Book: Cosmic Suicide: The Tragedy and Transcendence of Heaven’s Gate
Authors: Rodney Perkins and Forrest Jackson
Type of Book: Non-fiction, true crime, cults
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It was a look at the Heaven’s Gate suicide when events were still relatively fresh and mass cult suicide is always a bit strange. The book is also listed as a source in the amazing book Strange Creations by Donna Kossy and would be a honorary odd book on that merit alone.
Availability: Published by Pentaradial Press in 1997, you can get a copy here:
Comments: When I began reading this book I thought there would not be much that was new to me. I had already read quite a bit about the Heaven’s Gate cult, those strange, asexual computer geeks in California who killed themselves en masse to be able to board the spacecraft they were sure was traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet. And in a way, I was correct. The book tells very succinctly the story of how two lost souls – Marshall Applewhite and Betty Lu Nettles – met and fed off each other, creating the New Age death cult that became Heaven’s Gate.
All the details that caught the public’s morbid imagination are there. The androgyny of those who took their lives, the voluntary castrations of some of the men, the presence of Nichelle Nichols’ brother among the suicide victims. It all made for very tawdry television.
The case interested me for a couple of reasons, above and beyond the strange details of the suicide and Art Bell phone call that some believe was the genesis for the belief that there was something following behind the Hale-Bopp comet – later interpreted as a space craft by Heaven’s Gate members. By killing themselves, they thought they would meet up on the space craft with Betty Lu Nettles, who had died, and achieve what they called T.E.L.A.H. – The Evolutionary Level Above Human. All of that was sort of interesting, but strangely bloodless in a way. The way the cult killed themselves was orderly, calm, and without the sort of horror I associate with mass suicides.
And the calm bloodlessness of it all was actually very fascinating to me because despite knowing that few people who are wholly emotionally sound enter into a cultish situation, and even though the cult took its followers from the their families and held their money, the manner in which these people went to their deaths seems to belie any real coercion or desperation. They died because they genuinely believed they would achieve a better life once they were dead.
I’ve never been one to think that people who kill themselves are cowards or that they owe anyone any explanation as to why they take their lives. Of course, I always hope that people who have mental illnesses that make death seem better than life get help, and I hope that people who find themselves in tough situations decide to ride out the situations and see the other side. But I also think that a person whose mind will not clear and whose body will not heal has the right to die without condemnation. I also think that if people have the belief that there lies beyond this world a far better place for them and they want to go there, it’s not unethical to let them go where they want to be.
I was able to maintain the idea that people should be able to go where they want even if it involves death because Heaven’s Gate was not a heavy recruitment cult. In fact, the book shows that at one point the cult shut down recruitment entirely. So if a suicide cult wants to commit suicide and it’s all adults involved who made the decision to die, however twisted that may seem to more well-adjusted people, I had no problem with it.
Except this book shows the cult engaged in some recruitment that I found decidedly unsettling, that gave me some pause and pretty much wiped away any sense that I could look at the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide the same way. Jackson and Perkins, who pulled together a surprising amount of research about the cult very quickly after the suicides (the bodies were found in March of 1997 and this book was released in July of 1997), got their hands on a really creepy recruitment attempt, a chat log wherein a member of the cult was doing his solid best to get a young man to come and work for the web-development company that funded the cult. This is important because the cult members all lived together and all worked together. A job offer was invitation to join the cult.
A chat between a cult member called “CandlShot” and an 18-year-old man named Jason Bolton on IRC was, in retrospect, chilling. CandlShot began by offering Jason some help with his web site and after looking at Jason’s site, begins to praise him and offers him some work. Jason thinks CandlShot is thinking about contract work, but alas no… I’ll reproduce parts of the chat log, and it was creepy beyond all measure, from the sort of language CandlShot used to his refusal to take a hint when Jason shoots him down to his refusal to answer any questions Jason poses. Bold parts mine, and all errors in original:
CandlShot: Do you like what you see?
Jason Bolton: Holy crap… the graphics on here alone are worth money…did you go to school for this?
CandlShot: Not exactly. As I was saying, if you’re interested in work, we may be able to accommodate.
Jason Bolton: Where are you located?
Jason Bolton: Whoa..that is kinda far.
CandlShot: Well, if you agreed to work with us, we would like to have you live here with us, but we could accomodate you where you live. Where do you live?
Jason Bolton: In the COLD state of Michigan, 😉
CandlShot: Actually, if you could no relocate, we are looking for associates in that area.
Jason Bolton: Well, I couldn’t relocate.
CandlShot: That is understandable. However, you can still meet our needs. Do you live with family or friends?
CandlShot: Actually, this is a conversation we should be having over the telephone. May I have your number so I may call you?
Jason Bolton: Um…well…no. You know how it is…you don’t give out your number over the Net, besides…I just met you.
CandlShot: You will not succeed unless you trust. Do you trust me enough to give me a set of numbers?
Jason Bolton: No, I’m afraid I don’t. Sorry… how about this…I’ll call you? I couldn’t talk long, but we could get something done.
CandlShot: No, I’m afraid that we cannot really have calls coming at this time.
Jason Bolton: Well, you can e-mail me
CandlShot: That would be feasible. Your address?
Jason Bolton: firstname.lastname@example.org
CandlShot: Thank you. I’m sorry that you are not more trusting. If we have need of you, we will send you mail.
Jason Bolton: I’m trusting, I just know the rules on here.
CandlShot: If you must follow rules..
Jason Bolton: Dude, I don’t have time for this. If you were serious, you’d understand my reluctance. Beside it seems as if you guys do far better work than I.
CandlShot: we would teach you what you would need to know, and make you far more productive than you expect yourself to be.
CandlShot: but I’m afraid I must go. It has been a pleasure. Take care.
Man, this is twitchy stuff. Very twitchy, and all the more so because CandlShot was so robotic. It puts the cult into a different perspective realizing that they did engage in blind recruitment (or relatively blind since CandlShot did at least know Jason was a computer whiz of sorts and might have the sort of mindset that would make people fit into the cult). CandlShot tried his best to find out about the kid’s home situation, tried to make the kid feel like a hide-bound rule follower for not giving out his number and revealed little about himself in the process. It’s one thing when a disenfranchised person seeks out a cult. It’s another when a cult is preying on teenagers online.
The book also looks into the Heaven’s Gate cult toward the end, when all the members adopted extreme androgyny and were planning their deaths. The cult’s food habits and movie selection were… also unsettling. This book ended up far creepier than I expected.
This is a short book, 128 pages with the appendices and index, but it offers more than just an overview into the cult and the lives of many who lived and died in the cult. A fast read, it was one of the first books about the cult suicide and in spite of its brevity, it gives a complete look at the cult and for a novice looking into the Heaven’s Gate cult, this book is the best place to start. Highly recommended.