"ABOUT JONESTOWN. . . ."
AN OPEN LETTER TO SCHOLARS, ACTIVISTS,
AND ADVOCATES FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
My name is Laurie Efrein Kahalas. I was a long-time member of Peoples Temple, from 1970 through the tragedy in 1978. By then, I was living in San Francisco, part of a tiny crew left back to process people going overseas, and to counter media attacks in the States.
In my new book, "SNAKE DANCE: Unravelling the Mysteries of Jonestown," I explode every media myth surrounding the Jonestown Tragedy. I replace smears, lies, and cover-ups with the actual chronology, characters, and scenarios which led to the tragic end. I address every problem we faced internally -- for individuals, for the church as a whole, in relation to Jim Jones, in relation to the surrounding culture. I’ve been searingly honest. But I also loved Peoples Temple, its vision, its breakthrough accomplishments which served so many, including the hundreds who died at Jonestown. I am happy to speak for my precious friends.
I know what efforts some have vested in studying this. They may resist the notion that those efforts have been wanting. Most have undoubtedly done the best they could in a monolith intolerant of dissent. They assumed that the official story was simply "so," as the truth slipped completely out of view.
Given the one-sided avalanche of bad press which blanketed the people of Jonestown, I cannot blame the academic community, so long as researchers’ efforts have been honest, responsible, without malice or ulterior motive. And I do not doubt that it may seem shocking to suddenly view Jonestown as if in reverse. To learn that what led to the tragic end was not the "exposé" of bad people, but rather the persecution of good people by bad people -- people who were dis-honest, ir-reponsible, malicious, and rife with ulterior motives.
You may find this statement incredible, but please be patient, as must I be with you. It took highly-trained, powerful, well-connected operatives to bring Peoples Temple down. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, pervasively, worldwide. I do not expect the terrain to suddenly shift. I do, however, expect that there are people of integrity, who are committed to religious, press, and other liberties, who will have the courage to take on such a shift on when the truth be known. There are root issues which subsume even what happened at Jonestown per se. This is a subject for people of conscience, who care deeply about what happens to our culture as a whole.
There are SEVEN GLARING PROBLEMS pervading all research to date, each addressed separately:
1) THERE IS NO MENTION ANYWHERE OF ANY REAL THREAT; MOREOVER, WHY.
Peoples Temple and Jonestown have been sanitized into a self-enclosed unit -- disconnected from, rather than in dynamic interaction with the world of its time. The reality was that the church had very powerful enemies, who calculatingly drove those people to their deaths. Yet nowhere is there any mention of a smear campaign, government agents, or political persecution, much less a military threat.
There is abundant evidence that threats were ongoing -- mercenary threats, an actual mercenary attack, threats of mass extinction, and the like. I was personally either WITNESS to all this, or spoke directly to witnesses, with much documentary back-up. Any story of Jonestown which does not give the matter of REAL THREATS center stage is lacking the most basic rudiments of why people who were inherently peaceful were driven to an extreme such as mass suicide. Without a real threat, the entire event becomes incomprehensible.
2) NO ONE HAS EVER TOLD PEOPLES TEMPLE’S STORY FROM THE INSIDE. AS A DEFENDER.
Due to the extreme, unusual circumstance of smearing an organization in absentia thousands of miles away, with no defense permitted, printed, or even considered, the entire terrain evolved from the standpoint of prosecutor.
If any defendant had been treated this way in a courtroom, we would demand their first amendment right of free speech, fourth amendment protection against search and seizure (in this case, literal invasion), the right to face their accusers, not to even mention "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" without sending in the troops. Yet what the scholarly community has been viewing as "real," is what prosecutors (i.e. persecutors) did to a defendant who was denied counsel, a voice, a motive, even the recognition of real human reactions upon being forcibly trapped with no way out. Not by mindsets, not by belief systems. By circumstances.
Moreover, there were real matters that rightfully would have wound up in a courtroom -- namely, the assassinations at the Port Kaituma airstrip. I know based upon evidence, that no one from Peoples Temple killed the Congressman. Even the Court-Appointed Receiver for the Peoples Temple funds, Robert Fabian, said in his report that there was insufficient evidence to implicate Peoples Temple. (The so-called "wrongful death" claims were based upon the poisonings.) Moreover, there was exculpatory evidence that was never aired, mixed in with suspect findings and outright disinformation. The truth is that had there ever been an impartial legal inquiry, there would not have been enough evidence to even bring an indictment.
Yet Peoples Temple was instantly convicted in the press. And nearly every researcher out there has blindly accepted this kangaroo court as reality. Nor does universal acceptance of Peoples Temple culpability in the assassination qualify as "proof." To the contrary. Legally, morally, constitutionally, logically, every which way.
So I call upon scholars to question. This is not a popularity contest, or an exercise in consensus. The prize is supposed to be the truth.
ITS PHYSICAL DESTRUCTION, BY WHAT MIGHT CHARITABLY
BE CALLED"VERY BAD PEOPLE."
The smear campaign against Peoples Temple was orchestrated by five major characters with all the earmarks of being government agents. Two of them never even set foot in the church, yet were committed to spearheading its destruction.
Elmer and Deanna Mertle, ex-members who renamed themselves "Jeannie and Al Mills," were almost transparently F.B.I. agents. They came from far-right wing backgrounds, joined Peoples Temple claiming a "conversion," and left when their "kind offer to take over management of the entire church" was rebuffed. They were never mistreated, indeed handled with kid gloves; nor did they have any relatives left in the church when they left.
But the real smoking gun was their close friendship with a man named David Conn all the years they were with us -- a man who later admitted "investigating" Peoples Temple the whole time the Mertles were members! Conn was identified on television as having visited with the Mertles during their Temple years. Several traced this man to the Treasury Department, as is detailed in my book. He was also implicated in trying to bribe and blackmail American Indian Movement leader, Dennis Banks, to pressure him into turning against Jim Jones. Conn also instigated Customs and other investigations, based upon bogus claims. By the second smear, he and the Mertles were already quoting the I.R.S. tax code, chapter and verse, for how to remove a church’s tax exemption.
The Mertles were murdered in their own home in February, 1980, professional execution-style murders using dum-dum bullets, done by people the police surmised "they knew." It was a mere five days after publicly announcing they wanted off the anti-Temple circuit!
The fourth suspect character, Joseph Mazor, was identified as a member of Interpol. His entire history is suspect, as aired in my book. In an article in The Berkeley Barb (September, 1977), Mazor even admitted that his original employers were "not present or past members of Peoples Temple"! Moreover, he admitted hiring a pricy P.R. firm to smear the church. He refused to reveal the source of his funding.
It was also Mazor who personally came to Jonestown just weeks prior to the tragedy, claimed credit for the six-day mercenary siege, and said that the original plan had been "to kidnap the children and then kill all the adults," i.e. mass extermination. The people of Jonestown were understandably terrified.
The fifth suspect character was the most damning of all: Timothy Stoen. He was secretly a far-right-wing zealot, unbeknownst to the church until we discovered evidence of a spying mission into East Berlin in the early sixties. He departed after trying unsuccessfully to lure Peoples Temple onto a terrorist path, clearing out just before the smear campaign came down, in the classic mode of an agent provocateur. He had been our top attorney -- advisor, strategist, confidante and friend of Jim Jones. Bizarrely, it was his wife who had had a child by Jones, and Stoen used his own false paternity claim in his vendetta, founding the "Concerned Relatives" sham with its own agenda of smears, and luring the Congressman to Jonestown on false pretenses.
These kings and queens found their helpful knights in the press. One of the co-authors of the original smear in Murdoch’s "New West" magazine, Phil Tracy, told Jim Jones point blank, "The media can make monsters of whomever it chooses" -- and then did not print a word of the interview! Rebuttals were not only not sought, but rejected. This was a massive, deliberate, expensive campaign, orchestrated by people who had never even met us, involving lobbying across continents, duplicate smears placed in the foreign press, travel, hiring mercenaries, etc.
The media’s so-called "two source" rule was, in this instance, a travesty. What if your "two sources" are F.B.I. agents? What if your "two sources" were, as in the first press smear of Jonestown, people who had never been to Jonestown at all? What if your "two on site sources" later on (and there were ONLY TWO, Yolanda Crawford and Deborah Layton) were working with government agents and swearing to flagrant lies? What if two people agreed, as did Grace and Timothy Stoen, to the fiction that Tim Stoen was the father of Jim Jones’ child? What if every journalistic tenet of fair and balanced coverage was routinely trampled underfoot?
More pointedly for our purposes here, WHAT IF THAT WAS ALL THAT WAS LEFT FOR HISTORY?
The breakdown of the attackers was simple. "Grass roots ex-members" was a media ploy, not a reality. There were three groups of people involved: Ex-member government plants, their non-member, government-based "handlers," and a tiny crew of ex-members with personal spitefests against Jim Jones, who went to work with the government agents. Those so-called "defectors" were not our best people -- they were our worst. They lacked social consciousness, moral conscience, or even any awareness that they were themselves being used. Many lost relatives at Jonestown.
Prior to the press smears, Peoples Temple was acclaimed in the United States for its 25-year record of exemplary human service. We got droves of people off welfare onto jobs, youth out of crime and drugs, cared for the elderly, educated the young, reached out to every person or group or cause doing good work in every community in which the church was established. We did THE WORK OF THE CHURCH (i.e. the universal church prototype), and we did it exceptionally well.
Peoples Temple was never attacked because of its failures. It was attacked because of its success. Too much empowerment for poor people and minorities, and from a left-wing base. We were interracial, left-wing, with a powerful leader making inroads into the mainstream. Jim Jones was fearless in taking on corporate America, defending the plight of minorities and the poor, championing social justice, and was a passionate advocate for racial and economic equality as a solution to mankind’s ills. Our roster of visitors and guests read like an encyclopedia of progressive politics. We welcomed Angela Davis, Jane Fonda, Laura Allende (widow of the slain Chilean leader), American Indian Movement’s leader, Dennis Banks, Daniel Ellsberg, the Soviet Friendship Society, and so many more. Jim Jones even visited with Huey Newton in Cuba. But we also welcomed the Mayor, the Lieutenant Governor, members of the State Assembly, City Councilmen, members of the Board of Supervisors and the like.
This was a left-wing church that was gaining respectability in the mainstream for its good works. But it was also bouncing off the sixties, with J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. and the C.I.A.’s Cold War. The "ex-members" ploy gave the attackers the exact cover they needed, to mask political persecution. They did not have to state their real motives at all. The very first smear in Murdoch’s "New West" took the entire sheath of acclamations from "leftist liberals," as it put it, and tossed it into the trash in favor of, "What is really going on behind closed doors?" The exemplary 25-year record of humanitarian service was never mentioned again. "The story" now became that of "aggrieved ex-members who courageously stepped forward."
Only one conspirator would ever tip his hand regarding politics. Joseph Mazor, in a interview just days after the tragedy, announced on t.v. that, "It was considered that Jim Jones would become a major political force in the Caribbean within five years." Undoubtedly, the planned re-relocation to the then-Soviet Union during the Cold War, negated by the press, but all too real for the people of Jonestown, only made matters worse.
Contrary to reports, Jonestown had many visitors, including virtually every member of the Guyanese Cabinet, plus educators, agricultural experts, doctors, visiting relatives, and many others. Their reports, which are all rave reviews, survive to this day.
Jonestown was a role model for how inner city dwellers could thrive and excel on a worldwide stage. There was full employment in trades and professions of choice; varied, plentiful, delicious food; an advanced educational program for the children; a medical complex which served not only the needs of the community, but the surrounding Amerindian population as well; advanced agriculture; creativity and joy in building homes, electrical generators, landscaping gardens, making clothing, running a saw mill, a cassava mill; animal husbandry; sharing in a rich cultural life. Moreover, there was complete integration not only racially, but by age, senior citizens being treasured, and participating at whatever level they desired, from sharing their wisdom with the young, to complete retirement. Many seniors who had been illiterate in the States were finally taught to read.
Visitors alternately referred to Jonestown as "a paradise," "a superior society," "a credit to humanity," "like coming to another planet." and "a lovely utopia." Only Timothy Stoen’s "Concerned Relatives" sham described Jonestown as "a concentration camp," based upon the lies of ONE PERSON, with no reporter having visited to confirm the scandalous claims.
The criteria was not reality, but who was dignified by the press. News of what was happening at Jonestown for the betterment of humanity, was not merely deemed irrelevant, but obliterated. Stoen, the Mertles, and their followers could have any slander or smear printed without the slightest attempt to verify the charges first-hand.
The people of Jonestown, the great majority of them, loved their new lives. They only wanted to be left alone to build in peace. They welcomed visits from anyone, so long as their intent was not to destroy. The truth is that every single member of congress had been written, and invited to come Jonestown. The only one who arrived, however, was Congressman Leo Ryan, at the behest of Stoen. We had appealed to both the United Nations to come, and Amnesty International, but neither was able. Increasingly desperate appeals to the entire establishment in Washington were ignored.
No one would have tolerated the wholesale destruction of "a paradise," so it was necessary to portray Jonestown as a terrible place, a hellhole, a "concentration camp." Dehumanizing Jonestown would ensure that the world would "write off" those beautiful people, their magnificent example, the hope they could offer others. They could also be automatically painted as "guilty" for heinous crimes, and "deluded" for following a "crazed" leader to their deaths.
Indeed, the overkill was so effective that no one even questioned whether the entire litany of attacks against Jonestown was substantially false.
6) NO ONE HAS GIVEN ANY MORALLY COMPREHENSIBLE POSITION FOR THE PEOPLE OF JONESTOWN TO TAKE THEIR OWN LIVES.
There has been no reason offered, no logic, no morality, no sanity, no human feeling, not so much as a choice. Only "cultists," "brainwashing," "crazed leader," "paranoia," "robots," even "psychopaths."
I do not defend mass suicide. However dire the circumstances, what if at least a few children could be saved. One always thinks that, and I am fine with leaving it controversial forever. It is also true that leadership at Jonestown was zealous, and that the people were caught in a vice between pressures from the inside and the outside. Yet these people chose their new life, and the very great majority loved their new lives. They would not have been forced back to oppressive conditions in the United States.
The reality at the time was of A GENUINE, EXCRUCIATING MORAL DILEMMA, which has never been articulated:
This was a remote community in the middle of a jungle. Following a six-day mercenary siege in September, 1977, escape routes to Venezuela were investigated and deemed too dangerous. Moreover, in contrast to reports falsely portraying Jonestown as "an armed camp," the community was pathetically underarmed, and cut off from the outside world. Not so much as a telephone. The community had been told by an arch-enemy, namely Joseph Mazor, just weeks before the Congressman arrived at Jonestown, that the original mercenary plan had been to kidnap the children and then kill all the adults, i.e. mass extermination. That was when people were just going about their daily business. How much more the peril in the wake of the assassination of a Congressman!
Some may still say they should have waited to see how terrifying and brutal was the carnage, and then at least a few lives might have been spared. Such people, assuming that they comprehend the realities, should have a voice. But I question, under such circumstances, who shall claim the authority to act as a judge. I am not God, and I assume neither is anyone else.
In ancient Masada, a whole community committed suicide, who did not even expect to be slaughtered. They expected to be dragged away into slavery -- to have their homes, their families, their way of life decimated by invaders. Maybe they "did the wrong thing." But the historical view is that their motives were sufficient to have provoked their actions. Certainly no one has referred to them as "babykillers."
There were people dragged away from Africa in slave ships headed to the United States who deliberately jumped ship and drowned. Tragic, yes. But no one has questioned their "morality" for doing so.
I do not say this to endorse what happened at Jonestown. I do urge, however, that these models, at the least, are used as the basis for historical evaluation, not that of fanatics with no motive, no real threat, a crazed leader on drugs, mindlessly brainwashed, and the like. The people of Jonestown feared an impending slaughter, and given the ongoing campaign of deadly threats, that fear was legitimate, human, real.
Indeed, out of a new cache of government documents newly released by one Brian Czuk, emerged a "buried treasure" I call "FINAL WITNESS." It is a key to unlocking the humanity of the people of Jonestown, something few have even tried to date. The media myth is that the people of Jonestown were either 1) brainwashed robots who mindlessly follows the orders of a psychopathic leader; or 2) kicking and screaming, coerced, being pursed into the jungle with guns or forcibly injected with hypodermic needles.
These are people I knew. I knew their vibrant morale, and their passionate pride in their cherished Jonestown. I have had to struggle against the media myths without evidence, but now this has shifted. "FINAL WITNESS", a handwritten letter authenticated by the State Department as found in Jonestown following the tragedy, is a powerful confirmation that what happened at Jonestown may have been radically different than what the public had been led to believe.
As I have detailed in a separate piece entitled FINAL WITNESS, I never have, or ever would, claim that everyone at Jonestown died in the same frame of consciousness. Surely there was bitterness, conflict, even terror. The young were zealous, the old more at peace, the children frightened, etc. I will not paint a monolith to counteract a monolith.
Yet the very best, the bravest, the highest, and the most aware comes forth in FINAL WITNESS. It is a signal, indeed, that perhaps one must re-think EVERYTHING.
7) THE SOURCES ARE UNIFORMLY POLLUTED.
Discriminations must be made so we do not inadvertently cite the work of virtual Nazis as "scholarship." Am I serious? Very much so. If you were to research the Holocaust, surely you would not cite "Mein Kampf" along with "The Diary of Anne Frank" without comment. Or say that well, one was the scribbles of a teenage girl, but this Mr. Hitler! Well, he has a whole, impressive-looking book!
And what if the Jews had been wiped out and Hitler won? How could that poor little girl with her scribbly little diary possibly counteract what the whole world had accepted as "true"?
Yet that is EXACTLY what the Jonestown research looks like. The lack of meaningful comprehension of the deaths at Jonestown pervades the scholarly field every bit as much as it dominated the press. The sources are... POLLUTED. The original sources (from which every scholarly work out there has drawn) portrayed themselves as blameless plaintiffs, when the reality was not only brutally one-sided, but that of PERSECUTION, and an alarming IMBALANCE OF POWER.
To draw a familiar analogy, Mr. Potter’s vendetta against George Bailey in "It’s a Wonderful Life." Potter stole the money from Uncle Billy, to not only put the Baileys out of business, but land them in jail. He stole it, but all the power of the law was on his side. If not for the dramatic bail-out at the end (George had the advantage of remaining on site with his good works -- Peoples Temple had been smeared in absentia thousands of miles away), Uncle Billy would have landed in the looney bin, and all George’s hard work and sacrifice would have been demolished. Fortunately, George Bailey did not go through with his suicide. But if he had suffered this while separated from his home, in a remote jungle for example, all bets might have been off.
Frank Capra made that wonderful movie so that we could see how such things happen. The people of Jonestown had no such benefit. We all live in "Pottersville" now, perusing the Pottersville libraries for source materials. All those "knowledgeable scholars and respected authors" who have allegedly contributed so much to our understanding of infamy. Like Marshall Kilduff (original press smearer). David Conn (the government agent who orchestrated the smear campaign). Jeannie Mills (the ex-member government plant who coordinated with Conn). Deborah Layton (who used her own personal spitefest against Jim Jones to smear and slander all of us). The list goes on and on.
I want to SET A NEW STANDARD for Jonestown research. I am asking for the support of the people most intimately concerned, namely the scholars themselves, and activists who have been trying to defuse the "cult mania" in the cult-u-(a)re. It has become all too easy to become brainwashed into buying brainwashing stories. And if smaller, controversial groups, or those who challenge the status quo, are persecuted, especially if for those reasons, then everyone’s liberties become endangered.
It may seem to some that the weight of the evidence must fall on the side of preponderance. But although that serves the status quo, it does not serve the truth. You look at nearly everything in the way of research, and there is still only one side.
Some may be uncomfortable with what I have to say. But even the poorest defendant with the most miserable legal representation is allowed a day in court. This is not "just one more opinion." I am the only person who has or will walk in the shoes of the dead, and give their unheeded pleas in the throes of real, life-threatening disaster a voice.
I know that Jonestown has generated great interest world wide -- many may even consider themselves "experts." It may be hard for some to face that long-held tenets or assumptions might have to be radically revised. No one wants to feel that their efforts have been wasted.
I believe the higher truth is that nothing done with good motives is "wasted." But the truth is a pearl of great price. It is a false assumption that the majority opinion, even of "scholars," has to be right. Great souls were pilloried in times past for claiming that the world was round. Einstein had the whole world accept certain of his theories, then doubted them himself. He did not care about acceptance -- only that it was the truth.
More mundanely, we accept what comes over the newswaves as truth, even when we, as a whole culture, ought to know better. They herded together all those poor relatives who lost their teenage daughters and sons in the crash of TWA flight 800, only to have the F.B.I. show them a fictionalized simulation prepared by the C.I.A., to demonstrate that 244 eyewitnesses (allegedly) didn’t see what they saw. (Namely a missile launched up towards the plane prior to the explosion). It was on the front page of the New York Times.
Was there a public outcry? I must have missed it. And what about the relatives? Do they not deserve the truth? Do they not deserve the truth forever? Will anything less than the truth ever compensate for their loss? Yet there are NO "experts" weighing in for the obvious: that 244 eyewitnesses probably did not all "not see what they saw." Much less questioning why the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. did not claim that even ONE person witnessed the scenario they claimed really happened!
They even killed off someone as prestigious as Pierre Salinger, who tried. They said he must have read some gossip on the internet and mistaken it for reality. Pierre Salinger, John F. Kennedy’s press secretary, respected journalist, author, commentator. Useless. Valueless. Killed off. Military wins, populace loses.
In all of the books written since the tragedy at Jonestown, I see little trace of real advocacy for Jonestown’s tragic plight. It breaks my heart, because I know it would break theirs. My friends were persecuted to their deaths.
I appeal to anyone who cares about religious liberty, about freedom of speech, about freedom from political persecution -- even the raw and basic right to live free of military threats! These people had no defense. They were railroaded into their graves, then dehumanized into "brainwashed fanatics," "robots," "psychopaths" or whatever else the traffic might bear. All while the truth was that the community of Jonestown was a magnificent place that had been acclaimed by all visitors, shy of the final media travesty -- rave reviews which still survive. (See RAVE REVIEWS in another section on this site.)
In this context, my book standing alone (albeit well-documented) really does not matter. I have the tools for defense, AND NO CASE SHOULD BE DENIED A DEFENSE. Government and media will always protect their "prosecution," even if it was never routed through a court of law. Even a court of law may not arrive at truth – how much less so the hearsay, plotting, scheming, fabrication, false affidavits and the like which surrounded Jonestown.
We’ve been twenty years in the caves with this one. At the rate it has been going, we could spend two hundred more picking through the artifacts. Something that has been so wrongly based on wrong information from the wrong source people, cannot lead to any conclusion which is right. Moreover, if this was done to Jonestown, it can be done to others.
This is no job for residents of "ivory towers." Scholars may not be investigative journalists, but all are citizens. Moreover, with responsibilities beyond those of ordinary citizens. What survives in libraries is our nation’s past, and its future legacy. The lack of challenge of a bullying media, hearsay, rumor, people with tainted motives, and the naiveté about who wields power in this culture and why, are errors for which we may all be called upon to pay. The whole purpose of scholarship is analysis and criticism, not blind acceptance. This role has, to date, been virtually abdicated with respect to Jonestown.
I trust you will take this to heart. I will be happy to answer any questions you may have. Life gave me this responsibility, this entrustment, and I plan to execute it well. I loved my precious friends. I shall give the world their truth.
My heartfelt thanks for listening.
LAURIE EFREIN KAHALAS
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