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Listening to the Victims of Jonestown



Rob Hardy


As a teenager, Julia Scheeres was rebellious enough that she was sent away to the Caribbean, to a Christian boarding school for disturbed (and disturbing) young people. It was a time of physical and mental torture for her which she wrote about in Jesus Land. This may make her uniquely qualified to write about Jim Jones and the Guyana death cult of thirty years ago. In A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown (The Free Press), she gives a straightforward account of the foundation of Jones's church within America, its move to Guyana in 1974, and the resultant murder or suicide of over 900 people in 1978. This spectacularly malevolent event has been covered many times before, but Scheeres has concentrated on the participants in the cult themselves. She has interviewed survivors, and gone through thousands of documents recently released by the FBI, including recordings Jones made of himself preaching and leading meetings. This is a more personal account than we have had before of religious feelings channeled into self-destruction. 




Jim Jones had been an admirable religious civic force. He was only 23 when he opened an integrated church in Indianapolis in 1954. Blacks and whites admired his social activism. He became the head of the Human Rights Commission in Indianapolis, encouraging integration of other churches and business facilities. His activism, however, had a paranoid feel to it nearly from the beginning. In the early sixties, he was worried about World War III and nuclear disaster, and in 1965 he led many of the members of his Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church to Redwood Valley in California where he thought they would somehow be safe from fallout. He continued to be an inspiration to his flock, who worshipped him as a prophet. Many of them had been saved from homelessness or hunger. While he based his early preaching directly on the Bible, as the years went by he chipped away at the parts that he found inconsistent or alarming, so that his followers were essentially believing in Jones rather than in any traditional Christianity.  




He moved his church to San Francisco in 1972, and the progressive city welcomed him. Jones help elect George Moscone in 1976 and became head of the San Francisco Housing Authority. Few knew that he was getting unstable with megalomania, alcohol, and other drugs. Reporters noticed that those whom Jones healed in a morning service were the same as the ones healed that evening. When they wrote their stories, they were inundated with angry telephone calls, letters, and demands from Jones's lawyer for retractions. Scheeres shows how this way of dealing with the media was to be an effective pattern until the church's doom: "The ploy was enough to intimidate the most seasoned newshound." There were not many who left the church, but those who did and told about fake healings and physical abuse got the same sort of treatment. They were all, in Jones's view, part of a huge conspiracy toward his destruction. As a way of reducing such apostasy, Jones would get devoted members to sign false confessions about horrendous crimes such as child molestation; he'd say it was a test of their faith to see if they would sign. When they passed the test by signing, the confessions would be saved to keep members from leaving. 




Jones set up an "agricultural mission" in Guyana. When there was a big newspaper exposť of his frauds and abuse, he left for that promised land, and many within his church went with him. Some thought it would be a missionary expedition of a few months. When they got there, they found that it was far from the paradise shown in Jones's training films, but by the time they discovered this, they had given up their money and passports to the church for safekeeping. Jones was able to keep up the optimism, and part of the story here is that Jones's paranoid madness can't be the sole explanation for the disaster. There may have been previously downtrodden and homeless people within the cult (a word Scheeres pointedly does not use), but there were also sensible, educated members who furthered the mass suicide. The camp doctor, for instance, had been ordering mass quantities of sedatives for years, and went on to research ways of killing the members in a mass by means of cyanide, although he was also to suggest mass shootings. Nurses volunteered to help administer the massacre. A dietician was the one who suggested cyanide cocktails sweetened with Flavor Aid (the Flavor Aid company must have been greatly relieved that the world thought that the beverage used was Kool-Aid). For the rest of the crowd, Scheeres's view is that they were not brainwashed but were "idealists who realized, too late, that they were trapped in a nightmare."  




The mass suicide was not simply a reaction to the arrival of Congressman Leo Ryan, relatives of Jonestown members, and journalists in November 1978. It had been discussed and rehearsed for years. Jones borrowed the phrase "revolutionary suicide" from the Black Panthers, but he mangled the concept. Jones held nightly meetings, warning members that there was going to be an invasion, and asking what should be done: fight the invaders or commit revolutionary suicide? He would confront those who said they would chose the fight option. As the long nightly meetings went on, he wore attendees down so that they would vote for suicide just so they could be released to get some sleep. "After a while," writes Scheeres, "Jones's obsessive suicide talk lost its shock value and began to bore them." He had test runs, asking people to drink a dark potion that he told them would take about 45 minutes to kill them. People drank, and thus passed the loyalty test; others were forced to drink. It would be the same when there really was cyanide in it. 




Only around ninety of the members survived, mainly by playing dead or fleeing into the jungle, if they could evade "The Angels," Jones's militia of gunmen. Parents and their children including infants drank poison and lay down to die. Jones was to shoot himself, but not before recording what Scheeres says was "one last lie for posterity." "We didn't commit suicide," he exclaimed, "we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world." That world, however, had not betrayed the members of Jonestown; they had been in a long process of betrayal by the megalomaniacal madness of a charismatic preacher. In Scheeres's full and balanced portrait, the outcome is just as horrifying, but the participants are shown to be misled idealists rather than mere brainwashed sycophants.  




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