A Different Course

(Laurie Efrein Kahalas lives in New Mexico with her husband. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She can be reached at: dan_laurie44@comcast.net.)

I’m Laurie Efrein Kahalas. I use my maiden name, “Efrein,” so former members of Peoples Temple can identify who I am. However, identifying myself and stepping forward as I have to question the public view of Jonestown, has cost me greatly— more than I possibly could have anticipated in advance. (See my website, www.jonestown.com.) Whatever “name” I have created for myself (and it is notoriety one really does not want), simply living a private life would have been far easier.

I chose the course of exposé — as only an insider could — not of what Peoples Temple and Jim Jones did, but what was done to them. Keeping silent about what I knew was something I could not live with. My course has been a different one, but those elements — insight, information, experience, documentation — were all close at hand, so for me, the choice was clear. There have been many things I might have handled differently, but I cannot regret the course itself.

I am all too aware that it has weighed in at harsh angles against both the media and government establishments and — as their extension — public opinion. I am also completely aware that it would not take media domination to turn people against a group who extinguished its own children under any threat whatsoever! It is against every normal human instinct, even that of extreme panic.

But two sides drove Jonestown to that point from the start. I have done my best to reveal that — yes — there were grave, direct threats by military and intelligence agencies to that isolated, remote community and that history needs to have the whole of it. History also needs to realize that the press’ destruction prior to the physical destruction of Jonestown was wholesale, wanton, and riddled with lies.

How could it be otherwise? The only people which the press talked to were those who never wanted to “save” Jonestown at all, but rather to bring down the community and its leaders, for ideological reasons. The original smears of Jonestown in the press were provided by parties who had never even been there! The San Francisco Chronicle was one of the earliest voices in the smear campaign, when it presented the position of the IRS on why the tax exemption for Peoples Temple Church should be revoked, as dogmatic, irrefutable fact, even though that position was in complete disregard of an avalanche of community and government accolades for humanitarian work! Joseph Mazor, an ex-felon with a lengthy prison record, and employee of Jeanie and Al Mills, who launched the anti-Temple campaign, mysteriously received a state investigator’s license and a budget with a pricey PR firm to persecute Peoples Temple, just months prior to the assault by the press. The list of such abuses of power goes on and on.

It is easy to say we would never have responded to this assault as the people of Jonestown did, but before we do, let us relate to the position they were in — and why! — and the enormity, even certainty, of the odds against them.

What happened at Jonestown was years in the making, and the destabilization of Jim Jones personally was only a part of it. The public at large does not even know any of the story of Jonestown, aside from what it thinks it knows about the final day. It doesn’t know that by and large, the exodus from the States was a willing, even ecstatic journey; that the gravity of the risks, for most, increased after the exodus; that protections diminished through factors no one at Jonestown — even Jim Jones — could control; and that the persecution against Jonestown through the government/media conglomerate was all too real, and life-threatening.

I am tired of being accused of making excuses for the unthinkable. What I have attempted to provide is a balance. Every pressure of fanaticism from the inside was matched by a steamroller of persecution from the outside. This was never a way to “save” people. It was only a way to guarantee they would be killed off! And the parties pushing that persecution would have never been exposed at all if not for my own admittedly isolated efforts.

I have never believed in, nor promoted, justification for anything as grievous as a mass suicide, and I wept as hard as anyone in its wake. But I also witnessed the many components of how this happened, closing in from all sides like a vice. If the perpetrator of this community’s death were really “only Jim Jones,” I could have joined the chorus in two seconds myself. Jim Jones was very abusive to me personally, as is clearly detailed in my book, Snake Dance: Unravelling the Mysteries of Jonestown. Rest assured, I have gone through my own bouts of hatred and rage, thankfully abated now, but no less vivid and real.

But Jim Jones was only part of the tragic matrix into which the people of Jonestown fell. The real puppetmasters (none of whom resided in Jonestown) were glad for the tragedy. It saved them the trouble of eradicating the community themselves. No one was about to tolerate a fierce, interracial, far-left-wing, politically-ambitious group re-relocating to the then-U.S.S.R. in the middle of the Cold War! Will someone please finally look at the obvious?!

Add to this Jim Jones’ highly publicized trip to Castro’s Cuba to visit with exiled Black Panther leader, Huey Newton, as well as Jones’ meeting with Eric Gairy, then-Prime Minister of socialist Grenada (as brokered by Mervyn Dymally, then-Lieutenant Governor of the State of California), not to mention many documented trips to and negotiations with the Soviet Embassy in Guyana, and it seems quite useless to dismiss me as a “conspiracy theorist.” All it takes is a bit of raw intelligence on the part of any accuser to recognize these documented realities, though of course there is much much more.

In some sense, this quest has been facilitated for me, and not others, as a predilection of background: I was born a so-called “red diaper baby,” and McCarthyism hit my family especially hard. It enabled me to recognize elements of the persecution against Peoples Temple that others, simply wrapped in rage against their leader, could not, or chose not, to see. The old adage, “Just because you are paranoid, does not mean they are not out to get you,” could not have been more true in this case. Yet I have scrupulously examined the record at all points, not jumped to conclusions, but done my research and with exceptional care.

It is always been easy to say, “It was all Jim Jones’ fault.” But then you look at the enormous benefit that life in Jonestown gave to its people, in contrast with their previous lives stateside, and how despicable elements were so very eager to destroy that breakaway, and the picture is more complex. Certainly the leaders who spawned “Concerned Relatives” and mad-dog efforts to smear Peoples Temple in the press, had no intent whatsoever to “save” Jonestown! And if Jonestown was a car wreck waiting to happen as long as Jim Jones was at the wheel, there was no morality, much less heroism, in deliberately pushing it over the cliff!

It takes no genius, only light detective work, some honesty and guts, to see that Deanna and Elmer Mertle (a.k.a. Jeannie and Al Mills) were cut-out caricatures for FBI plants in Peoples Temple, complete with the usual ties to the Treasury Department, Interpol, Customs, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; or that Timothy Stoen, with his secret spy mission to East Berlin in the early sixties, international contacts, mysterious funding, and repeated attempts to provoke terrorism within the church’s ranks, was a cut-out caricature for a CIA plant. These were the days of COINTELPRO and Cold War hysteria. Yet history has been given no such backdrop for what happened at Jonestown except through my own efforts.

(The murder of the Mertles, incidentally, only six days after Jeannie Mills announced that they were going off the anti-Temple circuit, was an unmistakable marker, verified in news print, even for those who are loathe to investigate any government plot against Peoples Temple. If they were not killed by “their own” — i.e. fellow government agents ensuring that the Mills/Mertles would not pose a lifelong liability to expose them— then there is a bridge in Brooklyn you might like to buy.)

These people, the government plants, were just “doing their jobs,” and no one who helped them is a “hero.” They are simply people who will never face their own role in causing the deaths of 1,000 innocents. None of this could have happened without their own venom, their spite, their willful blindness, active support, short-sightedness and/or self-centeredness… and their apparently unlimited willingness to lie on command in the press, in affidavits, in front of cameras.

Do we live in safer times for dissidents today? With Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft & Co., many think not and with good cause. And even with the seemingly-safe prediction that most leaders will not be as extreme as Jim Jones (who undoubtedly rendered the course more difficult for any later groups), there is no guarantee that the groups they lead will be protected, or that that breathtaking level of breakaway from “the system” which Peoples Temple did accomplish will be tolerated. Even the Temple’s opponents acknowledged this success — as Congressman Leo Ryan said, “This is one of the most important social experiments of the 20th century” — but it will not be duplicated.

But history has apparently learned nothing from the deaths at Jonestown, and it never will without balance — with exposé of all sides. We could forever quibble about why Jonestown died, but it will never be complete without looking at why Jonestown was pursued from thousands of miles away — via yellow journalism, mercenary threats, illegal withholding of government checks, trumped-up agency investigations, dirty tricks and the like — to ensure that it would not survive.

I question whether I’ve had any success with the living, but for me, the imperative was clear: That as an act of conscience and love, I needed to go public with whatever I knew, to honor those who could no longer speak for themselves. I have long since stepped out of any personal role of “victim,” to examine what actually happened — the whole of it.

This has been a discouraging task. Few confronting the horrifying images of hundreds of children lying dead on the ground would even consider there could be two sides to the Jonestown story. Yet the people of Jonestown were, at best, caught in a vice between unbearable pressures from both within and without. The latter was not only not publicized, but pervasively, diabolically, covered up; and both lies and liars survive to this day, both through institutions and through individuals. And has that colored the whole? Yes, greatly. Has it permanently dehumanized the residents of Jonestown? We hope not, but it is a key element. Does it serve truth or history? Not in the slightest. To the contrary, it desecrates it.

I put a label on my website, an honest and heartfelt one, that I in no way defend or justify mass suicide, but in many people’s eyes, it has made no difference. I have incurred castigation for simply pointing out the obvious — that, for example, it is preposterous to think that in the heat of the Cold War, the CIA was not intensely interested in the international breakaway represented by Jonestown. The hugest surprise would have been a lack of conspiracy to stop Jonestown “dead in its tracks,” so to speak — and if Jonestown imploded from the inside, all the better. In this sense, the CIA played Jim Jones like a violin, and anyone who wants to feel “victimized” has a whole scenario to blame, not simply one destabilized leader.

I’ve had no inherent need to put myself at risk by stepping forth as I have (risk is not fun!), nor am I writing this article to defend myself personally — I mean, not morally. I don’t need any such defense. I am an honest human being who never hurt a hair on the smallest child’s head. And while I have lost infinitely more than I have gained through this endeavor, I have done what I need to do: to separate myself out from group consensus, and to make public the record of the very travesties publicly misidentified as “heroic.” The combination of spite, lies, and cold political calculus involved on the part of the various “heroic” parties, was as great a travesty as anything destroying Jonestown from within.

People lie to this day, for instance, about the true parentage of children (i.e. the false claim that Jim Jones’ own son was sired by Timothy Stoen), and they besmirch their own names, shy of the unlikely event that they “come clean,” though that door should remain open. They will always share in the guilt of what happened at Jonestown because they helped cause it. They have blood on their own hands. People who lied about Jonestown being “an armed camp” have blood on their hands. (The Americans and Guyanese who went into Jonestown after the deaths discovered fewer than forty small weapons, ranging from BB guns to small caliber rifles, to defend a community of 1,200. That is public record, and it is only scratching the surface.) People who have long since confessed to being pathological liars from childhood — unfortunately irrelevant to large media and government interests — have blood on their hands. People who willfully signed false affidavits to destroy Jonestown in the press prior to its physical destruction, have blood on their hands. There have been a lot of people paraded publicly as “heroes” who actually have blood on their hands.

My own view, which I’ve never hidden, is that many of the key participants in the media smears were pawns, however unwitting, of government agents. Whether they knew that then, they should still care now. A thousand people died. There is no statute of limitations on caring about having been a pawn in an evil plot or on taking responsibility for one’s actions. There is no statute of limitations on learning the whole truth of what happened. I don’t understand those in that position whose conscience seems untroubled. I would want to know whether my actions or my participation in a campaign was a factor in driving a thousand people towards their deaths.

I also need people to know that I’ve had no benefits — fame, money, glory or even the freedom from castigation — from this. To the contrary! Nor has this ever been “an intellectual pursuit” for me, notwithstanding the intense intellectual work that has gone into it. I knew a full measure of grief from the start — gradually, thankfully, lifted — and being right, or voicing an opinion, has never been paramount. Some have found my style abrasive, but I’ve only been able to use whatever style I have, to express information and insights which otherwise might never have surfaced.

But neither am I a “victim.” We rarely see the purpose of life, or its whole, as it is happening, but it is there. What I might have done differently if I were to live it all over again, or be older and wiser at the time, or not be subjected to this or that, is not how life has unfolded for me, nor I daresay for anyone else. Indeed, if Peoples Temple itself expatriated to Guyana just a decade later, after the Cold War, the Jonestown Tragedy would not have happened as it did, either! The most determinative factors are often the ones that are out of our hands.

All we can have is the wisdom to know what is ours to do, to live, or perchance to remedy. I can relate to anyone who feels “victimized,” those whose emotions were pushed to the limit and beyond, and the losses were grievous for many. But it is essential to know that “playing victim” is not what brings our redemption, for victimization is never anything we can own or accept in our lives. Moreover, it prevents us from moving forwards. To rise above our circumstances as best we can, and to be stronger and better because of it, that is the better course.

Many have only read my website and not my book, Snake Dance: Unravelling the Mysteries of Jonestown. The book, if not the website, reveals profound conflict and trauma, not only over the tragedy, but with the “dark side” of the church, and certainly I personally suffered intolerable abuse from Jim Jones. Yet I am thankful that I’ve never had to live with the specter of having harmed others. Vengeance, venom, and spite was never part of either why I was in Peoples Temple or how I acted while I was there; it is something I’ve only witnessed, with great dismay, in others. I just did the best I could, with perhaps too trusting an idealism, but I deeply loved the work and the profound good it brought to so many, not only individually, but as a model for change that is still profoundly needed within our alienating society and economic system.

The root of my work is that I am profoundly disturbed at mis-information, dis-information, indiscriminate smearing, and dehumanizing of people who lived with such high purpose and so sacrificed themselves. I look forward to the day when we will all get the story whole and straight, and also to get past it in constructive ways. Our present society is troubled, and much of what was plaguing it in 1978 has not abated and perhaps gotten worse!

Jonestown not being “the answer,” does not mean that they did not get the questions straight. By and large, they did. This is what I want very much future generations to understand.

As for Jim Jones personally, it is indeed a fierce, ghastly lesson that angels and demons could so wrestle within a human soul as they did within him, but what seems imperative is that we learn from that, and I am not sure that we have. So many see exactly the same flaws in the culture that Jim Jones did, but lack the intensity of conviction, or power, to provoke the unprecedented breakaway, at perilous risk, that Jonestown represented for the culture at large. It took a “force of nature” like Jim Jones to get that done. We are aghast that concomitant with that power came destabilization, megalomania, and abuse. But we too often fail to look beyond that into the way the world was, and is, that would not let the better part of what created Jonestown play out without encountering terrifying, life-threatening persecution. Fault lay on many sides.

The chief problem with Jim Jones tactically — there were devastating problems with his personality, of course — was that he was ready to destroy his own rather than capitulate. This deep personal flaw within Jim played right into the CIA’s hands. It allowed them to accomplish two goals in a single night — to bring down Jonestown, and to provoke it through the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan, whom the CIA hated — in such a way as to remove the blame that otherwise and more properly would have attached to the agency. And with extreme, efficient, highly-trained military cruelty, that is exactly what they did.

As for the people of Jonestown, there is a sound basis for fearing that if they had not killed themselves, outside forces would have done it for them. After all, they were led by a man of whom “[i]t was thought … would become a major political force in the Caribbean within five years,” according to a government agent that so many “Jonestown heroes” freely worked with. In addition, they were on the verge of re-relocation to the then-Soviet Union — a move which never would have been permitted — but the community’s very plans hastened its extinction. Moreover, the factual evidence is indisputable that the CIA took control of Jonestown on-site no later than 3:30 a.m. the morning of November 19th. And that is just the tip of the iceberg, as the saying goes.

On the other hand, I am also profoundly opposed to suicide — just as I am profoundly opposed to taking the lives of children, and profoundly opposed to dictatorial rule — and I grieved that what was our greatest joy became permeated with paranoia, panic, and insufferable pressures to perform unthinkable acts. I honestly believe that the very best that could have been done was to stand there like a thousand Gandhis and absorb whatever may have come, even if it were slaughter. But in the name of all mercy, do look at those pressures upon the community and what they were up against. Look at it before you judge. That is what I ask, although it is something that few appear willing to do.

My most haunting realization is that the community was doomed in any case from the start. Nothing could have stopped the forces of obliteration. That sorrowful conclusion is based upon facts, research, and personal knowledge. If anyone wants to know upon what anything I have said is based, just ask me. You will get a straight answer. What I do not want to deal with, and should not have to, is castigation. That is stupid and cruel in the light of the risks I’ve taken, and my bedrock honesty.

In closing, the position I’m in has been nearly too challenging to handle, and on most days, I want to completely withdraw. But if I never did this, and no one else filled in that great gap, I might regret it even more. We all have to live with our realities as best we can.

My husband and I hope to at some point retire to India, and dwell in the peace and bliss of true saints. My hope is still for a better, more egalitarian world. Nothing has changed that.

God bless the people of Jonestown. I loved them very much.