Trigger warning: this post discusses abuse in destructive cults, including the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate members. Proceed at your own discretion.
In spring of 1997, my roommates and I watched a news report about the discovery of 39 people who had helped each other commit suicide. Members of the group, Heaven’s Gate, believed that the passing Hale-Bopp comet disguised an alien spaceship that, by committing suicide, they could board and finally find their true place in the universe. Videos surfaced, both of the cult’s wide-eyed leader, Marshall Applewhite (who, by the way, used to teach music at The University of Alabama, where I now teach English) and good-bye messages from happy, excited Heaven’s Gate members. It’s the latter that has always surprised me. They did seem legitimately pleased with their choice to dress alike and to help each other leave their “vehicles” in pursuit of a new beginning. They wore playful patches on their uniforms that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team,” referencing the Star Trek television series. (Strange side note: Nichelle Nichols’ brother was a Heaven’s Gate member and also lost his life with the other suicide victims).
I was stumped on what to think, as most people were at the time. Later, information surfaced on the various ways Marshall Applewhite and the other leader, Bonnie Lu Nettles (who had died in the 80s) had manipulated and isolated members of Heaven’s Gate in the way that all cult leaders do. And yet, the more I learned about its members, the more puzzled I became. Why did so many people who seemed otherwise intelligent and emotionally stable, join a cult that required them to leave everything and everyone in their lives behind and eventually, commit a gruesome act together?
It’s easy to understand why the girls joined The Manson Family. Charles Manson—a misogynist p.o.s.—learned how to manipulate women from a pimp he met in prison. He preyed upon young runaways, lavished them with the love and attention they had never before received (he was, of course, faking) and then, after they believed that he loved them, abused and manipulated them into prostitution (and for a few—to participate in mass murder). But the Heaven’s Gate members were different. Many of them came from seemingly stable backgrounds.
A friend of mine suggested that perhaps people join cults because they’re lonely, but I think the reason runs deeper. Recently, I watched a documentary about Flat Earthers called, Behind the Curve. While I don’t think that the communities that develop around the belief that the Earth is flat necessarily meets the criteria for a destructive cult, it sure is strange. During the whole documentary, I wondered (among other things) why this group tries so hard to convince others to join. At a Flat Earth conference, one man tells the audience that for his “entire life [he’s] felt kind of separate, like nothing was quite right.” Another man says that, at this conference, he is in a room full of people who will never judge him. Others talk about feeling isolated outside of the conference.
I wonder if, ironically, feeling like we do not quite belong in this world is something that most people experience, perhaps to different degrees. Certainly cults are not exclusive to the west; however, this part of the globe certainly seems to flail in the face of chronic alienation. In fact, Mother Teresa once claimed that, of all the diseases she has witnessed, “loneliness in the west” is worst one.
Our mainstream culture often seems keen to respond to people’s deep discontent with the suggestion that they’ve merely failed to purchase the correct products, which will then supposedly lead to “success,” which is to say, a higher social status. However, it doesn’t take long to figure out that the famous people around us are no happier (and sometimes, even more miserable) than us “nobodies.”
Personally, I think that the very normal sense that something isn’t quite right, that we don’t quite fit in, is the main reason that people fall prey to certain cults. While listening to Glynn Washington’s podcast, Heaven’s Gate, it was hard not to look around me and wonder, under the right circumstances, how many normally healthy people could have fallen under Applewhite’s spell. It was hard not to consider if, in a moment of vulnerability, we all could get sucked into the allure of unconditional love from a group that claims it would never leave us, despite the real possibility that, one day, we may desperately wish it would.
Today, I offer you two poems by James Wright. In both poems, the speaker finds connection with nature. In “Beginning,” the speaker witnesses nature personified. At the end of the poem, he mirrors nature as he “leans toward” darkness. I like that this poem doesn’t suggest that nature heals alienation by wiping off the dirt and shining up the speaker; rather, the connection occurs when darkness is shared.
In “A Blessing,” there is a similar theme of finding connection to one’s self through nature, as well as contrast in nature itself. While the horses “can hardly contain their happiness,” the speaker claims that there is also “no loneliness like theirs.” In the end, the speaker realizes how close he is, through nature, to transcending his own human experience.
The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
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