When he was out running errands or working in his study, bent over a book or teaching the students who filed into our house to sit with him and fix their test scores, I’d slip into his bedroom and rifle through his belongings: fingering his penknives and leather-strapped watches, feeling the soft silk and woven wool of his neckties, inhaling the funky, wonderful smell of his aged leather belts – which I handled with a mix of awe and fear, the two or three times I behaved very badly, these doubled as instruments of punishment – and studying that weathered, bizarre source of power, his wallet.
In March 1997 thirty-nine people were found dead in a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California, an upscale suburb of San Diego. Between the night of the twenty-second and twenty-third, they took their lives in shifts, each group tidying up after the previous. First they drank a poisonous cocktail of barbiturates, vodka and applesauce; then they proceeded to tie plastic bags over their heads. The bodies were found lying on their backs with purple shrouds covering their faces, dressed in all-black uniforms and brand new Nike trainers. The uniform-like clothing made it impossible to distinguish between male and female bodies. In fact, it indicated that the body’s physical traits were perhaps irrelevant or undesirable. Five dollar bills and change were found in the shirt pockets, alongside identification. Next to them were rucksacks and bags with a change of clothes. The careful planning suggested that the act was of ritual nature; a farewell videotape confirmed that the bodies belonged to members of a millennial religious cult known as Heaven’s Gate.