It is on such desperation that movements like Heaven's Gate are built. The members feel they are part of a family, and that their lives have some meaning. They also know, having embraced the group's extreme and totalistic belief system, that they have crossed a psychological suspension bridge, and that there is no turning back.
From what we know about most of the so-called "New Age" or "alternative" religions, the members become little more than indentured servants, selling flowers on the street at all hours to fill the coffers of a messiah from South Korea or opening their legs for a meth-crazed "Father" in the jungles of Guyana or manning the barricades for a psychotic gunman in Waco, Texas.
Many "cults" start out being warm and fuzzy and end up being monstrously exploitative. We don't yet know much about the relationship between "Do" (formerly known as "Bo") and his flock. Heaven's Gate members, in their videotaped messages, have had nothing but nice things to say about the former music teacher from Houston. Reporters, however, have already turned up incidents of credit card fraud and car thefts in his past. We should not be surprised if greater examples of a leader's avarice, spite and greed turn up.
In a Salon essay, my colleague David Futrelle argues that Heaven's Gate is not that different than mainstream religions that believe in things like wafer biscuits and cheap wine being the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Except that very few of them feed their members phenobarbital and vodka in preparation for a night flight aboard a UFO. Such behavior, one could argue, is as much a pure expression of clinical schizophrenia as it is a valid religious belief. There are hundreds of "Bo's" in the United States who are preaching the gospel of "levels above human," "E.T. presently incarnate" and governments that are out to get them. Most of them are locked up in mental hospitals or on very heavy medication. As Marshall Herff Applewhite should have been.
We don't know yet how much physical or emotional control Applewhite had over his followers. "Brainwashing" has been a terribly overused explanation for the way movements like the Rev. Moon's Unification Church and the Church of Scientology first convert, and then maintain the faith of, their members. But these groups do, consciously, work to manipulate minds -- through isolation, lack of sleep, poor diet, constant indoctrination and the instilling of guilt. They are mini-totalitarian societies whose members are given every inducement to surrender.
But even in the most extreme circumstances, the human instinct for survival can endure. Not all of Jim Jones' followers, as wretchedly poor, uneducated and alone as they were, died willingly. They drank their Kool-Aid at gunpoint. Like the Branch Davidians, they were murdered by their own leader, who knew he was going down and decided to take his flock with him.
There is no evidence so far that this was the case with Heaven's Gate. No guns have been found -- so far -- at the mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, nor any evidence of resistance before the final moment. If the members of the cult had the brains to design Web sites, then we are entitled to believe that they adopted their leader's beliefs and freely chose to follow his orders -- as whacked out as they seem.
This makes their death all the sadder. They were persuaded that there was nothing for them on this Earth. I believe that is their loss. But it is also ours. One can only hope, for them, that there is a spacecraft cruising behind the comet Hale-Bopp, and that they are all aboard, happy and free at last.