Page 4 of 4   <      

30 Years After Jonestown, Reasons for the Tragedy Are Still Elusive

Thirty years after Rep. Leo J. Ryan was killed in 1978 by followers of the Rev. Jim Jones as he attempted to investigate abuses at Jonestown, Guyana, the congressman is memorialized in San Mateo, Calif.

Ironically, Lane accompanied Ryan, Speier and the rest of us to Jonestown. By his own account, he managed to escape just in time, after Ryan had been killed and the carnage in Jonestown had begun. A few days after the killings, Lane asked me if I had eaten the cheese sandwiches served to us that day before we left for the airstrip where I was wounded and Ryan was murdered. When I said yes, I had eaten the sandwiches, Lane said he had not -- because he'd been told they were poisoned. Why hadn't he told Ryan and the rest of us, I asked. There was no response.

In the aftermath of the carnage on Nov. 18, 1978, there was tremendous fear among those who survived, especially among the defectors, that a hit squad of Jones loyalists would try to kill those they blamed for Jonestown's end. Debbie Layton, a top Jones lieutenant who escaped from Jonestown and wrote a detailed affidavit of conditions inside the commune that helped persuade Ryan to go Jonestown, vividly remembers the minute she heard he had been killed.

She was living in San Francisco with her boyfriend, another Temple defector. "We jumped in the car and went immediately to a friend of my sister's," she recalls. "We were terrified we would be next."

Fear, distrust, guilt and shame have marked the lives of virtually everyone connected to the Peoples Temple. Many of the survivors hid their identities or changed their names. Garrett Lambrev, who joined the Peoples Temple in 1966 after dropping out of a doctoral program at Stanford, defected 10 years later after hearing credible reports of Temple members being tortured. He says he believes some prominent defectors in San Francisco were followed by surviving Temple loyalists after the mass suicide-murder and recalls attending the first memorial service, in 1979, "with fear and trembling."

Many Jonestown survivors and their families believe that the lessons of Jonestown are to remember and guard against demagogues who use religion as a cover for fraud, deception and imposing their own sometimes dangerous social and political beliefs on their naive and unsuspecting followers.

Speier says Jones's rise to power and legitimacy in San Francisco was largely due to his clever deception of George Moscone, Harvey Milk, Willie Brown and other San Francisco political leaders, who courted Jones in the years before the massacre because he provided them with campaign workers and critical support.

"From my perspective," Speier says, "the Peoples Temple got out of hand because the political leadership in San Francisco was indebted to Jim Jones."

It was that theme that dominated Tuesday's memorial service at the mass grave in Oakland. In an emotional and highly charged address, the Rev. Amos Brown, bishop at San Francisco's Third Baptist Church and president of the San Francisco NAACP, warned the mourners to beware of religious leaders who claim to have all the answers and insinuate themselves into politics, as Jones did so effectively in San Francisco.

"Good religion elevates folk, it teaches people to think for themselves. Good religion isn't authoritarian. Good religion isn't bigoted," he said. "Open up your eyes, America. America isn't a theocracy, it's a democracy. . . . And that is the lesson we must learn from Jonestown."

<             4

© 2008 The Washington Post Company