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Answers to Readers and Speculations on Space

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 22 - September 1997

I have had several responses to my recent article in Positive Health on Psychological Cloning (Positive Health Issue 20, June/July 1997). Most of these correspondents were curious about the Heaven's Gate suicide cult, and especially about the motives of the leader, Marshall Herff Applewhite.

Of course, I have never met the leader or any of the members of this bizarre group, but it may be of some interest to speculate about some of the various motives behind these inexplicable and irrational events.

Just last year, Anthony Storr wrote an interesting book Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus (Harper/Collins, 1996), which deals with just this psychological phenomenon. One of the most striking things about Storr's provocative study is the wide range of charismatic leaders he examines – not only does he include the usual, expected suspects, such as Gurdjieff, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Jim Jones and David Koresh, he also extends his list to investigate in this manner such respected luminaries as Rudolf Steiner, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Society of Jesus) and one of the greatest saints of the Roman Catholic Church.

So that it is clear that gurus are all around us! In this perspective the exotic works of the late Marshall Applewhite may be seen as yet another example of people's longing for someone to show them the way. The motivation of Applewhite himself requires another level of explanation.

If my readers will allow me to take the liberty of spinning a plausible theory without any inside knowledge of Heaven's Gate or its members, I approach it in the following manner. One key aspect is the anti-sexual nature of the Applewhite cult: men and women dressed in exactly the same uniform, complete asexuality. Several of the members, including Mr Applewhite, had themselves been voluntarily castrated. From what is known about his background, according to the newspaper reports, Mr Applewhite's father was a Presbyterian minister.

One may easily imagine the background of this future cult leader as follows. He had most likely grown up in the typical conservative environment one can expect of a clergyman's family in midwestern America. This probably made it extremely difficult for him to accept his homosexuality. Reports released in the press show that he had resigned or had been forced to resign from various academic jobs because of sexual entanglements with students. After that he checked himself into a mental hospital to seek help to eliminate his homosexual strivings. Since Applewhite was apparently unable to come to terms with his sexuality, he decided to eliminate sex completely; thus he organised the cult in a totally asexual manner. It is possible that he may have felt less than a "man" in comparison to his father. He decided in the end to compete with his father as a religious leader; in fact, he would become a better spiritual guide than his father. A church minister could only take people on the slow path to salvation. But the sexually confused son would prove to the world and to his father that he is a better man, and a superior saviour of souls -- he rounds up a bunch of followers, de-sexes them, castrates some, and proving to himself that he is far better than Dad, he leads them more directly, quickly, to the World Above (that'll show the old man!).

This sketchy scenario may be one possible explanation for his path in this strange drama. Why these poor souls followed him on this weird path is of course another tale.

By the way, if I am wrong, and some day meet this Guru up in the great celestial space ship on high in the sky, well then, then I will admit I was wrong about him.

While we are speculating on the nature of the cult which came to the world's attention in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet, there are new events in space grabbing our attention just now. The Earth has landed a robot on Mars, which has sent back information on our neighbour; and more in the wishful arena, the 50th anniversary of the Roswell UFO incident is celebrated.

There is a yearning for us Earthlings, apparently, not only to explore space, but to feel that extra-terrestrial creatures have visited us here on planet Earth. Recent surveys show that more than one-third of adults in the USA believe in the existence of flying saucers from outer space, or UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects). Not only have they landed here, a large number of Americans claim to have been abducted by aliens from outer space.

The psychological explanation for this, assuming that no aliens are present at the time I am writing, could be as follows. Carl Jung expressed the idea that the longing for men from outer space stems from a basic lack of spiritual fulfilment in modern society. Thus, people are led to invent "visitors" as a kind of modern religiosity. What we don't find on this Earth we will seek elsewhere...

A more down-to-earth theory comes from a very old New York psychoanalyst, who hypothesised that the current belief in alien visitation is a result of the HIV virus. People, especially in America, are so afraid of getting AIDS that they prefer to fantasise about aliens from outer space who may not be infected. Most of the so-called abducteess have reported that their bodies were sexually violated or entered by the space aliens. Safe sex, in other words.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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