I was a breech birth. Mom would catch me square with those bottomless soft green eyes that were never far from a smile and say, “You came out ass first, and you’ve been an ass ever since.”
Mom never swore. And she was wrong about folks even less. Only one major blemish on her record in that regard.
I entered the world all turned around, but Mom made sure she’d see me through it, refusing all anesthesia back when women were knocked out during childbirth so the men could be in complete control. She never told me this, of course. I learned about it, after her death, from her sister, Sharon
Mom was not an activist, let alone a revolutionary. She was a wife and mother and daughter, and that energy, that purpose, extended beyond her immediate family. Raised by Walter and Charlotte Baldwin on kindness, loyalty, and conviction, she carried those values into her adulthood and marriage, which took place in a stand-by-and-behind-your-man era. Within that kind of spousal mindset, the same values which won her the love and respect of so many, eventually – some would say quickly – eroded and twisted into a co-dependency and self-doubt that would shatter her heart and lead to her death at age fifty-one.
To this day, Marceline Mae Baldwin Jones is the most loving, gentle, and giving person I have ever known. That is my true experience of her, and I can no longer question it. Everyone else who knew her feels the same way. Mom’s failure, her complicity, lies in her inability to leave Dad, and in the compromises born of her sick belief that she could change and manage him. Mom’s integrity and courage were questionable in times of duress, but her compassion and decency always shone through.
Years after her death, I was warmed by the stories of people who’d known Mom “outside” the Temple, in her role as State Health Inspector for nursing homes. Even people who were chided and cited by her spoke with great admiration about her deep compassion, unflinching purpose, and even, firm hand.
Away from Jim Jones, she could hold or roll your head, whatever was called for. And if your head was rolled, it almost always wore an admiring smile as you screwed it back on. You knew where you stood with “Marcie.” She spoke her mind if she thought it would help, and it could comfort or sting or both.
She never held a grudge.
It stands out for me that I can’t remember ever coming home to find a stranger there. That is remarkable, because that was absolutely Dad’s style. They were in every other part of the Temple, but never in our home. Mom would not allow it. Our safety was always on her mind. Mom encouraged and supported – with time, energy and money – my every dream and wish, no matter how counter-revolutionary Dad might deem them. She was always gentle and supportive. She protected me from harm as best she could. She dreamt aloud for me when Dad would accept nothing but absolute self-sacrifice for “The Cause.” She loved and stroked me when I was a boy. Her gentle caress was always available to me, even as Dad and I took steps to separate Mom and me physically (Dad to quell our commiseration, I in search of my own folly).
If I wanted to play an instrument, Mom arranged for the instrument and the lessons. If I wanted to play a sport, Mom signed me up, no matter how much Dad might protest. This went on right up to the time I was sent to Jonestown for the last time. The whole reason Dad sent me to the jungle when he did is that Mom had gotten me an apartment of my own and was encouraging me to get a job and sign up with the local conservatory theatre. When I was 14 or 15, at a time when anything other than complete devotion to Dad’s “revolutionary” teachings was bourgeois and subject to punishment, Mom went to him and pressured him into allowing me to take me acting lessons. His response was to play us both, accepting her request and – later – guilting me out of it (I had neither the right motivation nor the discipline to make it happen anyway).
While Dad was running around, Mom was taking us on trips to the ocean or park or museum or movies. From the time I found blood in my underwear to the correction of my congenital deformity (three surgeries and countless x-rays, procedures, and catheters later), Mom was there for every needle, tube, cut, wait, touch, and recovery. She spent many a night in a chair next to my bed, long after I was out of surgery, out of danger. This worked fine for Dad. It kept her out of his hair and allowed him to rationalize his own absence. He showed up at the hospital occasionally – I want to be clear about that – but it was usually in time to make me eat my food, no matter how nauseous it made me.
In reality, Mom’s devotion to her families, both immediate and Temple (a distant second), may have done us more harm than if she had been a hardline devotee of my father’s, a fellow “activist.” Mom made things tolerable. And the fact that she stuck around undoubtedly caused some people to question their dissent. Did Mom’s lack of conviction, her inability to extricate me and my siblings from the madness, sacrifice us in some way to his brutishness? Sure. But you’ve got understand that pulling away from Dad, especially with his kids – his “natural born” – was a hard fucking thing to do. I would have worried for our very lives had I been in her place. But Mom was hooked on Dad. On some level I think she was hooked on me. If anything, Mom was too devoted to me and the rest of her children. It cost her life and saved mine.
Mom is the reason I survived, physically and psychologically, relatively speaking. Okay, maybe she should have left even when we said we wouldn’t (don’t think for a minute she could make me do something I didn’t want to do). Maybe Mom should have ignored her fear that he would harm or kill us as he had threatened to do, and taken matters to the courts. Maybe a stronger woman could have ignored cultural conditioning and her own mother’s admonishments and left long before we children could have made a choice, when she could still throw us on her hip and spirit us away while Dad was off “ministering” to his flock. But that didn’t happen. By the time Mom had seen enough to leave, not only could she not find a way out for ALL of us, but there may not have been one.
I don’t believe she should have turned to me for emotional support. But even then she only did it when I walked through closed doors to find her crying. Yeah, she could have been stronger, but she did a pretty damn good job. Our moments together were gifts to me. It’s not like I didn’t see for myself, like Mom could hide from me what Dad did in his many bedrooms. I was just outside the door more than once and barged through it a few more. If Mom couldn’t shield me from Dad’s insensitivity and indiscretion, maybe the best thing she could do was show me it was wrong.
I don’t know why she decided to pull me deeper into her nightmare by sharing some of the things Dad told her about the night he and I slept over at the home of his favorite mistress who, in just a couple of years, would give birth to my youngest brother. Maybe Mom recognized in me a coming of age, the desperation I was feeling. Or was it simply her need for companionship, for someone to share the burden? Was her anguish so deep that she was forced to express it to whoever was next to her, even if it was her son? There’s no way she should have done that, but I’m not angry with her, as a few too-learned people have said I should be. My mother was distraught, defeated, demoralized, and weakened. How long could she hold back her anguish?
It’s ironic – and telling – that Mom is the reason I went to Jonestown for the last time. She first gave Dad the impetus to send me there by helping me get my own apartment. When I refused to move back into the Temple, Dad asked me to take another trip with him to the early settlement. I refused this too, knowing Dad was trying to get me where he could keep and better control me. Mom asked me to go, relaying Dad’s promise that he wouldn’t keep me there, and I did not refuse her (if that’s not delusional, on both our parts, I don’t know what is).
Once down there, while Dad was talking revolutionary death, Mom was slipping me a passport and a passbook that accessed over $100,000. That turned out to be equally – and predictably – delusional: one of my brothers later went through my stuff and turned the passport and the passbook and me into Dad.
While Dad pushed a path of self-sacrifice and doom, Mom spoke to me of universities and family and future…ESCAPE.
I would not have left Jonestown, if it hadn’t been for Mom. It’s no accident that all but one of the children she raised from babies survived Jonestown. She is the one, along with my brothers, who talked me into joining the team in Georgetown. She was the one who coached us on how to handle Dad’s covert attempts to stop us by getting us to stop ourselves. She is the reason Tim and I kept our cool when Dad called us up on the floor and challenged our commitment to communism. She is the reason we didn’t take his bait and take him on somehow. Even then, Dad probably would have stopped us if Mom hadn’t exerted all the pressure she had left on him to allow us to go to Georgetown. She did it because she knew we wanted it. She did it because it represented an opening, a chance, a glimpse of something other than the oppression of what our lives had become. She also knew Jonestown was doomed. I remember her sadness and fatigue as she saw me off for a few weeks away. I never saw her again.
On the tape of that final night, you can hear Dad pleading with “Mother, Mother, Mother.” I believe it was Mom he was speaking to. Two men who were there and survived say that Mom resisted until the last child died. They say that one young man, Poncho Johnson, was ordered to take the poison because he rose up against the men who restrained Mom. They say that when she lost her last battle with Dad, she walked up and took the poison herself. What must have been going through her head? Her support, her compatriot, her son was not with her, and by Dad’s account was out murdering. I’ve prayed that she knew I couldn’t do it.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
What follows is something I wrote to Mom not long after her death. Had she lived, I think this is some of the stuff she’d be talking about to as many people as would listen.
Were your reasons like mine? Did you feel so tainted by your own actions and denial that the “Outside World” couldn’t possibly receive you? Through Dad’s incessant ranting and your need to rationalize your complicity, had you come to believe in the evils that lay in wait beyond Father’s protective circle? Did you think even then that it was your fault, that you were weak and selfish? Did you, like so many of us did so many times, believe that you were the one lacking? Was your desire to leave a resignation more than a condemnation? Did your martyrdom serve you somehow? Did you come to see yourself as the tortured, yet benevolent angel in Hell, sent to undo evil works? Did you believe that your subversive first aid lighted the way for the Temple afflicted, when, in truth, it further blinded them to the madness? Were you a Florence Nightingale, performing the triage of war – playing god in your own way?
Bless your heart, Mom. I know that if you truly believed you were right, that what we were leaving was wrong and where we were going was better, you would have fought for us. You would have taken your chances with his inevitable covert promises of destruction. Did he threaten to kill us, Mom, as he did many times in the years to come?
Whatever your own diseased thinking was, one thing is certain: You believed you had no choice but to stay. You remained in the fold to see us through it, to keep us alive and as whole as possible beyond doom, or until we were strong enough to escape on our own. But it wasn’t just the children you’d held as babies that you championed, was it, Mom? There were the children of the Temple too. And there was one more child, wasn’t there? You believed you could fix things – fix HIM – didn’t you? You were attracted by the gold and gems that the young, brash, idealistic Jimmy Jones had laid about his entrance. You were drawn inside the hole in search of more of that which you didn’t know you already had. You followed the withering trail deeper into the abyss, and as the light waned, it became easier to convince yourself that what you gathered was treasure, or at least worth the effort. By the time you pulled up from your blind search long enough to feel your worthless burden, you had gone so far into the void that it was easier to imagine the lode just around the corner or the next or the next, or just the right additive to transform the raw material you held into the magnificence you were seeking, than it was to contemplate returning to the forsaken surface with nothing but your broken body and Spirit.
Instead we all became soldiers in a battle for our souls. And Mom, like the prisoner she was, set about making her penitentiary a livable place. You do that by trying to avoid those who would harm you. You pick your fights. You compromise and contribute as best you can. You give in here so that you can help there, and you pray that it won’t whittle away so much of you that you don’t recognize what remains.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
She didn’t make it better by making it better.
Many years after they all died, I was chatting with Claire, who had joined the Temple with her husband and their two young children and, some eight years later, was left with only her husband and two adolescent bodies to bury. We spoke appreciatively of Mom and the many things she did to keep Dad in check while mitigating his harms.
“I adored your mother, Stephan… She was the reason I stayed…”
Her mouth froze and then quickly widened along with her eyes. I just smiled.
“Oh! I’m so sorry, Stephan…”
“It’s okay, Claire… I understand.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I have a picture of Mom and Dad early in their courting. He’s about seventeen; she’s around twenty-one. They’re facing the camera, and they are all it sees. Mom’s right shoulder angles away, tucked behind Dad’s, which is square to the camera. Their heads lean in and touch at the center of the frame.
Dad’s Asiatic eyes are squinted to the sun splashing across the right side of his face and turning it away slightly, causing him to look out of the corner of his eyes to find the camera. His grin is sweet – lips together, corners pointing at his ears. He is tipsy with the love and acceptance of the people he’s with. He is such a boy.
Mom’s deer-eyes are shielded from the sunlight by Dad’s head and are perfectly centered as they look straight through the camera at the photographer and everyone who will ever look at the photo. No smile, but a warm, worldly gaze that could hold you forever. She is truly stunning, so sure and deep. She is exactly what her young Jimmy Jones needs to become a man.
I know they both believed that then. Mom held onto that belief long after Dad abandoned it, and then her.