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Heart of Darkness

The number, prominence, and left-wing associations of the lawyers involved should astonish no one who watched Jones build himself up as the prospering radical leader of the “poor,” the “black,” the “oppressed,” “the people”—an apparently perfect client for Lane and Garry, some of whose old Panther clients are now preachers too. Tim Stoen has hired Patrick Hallinan. Stoen himself was former chief counsel for the Temple and also a former member of the staff of San Francisco District Attorney Joe Freitas, now himself under attack for having someone like that on his staff, and for covering up coverups Stoen may have been involved in where charges against the Peoples Temple had been made. Litigation, which is predicted to last until the next century, will keep lawyers eating off Temple matters at least that long, and the sole mention of morality comes from a famous Guyanese lawyer, Sir Lionel Luckhoo, who Garry announced would defend Larry Layton (still in Guyana, accused of the murder of Leo Ryan and others).

Maguire quotes Luckhoo as saying, “There’s not enough money in the world to get me to handle this case…. I have to live with my conscience,” a statement that stands out with quaint foreign force from the explanations common to the American lawyers, for instance those of Garry, who admitted to interfering with the progress of the Stoens’ suit for custody of their child because of Jones’s threats of suicide—“Over one child he was going to destroy a movement”—not to mention the legal maneuvers Stoen admits to performing for Jones.

Since Guyana, San Francisco newspapers have been accusing another cult, Synanon (whose leader is under arrest, accused of complicity in a murder attempt on a lawyer), of manipulating the press with threats of endless suits by their huge corps of member-lawyers, the threat of destruction by litigation, a technique used by Jones, and by the Moonies, too. People may come tapping not only in the night but in the morning, with summonses, and you will rue it if you dare challenge these vindictive and relentless men who seem not to mind what cause they serve, but who are bent on defending the curious immunity from ordinary moral accountability lawyers seem to have achieved. Society should surely examine this, since the legal profession will not.

On the radio today two cowboy songs: the first cowboy is “going to California, where the people all live so fine,” and in the next song, “there ain’t no California, where the water tastes like wine.” Krause refers to “the international stereotype of California as the home of American mysticism,” and the songs attest the common use of California as a metaphor for any unreal expectation of any kind. Americans themselves are too apt to believe that whatever happens in California has no bearing on the rest of the country. Californians almost believe this themselves; the events in Guyana sent them into fits of soul-searching and self-congratulation: why does it happen here? Because we are so tolerant of “alternative lifestyles.” It’s inevitable, the reasoning goes, that in the general climate of toleration, a few nuts will flourish. Probably true, and a calculated risk. But of course, in the determination to evade the tyranny of custom, the comforts of custom are lost too. The Yale psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has suggested (The New York Times Magazine, January 7, 1979, p. 27) that the rootless Protean style of the Sixties is exactly what gives rise to the constricted behavior of cultists. California, hospitable to religious communal experiments since the nineteenth century, and traditionally uncritical of rootlessness, certainly has more than its share of alluring disciplines.

But it is a mistake to think that Jones-town is wholly a California phenomenon. In fact few of the people who followed Jones to Guyana were Californians, except as recent migrants. They were products, like Jones himself, of other regions, and of other aspects of American culture—the poverty culture, the black culture, fundamentalism, and Protestantism. A century ago, Matthew Arnold found Americans in general to be people for whom, regarding religions, “it seems enough…that this or that doctrine has its Rabbi, who talks big to him, has a staunch body of disciples, and, above all, has plenty of rifles.”

Only one element of the Peoples Temple, the white elite, seems all too characteristic of the California Sixties, where young people, stoned on ideologies, anti-intellectual and sanctimonious, are strangely protected by their limited vocabularies of received phrases from any ability to question their own righteousness. You can’t think thoughts you don’t have words for. Former Temple member Laurie Ephron, being interviewed on the New York Pacifica station after the deaths, when asked how a mind could conceive an idea so diabolical as Jones’s plan of having parents kill their children first (as a way of procuring their own acquiescence to death), could only say, “You brought up some very heavy psychological points, and I don’t know if I can relate to them fully. I don’t know if anybody can relate to them fully….” Deborah Layton’s affidavit uses familiar political rhetoric: “I had grown up in affluent circumstances in the permissive atmosphere of Berkeley, California. By joining the People’s Temple, I hoped to help others and in the process to bring structure and self-discipline to my own life.” Self-described victim of affluence seeking self-discipline outside the self without perceiving the contradictions—but Californians were not the only ones who hoped to find an Other to do the work of bringing order to the Self.

Survivors or defectors, the ones who lived to tell the tale don’t really seem to know what went wrong. They are united in their outrage at Jones, whom they now see as a monster who let them down, or went too far, or changed, although his ideas were “beautiful.” What characterizes them as a group is the lack of self-inquiry. None (at least to judge from their published statements) appears to have examined his assumptions about politics, groups, religions, or leaders. One wonders how many of them will get involved in other cults, even if just anti-Jones cults like the one already established in Berkeley.

A partial exception is Jeannie Mills, formerly Deanna Mertle, who with her husband Elmer was one of the defectors who talked to Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy for their New West article, exposing the Jones thuggishness. She has now written Six Years with God, an account of her membership: “Everytime I tell someone about the six years we spent as members of the Peoples Temple, I am faced with an unanswerable question: ‘If the church was so bad, why did you and your family stay in for so long?’ This Book is my attempt to work out an answer.” She doesn’t, really, but the attempt is interesting, and the artless capitalization of the word book is a clue to an extremely credulous and literal state of mind—such as few people write books in—which may be typical of a lot of Peoples Temple members, and other Americans besides. Jeannie believes not only in God but in the Devil too, and in America. Jones had to assure them he wasn’t a communist. “I relaxed. As long as I knew that Jim wasn’t trying to threaten the democracy I loved, I would listen to whatever else he had to say.”

Like many of the white as well as the black members, Jeannie had come from a background of fundamentalism. She was a Seventh-Day Adventist and had gone to religious schools, and started with an extremely undeveloped critical faculty, to say the least:

When he talked about the errors in the Bible, I agreed. I had looked up each of the texts he had quoted and, to my amazement, he was right. The Bible was not perfect. Not only had I found errors, but in one of the reference books he suggested I had found that the God of the Old Testament was a cruel tyrant. My mind was open to hear his message because my own beliefs had become very shaky.

When the Mills family finally leaves the church, having been robbed and abused repeatedly, it is because they can’t bring themselves to turn over yet another piece of property. They had already given up nearly all they had. And they didn’t like the idea of Guyana. But, like other members, they had accepted the brutality, beatings, humiliation, sexual exploitation, and fraud to which they had been subjected or seen others subjected. In an affidavit prepared to protect themselves against the effects of the false confessions they had signed under their real name of Mertle, the newly Mills come up with the only explanation they can think of for their own behavior: “Pastor Jones operates through fear and through tiredness.”

Jones dealt with what Peoples Temple members were afraid of already: being poor, the bomb, sex, race. One detail which recurs in the accounts of all who try to explain the attraction of the Temple in the first place is the absence of racism, the sight of harmonious black-white relations. It rings queerly. No doubt altruism and idealism are, somewhere, vital forces, and the goodness of this concept is in itself enough to weld allegiance and command sacrifice.

Nevertheless it is hard to believe there wasn’t more to it. Anyone who remembers how fast the peace movement collapsed after the draft was abolished will have had his belief in the animating power of idealism diminished somewhat. It’s clear what there was in the idea of racial equality for the black members of the Peoples Temple, but what about the white ones? It appears that the whites who were most attracted to the idea of nonracism were those whites who under other circumstances might be most fearful of blacks, status-deprived, threatened economically by them living in neighborhoods undergoing integration, or, in the case of younger whites, tense about integration in ways unknown to older whites.

Jeannie Mills gives a clue to this component of racial anxiety. At the first meeting she attended, “throughout the room, black and white people were seated together…. There seemed to be no racism in this atmosphere of peace and love and I began to relax.” That is, she is helped out of her fear of blacks. Like the religious fear of sin, the fear of racial violence was one the intuitive Jones used most calculatingly. His bodyguards, for instance, were mostly blacks because he thought people found blacks more intimidating.

Despite serious and well-documented accusations of fraud, beatings, extortion, kidnapping, and even murder in New West in 1977, nothing was done to expose or interfere with Jones, who had the endorsement of the local liberal establishment, including the mayor, the district attorney, prominent black leaders like Willie Brown, and many others. The local press, perhaps intimidated by threats of legal reprisal or perhaps because the professed goals of the Temple were ones it approved of, did not follow up either. The New West story had in fact been written for and rejected by the San Francisco Chronicle. Among those pressuring New West against running its piece was the local director of the ACLU. Jones, after all, had mounted a campaign to defend the rights of the press.

The destiny of 900 people was thereby affected by the self-interest and indifference of politicians and the press to the fate of menaced people—a fate that was weighed against their enthusiasm for what they considered to be the higher morality. As harrowing as the details are which Mills gives of the life within the Temple, her account of their attempts to bring things to the attention of responsible officials is almost more harrowing. They send Ralph Nader a letter. Two weeks later Peoples Temple lieutenant Mike Prokes calls in the middle of the night to say, “We know you sent it. Don’t you know that Ralph has pledged his undying support to our group?” Another time they tell a friend, who tells Dennis Banks, the American Indian leader; it gets back to Jones, and they are threatened again. A relative writes an angry letter to the Bay Guardian protesting that paper’s favorable coverage of Jones—and gets a call from the Peoples Temple lawyer: “If you ever do this again, we’ll see you in court.”

After their revelations in New West, the Millses expected to be murdered. Instead they would read, day after day, statements to the effect that “Mayor George Moscone said yesterday his office will not conduct any investigation into allegations that have been made about the Reverend Jim Jones….” The influential columnist Herb Caen wrote that “whereas the Peoples Temple is 80 percent black, 90 percent of those making the wild charges are white.” District Attorney Joseph Freitas was ready to announce that his office had uncovered no evidence of criminal activity and that the matter was “inactive.”

The Millses say that someone in the DA’s office told them that “since parents didn’t complain, Jones could beat as many children as he wanted to; that if old people were foolish enough to turn over their life savings to him, it was legitimate.” No doubt this is true. But it also seems likely that no one bothered to take the matter further because the Peoples Temple members were black (that is Holy Rollers, with a history of Witch Doctors); and women (hysterics); and poor (and therefore ought to be into communal experiments whether they know it or not). And the absence of widespread concern for the often rather pathetic-looking white members of other cults, in the face of charges by their concerned relatives which often resemble those made against the Peoples Temple, suggests a more general disdain, even hostility toward people who relinquish responsibility for themselves. If there is a native strain of American populism that makes us mistrust a leader it also makes us mistrust those who trust leaders. But this hardly excuses the indifference of public officials to the plight of these victims.

Eyewitnesses like Krause are still not sure that a number of the people in Jonestown were not happy, or happy enough, and wished to stay. Why? We know that something like brainwashing exists. By all accounts, the practices of the Peoples Temple conform to the best methods—“fear and tiredness,” discipline, confession, and so on. Matters of free will and the implications of brainwashing are not frankly dealt with by our laws or in our thinking, and we have already seen some large inconsistencies. Brainwashing was rejected as an excuse in the case of Patricia Hearst and in cases where parents have sued to get their Moonie children back, but the notion was clung to, at least at first, in the case of the 913 suicides, presumably because it is easier to believe them the victims of a mad Svengali than to accept that they were making any sort of a comment on our society or on life itself.

Should the government have prevented or supervised the Guyana colony? The Washington Post volume concludes that “the State Department official who responded, ‘We’re not babysitters,’ probably had it right.” The position of the US Government has been that “any intervention in the practices of a religious sect must be based on a showing of ‘societal harm,’ and the degree of ‘societal harm’ must be balanced against the interest of the sect in practicing its religion.” High-minded sounding, if a little hard to accept from a government which has shown few scruples about surveillance and manipulation when it suits.

But do children have an interest in practicing the religion of their parents? At the least, the principle of legal intervention by society to protect children where the religious beliefs of their parents endanger their health is well established, for instance in the matter of Jehovah’s Witnesses and blood transfusions. Estimates of the number of people in cults in America range from three to twenty million, depending on your definition of a cult. A quarter of the people who died at Jonestown were under sixteen, and according to recent charges by Senator Alan Cranston, some of them may have been foster children.

Whatever the beliefs of their parents or foster parents, and whatever the interest of society in maintaining a cult member’s right to his cult, surely these considerations do not apply to minor children; and surely the failure to prevent their deaths is not entirely to be laid at the door of Jones himself, or their parents. For the rest, perhaps the only last courtesy we can pay them is to assume that they had a measure of human volition and, however they had been persuaded to it, agreed, or wished, to die. Can there be power, really, without consent? The rest of us just don’t like to think that society, life itself, can be as bad as they seem to have thought or that it is as easy, when all your friends are doing it, to step up and take your poison.

Or is that what happened? Numerous questions remain about which we are still curious. One of them is precisely how the people died, and another is who actually shot Jones. And how much money was there, finally—estimates run up to $20 million. And how many people finally survived? Krause was told by one defector that “if the Jonestown basketball team had not been in Georgetown for a game Friday night, we would all be dead. The basketball team was made up of sharpshooters, the ones trained to kill.” Jeannie Mills feels “certain that Jones did not plan to die with his followers. A man who is planning to die doesn’t give two trusted aides a suitcase filled with money and his own letter of introduction into another country [i.e., the Soviet embassy] unless he plans to leave with them.” And “the coincidence that most of his sons were in Georgetown during the massacre and that so many of his staff people survived is convincing evidence to me that Jim Jones had planned to begin his monster-ministry some place else.”

The sharpshooters and other survivors, including, apparently, three of Jones’s sons, have come back here. One cannot help but wonder what kind of people they are now, or were to begin with, and to what extent a terrible thing like Jonestown must compromise and corrupt the spirit of its survivors. At least one leading lieutenant, Mike Prokes, has shot himself. The villainy of the treatment of uneducated blacks by educated whites there would seem to exceed all they might have suffered from the neglect or cruelty of the larger society, and exceeds it in hypocrisy as well. Society claims to know something about healing victims, but what do we know to do for people with great cruelties on their souls?


Cult Freedom September 27, 1979

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