Today’s post is not going to be exactly cheery, and if anyone wants to stop reading due to sensitivities or thinks this topic is too macabre, I completely understand. History’s not always a pretty sight. However, I wanted to at least touch on Jonestown because it shook a lot of people in America, and Northern California in particular, to the very core. Also, there may be the temptation to look at events like this and think, “It can’t happen to me.” How many of the Jonestown victims said the same thing?
Forty years ago today, one of the worst losses of American civilian life occured when almost a thousand people died at the behest of one Jim Jones and his inner circle. The photo of the Jonestown pavilion in Guyana, with bodies upon bodies laying in the grass outside of it, is a staple in modern history textbooks and anything to do with the nineteen-seventies. Jonestown is often pointed to as a prime example of blind following gone very, very wrong, and to the chagrin of survivors, the phrase, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid!” has become a part of American vernacular.
However, there is a wealth of information that shatters that all-too-simple assumption (For one thing, the victims actually drank Flavor-Aid, Kool-Aid’s cheap knockoff.). Anyway, in 1982, journalist Tim Reiterman, along with co-author John Jacobs, published an extensive book on the Peoples Temple entitled Raven: The Untold Story of the Reverend Jim Jones and His People. I can only scratch the surface of what’s in the book since there’s so much to take in, but I hope to give a good snapshot, anyway.
Jim Jones was a formidable figure in Bay Area politics. He was appointed Housing Commissioner by Mayor George Moscone, who he had helped put in office. Jones’s church group, the Peoples Temple, were instantly available to canvas, picket, or whatever an aspiring public official wanted. Local Democrats such as Jerry Brown, Dianne Feinstein, Willie Brown, Harvey Milk, and even national figures Angela Davis and Rosalynn Carter sang his praises and contributed to the Peoples Temple. Marin County District Attorney Tim Stoen was a member of the Temple, giving it further credibility. The Peoples Temple was a diverse group of all races and ethnicities, including many poor black women and college students. To a lot of people, it was a picture of what society should be like–integrated, open, and inclusive.
Under the surface, however, things weren’t so integrated, open, or inclusive.
Reiterman’s book starts out by talking about the sudden and mysterious death of the son of a collegue of his, Sammy Houston. Bob Houston was a member of the Peoples Temple in San Francisco and had recently decided to defect. Lo and behold, he died mysteriously next to the railroad tracks where he worked. Sammy thought the whole thing looked too neat to be an accident. This event was Reiterman’s first inkling that something was very, very wrong at 1859 Geary Boulevard.
Reiterman goes into sometimes uncomfortable detail about Jim Jones, who was born in Crete, Indiana in 1931. Jones’s dad was a ne’er do well and his mother worked to support the family. Jones was so neglected as a toddler that he would wander aimlessly around his neighborhood in soiled clothes until a neighbor lady took pity on him and cleaned him up.
As a child, Jones was obsessed with playing preacher. He especially loved giving funeral services for animals, but what creeped out his peers was that he would kill the animals himself before eulogizing them. Church was, for Jones, the only place where he felt accepted, and what better way for him to immerse himself in church culture than to become a minister for real? Jones never went to seminary, but he was a charismatic orator, and the Disciples of Christ ordained him in the nineteen-fifties.
In 1955, Jones started his own church, the Peoples Temple, on North New Jersey Street in Indianapolis, and right from the beginning it was integrated. He invited people of all colors to come, and they were to sit next to each other. This didn’t go over so well with locals, and in 1965 the group moved to Redwood Valley, California.
There they established soup kitchens, drug rehab centers, communal living homes, care facilities for the elderly and Jones became even more powerful. It didn’t take long for Redwood Valley to feel too small, though, and in 1971 they moved to San Francisco. A branch of the Temple also existed in Los Angeles, although many of its members came to San Francisco as well.
Reiterman makes it very clear that Jones wasn’t a pastor in the Christian sense, or even a Christian at all. His messages focused on socialism and integration and acceptance of different peoples, but he very seldom preached from the Bible. As time went on he became more and more blatantly atheist. One Sunday he even threw a Bible across the church like a football and bragged that it had no power over him.
Jones saw himself as a god. He persuaded Temple members to sign over their homes, wages, and in some cases, custody of their children. He was held up as divine by the majority of his followers; many of whom credited him with healing them from sicknesses and delivering them from accidents. People would carry his picture around with them or display it in their homes, thinking this item had power. However, what went on in People’s Temple was nothing more than idolotry.
The bottom line with Jim Jones is that this man had an insatiable desire to be in control, and considered it a personal attack when anyone left him or the Peoples Temple for any reason. As time went on, this compulsion was acted upon in increasingly destructive ways. People who tried to leave Peoples Temple or expressed any differing opinion were severely punished and berated by Jones, and more often than not, family members would punish each other in front of the entire group. One family left after their daughter was paddled seventy-five times.
Separation wasn’t generally so simple as just walking out the door, either, especially as Jones became more maniacal. Defecting from the cult often meant getting as far away from California as possible, or at least changing one’s name. More often than not, though, people were simply trapped. When members came to services, they signed blank sheets of paper, and if they tried to defect, those signatures would reappear as affidavits of criminal activity. Members were conditioned to report each other if anyone talked of leaving, so people who did go usually couldn’t say goodbye to anyone.
That sense of being trapped became vastly more pronounced once the bulk of the Temple members moved to Guyana. The South American country was chosen because it was both socialist and English-speaking. It was also cheap; it didn’t boast beautiful coastline or anything else to distinguish it from its neighbors. The Peoples Temple selected a site that was one-hundred fifty miles from Guyana’s capital, Georgetown and six miles from the nearest airstrip, Port Kaituma, which was a win-win for everyone. The land was not only very isolated, which was what Jones wanted, but the Guyanese saw the American settlement as a barrier between them and Venezuela, who they weren’t on the best terms with.
Jonestown was carved out of the jungle, starting in 1974. One of Jones’s sons, Stephan, was sent down to Guyana with dozens of others to build the site from scratch, and soon people started pouring in. There were cabins, a school, an infirmary, a laundry, and a working farm. This was to be the Temple’s haven, their socialist utopia, their model for the world. Films and pamphlets were sent back home detailing the wonderful work going on, the freedom, and the beautiful setting.
Yeah, nope. It started out all right, but once Jones himself moved there, the place was like a prison camp. Members felt the isolation as soon as they turned down the road leading to the settlement. There was no phone, no news coming in from outside the camp at all, except via a ham radio. Jim Jones read and interpreted the news for them, his voice playing on the commune’s public address system at all hours of the day and night. Any letters written to family or friends were strictly monitored, and anyone who wanted to go home was called on the carpet.
Even if people wanted to stay, they had it on very hard terms. Working hours were long and difficult. The food became progressively worse, the site was overcrowded with fourteen people to a cabin, and Jones began binging on drugs. Any drugs. He became even more paranoid, rousting Temple members out of bed for what were called “White Nights,” where he would rant and rave for hours about how the camp was under attack or anything else that came to mind.
Back in the United States, there was a growing dread among relatives of Peoples Temple members, so much so that they formed a group called the Concerned Relatives. Several high-ranking Temple members had also defected by this time, such as Tim Stoen, Deborah Blakey, and Teri Buford. Most California officials, especially the Democrats who had courted Jones thought these people were exaggerating and did nothing. However, their stories did get the attention of Congressman Leo Ryan, who flew to Guyana with many of the Concerned Relatives and several journalists to find out what was going on. He didn’t take a security detail, as he considered his position to be adequate protection.
Jonestown put on a show when the Ryan contingent arrived on November 17th, with a hearty meal and a band playing. Everyone seemed happy and well-taken care of. However, Jones was nervous and rambling, his body language clearly defensive. To the Ryan party’s dismay, Vernon Gosney slipped a note to journalist Don Harris, asking for help to get out of Jonestown. After that, there was no more hiding. People wanted to leave.
Ryan would never return to the United States. He was murdered at the Port Kaituma airstrip on the afternoon of November 18th by Jones’s security team, and minutes later most of the residents of Jonestown would meet their deaths via cyanide poisoning. The tape of Jones talking his followers into dying is easily accessible on various platforms, and what’s really scary are the audible screams of the almost-three hundred children who were poisoned. They were murdered first. They had no choice.
Three of Jim Jones’s sons, Stephan, Tim, and Jim Jr. were playing in a basketball tournament in Georgetown during Ryan’s visit. A few other members were away on business. Others just walked off into the jungle the morning of the 18th. Two young men were able to leave while the murders were taking place. One elderly man hid in a ditch. A seventy-five year old woman hid under her bed. The rest either drank the poison or were injected with it.
Contrary to popular belief, Jones didn’t act alone when it came to that final day. He was aided and abetted by the members of his inner circle, all of whom were white women. The inclusivity stuff was a sham, of course. These women helped Jones plan the massacre, and likely even helped him kill himself. The coward apparently couldn’t stand the idea of dying the way his people had, so he went by gunshot wound. Speculation points to Annie Moore having done the deed, but we’ll never know for sure.
Reiterman, a journalist who formerly wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle, not only covered the suspicious and mysterious activities that Peoples Temple defectors were beginning to go public about, but he traveled to Guyana with Congressman Leo Ryan and the Concerned Relatives. He sat next to Jones during the reception on the Friday night after they arrived. He was also the one to take a series of grisly photos in the aftermath of the shooting at Port Kaituma. Reiterman has more than street cred when it comes to Jonestown: He was there.
Ergo, Raven has an immediacy that most later books about the massacre can only draw from. Julie Scheeres, who rather snobbily flattered herself that her book, A Thousand Lives, is the only comprehensive account of Jonestown, quotes extensively from Reiterman’s book. Oddly enough, she only mentions him by name once.
What’s overwhelming about the Peoples Temple and Raven is the sheer number of people involved. It’s story after story after story, possibility on possibility, heartbreak after heartbreak, and let’s not forget the legions of what-ifs. What if more people had protested Jones? What if his son, Stephan, had been able to take over leadership? What if Congressman Ryan came with armed guards? What if California officials had taken the journalists and Concerned Relatives seriously? Would people still be talking about Jonestown if the massacre hadn’t taken place?
For many, Jonestown still lingers and will continue to linger. More than a few Jonestown survivors have experienced PTSD, with varying success at overcoming it. One of those cases, Chris O’Neal, committed suicide by cop a few years ago outside of his house. Some have retreated from public life as much as they can, while others make it their mission to tell their stories.
In mine and my husband’s case, the Peoples Temple is local history. I lived the first thirteen years of my life in the East Bay, less than an hour from San Francisco, and my parents both remember Jim Jones very well. I was two when the massacre happened. I have vague memories of magazine covers showing the walkway with the drum of purple liquid and a few of the bodies lying around, and I remember the mournful faces of the adults looking at the photos. Sure, I didn’t know what it was about, but even very young children understand emotion, and there was a heaviness to that time.
I also heard bits about it from various sources growing up, but it wasn’t until I was an adult and saw the MSNBC documentary, Witness To Jonestown, that I knew more of the details. My husband and I sat on the couch and watched this thing, absolutely devastated and horror-stricken. We asked each other, “How could someone do that? How could they kill their own children because some maniac told them to? How could they allow themselves to be taken in?”
Even after reading Raven, I still don’t have easy answers to those questions, except that what happened is part and parcel of how ugly and evil human nature can get.
Events like Jonestown and the books that examine them are problematic, because it’s hard to look away or look too closely. Delving into an unapologetically evil mind like that of Jim Jones is a disquieting idea–I think it’s because we are afraid of becoming what we understand too well, and it feels as if by studying Jim Jones and Jonestown some of those characteristics and fears may rub off. Or, we might be afraid that we may somehow identify with a monster.
Still, it’s important to know just enough so that we can avoid being hoodwinked in the first place, and we should never presume that it can’t happen to us. Those who died weren’t necessarily complacent participants lining up to drink the Flavor-Aid. In fact, the majority of them, given better circumstances, would have bolted, or at least overruled Jones. These were intelligent people who had been trapped and saw no way out. Stephan Jones later said, “Ask yourself what would someone have to tell you, or what would someone have to do to you to get you to do something you couldn’t possibly believe you’d be capable of? Examine that. Learn from it. Don’t judge it. Don’t stand separate from it. Be willing to stand in the shoes of the people you’re judging.”
There but for the grace of God…
Raven is a compelling work. It’s over six hundred pages long and meticulously detailed. I have to give major kudos to Reiterman and Jacobs for how well the book is paced; it’s not often that journalists can write effective books. Most of the time they don’t know what to do with long-format writing. All the President’s Men, for instance, is incredibly boring, and the only thing that saved the movie was the late, great William Goldman’s dialogue. Hemingway’s short stories were much better than his novels in my opinion, which rambled and faltered, making reading them a chore.
Reiterman and Jacobs don’t have that problem. They’re not especially verbose, so the book moves quickly enough to keep readers engaged. I don’t think Raven was meant to be read for fun, but Jonestown is such a complicated topic that it begs to be examined properly, and Reiterman and Jacobs gave it the high-definition treatment.
Thanks for reading, all, and I hope you’ll come back tomorrow for a new Origins post. It’ll be much sunnier than this, I promise. Hasta mañana…
Reiterman, Tim with John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of the Reverend Jim Jones and His People. London: The Penguin Group, 1982.