In the Valley of the Shadow of Death: Guyana After the Jonestown Massacre
The others were already in Guyana. Stuck in the Miami airport, through no fault of my own, I paced. I was a journalist, a ghoul, with a desire to go where no sane man would wish to go. A smiling woman with large, syrupy eyes tried to pin a candy cane on my shirt. She explained that the Hare Krishnas were feeding people all over the world, and she had this record album and a book and a magazine – “Like, it’s rully ecstatic” – and would I like to cough up a donation.
“Doesn’t this Jonestown stuff make you wonder about yourself?” I asked.
“What?” She looked up at me in shock.
“Selfless commitment,” I began.
“It’s the oldest… “
“They killed the babies first,” I said.
“… religion in the world. We have… “
“… members in all… “
“Dead,” I said. “Men, women, children, old, young, black, white… “
Her eyes glazed over and she turned from me, walking rapidly in the general direction of the United Airlines ticketing desk. I followed along after her, the way so many of them had hounded my steps over the years in airports all over America.
“They were people who couldn’t look into themselves,” I insisted. “Good people. People who fed the hungry. Who helped others. And now they’re lying out there in that goddamn jungle… “
She stepped up her pace.
“… swollen. Grotesque. Nothing more than thirty or forty tons of rotting meat.”
She ran from me, her bag full of magazines and albums thumping against her hip. I felt both ashamed and full of fierce, brutal joy. There were a dozen of them at least, between concourse A and concourse H, and I got every one. All you had to do was “Jonestown” them and they fled like rats.
While I was raging through the Miami airport, Tim Chapman, a husky twenty-eight-year-old photographer for the Miami Herald, was doing some of the best work of his life. In Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, he had talked his way onto a flight to Jonestown, where the bodies still lay, three days after the massacre that culminated in the death of more than 900 members of the Reverend Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple.
From the helicopter it looked as if there were a lot of brightly colored specks around the main building. At 300 feet the smell hit. The chopper landed on a rise, out of sight of the bodies. Other reporters tied handkerchiefs over their faces. Chapman didn’t have one, so he used a chamois rag. It turned out to be a good idea.
Chapman was telling me all this about three in the morning the day I arrived in Georgetown. He wasn’t drinking, but his words slipped out in slurry bursts. He hadn’t been able to sleep much.
“The first body I saw,” he said, “was off to the side, alone. Five more steps and I saw another and another and another; hundreds of bodies. The Newsweek reporter was walking around saying, ‘I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it.’ Another guy said, ‘It’s unreal.’ Then nobody even attempted to speak anymore. It was overwhelming. Bizarre.”
Chapman talked about how he kept moving, shooting wide-angle shots of the hundreds of bodies. “There were colors everywhere: raincoats and shirts and pants in reds and greens and blues; bright, happy colors.” Chapman saw two parrots on a fence, a red and yellow macaw and a blue and yellow macaw. He moved around to get that angle: the contrast of life and death.
“I started moving to my left,” Chapman said. “And I was battered by the smell. It hit me. Went right into my chest. I started to gag, and turned my back. Seeing it, plus the smell… ” He wadded the chamois into his mouth, bit down, got some saliva into it and tasted the leather. That helped some. “Then, I found if I kept my eyes moving and let my camera be my eyes, I’d never really see it. I shot verticals and horizontals, moving to my left. And then there it was.” Chapman shrugged helplessly. “There were piles upon piles of bodies. What do you call it? There’s no definition. Nothing to compare it to.”
Outside our hotel, a tropical rain battered the windows. Inside, an air conditioner cranked up to full-high howled mechanically. The bodies, Chapman said, were in grotesque disfigurement. One woman’s false teeth had been pushed out. He saw a child, maybe five years old, between a man and woman who were swollen in death. He remembered that the child wore brown pants and a blue shirt. He wasn’t as swollen as the man and woman. The children didn’t seem to swell as much. Just for a moment Chapman stood there, hating the parents. They had a choice and the child didn’t.
When the other reporters left for Jones’ house Chapman decided to stay with the bodies, and he moved through them alone. He stopped for a moment, and in the stillness, he heard a body working. “It was … gurgling. And it came from a black woman in a red shirt with viva written across the front. She wore gold earrings and she was arm and arm with a black man. Her head was swollen to the size of a bowling ball. Her eyes had popped completely out of her head. The entire eyeball was resting outside the socket.” Chapman paused. “It didn’t bother me then,” he said. “I knew it would get to me in a few days.
“This is going to change my life,” Chapman said softly. He lost the thread of his thought momentarily and his eyes went blank. In Vietnam, they called it the 1000-yard stare.
I waited for a while, then asked. “What else?”
“Okay. I moved to my left. There was a vat and then I saw Jones. As I moved toward him, I got a real bad whiff. I stepped away, almost tripped on a body, stumbled to get my balance, and as soon as I bent down, I was suddenly too close to one. There was a tremendous adrenalin shot, a fear.” He had then stepped back and tried to tell himself that he had to go on, that he was an instrument of history.
“It was really sickening at this point. The bodies were all, well, they were oozing – literally. Fluids running out of the bodies on top of bodies. Some of them had guts hanging out. They had burst in the heat. Eyeballs, intestines, bodies virtually held in by clothing. Somehow it all reminded me of Salvador Dali’s Resurrection of the Flesh. Did you ever see that? And I thought, ‘What I’m doing here is a form of art.”‘
Chapman told me he saw seven needles. One was sticking out of a man’s neck. Another was totally bent, as if it had been shoved into someone or something with a lot of force. There was about half an inch of milky fluid in the syringe.
There were some dogs that had been shot and some dead cats. Chapman decided not to photograph them. He thought there were a lot of sick people in the world who would be more angry about them than “this mind-boggling, nihilistic thing, this questioning of the very value of human life.”
Chapman chose not to shoot any photos of Jones. It had been done, and besides, he felt that somehow any more photos would glorify the man. He never got closer than fifteen feet to Jones. “He was wearing a red dress shirt and it looked to me as if it had burst open because of the swelling. From where I stood, it looked as if he wore a soaked white T-shirt. Either that or his skin was bulging out, because you could tell it was holding in liquids and goo.
“His head was all blown out of proportion. There was a wound under his right ear and it was oozing. One arm was up over his head, stiff in rigor mortis. The skin was stretched tight over the hand, and it looked desperate, like a claw.”
There was something else, something about the arrangement of the bodies that struck Chapman. Jones was on his back. Most of the others were face down, their heads pointing to Jones. “I could tell,” Chapman said, “that it wasn’t their final statement. It was Jones’.”
Somehow that single thought was the most terrifying thing Chapman said that morning.
The Park Hotel is a big, faded, white, four-story frame building surrounded by palms. Someone in the Guyanese government had decided to put all the survivors of the massacre on the same floor with the survivors of the Port Kaituma ambush (during which Representative Leo Ryan of California and four others were murdered; he had traveled to Guyana at the request of some constituents, who were troubled about relatives living in Jonestown).
On the second floor of the Park is a large ballroom. A white ribbed dome rises some seventy feet above the floor where there are a dozen or so tables with three or four chairs apiece. Just under the dome is a balcony, which leads to the rooms. The ballroom is open to the wind on three sides. A white wooden railing keeps inebriated guests from stumbling off the floor and plummeting into the gardenias below. In deference to the periodic downpours that last an hour or more, there is a green metal awning, hung with pots of various tropical flowers and ferns. I thought of the place as the Graham Greene room.
Guyanese soldiers stood about conspicuously. Reporters occupied most of the tables. The survivors were confined to the third floor, sometimes two, three and four to a small, un-air-conditioned room. They were forced to leave their doors and windows open for the breeze, and they lay sweating under yellowing canopies of mosquito netting. When they couldn’t stand the rooms anymore, they came down to the ballroom, where the reporters swarmed around them like hungry locusts on a single ear of corn.
One afternoon a steel-drum band called the Pegasus Sound Wave took the stage and played lilting versions of popular songs. The musicians wore red baseball caps and enjoyed their own music. They liked Christmas carols in particular, and smiled and laughed their way through “Jingle Bells” and “Jolly Old Saint Nick” several times, to the obvious delight of the local crowd.
Off to the side, over bottles of Banks beer, the survivors talked to reporters. You’d hear the most heart-wrenching, bloody awful details – “Part of her skull landed in my lap”; “… lost five children out there… “; “My child was dead, and my wife was dying” – over the din of laughter and applause and Christmas carols.
It began to rain, cooling the room. Rain hammered on the awning, then let up. The sun burst through, and its light glittered on the wet palms swaying in the trade winds.
The survivors, some of them children, stared at the reporters with vacant, ancient eyes. There were literally hundreds of journalists from at least five continents in Georgetown. It was madness. Virulent lunacy. And when you tried to assemble bits and pieces of the story, none of it fit together. There was no perspective, no center.
And so we assaulted the survivors in the Graham Greene room at the Park. There were three distinct groups. First came the voices of dissent: those who had gone with Congressman Ryan and survived the shoot-out at Port Kaituma. This group included the Bogue family, the Parks family and Harold Cordell. They hated Jones and Jonestown. The press counted them as the most reliable sources.
The second group consisted of those who had escaped the carnage at Jonestown. Odell Rhodes and Stanley Clayton made up half of the total number. Both were articulate, both had witnessed the final moments.
On Saturday, the third group – Tim Carter, 30, his younger brother, Mike, and Mike Prokes, 31 – came walking up the steps of the Park to the Graham Greene room. Both Tim Carter and Mike Prokes had held leadership positions in Jones’ organization. They were accompanied by several Guyanese soldiers, and they looked terribly frightened.
They sat at one of the tables and the press pounced. Lights, cameras, microphones, tape recorders, half a dozen people shouting out questions. Tim Carter, in particular, fascinated me. It was his eyes. He looked like a beaten fighter in the fifteenth round, one who just caught a stiff right cross he never saw coming. Tim Carter was a beaten man, and his eyes had the watery, glazed and unfocused look of a boxer who can no longer defend himself and who is simply going to absorb punches until he falls.
“I heard a lot of screaming,” Carter said, his voice breaking, “and I went up to the pavilion and the first thing I saw was that my wife and child were dead. I had a choice of staying there,” he continued, close to tears, “and I left. And these people [referring to the dissenters who had lived through Port Kaituma] are saying we are after them and it is ridiculous.”
We had heard a remarkably similar story from the dissenting survivors. Jim Jones had promised that anyone who left Jonestown would be tracked down and killed. And yet, leaders of the organization had left in the midst of the suicides. They had with them a suitcase containing $500,000 in American currency.
“The money was given to us by one of the secretaries,” Prokes said. He identified Maria Katsaris, a top aide and mistress to Jones. “She said, ‘Things are out of control. Take this.’ We left. The money was in a suitcase.”
Prokes and the Carters said they were running for their lives, and the suitcase was too heavy so they buried it. When they arrived at Port Kaituma, they told the police about the suitcase and took them to it.
“You saw your wife and child take poison?” someone asked Tim Carter. His eyes swam. “I didn’t see them take poison. My baby was dead. My wife was dying. I’m trying to forget about it. Everything you thought you believed in, everything you were working for was a lie, it was, it was… a lie.
“All I can say is that it was a nightmare, a nightmare. [The Carters and Mike Prokes had gone back to help identify bodies.] It was the most grotesque thing I’ve ever seen. We were there two days later and I couldn’t even recognize people I’d known for six years.”
Prokes said, “We’ve all lost loved ones. We feel we’ve been more than cooperative. We would like to be alone for a while.” They got up and sat by themselves at a far table. I saw one reporter label his tape punks.
The band was still playing Christmas carols. I bought a beer and watched the “punks” from across the room. They were constantly checking the position of the Guyanese soldiers, and, I imagined, looking for an escape route. They feared the dissenting survivors and felt they might be killed because of the nature of their escape and their leadership positions. They refused to go to their rooms on the third floor. Escape routes there were limited.
So the “punks” were forced to stay in the Graham Greene room. Despite their wishes, reporters would still try to sit with them. When this happened, it triggered another rush of cameras and microphones. “The circumstances were different,” Tim Carter said for the fourth or fifth time. “We were asked to leave. We were given a suitcase and told to take it to the embassy. I heard crying and screaming. And I went up, like I said, and I saw my wife and son… please, I don’t want to talk about it.”
But they had little choice. As long as they stayed in the Greene room, one reporter, bolder than the rest, would approach them, and it would start all over again. I was reminded of the way a bitch weans her puppies. She may be sleeping when they waddle over and begin to suckle. Annoyed, she gets up and walks to the far side of the room. The puppies regard one another in dismay. Soon enough, one, bolder than the rest, waddles over to mother. The others, fearing that they won’t get their fair share, make a mad comic dash.
And so it was with Prokes and the Carters. Through the carols and the rain and the moments of sunshine, we all stopped at their table to suckle more information. The letter to the embassy, for instance. The one in the suitcase with the money. It was addressed to the Soviet embassy. Mike Carter explained, “Jones told us the Soviet Union supported liberation movements.”
The bits and pieces wouldn’t fit. It was like trying to hold too many ball bearings in one hand. Every time you got something, everything else you had threatened to clatter to the floor and roll out of reach.
Odell Rhodes is a soft-spoken, articulate thirty-six-year-old, an eyewitness to the first twenty minutes of the massacre at Jonestown. The first time we met, he spotted a forty-ounce duty-free bottle of Jack Daniel’s in my case. We drifted up to my room, where it was quieter.
We sipped the bourbon, strong and sweet and straight, out of Park Hotel water glasses. Odell had been a junkie for ten years. He’d been through two drug-treatment programs, and both times he had gone back to drugs and some sleazy hustle on the street. “They tell you an addict shoots junk because he likes it,” Odell said. “I never liked it. I had to shoot it.”
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.
A guard tower stood above the cottages. Strangely, it wasn’t near the roads in and out of Jonestown, but was directly over the area where most of the people lived. Someone had painted several bright seascapes on the tower, so that it appeared to be a contradiction of itself, like a .357 Magnum disguised as a candy cane.
As we stood on the rise waiting for the helicopter and looking down on the cottages, a rainbow began to form in the distance. It grew more brilliant. A second bow formed above the first, and together they stretched across the sky, encompassing the whole of Jonestown.
A soldier said the Guyanese might continue the communal agricultural experiment Jones began. We wondered who could work there, what kind of men and women would be required to spend their nights in those awful, empty cottages. Someone else said that the Guyanese had considered making Jonestown a tourist attraction. A tourist attraction? What would they call it? Club Dead?
Later, back in Georgetown, I asked dissident survivor Harold Cordell about the guard tower with those painted yellow fish swimming all over it. He told me they had placed a wind-driven generator on top, but it had never worked. Finally, they had installed children’s slides on the lower level. The guard tower was called the playground.
The whole process – this denial of the tower’s function – reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984, in which the Party re-forms language in such a way as to make “heretical thought” impossible. The language is called Newspeak and makes abundant use of euphemisms. In Newspeak, a forced labor camp is called a “joycamp.” The guard tower at Jonestown was the architectural equivalent of Newspeak.
Jonestown itself had become a joycamp in its last year. There was no barbed wire around the perimeter. It wasn’t needed. Escape was a dream. The jungle stretched from horizon to horizon, thick, swampy and deadly. Armed security guards patrolled the few trails, and it was their business to know where an escapee would look for food and water. Rumor had it that captured escapees had had their arms broken. Toward the end, most of them were simply placed in the euphemistically named Extra Care Unit, where they were drugged senseless for a week at a time. Patients emerged from ECU unable to carry on a conversation, and their faces were blank, as if they had been temporarily lobotomized.
They were told that even if they could survive the jungle, elude the guards and somehow make it almost 150 miles to Georgetown, they’d be stuck there. The temple held their passports as well as any money they might have had when they arrived.
[The Party] systematically undermines the solidarity of the family, and it calls its leader by a name which is a direct appeal to the sentiment of family loyalty. – ‘1984’
It happened that way with Dale Parks, one of the men who tried to leave with Congressman Ryan. He had quit the church for some months, but Jones’ wife, Marceline, had convinced him to come back and give Jonestown a try. He was given a round-trip ticket, which he was required to turn over, along with his passport, “for safekeeping.” Almost immediately he was “forced” to write letters to his family about how wonderful it all was. “I saw the guns around,” he told me, “and I didn’t want it to come to that.”
Parks’ family believed the letters and followed him to Jonestown. Soon after arriving, his father, Gerry, who had a stomach condition, mentioned that the food didn’t agree with him. During that night’s Peoples Forum meeting, in which “problems” were discussed, Gerry Parks was called up “on the floor.” Jones humiliated him in front of the community, gathered in the pavilion. “How can you complain about the food,” Jones raged. “You, with a full belly, when two out of three babies in the world go hungry.” Dale then watched his father being beaten.
When Jones called people on the floor, Dale Parks said, relatives were expected to confront them first. Defending a father, mother or child could result in a beating. The family itself was expected to dispense the most vitriolic criticism. When the Parkses found themselves together (as when they were forced to write glowing letters home), they would whisper furtively: “You know I have to do it. If I’m on the floor, you do it too. I still love you.”
Every citizen… could be kept… under the eyes of the police… – ‘1984’
There were informers everywhere. They got time off, extra food, extra privileges, sometimes even a pat on the back from Father. Children informed on their parents, parents on children. Senior citizens were prized as informers. In rare moments of privacy, one resident might express “negative” opinions to another. It was unwise to reply with anything but criticism of such ideas. The person might be an informer, and any agreement would put you on the floor and result in a beating.
The aftermath of a beating used to be called “discipline,” but the name was changed to the more euphemistic “public service.” People in public service were transferred to a dorm patrolled by armed guards. They did double work duty, and food might be withheld if they didn’t give their all. Security people would stop by the dorm to administer a beating. Often people in public service were allowed to sleep for an hour or two, then were roughly wakened and made to do some tedious chore, such as washing walls.
The only way to get out of public service was to express regret for your previous attitude, to pretend to like the work, to display a “good attitude.” It did something to a man’s mind, public service.
Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting operation, like having an enema… It was not merely that the sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party’s control… sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship. – ‘1984’
It had been pretty rough for Stanley Clayton in Oakland. He started stealing at the age of eight, and the only presents in the house on Christmas were the ones he stole. Clayton was originally attracted to the temple because the women he met there were warm and “foxy.” Later, he came to share a vision of economic and social equality. On the boat from Georgetown to Jonestown, he met a young, female temple member. They talked about how they were home for the first time: home in a socialist country with black leaders. They were finally free.
The woman expressed her freedom by sleeping with one of the sailors. The boat’s captain told Jones about it, and the second night Stanley was in Jonestown, the woman was called on the floor. The question was put to her: “Why did you do it?” She answered, “Well, because Stanley said I’m free.” The community turned on him, shouting invectives. He was knocked to the ground, where security guards, trained in martial arts, shoved him and shouted at him and threw punches.
According to Stanley, Jones frequently railed against sex in marathon meetings. He said it was unhealthy and shortened the life span. When a married man was discovered having an affair, the two were called on the floor and made to strip to their underwear and pretend to make love – there on the floor in front of the man’s wife. Jones used the opportunity to denigrate sex altogether. “Look at them,” he said. “They’re like animals.”
When Stanley had sex with an older woman, both were called on the floor. “They beat the shit out of us,” Stanley said.
At Jonestown, you didn’t have a lover, you had a companion. One day Stanley’s longtime companion told him it was over. “The way she told me,” he said, “I knew it was put upon her.” At one meeting, Jones’ wife told Stanley’s companion to sit by the doctor. “At that time,” Stanley said, “Jim Jones tried to humiliate me, calling me all kinds of names. ‘See what sex can do for you,’ he said. ‘Your companion is off somewhere else.’ He even tried to humiliate her by saying all she wanted was a dick. He said, measuring a small space with his hands, ‘Stanley’s dick ain’t no bigger than that.”‘
[A Party member] is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors… the discontents produced by his bare, unsatisfying life are deliberately turned outwards. – ‘1984’
The public-address system was sometimes on all night, the survivors explained, so that people could learn in their sleep. At six a.m., someone knocked on the door. Breakfast consisted of rice, watery milk and brown sugar. Promptly at seven, a typical resident reported to work in the field, which might be as much as a mile and a half away. A supervisor took his name, and the list was given to security. It seemed as if the weeds grew back to choke the crops in a single day, and workers were required to do heavy weeding in temperatures that often rose well above 100 degrees.
There was a half-hour break for lunch. Most often, the midday meal was a bowl of rice soup.
The workday ended at six p.m. A resident had less than two hours to walk back from the fields, shower and eat dinner, which usually consisted of rice and gravy and wild greens. At 7:45, the public-address system began blasting out “the news.”
Jim Bogue took an adult education course from Jim Jones in Ukiah, California. At the time, Jones didn’t believe in tests. In Jonestown, he gave one or two tests every week, and if you did poorly, you might end up on the floor. Sometimes Jones would read and interpret the news, sometimes another voice would supply his interpretation. The news outlined repressive measures taken by the South African government, and it implicated the United States. Tortures in Chilean prisons were described.
Jones became more and more radical in his opinions. Charles Manson was misunderstood. The Red Brigades, who kidnapped and eventually murdered President Aldo Moro of Italy, had done a good thing. People took notes, dreading the tests.
About nine p.m., it was time for Russian class. Such phrases as “Good day, comrade,” were practiced for an hour and a half. People paid attention, because supposedly they would someday visit Russia, a “paradise on earth” where the government “helped liberation movements.”
At about eleven p.m., the community could knock off and fall exhausted into bed. Unless there were problems (and there were problems on the average of three times a week), at which point Jones would sit on his “throne” and ask leaders to describe them. Complaints about the food were always dealt with harshly. There were maggots in the rice, and you either ate in the light and picked them out or, if too exhausted, sat in the dark and ate a lot of maggots.
Jones’ answer to the problem with the inferior rice had something to do with the CIA. They couldn’t allow an interracial socialist experiment to flourish. And to complain about the food was to fall into the CIA’s hands, to be in league with them, to be a traitor.
Beatings were often severe enough to require a stay in the infirmary. People wept uncontrollably on the floor as they confessed their crimes and negative attitudes. Some were whipped with a leather belt. Jones encouraged senior citizens to strike others with their canes. Victims lay unconscious on the ground until coming to, at which time they were expected to apologize to the community at large.
The Peoples Forum meetings might last until three a.m. Undernourished and exhausted, people took their three hours of dead, dreamless sleep.
In her opinion, the war was not happening. The rocket bombs which fell daily… were probably fired by the government… itself, just to keep people frightened.” – ‘1984’
Jim Jones said he was in constant danger. And he felt it was necessary the community know this. Once, he informed them that a curse had been put on his life. He confiscated all the children’s dolls and later, burned a passport onstage. He said the passport belonged to the traitor who put the curse on him. The next day, an old man was found dead. Some of the survivors believed the old man died the day before and that Jones took the opportunity to display his omnipotence.
Sometimes, Jones would stumble and slur his words onstage. He’d go back to his cottage for an hour, somehow collect himself and return full of fire. One day he stumbled out of his house in pain. He’d been poisoned. An infiltrator, a traitor or the CIA had gotten to his food. Jones managed to heal himself.
In September 1977, shots were fired at Jones from the bush. They were real shots. Tim Carter, who was standing with Jones, swears to it. The shots were said to come from mercenaries, mercenaries hired by the Human Freedom Movement (the Berkeley group of temple defectors). The Human Freedom Movement, Jones told the community, was funded by the CIA. They were out there, in the bush. He could hear their military vehicles, could see white men in uniforms at the tree line, hear them on the shortwave radio.
It seemed absurd on the face of it. Mercenaries, hired by the shadowy hand of the CIA, make their way to Jonestown, level their sophisticated weapons, take one shot, and miss? Jim Bogue and Harold Cordell concluded that the shots were “self-inflicted,” that they were fakery and theater.
Nevertheless, the atmosphere of fear was such that people rose in the morning checking the tree line for mercenaries. Jones said there were sophisticated bugging devices on the trees. There weren’t enough children’s shoes because, as Jones explained, the customs department had broken into a shipment on the docks in Houston and taken them. The rains came early and Jones told the community that the CIA had seeded the clouds. He reminded them of the time he was driving in California and a driverless car tried to run him off the road. Who has a device that sophisticated? The answer was obvious. And now there were mercenaries in the trees.
Jones despaired of defending the town. Originally, during alerts, people were to ring the perimeter with guns, crossbows, pitchforks and hoes. But what could they do against trained mercenaries? Jones began to talk of revolutionary suicide as a final statement. The early suicide drills, most people felt, had been loyalty tests. But now he was talking about reincarnation, about how death was only a step to a higher plane. Suicide was tricky. If you did it selfishly, by yourself, you’d revert 5000 years to the Stone Age. But killing yourself for and with Father, that would be a glorious protest against repression.
Medically, paranoia refers to extreme cases of chronic and fixed delusions that develop slowly into complex, logical systems. A paranoid system may be both persecutory and grandiose. “I am great, therefore they persecute me; I am persecuted, therefore I am great.” True paranoids sometimes succeed in developing a following of people who believe them to be inspired. An essential element in the paranoid personality is the ability to discover “proof” of persecution in the overinterpretation of actual facts.
In the past, Jim Jones had real enemies. They were, for the most part, louts, bigots and segregationists: the kind of people who referred to him as a “nigger lover” and who spat on his wife when she appeared on the street with one of their adopted black children. Sickened by racist attacks, Jones moved his ministry from the Midwest to Brazil, then to northern California, where the hostilities began anew. Vandals shot out the windows of the Redwood Valley temple, and dead animals were tossed on the lawn. In August 1973, a mysterious blaze devastated the San Francisco temple.
Legitimately harassed, Jones began making connections between events, part real, part delusion. In 1976, Unita Blackwell Wright, the black woman mayor of Meyersville, Mississippi, spoke at the San Francisco temple. Two men were seen holding a satchel outside the temple. When approached, they got in a car and sped away. The license plate was traced to a Sacramento rental agency, and the names to a Mississippi air force base. Jones concluded that Mississippi Senator John Stennis, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, was spying on him. The story was released to a newspaper. The fact that no one would print it seemed to confirm the awesome power of the senator.
“All our troubles,” one of Jones’ aides tried to convince me, “stemmed from taking on Stennis. After that, the attacks on us seemed more coordinated.” The temple was being bugged. A couple of reporters started nosing around for information for a smear campaign. One of the reporters was named George Klineman, and, according to Jones, he came from a big-time German “Nazi” family.
(George Klineman is a freelance reporter, a former student activist whose parents were born in America. He got wind of the story through the man who was to become his father-in-law, David Conn. Conn was an elder in the Disciples of Christ, a loose confederation of churches that included the Peoples Temple. In the early Seventies, Conn heard strange rumors about Jones: guns at the Redwood Valley temple, beatings, fear in those who left the Peoples Temple. Klineman interviewed temple defectors and took the information to one of his sources in the Treasury Department, which encompasses the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Klineman had simply asked his source if he knew anything about a northern California religious organization that was arming itself.)
The Nazis hated the temple. They sent notes, on their letterhead, with ugly messages, such as: “What we did to the Jews is nothing compared with what we’ll do to you niggers and nigger lovers.” Now, somehow, Stennis had turned the Nazis loose on the temple.
The connections were made: Stennis, Nazi reporters, the Treasury Department. Now, an even more sinister force was against Jones. A group of temple defectors were telling “lies,” speaking to the “Nazi” reporters, and for publication.
Klineman provided research material for another “Nazi” reporter, Marshall Kilduff, who, along with Phil Tracy, wrote a blistering exposeé of the temple in the August 1st, 1977, issue of New West magazine. Various defectors told stories of false healings, humiliations, beatings and financial improprieties. The article contained a sidebar arguing that the temple should be investigated. Jones used all the political clout at his disposal in a vain effort to kill the story. He fled to Guyana shortly before it was published.
FThe phenomenon of folie a deux was noted in medical literature as early as 1877. It is a “psychosis of association,” most often paranoid in nature, occurring frequently among people who live together intimately and in isolation. Folie imposée is a kind of folie à deux in which the delusions of a dominant individual infect one or more submissive and suggestible individuals who are dependent on and have a close emotional attachment to the infector.
In the isolation of the jungle, in the intimacy of the pavilion, Jim Jones raged against the defectors. They were organized now, and the traitors called themselves the Concerned Relatives. They were plotting against him, smearing him in the media, and in league with the shadow forces arrayed against him.
One of the defectors, Grace Stoen, had a six-year-old son, John Victor, living in Jonestown. Jones claimed he had sired the boy and that he would never give him up. Stoen hired a lawyer to start custody proceedings. For Jones, it was just another measure of how far they would go. Traitors were playing with children’s lives, using a six-year-old as a pawn in their plan to bring down the temple. They would take a boy away from his Father.
He was Father to all of them. He had taken the junkies and prostitutes off the street. He took in lonely old folks and fed the hungry. The young idealists had been floundering, unsure of how to make a better world. And he showed them. Without him there was nothing. Without him they would be back on the streets or lying on a slab in the morgue. The community was totally dependent on him. Without him they were nothing and he told them so. It frightened them to realize he was ill.
Jones told the community he had cancer, a kidney disorder, diabetes, hypertension and hypoglycemia. He was God, “God manifested a hundredfold,” the only God they’d ever known. The God of the Bible had been used to oppress people for centuries. He was building a socialist utopia, providing economic and social equality to the oppressed and scorned. And now traitors were killing him with their plots. One top aide saw him “crying hysterically, as if his whole life was a failure.”
His hate and fear were contagious. Elderly women united to kill the defectors. He held his hands up for the people to see, and they were running with blood. “I’m bleeding for the people,” he said. (“Ground glass,” a surviving Jonestown nurse told me later.)
Sometime during Peoples Forum, when members spoke of being homesick or wanting to leave, Jones would have a “heart attack.” The community could see what it was doing to Father, and they’d turn on the speaker in a fury. It wasn’t just people leaving. That might be acceptable. But no one ever left and remained neutral. They sold out. They told lies. They joined the traitors. Perhaps those who spoke of leaving were infiltrators. Everyone could see what their words did to Father. He had to protect himself. “No one leaves Jonestown unless they’re dead,” Jones said.
In May, Deborah Blakey, one of Jones’ top aides, left the Georgetown temple headquarters, obtained a temporary passport from the American embassy and fled to the United States. The date was May 13th, Jones’ birthday. When Father heard of the betrayal, he called a “white night,” a crisis alert, and the community sat stunned in the pavilion as he raged. They were betrayed. Wasn’t it better to die? He challenged anyone in the community to speak for life. When they did, he battered them with arguments. He said he was “the alpha and the omega,” the beginning and the end. He said it over and over again. The white night lasted twenty-eight hours. No one was allowed to go to the bathroom without an armed guard. Anyone who tried to run, he said, would be shot. Meals were brought into the pavilion. Finally, everyone in Jonestown voted to die.
Harold Cordell told me most of the details of this meeting. I asked him if he too had voted to die. He nodded glumly and said, “I figured if we just quit arguing with him, we could get some sleep.”
The temple hired Mark Lane, a lawyer and conspiracy theorist, in the hope that he could help unravel the mystifying web of harassment. But by early November, it seemed as if it was already too late. The shadow forces were squeezing the lifeblood out of Jonestown.
The National Enquirer was preparing an article. It would be another smear, like the one in New West, full of lies. Jones became more isolated and his dependence on drugs increased.
On November 1st, Leo Ryan wired Jones and informed him he would be visiting Jonestown on a fact-finding mission. Ryan had been talking to traitors all summer.
Shortly after the wire arrived, Terri Buford, Jones’ most trusted aide, left the temple. She had been working in San Francisco and told Jones, by shortwave radio, that she “had some conflicts.” Jones had often said that Terri was “the smartest person in the organization, besides me.” It was three days before he could bring himself to talk about it and then all he said was, “Someone left.” All the survivors I talked to, from those in leadership positions to the dissenters, agreed that Buford’s defection had a devastating effect on Jim Jones.
The conspiracy came to a head on Saturday, November 18th, during Ryan’s visit. Some temple members had deserted in the morning, when security was concentrating on the Ryan party. Now others were saying they wanted to leave with Ryan. Whole families – the Parkses, the Bogues – had turned traitor. They had lied on the floor, lied in front of the entire community when they confronted a father or mother or child. They were more concerned with blood relations than with the cause and Father. Jones looked beaten, defeated. A man named Don Sly flew into a rage and menaced Ryan with a knife, but he was subdued. Newsmen were present. There’d be more smears. Ryan would report to Congress, and the full weight of the United States government would fall on Jonestown.
When Ryan and his collection of traitors left for Port Kaituma, gunmen followed. The shadow forces had won.
An alert was called and the community rushed to the pavilion. Jones told them the congressman’s plane would “fall from the sky.” He could do things like that. Hadn’t he killed the man who put a curse on him simply by burning a passport? At Port Kaituma, a Jones loyalist named Larry Layton, who left with Ryan, pulled a gun. Although Layton later denied it – saying it was his idea to go after the congressman’s plane – Jones may have instructed him to shoot the pilot when the plane was airborne. But the party was too large and they were going to take two planes. Layton wounded two, leveled the gun at Dale Parks’ chest and fired. Dale fell back, thinking he had been shot, but the gun had jammed. He jumped Layton, and, with the help of another man, wrestled the gun away.
Meanwhile, gunmen arrived from Jonestown and began firing at the other plane. Ryan, Patty Parks and newsmen Bob Brown, Don Harris and Greg Robinson were killed. Others were wounded. The gunmen retreated to Jonestown.
“Those people won’t reach the States,” Jones told the community. Then he said it was time for all of them to die. He asked if there was any dissent. An older woman rose and said she didn think it was the only alternative. Couldn’t the temple members escape to Russia or Cuba? The old woman continued to plead with Jones. She had the right to choose how are wanted to live, she said, and how she wanted to die. The community shouted her down. She had no such right. She was a traitor. But she held her ground, an elderly woman, all alone.
“Too late,” Jones said. He instructed Larry Schact, the town doctor, to prepare the poison. Medical personnel brought the equipment into a tent that been used as a school and library. There were large syringes, without the needles, and small plastic containers full of a milky white liquid.
Jones told the community that the Guyanese Defense Force would be there in forty-five minutes. They’d shoot first and ask questions later. Those captured alive, he said, would be castrated. It was time to die with dignity. The children would be first.
A woman in her late twenties stepped out of the crowd. She was carrying her baby. The doctor estimated the child’s weight and measured an amount of the milky liquid into a syringe. A nurse pumped the solution into the baby’s mouth. The potassium cyanide was bitter to the tongue, and so the nurse gave the baby a sip of punch to wash it down. Then the mother drank her potion.
Death came in less than five minutes. The baby weat into convulsions, and Jones – very calm, very deliberate – kept repeating, “We must take care of the babies first.” Some mothers brought their own children up to the killing trough. Others took children from reluctant mothers. Some of the parents and grandparents became hysterical, and they screamed and sobbed as their children died.
“We must die with dignity,” Jones said. “Hurry, hurry, hurry.” One thirteen-year-old girl refused her poison. She spit it out time after time and they finally held her and forced her to take it. Many people in the pavilion, especially the older ones, just watched, waiting. Others walked around, hugging old friends. Others screamed and sobbed.
Jones stepped off his throne and walked into the audience. “We must hurry,” he said. He grabbed people by the arm and pulled them to the poison. Some struggled, weakly. One girl put up a fight and she had to be injected.
After an individual took the poison, two others would escort him, one on each arm, to a clearing and lay him on the ground, face down. It wouldn’t do to have bodies piled up around the poison, slowing things down.
Stanley Clayton watched as “one of the brothers came into the pavilion. He was running. When he came in, he started stumbling. He turned and he flipped over and was just lying there. He was suffering. He was shaking and carrying on, spitting up his last spit, eyes turning up in his head. All of them were suffering. I was terrified and looked for a way to get out.” Security men with crossbows circled the pavilion. Men with guns guarded the periphery.
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.
“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.