Thirty-four years ago, November 18, 1978, America learned that a California congressman–Leo Ryan–and four others were murdered as they tried to board a plane on a remote airstrip in a South American country called Guyana. The news filtered down that the killers were members of an organization known as The Peoples Temple, located in Guyana. Soon, the country was horrified to learn that, after the airstrip murders, more than 900 men, women, and children allegedly committed mass suicide, along with their leader–a man by the innocuous name of Jim Jones.
Americans watched in disbelief as the story developed. Jim Jones had developed a large following of people, largely African Americans, in Indianapolis, and later in Redwood, California. The Temple followers constituted a “gathering,” many surrendering their government paychecks to the church in a communistic sharing, and following the orders of their leader, the dark, handsome, charismatic Jones. Jones was praised for his charitable and social endeavors, and courted by liberal politicians who were dying to be photographed with him. Rosalynn Carter was among those whose smiling face can be seen in an archival photo next to the man in sunglasses. (Rosalynn apparently had a poor sixth-sense about what constituted a good photo-op; she was once photographed with Democratic supporter John Wayne Gacy. Both are smiling.)
What happened? We now know that the horror that transpired in the jungle following the murder of Ryan and members of his entourage was not a mass suicide. Some may have lined up to “drink the Kool Aid” (yes, Jonestown was the source of that now-familiar expression); but among those who died were 200 children, and these were injected with the cyanide. Many adults who did not willingly submit were injected as well, their escape blocked by men with rifles. Jones wanted his “revolutionary statement” to be something of a consensus, even if he had to force it on his followers. Jones died of a single gunshot wound to the head, probably self-inflicted.
The more important questions are, why did it happen, and how could it happen? This has been the subject of many articles, documentaries, and almost seventy books ever since the tragedy. How could decent, caring, God-fearing human beings allow themselves to surrender their lives into the hands of another human being? What altruistic or religious instincts made it possible for them to walk willingly into arms of a megalomaniac?
Could something like this happen again?
Among the many books written about Jonestown, some of the best that I have read include Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, by Tim Reiterman (Tarcher; First Edition edition, 2008; 688 pages). This is no ivory tower treatment. Reiterman, who was an AP correspondent traveling with Ryan’s entourage, was wounded during the Port Kaituma attack that killed Ryan and four others.
There are several books written by survivors, or people who managed to escape from Jonestown before the tragedy unfolded. My favorite by far is Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple, by Deborah Layton (Anchor, 1999; 368 pages). Deborah’s brother, Larry Layton, left Jonestown with Ryan posing as a defector. He boarded the plane, and once the tractor arrived hauling the assassins, he opened fire. He was subdued, and later was the only Jonestown shooter to be convicted.
Deborah, unlike her brother, knew things were totally screwed up in Jonestown and managed to escape several months before the murders. She had been a trusted insider who managed the Temple’s money. She had been raped by Jones, and came to understand that the man was slowly devouring every soul that came under his spell.
Deborah’s story is made more tragic because just about her whole family fell under the the spell cast by James Warran Jones. The story of the Layton family’s involvement with Peoples Temple was beautifully told by Min S. Yee in In My Father’s House: The Story of the Layton Family and the Reverend Jim Jones (New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1981). This book isn’t widely available (I found it at the local library); but it is the best I have read because it conveys the high price a madman can exact from good and decent people. Her mother died in Jonestown shortly before the massacre, and Deborah lost two sisters-in-law and her two-year old nephew in the jungle. Her brother Larry was released from prison in 2002 (to this day he protests his innocence). Deborah doesn’t have many of her once-large family left. Today, she lives in the Bay area along with her daughter.
I came to know Layton somewhat, through phone conversations and e-mail correspondence, after reading this book (read my 2002 review on Amazon.com). A gifted writer, she writes of her escape in such a way as to create suspense–even though you know that she got out you are praying that she will make it!
The fascination with Jonestown hasn’t abated, and the recent declassification of government files has added much to the story for writers like Julia Scheeres, whose book A Thousand Lives appeared just last year (Free Press, 2011; 320 pages). This I haven’t read, but it is on my short list.
There are documentaries about Jonestown available as well. The best that I have seen is Jonestown: Life and Death of the Peoples Temple, which was done for PBS and American Experience in recent years. Deborah Layton is among those interviewed. Warning: This is intense. I showed it to my World Religions class a few semesters ago; one or two students had to leave the room.
When the 900 plus human beings were discovered in the jungles of Guyana shortly after they were murdered, the body of Jones was found on the stage of the pavilion under a sign that read: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
On November 28, we remember 900 human beings, most of them decent people in search of a better life, one filled with meaning, who fell victim to a man who knew how to manipulate those needs. This is something we must remember, so as never to allow it to happen again.
Copyright Isaac Morris 2012