Closing the Gate: Inside Heaven’s Gate, by Deb Simpson
Review by Laura Beth Payne
When I began reading Deb Simpson’s book, I was prepared for a labyrinth of conspiracy theories and mysterious events about the cult that attracted her brother Jimmy and eventually led to his suicide. Instead I found something familiarly sad and too common: the story of a lost child trying to find a family when his own was falling apart. I found the story playing over in my mind long after I finished it.
More than half of the book is not about Jimmy or Heaven’s Gate at all, but about Simpson’s family, since it is what Simpson believes caused Jimmy to seek “another family” in Heaven’s Gate members. It’s no coincidence that Simpson now, besides her writing, serves as a volunteer for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) for children who, just like herself and Jimmy, are members of broken families.
The chapters are written in different voices, alternating between Simpson’s mother, father, brother and herself. I cringed empathetically at the way she captured her abusive father’s own deranged, guiltless point of view, and I grimaced at the mother’s voice. She is not so much of a horrible character as a helpless one, having suffered at the inept hands of psychiatric “care,” rootless religion and abusive relationships. Jimmy’s tone evokes a quiet, contemplative man who is starving for understanding.
While Simpson is eventually able to leave her parents and find healing in her marriage, school, therapy and a job, Jimmy stays at home with their mother and won’t leave despite encouragement from doctors, therapists and Simpson herself. Instead he begins corresponding with those who seem able to give him the spiritual direction he craves—Heaven’s Gate cult members.
Spending a period of time at the compound gives Jimmy a sense of belonging and community that his own family had not given him, but he leaves when he realizes that he was not “as spiritual” as the other members. It was not until after the mass suicides that Jimmy decides he wanted follow his “family” to the next spiritual level: death. He shot himself through the heart in his apartment.
Yes, the story is haunting; I don’t think a story involving a suicide and cult activity can be anything less. But even more sobering than the events leading to Jimmy’s death are Simpson’s reflections afterwards:
“I believe [Jimmy] was looking for someone to show him the way . . . but no one did. We were all too caught up in our lives to understand the depth of his struggles. I will forever regret my own blindness to his pain, and his inability to tell me.”
Readers of Closing the Gate will find much to ponder from Simpson’s portrait of her family, her own escape and her brother’s descent into cult life. But if Simpson is successful, readers will also find a piercing reminder of the significance of our relationships and our human mandate to engage with the struggles and pain in those around us.
Deb Simpson is a Murfreesboro resident and the current president of the Tennessee Writers Alliance. For more information on her and her work, visit debsimpsonbooks.com.