Oscar Wilde’s remark about the death of Little Nell, that you have to be strong to read about it without laughing, suggests the qualities of character required to read the new books about Jonestown. The tone of so much accumulated pathos is finally blackly comic. Gone is the excited dismay that lent to the first books published about the events in Guyana an authenticity these more detailed and verified accounts seem to lack. After many retellings, the events of the suicide day take on a ritual, theatrical quality, like episodes in folk drama, with characters added, like Noah, for light relief.
James Reston, Jr., transcribes tapes of Jonestown “white nights” on which Jones sounds like Lenny Bruce; Shiva Naipaul gives us a Graham Greene jungle of bickering journalists and third-world intrigue; Mark Lane describes sneaking away from the dying people with Charles Garry, Garry lugging into the jungle a heavy briefcase which proves to contain his hair dryer. For his hair, “ordinarily worn in what appeared to be a normal style, was not what it seemed. He was almost completely bald, with his hair growing just from the fringes, and at such enormous length that when twirled about his head, patted down, sprayed and dried it gave a different impression.”
Nothing is what it seemed, everything gives a different impression. These books conflict, confuse, settle little, and do nothing to answer the great question of how Jonestown could happen. There are no certitudes, only clumsy ironies. Escaping, Stanley Clayton runs deeper into the heart of the jungle and is attacked by ants. Odell Rhodes survived the final hours because he had survived the American streets: “Once in Detroit when I thought this cop was going to blow me away I felt like that…just calm, calm and clear.” Debbie Layton, whom Reston considers the heroine of Jonestown, remarks primly that she considers herself a victim in part of her education at Berkeley High, a school “lost to social experimentation and permissiveness,” and plans to send any children of her own to private schools. So much for the lessons of the ill-fated social experiment at Jonestown.
The first books published after the suicide in November of 1978 left unanswered questions of how the people had died, who had shot Jones and what he had been planning, how much money the Temple had, who the survivors were and what would become of them, and, of course, what all this meant. The new books present conflicting answers, and say little on the more delicate questions of money and the survivors—the counsel of prudence, perhaps, in view of the fate of Al and Jeannie Mills, former People’s Temple members who defected, wrote one of the earlier books, and have since been murdered by persons unknown.
On some points accounts agree: Jones was shot by someone other than himself. One report mentions the conclusion of the Guyanese investigator that he was finished off by Annie Moore, the last of his lieutenants to remain alive. Accounts agree that a number of the victims had been injected with cyanide or compelled to drink it, but there is a difference of opinion on the implications of this, from outright murder to CIA plot to mere logistical necessity in the course of implementing a collective resolution to die. Eyewitnesses Rhodes and Clayton (whose stories Reston considers suspect) suggest coercion and volition both.
The most important issues are raised by Kenneth Wooden in his somewhat sensationalized but disturbing account of the negligence, dishonesty, and racist paternalism of American lawyers and public officials, who tolerated grotesque abuses of the rights of children, mostly black children, in order not to annoy the politically influential Jones, or with the idea of doing good, and who have afterward covered up their misdeeds and omissions. He also shows that a great many people, including every member of Congress, had been warned—by Jones himself—of the possibility of a collective suicide.
Strictly speaking, the 276 children who died in Jonestown were all murdered, since a child cannot legally consent to suicide, any more than to sexual intercourse, until a certain age. More than forty-five children had been in effect kidnapped, placed with people not their parents as a result of questionable court actions in California, with the People’s Temple collecting funds for their keep, and at least thirty-six were taken to Guyana illegally, some dragged onto Pan Am planes with hands tied.
Wooden’s little case histories abridge volumes of tragedy: Julie Ann Runnels, whose great-aunt kept trying to rescue her, had to be held down, finally, and given the poison five times. A boy, Shawn Valgen Baker, had wanted to be a poet. Howard and Beverly Oliver, not members of the Temple, went to work one morning, leaving their teenage sons asleep in bed; when they got home the boys had been taken to Guyana. The frantic parents went to Guyana, but they were not allowed to see the boys, who later were murdered. “In almost every instance of guardian placement, relatives of the child expressed interest and concern for his or her sudden withdrawal from the family,” but pleas, complaints, and legal actions were ignored by California and federal officials and obstructed by Temple lawyers.
In Guyana, officials who noted that “there were many more children at Jonestown than was normal for the few families and parents there” queried the State Department and received Kafkaesque replies:
DEPT. OFFICER CONTACTED CALIFORNIA STATE DEPT. OF BENEFITS PAYMENTS, COUNSEL FOR CHILD SUPPORT AND SUPPORT ENFORCEMENT DIVISION FOR RESPONSE TO EMBASSY’S QUESTION…STATE OFFICIAL STATED THAT COUNTY OFFICIALS HAVE PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITY IN CUSTODY MATTERS. STATE OFFICIAL UNABLE TO ASSIST WITHOUT NAMES OF CHILDREN AND CALIFORNIA PLACE OF RESIDENCE.
But the children were illegally captive in Jonestown. To their powerless relatives, unable to get help or attention from an implacable bureaucracy, Wooden’s suggested remedy must seem naïve:
Without question, the Ethics Committee of the American Bar Association should conduct a professional hearing into the various roles and activities of all People’s Temple attorneys, including Mark Lane, Charles Garry, and Tim Stoen. If our government and the legal profession cannot identify and rectify the causes and means of the injustices done to the children of Jonestown, I call for an inquiry to be instigated by the Secretariat of Amnesty International.
The idea of the legal profession even identifying ethical problems, let alone policing itself, is remote, and for the government unlikely; but it might indeed be a matter for the attention of Amnesty International. The plight of the 276 Jonestown children was taken less seriously than that of popular media victims—than, say, the children of Atlanta, or the American hostages in Iran, who, meeting with difficulties in the line of work they volunteered for, were returned unharmed and now want $1,000 a day apiece in compensation. Who can compensate the children?
Wooden points out that there is no mechanism for protecting children in other cults, and indeed that attempts to inquire into their situations are often opposed by established religions, like the Catholic Church, as well as by the cults themselves. Cult children, Wooden says, “have starved to death in New York, Indianapolis, and Yakima, Washington. Babies born into cults, their births unregistered, are reported to have died of unnatural causes and to have been buried in secrecy, like pets.” In the Jonestown case, issues of conspiracy raised by Mark Lane, whatever his credibility, and by James Reston, Jr., who after considerable difficulty gained access to tapes and material denied by the government to other reporters, provide incidental corroboration of many of Wooden’s general charges of coverup and duplicity.
Odell Rhodes, a drug-addicted petty criminal, Vietnam veteran, and general loser, emerges from Ethan Feinsod’s lively account as a colorful, rather engaging character for whom, as for others of the poor black followers of Jones, Jonestown represented work and dignity. “I loved Jonestown. People might not understand that but it’s true—I loved it.” The involvement of people like Rhodes with the Temple is understandable, and that of the child victims lamentably clear in hindsight. Min S. Yee’s and Thomas Layton’s rather gallant attempt to understand how Jonestown could have happened to the affluent and educated Layton family illustrates the poverty of psychological and sociological generalizations, the inability of the very vocabulary of psychology to reduce the complicated interaction of a family and an era to certitudes and themes.
Perhaps only a fiction about the Laytons would serve—or perhaps this is the fiction they have saved themselves with. Yee does a good job of presenting the “story” with all its fine novelistic ironies. When the father, a Quaker, was to become head of chemical warfare research at the Dugway proving grounds, the FBI security checks so frightened the maternal grandmother, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, that she committed suicide. The mother distressed the father by stepping on ants because “in Germany I learned to hate weak things. I can’t help myself.” She became a devotee of Jones, and later died in Jonestown of cancer, a few weeks before the suicide.
But these are just touches. In the long run the Laytons do not seem much crazier or stranger than many other families—brother Tom and sister Annalisa were dutiful achievers, Debbie and Larry were druggy and rebellious. It was Debbie who escaped from Jonestown and succeeded where others had failed to draw attention to conditions there; Larry is at this writing on trial in San Francisco for conspiracy in the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan (who emerges from the collective accounts as a responsible and even heroic legislator). By all accounts, Larry Layton did not actually kill anyone but did attempt to kill two defecting People’s Temple members, charges of which he was acquitted (strangely) in Guyana. He is the only scapegoat available.
At the end of Yee’s account, the Laytons bicker in recriminating little afterwords. “It’s getting to the point where the writing of this book is having a greater effect on our lives than People’s Temple ever did,” remarks Annalisa. She and Tom think Dad is now a broken old man, but Debbie points out that he dates women and is having a pretty good time. She thinks Tom and Annalisa, if they had rebelled against Dad earlier, would be better off now. Tom thinks Debbie is sort of dumb and “sees things in simplistic terms of black and white.” She “has moved from the revolutionary third-world rhetoric of the temple into a business-world appreciation of Ronald Reagan.” Dad, who emerges as the villain, believes that the hatred his children seem to him to express in the book “is really hatred toward parents who were trying to block, stop, or hold back the tide of the collapse of our traditional morality,” by which he seems to mean mostly premarital sex. He insinuates himself into a starring role by feeling “that Larry and I are the real prisoners of Guyana.” Larry Layton himself says little more than “I was a fool to leave California, but then I was a fool long before that.”
The Laytons seek connections—Vietnam, breast-feeding, morality, Jonestown. Most people felt at the time that there was a connection between the People’s Temple and something. The question remains what. James Reston, Jr., and Shiva Naipaul, in thoughtful books, come to opposite conclusions, and the difference of opinion is revealing. For Reston it was a matter “not just of America in the post-Vietnam period, but of human nature itself. Questions of loyalty and obedience, of belief and resistance, of totalitarianism and survival, of ends and means, of charisma, of the power of the word and religious abuse abounded,” as no doubt they always do. More helpfully, what the People’s Temple addressed, he feels, was the lack in the America of the Seventies of a central social mission, a failure to sustain the idealism of the Sixties.
This rather characteristically American self-reproach compares to Naipaul’s belief that Jonestown had less to do with human nature than with America itself. He impugns not so much failed activism—though part of his discussion deplores our neglect of prisoners and blacks—as activism itself, the Protestant, ameliorist optimism so characteristic of this nation, manifested by a number of ridiculous isms, like wholism or feminism (which he strangely sees as attracting the hairy: “shaggy feminists,” “feminists,…hairy arms punching the air”). Hot tubs and Rolfing are bad, but the worst evils are Protestantism and its self-indulgent adjunct, environmentalism, both “anti-human.” One of his examples of extreme American foolishness is taken from a moderate-sounding television preacher, Herbert Armstrong, of the Worldwide Church of God:
“Poverty, ignorance banished! Smiles on human faces—faces that radiate! Wild animals tame! Air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution gone! Crystal pure water to drink; clean, crisp, pure air to breathe….”
It’s a view of the world we most of us, in one way or another, donate money toward. But beware of where charity can lead you. “How different is the message of the extreme environmentalists? How different was the message of Jim Jones?” Our native credulousness worries him a lot. Finally, there’s not much difference between Jim Jones and Jesus: “To escape the ravages of a sick and hopeless world, you embrace Christ, the divine dictator, who will come to rule with a rod of iron and who will tolerate no dissent. In the case of the People’s Temple, you embrace Jones, a semidivine dictator, who rules with a rod of iron and tolerates no dissent.”
Naipaul is no comparative religionist and not much of an observer of America; for all the wit with which he renders conversations with our sillier faddists or with Huey Newton, he doesn’t get his finger on the pulse. He believes Buckminster Fuller to have been a significant apostle of the Sixties, and fails, like many other foreign observers, to grasp the significance of Vietnam, or the truth in Rex Weiner and Deanne Stillman’s idea, in Woodstock Census,* that the counterculture of that period “was based on traditional, not radical values, so it is no wonder [it] was so rapidly absorbed into the American mainstream,” an idea he mentions only to deride. He believes that Jonestown was “ecotopia” and that the People’s Temple followers were “the seekers of structure, the I Ching decoders, the Tarot interpreters, the higher-consciousness addicts, the catharsis freaks, the degenerated socialists, those who thirsted for universal justice and wanted utopia ‘real bad.’ ” But that is not who the followers were. And is thirsting for universal justice really in the same category as the interpretation of Tarot cards?
No doubt he’s right about many of our native forms of foolishness, but wrong to connect these to Jonestown. This would not much matter if his explanation for our “new world tragedy” were not taken seriously. The old world, to judge from encomiums in British newspapers, sees it as: “a brilliant achievement…brutally, even gloatingly honest, it picks the scabs of a cruelly abraded world and jeers at its panaceas…” (The Sunday Times, London). Robert Coles was provoked by Naipaul’s book to remark in the Washington Post that America is by no means the worst place in a world.
full of horror, religious and racial bigotry in Britain, terrorism all over Europe, the vicious Gulag, the internecine strife that millions of Africans and Asians still have to endure—including, Naipaul surely knows, the callous, murderous caste system of India, a brand of religious faith that makes the most extreme Protestant fundamentalism seem like a species of Unitarianism.
Naipaul writes from the perspective of Oxford, where, he says, the Sixties were barely noticed, and there is something corrective in his mistrust, which makes one examine and on balance wish to defend our no doubt goofy American hopefulness. It’s almost enough to put you crazily on Jim Jones’s side. Apart from the terrible abuses, Jones’s utopianism was like that which has in other places and times drawn many to it. The idea of Jonestown is not one which his surviving followers are willing to repudiate. One continues to feel that the monstrous Jones, because really demented, was less culpable than sane collaborators who failed for reasons of their own to control or defy or expose him. The allegiance of his followers and the question of Jones’s sincerity remain mysterious.
October 8, 1981