Cecilia Gatto Trocchi (1939-2005), a professor of Anthropology at the University of Chieti, committed suicide in the night of Monday July 11, 2005 by jumping from the window of her Rome apartment. Gatto Trocchi started her career by studying the tradition of Italian fairy tales. She became however famous in the 1980s when she decided to devote her career to exposing what she believed was the danger of “destructive cults” and the fraudulent nature of virtually all magic and esoteric movements. Later in life she distinguished, however, between "pseudo-esoteric" cults and a pristine, "genuine" or "non-commercial" esotericism, expressing her appreciation for the latter. Her appreciation of certain expressions of esotericism and mysticism eventually led to dissensions with the more skeptical and rationalist brand of anti-cultism. .
Although several of her books sold quite well, Gatto Trocchi was involved in the 1990s in two quite bitter controversies. She was accused of plagiarizing from the works of other scholars, a charge she denied or attributed to her research assistants. On the other hand, she admitted to have performed undercover participant observation of several new religious movements with the aim of exposing them as dangerous or fraudulent. Undercover participant observation, particularly when performed with the intent of producing literature hostile to the groups observed, is regarded as unethical by most international association of scholars.
A less frequent guest of international academic conferences on new religious movements after these controversies, Gatto Trocchi somewhat reinvented her public persona as an anti-cult activist and almost professional guest of TV and radio talk shows on cults. Although she did not create the Italian anti-cult movement, she was widely regarded as its most vocal spokesperson and one of the few with academic credentials.
In recent years she was suffering from a serious form of depression, which worsened after the premature death of her son two years ago. Many in the field of the scholarly studies of new religious movements knew of her situation, and preferred not to respond to her most recent anti-cult production. On the other hand, talk show hosts apparently decided to ignore her problems and continued to invite her for sessions of cult-bashing, where she displayed an increasing bitterness obviously not unconnected with her personal condition. In a way, she was exploited, with some amount of cynicism, by talk show hosts to the bitter end. She was often articulate and humorous, and remains influential, as evidenced by the fact that in the current discussion about a proposed anti-brainwashing law in Italy almost all electronic media which were frequently advised by Gatto Trocchi are in favour of the law, whilst most printed media are against.
CESNUR disagreed with almost everything she published, except perhaps her early books on fairy tales. Those of us who know her (and, notwithstanding the controversies, shared with her some occasional pleasant moments over a cup of coffee), will remember Cecilia as a sweet and nice person, who somewhat transformed herself for the worst when engaged in her personal crusade against cults. As fellow believers, we are sure that the Divine Mercy will recognize that she tried to do good, and to fight against things on which we have a more nuanced opinion, but whose evil side she saw in good faith as so threatening that it should be literally fought to the exhaustion of one’s very life.