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Hell's 25-Year Echo: The Jonestown Mass Suicide

A reporter who was in the vortex of the cult catastrophe finds survivors still coping.

November 19, 2003|Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — On a grassy slope in Oakland, more than 400 take their final rest, mostly children who were unclaimed or unidentified.

And across San Francisco Bay, a U.S. congressman is buried in a national cemetery not far from a park that bears his name.

Their lives converged 25 years ago Tuesday in a South American jungle clearing that has come to symbolize the worst that organized religion, cults and madness can reap.

"The people of Jonestown were a precious people, family people," the Rev. Jynona Norwood, who lost 27 relatives, told mourners in Oakland. "It is an injustice when people say they were unintelligent.... They had a natural desire for a better life for themselves and their children."

Jungle reclaimed Jonestown years ago. But even now I can see them together in the open-air pavilion there -- Rep. Leo Ryan (D-San Mateo) on stage, microphone in hand, addressing a rainbow of Peoples Temple members from the heartland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Taking their cues from the Rev. Jim Jones, they applauded Ryan on the opening night of his mission to find whether the settlement was the brutal work camp described by escapees or the utopia extolled by supporters.

Within 24 hours, virtually all would be dead. Ryan was shot to death on a nearby airstrip, along with a church defector and three of my fellow newsmen. Then the temple members were killed at the pavilion in a ritual of mass suicide and murder. The final toll: 913.

"We need to remember to remember," Norwood said. "If you can say 1,000 people died and it can easily fall from your lips, you are remembering to forget."

Lost in the sea of books, films, studies and investigations that engulfed Jonestown over the past quarter-century are two simple truths that took me years to fully comprehend. Jones' followers were ordinary people who joined the temple for the best of motives and were betrayed.

And Jones, beneath the sheen of a dashing, raven-haired preacher, was profoundly disturbed for much of his life. His underlying sickness poisoned his life's work and put him on a collision course with those he called his enemies, including me.

"He was a sick, frightened, heartbroken man," said his son Stephan in an interview. "And out of that came this need, or desire, to control every part of his life."

Jones had identified with the underdogs and the oppressed since his Indiana childhood, where he felt the pain of parental neglect and adopted churches as his extended family.

But the seeds of his madness took root there too. At an early age, he conducted cruel experiments on barnyard animals and tried to control his playmates, locking them up in a barn and later threatening his best friend with a gun. These tendencies to control and manipulate people were marks of his adulthood, along with a creeping paranoia, drug abuse and a repertoire of faked attacks on himself.

But he kept them hidden from most of his congregants and outsiders as he built his church in Indianapolis and joined the Disciples of Christ denomination. Peoples Temple was a model of racial integration and social action even before he moved the temple to California, where he established his credentials as a humanitarian civic leader who ran food programs and helped elect San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and other liberal Democrats in the mid-1970s.

My first exposure to the people of the temple came in 1977, when a handful of defectors agreed to meet me and another San Francisco Examiner reporter at a house in the Haight-Ashbury district. They seemed remarkably normal and idealistic, with dreams of a world free of racism and better lives for themselves and their children. They had jobs. Some were college-educated.

But they described a closed universe where families were systematically divided, disciplinary beatings were the norm and sexual exploitation by Jones was a dirty secret shared by too many. And they wanted to stop him.

As some of his secrets were about to see print, Jones moved his flock en masse to the temple's agricultural mission in Guyana. Ryan, after reading one of my stories and hearing complaints from his constituents, headed to Jonestown.

He brought along reporters, believing that we provided a measure of safety. Those of us accompanying the congressman thought he would afford us the same.

But Jones could not allow the congressman to leave with more than a dozen members who stepped forward and wanted out. He knew they would tell the world the ugly truth about Jonestown. About punishment in sensory deprivation boxes and pits. About the meager food and crowded barracks. About the suicide drills conducted by a raging tyrant with a pistol on his hip.

As Ryan's party and the defectors were boarding two small planes, temple gunmen opened fire. Ryan, a defector and three newsmen, including Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, were killed, and many of us were wounded.

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