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
"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
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
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
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