"SNAKE DANCE: UNRAVELLING THE MYSTERIES OF JONESTOWN"
by Laurie Efrein Kahalas
XXVI. The Pawn that Would Ensnare the King.
How happy the Mertles must have been when, in addition, that very special plum, Tim Stoen, fell from his leafy web of camouflage right into their laps. It happened with Stoen's predictable style: slow, measured, as quick to sink low-key as Jim was to rise to fever pitch. The press reported the progress of Grace Stoen's custody suit on September 21, 1977, noting that "[Timothy] Stoen has also reportedly split with the temple, but has balked in taking part in the custody fight."
Tim had reportedly left Guyana in June, but did not emerge publicly with his estranged wife until November 18, 1977, one year to the day before the tragedy. The Stoens appeared jointly before a San Francisco court over custody of John, who was of course absent, making the entire proceeding a tool rather than a fait accompli. It was also the exact same date that, unbeknownst to us, Congressman Leo Ryan, already successfully courted by Stoen, attempted to pressure the Justice Department to force John’s return from Guyana, but was turned down.
Tim meanwhile issued a public statement that "I have received reliable information to the effect that Grace is being seriously discredited in John's eyes. Not only is this deeply offensive to me, but it could easily cause irreparable emotional harm to John. I ask you [i.e. Jones] to immediately reverse the hate campaign and to advise John repeatedly what you and I both know to be true -- that Grace loves him deeply and has never abandoned him."
So much for flinging the child at Jim with, "Take him -- he's yours!" I heard Tim Stoen on this topic so many times, assuring Jim that abandonment charges against Grace would stick, and never siding with Grace, that I wondered what gun Stoen felt was pointed at his head. If we were prosecuted, he could wind up disbarred. Could this presumed change of heart have been happening shy of a deal? But who was there to deal with? Whether or not Stoen was provably an agent provocateur from the start, he was surely being cut a deal now. And how do you do this with suits pending in several different counties of the State, plus the feds being called in? Who can give you any blanket guarantee of protection in the midst of such a hodge-podge?
The press, whose job it was to smear, not to investigate, never asked. Stoen simply claimed that he first left in March (our March paranoia panic?), returned upon Jim's insistence, then left for good from Guyana on June 8. There were obviously missing pieces here, as it is hard to imagine that he had told Jim to his face that his departure was, in fact, a deadly defection. Like, "Well, o.k., I'm the head attorney, but if the church is in legal trouble, go paddle your own canoe. And forget about keeping your own child. I’m off to Washington to paint Jonestown as a concentration camp so Congress can drag the kid back. And by the way, could someone give me a lift out of the jungle to the airport?"
Yet apparently, whatever the apprehensions, they did. The account later given by Teri Buford, who travelled back and forth from Guyana, was that Stoen was discovered to have been on a secret spy mission in East Berlin in the early sixties, was accused of being an agent, and surreptitiously fled to London in March, where he was tracked down and escorted back to Guyana. Then somehow, he convinced Jim Jones that although he personally wanted out, he would never harm Jonestown and never try to remove little John. Then, he moved right to Washington, D.C., where he went on an intensive lobbying campaign to "retrieve my son"! Moreover, his vitriolic efforts to destroy Jonestown included charges that "no one was allowed to leave"!
Maybe Jim just did not want to believe that someone who had been so (apparently) committed, could be so treacherous or, on a more pragmatic level, assumed that Stoen (our "top attorney") could not act against us without incriminating himself; but his anxiety level must have zoomed off scale when everything he had feared, and worse, materialized. At the least, he felt forced to join John in Jonestown to protect his parental rights, lest Tim join forces with Grace. The rest was history.
Tim, of course, knew that New West was on the way, and that Jim would be forced out of the States just when his voice and clout would be needed more than ever, to prevent the Mertle bandwagon from steamrolling over what was left of our flock. Thus strategically, Stoen’s departure seemed timed to produce maximum harm.
Nor did he have to rush into view publicly. He knew the Mertles would welcome him whenever he surfaced on the other side. He could lay his groundwork carefully, and apparently spent time secretly on the East Coast doing just that.
Stoen’s desertion, shocking though it was, was landed on us rather gently, the more visible Mertles stealing the show. Tim first chose to surface in small-town Ukiah, where he had been assistant D.A. He was his usual low-key self, implying little, much less explaining his motives. But he was just parting company. Sort of.... just. "Hard to say why," he told the press.
So why was he leaving? Most surely he wasn’t aggrieved. He even told a reporter after the tragedy, "I loved Jim Jones." Surely there was no normal reason for his departure. This was the closest, the most loyal, the most "in" -- strategizer, planner, executor, mastermind of every facet of the church's legal affairs. One of the most trusted. And the most reverent. I remember when he conducted services in Redwood Valley and told us, "I'm not fit to tie Jim Jones' shoelaces." (Boy, they really do train them, don't they? They train them well.)
Tim, cannily aware that he had played the loyalist par excellence, courted as little fanfare as possible publicly, even though later reports revealed a driven man, rounding up relatives at a furious clip, and even trying to destroy us with our church denomination, where our reputation had been not just unblemished, but pristine. After a time, he and Grace, who had separated and were negotiating a divorce, "reunited," at least for the purpose of "regaining our son," an area where Tim had been the most stalwart defender of Jim. Tim now claimed paternity of the child, who had allegedly been kidnapped from under the noses of both biological parents.
Surely he knew that if he did only one thing, this was the worst he could do -- to use John as the pawn that would ensnare the king. My short sprints in front of the t.v. had always been stolen time, when others were gone and I stayed behind. But I remember discovering Star Trek on the re-runs. There was one episode where the mortal enemy of the week (Klingons or some even more insidious crew) were plotting to take over the Enterprise. Captain Kirk, ever protector of his own, said proudly, with a barely-concealed flash of anger, "They're not taking my own life because they know my life means nothing to me. They're attacking my ship." His face instantly metamorphosized into the strategist. How to save his ship, his own?
I thought oh, that's Jim Jones. That's just like Jim Jones. They'd attack his own. Threaten to take his own child. Nothing would get to him more. Tim Stoen, loyal protector of Jim's parental rights through the whole Grace-less scenario, knew that better than anyone.
Oh, sure, we had "protected" ourselves. Affidavits from people now claiming they had been forced to sign this and forced to sign that. Who would believe anything "signed under coercion"? The newspapers didn't care about covering the affidavits anyway. We didn't even have anyone left in the States skillful enough to put the documents right in their face, or to know how to monopolize their attention.
Much less the article about the spying trip to East Berlin, found amongst copious notes in Tim’s own hand. It was about a speech Tim Stoen, "formerly" conservative (oh, God, who had believed that? Jim Jones himself?) gave to the Rotary Club at some undisclosed former date, about how he "accidentally wandered across the wall in Berlin." He was just "an innocent tourist," taking a stroll to get some pictures. Why was he arrested? And how he managed to break free of the grey East German sky back into the sunlight of freedom.
Sunlight or snow job? Teri Buford, the highest ranked member left Stateside, waxed more vivid in her portraits to this official and that. It was Tim, she said, who claimed he was "to the left of Huey Newton." It was Tim who initiated the most radical, unthinkable moves, like the proposed grand scheme for poisoning the water supply of Washington, D.C. Presumably, it seemed, they would drink the water, and we would get the bread-and-water combo, minus, of course, one "innocent bystander": Tim Stoen.
So Tim was the one all along? Not just a plant, but a classic agent provocateur? The same Stoen who had studied at American University for foreign service in the U.S. government? How naive had we been? Stoen's defection, timed to coincide with the beginning of the smear campaign, was actually beginning to make sense. He was talking to the press now like he had talked to the Rotary Club. His low-key omissions. His simple, face-value intent to "regain my son." Uncomplicated, innocent tale. Who would believe us?
The Mertles meanwhile pressed on, encouraged by the small, but pragmatically valuable, barrage of complaints by various "aggrieved ex-members." Many were assigned a roving anti-Peoples Temple ambulance chaser, a private investigator named Joseph Mazor, who was, best we could discover, an Interpol agent with, to boot, a lengthy criminal record of his own, which somehow did not bar the State from granting his investigator's license. [NOTE: An Interpol document smearing Peoples Temple was discovered under the signature of "Louis B. Sims," an individual apparently also involved in trying to destroy Scientology.] Rather late in the game, too.
It seemed that Mr. Mazor had only become a private investigator in May, 1977 -- just in time to investigate us! Whatever his usual occupation had been, no public announcements were ever made.
The various "charges" the Mertles dug up with their fishing expedition found ready news coverage, with the "victims" paraded across the t.v. screen, people pursued by no one but appearing frightened. Even a few of the infamous "Eight" showed up, appearing vague yet disturbed as to why they had left Peoples Temple.
We were disturbed too, but used to crisis. It was early yet, too early for dire predictions, but was Peoples Temple being prepared to die? Was there ever any way to win a battle with such stacked odds and laden with Catch-22's? Like "Where is Jim Jones?" He's in hiding, he won't face the charges, he must have something to hide. How many people has he taken with him? Have they gone willingly? Will their relatives ever see them again?
It wasn't long before it became clear that Jim Jones couldn't return even if he wanted to. He would have been detained forever, if only with the Stoen custody suit. And he could no more bring John back to the States than he could risk leaving him in Guyana while staking his claim to parenthood here. At first, he kept saying he wanted to return and answer all of the "charges." But would his return make things better or worse? Less pressure or more?
It still seemed a coup that we had gotten hundreds of people out from under their noses. They would have liked to destroy Peoples Temple as a real, living onslaught in plain view. It dawned upon us only gradually that they would settle for destroying Peoples Temple in absentia. Not just here, but there.
The Mertles may not have realized they were already preaching to an empty gallery. The bulk of our committed membership was gone. I thought it a miraculous feat, pulling the rug out and leaving these dreadful people to the chase. It seemed to make us safe. Protected. No, also unprotected. Would we have been better protected were we still in San Francisco or less protected? There was no one to step forward and answer all the "charges." In the absence of strong spokespeople of our own, would this just fizzle out? Like a boxing match with no opponent being called off?
This conclusion seemed both uneasy and premature. They could steamroll over us and destroy our reputation so badly that we would be left more vulnerable than ever before.
Phase One of this insidious venture had been launched. But no one's coffin is nailed in in a single stroke. It was Phase One only.
XXXI. The Dead Cat on the Juror’s Doorstep.
Kidnapping? It was only a matter of time. Threats to send in mercenaries were waved in our faces like red scarves in front of a wounded bull. Perhaps as a trial balloon, it was first published in our former stronghold up north, Ukiah. Eventually, the threat showed up in logs from the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana -- "eventually" being after the tragedy. It said that on October 3, 1978 (certainly too close for comfort!), Tim Stoen had made a threat to the State Department to send mercenaries to Jonestown, presumably to ensure enough urgency that the Ryan trip would proceed full speed ahead.
Nowhere, of course, was it mentioned that a scouting trip was planned to the then-Soviet Union for December, 1978. That would surely qualify as "urgent" for Stoen & Co.! Indeed, notes later discovered at Jonestown revealed two meetings with the Soviet Embassy, one in December, 1977, the other on March 20, 1978. Not that politics were ever mentioned by this "concerned father," the threats being made purely "to regain my son." Of course, such a threat could backfire on Stoen. Who, after all, was threatening violence -- us or him? But now their true hand was being forced by a timeclock ticking our new course eastward.
Notwithstanding, for Stoen to convey that the matter was beyond negotiation may well have been true. I.e., no one was about to hand over their kids. Naturally, it had never been open for negotiation on either side (Grace was provided with a round-trip ticket to visit John, which she simply cashed in); but now, with this narrow time margin for escape to yet another continent for the residents of Jonestown, the Ryan visit had to proceed.
The reality of mercenaries, of course (i.e. not mere threats), was already a fait accompli -- a sniper attack a full year earlier which received only perfunctory coverage in the local press. It seemed that the Stoens' attorney for the child custody suit, one Jeffrey Haas, had travelled to Jonestown to serve legal papers, and the subsequent sniping episode was, for all we knew, the equivalent of "the dead cat on the juror's doorstep."
At the time it occurred, the mercenary business was so volatile, that we tunnelled the story to the press, not the membership, so as not to alarm the faithful. Nevertheless, it was a huge shift which colored everything to come. Whatever happened in Jonestown in September, 1977, was the warning knell that if mere bad press did not do us in, it would be followed upon with violence.
Deanna and Mert's first line into the foray, the smears, had begun as a fishing expedition for malcontents, with limited personnel, albeit perhaps un-limited clandestine back-up from government operatives, given the Banks/Conn scenario. Investigations then began mounting with Social Security, the I.R.S., Customs, The Federal Communications Commission (where's the "slow, lumbering, unwieldy, inefficient federal bureaucracy" when you need it?); plus foreign newspaper smears; dirty tricks like the Hunter fiasco; high-powered attorneys, private investigators, fancy P.R. firms, all with clandestine financing and within months of the initial attack in New West!
The second line of attack, Tim Stoen’s "Concerned Relatives" travesty, and his cruel lock on the custody case, gave a cause celebre around which the third line, armed attack against the community, could gel.
This had now gone beyond "mere bad press." This was breathing down our necks. Mercenaries. It was the steamroller about to push the entire symbiosis of factors to the finish line.
It began with September, 1977 at Jonestown. Jim Jones' story, corroborated by other eye witnesses, was that snipers shot into Jonestown from out of the jungle, and that it continued intermittently for six days. Marceline's story, which I later heard first-hand, was that a bullet whizzed right by Jim’s head, and that a bullet was recovered from a wall of Jim's cottage.
At a later time, Joseph Mazor, the seedy character who kept bobbing up when it was "dirty work time," claimed to have led the attack. Mark Lane affirmed it, then after the tragedy, tried to disclaim it entirely. A member of the Jonestown security team who survived, claimed it did happen; that moreover, he saw people firing back; and that he saw Marceline, who was no "actress," run out of Jim's cottage screaming for help at the time. He said that the bullet recovered was from a Winchester 3030, a type of rifle not used in Jonestown at all. (What kind of gun was used to assassinate the Congressman, of course, we do not know. Why do forensics when "everyone knows" Jim Jones was responsible?) I heard Marceline talk of it personally, and handled Teri Buford’s written eyewitness testimony of the attack to the Los Angeles District Attorney.
Some suggested that Jim Jones could have set up a mock attack to alarm people enough to realize that their lives, even in remote Jonestown, were not safe against the outside world, but rather in danger from it. He was surely a master military strategist, using psychology almost as would a general: decoy, deception, camouflage, flanking his attacks, then charging straight down the middle when his position was secured.
But manipulate this situation? It’s preposterous. This was too physically dangerous! And with threats of mercenaries in the offing anyway, and given the isolated locale (where anything could be done and the evidence confiscated), undoubtedly we were in danger. It's the old adage, "Just because you’re paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't out to get you!"
It does seem undeniable that the sniping episode did happen, especially in that the attack occurred right after Haas, the Stoens’ attorney, travelled to Jonestown to serve papers for the custody suit. (No one would accept them, and I believe they wound up tacked to a tree.) Even if no one was injured, the timing of such a provocation was classic: an implicit threat of military assault if Jim did not release the child.
It was also an assassination attempt. This was done just weeks after the first smear in New West broke. Thus the implicit threat that if you try to leave Jonestown, Jim Jones, we will kill you. They surely had tried.
It would have been difficult to assassinate Jim Jones on his own turf, shy of an outright invasion (though obviously, the shooters were hoping to "get lucky"). It would be easier if he were lured out of the community, where shooting scenarios would be easier to line up. It became one of the bitterest ironies of all. For all the loose talk of "people held hostage at Jonestown," it was Jim Jones was now effectively the "hostage" He could never return to the States.
Nor can this be underestimated as a turning point. The earlier turning point Stateside which had led us to Guyana, was the departure of the eight college students, headed by Cobb. All Jim Jones feared had now happened -- four of them showed up in the initial smear in New West! Now, not just smears, but actual bullets became the turning point in Guyana. One only has to listen to the final tape made in Jonestown, to realize that a dominant element in the suicides was fear. I mean not just fear of death, but fear of armed attack -- that there would be bloodshed in any case.
Thus the six-day siege in September, 1977, had become the masthead for preparations to fight, run, or die in the event of full-scale invasion. Yet any of those three were being touted as preferable to being dragged back to the United States, kicking and screaming, so to speak. It would never just be a disappointment, or even "a failure." It would be young people thrown back onto the mean streets, enraged at having their wholesome new life, indeed their entire future, snatched out of their reach. Older people thrown back into the slums whom such a dislocation could rapidly kill off. The political ramifications. At the least, an assassinated leader to avenge. The loose cannons in our ranks who might want to "make them pay," whether the true perpetrators were ready targets or not.
Whatever options were considered, being dragged back could not be one of them. Running was also ruled out -- escape routes through the jungle to Venezuela were investigated and deemed too dangerous. And whatever the bravado, fighting was no option, either. We weren't a military camp. We were young and old, male and female, families. And for all the talk of "an armed camp" (the best ruse, of course, for perpetrating violence against us!), we were pathetically underarmed -- barely enough small arms to protect the community against the natural hazards of the jungle.
A friend who was in Georgetown at the time of the suicides, hence spared, also said that Jim never wanted us to fight the military of our host country, Guyana. He realized that we would never see the enemy's face. Like if the F.B.I. were in part responsible, we would obviously never be shooting at the J. Edgar Hoover post. It would, more likely, be the Guyanese military who were being manipulated into making a strike, and we could wind up killing people who were our hosts and benefactors.
Thus the subtle underpinnings for responses reporters must have found enigmatic; like one queried Jim that final, fateful day in Jonestown about an alleged mass suicide threat, and he said, "No. What we said was that we would rather commit suicide than kill." Well, there's desperation, and then there's the kind of desperation which resorts to the unthinkable when it cannot project a viable voice. It silences itself. Don't spend an entire lifetime building bridges, uniting the races, alleviating poverty, healing the sick, elevating the underdog, and then in a few brief, furious moments, violate and reverse everything for which you ever lived. Rather die.
Not everyone would make such a choice, surely; and any question of imposing such a choice is a societal taboo at best. But if you want to know how and why Jim Jones made such a choice, you must lay it out for what it is.
Some in Jonestown, left to their own devices, indeed might have preferred being dragged away, just or unjust, rather than risk any loss of life. Others wouldn't. But what if "free choice" was an assumption that didn’t even exist? History may never clarify whether the people of Jonestown, trapped in a remote jungle on the heels of an assassination, ever had a choice. I don’t know if you have ever seen a riot. Surely not everyone meant to riot. But violence wins. Sometimes no one meant to riot, and violence still wins. Even massacre. Look at history. Look at India. Look at Ireland. Look at South Africa. Even in the light of day in known, open locations, in cities. And after people are dead, who can clarify whether or not it was really a "riot" that provoked their getting killed?
And was there not ample cause to take a military threat seriously? From then on in, it became a whole different ball game. The six-day seige, even if seen as just one more step towards a deadly end, changed everything.
An infamous Catch-22 somewhat later on would hardly help. Allegedly a mass suicide threat had been made over "if they try and take John...," and when Debbie Layton had returned to the States in the Spring of 1978, announcing she was in the anti-Temple camp, she publicized the threat.
A press release delivered over "ham radio patch" (no, not precisely like having cameras rolling in your face), mostly a condemnation of the "Concerned Relatives" monstrosity, tackled it as openly as possible without uttering the word "suicide":
This never made it to the mainstream press. Even if it had, such statements can come back to haunt you. "Haunt" and more. Given ongoing mercenary threats, would not a suicide threat make us even more, sitting ducks? Virtually anything could be done in the dense jungle, and then called "suicide." If you really think people are out to kill you, it does seem deadly to suggest that you might do away with yourselves!
I watched this particular chapter unfold with little alarm. I was busy, dutiful, responsible, but it was a siege of peaceful silence that graced my days, not panic or fright. In any case, there was no advantage (to the contrary, some risk) in our San Francisco church becoming alarmed. Talk of the sniper attack was quickly dropped. Nor did it resurface as a major issue until September, 1978, a whole year later, at which point, however, it became dominant.
It happened with the advent of famous attorney and so-called conspiracy theorist, Mark Lane. Charles Garry, our attorney but still not one of us, was balking at claiming conspiracy in court. His view, oddly, was that Jonestown was such an incredible place (he had seen it with his own eyes: "I Have Been to Paradise"), that all we had to do was bring people there and every attack against us would be defused.
Patience was wearing thin to even fathom the gross naiveté of "just bring everyone there." We had already invited everyone from the President on down through every Senator and every Congressman, plus the United Nations, Amnesty International, and numerous other prominent folk, and takers were few. Everyone who went gave it rave reviews, but none were powerful or well-placed enough to reverse the tide.
Meanwhile, the conspiracy was gaining in force, they dominated the press, and we had no numbers left Stateside, no P.R. people, nor even an ongoing think tank to fend off the attacks. Some bad press and before we knew it, every agency was on our back and lawsuits abounded. There were obviously well-financed, well-connected parties making all these wheels go 'round. I guess we had just reached the point of "How could Garry be so stupid?" when....
XXXV. Our Light is Extinguished Forever.
November 18, 1978: "dark night of the soul." It was a Saturday, in the West a day of festivity and joy, in ancient times namesake of fearsome Saturn -- somber, melancholy, bearer of grief. The same Saturday that our counterparts overseas had already passed on through, five hours ahead of us. By 7 p.m. San Francisco time, it was already midnight in Jonestown, Guyana. With services scheduled for 7:30 p.m., our Saturday, touted as a special paean of joy this week, was just beginning. Guyana's Saturday, laden with inexpressible sorrow, had just passed.
I knew I would be running a little late for services. I was getting out a press release, a very "hot" press release. Full of quotes from Congressman Leo Ryan, who had lavished Jonestown with praise. It was poured over the ham radio with a burst of ecstatic gusto. It was infectious, contagious. No one who saw the text of Ryan's comments could conceal their glee or, frankly, their relief!
I was getting the last envelopes ready to mail out. It was an overwhelming high. I couldn't believe that just twenty-four hours earlier the papers had reported a nervous, nearly frenetic Sharon Amos visiting the Congressman at his hotel in Georgetown, saying please don't come, it's a very bad time. Because Jim Jones is very ill.
I knew what "very ill" meant -- well, what people take it to mean. It's the flu, or an attack of something -- heart, gall bladder, ulcers. Maybe even pneumonia. It's something acute. You have a bout of being very ill and then you recover. I had seen Jim very ill before. I had seen him collapse on stage, more than once -- from exhaustion, from hypoglocemia, from a heart attack. He always recovered.
I didn't even know that Sharon’s claim was true. We had other reasons for keeping Ryan out -- even the ensuing media circus that could wrench not only John from Jonestown, but any child, not through courts of law, but through mercenaries, through invasion. And this seemingly dignified, proper, official visit -- it was never just "a visit," and it was never just Ryan. It was the Stoens invading us, the Mertles invading us, Jim Cobb invading us. If this door was opened to them, it could be rammed open by a hundred more, people much more dangerous than "merely concerned relatives."
We had had accolades galore -- from Guyanese ministers, and a whole host of other visitors. But even at that, we didn't think we could stay. We had a scouting party ready to go to the Soviet Union the very next month. Why couldn't they leave us alone long enough for us to take our children, our older folk, our zealous youth, to a safer port of call?
Ryan wasn't coming to be fair -- he was coming as a partisan, at the direct behest of Tim Stoen. Stoen lying about a little boy to drive the leader over the edge. We had issued an open invitation for everyone in Congress to come. But only Ryan met the call, and not at our invitation at all. As a supposed "oversight" visit. So hastily planned that there was only one Congressman, rather than the required two. This was an investigatory visit, an adversarial visit. He had already lined himself up as a hostile witness. What good could come of this?
Sharon, of all people, could roll all this into "Don't come because Jim Jones is very ill." She was trained to couch everything in the most dire terms. I remembered her telling us that Jim Jones was her children's protection against nuclear war and race war alike. Her entreaties in the early days that "He only has a certain amount of energy. Don't drain his energy." What taking too much of his energy would entail, or its risks, was never spelled out, or which drop of this precious elixir of "energy" would finally be too much. For Sharon, it was anything or everything. You waste a penny and it's life-or-death. A starving child could eat for a day on your wasted penny, or die but for that penny's worth of food.
How many pennies was Sharon bartering when she visited the Georgetown hotel? Could I weigh her pleas objectively? I thought Jim really doesn't want the Congressman in Jonestown. He may also be ill. Though we had never heard that he was chronically ill; and being terminally ill (as Carlton Goodlett, our doctor friend who had visited Jonestown, later told the press) -- that was unthinkable. How could I even broach the subject? Even with Marceline. Marceline, who most surely knew, and also most surely knew that I didn't (me and my, "Because it's so tragic, and everyone is so happy now."). She wouldn’t lie, but also wouldn't volunteer information painful for others to know.
I saw the papers myself, the day before the collapse of our house of cards. How Sharon had visited Ryan in Georgetown, beseeching him not to go. Please. This was a terrible time to come, when the leader was ill. But they seemed to give it no weight. She might as well have been talking to the T-Rex in "Jurassic Park." The march was on. The irate relatives and their champion, Leo Ryan, who was ultimately marked for death. He backed Stoen, who was backed by people who undoubtedly cared far less about retrieving one small child for America, than about keeping the Americans in Jonestown from making yet another move across the seas.
The leader's health? It was too insignificant to consider. After all, they notified us they were coming, didn't they? Should Jim Jones not have been ready for this prestigious visitor? Postponement was out of the question.... and how could we possibly be surprised?
But this press release, the seemingly miraculous turn-around. Once Ryan saw the real, living Jonestown with his own eyes, we seemed suddenly on the brink of what Jim had always, hope against hope, promised: victorious! So I tucked Sharon's final plea under my hat, and welcomed the ecstatic reprieve of a pleased Ryan addressing Jonestown in friendly, supportive praise. I could write in my final notes to Jim Jones: "I finally believe that nothing is impossible to resolve." Were we not right on the brink now... the brink of being home free?
Now, at about 7 p.m., my industrious pace of folding, inserting, sealing the news releases (all the many small, repetitive tasks that like a dot matrix of labors, etched out my tapestry of life with Jim Jones), suddenly and forever more came crashing to a halt. It came over the regular commercial radio. "Congressman Ryan has been shot..."
What???? How could the report be true? It came as a numbing, surreal shock. Moreover, our ham radio had suddenly, mysteriously, with no warning, no instructions, no panic, no anything... had just suddenly gone dead. We counted on that daily rendezvous on the air. If this horror had indeed happened, where were the instructions for us?
"Congressman Ryan, visiting the Peoples Temple community at Jonestown, Guyana, was shot at the Port Kaituma Airport." The list of killed and injured, the few sketchy details available, were broadcast. I thought one thing -- one thing only. "C.I.A." They couldn't let a good report come back. This was the work of the C.I.A. I had no doubt of it.
I rushed down to the service, which had not yet begun. Some had heard nothing. A few were talking uneasily amongst themselves. I rushed to the third floor. The ham radio was there, implaccably silent, as were the bulk of "in" people who were left to man the ship Stateside. They were concerned, baffled, and... cliquish. Everyone was trained not to reveal any information to anyone else unless it was their department, their work. If anyone had any info for me, it wasn't forthcoming.
No one was in tears, no one seemed shocked -- more like worried. We were trained. Trained to be stoical. To hang in tough, watch for directives, and scramble for the bail-out on cue. This was a waiting mode. It was inconceivable that there was nothing to wait for. I sensed no mooring here, and fled to my room, the commercial radio pressed to my ear. Jonestown was so isolated, so remote. For hours more, ‘til the morning news broke, there was only the radio.
The news was incessant but repetitive. "All we know is.... all we know is.... all we know is..." Finally, a few hours hence, a new knife sliced through the haze: "Sharon Amos and her three children were found with their throats slit. Authorities are calling it suicide." They added that it was thought that members of the Jonestown community were committing suicide.
What? No. I can't handle all this at once. I remember... like a block snapping in, saying you can handle this, but you can't possibly handle that. Ryan's death was an act. But now Ryan's death, and Sharon and her children, maybe even the whole community -- it was a pattern.
And patterns have reasons. The second horror, Sharon's horror, got tucked into a new envelope of "reason" -- of some explanation. Something, anything but what it sounded like. The C.I.A. had killed Sharon and her children and called it suicide. I rushed, now frantic, back up to the third floor. "They killed Sharon and her children and called it suicide. What's happening?" Now everyone was grim. "We heard. We don't know." "What about the radio?" (I meant the ham radio.) "It's cut off. We're trying. We don't know anything."
I fled the third floor. I couldn't bear to be with anyone, even those supposedly in the know. It seemed like suddenly, our very communal building, our communal work projects, our communal meals, our communal radio, our communal brains.... Why were they suddenly so nakedly, so stiffly, so impenetrably a barrier between us? I sought out no one that dreadful first night. I remember being awake. I remember not sleeping a wink. I remember vague, sometimes fierce flashes of panic. I remember thinking, or more think-feeling, "If I were there..." I wouldn't let them die without me. How could they all die and leave me behind? This was the death of our world, and here I was, isolated, abandoned -- left to... live.
No, this wasn't real. Some time late into the night, I began walking, pacing -- not to think, but to be -- to move, to walk, to not be trapped in that tiny cell of a room waiting for the next bit of bad news to deepen, blacken, thicken into an impenetrable haze. I swept through the main corridor behind the stage and ran into a hysterical Betty McClain. Her teenage daughter and new baby granddaughter were in Jonestown. I rushed back up the third floor. "Betty’s hysterical. She believes the reports."
There was no resistance offered, nary a word. No advise what to believe, what not to believe, what to think, what not to think. Like it was better to remain calm, but it meant nothing. Calm assured nothing. Hysteria assured nothing. Listening to the reports assured nothing. Blocking them out assured nothing. I retreated to my room. I tried to lay down. I couldn't turn the radio off. I couldn't stop crying. Who did I say was "hysterical"? If I didn't believe this, why couldn't I stop crying?
I went out the next day and picked up the papers. By now, television was supplementing radio, and it was doubly scary to have visual added to audio. Lack of sleep got augmented with lack of food. How could I eat? How could anyone eat? How could anyone live? How could they die and I live? How could Jim die and I live? How could my whole world die and life still go on?
I don't know what makes people suicidal. I often thought it was genetic -- like you were born either prone to suicide or not prone to suicide. Was I really the ultimate misfit here? The only one who never found suicidal feelings natural? I remembered years back on my day job, when I was walking through the hallway and suddenly had a vision of charging through the birth canal, shouting with an exhilarating cry, "I want to live! I want to live!" I was horrified. How could I scream out this rich, raw joy in life when others had risked so much?
Gradually across the years, I had made myself tread the barrier between craving life and braving death. We lived fully, did we not? We lived like no one in America lived. Would I not brave death for this? Jim never wanted us to die. I never believed that. He wanted us to live. To live as fully as ... well, as fully as "they" would let us. The times mention of suicide arose -- it's like it wasn't even morbid. It was ...noble somehow. Was it not always couched in the matrix of solidarity? Loyalty I always understood. I would act, even drastically, out of loyalty. I would die out of loyalty. I would die now.
But the one who had mastered life unto the very door of death... They said he was already gone. I wouldn't be dying with him at all. I’d be dying into a morass of uncertainty, alongside people who seemed not defiant, but rather repressed, stultified, into an uneasy silence. I was terrified. Not of dying. But of making a wrong, or uncertain decision, and making it irrevocably.
What was expected now? Were we expected to commit suicide? Would I have to witness others die and choose whether to die or to live? Not knowing how to live with this, and deciding to commit suicide, were totally different crossroads, were they not? Don't make me decide this. Please. Don't make me deal with this fear and this grief simultaneously. I'm going numb. I can't do this. I can only feel so much.
I wept and wept. I felt everything and could feel nothing. I thought I had been all wept out over not being a part of life. Now I was weeping over not being a part of death. Over wanting to be a part of death and also fearing to be a part of death. I wept up to the barriers of all these disclaimers. I wept past them. I wept ‘til the dam broke. Then I just wept and wept and wept.
On the second day I looked around at my tiny room and I suddenly couldn't bear to be alone. I wanted only to be alone, but not like this. Not in this tiny room with no space or air. I moved down to the main auditorium. The chairs were all put away. I walked through a ghostly half-light, as if expecting to encounter the perished each step of the way.
I knew this huge room so well. It was where I first met Jim Jones that magical April 19th. It was filled then with children's song, with clapping and singing, dancing and shouts. With young and old, with black and white. I loved this place so. Would it be silent now forever? Would I be silent too? Now how does one live?
I walked to the side. I found a small stretch of space and paced back and forth. I wept and paced, paced and wept. Chris walked in on me. I saw her and fell into her arms and wept. No one spoke a word.
The kitchen had all but closed down, the communal kitchen that fed perhaps fifty of us -- us, the remainders and scraps of a once-flourishing brethren of co-workers and friends. No one could eat. No one could sleep. The little talk there was was of survivors. It was like "survivors" was the sweet cream you could skim off the rancid milk no one knew how to drink. It became a mini-obsession to hunt down survivors, almost like it had been a ship lost at sea and the main task was rescuing those who had swum ashore.
I didn't understand "survivors." Were those the ones who escaped? How could you watch the people who were your friends, your comrades, all those years die, their children die before your very eyes, and even think to "escape"? I was horrified that anyone would "escape" like that. I was also horrified that they would die.
Why couldn't I identify with survivors? With gasping breath, bleary eyes, aching bones, I strained with all the force of my being... to the dead. I was dead. I was dead with them. I had died in solidarity with them. I was there. It's like I was always there. I was a part of them and now they were dead. This couldn’t be happening.
The papers, the radio, the t.v. -- it was getting worse each day. The estimates of the dead were rising exponentially. Day one was horrified speculation. By day two, it was maybe as many as two hundred. By day three, three or four hundred. By day four, seven hundred. I had thought my emotional barriers were pulverized across the years. Now my mental ones crashed headlong into my shattered heart. This had happened. It was no respecter of what I personally could or couldn't tolerate. It happened.
XLVIII. They Kill Their Own.
Elmer and Deanna Mertle a/k/a Jeannie and Al Mills were still very much on the scene following the tragedy, taking in referrals from the psychiatrist that the City of San Francisco had assigned to the returning survivors from Jonestown. I suppose he assumed that the Mills were "the good guys." After all, they tried to prevent all this from happening, didn't they? Maybe they could help the returnees adjust to a normal life. Deanna and Mert had somehow prospered, they claimed, by "buying the property of elderly residents of their rest homes" (another can of worms no one presumed to open), and "The Human Freedom Center" in Berkeley came to be a place that some of the younger returnees apparently thought a stopping point between the extremes of trauma and a future of more normalcy.
The San Francisco/Bay Area had an aftermath all its own -- one I never, to be truthful, felt I either wanted or missed. The disillusioned survivors seeking out the anti-Temple brigade. The "Maybe they were right all along." We know how that goes. Judging right and wrong, black and white, who is the victim, who the perpetrator, without anything resembling a fair trial, or any trial at all, much less discovery. The dead cannot speak for themselves. Only the living carry the day.
So the aftermath of many of my friends was the melting pot that the Bay Area became -- the Deanna Mertles and the Debbie Layton Blakeys who talked, who socialized, who commiserated with the bereaved. Deanna even met with the Jones boys at her ad-hoc Center, expressing empathy for their plight to the media, and that they (and the rest of us?) posed no danger.
Everyone so wanted not just to live, but to live with what had happened. Perhaps by clustering together and pooling the chipped pieces of their broken hearts, some could, if not emerge whole, at least find a livable mooring on one of the favored platforms between "Just like Jesus Christ returned to Earth" and "Damn him to hell forever!" "It started out wonderful, but then it went downhill," and the like. Rationales for demoralization perhaps seemed a better alternative than irreconcilable confusion or raw disbelief.
Some, I'm sure, even wanted compassion to flourish between perpetrators and survivors, to know that the sorrow was shared and that all was forgiven. Many seemed to conclude in a soupy, en masse sort of way, that they, the survivors, had been used in the service of some wild rhetoric which like the spray of Patty Hearst’s bullets in her ill-begotten "Stockholm syndrome" of a bank robbery, spawned only cold, immovable death, not the hoped-for social change.
The Deanna Mertles and the Debbie Blakeys, presumably, weren't used. And was there really any conspiracy? Maybe all they did was try to prevent it all from happening. If there was anyone in contention for heroism, was it not them?
It's ironic how people so pressed into a cardboard mold in their mad dash to "face reality," had so little interest in what had actually happened! I tired of offering people copies of the final tape, for takers there were none. Though I know as well as anyone, that much of others’ unwillingness to go outside the official view arose from aversion to re-opening wounds and pain. Almost like I had averred going to Guyana, when I was given the choice. I could have gone, but I didn't. I couldn't bear to re-open wounds and pain.
Thus what appeared to me to be horrifying reconciliations with the deadly Mertle crew, may have simply been the best that people who, after all, never wanted to hurt anyone and now wanted peace, could manage. At any rate, it was happening. Bizarrely, the cloistered Peoples Temple lot, survivors and anti-Temple agitators alike, were seeming to coalesce into almost a kind of community. Those who had been in the loop, like the Mertles, were not keeping their distance from the survivors. Indeed, they were taking them in.
And why not? Deanna and Mert may not have been told of death plots against the community. They were demonstrably experts in demolishing I.R.S. tax exemptions (the follow up to the original New West smear quoted the I.R.S. Tax Code chapter and verse), but had not advocated terrorism, as had Stoen. So far as they were concerned, perhaps they had convinced themselves that they had "tried to prevent it from happening."
Whatever the Mertles' motives, however, this could not have been what their employers wanted to see. To the contrary. Far from setting their shadowy handlers at rest, more likely it produced a predictable response: Would their tongues at some point slip, and reveal their true role? How they got involved in the first place, and from whence their directives came? They could pose a liability life-long.
Indeed, by anniversary time in November, 1979, "Jeannie Mills" had softened to the version of her presented in The New York Times Magazine:
Various things they dutifully did, like their book "Six Years With God," but that got done by the first year. Presumably they could have had long, successful careers as anti-cult deprogrammers, but lo and behold... they didn't want to!
On February 21, 1980, "Jeannie Mills" addressed a group of students at Marin College and told them that "they no longer feared being killed by a Peoples Temple hit squad... The Millses told the group that they planned to give no more public lectures about the Peoples Temple, and that they were anxious to build a normal life." (See DOCUMENTS, p. 27)
Kissing Peoples Temple good-bye seemed to be the kiss of death. Five days later, on February 26, 1980, she, Mert, and a daughter who had accidentally wandered in, were murdered by (the police surmised) "someone they knew," "at point blank range." It seems someone indeed "hit" these two and their daughter Daphene. Dum-dum bullets seared through their heads execution style, and the police surmised that they knew their attackers, for it was early evening and there were no signs of forced entry.
The end of this pair's usefulness was also the end of their lives. Me, I was happy enough to no longer be on site to enquire "who could have done this." The F.B.I., on whatever pretext, entered the investigation. After a relatively short, fruitless hunt for any "Peoples Temple hit squad" (naturally the F.B.I. would have no inclination to investigate... the F.B.I.), the matter was dropped and left unsolved. No one ever pursued any other theories or leads.
As for the Temple survivors, whatever they thought, no one mumbled a word. Many reportedly had gone into hiding. It was something I could empathize with, but not understand. I didn't see how much clearer things could be made.
The press had no inclination to pursue it either. Tacitly, it was probably written off as "an irony." That here this valiant crusader, Mrs. Mills, said she was no longer afraid of a Temple hit squad one week, and was murdered the next. Of course, no one dwelled on her assertion that she would no longer speak out against Peoples Temple, much less The New York Times write-up that (for her) was beginning to sound almost conciliatory. Never mind any two plus two theory of the killings. No one even enquired if there was anyone else out there who might want to do them in. Who, after all, might that be?
At that, this was probably clever timing on the part of "the unknown murderers." The Mertles wanted to be free of speaking out? They were becoming friendly with the enemy? Their reminisces weren't all of horror? This could become dangerous. So go and do these people in just as the pressure was letting up. It will slam it back down.
And so it did. Temple people were now more fearful than ever. No one would dare even voice it: "Who will be next?"
I folded in the news clippings someone had been thoughtful enough to send me about the murders. Into the write-ups, letters, inclusions, to whomever I approached, however futilely, on the subject of Jonestown. Like everything else, it seemed to matter nought. So three more people died. There was no public context into which to weave this new event, except possibly "the hit squad." There could be a hit squad, couldn’t there, or why were these people "hit"? No one was about to presuppose that the murderer may have surfaced from their own circle of friends. Who would want to do them in? Was this not just one more tragic travesty that no one could understand?
I wondered if anyone, anywhere, even thought what I was thinking. That if the Mertles, of all people, were murdered by their own, was Jim Jones' last frantic plea, that the community at Jonestown could be facing an impending slaughter did they not suicide out, really so far-fetched? They murdered their own and they were intent on sparing us?
Even Lane acknowledged the obvious, saying publicly following the murders: "This [killing] was done very, very professionally, not at all the way Peoples Temple members ever did anything." (Oh? And the assassination of Congressman Ryan? That wasn’t done "very, very professionally"? "Not the way Peoples Temple members ever did anything"???)
Maybe we could even begin to decipher Lane & Buford's book, convolutions of disinformation and all. Proclaim that there is a hit squad. Proclaim it loudly. Pull out all the stops and fire away. Hit squad, hit squad, hit squad. Look. We're saying there's a hit squad, so you'll leave us alone, won't you?
But even the insatiable public appetite for horror seemed to be growing weary, finally. I could hardly say that this new confirmation that killers, not heroes, had conspired to destroy Jonestown, gave me a second wind either. It seemed, rather, one more excuse for others to slam the door on the evidence cache. I sent the clippings about the Mertles, citing the obvious, to the Congressional Committee. If it got to anyone, I never knew. No one responded.
I was to make just one last attempt to set the record straight before the long-neglected task of a new life for me, like a proverbial bill collector dunning at my door, finally came due.
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