Town Without Pity
30 Years Later, Memories of Jonestown Evoke Guilt, Anger and Mistrust

By Charles A. Krause
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Jackie Speier now represents California's 12th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. The last time I saw her, 30 years ago, her bloody, bullet-riddled body lay in tall grass at the side of a jungle airstrip in Port Kaituma, Guyana.

She had been gunned down by four assassins sent by the Rev. Jim Jones to kill congressman Leo J. Ryan -- and the rest of us who had accompanied him to investigate reports of violence, torture and sexual abuse in a place called Jonestown.

For 15 hours, Speier and the others who miraculously survived the airport massacre waited to be rescued, bleeding and fearful the gunmen would return. Meanwhile, five miles away, Jones was ordering more than 900 of his followers to commit "revolutionary suicide" by drinking fruit-flavored punch laced with poison.

Jones's exhortation to his followers, to "die with dignity," and a survivor's account of Jonestown's final hour -- "they started with the babies" -- became headlines sent around the world. Overnight, Jonestown would become more than a name or geographic location; it became shorthand for troubling questions about cults, the social and sexual revolution then underway in the United States, and the mixture of politics and religion that Jim Jones used so effectively to lure thousands of followers into his church and to hoodwink much of San Francisco's political establishment.

On Tuesday, 30 years to the day after the horrific events that resulted in Ryan's assassination, the deaths of three journalists and the mass suicide-murder, some 200 Jonestown survivors, relatives of those who died, television crews and journalists gathered at a mass grave in Oakland's Evergreen Cemetery, where 406 unidentified bodies from Jonestown, mostly children, are buried.

The Rev. Jynona Norwood, a black evangelical preacher from Los Angeles who lost her mother and 26 other members of her immediate family in Jonestown, asked the mourners to "reflect on the lives of our loved ones who trusted in a man who was the most evil man who walked the face of the Earth."

The memorial service was just one of a number of events, in the San Francisco area and nationally, commemorating Jonestown's 30th anniversary. Renewed interest has been fanned by two new television documentaries and a play, "The People's Temple," now touring regional theaters. For those too young to remember Jonestown, the mass suicide-murder has become a part of pop culture. Brian Jonestown Massacre is the name of a rock group. And "drink the Kool-Aid" has entered the popular lexicon for a toxic kind of malleability, a reference to my first reports from Jonestown for The Washington Post quoting Odell Rhodes, a Jonestown survivor, saying that the potion drunk or injected into those who died was a mixture of cyanide and Kool-Aid.

Many of the Jonestown survivors and their families find the Kool-Aid references and jokes insensitive and deeply hurtful -- reminders of the tragedy they suffered and, worse still, the widely held perception that the men, women and children in Jonestown were a bunch of crazies who willingly committed suicide out of blind devotion to their leader.

"The whole world looked at us as a bunch of kooks, that we were borderline people, uneducated and unstable," Debbie Layton, whose escape from Jonestown in May 1978 set in motion the tragedy that followed, recalled Sunday. "People think that all the people just drank the Kool-Aid," she said. "They have no idea of what that means or what happened. They just laugh about it."

Much more is known today about the inner workings of the Peoples Temple than was known in the immediate aftermath of Jonestown. For example, many of those who died that day were highly educated. And at least some did, in fact, commit suicide. But there is clear evidence that armed guards loyal to Jones forced mothers to poison their children and gave adults a choice: Drink the deadly potion or be shot. And it later turned out that Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid, was mixed with the cyanide, a minor footnote to the larger tragedy that transfixed the nation, indeed the world, in 1978.

As Norwood and others who spoke at the memorial service said Tuesday, there is still much healing left to do and many questions unanswered. Was Jonestown a cult, a religious commune or a legitimate experiment in racial harmony and social justice gone bad? Should Ryan have insisted on going to personally investigate Jonestown, taking journalists with him, after having been warned that Jonestown was an armed camp and Jones himself increasingly unstable?

Was Jones a sadistic egomaniac who cynically abused his followers? Or was he a decent man who fell victim to the drugs, power and paranoia that finally devoured him and the 913 other men, women and children who died in Jonestown? Why didn't more people resist when they were ordered to die?

The raw emotion that still surrounds these questions flared into the open on the eve of Tuesday's commemoration when one group of survivors unveiled a plaque with the names of those who died, including Jones. Lela Howard, whose aunt died in Jonestown and who arranged for the plaque to be made and displayed at San Francisco's African American Historical and Cultural Society (80 percent of those who died were black), said she included Jones's name because "he, too, was a victim." Many Jonestown survivors seem to agree.

But Norwood, who has raised $30,000 for a memorial to be located at the mass grave site in Oakland, said she and many other relatives and survivors are outraged. Their families, she said, have spent the past 30 years trying to erase the stigma and guilt of having been "deceived" by Jones's appeal to racial equality, free health care and social welfare.

"Jones was not a victim," she said, fire in her eyes, vowing never to succumb to pressure from Jones's family and some others to include his name on the graveside monument that was partially unveiled Tuesday and will be completed next year. "To me, that's like putting Hitler's name on a memorial to the Holocaust."

A Tragedy That Resonates

For millions of Americans older than 40, the graphic images of hundreds of bloated bodies, piled two and three deep, rotting in the hot Guyanese sun 30 years ago and the unprecedented death of a congressman on a jungle airstrip made Jonestown the kind of tragic, gruesome event that even today is instantly recognizable.

But for those members of the Peoples Temple who survived Jonestown's bitter end, as well as for hundreds of relatives of those who died that day, for Ryan's family and those of us who were wounded in the airstrip attack, Jonestown is an indelible part of our lives that we have spent 30 years trying to recover from, hide from, understand or explain.

Thirty years ago, Jackie Speier was Rep. Leo J. Ryan's legislative assistant.

Today, she holds a congressional seat that encompasses much of Ryan's former district. When I interviewed her last week, it was the first time we had spoken since we were both nearly killed on the airstrip.

I was shot in the hip and survived by playing dead. She was shot five times by the Jonestown gunmen and barely pulled through. At one point, she said, her doctors thought an arm and a leg would have to be amputated. Later, they told her she might not be able to have children. She later had two. Even now, she has two bullets lodged in her body.

Yet, for all the nightmares and physical trauma she has suffered, she said she does not hold the Jonestown survivors responsible for what happened 30 years ago. They were, for the most part, "broken" people, she said, "intimidated and fearful of being exiled" by their leader.

On a personal level, she said, her near-death in Guyana had been "freeing" and made her "a little bit fearless." It was a sentiment I could understand. After being wounded in Jonestown, I spent the next 20 years as a war correspondent in Central America, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.

As a Democratic member of the California state legislature for 18 years and now as a member of Congress, she said she has been willing to take on controversial issues and special interests that other politicians hesitate to tackle. She also remains fiercely loyal to her mentor, Ryan. She freely admits she told him she thought the Jonestown trip was "premature" and was so concerned about the danger that she prepared new wills for both of them. She even insisted on putting a "null and void" clause in the contract for a condominium unit she was buying in Arlington if she didn't return from the trip alive. But she says Ryan was convinced he had a congressional "shield," that no one would dare kill a U.S. congressman. She went along despite her misgivings because she believed Ryan was right to go: People in Jonestown were being held against their will.

Today, Speier views Ryan as a hero who gave his life for his constituents and "shaped how I view public service. What I've learned from the experience is that when you see something that's wrong, you have to act on it."

But she knows that some Jonestown survivors blame Ryan for triggering the mass murder-suicide. Others say that Ryan's insistence on bringing journalists is evidence that he was more interested in publicity and a future run for the Senate than in saving lives.

Ryan's daughter, Patricia, says the publicity-seeking charge is a "cheap shot. He didn't need the publicity. He had just won reelection. He was tired, and he really didn't want to go. But he felt very obligated to his constituents," especially one good friend whose son had joined the Temple in San Francisco, then defected, only to die in a suspicious accident several months later.

There's no question in her mind, Pat Ryan says, that Jonestown was a cult -- not the progressive church or revolutionary movement Jones painted it as. The testimonies detailing manipulation, sexual and physical abuse of those who disagreed with Jones, and the threats against those who tried to leave are all evidence of that, she says.

Over the years, her anger toward the Temple survivors and their families has tempered. She has attended memorials and other meetings with former Temple members, though she remains a bit resentful that most of the attention has been directed toward them -- not the man who tried to save them.

With Speier's move to Congress in a special election in April, Pat Ryan says her father's sacrifice is finally beginning to be recognized. To mark the 30th anniversary of his death, Speier introduced legislation in Washington to rename the historic post office building in San Mateo, where Ryan had his office, in his honor. On Monday, Speier, Pat Ryan and other members of the Ryan family attended the naming ceremony.

Former representative Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), who served with Ryan on the old House International Relations Committee, and who declined Ryan's invitation to accompany him on the Jonestown trip, says the recognition is well deserved. "I think it was a tribute to Leo that he was willing to go," Solarz said recently. "Jonestown was a source of legitimate concern, and I'm sure he was going there to protect the interests of his constituents."

Casting a Long Shadow

Fielding McGehee III and his wife, Rebecca Moore, whose two sisters died in Jonestown, are Jonestown's unofficial archivist-historians. They publish a yearly newsletter and maintain a Web site that has vast quantities of information about the Peoples Temple before and after its catastrophic end.

McGehee says there were seven known survivors of Jonestown itself, 15 who left Jonestown with Ryan and survived the airport massacre, and approximately 50 more who were at the Peoples Temple headquarters in Georgetown, Guyana's capital, who did not commit suicide on Nov. 18, 1978, as they were instructed to do. Several hundred other active members of the Temple were in the United States.

There were also hundreds of former Temple members who had defected, before or after Jones moved himself and many of his most loyal followers to Guyana in 1977. A number of them had organized a group called the Concerned Relatives, which was instrumental in convincing Ryan that Jones was increasingly psychotic and erratic, and was threatening to kill everyone in Jonestown if the Relatives, the media, the CIA and Jones's other perceived enemies did not leave him alone.

Jones had even gone so far as to hire Mark Lane, the largely discredited Kennedy conspiracy theorist, to mount a legal and public relations counteroffensive, detailed in a memo found in Jonestown by the FBI after Ryan's assassination. The document, dated Sept. 28, 1978, obtained this week by The Post, sets out Lane's proposal for "the filing of a multi-million dollar action in the appropriate federal court against each of the individuals, organizations and agencies of government which have participated in the campaign against the People's Temple."

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."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company