Group death not necessarily act of insanity, experts say Closed environment, group dynamics blamed

Suicides Of 'Heaven's Gate

March 28, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The California "computer-cult" suicides shouldn't be considered an act of insanity, says a noted expert in cults and terrorism. Those who died may be, well, normal.

"I don't doubt there will be a sizable impulse to categorize them as a group of 'crazies,' " says Clark McCauley, psychology professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

"My slant is this is totally uncalled for and probably wrong.

"It is possible to get absolutely normal people to do extreme things when the group dynamics are right and sufficiently powerful."

In the deaths of 21 women and 18 men in the Rancho Santa Fe suicide ritual, McCauley sees the dynamics of a tightly closed, isolated, highly cohesive group.

But that did not make them crazy, he argues.

People deemed clinically insane don't know or don't care what people around them expect, he says. "It's crazy people who are immune to group dynamics. Normal people are susceptible."

Flo Conway, a longtime cult researcher and co-author of "Snapping," a book on people who have psychologically "snapped," tends to support McCauley.

She also suggests that more people are susceptible today to the pull of esoteric groups.

Twenty years ago, younger, college-age people were most vulnerable, she says.

"Today, everybody is vulnerable, because of the monumental changes everybody's going through. You can't say it's the other guy. We're all vulnerable."

Dr. James McGee, the director of psychology at Baltimore's Sheppard Pratt Health System and chief psychologist for the Baltimore County Police Department, says:

"People can believe in total nonsense if they're in a closed environment. In that kind of environment, people can believe in very, very strange things."

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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