No Angels


This article originally appeared in the Seattle Scroll.

The week following the Heaven's Gate suicides proved that anyone who wants to can pose as a "cult expert," whether or not he or she knows anything about any particular cult. Thus, when the San Diego Union-Tribune asked Janja Lalich of the Cult Recovery and Information Center for her expert opinion of a document written by the group's leader, she helpfully explained that it was "gobbledygook." She added: "After Jim Jones, after Waco, Texas, after Charlie Manson—haven't we learned that these people are all the same?" Ah, the fruits of specialization.

Readers of the New York Times got to hear from Rick Ross, noted kidnapper and thief—or, as the Times described him, "a cult expert and lecturer based in Phoenix who has worked as a de-programmer." According to the Times, "Mr. Ross said the group that called itself Heaven's Gate was emblematic of a growing number of small, computer-connected cults that have sprung up in the last decade, and particularly the last five years as the Internet has grown." And what cults might those be? If Ross listed any, the Times shows no signs of having listened: the article didn't list any specific cults lurking the Net in search of recruits, and the newspaper ran no separate piece describing them.

Joe Szimhart, a Pennsylvania "exit counselor" (that is, deprogrammer), explained the internal dynamics of cults to readers of the Washington Post. "If the leader sounds confident, there's a certain percentage of people who are going to be infected by that confidence," he declared. "They're going to trust and take the next step, which is to suppress doubt." So they're confident in the leader, and they trust him, and they suppress doubt? Next thing you know, they'll be putting their faith in him. They might even start believing what he says.

Somewhat better was Herbert Rosedale of the American Family Foundation, whose comments turned up in The Seattle Times. "From my experience," he said, "people who get involved in destructive cults had a weak moment at which time they were susceptible to recruitment. . . . They are not dysfunctional people. They may be among the most idealistic, brightest people in the world." That's familiar sentiment, and it's not particularly information-heavy—but, on the other hand, it isn't dumb. Among the self-proclaimed experts to lodge themselves in reporters' rolodexes, Rosedale is the cream of the crop.

Especially next to the likes of Cynthia Kisser, an "Illinois-based cult expert," who told the San Jose Mercury-News that "people are looking for spiritual answers and these charlatan cult leaders know it." Of course, Marshall Herff Applewhite, the "charlatan cult leader" of Heaven's Gate, joined his followers in suicide, suggesting that he either believed the doctrines he preached or was the most inept charlatan in religious history.

Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, authors of Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change, were interviewed by everyone from Reuters to *Rivera*, despite the fact that, by their own admission, they had no idea what this Heaven's Gate group was. Their expertise lay not in knowledge about this cult, but in their theory of how cultic "mind control" works. This theory, a variation on the long-discredited notion that cult members are incapable of free choice, did not add much to anyone's understanding of the tragedy. Neither did the duo's ability to dress up banal observations about group dynamics in trendy language borrowed from chaos theory. Eventually, as journalists dug up the group's history, Conway and Siegelman discovered that this group was a new incarnation of an odd UFO cult of the '70s, led by a pair that called themselves "The Two." They discovered this the same way the rest of us did: by reading newspapers, watching TV, listening to the radio, surfing the Web. Why were reporters interviewing these people? They'd have been better off interviewing themselves.

Or maybe not. For every well-done article in the New York Times, filled with intelligent summaries of the group's positions and quotes from legitimate scholars of religion, there's been a Current Affair report linking Heaven's Gate to everyone from Randy Weaver to the Unabomber, or managing to describe the star Sirius as a planet. Nor were the tabloid-TV journalists the only ones to blow key facts. CNN misreported, on its website, that late-night talk-show host Art Bell had interviewed members of the Heaven's Gate group on his radio show late last year. In fact, he interviewed an amateur astronomer-cum-conspiracy theorist who claimed to have discovered a mysterious object accompanying the Hale-Bopp Comet—an object which, UFO buffs quickly speculated, might be an alien vessel. As it turns out, there probably wasn't any object at all, but never mind: The Heaven's Gaters decided that they might board it and escape terrestrial apocalypse all on their own, without venturing near Art Bell's studios.

The media have spent the last few days searching for a lesson in this tragedy. "Cults are bad" was one entry; it didn't do very well. "Blame the Internet" was another; it fared even worse. In the end, pundits may end up with no more to show for their efforts than a few surreal quotes. ("She was never a science fiction buff," the mother of one of the deceased told the Los Angeles Times. "She never cared for *Star Trek*.")

But there *is* a lesson here: Sociologists, historians, and professors of religion have many interesting things to say about apocalyptic sects, but no one who simply calls himself a "cult expert" will contribute anything useful to any discussion. That credential is worse than none.