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Mass suicides raise the question: Why?


Experts point to vulnerable followers, strong leaders

March 27, 1997
Web posted at: 7:45 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Al Hinman

What happens in the human mind that would lead dozens, even hundreds, of people to kill themselves in unison?

That's the question being asked after Thursday's discovery of 39 bodies near San Diego.

And it's the question still being asked nearly 20 years after more than 900 followers of Jim Jones drank cyanide-laced punch in the jungles of Jonestown, Guyana, in what remains the largest and best-known mass suicide this century.

"It's very difficult to understand or comprehend. Why would bright young and old people sacrifice their lives for a person who has told them that if you do this, you're going to evolve to a higher plain?" asked Jynona Norwood, whose family perished in Jonestown.

"A lot of these young people, or even parents, are seeking somebody to identify with," she says. "They're seeking a higher belief system."

No traditional sense of despair


Experts say it usually takes a strong "messiah-like" leader -- such as Jonestown's Rev. Jim Jones -- to lead a group to kill itself.

"It has to do with the drive of a cult leader and what the cult leader wants the members to do," said John Hochman, a UCLA psychiatrist.

That's the kind of power, say the experts, that David Koresh had over his Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas. Experts on religious sects and mass suicide see parallels between Waco and Guyana: There's a certain type of person drawn into such a group, who becomes vulnerable to mass suicide.

"It is often alienated youth who have found their way to these groups and subordinate their own psychology to the messianic, charismatic attraction of a very powerful leader," said Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist and expert on religious sects with "cult" characteristics.


"For many of the cults who have participated in group suicides, it isn't suicide in the traditional sense of coming out of despair and ending a miserable existence," Post said. "Rather, it is passing to a higher state of being, of making a transition."

Post said that's the kind of quest that led more than 70 members of the Order of the Solar Temple to take their lives during the past three years in Europe and Canada.

Fewer than 2 percent of all deaths in the United States are suicides. Experts say nearly all of those deaths are preventable.


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