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

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Odell Rhodes made himself inconspicuous. He even held his students, the ones who called him Daddy, as they died. And he saw that the only people who were allowed through the circle of crossbows were medical personnel. He heard the doctor ask a nurse to get his stethoscope. Odell fell into step beside her. The guards stopped them, but the nurse said, "We're going to the medical office." As they stepped beyond the crossbows, Odell realized that he would have to kill the nurse. Fortunately, she instructed him to look in one building while she searched the other. Odell entered the nursing office and made his way to the back of the building, where there was a senior center; most of the people there were bedridden.

"Are you the man who is going to take us up there?" an old woman asked.

"You know what they're doing up there?" Odell said.

"We know."

"I'm not the man to take you."

Stanley too decided to risk arrows or bullets rather than take poison. He sorted through the bodies, pretending to look for people who might still be alive. There were only about 100 people left alive when he saw his chance and took it. He was lucky. It will never be known how many people were murdered, how many saw there was no escape and chose poison to arrows or bullets.

The security men were found with the rest. They, certainly, must have died voluntarily. In the end, it appears as if Jim Jones put a pistol under his right ear and ended his own life.

I missed the flight back to Miami and ended up spending a night in Curacao. There was a television in the hotel room and I found that, after staring into the face of horror for two weeks, all I could do was sit there and watch Popeye cartoons in Spanish while my mind spun and slipped gears.

Jones was a contradiction of everything he stood for.

He denigrated sex, but he slept with any woman who pleased him.

He brought homosexuals to the floor for beatings, but had sex with men.

He stood for social equality, and ate platters full of meat while others ate rice.

He preached racial equality, and yet the leadership of his primarily black organization was mostly white.

He railed against slavery, but he forced his followers to work twelve hours a day in the fields. He fed them maggoty rice and they called him Father instead of Massa.

He feared oppression but became an oppressor.

In the end, he put a bullet through his brain, killing all those things he hated with such vehemence.

There was nothing to feel for Jim Jones but a sure, steady loathing. It was harder to think about the people of Jonestown. Many of them had suffered in America, and they had turned to Jim Jones for help.

I remembered sitting with Odell Rhodes just after he had come back from identifying bodies. Another survivor asked him if he had seen a certain woman who had been very special and very dear. Odell said he hadn't seen her. The lie was transparent.

Later, Odell told me about it. She had written on her arm in ball point pen, "Jim Jones is the only one." It was better to think she had been murdered.

Having a theory about it helped some. Mine was that Jones was paranoid, in the clinical sense, and that he infected others. The mechanism of folie imposee was magnified by the classic techniques of brainwashing. The mass suicides of history – Masada (the hilltop fortress where, in 73 A.D., nearly 1000 Jews killed themselves rather than surrender to the Romans) and Saipan (under invasion from American forces, 1000 Japanese took their lives in 1944) – had occurred when a people were under siege and surrounded by enemies. Jones and the people of Jonestown were no exception: for months they had been harassed, persecuted, surrounded and besieged by shadow forces. When the final attack was imminent and undeniable, they chose to die.

I assumed in Curacao I might finally get more than two hours of sleep. Since Tuesday, November 28th, the day after the planeload of newsmen visited Jonestown, there hadn't been much to do except sit around the Graham Greene room and touch bases for the third or fourth time with the survivors. The problem was that we had been pushing so hard, we'd been so charged with adrenalin that it was hard to break the inertia. One network TV crew was filming a cockroach crawling across the floor. They had the lights on it and the camera going, and the soundman was crawling along next to it with a microphone.

A few of the survivors were charging for interviews, and it seemed to me that some of them sold their exclusive story several times. (When one reporter phoned his editor in New York and asked, "What am I authorized to offer?" the editor replied, "Offer him a glass of Kool-Aid.") I didn't pay anyone, but I didn't begrudge them the money. It was the first time many of them had had cash in their pockets in years, and some hired prostitutes from a nearby brothel to stay with them, there at the Park Hotel.

Some people – other survivors and newsmen – were outraged by the situation. It struck me differently. I remembered the attitude toward sex at Jonestown, and I saw that these men and women treated each other with affection. In some way it seemed to me a bittersweet affirmation of the resilience of the human spirit.

This story is from the January 25, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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