By Robert Templer

From Gadfly April 1999


"We got tired. We didn't commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhuman world."
— Jim Jones' last statement, heard on a recording of the mass suicides and murders at Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978.

At the edge of Evergreen Cemetery, overlooking a dusty suburb of Oakland, California, is a small granite gravestone. It is inscribed, simply, "In memory of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy." A few feet away is another stone, set flat in the dry earth, that gives some sense of the scale of that tragedy. It was put there by a man whose wife, five daughters, two sons and sister all died in the worst mass suicide and murder of modern times, when nearly one thousand people died in the South American jungle in the apocalyptic end of Jim Jones and his People's Temple cult. On November 18, 1998, people gathered on both sides of the United States to remember the victims of Jonestown and to continue the search for answers. In Oakland, families came together for an annual memorial service at Evergreen Cemetery, organized by Winona Norwood, a preacher from Los Angeles. In Washington, D.C., a small group of scholars went to Capitol Hill to press Congress to release documents about Jonestown that are still classified by the government on grounds of national security. J. Gordon Melton, a scholar at the Institute for the Study of American Religion at Santa Barbara, has led the push to find out what the U.S. government knows about the lingering mysteries of Jonestown and why and how so many people died there. Among this group was Mary McCormick Maaga, a Methodist pastor in New Jersey and a former academic at the University of Sterling, whose new book, Hearing the Voices of Jonestown, has tried to debunk the idea that those who died were passive victims of Jim Jones and instead to explain the forces that shaped their decisions. Inspired by Maaga's friendship with the family of three people who died in Jonestown, Hearing the Voices has challenged some of the most deeply held ideas about Jim Jones and his followers, but it has also evoked criticism that it is too beholden to the current fashions of academia and, in its attempts to understand the motives of those involved in the killings, too forgiving of their actions.

Of the 911 Americans who died at the commune in Guyana after taking grape Fla‑Vor‑Aid laced with cyanide, 234 are buried in a mass grave in Evergreen Cemetery. Most were among the 260 children who died and, lacking dental records, were never identified. It took six months to find a cemetery that would accept the bodies, which were turned away by communities across northern California. Even in Evergreen, nothing marks the number of children buried there. Plans for a memorial wall fell apart over the question of whether to include Jim Jones' name among those who died. Twenty years after the deaths at Jonestown, the People's Temple still inspires horror and incomprehension in California, home of most of Jim Jones' followers. One month after the deaths at Jonestown, a Gallup poll showed that ninety-eight percent of Americans had heard about People's Temple. Only the attack on Pearl Harbor and the dropping of the atomic bomb had greater public awareness. The People's Temple has become the archetypal cult, its members seen as the brainwashed victims of an unhinged man who believed himself the reincarnation of both Jesus and Lenin and turned his charismatic power into a force of destruction. After Jonestown, new religious movements could no longer be benign. They were all seen through the same prism, the Jonestown suicides. Novelists from Anthony Burgess to Armistead Maupin have used Jones as an emblem of an unfathomable evil. The mention of his mundane name still provokes extraordinary reactions: When I told a meeting in San Francisco that I was writing about Jonestown, a man came up to me and hissed, "Don't believe the lies about them. They were all mad. They were all evil."

"I'm going to tell you, without me, life has no meaning. I'm the best thing you will ever have."

In 1955, Jim Jones founded the People's Temple Full Gospel Church in Indianapolis. In the city that once housed the headquarters to the Ku Klux Klan, Jones created a racially integrated church that focused not just on prayer but on social activism. A decade later, Jones, haunted by a vision he had of a nuclear war, moved his congregation to Redwood Valley in northern California, which Esquire magazine had listed as among the safest places in the United States in the event of an atomic attack. That year the church had just eighty-six members, but it grew exponentially, attracting many African‑Americans with its message of racial equality.

In the early 1970s, Jones opened churches in San Francisco and Los Angeles and began a period of political activity, increasing his followers to several thousand. He was a skilled political operator, sending out his followers to canvass voters, and was much courted by California's Democratic elite, including then‑Governor Jerry Brown. Rosalyn Carter tried to win his endorsement for her husband's presidential campaign. People's Temple members campaigned vigorously for the liberal George Moscone for mayor of San Francisco, and after his election, Jones was rewarded with the chairmanship of the city's powerful housing authority. Among the many causes he adopted at that time was a campaign to install a barrier on Golden Gate Bridge to prevent suicides.

As Jones' public power grew, his church was becoming increasingly authoritarian. Members were subjected to violent discipline and demands that they prove their loyalty to Jones. Defectors began telling stories of beatings and ritual humiliation of those who violated Temple rules. The sixteen‑year‑old daughter of two longtime members, Elmer and Deanna Mertle, was beaten on the buttocks seventy-five times in front of a congregation of six hundred for kissing another woman. Always obsessed by the threat of nuclear war, Jones had sent some members to the former British colony of Guyana in 1974 to begin work on "Jonestown," a 3,800‑acre agricultural commune. Jones was attracted by Guyana's isolation, which might protect his followers from nuclear war, and he felt that Guyana's socialist government would be sympathetic.

In 1977, Jones' church came under increased public scrutiny; news articles based on the testimony of defectors accused him of physical and sexual abuse. An article in New West magazine in August of that year detailed the murky world of the temple's political and financial activities and documented complaints of abuse. Jones made the fateful decision to move his followers to Guyana, far from the threats of the media and increasingly hostile Temple apostates. At this time, a group known as the Concerned Relatives began to push for a government investigation into the People's Temple. Two former members of Jones' inner circle, Tim and Grace Stoen, sued for custody of their son, who lived at Jonestown and was believed to have been fathered by Jones. The group enlisted the help of Bay Area Congressman Leo Ryan, who travelled to Jonestown in November 1978 to investigate allegations that Temple members were being held against their will. Along with a group of television and press reporters, he spent a day at Jonestown being shown around and was entertained with a show in the evening. Only some two dozen people chose to leave, but these defections by long-standing members pushed the increasingly fractious Jones and his inner circle over the edge. One man tried to stab Ryan, who was only superficially hurt but decided to leave Jonestown immediately. A group of men followed Ryan back to an airstrip and opened fire on the plane, killing the congressman, three journalists and one of the departing Temple members.

"Where's the vat, the vat, the vat? Where's the vat with the green C on it? The vat with the green C. Bring it so the adults can begin."

Shortly after Ryan was killed, the suicides began, at 6.00 p.m. on November 18, 1978, Jones told his followers that Guyanese troops would soon arrive and kill their children. On the tape of the suicide, he rants about the betrayal of those who had left, suggesting that his followers must now die to prove their loyalty to him. Their deaths, he assured them, would be remembered as "revolutionary suicide." The children were killed first, then the adults, whose bodies were found outside the open‑sided hall where the drink was served, each dose measured out with a syringe. Two nurses marked each person with a cross from a marker when he or she had taken the dose. A calm female voice, never identified, can be heard on the tape reassuring parents that their children are not crying from pain but only because the grape drink and cyanide potion is a little bitter. Jim Jones and a nurse, Annie Moore, were shot in the head. Later, a Temple leader, Sharon Amos, who was in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown, slit her throat and the throats of her three children. The final suicide came a few months later, when the Temple spokesman, Mike Prokes, shot himself in a motel room in California. In all, 923 people died.

"There's nothing to death. It's just stepping over to another plane. Don't be this way. Stop these hysterics. This is not the way for people who are socialists or communists to die."

Some of the impetus to re‑examine Jonestown has come from a surprising source: the family of Carolyn Moore, Jones' long‑standing mistress and one of the inner core of leaders of the People's Temple. Carolyn, Kimo (her son by Jones) and her sister Annie all died at Jonestown. Since then their sister, Rebecca Moore, a professor at the University of North Dakota, has written extensively about Jonestown, mostly defending those who died there, in her books A Sympathetic History of Jonestown and In Defense of the People's Temple. Moore and her parents, a Methodist minister and a social activist who live in California, have not shied away from the horrors of the event but have tried to promote what they believe is a richer understanding of those who died, whom they feel have been stripped of humanity by being labelled as deranged cult members. "My family's response was different from most of the families'," said Moore. "Most people felt this deep shame about it and refused to talk about it, but we did not. My sisters were guilty of planning this event but I can still love them for their humanity." Scholars of new religious movements—they mostly disdain the term cult as derogatory, pointing out that the only difference between a cult and an established faith is time and the acceptance that comes with it—have tried to rework views of Jonestown. The standard analysis, produced in dozens of books soon after the event, portrayed Jones as an evil genius surrounded by a compliant harem of women and a group of mostly African‑American followers lured in by false promises of an escape from poverty and racism.

In her own book, Mary McCormick Maaga turns that view on its head, asserting that by the time the group reached Guyana, Jones' power was on the wane and that he was surrounded by powerful and competent women who were increasingly asserting their control. It is on these women, particularly Carolyn and Annie Moore, that Maaga focused her attention.

"What surprised me when I looked at the People's Temple members and what they said about themselves, is that they didn't see themselves as vulnerable but as empowered members of this community," Maaga says. African-Americans joined not because they were deprived, but because Jones offered them a vision of a society that was not available anywhere else. Maaga writes admiringly of Jones' attempt to create, "an egalitarian society in which hierarchies based upon race, class and gender would be erased," evoking what one critic of the book dismissed as, "the holy trinity of multicultural academia."

It is here that Maaga seems to be shoe‑horning facts together to fit the theory. She attempts to balance scholarship that has focused on mostly discredited ideas about brainwashing in cults by restoring "agency"—current academic jargon for free will—to members of the People's Temple. But she also has to admit that people faced increasing coercion and violence from the mid 1970s onwards, and the beatings and suicide rehearsals increased. Jones, who had been married to his wife Marceline since 1949, had numerous mistresses among the senior women. His relationship to Carolyn Moore was particularly close. They became lovers soon after she joined the People's Temple in the late 1960s, and in 1975 she had a son by Jones. Several other women, including Grace Stoen, one of the leading defectors, had long sexual relationships with Jones. Maaga proposes that Jones was not simply a rapacious sexual predator but engaged in sex with willing followers eager to enhance their power and break down gender hierarchies. But Jones saw himself as so potent that he attributed defections from the group to his refusal to sleep with them. Jones may, as Maaga says, have offered women more power in the group than they might have received outside, but he linked opportunity to controlling and sordid sexual demands. It hardly seems like a step forward for feminism.

Likewise, Jones' professed racial egalitarianism hardly stands up to scrutiny. Around three-fourths of the residents of Jonestown were African-American. Half were African-American women, and yet there were very few African-Americans among the Temple's leadership and Jones did not admit black women into his powerful coterie of mistresses. Even Jones' son Stephan, recognizing this hypocrisy, scathingly referred to his father's mistresses as "sacrificial martyrs" and the Temple's leaders as "the white elite." Stephan, who survived, along with two other brothers, because he was away in Georgetown playing in a basketball tournament when the mass suicide took place, told Maaga in 1992 that Jones was afraid of being revealed to be sexually inadequate if he faced the "aggressive, almost animal‑like sexual appetites" he attributed to black women.

"Please for God's sake let's get on with it. We've lived—we've lived as no other people lived and loved. We've had as much of this world as you're gonna get. Let's just be done with it. Let's be done with the agony of it."

More convincing than Maaga's defense of Jonestown against anti‑cult critics is her attempt to trace the trajectory of the group as it descended toward self‑destruction. She maintains that the suicides were less the result of Jones' overwhelming charisma than of the collapse of his power. "What I wanted to find out was at what point did passion become blindness," she said. "This happened at the point where their focus shifted from worrying more about creating an egalitarian, diverse community to worrying more about what the people who left were saying, when they started to get into the self‑righteous demonization of anyone who disagreed with them."

For five years before the suicides, Jones had been conducting rehearsals for the suicides known as "White Nights." These were tests of loyalty to him that built up the mindset that loyalty meant sacrificing one's life, and that survival was tantamount to betrayal. Those in leadership were obliged to pledge in writing to kill themselves should there be the need to stage a final "White Night." Maaga quotes a chilling letter, believed to have been sent to Jones by Annie Moore, perhaps several years before the deaths, in which Moore discusses different ways to carry out mass suicide. "I never thought people would line up to be killed but actually think a select group would have to kill the majority of people secretly without the people knowing it," she wrote. Long before Congressman Ryan started to investigate Jonestown, the community was already struggling. Two-thirds of the community were young or old, and so the heavy burden of agricultural work fell to just one-third of the group. They were never successful at growing their own food, relying instead on imports from outside. In the heat and humidity of the jungle, people were also getting sick from fungal and parasitic diseases. And yet, despite these difficulties, Maaga argues, it was the community's faith, not in Jones, but in the community they had built at Jonestown, that they refused to forsake.

Jones was increasingly crippled by what was referred to as "his blood-sugar problem"—in fact an addiction to tranquillizers. He was more and more out of touch with reality in Jonestown, spinning apocalyptic tales of nuclear war between China and Russia and telling people that the United States had set up concentration camps for African-Americans. While the Temple members were based in California, they had enough contact with the outside world to balance Jones' more deranged views, but in Jonestown there was less connection to reality. That isolation helped to foster the increasingly intense suspicion of outsiders and fear of defections from the group. "There is some evidence of coup attempts but even if he had been replaced it is quite likely that the suicides would have taken place," said Maaga. "By that stage he didn't really control his own movement, he was more symbolic than anything. Those around him were terrified perhaps of their own desire to leave, their own potential for betrayal."

U.S. pathologists performed only perfunctory autopsies on seven of the badly decomposed bodies from Jonestown, so there is no clear idea of how many adults were injected or forced to drink the cyanide potion. Some accounts of the deaths have suggested that seventy people were killed, along with the 260 children who were murdered, mostly by their parents. More than six hundred willingly went to their deaths. The question of how those people went from having such powerful hope that they could create a utopian society to sinking into such despair may never be answered adequately. Melton and other academics pushing the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee want to see the results of the government investigation that was never released, possibly because of CIA involvement in Guyana. The continued classification of these documents only fuels the baroque conspiracy theories that link Jonestown to everything from the Kennedy assassination to secret mind-control experiments. "We know from some sources that there are a considerable number of documents," said Melton. "There have been a series of requests under the Freedom of Information Act, but all but one have been turned down on the grounds of national security. This is one of the big questions—what security issues could be involved in Jonestown twenty years after the event?" Rebecca Moore said she had a mixed reaction to Maaga's book, which explains more about her two sisters and their actions and also shows them to be more powerful in the organization than previously thought. "What really hit me was the fact that my sisters were responsible for planning and implementing the deaths. He could not have done it alone," she said. "It is also sad to see the despair that took over the community in the last few days—the choice between surviving and betrayal or dying and remaining loyal."