Cult leader or genial, self-deprecating, gentle old man?
It’s Marshall “Do” Applewhite’s eyes that get me. They’re not hidden behind tinted glasses like Jim Jones; they don’t bore a hole through the camera like Charles Manson. Applewhite’s eyes are slightly wet, gentle, wide and round. Six days before the suicides will start, and Do is sitting there in his collarless button-up shirt, next to an empty chair, expressing his joy about shedding his mortal form.
Sitting in his chair, six days before the end, Do is just so fucking happy. He’s found peace, and he believes he and his followers, who together called themselves Heaven’s Gate, are about to go to a better place aboard a spaceship disguised—or perhaps, misapprehended—as the comet Hale-Bopp.
Do and Ti believed that they were alien souls that had taken over human bodies, which they referred to as vehicles. Heaven’s Gate assisted others—men and women, black and white— in welcoming an alien soul into their corporeal form, and then, when the moment was right, Do helped his followers release that soul.
Here’s how he helped them: Do rented a mansion, paying in cash, upfront. He and his followers ground up phenobarbital and mixed it with applesauce. They washed it down with vodka, an odd flouting of their ascetic, abstemious beliefs in their bodies’ final hours. They tied plastic bags over their heads. They lay down in beds, covering themselves with a special purple cloth. They waited. They died in shifts, dutifully, over the course of three days.
You can see “Do’s Final Exit” on YouTube. It’s about an hour and a half long. Most of it features Do, a genial, self-deprecating, gentle old man who could be your slightly daffy uncle, talking about how excited everyone is to board the spaceship. He turns the camera around so you can see his smiling disciples. Their eyes, like his, are wet, and round, and happy. They wave. They have bowl haircuts, sexless bodies, chunky glasses. Their names all end in –ody. Some are invented (Srrody), some are normal names with the suffix appended on the end (Markody, Bennody).
There’s one follower in particular that I keep coming back to. Her name is Branody. The camera lingers on her, on her close-cropped, monk-like bowl hairdo—Do and Ti were inspired by St. Francis of Assisi—and her shy smile and her sharply plucked eyebrows.
When Do says he’s proud of her, she smiles just a little more. You see a snatch of her warmth as the camera pans so Do can pay tribute to Branody’s partner Samody. You can hear the pride in Do’s voice as he highlights each student and what makes the special. He is a shepherd who loves his flock, and wants you to know them, and to love them, and to follow their example.
You can see the desire in those eyes, the honest desire to help, the earnest yearning of the faithful. If only you could understand. If only you could believe. Then you would know that this world is not the only world, that there are other stages of evolution, other planes of existence we could enter, including the Kingdom of Heaven, which is just another name for Outer Space.
Do and Ti got their ideas from a number of places, but the concept of climbing up different rungs on the ladder of existence until you ascend to heaven comes from Richard Bach’s hit work of new age flim-flam Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I read Seagull—or rather, it was read to me—when I was a kid, at Adventures Unlimited, a summer camp for Christian Scientists outside of Buena Vista, Colorado. Seagull was one of the few non-religious books read out loud at the camp by our college-aged counselors, which is to say, one of the few books that wasn’t either The King James Bible or Science and Health, With Key to the Scriptures, By Mary Baker Eddy.
After that summer, I told my father that we had been read the most beautiful book, this book about a seagull that ascends to another plane of existence. He told me that the book is a mildly blasphemous new age appropriation of Christian Science’s core ideas, and that the eponymous seagull is meant to be a representation of Mary Baker Eddy.
Eddy didn’t believe in progressing through levels of existence like a swooping gull or Mario on his way to rescue his always-kidnapped Princess. She taught instead that this world was an illusion, the “objectification” of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the Kingdom of Heaven, we reflected God, we were part of God, and since God is perfect—in her formulation, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-acting, all-wise—we were also perfect. We did not realize this, because we are living in Error, in a mass delusion called Mortal Mind. This was the basic Truth—spelled with a capital T, because it was one of the seven synonyms for God—that led to all the other truths we would come to know.
If there’s one thing people know about Christian Science, it’s the religion’s reliance on faith healing, but Christian Scientists do not heal in order to repair themselves. They heal in order to show that Mortal Mind is false. Healings are called demonstrations. Medicine is forbidden because it reinforces Mortal Mind’s seeming-realness.
Still, though, we have this body, imperfect, unreal, nonexistent. We have a true self, a real self, existing somewhere else, objectified by that body, only accessible through the smudged lens of demonstration, or through casting that body off through ascension, as Jesus showed.
You can see how the chain forms here, the one that links Eddy to Bach to Do. Do takes Eddy’s idea of the Kingdom of Heaven and a more perfect form trapped in our bodies and makes it about outer space and aliens. He takes Bach’s idea of different layers of existence, each one more pure and perfect than the last, and gets a ladder towards transcendence, with us as the swooping seagulls, ascending up the ranks of existence, realizing our Godhood, our alienness.
Eddy→Bach→Do. That’s only two degrees of separation, fewer than separate Clara Bow from Kevin Bacon in everyone’s favorite game of six degrees. Heaven’s Gate is then my former faith’s second cousin, the kind of relation you hope doesn’t show up at your family reunion, although why would they when, to them, most of the food would be an indulgence?
I’ll admit it: I feel for Do. He’s not Jim Jones. He’s not David Koresh. If, as some experts claim, one of the defining qualities of a cult is a leader who preys on his congregation, Heaven’s Gate wasn’t a cult. Do so believed in resisting temptation and asceticism that he traveled to Mexico with several of his male students so that they could all get castrated.
I should be mad at him. I should see him as a monster, or, as everyone did at the time, as some kind of joke. His eyes don’t let me. Koresh was tormented by what he saw as his duty as the final prophet, but that duty included sexual assault. Jim Jones was a jailer, a kind of Kim Jong Il of the spirit. Do might have been a jailer, but more than that, he was a prisoner, Daedalus and Minotaur both. And because Heaven’s Gate is Christian Science’s second cousin, that prison he built is achingly familiar, like a waterlogged photo that looks almost like this dream you could remember if only you thought about it hard enough.
There are other shocks of recognition. I recognize the earnest desire to help people—to open their eyes—from the faces of the peaceful, friendly men and (mostly) women who taught Sunday School at First Church of Christ, Scientist in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I recognize it in the voices of the practitioners who helped me demonstrate God’s perfection, curing my childhood illnesses with prayer and Bible study. I recognize it in the face of my father, when he quotes Science and Health from memory while we argue about his beliefs.
And of course there are Do’s eyes, and his good-natured smile, and the empty chair next to him, a chair that he will spend the video’s second half explaining. One thought I had is that you might wonder… why this chair is prominent as it is in the picture beside me. This chair represents my partner. The chair is Ti. She might be sitting in the chair, she might not be. He can’t see her, after all, and neither can we.
Ti—born Bonnie Nettles—was Do’s partner in building Heaven’s Gate. They believed that as alien souls they were partners who had chosen to take these particular vehicles, who then remembered who they were when they met on Earth. She died of liver cancer a decade before the rest of Heaven’s Gate killed themselves. Do believed that she had ascended to the spaceship to help get it ready for Do and his students. Throughout the video, he relentlessly refers to her as “my Older Member.”
So this is Ti’s chair, he says, matter-of-fact. And then he smiles. I hope that Ti occupies this chair, even though I might not be able to see Ti. He wants us to know that he is not a medium communicating with spirit—his use of spirit in the singular is another link to Christian Science, where the word is another name for God and is never pluralized—but rather that she is communicating with him from the Kingdom of Heaven using technology the likes of which we couldn’t possibly imagine.
He explains all of this as if it’s natural, as if it is something you would never think to make fun of. He’s lucky he died before YouTube commenters could break his heart. He’s lucky he died before he had to read this guy was like an evil Mr. Rogers, or was fucked up teeth a requirement to join the cult? or Beam me up, Scotty, this last comment given an unintentional double valence as the brother of Nichelle Nicholls—best known as Lieutenant Uhura, communications officer of the USS Enterprise—was one of Do’s students. Or, depending on how you look at it, one of his victims.
Do walks us through all of this, the mundane details of his life. He explains the difficulty of getting information from the Kingdom of Heaven that is clear enough to act on. He explains that getting into a discarnate situation—his way of saying dying—does not always guarantee ascension, because not everyone is a vehicle for an alien soul. He explains why he still wears a wedding ring even though his Older Member is gone, that he is still married to her, devoted to her, a servant of her.
Before he closes with a list of the key lessons to take away from the video, a recapitulation of the Truth he wants us to know, Do says this:
The whole time he’s laughing and smiling. He is finally going home, going, as they say, to his reward, taking people as young as 26 and as old as 66, disabled and not, black and white, man and woman, with him.