On November 18, 1978,
the leader of
the most deadly non-natural disaster in U.S. history until September 11, 2001 named Jim Jones lead an American cult called the Peoples Temple. More than 900 people died in this mass suicide-murder under the direction of Jones. This mass suicide commonly referred to as the “Jonestown Massacre” is still the largest cult suicide in history.
Updated: A Guide to Follow All True Crime Upcoming Projects
(Note: This post will be updated as new information comes. Feel free to message me if I’m missing something so I can add it)
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interviews with people from Boulder, Colorado, who will talk about the impact
the investigation had on the town.
Jim Jones was a cult
leader responsible for the murder-suicide now known as the Jonestown
Massacre, where 918 people lost their lives. In order to understand how this tragedy happened, it’s important to know how Jonestown began. Who was Jim Jones and how was he able to gain the love, respect and trust from so many that they were willing to die for him?
Jim Jones was born May 13, 1931 in Crete, Indiana. He grew up in a very poor family, residing in a shack with no electricity. From a very young age Jones had an obsessive interest in religion. As a child, he would hold sermons in his backyard and have neighborhood children attend his church services. Sometimes
when the children wanted to leave, Jones would lock all the doors and
refuse to let them leave, forcing them to stay and listen to his
sermons. He was very harsh on children who were not as interested in
church as he was and would take personal offense. By the age of 16,
Jones was preaching to both black and white churches, which was highly
unusual, as the city was still segregated. But Jones had a very upbeat
and friendly personality and he was very passionate about the poor and
the underrepresented, and empathized with the non-whites.
After graduating high
school, Jim went to college to study medicine and began working as a
hospital orderly. During that time in 1949, Jim met Marceline Baldwin, a
nurse who worked in the same hospital. After dating for a short time,
Jim and Marceline would get married. A
few years later in 1952, Jim was working as a student pastor in a
Methodist church and the congregation did not take kindly to Jim’s
beliefs in desegregation. It is important to note that the Ku Klux Klan
was very well known in Indiana during the time Jones resided there. At one time, there were more members in the KKK there than in any other state. Around
250,000 men were members of the Indiana KKK at its peak, which included
many prominent government officials, police and the like. Racial
tension was at an all time high and Jones preaching about loving your
neighbor of all colors and interracial congregations was neither
accepted, nor tolerated. Jones had no choice but to resign as pastor. It was then that he formed his own congregation. Originally
the church was known as Community Unity and it focused on Christian
beliefs. It was during his time of running the Community Unity that
Jones decided that there was no God because if there was, there wouldn’t
be so much poverty, hatred and inequality in the world. He
then decided he would no longer be preaching of God and religion, but
rather shifting his focus to what he was passionate about: poverty and
people of all colors being treated fairly and equal. In 1956, Jones
created the People’s Temple.
From the beginning, the
People’s Temple was prominent in the civil rights movement. Jones was
responsible for desegregating the police department, movie theaters,
restaurants, hospitals and other businesses in Indianapolis.
Additionally, the Temple opened up a soup kitchen for the homeless and
poor, had free housing available for senior citizens and the mentally
ill and Jim and Marceline even opened up their own home for homeless and
unwed mothers. It was the first time in history that people were
publicly offering assistance to people regardless of their race. It
was also at this time that Jim and Marceline adopted a Native American
child, three Korean children and became the first white family in
Indiana to adopt a black child. This adoption took place in 1961, the
same year the freedom fighters tried to desegregate buses in Alabama and
were brutally attacked. Because of the integration and desegregation
Jim Jones was responsible for, the residents of the city felt threatened
and would send the family death threats and spit on them in public. Many
of the people in Indianapolis of all races saw what Jones was trying to
accomplish and they wanted to be a part of it. They saw that he was
really for the people and trying to make a good, positive change in the
world. Needless to say for all the good they were trying to do, they were met with hatred, threats of violence and even assaults. Jones
decided that it was no longer safe for his family in Indianapolis and
they moved to Brazil. They were only there for a short time before
returning to the United States, but this time making California their
home. Many of the original Temple members, around 150 from Indiana, made
the move to California with the Jones family.
Not everything was love
and peace in the family. Jim’s wife Marceline was very unhappy
about Jim renouncing his faith in God. Marceline still considered
herself a Christian and would still pray to the Lord, which angered Jim
greatly. At times, he would threaten Marceline that he’d commit suicide
if she continued praying to God. He was also extremely jealous and did
not want anyone giving his wife any kind of attention, even though he
was known to carry on affairs quite often. Jim also developed a drug
addiction to prescription pills that would cause erratic mood swings and
bouts of paranoia. In
fact, the move to California was due to Jim’s paranoia and a vision he
had of nuclear holocaust. He felt they would be safe from the disaster
By the early 70’s in
California, Temple membership had grown considerably. Word had spread
all over the country about Jones and his refreshing approach to race
relations. During this time, People’s Temple had approximately 2,500
members. Jones began preaching to his people quotes from the Bible, even
though he denounced his faith. He would find things that were fitting
for him to go with his own selfish desires and wants and use the Bible
as a backup source. An example of this would be Jones quoting Matthew
19:21, which reads, “Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go,
sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure
in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Temple members wound up
doing just that. They sold their homes and cars and gave all of the
money to the Temple. The ones who had jobs and continued to work would
turn over their entire paycheck to the Temple. The elderly who drew
retirement and social security would turn over their entire checks to
the Temple. In their minds, they were contributing to the “Good Cause”. He
made his members feel loved, safe and hopeful. While he was kind to
everyone, he was especially compassionate to the poor and the
uneducated. The majority of his followers were classified as such and to
them, he was a savior. They wanted somewhere to belong and fit in and
something to be proud of. He gave them all of that and more. All of them
referred to him as “father” and had nothing but respect for him. His
speeches were so uplifting to his members, even when he said ridiculous
things such as he was the reincarnation of Jesus or Buddha, they just
went with it. As new people would come to check out the organization and
their charismatic leader, Jim’s ego demanded more and more followers
and praise. Additionally, he was always looking to make more money. He
again began his practices of faking miracles and healings, something that garnered a little bit of attention in his earlier years, but this was on a much bigger level. He would use his members to pretend
to cure cancer and other ailments, making blind people see again,
making people in wheelchairs walk again. These events were well-planned
and thought out and with his large organization acting like they had
witnessed an actual miracle (most were not privy to the behind the
scenes operation and planning and truly believed that he was
legitimately Jesus incarnate and performing miracles) many visitors
would believe too. Even
though Jones would lie and manipulate, during his speeches he would
come across as honest, vibrant, caring and positive. He was liked and
well respected by not only the Temple, but the entire community.
As Jim Jones became more
dependent on drugs and his paranoia grew, he began using scare tactics
on his followers. He would tell them that people were plotting against
them, including the CIA. To his followers, this was terrifying. They
felt all they had was each other and their “father”. He also made sure
to increase the dedication people had for him as well as making them
more disciplined followers. He began making ridiculous claims to his
members, informing all the males in his organization that they were all
homosexual, all of them but him. He
would have sex with the male members to prove to them that they liked
it. Additionally, he would have sex with the women members and then
during their daily meetings, they were expected to speak on what
horrible lovers their husbands were and what a great lover Jones was. He
eventually informed his members that they were not allowed to have sex,
not even the married couples. Essentially, the only time anyone was
“allowed” to have sex was when it was with Jim Jones.
In the early 70’s Jones
and his “church” was accused by the media of financial fraud, physical
abuse of its members and mistreatment of children. It was while this was
going on that Jones purchased some land in Guyana in an effort to move
himself and the entire People’s Temple so as to avoid the people who
were supposedly plotting against him and trying to ruin him. It
was his goal to create a utopian society here, free of racism and
worry, but also to seemingly gain much more control over his followers.
Initially there was a small group of members sent to Guyana to begin
building houses, plant crops and prepare the area for all the members. In
the mean time, Jim Jones got to work holding meetings, letting all the
members know what was to be expected of their move and the tropical
paradise that awaited them, getting passports made of all of his members
and continuing to try to make as much money as possible. Eventually Jim Jones and 1,000 of his members all made the move to Guyana and arrived at the compound known as Jonestown. What
they arrived to was anything but the heaven they were told it would be.
The houses were not yet completed, nor was anything else complete
because Jones did not want to spend a lot of money on the project. It
was less like paradise and more like a concentration camp. Jones
informed the members that no one was allowed to leave and to reinforce
that, he stationed armed guards around the property. Additionally, he
confiscated their passports so they could not leave. He also confiscated
outgoing mail so members could not get a hold of any family or friends
outside of Jonestown. Some worried family members made phone calls to
Jonestown and Jim and his closest members would listen in on the calls
to make sure no one was out of line. Members were expected to work on the land day and night, with minimal breaks and very little food. With
Jones treating his members horribly, it’s no surprise that he was
always on edge, wondering if they were plotting against him. He
installed an intercom system in Jonestown with a loud speaker and would
get on the speaker at all hours, day and night, drunkenly preaching to
his members, many times speaking of upcoming doom and an apocalypse. He
began holding mock suicide drills in the middle of the night due to his
thoughts of the US government being out to destroy him. Members were
publicly beaten for disobeying as well as threatened with death.
Coupling the new environment making members extremely vulnerable with
the physical and psychological abuse and brainwash, there wasn’t much
members could do at this point in time other than being obedient and
subservient to Jones.
There were a few people who did successfully leave the People’s Temple, most notably Bob Houston. Houston’s mutilated body was found near some train tracks after leaving the Temple. US
representative Leo Ryan was good friends with Bob Houston’s father and
coupled with the abuse allegations he had heard were happening at
Jonestown and the mysterious death of his friend’s son that had recently
defected, Ryan decided he would fly to Guyana to investigate the
supposed utopian society and see if members were truly happy there or if
they were being held there against their will, as it had been told to
him. Ryan brought with him some concerned family members, people working for the media and photographers. Jones
got word of the visit and made sure to explain to his members how they
would behave and how they would represent Jonestown. They
were told to prepare the best food (including a lot of meat, which
Temple members were not allowed to eat otherwise due to its high cost)
and to be thankful for Jones at all times. On
November 17, 1978, Ryan and his crew (who had been in Guyana for three
days and were being refused to be let into Jonestown) were finally
allowed to enter the compound. For
the most part, the People’s Temple put on a very convincing show for
Ryan, praising Jones for all of his hard work and dedication. They
expressed how happy they were in Jonestown and stayed on their best
behavior for fear of what would be done to them if they didn’t. However,
one rather brave Temple member, (and a wonderful personal friend of
mine) Vernon Gosney, slipped a note to one of the reporters that arrived
with Ryan. In the note, Gosney pleaded for help getting out of
Jonestown. The letter was signed by both him and another Temple member,
Monica Bagby. Jones asked Ryan and his group to leave for the night and
the next day, they arrived to interview more members. During the
interview, another woman came forward stating that she wished to leave
Jonestown with her family, as well as another family. It was made known
to Jones that some people wanted to leave and he pretended he was okay
with that, that they were free to go at any time. After interviews
concluded on November 18, 15 people in total were to leave Jonestown
with representative Ryan. Hidden amongst the 15 was one man, Larry
Layton, who was only posing as a Temple defector and had no intention on
leaving. Once they
arrived at the airstrip, 2 planes were available to the group. Larry
Layton boarded the small, six passenger plane. Once on the airstrip, he
began shooting Temple members who were on the plane, wounding several.
Temple members who escorted the people to the planes began shooting at
the other plane, killing Leo Ryan, 1 Temple member and and 3
journalists. 9 others were wounded. All of the survivors ran and hid
into the nearby fields.
As the shootings were
happening at the airstrip, Temple associates were given orders by Jones
to prepare a drink, enough for all of Jonestown, consisting of grape
Flavor-Aid, cyanide, Valium, chloral hydrate and Phenergan. Jones called
all of his members to the pavilion for a meeting. 44 minutes of said meeting was recorded and is known as “The Death Tape”. Jones informed his followers that he knows someone who boarded those planes
were going to shoot the pilot, which would cause the death of all of the
people on the planes and hinting that this would lead to the government
coming to Jonestown and taking everyone’s children away. He then
encouraged his members to drink the Flavor-Aid concoction and commit
revolutionary suicide. That they would be heroes and forever remembered
as revolutionaries. Many of the first to take the poison were parents
who used syringes to squirt into the children’s mouths, then doing the
same to themselves. Others simply drank it. Some members thought this was another fake suicide drill until they witnessed people dying and then fear and panic set in. Jones
can be heard on the Death Tape telling members to die with dignity, and
that death is preferable to life at that point. It has been said that
many were forced to take the drink at gun point. A few members managed
to hide under beds and avoided death. A couple others managed an escape
and ran through the fields. Jim Jones did not drink the poison, instead,
his death was caused by a single gunshot wound to the head. No one
knows whether it was self-inflicted or if another member did it. One
other woman was found dead with a gunshot wound. Additionally, a woman
named Sharon Amos was working at the Jonestown headquarters in
Georgetown. She received a radio communication from Jonestown informing
her to commit revolutionary suicide. She took her three children into
the bathroom and stabbed two of them to death, then had one assist her
in stabbing herself to death, followed by the last of her children
Many of the Temple
members who fled into the jungle were lost for days and nearly died, but
a Guyanese government plane flew in and located them. Others made their
way to Georgetown, staying at cafes, and some staying with local
Larry Layton was found
guilty of conspiracy and of aiding and abetting the murder of
Congressman Leo Ryan and of the attempted murder of Richard Dwyer. While
the only person ever found guilty of any happenings at Jonestown, he
was paroled in 2002.
In total, 918 individuals
lost their lives at Jonestown. It was the largest death toll of
civilians by human acts up until the 9/11 tragedy. Jim Jones was
cremated and his ashes scattered at sea. His wife and three of their children who died at Jonestown are buried in Richmond, Indiana (The oldest daughter left the People’s Temple before the move to Guyana and two of their sons survived Jonestown by being out of the area for a basketball game).
The bodies of over 400 of those who died in Guyana are buried in a mass-grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California. A memorial listing all 900+ casualties, including Jim Jones, was completed at the grave site in 2011.
Magazine covers loudly proclaim the horror of over 900 cultists committing mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana. Most of the cultists drank poisoned cups of Kool-Aid or other sweet drinks and simply lay down on the ground to to die, leaving behind a horrific scene for authorities to discover after several days of scorching weather. The charismatic leader of the self-proclaimed “Peoples Temple”, Reverend Jim Jones, was found dead of a gunshot wound in his hut.
An interview with Laura Johnston Kohl, a survivor of the Jonestown Massacre
Why did you join Peoples Temple?
The United States was going through critical growing pains in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. In the decade of the 1960s, five American heroes were shot and killed by vigilantes - John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers - and many more besides these heroes. Then, we got into the war in Vietnam. I did not want the world run by bullies, nor by vigilantes. I tried as a single, naive woman to change some things - but was pretty powerless, it turned out. When I met Jim Jones, and joined Peoples Temple, I thought Jim would protect me, and stand for issues I felt were important. He had adopted children of many races, had gathered a huge interracial congregation, and stood with other leaders of our times - Angela Davis, Cesar Chavez, Dennis Banks, many in the LGBTQ community in San Francisco, and others. It seemed like a perfect fit, even though I was an atheist. Jim’s efforts were to move people into activism.
What was it about Jim Jones that first attracted you to the Temple?
From the first time I met Jim, in Redwood Valley, I was impressed at his inclusion and affection for all of us. He would hug, smile, congratulate, assist and nurture all of us regardless of age, sex, income, education, and life experience. He would be the one to notice the people cleaning up or working hard, or setting up events. His concern seemed genuine. In his own life, he and his wife had adopted five children of many races, sometimes having to fight a system opposed to household integration. They did it. His wife seemed to be as enchanted with him as the rest of us, which I thought was remarkable. And, he had political allies who were my heroes of the time - Angela Davis, Cesar Chavez, Dennis Banks, and others. In San Francisco, we were supportive of all diverse community members. There was not only a vision of what we could be, we could look around and see that we had already arrived in a small measure. Certainly, we had more work to do, but we were an inclusive interracial community, and determined to continue the fight.
The public persona certainly differed with the reality, even at that time. But, I did not see that part.
Some of the literature on the Peoples Temple paints a picture of abusive practices. Such as catharsis sessions, physical beatings and suicide drills even before the move to Guyana. How apparent were they?
I disagree that the catharsis sessions were always abusive. Jim ran the Temple as if he were the Godfather of a huge family. He was in charge. He took people to task if our work was shoddy, or our behavior was off, if he or others noticed issues. To this day, I have “family meetings” with my husband and foster son to resolve issues and organize our lives. Sometimes that happened in the Peoples Temple Family Meetings. The abuse part was to have Jim making a decision, stating a problem, and then not allowing the person to respond, or to refuse to listen to problems that needed resolution within the church. Jim could never be questioned. Never. That is abuse. A healthy catharsis is not abuse. Catharsis was the wrong word for much of what went on in our Family Meetings. We had dictatorship laying down rules, and not allowing discussion or defense. Because Jim took the role of everyone’s “father” he managed the discipline of the members. The beatings were outrageous, and even created life-long disabilities. The suicide drills were an early clue of Jim’s power-tripping. I wrote them off as just one more of his antics to get us more unified and to work harder. I think that the most relevant thing about the suicide drills was that NO ONE COULD EVER HAVE IMAGINED that Jim, the person who got relatives out of prison, who fought in courts for children and adults, who got people legal and medical help, who adopted his own children and seemed to love all children, and who spoke up for human and civil rights would or could EVER take our lives. Every family had had some relative or close friend helped. Everyone had a story.
Former members have described Jonestown as one of the best things that happened to them. Conversely, it has also been likened to a concentration camp. What was your experience of Jonestown? Did people tell you they wanted to leave?
I was one of the members who loved Jonestown. I always felt that there were many positives of our community, and that the problems would be sorted out and resolved once we did not have to work so hard building everything. If you look at a photo of Jonestown - built in just over 3 years, you will see how amazing it became in that short time. We were humping to make it less primitive and more functional and livable. I did not see things that would not be remedied as soon as our full-out building was done. For people who were not happy in Jonestown, it was a prison. You could not leave. Jim asked people to work hard and that after two years, anyone would be free to go. Many were rightly skeptical. Jim did not ever want anyone to leave. He took it as a personal betrayal and defeat. Even when about 20 people wanted to go with Congressman Ryan, he was overwhelmed. Twenty people out of 1,000. His paranoia and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (even besides his drug addiction) did not allow him to see that in perspective. For those of us in Jonestown, since people did not speak about how they wanted to leave (much as in Hitler’s Germany, where parents were reported by their children or neighbors), I had no idea that people seriously wanted out. I was a zealot so no one would have told me.
As a former member, how do you view the tragic ending of the Peoples Temple?
Jim Jones talked about revolutionary suicide in the death tape, however some scholars view it as mass murder?
The term “Revolutionary Suicide” was coined by Huey Newton, for his book published in the early 1970s. It was the rhetoric of the times, and was used at a time when the disenfranchised poor and people of color were reacting to the abuses of their neighborhoods. Many were saying that if they were to be killed by police or others anyway, they chose to decide the when and where. (That is a rough paraphrase) The deaths in Jonestown were murders. No good came out of the deaths, except that Jim got all the fame and infamy about the community just as he wanted. He never shared leadership.
How was Jim Jones’ behavior?
At the beginning, when I was part of the smaller Redwood Valley Peoples Temple, Jim’s behavior was inclusive, and consistent with the ideas he shared. He did work to get rid of racism within the Temple. Once he moved to San Francisco with many of his members from Redwood Valley, and many new members, I only saw him in public. He was very polished in public. I felt like I knew the “real” Jim Jones and so did not watch him as critically as I should have.
How did you feel inside the community?
The people I met in Peoples Temple were the best, most dedicated and diverse people I have met in my life. Many people made huge sacrifices because we all felt that we could create a safe community for our friends and family, and be a role-model community for the larger world. We worked tirelessly, and felt that each day, we accomplished a lot. I loved the Peoples Temple community, from the communes I lived in and the entire family - which is what it felt like to me.
Was sex an important element?
Jim was married, had a long-time mistress, and continued to have multiple partners over the years. He would justify having sex by telling us why these people “needed” him to show his care or his appreciation for their beauty - really, blaming the victim. And then, he used sex as a further control over that person. I would say that others in the Church were not invited to have multiple partners, and instead earned Jim’s trust be being celibate. He often referred to people as most trustworthy because they were single. He preferred everyone to have a personal connection with him, no room for others or rather, no distraction from others.
When and why did you leave the community?
I did not leave the community. I happened to be working in Georgetown from late October through the deaths in Jonestown on November 18, 1978.
How did Jones maintain such a strong control over the members?
First, Jim Jones was extremely smart. He just outsmarted us by knowing what to say to pull us in. He would speak and be sure he covered exactly what each person or group wanted to hear. I was always political, along with many other members. He would be sure to include politics and a political message in each sermon. Many members were religious, and he would be sure to include that as well. He was well-versed in the bible, although I have a strong opinion that it was useful for him, rather than it being his core belief. Religion was a magnet he could use to draw people in. Then, he would teach and model how activism was essential in interacting with the world.
Second, Jim actually helped nearly every family. He could write letters to get people out of jail or on probation, or get leniency. He helped get people off of drugs, into housing, into communes with shared resources so everyone had a safe place to stay, with enough food. He provided free legal help and got medical attention to members when they had been denied help. Really, every family was impacted by the services provided in Peoples Temple. People could not fathom that he would do them harm when he had so tenderly cared for them or their loves ones over the years. He was powerful because of his deeds. He took care of people.
As a consequence, people did not admit to seeing his flaws. His drug addiction and personality disorder, which worsened in Jonestown, were hidden by his closest nurses/mistresses/secretaries. His reputation was protected vigilantly. Most of us had no clue about how he was disintegrating right in front of us. Even people who did see some problems had no idea that he was so mentally ill that he would kill 917 people and himself.
There had been no precedent in US history of a leader killing nearly 1,000 people. No one in Peoples Temple - or very few, because some did see it on the horizon and left - could have imagined that end. We thought any issues in the community could be fixed as we settled into Jonestown and didn’t have to work so hard.
How did you feel the People’s Temple was taking a stand for social justice?
From the first day, I realized that Jim Jones had an adopted family of all races - Black, Native American, Asian, and his “home grown” son. He and his wife were the first white couple in the State of Indiana to adopt a Black child - Jim Jones Jr. His congregation was the same - mixed race, mixed socio-economic levels, mixed education. This was in the 1960s and 1970s, in a country that JUST passed the Civil Rights Act. Even today, that is not the norm.
From there, we moved on to supporting emerging groups - we spoke up for the LGBTQ community in San Francisco, the American Indian Movement, the Farmworkers, really, all of them. They were us and we were them. We wrote letters to Judges to get family members and community members released from prison, and helped be the voice for the voiceless. That was our mission and we did it tirelessly.
In the late 1960s, I think that was Jim at his “purest.” He always had a borderline personality disorder - and power issues - he wanted all the power, over all of us. But, it really started eroding what he was doing in the early 1970s when he was so successful with the powerful in San Francisco and in California.
What did you see was your role in fighting for social justice?
In high school, I had been active in integrating my neighborhood in Maryland, and in the fight for equality and putting an end to segregation. In college in Connecticut, I worked hard on civil and human rights, and demonstrated to end the war in Vietnam, among other things.
After college, and a brief marriage, I went to Woodstock - but wasn’t interested in being immersed in that culture. Then I lived and worked with the Black Panthers for about 6 months. That did not work for me as a naive, and optimistic young girl.
When I moved to California and met Jim Jones and Peoples Temple - I thought of Jim as a protector who would enable me to continue on with my political activism. That was my life-blood.
How do you think the social issues of the time affected the rise of the People’s Temple?
I know that the society going through such upheaval (with the murders of so many leaders in the 1960s (MLK, the Kennedys, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers), with the war in Vietnam being so unpopular, and with Civil Rights and civil abuses so much in all of our minds made Jim’s rise to a political position meteoric. He was at the right place (SF) and at the right time to become a spokesperson for many of the disenfranchised.
What do you see as the impact of Jonestown on society?
Jonestown had the POTENTIAL to show the world that racism and abuse did not have a role in our society and that we should get rid of both in our communities. Those of us who went to Jonestown thought that we could prove to the world that our kind of mixed and fluid society worked. We thought we could keep our kids safe from drugs, give them a community that valued them, and … That is what we thought. What we didn’t know was that jim had so deteriorated in mental health, and had become so drug-addicted, that he stood in the way of that happening.
Could you describe what the transition into life after the People’s Temple was for you?
When I came back from Guyana, I was totally shell-shocked. I moved back into the San Francisco Temple building on Geary and Fillmore for four months until the Conservator assigned to sell off the assets of Peoples Temple kicked us out. Then, I lived in several different communes of Peoples Temple survivors for the next ten months. The government put a lien on my passport, saying I had to reimburse the $500 they spent to bring me back from Guyana, since I was one of those who received a subpoena to appear before the Grand Jury. I went to work, got a job, and went to school at night. I was putting one foot forward at a time - but not yet determined that I wanted to keep going. It was very difficult and we survivors were not much help to each other or to ourselves.
After a year of trying to make my decision about survival, I moved into a community I had been spending time with - Synanon. Synanon was a residential drug treatment program when it started in the 1950s, but it had become a fully-functioning diverse community with both former drug addicts and “squares” - those who did not become drug addicts. Over the years, there were thousands of residents who passed through. When I moved in in 1980, there were roughly 50% squares and 50% former drug addicts. Synanon took good care of me. However, there are some events mostly from before I moved in that were illegal and problematic. Some of my fellow survivors from Peoples Temple were anxious for me, moving into another “cult.” Synanon closed in 1990, when the IRS rescinded tax status because of profits we were making in selling advertising products.
While in Synanon, I married my current husband, Ron, and my son was born.
In 1990, we moved out. I went back to school and got my California Clear Teaching Credential. I started teaching in 1994. I also became a Quaker in 1994.
After 20 years of keeping my head in the sand, I went to the 20th Anniversary Gathering at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, where most of those murdered in Guyana were buried. That was when my healing began - once I realized I would and could never forget. My life in Peoples Temple is part of who I am today. Once I admitted to myself that I am forever changed - somehow, I could work with that and fully move on.
In the early 2000s, I started public speaking. I wrote and published my book JONESTOWN SURVIVOR: An Insider’s Look in 2010. I continue speaking about Peoples Temple and my experiences.
How would you like history to remember the people of Jonestown?
The people of Peoples Temple were wonderfully committed and optimistic people who wanted a better world and who were willing to make great sacrifices to bring it about. We were so determined, we failed to watch Jim enough, especially at the end. In Jonestown, his mental and physical health deteriorated, and he and his secretaries/mistresses/nurses were able to hide the disintegration.
In your opinion, what do you think is the historical significance of Jonestown and the People’s Temple?
There is an enormous historical significance of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Here are just a FEW:
Leaders can never be given absolute loyalty.
Insanity can be very well hidden.
There is no time and place where critical thinking and observation can be turned off.
There are certain behaviors of cult-leaders that are recognizable:
Wanting to take members away from family and loved ones who are not a part of the group
Moving the group to a remote location
Creating a we/they belief system
Refusing any questioning or corrections of the leaders
Keeping members exhausted and poor
Never assigning anyone as a replacement
Really, it is a very long list.
Are there any misconceptions about the People’s Temple that you would like to correct?
There are many misconceptions. The primary one that I always want to address is the nature of the membership. We were bright, hardworking, and optimistic people. It was unimaginable to us that Jim Jones, who had gotten our family members out of jail, into the hospital, into shared housing where there was enough food, and kids into safer environments - and so much more. It was just not possible that the same person would become so mentally imbalanced that he would murder or assist in murdering 918 people.
#1) Sociopaths are charming. Sociopaths have high charisma and tend to attract a following just because people want to be around them. They have a “glow” about them that attracts people who typically seek guidance or direction. They often appear to be sexy or have a strong sexual attraction. Not all sexy people are sociopaths, obviously, but watch out for over-the-top sexual appetites and weird fetishes.
#2) Sociopaths are more spontaneous and intense than other people. They tend to do bizarre, sometimes erratic things that most regular people wouldn’t do. They are unbound by normal social contracts. Their behavior often seems irrational or extremely risky.
#3) Sociopaths are incapable of feeling shame, guilt or remorse. Their brains simply lack the circuitry to process such emotions. This allows them to betray people, threaten people or harm people without giving it a second thought. They pursue any action that serves their own self interest even if it seriously harms others. This is why you will find many very “successful” sociopaths in high levels of government, in any nation.
#4) Sociopaths invent outrageous lies about their experiences. They wildly exaggerate things to the point of absurdity, but when they describe it to you in a storytelling format, for some reason it sounds believable at the time.
#5) Sociopaths seek to dominate others and “win” at all costs. They hate to lose any argument or fight and will viciously defend their web of lies, even to the point of logical absurdity.
#6) Sociopaths tend to be highly intelligent, but they use their brainpower to deceive others rather than empower them. Their high IQs often makes them dangerous. This is why many of the best-known serial killers who successfully evaded law enforcement were sociopaths.
#7) Sociopaths are incapable of love and are entirely self-serving. They may feign love or compassion in order to get what they want, but they don’t actually FEEL love in the way that you or I do.
#8) Sociopaths speak poetically. They are master wordsmiths, able to deliver a running “stream of consciousness” monologue that is both intriguing and hypnotic. They are expert storytellers and even poets.
#9) Sociopaths never apologize. They are never wrong. They never feel guilt. They can never apologize. Even if shown proof that they were wrong, they will refuse to apologize and instead go on the attack.
#10) Sociopaths are delusional and literally believe that what they say becomes truthmerely because they say it! Charles Manson, the sociopathic murderer, is famous for saying, “I’ve never killed anyone! I don’t need to kill anyone! I THINK it! I have it HERE! (Pointing to his temple.) I don’t need to live in this physical realm…”