Edward W Batchelder

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Almost Touched by an Angel:
My Brush with the Heaven’s Gate Cult

image of webpage for Heaven's Gate

The seventies were, Tom Wolfe succinctly informed us, the Me Decade. For my part, I’ll always think of them as the Cult Decade, an era of lost souls scrambling precisely to be rid of their egos, to swap their Me's in on any sort of Us available.

I wasn’t exactly lost, but I was—let’s say—temporarily misplaced, and evidently it showed. I was routinely targeted by perky Moonies with invitations to dinners; Hare Krishna bombarded me with their books in airports; Scientologists buttonholed me on street corners for a free personality test; and earnest, born-again Christians laid their hands on my shoulder and spoke of eternal self-acceptance through Jesus.

In this context, over twenty years ago, an offer to leave the planet on a flying saucer had a refreshingly loony charm to it, though of course the charm has darkened quite a bit with the news of the mass suicide in the last week.

I was picked up on an access road in California by a battered hulk of a station wagon, the back filled with clutter and the driver himself unkempt, a roly-poly man in his late twenties in a thrift-shop tuxedo and a t-shirt. He seemed smart enough, though, and harmless, despite talking in nervous bursts like someone who hadn’t conversed in a while.

We drove together for about an hour, and the whole time he kept glancing over, furtively, as if sizing me up for something unspoken but important. I assumed a proposition was on the way, but it wasn’t until the last minute, as I was climbing out the door, that he suddenly blurted it out.

“Hey, I’m leaving the planet in about six months. Want to come along?”
Well, I thought at the time, this is worth investigating. His face radiated such puppy-dog eagerness that I remember answering that I would go along at least as far as Fresno. I shut the door, and we took off again down the highway.

Over the course of an afternoon and an evening he laid out for me the entire belief system of what is now known as the Heaven’s Gate cult. Like a lot of paranoid structures, this one explained everything. All world religions, it turned out, were misunderstandings of a basic, simple truth: mankind is descended from aliens, and we don’t really belong on this planet. At certain historical moments, however, the species goes through a sort of evolutionary growth spurt, and it becomes possible for select individuals to detach from terrestrial existence altogether and return to outer space. This was, he assured me, the basis for the Christian idea of heaven and Christ’s reincarnation; this was Buddhistic Nirvana, the liberation from the bondage to birth and death.

He’d asked me to join him, he confided, because he could see that I was among the potential elect. Unlike most people, I had relatively few demons flying around my head. As he said this, he actually looked around my head, as if examining a swarm of mosquitoes. I nodded, uncertain, but assumed I should take this as a compliment. The trick about demons, he went on, was that they hate cold water. You just have to splash your head with very cold water to get rid of them. I didn’t know if this was official doctrine, but it certainly seemed to explain something, and I had a weird image of Hieronymus Bosch creatures being driven away by Southern marshals with fire hoses.

He was clearly restless to talk, and I let him go on for hours. The evolutionary strategy was simple. You simply detached yourself progressively from the things of the earth, beginning with your material possessions. The identity followed; he had a driver’s license, he admitted, “but the name on it isn’t mine; I’m not that person.” Then came a gradual reduction in the amount you spoke, particularly to those outside the cult. Over time you ate and drank less and less until finally you could live on air alone. At this point, you were ready for the final step into space, and after an interim period in the saucer, even oxygen would no longer be necessary—your body would finally atrophy and be left behind. It was all worked out, right down to the details.

He himself had joined the cult the night of his first lecture about flying saucers. He’d been so overwhelmed by the speaker that he hadn’t even gone home to tell his roommates where he was going, though it would no doubt have been a strange conversation.

For his first several months, he explained, the group had traveled together in a bus, but as their numbers increased, this became logistically impossible. The leader broke them up into groups of two or three and sent them off to travel aimlessly until further notification of the final rendezvous point, which would come, somehow, Close Encounters–style. When he needed money for food or gas, he simply followed some intuitive signals until he ended up at a farm or small business where he worked until he had enough cash to continue. He’d been doing this for months, driving and evolving and waiting for the sign.

At times, he admitted to a worry that he wasn’t evolving fast enough. His traveling companion, locked onto the spiritual fast track, had left him for just this reason, and it was why he was looking for a replacement. He’d hunch over the wheel and speak with a worried tone, like a little boy who’s not sure he’ll sell enough candy bars to go on the class trip to the Grand Canyon. “I just don’t know what I’m going to do if I don’t make onto that saucer,” he said at one point. “It’s the only thing that’s really made sense to me in my whole life.”

At other times, however, he seemed completely sure. When I chided him on his diet of Wonder bread and processed cheese, he shrugged his shoulders. He used to eat health food, he said, but now he was leaving the planet, it just didn’t seem worth the expense. This was said with the offhand assurance of a man who’s decided not to paint his house because he’s moving to Cincinnati at the end of the week.

At no time, however, were the saucers themselves ever in doubt. They were coming; the only question was whether he’d be on them when they left.

Eventually, we stopped for the night at a roadside camping area. He hauled out the tent—a World War Two monstrosity big enough to hold the entire Yalta conference—and set about pitching it, his tuxedo tails flapping with his agitated movements. The back of the car, I saw now, was covered with bumper stickers with slogans like, “Interested in Flying Saucers? ASK ME!” A crowd of inland Californians on hunting and fishing vacations gathered around to watch, and I felt oddly torn in their presence. The guy was nuts, certainly, but I thought I liked him better than these leathery men in the John Deere caps.

The next day I shook his hand, turned down his final offer to leave the planet, and accepted instead a ride from a young couple headed for a national park. Under their questioning, I turned his desperate personal quest into an amusing public anecdote, where it’s more or less stayed for the last twenty years. Even at that time, though, I wondered: What could possibly become of him? What would be the end point of such a fervent commitment to something so impossible? What would he do when the saucers didn’t arrive, at least, not for him?

Now, over coffee, I look though the photos splayed across the covers of the tabloid press, the rows of symmetrical black-and-white images that reattach to the faces the names they’d tried so hard to abandon when alive. I never learned his name, and couldn’t recognize him after so many years anyway. But the weirdly serene mass suicide does provide a public answer, of sorts, to the private questions I had twenty years ago. Even then it occurred to me that suicide was a likely option, and I’ve often pictured him crestfallen at the prospect of being trapped for a whole lifetime on a planet where, as one member put it so sharply, “There’s nothing here for me.”

The Me Decade may not have been so far from the Cult Decade after all; the flip side of radical egotism is the desire for radical community, where the burden of individuality promises to be dissolved. But radical community falls back into extreme egotism, to the self-centeredness of the pursuit of one’s own transcendence at the cost of the communities left behind—the families, friends, and even roommates. To join a doomsday cult is to play chicken on an ideological highway, where you refuse to swerve aside from the obvious disaster bearing down on you. In the long run, suicide becomes the last defense of an ego that can’t accept that it’s always already part of a very terrestrial community, and that the spaceships are simply never, ever coming.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from The Boston Phoenix)

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