INSIDE HEAVEN'S GATE
MARCH 28, 1997
Who were those 39 people who took their lives in a Southern California mansion, and why did they do it? Those questions are at the heart of our second-day look at the Heaven's Gate story that begins with an update by Charles Krause.
JIM LEHRER: Who were those 39 people who took their lives in a Southern California mansion, and why did they do it? Those questions are at the heart of our second-day look at the Heaven's Gate story that begins with this update by Charles Krause.
MARSHALL APPLEWHITE, Heaven's Gate Leader: Planet Earth about to be recycled. Your only chance to evacuate is to leave with us.
CHARLES KRAUSE: These were the words of Marshall Applewhite, the 66-year-old cult leader who convinced 38 of his followers to commit suicide earlier this week. Wednesday evening Applewhite's group, called Heaven's Gate, and its leader were found dead by San Diego sheriff's deputies in a rented mansion 20 miles North of San Diego, in a quiet, affluent community called Rancho Santa Fe. Applewhite, who reportedly first became interested in the occult some 20 years ago, was an accomplished singer and musician who received a Master's degree from the music school at the University of Colorado in the early 60s. In 1966, he moved to Texas, where he performed with the Houston Grand Opera. He also talked music at the University of St. Thomas, a private, Roman Catholic college. It was in Houston that Applewhite met Bonnie Lou Trusdale Nettles, a nurse who became his companion in the early 70s. Calling themselves Bo and Peep and later Do and Ti, Nettles and Applewhite traveled throughout the West attempting to recruit followers, promising them a better life. In 1975, they received national attention when Applewhite and Nettles convinced approximately 20 residents of a small town in Oregon to follow them to Colorado, where the group was supposedly to meet a UFO. But due to attention from the media and investigations by the police, the group was soon forced to go underground. Throughout the 80's, they remained barely visible, but then in May of 1993, they resurfaced. Using the name Total Overcomers Anonymous, Applewhite group ran a full-age ad in "USA Today," urging people to join them. Then last year Heaven's Gate rented the million dollar mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, where Applewhite continued his prosthelytizing, using videotapes to reach potential followers.
MARSHALL APPLEWHITE: We came for the express purpose to offer a doorway to the kingdom of God at the end of this civilization, the end of this age, the end of this millennium.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Applewhite told his followers they would be picked up by a spacecraft after leaving their human vessels.
MARSHALL APPLEWHITE: We will go definitely on board a craft to leave when spading occurs. You can say, well, what's the difference? Well, the difference is we don't know if we're going to take these flesh bodies on board that craft, or if we'll leave these flesh bodies behind. We don't believe that our Father's kingdom has much need for these flesh bodies, but it's possible that a spacecraft will come down, and we'll walk on board that craft, and they'll take these bodies from us and issue us the ones that belong to that level, so that we might begin service, or it is also possible that part of our test of faith is our hating this world, even our flesh body enough to be willing to leave it without any proof, other than what we have come to know.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Among those who chose to join Applewhite, leaving the bodies they were in, were 21 women and 17 men, ranging in age from 26 to 72 years old.
JIM LEHRER: Now for more on Heaven's Gate from two people who have been following this group. Laurie Goodstein is a religion writer for the "Washington Post." James Walker is the president of the Watchman Fellowship, an evangelical Christian group that tracks cults. Ms. Goodstein, let's start there with the people who died this week, the 39 people. What more can you add to what we know, except the fact that they were split half, roughly half men, half women, the age group from 20 to 72, as Charles Krause just said, what other? Was there any overriding, uniting characteristic about them?
LAURIE GOODSTEIN, Washington Post: Well, we're only beginning to learn about who these people were. Some of them clearly joined up with Applewhite, Applewhite's group, back in the 70s. We can perhaps believe that some of the older people were true believers from that era. Maybe only a handful joined at that point, and then some of the younger people might have joined on when the group resurfaced in the 90s and trekked across the country, appearing on college campuses and in libraries, trying to attract people to the group. And they didn't attract a whole lot of people but they attracted enough to come with them to Rancho Santa Fe, work in their computer business. The only thing we know that unites the group has something to do with what the theology, as a belief system of the group, that attracted these members. Applewhite and Nettles in their collaboration show that they were a mix. Applewhite was a son of a Presbyterian minister and had some familiarity with the Bible and with Christian belief. Nettles was an astrologer, and together they forged a kind of a biblical new age or biblical science fiction theology that is clearly what drew the members in.
JIM LEHRER: Was it unique, or are there a lot of beliefs like that floating around out there?
LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Well, there are a lot of different groups, but each one has its own specific flavor. I mean, there are probably hundreds of UFO groups, and there are certainly hundreds of biblically based cults as well. But what the appeal of this group is they had a particular merger of these two beliefs. I mean, the group were "Star Trek" fans. They were very much into modern science fiction. And there's no group that you could find that has exactly this group's beliefs. They borrowed from many, many sources.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Walker, is there anything known about their--in general terms--their education level, their--their backgrounds, that sort of thing?
JAMES WALKER, Cult Researcher: We don't have that information yet, but I would not be surprised to find out that these people are well educated, articulate. There's a misconception that the cults appeal to people who are disenfranchised, or who are poorly educated. What we're finding is our organization, Watchman Fellowship, is that the opposite is true; that the cults are really going after not just the young people but also those who have families, who are mature, who have jobs even. And what we are noticing takes place is what was reported in 1994 in "Modern Maturity" Magazine. They did a cover story about the cults, saying that they're not just after your children or grandchildren; now, they're after you.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. But specifically on Heaven's Gate, would you agree with Ms. Goodstein's characterization of what--what their message was that appealed to people?
JAMES WALKER: Yes, it was a blending, but I would not say it was that unique. What we're finding is that there is a number of the UFO groups that are just believing in the possibility of life on other planets and are looking for physical evidences of aliens or of spacecraft. That is not all a cult. What we're finding in the case of Heaven's Gate's, and we find this in a number of other UFO cults, is when a belief system with a theology, a cosmology, a change of world view is packaged into it to where it becomes not really that much dealing with spacecraft or aliens, a lot to do with religion, and so Mr. Applewhite was able to exercise undue control over his followers with the message that it wasn't really him talking; that this alien entity had actually come into him to enter his body in 1975, and that the message that he was using was beyond the time-space continuum. It was outside of the human experience, and so that gave him an authority position to be able to exercise control over the lives of those in his group. And this is not really that unlike what we see in other forms of occultism. We see it in some forms of a new age. We see it in the channelers who are likewise--
JIM LEHRER: Who are they? I'm sorry. I don't know them.
JAMES WALKER: People like J.Z. Knight, who is a channeler in Yelm, Washington, who channels a spirit named Arantha. She claims this being is a 35,000 year old warrior from the Lost Continent of Atlantis, and she goes into a trance and invites this spirit in her body. Many of our viewers may have seen the movie "Ghost," where Whoopie Goldberg plays the part of a channeler, and she supposedly, with special effects, has the spirit of the dead boyfriend, Patrick Swayze, come inside her body.
JIM LEHRER: Right. Actually I saw that movie. I didn't realize the term "channeler" applied to that.
JAMES WALKER: Well, that's what that is.
JIM LEHRER: That's what that was. Okay.
JAMES WALKER: What we're finding is that with some of the UFO cults it's really just the same trick with different props. So rather than conducting a dead relative or Cleopatra or some ancient ascended master, what they are contacting is supposedly a space alien. But the philosophy is the same. The teachings are very similar. Even the techniques are sometimes identical.
JIM LEHRER: Ms. Goodstein, yes, go ahead.
LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Well, I'd like to add that belief is really only part of the draw. I mean, you can't get people to pick up, leave their families, leave their hometowns, leave their jobs, leave perhaps relationships they were in solely on belief. You have to offer them more. And something that this group did seem to offer was a total acceptance, a feeling that if you--if you feel like you don't fit in the society, well, here are the others who are like you. It was a family. There was a degree of conformity that, you know, people could drop their individualism or anything that was, that they felt insecure about themselves, and suddenly feel part of a unit. And that's perhaps a more psychological appeal, but those two--the theological and the psychological--go together.
JIM LEHRER: Was there a sexual element to this, Ms. Goodstein?
LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Well, there may have been in that--that's something we're learning more about now--and that this group really asked people to drop their sexuality. The people that have seen pictures of the members of this group, they appear rather androgynous. The men and women are wearing very short hair. In fact, when the investigators first went through the house, they believed all the victims there were men. That's because they dressed them the same; they--at least when they died, they were dressed in black. And there was an overt attempt to mask sexuality. The people involved in the cult were not supposed to get involved with each other, as there was a prohibition against marriage. There was a code of celibacy, and I think we're now coming up with some more clues about why the leader may have wanted that to be.
JIM LEHRER: What are you talking about? What do you mean--that he had a sexual thing of some kind?
LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Well, that he suffered some degree, himself, of sexual repression.
JIM LEHRER: And so in order to be one of his followers you had to do the same thing he did, is that what--
LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Well, you know, the medical examiner said a while ago in a news conference, the San Diego medical examiner, said some of these men had been castrated. He didn't have the numbers yet. How does that fit into that?
LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Well, I wouldn't want to presume, but I think it's consistent with the idea of--that the group members were masking their own true identities. I mean, they didn't use their real names. They didn't use last names. They never spoke apparently to outsiders about what they had done in their lives before they became members of this group, and so perhaps that sexual masking of who you are is part of--part of that process of dropping individuality.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Walker, is it likely that all believers of this specific group, all the believers of Heaven's Gate, died? In other words, there were only 39 of them, and they're gone, there are not any more out there that we're going to hear about in two weeks or a week or a month or a year from now?
JAMES WALKER: I would be surprised if this is all. Usually in any group like this that requires a total obedience and a very strict lifestyle, there are going to be people on the periphery. There are still followers of David Koresh. We thought that there was--most of the followers of Um Sharay and the Order of the Solar Temple had passed away back in 1994, and then just last weekend there were deaths in Canada, suicides, a parallel, these people also thinking that by taking their lives they were able to visit a distant planet. And so I would not be surprised to find out that there are more people that are peripheral followers of Mr. Applewhite.
JIM LEHRER: What's your view of that, Ms. Goodstein?
LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Well, we'll see, but I do believe that this group that was found was the core group. This was the group with enough loyalty to follow their leader to the very end, and that if we do find peripheral followers, they may be people who didn't believe to the same degree, who were disillusioned at some point, or who dropped off for other reasons.
JIM LEHRER: Do you believe, Ms. Goodstein, that these folks who were--who joined this cult knew from the beginning or believed from the beginning or bought in from the beginning that eventually they were going to have to take their own lives?
LAURIE GOODSTEIN: No. I think that's very rare in the way a group like this works. They're drawn in gradually. The leader may not have known at the outset where he was headed. But it begins with an "Are you interested in what we're interested in?"; "Gee, UFO's are interesting." Then it moves on to, "Well, we offer a safe environment, a family, a place you can belong." And gradually people become more committed and become more--I mean, that's the--the level of commitment it would take for someone to take their own life, something that's built up over many, many years.
JAMES WALKER: It's almost a bait and switch.
JIM LEHRER: What do you mean?
JAMES WALKER: Well, when we first came in contact with the group personally was back in 1994, and two of my staff attended a recruitment meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. And they advertised themselves as a UFO organization; if you were interested in extraterrestrials, or space travel, or UFO's, to come to this meeting. When you got to the meeting, they were almost apologetic. They realized that they were not going to talk about, really about UFO's very much. It was really all about religion. So even the recruitment techniques, they don't tell you that when you come to the meetings what is expected of you. And the advice that they were giving at that particular meeting was that if you had any kind of inkling that this was true; that if you had a de ja vu experience, or it sounded reasonable or logical or even possible to you, that that was meaning that you were a prepared person being prepared to receive one of these alien spirits, and that you were to leave the meeting right then, go out and get in the van, and drive off, leave all your possessions, your family. That was the kind of commitment they were asking for. But that's not what they tell you up front in the recruitment process. That's not--they don't--certainly don't tell you that you may be having to commit suicide to leave these containers behind. It is a bait and switch, and you slowly get deeper and deeper into the organization. Cults work under this principle: A person can eat an elephant if it's cut up in small enough pieces. So they slowly feed you the doctrines and the beliefs. And slowly you have a world view shift, and your point of authority becomes the leader. At that point if he tells you the Moon is square, you will believe it.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. And we have to leave it there. Ms. Goodstein, Mr. Walker, thank you both very much.
JAMES WALKER: Thank you.