May 21, 2024
CNN Interview on Heaven's Gate Suicides

CNN Interview on Heaven's Gate Suicides

CNN Interview with Janja Lalich

CNN Impact/March 30, 1997

Moderator says, “Welcome to the TIME/CNN IMPACT forum. Tonight at 10 p.m., we’re discussing the mass suicide in San Diego last week with Janja Lalich, the Educational Director of Community Resources on Influence and Control, an outreach service directed at educating the public about the potential dangers of cults. Please join us.”
Moderator says, “This is a moderated chat; If you would like to ask a question, you must go to the auditorium. To do so, type “/go auditorium.” Once you’re there, click on the red question mark or type “/ask question,” type your question in the box, and hit enter. It will be passed to the moderator. If you want to chat with other users, type “/go Time,” to enter the TIME room.”
Moderator says, “Let’s go to the first question.”
Moderator presents the speakers with question #28 from Anivil: In your experience counseling how common are instances of belief in something much of society believes to be wholly fiction?
Janja Lalich says, “Most of the time the cult is built around a fiction, so that in general just about everybody that I work with, I try to help them see though the manipulations that were used so that the person can see though the mythology that was used, and most of that centers around the cult leader.”
Moderator presents the speakers with question #44 from Carrie: How often do the leaders of these deals believe in what they’re selling, and how often is it a scam to take advantage of lost souls?
Janja Lalich says, “In my opinion I believe that in most cases its probably 90% scam and 10% them getting wrapped up in their own fiction, and it’s hard to know sometimes because many are getting so good at playing their own game, and most likely a lot switch back and forth between working to maintain the control and the fiction, and believing that they are the messiah. In many cases the longer they are allowed to act without any checks and balances the more likely they’ll become more and more delusional.”
Moderator presents the speakers with question #46 from Anton: A sociologist said that in each of us, there is a God-shaped hole waiting to be filled. What are these people missing?
Janja Lalich says, “These people are no different than you and I, if you mean people who join these groups. According to all the studies, people who join these groups are above average intelligence, from stable backgrounds, they do not have any pre-existing psychological difficulties, or problems. But they were at a transition point in their lives, when perhaps they were not completely connected or totally fulfilled with what was going on at the time, and if there is any common thread or traits, it is idealism, curiosity, and urge to create a better world, and wanting a sense of meaning and purpose.”
Moderator presents the speakers with question #43 from Carrie: How can people get so drawn to such far-out ideas? Is it a question of brainwashing? Loneliness? I mean, how do you arrive at the conclusion that a UFO will save you from the earth’s evils?
Janja Lalich says, “People get drawn into these thought systems a step at a time; a person is never told at the outset what the bottom line is going to be. It’s a kind of seduction process, and cult leader and cult recruiters use a powerful combination of social and psychological influence techniques that are meant to hinder and break down a persons thinking abilities and sense of self, so that the person can no longer evaluate what is happening. Over time the result of these techniques and pressures is to transform the person into a deployable agent for the cult leader.”
Moderator presents the speakers with question #27 from Anivil: Jim Siegelman believes that some people just “snap” into mind control/extraordinary belief patterns, has your experience as a counselor shown you that people will also “snap-out-of-it”?
Janja Lalich says, “Thought reform or brain washing is essentially a behavior modification program that works to change a person’s patterns of thinking and perceptions of the world, and it needs to be continually reinforced, this is why cult members are separated from their normal reality, and put through such rigorous daily routines and rituals. To them, after leaving the cult, it is similarly a process of undoing those cult induced patterns of thinking, and so there isn’t just one moment of “snapping out of it” but many moments of recovery.”
Moderator presents the speakers with question #55 from Jreesing: What are those techniques that they use. I keep hearing people say they use certain brainwashing techniques without explaining what they are.
Janja Lalich says, “In general they are sleep deprivation, special diets, controlling information going in and out, peer pressure, extensive indoctrination sessions, such as long hours of chanting, meditating, listening to droning lectures and mild forms of trance induction that again, reduce the person’s ability to think clearly. Much of this is aimed at attacking the person’s sense of self, getting them to doubt their own instinct and judgment, inducing fear, anxiety, and guilt, and creating the series of crises so that the person has to choose over and over again, FOR the cult. Specifically in the Heaven’s Gate group, they did such things as, mate members go through various disciplines and rituals over long periods of time; for example, sleep for 4 hours, be awake for 4 hours, sleep for 4 hours, be awake for 4 hours for months on end….be on liquid diets for months on end, remain sequestered with hoods on their faces so they couldn’t see each other for months on end.”
Moderator says “Welcome to the TIME/CNN IMPACT forum. We’re discussing the mass suicide in San Diego with Janja Lalich, an educator who has studied cults intensively, and worked with their victims. She joins us tonight from her home in California.”
Moderator presents the speakers with question #56 from Spmartin: Would you agree that Christianity started as what we would today call a cult with a charismatic leader extolling his followers to give up all earthly desires and follow him?
Moderator presents the speakers with question #59 from Smoothwave: Is there any organized religion that didn’t start as a cult?
Janja Lalich says, “I am not a scholar of religion, but I would suspect that the origins of Christianity, were rather cultic, but since I didn’t live at that time to do my own research, I can’t say more than that. A number of religions started with cultic behaviors, but over time shed those behaviors in order to become legitimate main stream religions. And I do believe that there are other organized religions whose origins were more routed in breaking off from another religions as an off shoot, and were not necessarily cultic.”
Moderator presents the speakers with question #29 from Anivil: Do you use the word “cult” and if so, how do you define a cult?
Janja Lalich says, “Yes, I do use the word cult. The definition I use is that a cult is essentially a corrupt and abusive power relationship that has certain characteristics: those are, 1. It is lead by a self proclaimed living leader, who demands all veneration, and complete loyalty. 2. It has a totalitarian top-down structure, with no input from the base, or the members, 3. It uses a coordinated program, of thought reform techniques, as I described earlier, and 4. It is rooted in deception, manipulation, exploitation, of the members by the leaders. 5. There is a double set of ethics, in that members are required to be completely open honest and disclosing within the group, but are told that it is OK, to lie and deceive those outside the group, because the end justifies the means.”
Moderator presents the speakers with question #69 from Anton: Do you think a small community of celibates who rigidly follow a leader are always a destructive cult?
Janja Lalich says, “No.”
Moderator presents the speakers with question #68 from Carrie: If cults are so absorbing, how can you escape, once you’re inside?
Janja Lalich says, “People leave cults in a variety of ways, some are kicked out, because they may have broken the rules, some get out when the leader dies, and the group goes through a crises period. Some get out as a result of information learned through an exit counseling intervention, and some walk away on their own, prompted by a variety of personal factors. In general it is extremely difficult to leave, because most cults induce the dependency that makes you believe that you simply couldn’t survive outside of the cult environment. Regardless of how a person leaves, if they don’t educate themselves about how they were drawn in and manipulated they are likely to either go back to the cult, or join another cult or spend many years of their lives in guilt confusion, and self blame.”
Janja Lalich says, “What I do is primarily an educational process, in working with the person to help them understand what happened. If I am not already familiar with the group the person was in , I find out as much as I can. I then engage the person in a sort of de-briefing process, which includes having them recount their experiences, having them do some readings and exercises. Among those are to do a chronology of their experiences in the group, and to analyze their experience according to the 8 psychological themes outlined by Dr. Robert Lifton. Lifton was one of the first to write about and describe brain-washing techniques used in communist china in the 1950s. As former cult members begin to see the aspect of their experiences according to these 8 themes, they gain an understanding, of the system they were a part of, and they can then see how they could have succumbed to such powerful pressures. Through that process they begin to regain a sense of self, and having a view of life separate from the cult.”
Moderator says, “Folks, we’re getting close to the end of our discussion, so please submit your final questions.”
Janja Lalich says, “My meetings with people are anywhere from 1 to 6 meetings to help them acquire the tools to help them asses the experience and integrate to help them carry on with a new life. Their personal recovery process can take anywhere from a year to 5 years.”
Moderator presents the speakers with question #76 from Jacobite: It seems that many in the H’sG group already had these ideas, or some variation of them before joining the group, and the group itself and “Do” were the “glue” that held them together. Is this a common role for a cult leader?
Janja Lalich says, “I don’t think its accurate to say that the members had the ideas of “Ti” and “do”, they perhaps had an interest in UFO’s or a dissatisfaction with modern society or their lives. It is true that a cult recruiter’s pitch has to resonate with something in you, but what you are drawn into is far and beyond what you might have imagined to start.”
Moderator presents the speakers with question #83 from Anton: Have you ever had a subject of your deprogramming crack up? Suffer a total breakdown:?
Janja Lalich says “I don’t call what I do deprogramming, I am an educator. I can’t speak about such specifics.”
Moderator says “Any final thoughts to wrap up our discussion?”
Janja Lalich says, “I hope that out of this tragedy, perhaps we can have more open public discussion about this very complex issue and some broad based educational programs on this subject. Thank you for participating in tonight’s discussion.”
Moderator says, “It’s about time to wind down our discussion. I’d like to thank Janja Lalich for a fascinating conversation. If you’d like to continue talking, head on over to the Time room. Thanks for joining us.”

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Dr. Janja Lalich

Janja Lalich, Ph.D. is a researcher, author, and educator specializing in cults and extremist groups, with a particular focus on charismatic relationships, political and other social movements, ideology and social control, and issues of gender and sexuality.