Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Autistic People Who Join Cults

I was recently listening to a podcast about the Heaven's Gate cult and its members' mass suicide. For anybody living under a rock or who wasn't yet born in 1997 when this was all over the news, Heaven's Gate was an offshoot of Christianity that taught its followers that the cult's leader, Marshall Applewhite, was the second coming of Jesus. They believed that in order to get to "the next level" (heaven, if you will), spaceships would come to Earth and pick up the followers for a trip to celestial paradise. But then when the comet Hale-Bopp was discovered, Marshall Applewhite came to the conclusion that the spaceship that was to escort his followers to paradise was trailing the comet. It would not land, and the only way to board the ship was to "leave one's vehicle"-- one's body. That is, commit suicide, so that one's soul will be sent to the ship.

On March 26, 1997, one of the surviving members anonymously called the police to report the mass suicide (he came forward later about his identity). The next morning, the story was all over the news. The Heaven's Gate website had so much traffic that morning that people often had to keep hitting "refresh" several times before the page would load.

I was sixteen years old when this story was in the news, and I was simply floored by it. How could anybody believe that committing suicide would send their souls to a spaceship trailing a comet? I remember that my dad commented that it's too easy to lead people down a path, that it's how Hitler was successful in getting people to buy into the Nazi ideology. Now that I'm older and have read a bit about evolutionary psychology, I have a better understanding why. There is no limit to what people will believe if a charismatic leader knows which buttons to push. Scientists, such as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, have hypothesized that this tendency to believe what your parents, tribal elders, or some other authority figure tell you helped our ancestors survive in the African Savannah, a setting that was rife with predators, disease, and rival tribes who would fight with you over resources. People who were skeptical of things like, "Don't swim there. You could be eaten by a crocodile" were less likely to survive and reproduce. And these people's brains didn't differentiate between the aforementioned sound advice and something absurd, such as, "If you don't sacrifice an animal for the gods, there will be a terrible famine."

Evolution, of course, did not account for the fact that by 1997, a huge portion of the world would be living in houses, have plenty of food at their fingertips, and not be in situations where there would be predatory animals that could eat them. In 1997 (and in 2019, of course) the human mind still carried baggage of its evolutionary history. This inexorable drive to believe the absurd claims of a charismatic alpha male and to cave into peer pressure was alive and well. It is one of those things that makes us unique as a social species.

That's why it shocked me when I recently found out that one of the members of Heaven's Gate was autistic (and to clarify, he had left the group itself before the mass suicide, but still maintained the beliefs. When he learned about the suicide, he killed himself so he could join his friends on the ship). Autistic people are less likely to follow leaders, to cave into peer pressure, to do the social dances that most of us take for granted. In fact, many of them will just see these dances as utterly absurd and ridiculous. What, then, would drive an autistic person to join Heaven's Gate?, I wondered. But after thinking about it for about five minutes, I realized that in a way it did make sense that some autistic people might join a cult. They're the exception, not the rule, of course, and they probably join for different reasons than their neurotypical peers. And when I generated my hypothesis as to why, it just saddened me.

I can't speak for the guy who joined Heaven's Gate, and in case his family is reading this, I don't want to upset them by speculating about the guy's environment (and I don't want to name him either, even though it is of course easy enough to Google). But in general I can see what might lead someone on the spectrum down this destructive path. I can see it from examples in my own life.

Think about it: You go through your entire life hearing the same damned mantra from well-meaning but tragically misguided family, teachers, and peers, "You don't know how to interact with people." "You don't get it." "You're inappropriate." "You make people uncomfortable." And so forth. You try hard to figure out the social rules, but they are not written in stone and are subject to change upon context. You deal with unbelievable anxiety. You are unintentionally gaslit by the same people, who tell you that you misinterpret friendly teasing as bullying (even though you know damn well that it's bullying), that someone who said something bitingly personal and nasty was "just frustrated and wasn't trying to be mean" (but you knew damn well that he was), and who even dismiss egregious behavior by friends as normal. Your life consists of internalized psychological warfare, and eventually don't trust your own perception in regard to the most mundane, everyday things. It's when I consider this that I realize that yes, of course, a cult might seem like it makes sense to someone in that position.

In cults-- or even some sects of mainstream religion, for that matter-- the rules of social interaction are highly regulated: Don't use certain words; eat this, not that; eat this meal at this time and say these words before the meal; don't interact in a particular way with the opposite sex until you're married; have children by this age; and so on. Or in the case of Heaven's Gate, sex is evil, so sterilization is recommended. Again, I don't want to speculate about the autistic member of Heaven's Gate in particular. But many of us on the spectrum are asexual on top of all the other crap that makes our lives difficult. Imagine, too, being told that your lack of (or relative lack of) interest in dating, sex, or both is wrong, unhealthy, a mental illness, etc. Even if people don't tell you these things, you might feel left out if everyone you know is running off to get married and have kids. Join this group, and you won't feel left out when you're the only person who isn't passionately screwing somebody. Not only will you not only not be expected to get laid, you'll be expected not to get laid.

The more I thought about the aforementioned as possible factors that would make an autistic person join a cult, the more sense it made. Although a vulnerable autistic person is in a much better situation if they're coming of age in 2019, in 1997 the Heaven's Gate member was living in what I call the Final Decade of the Dark Ages for autistic people, an era in which to most people "autistic" meant you didn't talk, and "Asperger's" was a virtually non-existent word. Not to mention, it was also an era in which an autistic person's eccentricities and difficulties were dismissed as "behavioral problems". I am sure that a lot of people are tempted to say, "Oh, you know what? Autistic people are just more gullible." Yeah, okay. Some of them are, about things like a kid trying to screw with you by sarcastically saying, "You're soooo cool!" (stuff like that never got past me, however; my radar was always finely-tuned to such things). But in terms of believing cult leaders? No. A lot of neurotypical people join cults, and let's not forget that many neurotypical people believe in some of the more absurd claims of mainstream religion, such as that a 600-year-old man built an ark that could fit two of every animal species on the planet. So no, please don't try the "autistic people are more gullible" crap to explain away why they might join a cult.

Thinking about these things made me angry, angry enough to put my fist through a wall. It's only been in the past decade really that mainstream society is starting to see the hurt they've inadvertently caused autistic people even when they meant to help them. It's only now that they're seeing the anxiety they cause when they try to make autistic people adapt to the neurotypical world, but never vice-versa. The story about the autistic Heaven's Gate member is really heartbreaking, but in hindsight it's not surprising.

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