The event that took place in Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978, is a nightmare blot on the fading annals of the 1970s. The largest mass suicide of Americans in history—although that is not really an accurate term for it—is remembered, if at all, in images of heaped rows of bodies bloating under a harsh tropical sun and a scratchy audio track of wailing and screaming members of the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church as they line up around a pavilion on their failing communal farm to poison themselves and their children with doses of purple, cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid.
Their messianic pastor, Jim Jones, can be heard urging his doomed flock to “die with a degree of dignity….There’s nothing to death….Look, children, it’s just something to put you to rest.” After surveying the charnel house of his remote jungle mission, Jones, 47, shot himself in the head with a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver.
In all, 909 people died at Jonestown, 304 of them minors and 131 of them under the age of 10. Only 631 of them were ever identified. Popular culture almost immediately memorialized the horror as a collective expression of death-dealing Christianity turned in on itself.
But collective suicide is not a term that does Jonestown or its victims justice. Roughly 1 in 7 of the communal residents was far, far under the most casual definition of the age of consent. Many of them were infants killed with squirts of cyanide solution into their wailing mouths. In addition, about 70 of the bodies were identified with puncture wounds in their limbs—strong circumstantial evidence that they did not die voluntarily.
And then there was the assassination that triggered the collective death spasm: the gunning down by Peoples Temple acolytes of California congressman Leo Ryan, an aide of his, and two NBC newsmen, as Ryan tried to ferry a score of defectors away from the failing hellhole Jones had dubbed “The Promised Land.” The catastrophe of Jonestown began and ended in cold-blooded murder.
Jones told a final, self-serving lie to put the slaughterhouse he had engineered on a higher plane. As a shrinking remnant of his flock awaited their turn at gasping convulsions and death, he intoned into a tape recorder: “We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”
It is one of the virtues of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown (Free Press, 320 pages)—a fascinating if sometimes ill-organized exhumation of the Peoples Temple cataclysm—that its author, Julia Scheeres, strips away the romantic nihilism of the preacher’s last message to reveal what lay at Jonestown’s horrifying core. Jonestown is a ghastly monument to a psychopathic madman—but he was a Marxist madman, who had long since spurned the Bible in favor of cosmic revolutionary struggle. “Stop your hysterics,” he urged his screaming flock as they shuffled toward the casks of poison. “This is not the way for people who are socialists or Communists to die.”
Scheeres, whose deep sympathy for the ordinary, hapless members of the Peoples Temple seeps through on almost every page, does them a huge favor in demonstrating that Jonestown was not a ghoulish failure at building the kingdom of heaven on earth. It was a North Korea fashioned for lost American souls.
“For some unexplained set of reasons, I happen to be selected to be God,” Jones declared in 1973, at a time when he was still being hailed as an apostle of social justice in California. It is closer to the truth to say that Jones was a self-selected Kim Jong-il—a narcissistic psychopath who created a totalitarian slave-labor camp in the name of anti-imperialism and rejection of “fascist” America, and who threatened Götterdämmerung whenever his craziest self-aggrandizing fantasies were thwarted. Eventually, Götterdämmerung came.
Jones was, in other words, a more deviant than usual by-product of the subcultural political madness of the Vietnam era.
He didn’t start out that way. Born into a bitterly unhappy home in Crete, Indiana, Jones found his way early to Pentecostalism, the ecstatic Christianity of America’s marginalized classes. He said he joined the religion because he never felt accepted himself, and was drawn to fellow outcasts. He had a gift for charismatic preaching and took it to black neighborhoods in the 1950s, where he preached racial inclusion and gathered a mixed-race congregation. This did not sit well with many in the era before the civil rights movement, and it added greatly to his progressive reputation. He became head of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission.
Jones moved on to Los Angeles and to San Francisco, where his most important temple, at 1859 Geary Boulevard, was next to the Fillmore Auditorium, the lodestone of 1960s psychedelic rock music. He added another temple in Los Angeles in 1974. By that time he already cut a considerable figure in radical circles for his message of apostolic, or divine, socialism—color-blind Communism wrapped in the transport of faith healing and racial inclusion.
He was also a drug addict, a sexual predator among both sexes, and an accomplished charlatan whose services were small set-pieces of fakery. Jones used informers in his audiences to worm information out of the unsuspecting faithful that he could reveal as evidence of clairvoyant powers, and he hired fake invalids who would rise from wheelchairs to show how he had healed them. He slipped quaaludes to members of his audience to sedate them and render them suggestible. He also drugged those he wanted to punish, striking them “dead” during services and “resurrecting” them as the drugs wore off.
The Jones show was a highly successful act among the homeless, dispossessed, lonely, and often idealistic core of lower-middle-class and street people who were drawn in large numbers to the Peoples Temple. (Using reams of personal documents retrieved from Jonestown, Scheeres brings many of them sympathetically to life.) He gave them fellowship, a dream of social justice, social services (clinics for free health care, drug rehabs, legal aid), and a healing sense of purpose. They gave him all their worldly possessions, money, power, and political clout.
Jones was friends with other radical showmen and ideologues like Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement, the implacable Communist Angela Davis, and her friends and acquaintances in the Black Panther Party led by Huey P. Newton, the very essence of lumpenproletariat insurrection. Jones and his Temple followers were allies of San Francisco’s left-wing mayor, George Moscone, and the nation’s first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk, whose campaigns Jones supported. In return, Moscone named Jones head of the San Francisco Housing Authority. (Moscone and Milk were assassinated by a vindictive former city council member just nine days after Jonestown imploded.)
But lurking inside Jones was a malignant narcissism that made him unwilling to draw any boundary between his pliant followers and himself. He was a natural totalitarian, infected with totalitarianism’s deepest creed: At the unstable point where utter belief in and obedience to the leader ceases, the end of the world begins.
From the beginning, Jones toyed with how far he could make that obedience go. He adopted the term “revolutionary suicide” from the title of Huey P. Newton’s 1975 autobiography. Newton used it to describe the doomed, gangster-style confrontation between his Black Panthers and the forces of law and order. For Jones, it was the point where the balloon of his megalomania was punctured, and the normal world flowed in.
In that context, it is understandable how quickly Jones adapted and honed totalitarian techniques of manipulation to increase his sway over his flock. In 1972, he first staged his own assassination to sow panic and then relief among his followers when he eventually stood up unscathed. This was followed by staged attacks on his Temple, complete with Molotov cocktails, to further heighten fear and increase solidarity.
The stage play of paranoia was bolstered by internal police control. Adherents gave all their property to the church (after the apocalypse, about $10 million was discovered in the Temple’s Swiss bank accounts). They signed blank pieces of paper, which could be used for fabricated criminal confessions if they chose to leave or bear witness against their leader.
Spying for signs of disaffection, disloyalty, or violations of excruciating Temple rules among friends, lovers, husbands and wives, parents and children was encouraged. When offenses were discovered, denunciations followed in open mass meetings, as entrée to Cultural Revolution–style public ostracisms, humiliations, and beatings, first with belts, then with a plank dubbed the “board of education.” Later, there would be isolation cells and electroshock therapy. In simpler cases of rebelliousness, a child or a spouse might be taken away. Often they went willingly.
“We won’t allow any dissidence,” Jones declared. “We’re interested in instilling respect and reverence for the center of this movement.” He once told an aide that the way to control people was to keep them “tired and poor.”
One reason respect and reverence needed to be enforced so ferociously was the self-indulgent hypocrisy of Jones and his inner circle, who drank, drugged, fornicated, and otherwise had their way with the people and collectivized property under their sway. Jones preached celibacy for his membership and picked and chose among his followers for his sexual partners, spurning his wife in the process. He pimped attractive members of his congregation to win influence and information.
In the United States, however, Jones lacked one thing that all successful despots need: total information control. And he needed it badly. As the weirdness of the Peoples Temple and its leader increased, details leaked out, and a previously uncritical press began to take notice. In January 1977, a reporter named Marshall Kilduff began investigating for an exposé that eventually appeared that August in New West magazine.
For Jones, the revelations were intolerable. Within days, he ordered Temple members to sell their homes and start moving to the bolt-hole he had been preparing for several years: “The Promised Land,” a 3,800-acre jungle enclave in the newly independent, left-leaning republic of Guyana.
Guyana’s president, Forbes Burnham, was Jones’s kind of socialist. The London-educated head of the leftist People’s National Congress cobbled together a coalition election victory in 1964, leading Guyana to independence from Britain two years later. Then he passed a thuggish National Security Act, won a rigged election in 1968, and assumed dictatorial powers. He established close ties with Cuba, the Soviet Union, and North Korea and in 1970 proclaimed the country a socialist Cooperative Republic, where he was the “Comrade Leader.”
By the mid-1970s the country was bankrupt, gangs of thugs roamed the capital of Georgetown by night, and even toilet paper had disappeared from store shelves. Relations with the United States were virtually nonexistent. The primitive, self-supporting commune that Jones intended to establish was basically a Mini-Me version of the whole country. He was welcomed, especially after some of his attractive female adherents made close contact with officials of the Burnham government.
By the time hundreds of Peoples Temple adherents began to appear in Guyana, the Jonestown settlement was already a disaster. Many of those who had been sent down to clear land and create a collective farm in the acrid, nutrient-poor soil of the Guyanese rain forest knew nothing about agriculture. Being sent to work there was often a form of punishment. The crops they cultivated didn’t grow; the animals they husbanded developed strange sicknesses and died. Jones, however, arranged phony propaganda tours for credulous media to show what a success it was going to be.
In fact, Jonestown was unraveling almost as fast as it was being built. Within a year of the main Temple exodus from the United States, a defector named Leon Broussard was complaining that Jonestown was a “slave colony” where residents were forced to haul lumber all day under armed guard.
Jones’s response to the disaffection was to stage fake assaults on his own compound—using live ammunition. This was clearly what was awaiting his fear-struck followers outside their enclave. He held all-night rallies to extol socialism and inveigh against America. Children were held hostage to discourage defectors or make them return.
And he increasingly invoked revolutionary suicide. “I’m talking about planning your death for the victory of the people,” he once ranted. “For socialism, for Communism, for black liberation, for oppressed liberation.” Christmas Day 1978 was renamed Revolution Day.
Ultimately, it was a child custody battle over a six-year-old, John Victor Stoen, that led to Jonestown’s destruction. The boy’s mother, Grace, had defected from the Temple in 1976 without her son; her husband, Tim, had in 1972 signed a declaration that infant John was not his child but Jones’s. Tim Stoen renounced the document in 1977 and joined his wife’s lawsuit. On November 18, 1977, a California court awarded Grace custody and ordered officials to use all means possible to enforce the order.
The judgment boosted Jones’s paranoia enormously. He refused to leave the commune and threatened mass suicide unless the order was lifted. He cranked up more phony attacks on Jonestown and cut off incoming and outgoing mail. Eavesdropping and surveillance were increased for everyone. Yet he managed to stage tableaux of happiness and harmony for two separate visits by U.S. State Department officials who came to check out the increasingly bizarre rumors about the American socialist colony.
Time, and food, were running out at Jonestown, and the increasingly fearful residents knew it. Some of them asked if the collective could move to the Soviet Union or Cuba or China. Instead, Jones kept moving the collective discussion toward suicide. He also commissioned Jonestown’s sole doctor, Larry Schacht, to discover the most efficient way to poison a thousand people. Eventually Schact ordered one pound of sodium cyanide to be delivered from the United States. It cost $8.85.
Then came news that Congressman Ryan was arriving, with a squadron of aides and newsmen and a band of concerned relatives of Jonestown residents as backup.
The final drama began on November 17, 1978, with another faked welcome for Ryan and pleas from Jones that a small crowd of new defectors change their minds and stay. When that failed, Ryan’s group and the defectors left a tense mob to return to a makeshift landing strip six miles away. A group of Jonestown loyalists followed them and, along with a false defector in the Ryan group, opened fire. They left four dead before fleeing back to Jonestown.
Jones knew his fantasy was over. He called a mass meeting and warned that the Guyanese army would soon invade and anyone left alive would be tortured and killed. He ordered Schacht to bring out two kegs of his deadly cocktail and declared: “We can’t go back. They won’t leave us alone.” They needed to kill themselves, he said. “It’s a revolutionary act.” Two concentric circles of Jones loyalists armed with guns and crossbows took up positions to make sure the final act of revolution happened.
Julia Scheere’s deeply respectful reconstruction of the ordinary lives snuffed out in the final orgy of Jonestown is a moving counterpoint to the spasm of apparent insanity most of us are happy to forget. But her final conclusion, that the socialist vision of Jonestown was a dream betrayed, is deeply flawed.
“If anything, the people who moved to Jonestown should be remembered as noble idealists,” she writes. “They wanted to create a better, more equitable, society. They wanted their kids to be free of violence and racism. They rejected sexist gender roles. They believed in a dream.”
Jonestown was never a socialist dream foregone. Only the innocent dead—and that is far from all of them—were dreamers. Jonestown was always a lie.
Jim Jones, and so many others, are long dead, but the lie isn’t.