Gnome works for some users but not others

Info: Gentoo Linux; gnome-2.4.2; xfree-4.3.0; voodoo3 agp; samsung syncmaster 900ift monitor
<1st post>
For my alternate user ("bob"), when I startx, Gnome starts perfectly.

For my main user ("ben"), when I startx, a weird gray box with a red circle and a hyphen through it opens up, the normal gnome startup doesn't happen, and I am unable to do anything at all. Mouse works and resolution is fine and it looks Xwindows-ish, but no real Desktop Environment seems to start. I have to do a CTRL-Alt-Backspace to get out.

Why does it work for one and not the other?
I've already tried deleting all of the .xinitrc, .gconf, .Xauthority, .ICEauthority, etc files but it solves nothing.
ok, now i'm pretty sure the problem lies with gnome itself. if i comment the XSESSION=Gnome line in /etc/rc.conf, the /etc/X11/ script will automatically start up twm. This works perfectly for all users. However, when I switch back to how it was before, gnome will not load correctly for my main user. I've literally deleted all of my files in the home dir, even the (.*) files, but gnome refuses to work. same if I try gdm. it works fine for other window managers - not GNOME though. the funny thing is that it works for all other users - there has got to be some problem but it obviously resides outside of my home directory.

I'm going crazy......
by the way:
gentoo does not require .xinitrc or .xsession files so i dont use them because it is perfectly fine to just use the system defaults.  this is what happens when i create new users and gnome starts fine for them.

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