A WOMAN I KNOW was talking about the Heaven's Gate mass suicide.
"The media's curiosity about it borders on morbid," she said. "It's like a national fixation. I know that 39 people died. But people die tragically every day. The media should let the dead rest."We probably should. But we won't.
We're fascinated by the story. I'm fascinated . . . not because the cultists were so weird and unreal, but because they were more like me than I want to admit. I can measure myself against them.
They went off the deep end, I say; how close am I?
A decade ago the movie "Fatal Attraction" made millions. It's a horror story about a woman who grows so obsessed with a man that she boils up his pet rabbit and waits for him, knife in hand, in his bathtub.
Americans couldn't see the film enough times.
How many of us hadn't driven by a high school sweetheart's house late at night, just to be close? How many of us hadn't made a late-night, ill-advised phone call that smacked of desperation?
In short, how close had we come to boiling up a bunny or two?
So it is with Heaven's Gate.
Yes, many men in the group were sickly castrated. But what man hasn't felt like a slave to his sexuality?
Yes, the women abandoned any sense of duty. But who hasn't said, "I don't want to be in charge anymore. Let me be the child?"
And how many of us haven't longed for deliverance?
Is the "flying saucer salvation" of Heaven's Gate really so different from the low-swinging chariot coming to carry us home?
When I first learned about that "Holy UFO," I rummaged around until I found an old poem in the "New Oxford Book of Christian Verse." No one knows the author, but it's called "The Heavenly Aeroplane" and is often anthologized. Here's a verse:
Oh ye thirsty of every tribe
Get your ticket
for an aeroplane ride,
Jesus our Savior
is acomin' to reign
And take you up to glory
in His aeroplane.
My guess is most mainstream Christians believe the Second Coming will have more to do with technology than magic.
The truth is - at first blush - what Heaven's Gate offered looked pretty good to me: freedom from desires and vices, freedom from responsibility, freedom from a broken heart.
Religious belief didn't separate me from them. Religion, like a musical instrument, can offer a lovely, haunting melody or - when badly played - produce straight distortion. It depends on the musician.
No, the difference between Heaven's Gate and my Straight and Narrow Way, in the end, was that final suicide.
And that was all the difference in the world.
The Heaven's Gate tribe decided that human fear and failing were "out in the world." The truth was the fear and failing were in themselves. When people refuse to own up to their own flaws and suffering, they live as hypocrites or die with a pocket full of quarters, hoping to book passage on a comet.
The difference between sane and insane religion comes down to a willingness to see and accept ourselves as we really are: human beings who feel and inflict pain.
And that ability to look at ourselves - in all our warts and wonder - requires more skill than it takes to see spaceships.
Sadly for Heaven's Gate, looking at ourselves also requires more courage than it takes to down a fatal dose of pills and pudding.