Emile Durkheim wrote, “we are the victims of an illusion which leads us to believe we have ourselves produced what has been imposed upon us externally” (Durkheim, 1895). What this means is that in the context of religion and society itself, that we tend to internalize and compartmentalize our problems because we are all to appear strong to one another. This can be applied to many things in life overall, but we really see it on aspects that are out of the norm for our society, including non-mainstream religions, commonly coined with the term “cult.” David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, was viewed by many and across the world as a con-artist, mass murderer, liar and manipulator. These thoughts were perpetuated by the mass media, where details of his life and what it was like inside the Waco, Texas, compound kept coming to light after the end of the movement. Out of the well-known new religion leaders, the actions of David Koresh could be interpreted as a true prophet, being the closest to leading a true new religion because he was a devoted Seventh-day Adventist who wanted to create another Christian sect. To many of his followers, he was a loving, compassionate leader who was trying to obtain a better life for them. He also could be interpreted as a genius of the human psyche, able to manipulate his followers to do his bidding until the very end. Koresh was a narcissist in that getting attention and having the focus on him was his primary goal. He was able to manipulate hundreds of people into thinking he was a prophet and that he only used people as tools or an end to his means, whatever that may be. He could play into the minds of an average person, manipulating their views and emotions to do what he wanted them to think or feel and convincing them that what they were doing was okay, even up to the tragic end. From an outsider’s perspective, it is a favored opinion that David Koresh was a delusional narcissist who thrived on the power and unquestioned loyalty from his followers, even if that meant putting them in harm’s way.
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In 1993, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) sieged the Branch Davidian Mount Carmel compound in Waco, TX, after a 51-day standoff between the 2 sides. This siege ended in a fire engulfing the compound, killing 75 of the Branch Davidians including David Koresh (Chan, 2018). To understand how the siege got to the chaotic and apocalyptic end, one must first understand the background in which the Branch Davidians came from. The Branch Davidians are an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists, who were originally led by Ellen White, and believed that no one would know when Jesus would come because he would come like a thief in the night. This belief came in the wake of The Great Disappointment from William Miller and the Adventists on the Coming of Christ in 1843. They built a community like Mount Carmel, looking for signs of the end and living a holistic life. The Branch Davidians were started by a Bulgarian immigrant in 1929 who claimed to be a prophet. The original name was Shepherd’s Rod, and the immigrant was supposed to be the key to unlock the Seven Seals from The Book of Revelation. It passed from leader to leader, all claiming to be prophets themselves, much like David Koresh. After the death of the founder, there was a scramble for power; even women were getting involved. One specifically set a date for the end of the world, which did not come, which set off more panic and chaos. Benjamin Roden took over as leader eventually, and was leader until 1988, when his son, George Roden stepped in, then shortly thereafter Vernon Howell. To understand Howell, one must get inside his head and try to think as he would have. The media has portrayed Vernon to be a monster of a human being, and although some of his teachings were questionable, he was a normal American citizen— besides that he was in a new religious movement, or “cult” to outside society.
David Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell to Bobby Wayne Howell and Bonnie Sue Clark on August 17, 1959 in Houston, Texas. His mother was a 14-year-old single mother at the time of his birth because his father met another girl and abandoned Clark. He didn’t have a stable father figure in his life until age 7, living the first 4 with a violent alcoholic. He was placed in the care of his grandmother for three years and then returned to his mother’s care, along with her new husband Roy and their son Roger Haldeman (Wikipedia, 2018).
When Howell was 22, he was caught having an illegal relationship with a 15-year-old girl who was pregnant. He then claimed to be a born-again Christian in a Baptist church, and soon joined his mother’s Seventh-Day Adventist church. He had fallen in love and became obsessed with the preacher’s daughter and claimed to have been praying for guidance when he opened his eyes and found the Bible open to Isaiah 34:16. The line that caught his eye was “none should want for her mate,” and he became convinced this was his sign from God. When he approached the pastor about this, he was adamant about keeping Vernon away from his daughter, eventually expelling him from the church after Howell was persistent. He moved to Waco, Texas, in 1982 and joined the Branch Davidians, where he played guitar and sang in church services inside the commune. He recruited many members through music, many former members have stated. A year later, he started claiming that he was a prophet. At the same time, there were speculations that he had a sexual relationship with the former leader’s widow, Lois Roden. Roden allowed Howell to start teaching his own message, which angered Lois’s son George, who had intended on becoming leader of the group after his dad’s death and his mom’s interim leadership. In the power struggle between the two, Roden forced Howell and his group of followers off the property at gun point. In 1985, Vernon and 25 of his followers sent up camp in Palestine, Texas, where they lived primitively for two years. Howell traveled to Israel the same year and claimed to be the modern-day Cyrus. Lois Roden died in ’86, leaving the exiled Davidians wondering if they could ever return to their Mount Carmel home. By late ’87, George’s support was in steep decline, majority being to Howell. Realizing he was losing his power, he challenged Vernon to a contest to raise the dead. George went so far in this contest to unearth a corpse.
When Vernon found out about this, he went to authorities to report Roden for the charge of illegally exhuming a corpse, but the police could not do anything about it unless they had evidence, whether that be physical body or a photograph of the corpse. Because of this power struggle between the two, Howell was eager to press charges onto Roden, so he returned to Mount Carmel, accompanied by seven armed followers, for photographic evidence of the crime. This escalated to a gunfight. Once the police arrived, the sheriff found George Roden pinned against a tree with a minor gunshot wound. In 1989, the power struggle was over, as George Roden was tried and convicted of murder after murdering Wayman Adair with an axe. Howell rallied to get Mount Carmel from the state because Roden didn’t pay taxes, and the rally was successful (Wikipedia, 2018).
Vernon Howell filed a petition in May 1990 to change his name to David Koresh and was granted the name change on August 28, 1990. Koresh’s leadership would be chaotic and problematic legally, as he was speculated to have multiple accusations from ex-followers for statutory rape charges, as well as having “wives” as young as 10 years old, and some were already married to other members in the movement. He did have a true wife though, Rachel Jones, and one of the underage “wives” was her little sister, Michelle. There were also speculations of Koresh having a sexual encounter with the younger Jones, with consent from her parents. After a 6-month investigation from Texas CPS, they concluded to have no evidence, although it is thought that the Branch Davidians covered up these spiritual wives by assigning surrogate husbands. The evidence for child abuse, however, was slim to none. There are claims from ex-members of the movement, and the agency needs physical evidence from active members, who would not squeal on Koresh for fear of admonition and severe sanctions from him (Wikipedia, 2018). The background of Vernon Howell/ David Koresh is crucial and necessary to understand why the raid and siege of the Mount Carmel Center went down the way it did on his end.
The definition of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), more commonly narcissism, is “a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others” (Mayo Clinic, 2017). It’s very easy to poke fun/insult someone as narcissistic if they are all about themselves, similar to the way we assign neat people to have OCD tendencies when they might not be diagnosed at all. According to Psychology Today (2018), “the most benign type may be the charismatic leader with an excess of charm, whose only vice may be his or her inflated amour-propre.” Someone with narcissistic personality disorder will be manipulative and easily-angered when they do not receive the attention they think they were born to get. Characteristics, much like other mental illnesses, are on a spectrum of severity (Psychology Today, 2018). Famous diagnosed narcissists that many know of are Ted Bundy, Josef Rudolf Mengele, and many other serial killers are suspected to have had NPD but no official diagnosis. Society’s fascination with serial killers has made for the inquisition as to how they are molded into the evil people society strangely idolizes. Researchers for a study at University of Wisconsin, Madison were trying to decipher if there is a genetic deformity or abnormality in the brain that creates the behavior that we associate with serial killers and psychopaths. This study did brain scans and revealed that “psychopathy in criminals was associated with decreased connectivity between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex,” where negative stimuli is processed and interpreted, respectively (Brogaard, 2018). Many NPD symptoms overlap with that of a psychopath and sociopath, which are commonly interchanged and is not correct, although they are grouped under the same mental illness— antisocial personality disorder (APD).
A key difference between a psychopath and sociopath is consciences. A psychopath does not have one at all, while a sociopath may have one, but choose to ignore it. They both share, however, a lack of empathy and perspective for other people (Robinson, 2018). The symptoms of NPD are as follows: exaggerated sense of self, sense of entitlement & require constant and excessive attention, exaggerate achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without verification of said title, preoccupied with fantasies of success and power, etc., they can only associate with people to their standard, monopolize conversations and belittle people they see as inferior, special favors from submissive people, unhealthily envious of others, arrogant, and insists to have the best of everything (Mayo Clinic, 2017). They also usually get very angry if the plan is not theirs; narcissists embody the expression “my way or the high way,” and “only-child syndrome,” something people pass off on people who are about themselves and cannot share their things throughout the lifespan. Because of the perfectionist and elitist standard these people hold themselves to, narcissists tend to not seek medical treatment.
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David Koresh could be argued as a narcissist for his alleged perfectionist tendencies, preoccupation with power as put forth with the contest with George Roden, and the sense of entitlement. It is evident that he had a preoccupation with power, success, brilliance, and beauty from reports after his death. It was reported that Koresh would proclaim he had a vision to rope people back in to the movement, or would threaten with violence, as is a common theme with NRMs in America, for example Jonestown. We talked in class about how he portrayed himself as a sinful messiah, meaning that he was not necessarily the Messiah in the Christian sense, but more in the Jewish sense, meaning he was human more than anything. His name change can also be interpreted as narcissistic in that the Bible says the Messiah will be from the House of David. Although someone could glance at the Bible and read this, he further affirms his deep knowledge of it by changing his last name to Koresh, which is the Hebrew name for Cyrus. The narcissism is evident with the power struggle with George Roden because it could be perceived as an issue within him of someone being better than him. The fact that he was willing to get Roden arrested because of defiling a grave and was willing to storm the compound for the picture evidence says a lot about him. Then again, George most likely had a power issue too. David’s power and authority issues may come from the lack of a father figure, so he’s had to be the leader and the authority figure to himself, since his mom was drinking and doing drugs in his early life and not having a self-recognized father figure in his life. His followers played into the narcissism as well, with not only being undeniably submissive to him and his movement during the 1990s, but even now.
One follower, Sheila Martin, believes Koresh was God himself, even though 4 of her children and her husband perished in the fire from the siege of Waco. She says that it was the way God wanted it. At the time the article was written, it was the 18th anniversary of the fire that killed 76 people (Fantz, 2011). Although Koresh can’t be manipulative physically, he still has a hold on many followers like Sheila from beyond the grave, which further backs evidence of him being a narcissist. Koresh’s narcissistic personality is further cemented by his self-proclaiming to be a prophet. The Merriam-Webster definition of prophet is “one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight” (Merriam-Webster, 2018). It shows that he saw himself as an extraordinary individual who deserved reverence.
There’s no clear evidence David Koresh was a prophet. By some of his earlier actions in trying to gain power in the movement, he was clearly lacking in moral insight. He could, however, fit the definition of “an effective or leading spokesman for a cause, doctrine, or group,” as outlined by the Merriam Webster dictionary (2018). One could consider that a broad definition that many historical figures could fit, like Martin Luther King, Jr. or James Monroe which does not make them a prophet. Although his followers may have been duped for a time into believing that he was executing God’s will, many later came to see that he was simply using religion as a tool to gratify his own needs. In the end, he was willing to sacrifice children in order to preserve this façade. Although the Branch Davidians may have had Christian roots, Koresh did not follow the biblical teachings of kindness, compassion, and sacrifice for the sake of others, hardly the work of a prophet.
The evidence of David Koresh being a narcissist is compelling, but with no official diagnosis, no one can be certain for sure. The fact that he consistently put his needs above those of his friends and all those who were dependent on him would suggest NPD is present. His troubled past and abandonment from his childhood may have contributed to this issue. It is fascinating to study these instances in how people can become so devoid of reason in the presence of one of these charismatic individuals. The mass media made him out to be worse than he really was, even though some could argue that manipulation is the worst kind of emotional abuse. The events at Mount Carmel in Waco, Texas, inspired the Oklahoma Unabomber to carry out his domestic terrorism plan. David Koresh not only manipulated the minds of his followers, but he also influenced another person to execute a heinous crime. As long as there are individuals with this need for attention and power, there will unfortunately be those to take advantage of.
- Brogaard, B., Ph.D. (2012, December 7). The Making of a Serial Killer. Retrieved November 30, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-superhuman-mind/201212/the-making-serial-killer
- Chan, M. (2018, January 24). The Real Story Behind the FBI’s Deadly Waco Siege. Retrieved November 30, 2018, from http://time.com/5115201/waco-siege-standoff-fbi-david-koresh/
- David Koresh. (2018, November 26). Retrieved November 30, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Koresh#Early_life
- Durkheim, E., & Lukes, S. (1990). The rules of sociological methods: And selected texts on sociology and its methods. London: Macmillan.
- Fantz, A. (2011, April 14). 18 years after Waco, Davidians believe Koresh was God. Retrieved November 30, 2018, from http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/04/14/waco.koresh.believers/index.html
- Narcissism. (2018). Retrieved November 30, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/narcissism
- Narcissistic personality disorder. (2017, November 18). Retrieved November 30, 2018, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20366662
- Prophet. (2018, December 3). Retrieved December 5, 2018, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prophet
- Robinson, K. M. (2014, August 24). What’s the Difference Between a Sociopath and a Psychopath? Retrieved November 30, 2018, from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/sociopath-psychopath-difference#1
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