Author Isaac Asimov has written that there is a cult of ignorance or anti-intellectualism in the United States. I would add a cult of deliberate ignorance. At least on the part of the GOP. Since becoming sycophants of Donald Trump, they have championed anti-intellectualism, attacked people with expertise, and vilified science. But that pales in comparison to the gaslighting. They have called the insurrectionists “tourists,” and Trump has gone on record describing them as “loving people” with lots of hugs and kisses to go around.
Just like Jim Jones had people beaten and called it love. Just like Jim Jones disparaged and humiliated the suicidal Tom Partak in front of a cheering crowd, telling him it was love.
So forgive me if I have a hard time honoring what was good about Jonestown, as some survivors have said they want from the public. I mean, I know there were good people there who did good things. I respect what the people of Peoples Temple loved the most: the community. But you can’t expect the public to celebrate that good when they read about stories like this.
I am not a Jonestown survivor. I am a cult survivor, but I was never a member of Peoples Temple. To try to understand my own experience better, I have been reading extensively on cults, and Jonestown has been my focus. I have read numerous books from survivors (and journalists like Reiterman) and an untold number of news articles, and I have watched almost all the documentaries out there.
It seems to me, with the 50th anniversary of Jonestown coming up and a cult firmly implanted in Congress, that a reckoning would be in order. A public one. A reckoning that considers what can be learned from the wreckage. Maybe 50 years can put enough distance between survivors and the trauma to do that. And it seems to me that the perfect place to start would be with Tim Stoen.
It seems to me that there could be no Jonestown without Tim Stoen. Everything I have read about him appalls me. My overwhelming impression is that he had the same disposition as Jones, the same autocratic, tyrannical tendencies. Except he had legal power and was smarter, independent and well connected.
Think about what you could get away with, with a nefarious agenda and a veneer of legality. Tim Reiterman wrote that, “through his job, [Stoen] knew the district attorney, the judges, the newspaper editor, county supervisors, police, school officials, state and county agency heads and others.” He was the engine behind much of the excessive praise of Jim Jones in the community. No one had Stoen’s power. No one else had his freedom of movement. No one else was permitted to stand up to Jones or to advocate for themselves. Exempted from Jones’ control and abuse, not subject to his brainwashing, he could think for himself. Which makes his actions even more egregious. The wide respect he garnered, and the powerful people he came into contact with daily, made it almost impossible for anyone to believe the claims against Jones when they started coming out.
But he went further. Had the incident of Jones’ lewd conduct in a bathroom stall come out, Jonestown, arguably, would have never happened. Tim worked furiously to have those records sealed and destroyed. According to Reiterman, when there were controversies surrounding Chris Lewis and the SLA, Stoen used his legal powers again, writing intelligence agencies advocating for the Temple and distancing the church from Lewis. He helped get gun permits. When the Examiner wanted to do a piece, he hounded them, shaming them for hurting “a good man.” These are the kinds of actions a mafia boss orders: covering up criminal behavior and going after critics. And a few have asserted he kept blank, signed pieces of paper by members locked up, in case they needed to be used to destroy a defector’s life.
He even ventured into the spiritual realm to get all his bases covered and help keep everyone under control. He applied for and received official ministerial standing and was a member of the Disciples of Christ regional board. This helped further protect the church and contributed to the impression that Jones was a man of God when inside the church walls, he was demonizing and stomping on the Bible.
Yes, there were numerous people enabling Jim. But Tim stands out. From my readings, it was clear about the man is that he had the same hard-on for unchecked power that Jones had. He had the same fantasies of radicalization; of the Temple being under siege. He fed those fantasies to Jones constantly, and was witnessed by Teri Buford, apparently, taking frequent recreational trips with Jones.
So in my mind he is just as responsible for the destruction of this community as Jones was. Until those last months, they worked together in concert. Reiterman describes how Jones would point to Tim to remind everyone that he had people in law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office. I understand that if people tried to complain about the church, his presence in the District Attorney’s office alone dissuaded them. So he was a major force in suppressing the will, the independence and the grievances of Temple members.
As I read the most shocking allegations of the Jonestown story, I wondered each and every time how much Tim knew. Did he know about the Box? Did he know about the Extended Care Unit and forced drugging to put people into catatonic states? He had to. Did he know someone had pepper jammed up their rectum? That a child had defecated in their pants, and was forced to wear the soiled garment and his head and watch others eat? Perhaps not, but I’m fairly confident he knew of the verbal brutality going on in Planning Commission meetings.
Donald Trump would not have been able to do anywhere near the damage he did to the country without GOP support. Even today, as long as they stick with him, he has significant power. As Members of Congress, they provide that veneer of legality to his supporters, which is clearly evident in the claims of insurrectionists, that they had a right to their actions, as Trump – the president – had sent them.
I see parallels in the relationship of Tim Stoen and Jim Jones. Author Robert A. Heinlein once said that, “Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.” I have no doubt Stoen would have fantasized about that, too.
I wonder how Tim Stoen sleeps at night. I wonder if he has ever thought seriously about his role in what happened to the Jonestown community. I wonder if he feels the weight of his actions on his shoulders, if he feels any shame at all. I wonder if he has ever tried to help people or live by his so-called socialist values. Has he contacted even one person he wronged to make amends?
Let’s hope karma will do its work.
(Jessica Mendes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)