The Suicide Cult: The Inside Story of the Peoples Temple Sect and the Massacre in Guyana
Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account
Hold Hands and Die!: The Incredibly True Story of the People’s Temple and the Reverend Jim Jones
Six Years With God: Life Inside Reverend Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple
Any spectacle of human credulity is painful. Now, three months after the terrible deaths in Guyana, nearly two thirds of the bodies still lie unclaimed, unwanted, unburied, in some government depot under a Polynicean gloom of disapproval—in a mood, even, of unspoken anger that has stolen in upon the dismay and pity of the first days. Imagine parents who could kill their own children, people say now. We feel now that those people were fools, and fools could be us, and so we are anxious to know what happened, how it could happen. You can’t know the moral of a story until you know the whole plot.
Things that seemed as plain at first as the documentary film from the hand-held camera of the murdered newsman, or from the helicopter photos of the festive-looking dead, now seem obscure, the questions mostly remain unanswered, the moral issues unresolved, and criminal matters proliferate. A continuing frenzy of investigation and denunciation is presumably more than mere acrimony, scapegoating, face-saving, or even skin-saving, though elements of all these are present. We really want to know. In Washington, Senator Dole has begun an investigation of cults, which is objected to by Jewish and Christian leaders, and by leaders of other cults. Former members of the Peoples Temple are denouncing Jim Jones, one another, government inaction—by California and federal authorities who had been warned of Temple conditions—and government corruption—by Guyanese officials who took bribes and, in San Francisco, coverups by high officials who were compromised by their association with Jones. All these suspicions, accusations, appear to have foundation. Self-recrimination is notably absent all round.
Temperate press comment indicts abstractions: “society,” “poverty,” “ignorance,” “alienation.” Psychiatrists name “hunger for transcendence,” or even “la grande crise libidinale…le nouveau mal du siècle.” The rest of the country likes to think it’s California that brings out these weird crimes, and the foreign press blames America itself, or capitalism. The many lawyers are plausibly blaming each other; and other convincing denunciations come from black leaders, who are blaming white people.
It seems clear that the white and black faithful so piously associated in the Peoples Temple were infected with two distinct strains of credulity not equally lethal, to judge from the bright white faces of the Temple upper echelon—prudent lieutenants splitting in good time before the event, away playing basketball or stealing out of the jungle with bags of gold. Most of the Temple elite were white. Most of the people who died were black.
In early February a meeting in San Francisco of the National Conference of Black Churchmen and the Southern Christian Leadership Council took the persuasive view that “trusting blacks have been led down a path of deception to their own destruction by persons who stand outside the black experience,” and that Guyana was “a tragedy perpetrated upon the black masses by unscrupulous and unprincipled white leadership,” which is obviously true, as very often before. But in the interest of seeing that everyone comes in for a share of the blame, it could certainly be held that black leadership, in its zeal to cure whites of their racism, has done little to encourage black people to value education, and the powers of analysis and penetration that education supposedly confers; and that black ministers in particular sustain a traditional style of histrionic worship in which real and false prophets are no doubt more easily confused.
By “unscrupulous white leadership,” the ministers were probably speaking, more broadly than just of Jones, of all those white folks who were involved, and who appeared so solicitous of black welfare, so tolerant of fake cancer cures or any trick to lure people to the Temple for their own good. “Young women aides dressed in gray wigs, dark glasses to hide blue eyes, and skin dye faked crippling diseases,” Javers and Kilduff report.
Anyhow, “unscrupulous” seems in one way too mild, in another too severe a word for Jim Jones, the crazy despot, tormented in his paranoia as his faithful, firm in their trust, were not. Jones is no mystery, only a kind of antinomian victim, playing the part of deranged demagogue with scrupulous attention to tradition. In the course of his deterioration he omitted no detail we have come, from our experience of Mr. Kurtz, Emperor Jones, Idi Amin, to expect: caprice, vanity, avarice, sexual excess, growing panic. His is a kind of huge version of the paternal exasperation we have seen in other fathers who kill their families. His torments become the reflex of his growing disgust for his followers, he moves from peevish autocracy to murderous rage. The people doing his bidding were sane. ” ‘You don’t know how such a life tries a man like Kurtz,’ cried Kurtz’s last disciple,” in the tones of a California lawyer.
After three months, to reread the three instant books published within days of the Guyana events is to be struck by how little has been added since then to our understanding of the duped and sad people who died there. Just as we knew Jones, we recognize the place itself in these accounts from its prefiguration in other books. People have always imagined Guyana: it is the heart of darkness. We know the landscape, the figurative meaning of the word “jungle.” We have already read of the perversions, the sexual appetites of the mad leader, the tricks, in nineteenth-century Gothics like The Monk or The Secrets of the Black Nunnery Revealed. We might have read of the airstrip massacre in some Tarzan tale.
People tend to denigrate instant books as somehow morally despicable attempts to cash in on an occasion of pain and terror, but our desire for them, as much as the tradition to which they belong, legitimizes them. They were got up frantically by reporters and staffs of newspapers, from witnesses and from feverish researches, and the parts don’t entirely fit, but, being familiar with the genre and with all the metaphors, we can fill in the gaps ourselves. Even the form of these books—different chapters set up by different printers—mirrors the haste, the urgency, the immensity of human curiosity. What they sacrifice in accuracy they gain in the authentic animation of tone, and because they end, as the circumstances of their publication dictate, just after the climax, without responsibility for the dénouement, they emerge with the shapely significance of fiction.
The Suicide Cult was written by Marshall Kilduff and an eyewitness, Ron Javers, reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle. Guyana Massacre is the Washington Post‘s account, by Charles Krause, who was also in Guyana, and others. Each book has its special advantage, and the two are complementary. Suicide Cult is better on Jones and the history of the Peoples Temple because of a lot of prior research by Kilduff, who had been looking into the Temple for years and had published an exposé in New West in 1977 which precipitated Jones’s departure for his Guyana colony. The Washington Post staff addresses some of the wider implications of the event in useful appendices of the affidavit of accusations made against the Peoples Temple by Deborah Layton Blakey in June 1978, correspondence between Leo Ryan and Mark Lane, and Justice Department material pertaining to the civil rights of cult members which, it feels, are
…complicated by the difficulty, if not impossibility, of determining whether a member conforms his actions to the dictates of a sect leader because of a sincere religious belief that the leader speaks the will of God, or because the member is merely a victim of “brainwashing.”
The third, and least interesting, book, Hold Hands and Die!, draws upon the other two books, adds some discussion about cults and theories about cults, and includes some affecting letters written by Peoples Temple members to Jones. All three books have photographs, and each includes the same peculiar UPI photograph of a man, ostensibly the dead Jones, which does not show his face. Among them, the three books raise most of the significant questions that have since occupied discussion of the Guyana deaths.
Javers, wounded on the airstrip in Jonestown, is judicious and reporterly, but got sent home in a hospital plane without seeing the carnage itself. Charles Krause has rather more instinct for narrative, presenting himself in the role of a fictional protagonist whose initial mistakes and impetuous misjudgments will be tempered and corrected by events. He didn’t want to go to Guyana in the first place. He is naïve. Even after the airstrip shootout he doesn’t know if his is a big story: “Congressmen are a dime a dozen in Washington. They aren’t often ambushed in the jungle, but they aren’t Senators either.” Before this, sitting around Georgetown with the Concerned Relatives—a group comprised of reclaimed former members and relatives of members—he had concluded that they were the crazy ones, not entirely because he doesn’t believe the nearly unbelievable allegations they were making about Jones. Krause has a lively sense of the cultural distance between himself (regular guy) and these “California crazies.”
Here was Grace Stoen proudly admitting that her husband, Tim, a practicing lawyer and graduate of Stanford Law School, had signed phony legal documents as an “act of faith” when he was a member of the Peoples Temple and a personal legal advisor to Jones. It was beyond my comprehension that a man with Stoen’s credentials could have signed such documents.
Representing reason on this bad day for faith, Krause, we would like to think, speaks for a lot of people.
The Stoens, Tim and Grace, whose little son died with Jones, are among the more conspicuous of a large group of mostly white defectors and survivors who have played a part in events leading up to the deaths or afterward. Most noticeable are a number of “high-up aides” with starlet names—Grace, two Terri’s, Debbie, Micki. (Javers quotes Jeannie Mills as explaining, “If you were really to be trusted, you had to be fucked by Jim.”) Then there are a group of strong-looking youngish men mostly named Mike or Tim, and quite a few named Jones. Mike and Tim Carter, trusted lieutenants who survived, have for the moment faded into the shadows of grand jury rooms, or perhaps into hiding. Terri Buford, once reported hanging around Swiss banks, has for some reason hired an attorney—Mark Lane. Stephan Jones has been interviewed in Penthouse.
The two rival Peoples Temple lawyers, Mark Lane and Charles Garry, were both in Jonestown on the death day, were miraculously spared, fled into the jungle where they cooperated in their survival, and are now accusing each other of various things, as well as raising the really interesting question of whether, having known of conditions in Jonestown, either man should have revealed them. Each has been quoted as praising Jonestown (Garry said, “I have seen Paradise”) and also as saying that they were aware of at least some of the conditions there. Maguire and Dunn note that “Mark Lane said he knew before the massacre of the atrocities at Jonestown. Should he have told anyone? Would it have helped? Would it have compromised his ‘responsibilities’ to his client?” What is stupefying is that these questions are being asked seriously, not just here but widely, as if some legal reign of terror in this country really has got us to believe that a lawyer-client relationship is to be weighed against the lives of nearly a thousand people. To an ordinary person it might seem that Garry and Lane are guilty of a terrible crime for which they are not being prosecuted. But of course legislators, prosecutors, and judges are lawyers too.