Josna Rege

240. Heaven’s Gate: Two Degrees of Separation

In 1970s, 1990s, 2000s, Books, history, parenting, people, places, reading, Stories, travel on January 19, 2014 at 4:14 pm
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The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Artist: Anette Bishop (fromoldbooks.org)

Because it was generally felt that we needed to read something “uplifting” for a change, my book group chose Christopher Castellani’s 2013 novel All This Talk of Love for our first meeting of the new year. I’m still only halfway through it, and have already been brought to tears twice; the jury is still out on the question of whether or not it is uplifting. Whatever that means will also be up for discussion at the meeting. The novel, set in Boston and Wilmington, Delaware in the late 1990’s, raises close-to-the-bone issues of relationships in immigrant families; different ways of coping with death, illness, and aging (by the way, the large-print edition I checked out from the library is changing the reading experience for me); memories, secrets, and silence; differing values, perspectives, loyalties, and emotional attachments between generations, siblings, husbands and wives; and where Home can be found. But yesterday another kind of passage brought me up short, sending me down to the basement to rummage through old papers for nearly an hour and haunting me for the rest of the day:

He [Frankie, the still-unmarried youngest son of Italian immigrants, writing his doctoral dissertation in postcolonial literature] flips through the six channels that come with basic cable and settles on PBS. . . It’s a low-budget documentary on the Hale-Bopp comet, and though it’s yesterday’s news, it captivates him. The comet, the greatest natural spectacle of the nineties, is long gone and won’t be back for two thousand years. The thirty-nine brainwashed believers who followed it into oblivion won’t be back at all. Meanwhile, the earth remains in a perpetual state of loneliness, welcoming but never visited, a ghost whose friends drive by once in a while but don’t stop in.

Immediately I was back in 1997, when I first heard the hair-raising news of the mass suicide (some say murders) of 38 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, along with their remaining leader, Marshall Applewhite, in Rancho Santa Fe, California. All the more unsettling for me because nearly two decades beforehand I had had a brush with Applewhite and his late partner, Bonnie Nettles. Well, not exactly a brush: more accurately, a near miss; but it was a near-enough miss that the news gave me a curiously contaminated feeling, and made it impossible for me to simply dismiss the dead cult members as another bunch of loonies who had drunk the Kool-Aid.

The news sent me down to a cardboard box  in the basement, full of posters, flyers, notebooks, and newspaper clippings from our activist days in the 1970s, where I almost immediately laid my hands on what I was looking for: a photocopied flyer announcing a visit of “the Two” to UMass-Boston, and inviting interested people to come and meet them. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, these “Two” were Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, later to be known as “Bo and Peep” or “Do and Ti.” And as strenuously as I reject the idea that I would ever be tempted to join any kind of cult, I cannot deny that back in late 1978 or early 1979 Andrew and I were intrigued enough about the Two to make our way one night to the deserted commuter campus of UMass Boston.

Between the summers of ’78 and ’79 Andrew and I lived in New Mexico, driving out and back in Andrew’s 1951 International Harvester milk truck. In-between we took a short trip back to the Boston area, mostly to see my uncle Nandu, who was the first of either of my parents’ siblings to visit us since we had immigrated to the United States. Frustratingly, I can’t remember exactly when we took that trip, but for the purposes of this story about the Two it matters whether it was late 1978 or early 1979, and if the former, then exactly how late in the year; for it was in November of 1979 that more than 900 members of the People’s Temple committed suicide in Jonestown, Guyana under the direction of leader Jim Jones. But it didn’t cross my mind, as I decided to check out the Two, that I might well have been the next recruit for a suicide cult.

UMass-Boston campus (/iamhollywood.deviantart.com)

UMass-Boston campus (/iamhollywood.deviantart.com)

Looking down at that nearly 20-year-old flyer (which I have since mislaid) back in March, 1997, I recalled what had transpired that evening: thankfully, not very much. We took the South-East Expressway from Somerville to the lonely peninsula of Columbia Point where the stark concrete campus of UMass-Boston was located. It was only after we had arrived that we realized that the flyer had not mentioned a venue for the meeting, so we found a place to park and proceeded to wander around in the dark, looking for a sign. No sign. Then we looked around the empty campus for other lost-looking souls like ourselves to approach and ask whether they too were seeking the Two. I can’t remember now whether we did and, if so, whether they were; I do know that we made our way home rather disappointed, consoling ourselves with the thought that it had been a silly idea to follow up on the flyer in the first place.

But what was the most chilling to me back in 1997 when the news first broke, and again yesterday after reading the passage in the novel (whose meaning I can’t fully contextualize until I’ve finished the book), was that rational, skeptical, educated people like Andrew and me, people who were socially engaged and had close, loving families, would nevertheless be interested enough in what we had heard of the Two that we would follow a cryptic flyer so as to hear first-hand what they had to say. They had been traveling the country speaking and recruiting, creating a bit of a buzz in the alternative and New Age youth cultures, and we had heard of them while we were out in the Southwest. Now, while we were on a short sojourn Back East, so were they. And that, it seems, was enough to draw us to them.

Other curious young people like us were not as fortunate as we were that night. Talking to our neighbor Bob that early Spring of 1997, in the aftermath of Heaven’s Gate, l learned that while Andrew and I had had a near miss, he was only one degree of separation from the tragedy. When he had read the names of the dead, he had realized with a shock of recognition that one of them had briefly been a housemate of his, back in the early 1970s. Looking up the cult on the Internet yesterday, I found that one of them—in fact, the woman who became Applewild’s nurse—had been a caring, compassionate young nursing student at UMass Amherst in 1975 when the Two had first begun their countrywide recruiting. Along with the leader himself, she was one of the last to die, as she had prepared the apple-sauce concoction that was the vehicle for their quick and painless deaths.

The lame child left behind. Artist unknown (steelthistles.blogspot.com)

The lame child left behind. Artist unknown (steelthistles.blogspot.com)

Yesterday, before I was recalled to my work in the present, I watched part of a British documentary on the Heaven’s Gate cult. In it, the film-makers interviewed surviving members of the group, some of whom had left long before they had begin planning their last fatal action, and others who had originally been part of the suicide pact. As I listened to one of them, I was put in mind of the sole-remaining child in Hamelin, the rest of whose playmates had followed the Pied Piper and never returned. His wistful words haunt Robert Browning’s poem:

‘It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!
I can’t forget that I’m bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me.
For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
Joining the town and just at hand,
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new;
The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here,
And their dogs outran our fallow deer,
And honey-bees had lost their stings,
And horses were born with eagles’ wings:
And just as I became assured
My lame foot would be speedily cured,
The music stopped and I stood still,
And found myself outside the hill,
Left alone against my will,
To go now limping as before,
And never hear of that country more!’

In case you think it is rather a leap to connect the fate of those hapless cult members with the children of the poem, read the first lines of the very next stanza (with my emphasis):

Alas, alas for Hamelin!
There came into many a burgher’s pate
A text which says that heaven’s gate
Opens to the rich at as easy rate
As the needle’s eye takes a camel in!
The mayor sent East, West, North and South,
To offer the Piper, by word of mouth
Wherever it was men’s lot to find him,
Silver and gold to his heart’s content,
If he’d only return the way he went,
And bring the children behind him.

dontdrinkWe nearly always recognize our mistakes when it is too late to correct them. While the parents and friends of those who had set their sights on Heaven’s Gate, along with most of us who read the story in the newspapers, were left as mystified as the burghers of Hamelin who had lost their children forever, I can never again distance myself from those children, who were earnest, disaffected young people not so very different from myself, seeking a better world, and only two degrees of separation away.

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  1. chilling thought for every mother. greets s.

    • Yes, Sabine. The idea that that a young person would latch onto that kind of a “family” to hold their loneliness or emptiness at bay or to meet some gnawing need is terribly, terribly sad. We know that society has utterly failed them and as parents we feel both responsible and helpless. Agh. x J

  2. Amazing story Josna… a brush with an early death indeed…and I know that quest for some mystical answer to the world and the question ‘why am I here?….

    • Thank you, Valerie. So many–most–of us feel that call for an answer to all our questions, something or someone who will “take us away from all this.” And yet we shudder (and so we should) at the thought that those young people who followed the piper all the way had anything in common with us. But perhaps it is precisely because we understand that impulse that we shudder. x Josna

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