A Mother-In-Law’s Blues

Photo Courtesy of California
Historical Society, MSP 3800

Much like Guan-Yin, the ancient Chinese Goddess of Mercy and Compassion, Marceline Jones was the compassionate heart of Peoples Temple. While Jim might perform his “magic,” his staged healings, and his tiresome, if cyclonic, shenanigans, Marceline remained stoically at his side as the eye of his emotional hurricanes. I marveled at her patient acceptance of the enduring pain caused by her deteriorating spinal condition. Nor was her pain simply physical. I was unaware until reading Stephan Jones’ thoughtful reflection about his mother of her reaction to Jim’s sadistic revealing of his relationship with Carolyn Layton. I can only imagine how his braggadocio alone must have crushed her spirit.

Withal, she consistently displayed the kindness one reads about in the lives of the saints. Universally revered as the Mother of the Church, she was poised, sincere, and one of the most refined individuals I have ever known. In the more than thirty years since the horrible events in Jonestown, and despite her significant leadership role right up to the end, she continues to be esteemed in the survivors’ community as the individual we all wish had led us. Without doubt, the story of Peoples Temple would have been one upon which we all could look back with pride, had she exercised Jim’s authority.

One of her more understandably trying relationships, and one which undoubtedly tested her capacity for restraint, was that of prospective mother-in-law to Suzanne’s future husband. That’d be me. Marceline Jones, the goddess mother of Peoples Temple was, alas, my mother-in-law.

As I recall, my relationship with Marci began to sour, for her, when it became clear I was to be her beloved daughter’s persistent and dedicated suitor, and worse yet, husband. No matter what my better qualities might have been, my missteps and faux pas were such that destiny itself seemed to dictate they’d be viewed in their entirety by her.

When I was 21 or so, Suzanne threw a party for a number of kids in the Temple. Suzanne had said nothing about my little sister Patricia, but I knew Suzanne disliked her for reasons beyond my ken. As I dressed for the party, I explained to Patricia I could not invite her because I was afraid to do so would displease Suzanne. Suzanne, by the way, had said nothing at all about inviting Patricia. What a laugh. Here I was the supposed reincarnation of Leon Trotsky, the leonine Russian revolutionary, yet I was unwilling to stand up to my fiancée, or rather my own fears of her reaction about so small a matter.

Coincidentally, Marceline dropped by the house shortly after I left, found Patricia sobbing and promptly brought her to the party. Marceline pulled me aside and privately berated me for my craven behavior. To this day, I admire and thank her for showing me with perfect clarity how cowardly a little lion I could be. She gave me the opportunity to initiate my first conscious effort to improve my flawed character. I sincerely apologized to Patricia and, thereafter, made certain she was included in each and every event in which I was involved. Patricia was quick to forgive and forget; Suzanne was dumbfounded by it all. Nevertheless, the stage was set.

One Monday morning at the Temple dorm in Santa Rosa, as I dressed for college, I reached into my pants’ pocket only to find Marci’s keys. I only then recalled she’d loaned me her keys during the weekend to move her car. With a sense of dread as great as any I’ve known, I drove the 70 miles back to Redwood Valley at race speeds to return those keys before, I prayed, she learned they were missing. Screeching to a halt in front of the parsonage, I saw her anxiously searching the car. I didn’t need psychic insight to intuit she’d learned her keys had gone missing. Any doubt I might have had evaporated when I handed them to her, only to learn she was late for an appointment with some high ranking State official. It seemed I’d taken her only set of keys. You had to hand it to me, I thought, I had a knack for living up to her worst expectations.

It wasn’t simply that I made mistakes on my own. No matter who was engaged in troubling behavior, I’d somehow find myself in their company. Her despairing glance on such occasions made it clear the antics of the others did not conceal my own conduct.

None of this seemed to have escaped Jim’s notice. In one of his more empathetic moments, he put his arm around my shoulder and observed, “Son, you’ve got Marceline on your ass. I don’t envy you.”

After reading Stephan’s account of Marceline’s discovering Jim’s infidelity with Carolyn, I’ve come to believe that Jim himself may have darkened my relationship with Marceline. As he later told me, on the evening he revealed his relationship with Carolyn to Marci, he explained to her that I’d done some reading on the Russian revolution and pointed out to him Lenin’s relationship with Inessa Armand, Lenin’s long-term mistress. Of course, given Inessa’s reincarnation as Carolyn, what could he do but continue this relationship with his revolutionary soul mate. From this remove, all I can say is: Thanks, pal. Lesson learned!!

When Suzanne and I told her mother of our upcoming marriage, I watched with awe as Marceline displayed practiced calm. She smiled and hugged her much loved daughter. To her great credit, Marceline glanced at me with kindness. However, even with her remarkable self-control, she could not hide her deep concern that our prospective union foretold years of calamitous entanglements. Great lady that she was, she bit her lip and said nothing of her fears (at least within my hearing).

Once I was in law school, and Suzanne and I were married and living independently, Marceline put as good a face as possible on this unwelcome outcome and, deferring to fate, accepted me warmly. We interacted only occasionally simply because our paths rarely converged. She was for me, as indeed she was for most members, a somewhat remote if caring and overarching mother figure.

I last met with Marci several months after I left the church. Although I left because I was miserable, I continued to feel as if my leaving were simply a matter of my own weakness. As time passed, thanks to the concern and friendship bestowed by other apostates, I came to a clearer understanding of the paranoid reality created by Jim and the danger confronting my friends and family. I went to the San Francisco Temple to speak with my family over the radio-telephone. When my disaffection became clear, Jim – at the other end of the line in Jonestown – exploded in a trademark diatribe. Those in the room with me became visibly hostile. Thankfully, Marceline, who was also there, relieved this stand-off by asking me to join her in Jim’s apartment and to speak with her about my disillusionment. She was, as always, gracious. Ours was a friendly, if candid, discussion, which ended on far better terms than I’d thought possible. That I left with my hide in one piece is a tribute to Marceline’s tactfulness.

As Stephan’s eloquent reflection infers, his mother was, perhaps, Jim’s most important enabler, his sine qua non. Though she had long since been passed over for Jim’s love and regard, she certainly held the respect of the Temple as a whole. Had she taken any of a number of steps, she may have shaken his authority sufficiently to have prevented the events of November 18, 1978.

Yet who among us can stand in judgment. I believe she genuinely, and perhaps reasonably under enormously difficult circumstances, saw that to protect the Jonestown community from Jim’s worst predations, she had to make a Faustian compromise of her own.

Though she was mistaken, I have no doubt she died with the fierce conviction that her death was an appropriate sacrifice. Marceline Jones continues to hold a place of honor in my own pantheon of heroes. I only hope I may meet my fate with the same courage.

(Mike Cartmell is a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. His complete set of writings for the site appears here. He may be reached at Beemermcart@aol.com.)