30th anniversary of Jonestown

I was just watching a news report about the murder of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and activist Harvey Milk in 1978. The report had a video of Mayor Moscone at the funeral of his friend, Congressman Leo Ryan, saying that the massacre had happened the week before. That made me look up the date of Jonestown and I realized it happened 30 years ago today.


I’m probably the only one who mis-read the thread title and said “What? All of the Johnstown Floods were more than 30 years ago, and the big one was over a century!”.

I was in my first semester of grad school then – a few days later, the next time I saw my advisor, he said “There’s your dissertation topic!”

And it was. And my first (and so far only) book as well.

cnn and msnbc have had specials on jonestown this past weekend. they were very interesting and very, very, sad. all those children…

interesting fact:

jackie speier (who was rep. ryan’s aide) went to jonestown with rep ryan. she was wounded during the shooting at the airstrip. she won the congressional seat, that he represented when he was killed; and is in congress now.

an odd full circle there.

I got to Panama a couple of years later. We had sent a Special Forces A team down there to provide security with a grave registration unit from Bragg. It was miserable, and not helped as everyone from the White House on down was screaming for reports. Getting an exact body count was (for some reason) critical.

So the troops responded as they always do. The cultists had also killed a gorilla. The soldiers kept putting him in a body bag and counting it as a human.

People do funny things in streeful situations.

What? Gorillas live in Africa, not South America.

I grew up in San Francisco, where most of the Jonestown people were from, and my parents were really stricken. I was only a few months old at the time and the massacre plus the assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk made for such a lousy time that apparently even had a newborn (and not just any newborn, newborn ME) couldn’t cheer my parents up. My mom says they didn’t celebrate Christmas that year.

Did you know they didn’t actually drink Kool-Aid at Jonestown? It was Flavor Aid.

It’s Fla-Vor-------nah, just fucking with you.

You wouldn’t happen to have an amazon link to it, would you? I’ve been trying to find a good book on the Jonestown suicides for years.

I remember Jonestown very vividly.
Worst fucking vacation Bible Camp my parents ever sent me to.

I still have the macaroni Last Supper I made there though.

It’s not a book, but have you ever been to San Diego State University’s Jonestown site? It’s everything you could ever want in a web based research project- hundreds of interviews, film footage, essays by Stefan Jones and other survivors, addresses the CIA conspiracy theories (without getting all loopy), etc…

Goddamnit, I need to go to bed soon…

Well, people have been known to do stranger things to get a promotion.

Of all the big conspiracy theories (Kennedy assassinations, Roswell crash, etc.), I find the Jonestown-CIA connection and the notion that Jones was thoroughly messed up by MK-Ultra among the easier to believe. The man had some powerful protection over the years before ever going to Guyana, and his travels in Brazil in the early 60s when he and his church were broke and then of course “Dwyer”- he may not have been an operative himself but I think there was a CIA presence on the grounds there.

Thinking of it from a double-naught-international-man-of-mystery perspective, it would have made perfect sense as a place to conduct covert operations or operate safe houses or secret prisons: remote, middle of a jungle, any kind of outside contact strictly discouraged, yet at the same time there’s nothing unusual to the local governments or to foreign spies about the planes and trucks and large equipment being moved in. There’s a labor force that is trained to ask no questions, and if somehow they got back to the states most of them are from the poorest and most powerless levels of society and their religious fanatics who went to live in a jungle: they’re probably not going to talk to anybody who’s remotely interested in the first place, if they do it’s probably going to sound like a lot of babble, they really don’t know what they’ve seen anyway, and if in the event they do catch somebody powerful’s ear they’re pretty easily discredited as crazy from the cult’s mind control and abuse and the jungle heat and overwork and malnutrition.

In this hypothetical scenario, what I don’t think they counted on was the same thing that has caused people to misjudge many tyrants: they regarded Jones as a corrupt con-man who’d say or do anything to keep his power and never realized that, like Hitler (who many foreign diplomats and intellectuals at least initially thought was just tapping into the anti-Semitism to get and control power), Jones really did believe the craziest shit that he said, that he really was a nutcase who was willing to see his followers die rather than convert and on some level believed the crazy shit he said about communism and revolutionary suicide. And of course he was much “fookin’ nuttier” than they probably reckoned, and it only got worse in the jungle.

I don’t think that the the discrepancy in body count (originally there were 400 dead reported, then that changed to 900) was necessarily anything much more elaborate than the official story (there were bodies under other bodies, bodies in bushes, etc.) but then again, it’d be far from the bloodiest massacre any nation’s ever done of its own citizens. So I’ll say I hope it’s not true.

I’d love to see a Jonestown movie made. The Powers Boothe miniseries was great- he was Jim Jones in some scenes- but it was very close to the events, left out a lot of pertinent info, and took some pretty major liberties with facts.

Example: Jones’ many adopted children (including the daughter who was one of his most vocal critics) as well as his legitimate and at least one illegitimate son are left out- he even refers to the character based on John Stoen as his only son, and in the movie the character played by Randy Quaid and based on Tim Stoen is machine gunned and there are few if any survivors at the airstrip. In reality he had his “rainbow family”, several of whom died, though his biological son and several of his adopted children were away. (Stephan’s eulogy of his mother states his belief she was intentionally looking out for the kids she’d raised from infancy, all but one of whom survived.)

Of all the people who are regularly interviewed, I have to admit I have serious trouble finding sympathy for Vernon Gosney. Today he’s an openly gay HIV+ ex cop living in Hawaii, but at Jonestown he was a single father (his girlfriend died due to medical malpractice when their child was born) and struggling drug addict. He was one of the men who passed a note to the Congressional aides saying basically “get us the hell out of here… but don’t tell anyone we talked to you”, but HE LEFT HIS 5 YEAR OLD SON BEHIND WHEN HE LEFT! WHAT THE FUCK WAS HE THINKING!

True, he was attacked on the runway himself and barely survived, but what kind of father leaves a child with… just boggles the mind. He says he hoped to come back and get him, but again: 'Let’s see, Jones is a paranoid schizophrenic drug addict living in a jungle surrounded by machine gun toting stormtroopers and making his followers take constant suicide-loyalty tests and his world’s imploding, and my child is a helpless 5 year old… what’s the worst that could happen?" On interview shows the guy cries and talks about how he revisits the last time he saw the kid everyday in his mind, and all I can think of is “WELL YOU SHOULD!!!”

But, hindsight and all that I suppose.

Anyway, I think it’d be a great movie, or better yet a HBO miniseries. Jones is undeniably fascinating. There was a Jonestown subplot in Maupin’s TALES OF THE CITY, but it needs a more involved plot, though I think a fictional main character might work best.

PS- another good website,this from PBS

And of course a shamelessly self referential plug to my own take on the “true” story of Jonestown on these old boards, beginning at post 94.

Washington Post article.

It says that Ryan and Speier clearly believed they were risking their lives. It’s not clear what Ryan thought he was going to accomplish by himself, but he certainly didn’t lack for courage.

Many of the cultists’ deaths were essentially murders by the guards, rather than voluntary suicides.