When the order from the colony came over the speaker in Guyana’s capital Georgetown, Stephan Jones knew he wouldn’t obey it. In fact, he thought he was the only one who could save the situation.
He contacted the people at the San Francisco branch of the Peoples Temple and instructed them not to take action. He also made sure that the other disciples who were in the capital would do nothing hasty.
But it was too late. A woman named Sharon Amos had slaughtered her three children and committed suicide. Stephan ran to the U.S. Embassy and appealed for a helicopter to take him to the colony to try to stop the disaster, but no one listened. And he would have arrived too late, anyway.
The next day, when soldiers of the Guyanese army, one of the most ragged in South America, hesitantly entered the Jonestown compound, they were blinded by the thick morning mist. The only sounds they heard came from the jungle animals going about their business.
The silence could mean only one thing: An ambush was awaiting them. They moved forward slowly until one soldier bumped into an object on the ground. When he brushed away the mist below him he saw that it was a lifeless human limb. The soldiers realized very quickly that the enemy wasn’t waiting for them. Hundreds of corpses were lying on the ground in front of them.
Going by the first body count, the media reported 383 dead. A bit later the number was revised upward to 408. This figure, though shocking, gave room for hope – maybe the remaining hundreds of people of the colony had fled into the jungle and were saved.
Only two days later did the picture became clear. American soldiers who arrived discovered that beneath the layer of bodies was another layer, and yet another. The bottom layer consisted of about 300 babies and small children whose bodies had been ravished by the humidity and jungle insects.
Altogether, 909 people died at Jonestown on November 18, 1978, by swallowing a grape-flavored beverage mixed with potassium cyanide, or from injections of poison. They also killed their dogs. Among the hundreds of corpses, only one was different; he had died from a bullet to the head. Swollen to bursting, that was the corpse of Jim Jones, the man who had conducted this concert of death.
All the people who lay there around him had followed him. Some of them had started out with him in the earliest days in Indiana and moved with him to California. Others had joined in San Francisco and continued with him to the promised land in the South American jungle. All had been captivated by his promises of a model socialist society based on equality and love under his leadership.
The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” meaning to follow someone blindly, was born that day in Guyana. Four decades later, Americans often use this phrase in political and business contexts without knowing its origin. (Actually, the deadly beverage that day might have been based on a cheaper imitation, Flavor Aid.)
The expression was born of the perception that Jim Jones’ disciples were gullible people who gladly drank the poison because their leader told them it would do them good. This dismissive thinking was convenient because it’s hard to comprehend how so many people marched together to a certain and unnecessary death.
The slaughter at Jonestown was the worst civilian tragedy in U.S. history before September 11, 2001. For years it was largely forgotten along with a number of other insanities in the United States in the 1970s. The 40th anniversary is offering Americans an opportunity to deal with this neglected sore, with the story receiving treatment in both book and documentary form, a story of a trajectory from charismatic preacher and leader to head of a murderous cult.
This return to the cult of Jim Jones is part of a re-examination of dangerous cults and movements in America’s past, like the Osho cult, which had a similar murderous potential. It’s not entirely surprising that many Americans and others want to understand how thousands of people can become blind followers of a tempestuous leader, and how it can end.
Stephan, Jim Jones’ son who was 19 at the time, says the warning signs that went unnoticed at Jonestown can be seen in the world today. He says that to understand how a thing like that can happen, you have to do what leaders like Jim Jones and his successors don’t want us to do – to read.
A patricide forgone
After the slaughter, Stephan Jones was arrested on suspicion of abetting the mass murder and spent three months in a Guyanese prison. After years of struggles that included drug addiction, Jones says he’s now living a pleasant life in the United States with his wife and three daughters. He’s an executive at the office furniture company where he began working immediately after Jonestown.
In a telephone interview he sounds serene, though it can’t be easy for him to talk about the tragedy that took his parents, a number of his siblings and many of his friends.
Is this surge in public interest in Jonestown an exhausting experience for you?
“I wouldn’t say that … I don’t have problems saying no, and I do quite a bit, so I’m feeling it now because I traveled to New York and had a long interview yesterday [with CNN]. After that I didn’t sleep well last night.”
Is it maybe therapeutic?
“I wouldn’t say therapeutic. The therapy that has been helpful to me hasn’t been by talking with strangers about it. I would say that there are times when it’s very enriching to speak with people about it … All too often people want to write everyone off as a bunch of crazies. Like why would they follow such a madman and to such a crazy final act, and we probably know by now that it wasn’t a mass suicide, but that’s how it has been portrayed.”
What would you say is the biggest misconception people have about the Peoples Temple or your father?
“I appreciate that question. I think that I’ll pick two. Number one: People can’t understand what was attractive about Dad. The media has done a poor job; they’ve demonized him. That he was just this crazy zealot this entire time. The guy you see in all the images.
“I think there are different images being shown now, but it’s still too little, too late. I get it, I’m not upset about that. I’m not trying to defend him. I just wish people could understand what was attractive about him. Then they could identify and allow themselves to step into the story and understand how such a thing could happen.
“So the second thing is this whole idea of drinking the Kool-Aid – that’s such a prevalent saying. But the reality is that it was far from a mass suicide. People were forced. How could that be suicide? They were forced. And all of the children died first. People were completely fatigued, exhausted. They felt there was an outside threat, and that was hammered into them.
“Even the few people that actually took the poison. Of those 25 percent that drank the poison, most of those people were just defeated and didn’t know where else to turn and didn’t want to run out on the others. So it was not this grand march to death, far from it. We didn’t see that coming. I guess maybe somebody who hadn’t been in the temple their entire lives and was just stepping into it could’ve seen it coming. But we never felt he would go through with it because we saw him as such a coward.”
Do you think people can ever see your father not just as a villain but as a complex figure?
“Yeah often people do. I think that we all know that in his final days he was certainly a villain, but there are people who just reach out to me because they’ve come upon something I’ve written and they’re able, through me, to see the humanity of it all. It was easy to see and feel what was attractive about my father. He was ill from when he was very young and was using fear to control me when I was barely more than a toddler. But he also tapped into something very real and showed something very real and was very loving, especially during the early period.”
Have your feelings toward your father and his role in your life evolved over the years?
“Oh yeah, I think you can see that from my writing. And it was necessary in my own healing for me to find acceptance for him, understanding of him. You used the word forgiveness, but I find love and compassion for him. And I had good reason to be enraged with him – I was enraged long before he died, and openly so. But a lot of the rage that I kept for years was keeping me from looking at my part and seeing what I hope I would do differently if in similar circumstances. I try not to speak in terms of what I could’ve done because I see no value in that.”
Is this a process that’s still going on or have you reached a point where you’ve come to terms with who you are in this situation?
“I know I’ve reached a better place and I don’t fear lapsing back into the darkest times, but it’s a daily process and one that I’m grateful to have.”
Were you aware that you had a very different childhood than most?
“Well, once we got to California and we were going to public school, there it was very evident to me that my life was very different from the lives of most of the other kids. It was just more controlled. And there was more social rhetoric and action in my life and a lot more fear. A lot more conversation about the outside threat that was anyone that wasn’t in the temple. And I don’t know if it was paranoia. I think it was Dad controlling people through fear, me and my siblings when we were very young.”
He used this kind of threat to control his people. Fear of an external threat was a major component of your father’s philosophy. Did you ever think there might be a physical threat to yourself?
“Yes. I certainly felt there was an outside threat, even when I knew my father was full of it and I was at odds with him in Jonestown. The first attacks on the town, I thought they were real. I thought there were reasons for people to want to get us.
“I had been hammered for years with the message that there was an outside threat, and from an early age my father talked about people wanting to bomb us. And he faked getting shot in Redwood Valley [California] when I was still pretty young, and we felt like we were in danger much of the time. I found relief in the woods and rivers and creeks, and I got away as often as I could, but there was always a low-level anxiety that I only really can identify now.”
Merely trying to impress
Did you notice a point or phase where your father’s behavior shifted and he lost touch with the just causes that he once championed? Or lost touch with reality?
“I believe that it was always a personal agenda for my father, and yes, there was a gradual shift in the balance. I would argue that even a lot of the good works that he wanted to do early on were an attempt to impress my mother and her family.
“And I think he genuinely cared about those things, but my understanding of my father just from my own experience and stories is that unconsciously he was always primarily managing other people’s perception of him. So in my view, even the good works and things he championed were in some way not as pure as folks want to think. I don’t think he went from being an altruistic, selfless, humble man to what he became.
“I noticed them in real time. I mean, I saw things and was privy to things …. It’s not that I had better sight than others; I had a better view of it and it really broke for me when he was unfaithful to my mother and told her about it in detail.”
You describe yourself in your writings as a rebellious kid. Did you ever consider the ultimate rebellious act: to defect from the temple?
“I did. The reason I ended up in Jonestown is that I left. My mother got me an apartment, I got a job and my father came and tried to talk me into coming back. I refused. He asked me to make one last mission with him to Jonestown. He plucked my ego strings, making me feel like he needed me to help him on this mission, but I refused.
“And then he went to my mother. My mother, trying to appease him, made him promise that he wouldn’t leave me down there. He promised that he wouldn’t. I made that last trip with him and he made me stay in Jonestown.
“So yes … there were often thoughts of taking him out but I know I wasn’t capable of that kind of thing. I also didn’t really know what I’d be dealing with if I did, but sadly we were finally at a point where I felt I had enough support and we decided that we were going to take action. Because Dad was such a mess …. He was so wasted most of the time.
“Everyone was waiting for him to take himself out. I don’t know about the inner circle but many of us, and even my brother Tim, when he turned to my side, he wanted to kill my father, he was so angry. And I don’t know that he could actually have done that.
“Well, he was using these words, I don’t know if he’d actually do that, he’s a good and gentle man in so many ways, but he wanted to take dad out, and I was the one to convince him that dad would do that himself and we were going to have chaos on our hands. Which probably wasn’t true. I think most people would have welcomed some kind of action that took Dad out of the picture ... but I didn’t feel like we had enough people to back us up, or I didn’t know those people.”
Because people were disenchanted with him by that time?
“Oh my .... Listen, not long before, we went to play basketball. I had been up all night unloading boats and I had to be at work in a couple of hours so I lay down for two hours of sleep after backbreaking and dangerous work, and Dad comes on the speaker in the wee hours of the morning.
“And I just flew out of bed, grabbed my ax, walked out to the post that was supporting the speaker and raised the ax like I was going to cut it down. And I looked around and there were at least 15 people looking at me. And they were all smiling .... So yes, many people were disenchanted.”
Do you think he felt that?
“I’m sure he feared it and I’m sure he had people telling him it existed. But of course Dad was most terrified about anybody turning against him because it really screwed with the illusion that he had created. And his sense of self resided in his perception of other people’s perception of him. And to have any fray in that fabric would cause an unraveling that he couldn’t handle.”
How do you explain the renewed interest in the Peoples Temple?
“I think there are people who are interested in it because of what’s going on in the world. The reason that I have agreed to talk to as many people as I have is because of that. I make a point of avoiding pointing fingers and giving specific names. I’d rather just talk about what didn’t work and hope that people can see that in their own lives.
“And that’s why it’s so critical that people be wary of any leader who is held as superior to the people they’re leading. And frankly, I’m much more trusting of the reluctant leader, one who says ‘Let’s go’ and not ‘Go.’”
What would you say the biggest lesson is from Jonestown?
“Be aware of this message that was prevalent in the temple: ‘The end justifies the means.’ And I see that throughout society. I see it in politics, I see it in advertising, I see it in a variety of places, and I feel there’s no more pernicious or toxic belief than that. I would argue that the means justify the end, but not the other way around.”