August 31, 2013, was the 20th anniversary of my departure from the Heaven’s Gate cult. That anniversary was about eleven months ago. Below is the journal entry that I shared with my brothers on that day.
I realize there may be contextual factors of life in the Heaven’s Gate cult that aren’t clear from this account since it’s a snapshot of my time there. If so, I apologize. If you do have questions, I’m sure some of them will be answered in subsequent blog posts. Or you might have to wait for my book to come out. Please feel free to leave your comments and questions below.
Today was the 20th anniversary of my departure from the Heaven’s Gate group (cult, classroom, commune). It was 20 years ago today—on August 31, 1993—that I was driven to the airport in San Diego and I boarded a plane for Calgary (with a plane change at LAX). I remember two fellow group members, Srrody (pronounced “Sirr-ody”—Terry Stephen McCarter) and Swyody (pronounced “Soy-ody”—Robert Stephen Havel), sitting with me at the San Diego airport in the departure lounge. (It was pre-2001 of course—remember when you could see your friends and family off in the departure lounge?)
They sat reading their personal notes, I suppose from a recent meeting with Do (Dō, the remaining leader of the cult), while I sat anticipating the transition I was about to undertake. Srrody seemed almost smug as if he knew without a doubt that he was going to “Heaven” while I was going to “Hell”. But that didn’t dampen my resolve to leave. I was glad for him that he was so sure of what he needed to do. I felt just as sure of what I needed to do. I was sure of my decision to leave the group, or put another way, I was sure it was no longer right for me to stay in the group, although I recall having mixed emotions about what was next for me.
I was excited about what (unknowns) lay ahead for me, although I had some trepidation about how I would navigate in the world at large. I was leaving an environment in which my daily routine was strictly planned, ordered, organized, group-based, and scrutinized by my cohorts as a matter of course. I was moving to a life of individual choices, variability, and unknowns. I was returning to the so-called “human existence” with all its inherent “rottenness” as the classroom saw it. I wasn’t sure what the adjustment process would entail, or how I would go about adjusting.
The day before, on August 30, a group of us had arrived at our new “craft” (abode/house) in San Diego, having traveled in several cars that day from Phoenix. I drove with Margaret Bull, known as Snnody (pronounced “Soon-ody”), who was my “check partner” at the time. During the drive, very strong doubts about my remaining in the group were surfacing in my thinking, to the point where I felt I had to bring it up to Snnody. She was sympathetic, saying I should do what I felt deep down to do. She had spent time outside the group herself, of her own volition I believe, so the thought was not foreign to her. But she had chosen to return to the group after a few months apart. She was one of the original group members who joined Te (tea) and Do (doe) back in 1974-5.
Phoenix had been our home for over a year. Several months before (~April 1993), the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, had burned to the ground, causing the deaths of most of the Davidian group members. That event had a dramatic impact on Do, with a ripple effect on the group. We identified with the Branch Davidians, Do more than most of our group members, and his mind seemed to never stop working on what the Branch Davidian tragedy represented for us, and what our course of action should be in response.
One of the courses of action Do had discussed with us was the possibility of buying firearms as the Branch Davidians had done, and then learning to shoot them. His thinking was that our having guns would trigger a showdown with authorities, similar to what occurred with the Branch Davidians, causing the “deaths” of our vehicles (bodies), freeing us for our return to the Next Level (Te and Do’s view was the Kingdom of God—or Next Level—was peopled by beings flying around the Universe in spacecraft/flying saucers). I found the talk and ideas of guns disturbing, but I didn’t feel at liberty to voice my feelings by virtue of the subculture (or groupthink) of the group, which held Do as infallible and someone not to be questioned. Within that context, I felt guilty for feeling disturbed, but couldn’t deny that I was disturbed.
Another part of my dynamic in leaving Phoenix involved a feeling of disappointment at having to leave my job at Silverware, a software consulting company where I had worked for the past year, bringing in money for the group. (I was one of many who worked outside the group—undercover.) The owner of Silverware was Sara Silver, a very sharp small business owner with very high customer service standards. She had hired me away from a competitor, who happened to have very poor customer service standards. Not only was Sara getting his employee, but she frequently would rescue clients from his projects gone bad, thereby gaining several of his clients.
On the drive to San Diego, I hadn’t really delved into why I felt disappointed to leave Sara’s employ until years later when I realized that I had received from Sara what I had not received in the classroom and had found lacking there. In her employ, Sara treated me with respect, gave me autonomy in my technical decision-making, and honored my contribution, efforts, and work.
Contrast that with the classroom experience of fitting in, unquestioningly doing what was expected of us, and being singled out if any of us slipped up in following the myriad of guidelines and procedures that shaped our daily lives, and you might understand why I felt my time in Sara’s employment was a positive experience that I would be missing. Again, it wasn’t until years later that I realized that in leaving Sara’s employ I subconsciously felt I was leaving behind the personal respect she had given me and I felt empty in the absence of it.
Between my leaving Sara’s employ and my inability to relate to Do’s preoccupation with the aftermath of the Branch Davidians’ tragedy, I felt like a fish out of water in the group. With our arrival in San Diego August 30, our travel group had brought one or more rental truckloads of household furnishings from Phoenix, and setup of the new “craft” was proceeding. In the midst of the hubbub of setup, I was deeply conflicted about the group and I realized I had to communicate my desire to leave to Do. So I wrote a note to Do, asked Snnody to check it, as was the procedure, and sent it off to Do. Later in the evening, Do talked with me briefly, saying I should “sleep on it” and he’d talk with me in the morning.
The next morning, my feelings had not changed. After breakfast, I was asked to sit in a meeting with Do and four other “classmates”. Two of them were Do’s immediate helpers or assistants, Jnnody (pronounced “Jan-ody”—Susie Strom) and Lvvody (pronounced “Liv-ody”—Julie LaMontagne), two women whom he trusted above most others in the group. The other two in the meeting were Srrody and Swyody, whom he also held in high trust. All six of us sat around a folding work table. Do sat at one end, I was at the other end, Jnnody and Lvvody were on my left, and Srrody and Swyody were on my right.
It had the air of an intervention, and I think that was its intent. Do said a number of things, intended to “talk some sense into me”, or to try to remind me of how “rotten” and “senseless” life in the human condition is and would be for me if I were to return to it. In my mind, I would hear what he would say, would refer to my inner feelings about leaving, and the inner feelings remained undeniable. With that inner reference, I remained steadfast in my desire to leave the classroom. I don’t recall the others speaking at all during the meeting. I think they were there in a sense to be a buffer for Do, between Do and me.
After the meeting, things were a bit of a blur. I remember spending some time with Lggody (Mickey Craig), who also tried to talk me out of going, but I just heard him out without saying anything. I was given $1,000 cash, with which to buy my airline ticket, and to provide for myself until I could find work at my destination.
I had to figure out where to go. I settled on returning to Calgary, Canada, where my parents lived. I, with several other classmates present, called the airline and made reservations for the flight to Calgary. I was escorted through each preparatory step by at least one other classmate. I was given a duffel bag to pack a few clothes, some toiletries, and a notebook.
Then it was time to go. Just after I had finished packing, Do was standing by, monitoring that no loose ends were missed. He asked me to be respectful of the class’s security and not divulge the location to anyone. I said I would (and I did). At one point he had said in passing that he wished I had made the decision to leave before I’d arrived at the new location. I don’t think I said anything in response, but in my mind, I had no thought of apology for how it played out—c’est la vie.
I felt emotional at leaving the group. I gave Do a hug and couldn’t help shedding a few tears with the thought I would likely never see him again. As much doubt as I had about his guidance being “infallible”, I was still attached to him.
I also wanted to say goodbye to some others, particularly to Jwnody (pronounced “Joon-ody”—Denise Thurman), who I was particularly fond of (even though we were to have no favorites). She was in the kitchen with several others. I said goodbye to each one. Most didn’t know I was leaving and said something like, “Ok, bye, you’re leaving? When will you be back?” I didn’t want to stop and explain so I think I said very little.
When I said goodbye to Jwnody, she wouldn’t speak to me. She turned and walked away. I think her feeling was “How can you forsake your Next Level life and turn your back on your ‘Older Member’ (your Teacher in the chain of mind that is the Next Level) when it’s everything to me?” I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was and felt dejected. I don’t know why I would have expected her or others to be happy to say goodbye to me.
Chkody (pronounced “Check-ody”—Erika Ernst) with whom I had joined the group hadn’t arrived at the new craft yet. She was in the last group to move from Phoenix, helping to tie up loose ends there. I think it would have been quite a different scene if she had been at the new craft at my departure—who knows.
Suffice to say that once they knew I had made up my mind and they weren’t going to talk me out of it, they wanted me out of there. They considered my presence thought-pollution and a negative influence in their midst, so they wanted me gone ASAP.
Srrody and Swyody drove me to the airport and waited with me till I boarded.
After takeoff, the plane climbed quickly, circling over San Diego to head north to Los Angeles. It was a bright sunny day, and as I looked down at the city far below, I remember feeling extreme elation and freedom. I was starting a brand new chapter of my life, after 18 years of cloistered cult life.
My elation was tempered over the coming weeks and months as I dealt with the transition and adjustments of my new chapter. Fairly quickly I realized how ill-equipped I felt to navigate effectively in the world. I felt I lacked many of the skills, social or otherwise, that I needed, but I didn’t really know what those skills were or how to go about learning them.
There’s obviously much more to the story (new chapters continue to be written), but it’s late so that’s enough for now.