demand for Purity).
Renunciants, as they called themselves, had to overcome all “addictions” such as “negative thinking, selfishness, deceit, jealousy, aggressiveness, lethargy, judgment of others, defensiveness, vanity, and sensuality.” In short, emphasis on deep introspection and harsh self criticism required even normal, healthy aspects of a persons personality to be blotted out (Lifton: Demand for Purity, Confusion, Doctrine over Person).
Members had to exercise restraint in areas such as voice volume, conversation, physical movement and physical touching. Members were to be about the business of transformation, preparation for their evolution into an androgynous non-human entity, to be returned to their spacecraft (Lifton: Sacred Science, Demand for Purity). An exercise called “tomb time,” designed to overcome the need for any verbal communication, required going several days without talking (Lifton: Milieu Control).
Former members reported that the more they immersed themselves in the routines and rigors of the cult life, the more real the message seemed to become. They remarked about the physical sensation experienced during the “tomb times” describing them as “incredible energy” and “body rushes” (Lifton: Mystical Manipulation).
Balch writes that “although members claimed that the group had no rules, there were many ‘guidelines’ designed to help overcome their attachments to the human level” (p. 149). Some of these guidelines included isolation techniques such as no TV (except Star Trek, X-Files, and other sci-fi movies), no contact with parents and family, and other depersonalization techniques (Lifton: Dispensing of Existence).
They observed daily periods of meditation, blanking out their polluted mind to be filled with the mind of the One, the Heavenly Father, God figure (which happened to be Ti, later channeled through Do) (Lifton: Milieu Control, Mystical Manipulation).
There was a “daily slate cleaning exposing any form of encumbering thought or conduct.” They had to raise their standard daily and “put into motion any immediate remedial action necessary” (Lifton: Confession, Demand for Purity).
They were to work “in partnerships of twos or threes to enhance the quality of their efforts,” but had to change partners frequently so as not to form too close an attachment (Lifton: Milieu Control). Eventually, six of the men submitted to castration to be free of sexual desires. To reinforce the androgynous extension of Applewhite, they had to all wear close cropped hair and loose-fitting modest clothing, including uniforms. (Lifton: Sacred Science, Milieu Control, Demand for Purity). Tom Goodspeed, General Manager of the San Diego Polo Club who hired the Heaven’s Gate crew to design their web site remarked about this odd appearance of the members in addition to the “frightfully pale complexions, the passiveness of the members and their seeming lack of interest of what was happening around them.
Then surviving cult member Wayne Cooke related that their “regimented cult life was punctuated by conversations with the dead,” i.e. spiritism and necromancy (Lifton: Mystical Manipulation).
By 1993 their mind control recipe was in full view on their website. One requirement for admission was a trial period to prove that “you are worthy and ready” for the Next Level. Expectations included total renunciation of all family ties and possessions, total commitment to the new “family,” and control over all your “human” behavior and vehicle.
Some offenses listed: “trusting my own judgment – or using my own mind . . .responding defensively to my classmates or teachers. . .criticizing or finding fault with my classmates or teachers. . . staying in my own head, having private thoughts putting myself first, wanting my own way. . . having likes or dislikes.”
Applewhite cleverly defused the stigma of “cult” and “brainwashing” labels by making jokes about it. In their farewell videos and in comments made by surviving members they laughingly enjoyed the designation of “cult,” saying “we are the cult of cults,” and “we like having our brains washed.” Having been taught an elitist attitude, they could patronizingly indulge such terms.
“Weaker” ones who had difficulty conforming or who found the regimen too hard were encouraged to leave. Another example of the destructive power and effectiveness of the of the mind control program is the fact that so many of Do’s and Ti’s followers abandoned their families, their spouses and children. One man John Craig, left his wife and 6 young children. Yvonne McCurdy-Hill left her five children to join the cult. Judith Rowland left her husband and two young children. Joyce Skaller left her husband and two daughters (Lifton: Dispensing of Existence).
These are the classic techniques of mind control, especially the ultimate “dispensing of existence.” And thirty-nine followers did just that. Did they have freedom of choice? Did they harm themselves and others? Was it assisted suicide or was it murder?
Mind control is recognized in the legal field in both the criminal and civil arenas. It is termed “undue influence.” It arises in connection with fraudulent investment schemes, physical and emotional abuse, and now in totalistic cults. Yes what happened in Heaven’s Gate is heinous, deplorable, a tragedy, but certainly not unfathomable.
When regarded through the lens’s of the techniques of a standard mind control program, it is very understandable. There are many such religious groups in the U.S. and beyond. All it will take is for another leader to either give in to the demonic forces surrounding him, or those in him, to have a psychotic break, and it could happen again.