We Weren't Crazy: We Were Fooled
Michael D. Langone, Ph. D.
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.