There were occasions when David Koresh enforced discipline among
his followers the hard way. One of his handpicked lieutenants
would paddle the rule breakers with an oar on which were inscribed
the words IT IS WRITTEN. Most of the time that wasn't necessary.
In the manner of cult leaders before him, Koresh held sway largely
through means that were both more subtle and more degrading.
Food was rationed in unpredictable ways. Newcomers were gradually
relieved of their bank accounts and personal possessions. And
while the men were subjected to an uneasy celibacy. Koresh took
their wives and daughters as his concubines.
All of it just confirmed his power in the eyes of his flock.
And for anyone who though it odd that a holy man lived out a teenage
boy's sexual fantasy, Koresh had a mangled theological rationale.
He was Jesus Christ in sinful form, who because he indulged the
flesh could judge mankind with insights that the first, more virtuous
Messiah had lacked. Or as he put in one of his harangues to the
faithful: "Now what better sinner can know a sinner than
a godly sinner? Huh?"
Equipped with both a creamy charm and a cold-blooded willingness
to manipulate those drawn to him, Koresh was a type well known
to students of cult practices: the charismatic leader with a
pathological edge. He was the most spectacular example since
Jim Jones, who committed suicide in 1978 with more than 900 of
his followers at the People's Temple in Guyana. Like Jones, Koresh
fashioned a tight-knit community that saw itself at desperate
odds with the world outside. He plucked sexual partners as he
pleased from among his followers and formed an elite guard of
lieutenants to enforce his will. And like Jones, he led his followers
to their doom.
Psychologists are inclined to classify Koresh as a psychopath,
always with the reminder that such people can be nothing short
of enchanting on a first encounter. "The psychopath is often
charming, bright, very persuasive," explains Louis West,
a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los
Angeles medical school. "He quickly wins people's trust
and is uncannily adept at manipulating and conning people."
David Jewell, whose former wife died in last week's fire, had
a brief phone conversation with Koresh five years ago that left
him in shock. "In 20 minutes, he took my entire Christian
upbringing and put in such a tailspin, I didn't know what I believed.
Once in the cult, Davidians surrendered all the material means
of personal independence, like money and belongings, while Koresh
seemed to have unlimited funds, much of the money apparently from
his followers' nest eggs. The grounds around the compound were
littered with old automobiles that the faithful cannibalized for
parts to keep their clunkers running while Koresh drove a black
Camaro muscle car.
At lengthy sessions of biblical preaching that cult members attended
twice a day, Koresh underlined his authority by impressing upon
them that he alone understood the Scriptures. He changed his
interpretations at will, while his unsteady flock struggled to
keep up. In a tactic common to cult leaders, Koresh made food
a tool for ensuring obedience. The compound diet was often insufficient,
varying according to the leader's whim. Sometimes dinner was
stew or chicken; at other times it might be nothing but popcorn.
On their infrequent trips to Waco, cultists could be seen wolfing
down packaged cheese in convenience stores. Household and dietary
rules at the compound were as changeable at the theology. Koresh
established strict bans on sugar and ice cream, then reversed
them without explanation. He told his disciples they could buy
chicken hot dogs, but exploded in anger when they brought home
chicken bologna instead.
Having convinced his followers that he was the messiah. Koresh
went on the persuade them that because his seed was divine, only
he had the right to procreate. Even as Koresh bedded their wives
and daughters-some as young as 11-in his comfortable private bedroom
on the second floor, the men were confined to their dormitory
downstairs. Behind the mind games and psychological sadism lay
the threat of physical force. In addition to the paddlings, administered
in a utility area called the spanking room, offenders could be
forced down into a pit of raw sewage, then not allowed to bathe.
No amount of adulation seemed to satisfy Koresh, whose egomania
apparently disguised an emptiness at his center. Fallenaway follower
Marc Breault, who sometimes played bass in the rock bank Koresh
organized at the compound, says that even practicing together
was difficult because Koresh threw tantrums when he hit a wrong
note in front of the others. "It's very difficult being
in a band with God's messenger," says Breault.
As the Davidians stockpiled guns and ammunition, Koresh's theology
centered more obsessively upon the coming Apocalypse, binding
Koresh and his followers in a vision of shared catastrophe in
order to maintain their focus and resist the overtures of the
authorities outside the compound. "Koresh would say we would
have to suffer, that we were going to be persecuted and some of
us would be killed and tortured," recalls David Bunds, who
left the compound in 1989.
As Koresh and his followers heightened the melodrama, their ties
with the outside world became irretrievably broken. "The
adulation of this confined group work on this charismatic leader
so that he in turn spirals into greater and greater paranoia,"
says Murray Miron, a psychologist who advised the FBI during the
standoff. "He's playing a role that his followers have cast
him in." In the end, Koresh and his flock may have magnified
one another's needs. He looked to them to confirm his belief
that he was God's appointed one, destined for a martyr's death.
They looked to him to bring their spiritual wanderings to a close.
In the flames of last week, they all may have found what they
were searching for.