We Weren't Crazy
The Jonestown suicides. The Waco conflagration. The suicide of the Solar Temple in Europe and Canada. Aum Shinrikyo’s Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway. And now the apparent suicides of 39 people in Ranch Santa Fe. These “Page 1” stories demonstrate the terribly destructive potential of cults. Unfortunately, the obviously bizarre and destructive nature of such groups cause many people to believe mistakenly that only “crazy” people would join them. This is simply not true.
Moreover, the prevalence of this misconception virtually guarantees that there will be more tragedies in the future. People who join cult groups are not “them.” They are “us,” and our society’s inability to understand how everyday people can join destructive groups strengthens the power of these groups. Most people who join cults are relatively normal people experiencing normal stresses (romantic breakup, job disappointment, loss of a loved one, etc.) During periods of stress we are more likely to listen to someone peddling some “new” path to happiness, someone promising to meet our human needs — to believe, to belong, to love.
Some groups, such as many mainstream religious groups, can indeed help us meet these needs. Other groups, however, use these needs to deceive us. They say in essence, “follow us and you will be happy.” But they use subtle manipulative tricks to disarm our critical intelligence. If we question something, they say “you’re not ready to understand that yet,” or “you’re too intellectual; go with your feelings,” or “you must destroy the mind to find God,” or myriad other rationalizations that implicitly communicate: “Don’t think. Do what I say.”
If we don’t recognize these manipulative tricks, we can be led step by step down a path where we come more and more to doubt ourselves and attribute authority to the group’s leader(s). We come to accept the group’s leader(s). We come to accept the group’s fundamental assumptions (such as, Guru is God; Reverend so-and-so knows the will of the Holy Spirit). Once these are ingrained in our minds, we ourselves may provide the rationalizations.
So, for example, when we learn that our supposedly celibate guru is sleeping with 15 female members, we will tell ourselves: “Guru is not attached to the sensual world. He is doing this to help them with their sexual karma.” The more we rationalize, the deeper we fall into the mental trap. If we really believe that we will achieve salvation through a ritual suicide, it makes sense to kill ourselves.
The tragedy is that we would not have made that choice if we understood in the beginning how we were going to be led to it. We didn’t see through the illusions, and we got caught.
We weren’t crazy. We were fooled.
And if we who have not been fooled continue to think we and our loved ones can’t be fooled, we won’t teach them how to recognize and resist the deceivers. And if we don’t do that, there will surely be more tragedies.
Reprinted from the Sun-Sentinel Magazine, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, April 1, 1997. Also published in AFF News, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1997.