A Cult's Two-Decade Odyssey of Regimentation

New York Times/March 29, 1997
By Frank Bruni

For 39 men and women who believed they were bound for a starry utopia in outer space, the fare to the heavens was a life adhering to exacting prescriptions and regimens.

At their sprawling house in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., they woke at predetermined intervals to pray. They ate the same food at the same hours. They wore short haircuts and shapeless clothing, intended to distract them from such frivolous realities as sexuality or even sexual identity.

Previously, when members of the cult traveled the country in 1994 in an effort to expand their ranks, they were spotted with identical wedding bands on their fingers, symbols of their marriage to one another and their subjugation of the self to the group.

Common rituals and a common sense of purpose were the supposed passports to paradise, and these defined the community of believers who died in what may have been the largest mass suicide in American history, much as they define other cults whose existence depends on rendering members docile and rapt.

Over the years, the precise details of life inside the cult led by Marshall Herff Applewhite changed. In the late 1970s, for example, the group reportedly lived in a Wyoming encampment in the Rocky Mountains where members sometimes wore hoods over their heads and altered their work chores every 12 minutes in accordance with beeps from a command tent.

Just before the end, in contrast, they lived in an exclusive suburban enclave, having traded campground drudgery for high-tech prowess and the designing of Web pages for companies that wanted a presence on the Internet.

But as a more complete portrait of the cult emerged from interviews with experts on cults, statements of former members and published reports, it became clear that for most of the group's history, which spanned more than two decades, its members followed specific scripts as they pursued a shared destiny.

"Anyone willing to play by the rules was welcome," Robert W. Balch, a professor of sociology at the University of Montana who studied the group for years, wrote in a 1995 book.

It also became clear that the Total Overcomers, or Heaven's Gate -- just two of the names adopted by the group over the years -- always recruited new members in a manner that could be described as almost bashful.

Keeping its address secret, the group would advertise meetings with posters, discourage potential recruits from joining on the spot and insist that they come to a follow-up session, sometimes at a location that would be difficult to reach. In one case, aspiring members had to travel to a post office 800 miles from the initial meeting place so that they could look in a ZIP-code book for the scribbled directions to the next meeting place.

Longtime members talked to new recruits about free will even as those recruits were effectively robbed of that capacity and were encouraged to cast away the detritus of their lives before joining.

"They were very explicit -- people had to make a free and conscious choice," Balch said in an interview Friday.

Balch, posing as a recruit, traveled with members of the group for two months in 1975 as they pitched tents in a variety of Western states. He said Applewhite and the co-leader, Bonnie Lu Nettles, who died of natural causes in 1985, had even bought bus tickets home for people who wanted to leave the group and had once driven a defector to the airport.

But Applewhite and Ms. Nettles, calling themselves Bo and Peep, as in shepherds of a flock, also encouraged recruits to renounce their former lives.

Robert Rubin, now a 48-year-old supermarket clerk, attended a presentation they gave in Waldport, Ore., in the fall of 1975. He said Friday that he had quickly heeded their call to shed his material possessions and had given away his house and land.

Rubin, then 26, accompanied Applewhite and Ms. Nettles to an outdoor camp in Colorado, he said, where he and other recruits gave the couple their money and their driver's licenses.

"We changed our names and were told to break all contact with friends and family," Rubin said. "We were told not to watch television or to read anything but the red-letter edition of the Bible. For five months, the only distraction I had was to read the Bible."

Rubin, who left the cult after that span of time, also recalls a feature of life in the group that cult experts say is extremely significant: Each member was given a partner of sorts and encouraged to travel always in a pair.

"They did it to keep you in that mindset," Rubin said. "The partner was there, if you were falling out of what you had to do, so you wouldn't fall out. It was part of the mind control."

Those susceptible to that mind control were most often people in their 20s who had already embarked on spiritual quests of one sort or another. Testimonials by longtime members of the group that were included in a book it published on the Internet in 1995 give a strong sense of this.

"For a few years, I went through wanting to become a nun," wrote one member, who identified herself by the name Lvvody. "Nothing seemed right." She added that in 1975, after hitchhiking across America and other countries, she saw a poster in Oregon advertising a discussion about UFOs. She went to it, meeting Applewhite, Ms. Nettles and their disciples.

"Now that I was connected to my Teachers," she wrote, "I knew I was safe."

But life in the group apparently grew more severe and regimented at some point after that. A member named Paul Groll who was interviewed by Time magazine for an article published in August 1979 described the encampment in Wyoming as a place of ritual.

Members had to wear gloves at all times, Groll said, and communicate almost entirely through written messages, their speech limited to "yes," "no" or "I don't know." Meals were eaten twice daily, he said, and their contents, called "formulas," were scrawled on a blackboard.

His description of life with the cult at that time is confirmed in large part by Balch. In "The Gods Have Landed," a 1995 book including a chapter by Balch, he quotes a former member as saying the group had "a procedure for every conscious moment of life." That included cooking, eating, bathing, washing clothes and sleeping, Balch wrote.

By some accounts, one member inherited $300,000 at some point, and factions of the group moved into houses in the Denver and Dallas areas. The precise timing of this is unclear, and the cult's activities in the 1980s, when it kept a low profile, are difficult to pinpoint.

But by 1993 the group had resurfaced, and in 1994 various people came into contact with representatives who spoke at public lectures, again summoning interested people through posters.

The posters were often misleading, making it appear that the discussion was simply about UFOs. They were frequently placed in college towns and in cities and places of business known to attract people with New Age interests.

Four members of the group showed up in Taos, N.M., in April 1994. Three months later, five members popped up in Madison, Wis.

Balch ran into representatives in Missoula, Mont., around that time. "They were supersecretive," he said Friday. "They wouldn't tell me where they were staying or the phone number. I had to call an answering machine in Seattle and leave a number, and they'd call me back."

Bob Waldrep, another cult expert, ran into them in Birmingham, Ala., when they held a meeting there. It lasted three hours, he said, during which representatives offered listeners glimpses of life in the group.

According to Waldrep's notes from that meeting, one representative, referring to the group's Older Members, or leaders, said: "The OMs have experimented with many different diets for us to determine the most efficient. The only purpose for food is to fuel the vehicles," the cult's term for bodies.

Obsession with food also characterized the members who ended up in the house in Rancho Santa Fe. According to published reports, the members ate a large communal meal at 5 a.m. and no other meals during the day except for snacks of fruit and a lemon drink seasoned with cayenne pepper.

They also woke every day at 3 a.m. for prayer and, according to an employee of Arrowhead General, a company for which the group did free-lance computer work, recoiled whenever someone made physical contact with them.

To touch or hug them was almost offensive to them," he said. "They did not like to be touched."

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