For 'Heaven's Gate' Podcast Host, The Cult Story Hits Close To Home

Jan 29, 2018
Originally published on February 3, 2018 10:36 am

Twenty years ago, in 1997, a bizarre story hit the national news: Thirty-nine people had killed themselves by ingesting poison in a mansion near San Diego. All 39 were dressed identically and had the same haircuts — and they were all members of the Heaven's Gate cult.

In their videotaped farewell messages, they insisted their suicides were not a final death; they were simply shedding their earthly bodies in order to meet a UFO they believed was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet — a UFO that would transport them to the kingdom of heaven.

Their story had a powerful impact on Glynn Washington, host of WNYC's Snap Judgment. "I couldn't stop watching," he says. "I was staring ... because it, in a lot of ways, it felt like that was something that my group could have done."

When Washington was growing up in Michigan in the 1970s and '80s, his family belonged to a different apocalyptic faith organization called the Worldwide Church of God. Washington recognized a lot of what he saw in that 1997 news story, and now he brings that recognition to Heaven's Gate, his 10-episode podcast about the cult and its members.


Interview Highlights

On how investigating the cult was really a way of excavating his own history

My group was called the Worldwide Church of God, as you mentioned earlier, and we had this apocalyptic leader. And I grew up being told that I wouldn't make it through the end of my teens, that the world would be enveloped in this fiery, apocalyptic scene, and that a few of the "callen," a few of the chosen, just a few, would make it out. "Look to your left and look to your right, and only one-third of this particular congregation is going to do it. Are you going to be one of the chosen?" sort of thing.

And so to see that similar apocalyptic vision from another organization — it was so compelling. ... The people that we were able to speak to and that we were able to investigate their stories — the more that you get into someone's stories, the less they become an other. And these were real people with families that cared about them, with goals and aspirations. And they were swept into this cult.

On approaching former Heaven's Gate cult members as former member of a similar group

I hope that the people that I spoke to came away from our interviews feeling like I wasn't trying to exploit them. Because we have almost a shared history, and thank goodness that my particular organization didn't end up in a mansion the way that Heaven's Gate did. But I know this: That if the founder of my group had said to drink some Kool-Aid, 70 percent of us would have downed it in an instant.

On whether he would have drunk the Kool-Aid

I keep asking myself that question. I left in my late teens, and I've tried to forget it for a long time. But yeah, that question: If Herbert W. Armstrong, the founder of the group, had said, "Drink this. This is gonna take you to paradise," would I have downed that bottle? I have absolutely no idea, and that, I think, gets to the heart of why I really wanted to do this project.

On what he learned about why Heaven's Gate members stayed in the group

I think that a lot of people are searching for some connection to the divine. And once they find it, they are going to take that all the way to the end. And oftentimes, I think what really came out in this work was that it's the community that really kept people in this group; that these were people that are oftentimes, before the Heaven's Gate organization, they felt like misfit toys. And the Heaven's Gate organization gave them a home, gave them a place, gave them a future, gave them a goal. And when you do that to someone — when you give them love when they haven't felt that type of love or that type of a belonging before — it's not even so much the theology anymore, it's that warmth, that sense of home that keeps them in that group. And community is powerful, really, really powerful.

On whether the Heaven's Gate cult is still active

There are definitely people who believe the teachings of ... Ti and Do, the leaders of Heaven's Gate — that they were divine and that they did in fact go to the next level and get on an interstellar craft when they committed that act in the San Diego mansion. ... There are a lot of different groups and organizations that would vie for the mantle of the repository of the knowledge of the Heaven's Gate crew. And what they all believe at this time, I just do not feel comfortable saying. Let me just say this: There's a lot of belief out there, and some people who feel that they missed their chance when the people in that San Diego mansion did that ultimate deed.

Fatma Tanis and Jessica Deahl produced and edited this story for broadcast. Sydnee Monday and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In 1997, a bizarre story hit the national news. Thirty-nine people in California had killed themselves by drinking poison. They were dressed identically with identical haircuts, and they were all members of the cult Heaven's Gate. In their videotaped farewell messages, they insisted that their suicides were not a final death. They believed they were shedding their earthly bodies in order to meet a UFO, which would transport them to the kingdom of heaven. Their story had a powerful impact on our next guest, Glynn Washington.

GLYNN WASHINGTON, BYLINE: I was in a bar when I heard about what was going on with Heaven's Gate when they were finding people in the San Diego mansion. And instantly, the bar silenced for a little bit. But in a few moments, everyone got back to talking about, you know, look at those crazies or whatever. And I couldn't stop watching. I was staring, I wanted them to turn the TV back up because in a lot of ways, it felt like that was something that my group could have done.

SHAPIRO: My group - when Glynn Washington was growing up in Michigan in the 1970s and '80s, his family belonged to a different apocalyptic faith organization called the Worldwide Church of God. And he recognized a lot of what he saw in Heaven's Gate. Now he brings that recognition to his new podcast, a 10-episode investigation into the cult and its members. The podcast is called Heaven's Gate. And when I spoke with him about it, I asked if by investigating this cult, he was really excavating his own history.

WASHINGTON: And that's just it. I think that - my group was called the Worldwide Church of God, as you mentioned earlier. And we had this apocalyptic leader. And we - I grew up being told that I wouldn't make it through the end of my teens, that the world will be enveloped in this fiery, apocalyptic scene and that a few of the callen (ph), a few of the chosen, just a few would make it out. Look to your left and look to your right and only one-third of this particular congregation is going to do it, are you going to be one of the chosen sort of thing.

And so to see another - see that kind of similar apocalyptic vision from another organization, it was so compelling. Again, I think because the people that we were able to speak to and that we're able to investigate their stories, the more that you get into someone's story, the less they become an other. And these were real people with families that cared about them, with goals and aspirations and they were swept into this cult.

SHAPIRO: There were a lot of people who were members of this cult who left before the mass suicide in 1997. And you interview many of them in this podcast.

WASHINGTON: Yes.

SHAPIRO: And I wonder about the experience of approaching them. Did your own history being raised in a cult, do you think, affect the way you approached these people and told their stories?

WASHINGTON: Absolutely. And I hope that the people who I spoke to came away from our interviews feeling like I wasn't trying to exploit them because I do - we do kind of - we have almost a shared history. And thank goodness that my particular organization didn't end up in a mansion the way that Heaven's Gate did. But I know this, that if the founder of my group had said to drink some Kool-Aid, 70 percent of us would have downed it in an instant.

SHAPIRO: And do you include yourself among that 70 percent?

WASHINGTON: I keep asking myself that question. I left in my late teens. And I've - and I try to forget it. I've tried to forget it for a long time. But, yeah, that question, if Herbert W. Armstrong, the founder of the group, had said drink this, this is going to take you to paradise, would I have downed that bottle? I have absolutely no idea, (laughter) and that, I think, gets to the heart of why I really wanted to do this project.

SHAPIRO: To me, one of the most chilling moments in the 10 episodes of this podcast comes in an episode where you allowed listeners to tell their stories. And there was somebody who wrote in from Australia.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HEAVEN'S GATE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I guess what's been on my mind a lot as I've been listening to Heaven's Gate is really how not so different I am. I believe that there is a prophet on the earth who speaks directly to God and converses directly with him. And then I was thinking, you know, if the prophet came to me personally and asked me to do something, asked me to do something awful, would I do it? And I, you know, I - it was a very shocking and scary thought when I realized that, yeah, I think I would because I truly believe that this prophet speaks for God.

WASHINGTON: I think that a lot of people are searching for some connection to the divine. And once they find it, they're going to take that all the way to the end. And oftentimes, I think what really came out in this work was that it's a community that really kept people in this group, that these were people that are oftentimes before the Heaven's Gate organization, they felt like misfit toys. And the Heaven's Gate organization gave them a home, gave them a place, gave them a future, gave them a goal.

And when you do that to someone, when you give them love and they haven't felt that type of love or that type of a belonging before, it's not even so much the theology anymore. It's that warmth, that sense of home that keeps them in that group. And community is powerful, really, really, really powerful.

SHAPIRO: This mass suicide took place in 1997. That's sort of the beginning of what we think of as the Internet era. And shortly before the end, they put up a website. And that website is still active. And there is an email address.

WASHINGTON: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Does the cult still exist in any form today?

WASHINGTON: There are definitely people who believe the teachings of Ti and Do.

SHAPIRO: Ti and Do, the two leaders, yeah.

WASHINGTON: Ti and Do, the leaders of Heaven's Gate, that they were divine and that they did in fact go to the next level and get on an interstellar craft when they committed that act in the San Diego mansion.

SHAPIRO: So is the website being run by people who consider themselves Heaven's Gate members?

WASHINGTON: Ari, you've opened up a huge...

SHAPIRO: This is the second season of the podcast (laughter).

WASHINGTON: Yeah, this is a big contention. There are a lot of different groups and organizations that would vie for the mantle of, you know, the repository of the knowledge of the Heaven's Gate crew. And what they all believe at this time, I just do not feel comfortable in saying. Let me just say this. There's a lot of belief out there and some people who feel that they missed their chance when the people in that San Diego mansion did that ultimate deed.

SHAPIRO: That was Glynn Washington, host of the podcast Heaven's Gate and the public radio show Snap Judgment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.