Beyond Human: The Heaven’s Gate Cult, Transhumanism, and Me

A selfie with one of the Heaven’s Gate (post-mass suicide) photos, as shown in John R. Hall’s excellent 2000 study on new religious movements, Apocalypse Observed.

[Originally published on Disability Intersections on  March 21, 2014.]

Heaven’s Gate was an American UFO religious Millenarian group based in San Diego, California, founded in the early 1970s and led by Marshall Applewhite (1931–1997) and Bonnie Nettles (1927–1985). On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group who had committed mass suicide in order to reach what they believed was an alien space craft following the Comet Hale–Bopp, which was then at its brightest.

–From Wikipedia’s entry on Heaven’s Gate (content warning on link for description of suicide and photos)

I’ve been fascinated with the Heaven’s Gate cult ever since I saw–as an 11 year-old–a huge photograph of the members’ dead bodies, apparently peacefully posed on bunkbeds,  on the front page of my local paper, under the rather alarmist headline (and all-caps) headline HOUSE OF HORROR. As I picked up bits and pieces of information on the group that the news media breathlessly reported throughout April and May of 1997, I began to wonder if the “house of horror” headline was overblown; yes, these folks had committed mass suicide, but they had also found people to whom they could relate and live with peacefully (albeit in a fringe religious group). Was that so horrifying? To most people–and to the media–it seemed like the answer was a resounding yes.

Years later, I had an opportunity to explore my own interest in some of the gender and religious dimensions of Heaven’s Gate–and, somewhat oddly, my own nagging feeling that the overblown TV and print media coverage of the group’s mass suicide was more about social control than anything else–in the honors thesis program at UC Davis, where I was pursuing my B.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies. During my research, I smacked right into some very uncomfortable feelings surrounding my own personal history: namely, that my curiosity about the group during my pre-adolescence reflected my own anxieties about not fitting in with my peers at school. I hoped that one day I would be able to find a group of people who would understand me, and who I wouldn’t have to constantly fear; we probably wouldn’t end up forming our own UFO religion, but we’d really get each other.

There were a lot of other aspects that made Heaven’s Gate weird–and, as I discovered during my research, a lot of things to which the news media and a not-inconsiderable portion of the American public took exception. Highlights included the voluntary castration of eight men in the group–done in order to control their sexual urges, and performed in Mexico, since no doctor in the U.S. would perform the procedure; the group’s belief system that heavily cribbed from not only Christianity, but New Age ideas, UFO mysticism, and popular culture (most notably the original Star Trek and its Next Generation iteration); the preoccupation with becoming something “beyond human,” and related identification with aliens; and, of course, there was the uber-organized mass suicide.

Leader Marshall Applewhite‘s complex relationship with his own sexuality proved to be of interest to the public as well; he was married for many years, but abandoned his family after having a break with reality that led him to form the main theoretical tenets of Heaven’s Gate. This break with reality came after he left his job as a music professor at a private university in Texas, where he had had multiple affairs with both men and women students; it was around this time that he met Bonnie Lu Nettles, who would become the co-founder of Heaven’s Gate. While many, many press outlets identified Applewhite as gay, this seems to obscure the fact that he had sexual relationships with both men and women, before committing to celibacy after he formed Heaven’s Gate.

Perhaps that last sentence is not entirely accurate; Applewhite didn’t simply “commit to celibacy” so much as struggle to mute his sexuality. Conveniently, the strict regimentation of all “human” thoughts, behaviors, and actions that was central to Heaven’s Gate–and that would, apparently, allow the members to progress to the “next level” and join their alien brethren in space–allowed him to focus on keeping his own urges (sexual and otherwise) at bay.

The transhumanist bent in Heaven’s Gate–and in Applewhite’s efforts to mute his complicated sexuality–is also fairly apparent, although I did not have enough space in my thesis project to address it. (65 pages, not including 5 pages of citations, seemed long enough.) Since transhumanism as a philosophy places technological enhancement and body hacking at its forefront, Heaven’s Gate members weren’t transhumanist in their approach to technology so much as in thought and belief. The members’ fixation on getting beyond  “human” behaviors–to an ultimate transcendence of the flesh, and of their human bodies–finds a spiritual cousin in transhumanism’s ideas about things like mind uploading and related ways of getting beyond the limitations of humanity via the use of technology. The Heaven’s Gate members saw their bodies as mere vessels that they needed to properly “train” in order to prepare for their next evolutionary level (reached by their mass suicide), during which they’d all be transported to their alien home world.

Heaven’s Gate members weren’t transhumanist in their approach to technology so much as in thought and belief.

Transhumanism advocates might not see their bodies as vessels, but many of them do see human bodies–and humanity–as things that need “improvement” through technology. Heaven’s Gate members sought to escape their bodies in order to advance themselves to what Applewhite called TELAH, or “the Next Evolutionary Level Above Human.” Many transhumanist and Singularity advocates seem to relish ideas about expanding the human lifespan, “hacking” the body to improve it, and weirdly utopian futures where man and machine mutually benefit each other, and where everyone lives awesomely. Transhumanism is not a religious cult, but the parallels–at least idea-wise–are there.

Personally, I’ve never really had an interest in transhumanism, despite the movement’s token attempt at including “the physically disabled” as part of their better-faster-stronger agenda. And I realize that I could have begun to identify as a super-cool feminist “cyborg” at a young age thanks to having to wear leg and foot braces on my left side from about the age of 5 to 13. But from what I remember of having to wear the braces–meant to correct my left leg’s muscular imbalance due to cerebral palsy–they just seemed annoying, itchy, and uncomfortable, instead of being sources of empowerment. It’s also hard to claim anything that makes your peers exclude you as inherently “empowering”–especially for a young kid, when your peers at school provide your only opportunity for socializing–despite the wishful thinking of certain theorists.

Transhumanism’s track record of including–really including–the experiences of people with disabilities is middling at best, and absent at worst. Although there have been attempts to change this in recent years, philosopher Melinda Hall points out (in a fantastic 2013 essay for Disability Studies Quarterly) that some of the key tenets of transhumanism–and, more worrisome, some of its most revered theorists, such as bioethicist Julian Savulescu–still exclude people with disabilities by (among other strategies) talking about disability itself as something to be eliminated by the transhumanist embrace of technology. “Improving humanity” for some transhumanists seems to be synonymous with completely getting rid disability and chronic conditions completely–unfortunately, such an approach is totally at odds with disability rights.

I would get so tired of being in pain–and being fatigued all of the time–that I wished that I could somehow transcend my own body and become a brain in a jar, or a robot…

Despite Heaven’s Gate’s “beyond human” bent, disability issues nonetheless crept into my (admittedly odd) identification with them; when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at age 21–following over a year of unexplained, debilitating muscle pain and overall fatigue that came out of nowhere–I began to understand some of the impulses that may have guided the members’ efforts to eschew and leave behind their humanity. There are a lot of things that can go “wrong” with the body; for disability rights advocates, however, the wrongness is not contained in our bodies, but in society’s refusal to accommodate our needs. When I was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia and not yet on a pain-controlling medication regimen, I thought of my own body as having gone wrong somehow. Oftentimes, I would get so tired of being in pain–and being fatigued all of the time–that I wished that I could somehow transcend my own body and become a brain in a jar, or a robot (preferably one with a sense of humor, like Tom Servo and Crow of Mystery Science Theater 3000). Sometimes I was too exhausted, or too nauseated, to do research for my project on Heaven’s Gate, and would have to spend days in bed recovering from a single trip to the library where I’d decided to take the stairs instead of the elevator, usually while carrying 10-20 pounds worth of hardcover books.

I’m sure the transhumanist idea of mind uploading would have appealed to me at that time, too, but I was especially interested in the members’ feelings about their bodies–articulated by Applewhite, since he tended to speak for the entire group in their recruitment videos–and how they tried to transcend their bodily limitations and needs. Applewhite’s tormented relationship with his own sexuality particularly moved me, as I knew (and know) how it feels to have a body that just won’t do what it’s “supposed” to do according to ideas of a “normal,” healthy body–or, in his case, according to societal ideas of a “normal” sexuality. And, unlike the people of Heaven’s Gate, I haven’t transcended my body’s limitations–imposed on it by both society and chronic pain, in my case–via suicide. I have no interest in doing that. But I do know the feeling that comes from wishing that your body was, somehow, very different.

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