Marshall Applewhite's cry for help

An expert in schizophrenia says society should intervene to treat cult leaders before they push themselves and their followers over the edge

Salon/March 31, 1997
By Jonathan Broder

"We're going to be murdered," Marshall Herff Applewhite told a reporter in 1972. "And when we are, after three and a half days, we're going to walk out into life in the next level above human." Two years earlier, hearing voices, Applewhite had checked into a psychiatric hospital, seeking to be "cured" of his homosexual urges. Apparently "cured," the former music teacher went on to become, variously, "Bo," "Do," the "Present Representative" and "The One That Was Jesus." Last Wednesday, he was found dead, along with 38 members of the Heaven's Gate movement, in the worst mass suicide on American soil.

Most attempts to understand the Heaven's Gate members' bizarre final exit are put in the social context of religous cults. But Applewhite's weird mixture of messianism, ufology, paranoia and the belief that one is not of this world may have been more a product of extreme mental illness than a tortured search for spiritual answers.

Salon spoke with psychiatrist Alfred Honig, author of "The Waking Nightmare" and one of the country's leading experts on schizophrenic behavior, about the mental condition of the leader who persuaded his followers to board an alien spacecraft in order to reach the "Next Level."

From what you've read and studied about Applewhite, does he strike you as a schizophrenic personality?

Absolutely. It's the sine qua non of the kind of leader like Applewhite. You know, there is a very close relationship between religious mystics and schizophrenics.

How do you recognize schizophrenia in someone like Applewhite?

They're unstable people who don't have much ego strength. Under stress they fall into another world, a world where their unconscious, their inner mind, takes over. Then they become a follower of internal voices, which tell them what to do.

Which happened to Applewhite, seemingly out of inner conflict over being homosexual. Later he heard other voices telling him he was Jesus, and so forth.

There are generally two types of voices. The lower voices, which are more common, tear you down completely. The so-called higher voices praise you; you have delusions of grandeur.

What prompts cult leaders to go completely over the edge, like Applewhite?

Power. It corrupts them. They break down and become psychotic. We saw it down in Waco, Texas with the Branch Davidians, and we saw it down in Guyana with Jim Jones' Peoples' Temple. Then they go one of two ways: They build up an arsenal of weapons to prepare for the apocalypse, or they go the passive way. And that's what probably happened to Applewhite. His whole world was breaking down, and he induced his followers to go along with him. He used the old cry of "Let's do it before it happens." Every suicide that I've ever treated wants to take matters into their own hands. It's their last power. And they all believe that there is another world. These people (Heaven's Gate members) packed suitcases before they committed suicide.

But how could a schizophrenic personality like Applewhite convince 38 others to go along with him. Did they share his illness?

They're often very borderline people who are very easily led. In Heaven's Gate, they all dressed the same, had the same haircut. The cloning of these people was a way of manipulating them. They also keep separate, which is important for developing their philosophy of "us against the whole world." The leader is constantly saying, "The world is going to end" -- the idea that the world is coming to an end is in every psychotic's mind -- and they all drift into a state characterized by delusions of a world-ending catastrophe. Then, as I said, either of two things happen -- suicide or psychosis. I've seen it happen many times.

People believing they were going to rendezvous with an alien spaceship that was traveling behind the Hale Bopp comet?

Yeah, well that was a little far out. But what's the difference between that and these Arabs over in Israel who are convinced they'll go to paradise if they blow themselves up? It's just another variety of the same thing. Most of them are downtrodden people who are easily manipulated.

In Jonestown and in the Heaven's Gate suicide, the leaders telegraphed what they were going to do. Jones ran dry runs with pretend poison, and Applewhite announced his intentions to go to the "next plane" on the World Wide Web. You say you've seen this type of thing many times before. Why didn't experts like yourself step in and notify the authorities to stop it before it happened?

Many governments do keep an eye on these groups and do step in. But here there's too much freedom. Some people still glorify psychotics and schizophrenics, saying they are unusual, gifted people. But psychosis is hell. And if you're going to save lives, somebody had better interfere. Because these ill people do telegraph their messages, and these messages are a cry for help. You see it when you treat the illness in the individual. A lot of schizophrenics are being produced today because of bad parenting; they never have a chance to bounce off a parent a sense of self.

And you see it in these cult leaders. These guys are crying for help. They're frustrated. They've achieved power, but even with all that power, they don't have what they really need, which is love. What they really want is to be loved, like everybody. These are people who are unbalanced, who are loosely put together. But there's the freedom to do what they do here in the United States.

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