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In the Valley of the Shadow of Death: Guyana After the Jonestown Massacre

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The Detroit street scene got more and more sordid. Once a lady friend of his dropped by with some drugs. "She liked to take it in the neck," Odell said. "I used to hit her." But this time Odell missed her by five minutes. Someone else had hit her up, and it turned out that the drugs were bad. When Odell found her, she was dead, the needle sticking out of her neck. "Five more minutes," Odell said, "and I would have hit her up and killed her. Probably killed myself too."

Odell was down and out, ashamed even to see his family. Once he was in jail on traffic violations, sick, wondering where he was going to get bail, knowing there were no drugs for him that night. Dozing, he felt someone "messing with my foot." It turned out to be a white businessman. The man explained that he had this thing for feet. If Odell would just let him sort of... fool around ... the guy would pay his bail the next day. So Odell lay there in the dark, weak and sick, while some guy drooled over his feet.

"I hated being an addict," Odell said.

When the Peoples Temple buses came through Detroit, an alcoholic friend decided to join. The next time they came through, the friend looked up Odell. The friend was dry, sharp, well dressed. "He looked like a successful businessman," Odell said. And Odell, who had failed twice trying to kick his habit, decided to check out the temple.

Jim Jones, he said, gave him a new self-image. He was intelligent. He was useful. Odell was given a job in the San Francisco temple. "The area it was in," he said, "was like where I had come from in Detroit. But I could walk down the street with money in my pocket and pass it all up."

When Odell first arrived in Guyana, things seemed fine. His job was teaching crafts to children, and he was good at it. He'd spend hours pouring over books, looking for projects children could complete in a couple of hours. The kids teased him – "Hey that'll never work, man" – and he'd bet them cookies that it would. They laughed a lot.

The children would throw their arms around Odell and call him "Daddy." He was worried about that at first. Jim Jones was Daddy. Jim Jones was Father. But the leaders in the organization appreciated his efforts. Odell, they said, was providing a stable image for the youngsters. His estimation of his own worth soared.

"I really loved those kids," he told me.

But then things started going sour in Jonestown. The food deteriorated. The workdays increased. It seemed, to Odell's experienced eye, that Jim Jones was developing a serious drug problem. Crazy things began to happen, and he made plans to escape.

Odell had been to Vietnam, and attended something they called "hunt and kill" school. It was said that no one could survive in the jungle around Jonestown. Armed members of the temple's security squad combed the roads and trails. Escapees were invariably caught. And punished. Odell figured he could steal one of the camp's crossbows. He'd hide it in the bush, then make off with it the next morning, before anyone noticed that he was missing. He'd stay off the roads and trails, hiding in the bush and living off the land until he was presumed dead.

But then the news of Congressman Ryan's visit hit Jonestown. Security was increased. Then came the incident at Port Kaituma, followed by the terrible night of screams in which more than 900 died. The children were first. Odell watched Larry Schact, Jonestown's doctor, measure poison into a syringe. Nurses squirted the liquid into children's mouths. Some of them were brought to Odell. He was their daddy, and they died in his arms.

"I watched them die," he said. "And I haven't cried yet. It's like I'm dead inside. Sometimes, I'm alone in my room, and I close the door and I wait to cry. Water comes to my eyes, but I can't cry."

Odell sipped at the bourbon and blinked several times.

It was a massive job, loading up all the corpses at Jonestown, and it took eight full days. On the ninth day, the government allowed about fifty news ghouls into the jungle enclave. We flew up to Matthews Ridge and were ferried the twenty or so miles to the ghost town in one helicopter accommodating twelve. There was a dash to be on the first flight. TV crews claimed they should get preference, because they needed the light. Newspaper reporters were shouting, "Fuck that TV shit. I have to see, too." The boarding process looked like a Tokyo subway at rush hour. It was, all in all, a shameful disgrace that led several young Guyanese soldiers to laugh out loud.

At 1000 feet, the jungle seemed like a vast, gently undulating sea: forty shades of green stretched as far as the eye could see. And it was literally steaming: mist rose up from the low-lying areas and from the sluggish, tea-colored rivers. It was awesome, frightening, and my guess is that every reporter on the chopper, reminded of Joseph Conrad's descriptions of the jungle, scribbled Heart of Darkness in their notes, as I did.

We landed on the rise Tim Chapman had mentioned, walked down a dirt path through a neatly mowed lawn, crossed a gracefully arched wooden bridge over a turgid brown river, passed several wooden buildings on stilts and made our way to the pavilion, where the bodies had lain.

Everything was ironic. The last bodies to be removed had been in such a state of decomposition that bits and pieces kept falling off. Guyanese workers were plowing the whole area under, using tractors that had belonged to the people, bits and pieces of whom were being plowed under.

To get to the pavilion proper, we had to step across muddy rills, and the thought of that ocher-colored mud clinging to our shoes was unpleasant. The pavilion had a corrugated metal roof set on wooden columns and a hard-packed mud floor. Tractors had not yet been inside. The smell was bad, and several of us gagged. In front of the stage, along with a collection of musical instruments, were several bits of gore: blackened flesh, shriveled skulls, all crawling with flies. On the walls were signs that said LOVE ONE ANOTHER, and the like. Red rubber gloves were lying about, dozens of sheets of papers reading, "Instructions for use; bag, plastic mortuary," mementos of the American graves detail.

I found a notebook containing "notes on the news," which consisted of a recapitulation of Soviet space triumphs and details of repressive actions taken by reactionary, American-supported governments around the world. The notebook must have been in among a pile of bodies, because it stank of rotten meat, and I got that stink on my hands.

A soldier pointed out a pile of crossbows. They were Wham-O Powermasters, set on wooden rifle stocks. The arrows were short, lethal, razor-tipped. Forty guns had been found, but the soldiers wouldn't let us see them.

A short walk across the mud ended at a wooden cage with a corrugated metal roof and sign reading Mr. Muggs. Jones had started off in the Midwest as "the monkey preacher," selling imported monkeys door to door. He loved animals and the temple was always taking in strays. Mr. Muggs, the Jonestown chimpanzee mascot, had been shot in the back of the head. Patches of blackened fur littered the cage floor.

The path led down a shallow slope to Jones' house, a brown, wood affair, slightly larger than the rest, surrounded by tangerine and almond trees. The place was locked up, but scattered on the porch was Jim Jones' mail, a collection of books and magazines, and his medicine cabinet: three things that reveal much about a man.

The books and magazines were about conspiracies, spies, political imprisonment, people who manipulate the news and Marxism. A large red book contained dozens of Russian posters; one showed Lenin speaking before a crowd of workers.

Near a footlocker full of health foods and vitamins, I found hundreds of Valium tablets, some barbiturate-type pills and several disposable syringes, along with ampuls of synthetic morphine. Next to the drugs, by a pile of blank Guyanese power-of-attorney forms, was a great stack of letters addressed "to Dad." Most were labeled "self-analysis" and began with "I feel guilty because... " The self-analysis letters were confessions. No one admitted to being happy and well adjusted.

I read one from a young male: "I am sexually attracted to a lot of brothers and would rather fuck one in the ass than get fucked." After the original confession, the letters churned with hate. "I have feelings about going to the States for revenge against people." From an eighty-nine-year-old woman: "Dear Dad, I would rather die than go back to the States as there is plenty of hell there. I would give my body to be burned for the cause than be over there... If I had to go back, I would like to have a gun and use it [she names several temple defectors who worked with the anti temple Human Freedom Movement] and have them all in a room together and take a gun and spray the row of them. I am glad to have a Dad and Father like you... "

Some letters seemed to be answers to questions posed by Jones, one of which concerned the writer's estimation of his ability to stand up under torture. The answers suggested that people felt that kidnapping and torture were very real possibilities. Most doubted that they could endure continual physical pain.

The letters were chilling, suggesting lives filled with guilt and hate, and fear. More frightening was the tone of absolute submission to Dad, a man who, by all evidence, seemed to be a hypochondriac, a drug addict and paranoid.

The soldiers clapped their hands and we were told to move along. No one wanted to leave the mother lode outside Jones' house. Everyone wanted to scribble down just one more letter or the name on just one more ampul of amber-colored drugs. Soldiers nudged one or two of us with their rifles.

We were shown a bakeshop, a machine shop, a brick-making area. We noted packets of a Kool Aid-like drink called Flavoraid lying around. The illustration showed two children sipping Fla*vor*aid and smiling happily. There were shoes in the mud and on the grass and in the fields. A disproportionate number were children's shoes, sandals no bigger than the palm of your hand.

Across from the rise where the helicopter landed were forty or so cottages, painted in pleasant pastels. They were maybe twelve-by-twenty-four feet. Several doors were open, and we could see beds jammed together. The cottages seemed to be for sleep and sleep alone.

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