Monthly Archives: June 2018

Empathy on the Next Level

I’ve done little else besides work and stress about research plans. When I do these things, I binge podcasts. One of my favorite ones I’ve listened to in the past months has been the Heaven’s Gate podcast, produced by Stitcher. The Heaven’s Gate cult was a group that believed that their leaders were the two witnesses from the biblical book of Revelation. These two, according to their teachings, were extraterrestrial life forms sent to gather followers who were ready to ascend to the “next level,” which only opened every two thousand years. While there are still a few followers, the group came to a conclusion for many in 1997, when 39 cult members (including their leader) committed suicide in a house near San Diego.

Facts about Heaven’s Gate are interesting enough on their own, but what really makes this podcast great is the host, Glynn Washington. While not having a previous relationship with Heaven’s Gate, Washington grew up in another apocalyptic cult. This gives him a heavy dose of sympathy and empathy for the followers of Heaven’s Gate that I thing would be difficult for most of us to really get at. His message isn’t “this is what this crazy cult did,” but “these were people, generally intelligent and reasonable people, and this could happen to you.” And I think this is a very important message. Most of us, or maybe just me, go around thinking that we could never be taken in by a cult or anything of that nature and other the people that do. But all it really takes is trusting the wrong person and eventually finding yourself in too deep.

In many ways, this podcast does what Leah Remini’s show on Scientology is also trying to do. The podcast, however, has it easier in many respects. Remini has a very personal relationship with Scientology, which still very much exists and does get new members. Washington and Stitcher are doing something of a retrospective on a group that was never big to begin with and has only decreased in size. It’s easier to humanize the leaders and members of Heaven’s Gate, since they aren’t actively recruiting to something that’s harmful. They also need to be humanized more. We might mock, but we can name famous people who are Scientologists and, while we may casually throw around the word “cult” in connection with the group, Heaven’s Gate destroyed itself. Its members are gone and they went by their own choosing in order to follow a UFO they thought was behind the Hale-Bopp comet*. That, at least in my mind, is a step up from what Scientologists actually do.

If you’re into narrative, non-fiction podcasts (and if you aren’t squeamish about discussions of suicide), definitely give Stitcher’s Heaven’s Gate a listen. It’s well worth your while.


*Anyone remember what a disappoint Hale-Bopp was? I get it. It’s a comet and the platonic ideal of a comet is cool, but they’re real boring to look at. Especially when you’re six and all your teachers have been like “OMG Hale-Bopp, it’s a once in a lifetime thing!” and you get all excited and you’re on your deck and there’s like a smear in the sky and your parents are like “yup, that’s it” and all your expectations are crushed.