I, James Warren Jones, founder of Peoples Temple and the living reincarnation of Lenin, Jesus, Mao Tse-Tung and Martin Luther King, declare this historic act of revolutionary suicide by one thousand of my followers to be the greatest protest in the history of mankind against racial inequality, injustice, and persecution of the masses. To prevent our enemies from lying about the reasons for our martyrdom, I have ordered my faithful disciple ….
Faithful disciple, my ass, I muttered. A Judas, was more like it. I tucked the scribbled note back in the envelope and dropped it in the cardboard carton along with the other documents and tapes. This was the second time I stopped to read the note by flashlight, idiotically expecting the message to change, releasing me from my burden. Self-disgust ate away at me, like acid reflux in my throat. I doubled over to puke again, and the bitter mix of phlegm and bile triggered a coughing fit. By now, I had vomited out all traces of my last meal—any vestige of self respect, too. I was a cast off molt of my former self. A living shell. A sham. Anything but human. I loathed myself for letting the massacre happen.
Forgive me, my darling, I silently muttered, recalling Ophelia’s last gasps as she died in my arms. I brushed the tears from my eyes with the side of my forefinger. I’d make it up to her somehow, perhaps by burning a candle within my mind as perpetual memorial to her.
As if in answer to my vow, I heard her sweet voice say, No need to fault yourself, Dwight. I wanted to die—for Father, for my brothers and sisters, for the Cause.
But you were so young, I countered. You had your whole life ahead of you. We could’ve had a wonderful life together.
Then another memory burst forth.
“How much I loved you,” Jim Jones began at the emergency meeting hours ago, his voice cracking and its tone weary. “How much I tried to give you a good life.”
Except for sporadic shouts of “We love you, too, Father,” responses by the listeners were tentative, fearful and expectant.
“We’re sitting on a powder keg,” our self-appointed Bishop continued. “Our enemies are about to attack.”
Everybody understood who are enemies were—the army of mercenaries hired by the C.I.A. to slaughter us and torture our children. All because of our beliefs in socialism. But I had no idea at the time what Jones really had in mind. This likely was another one of his endless rants. Another fake suicide rehearsal. Another melodramatic performance in the pavilion.
So why didn’t I kill the bastard once the truth dawned on me? At the very least, I could’ve tipped over the barrel of Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide. One solitary act of outright defiance might’ve prompted the others to come to their senses. Sure, his guards might’ve shot me, but it wasn’t death I feared. My inaction befuddled me. Patriotism was the reason, I told myself, ennobling my motives. Freedom and democracy, too. Why not add motherhood, God and country while you’re at it? An invisible skeptic in my head mocked. The sarcasm cut through my rationalizations. Truth was, I simply didn’t have to guts to thwart the man—our communal leader, a living God, who we once believed had led us to the Promised Land. All along, I had deluded myself about my independence while, really, I had been under his spell—and blinded by my mission, too. Even so, none of that excused my failure to save my beloved Ophelia.
Instead of any protesting roars of thunder, dimming of stars or deluge of rain, the heavens remained remarkably apathetic to the events below. Up above, a full-moon peeked out from behind a curtain of clouds, feigning ignorance of the recent cataclysm. Suddenly, I felt exposed, under a spotlight, and in danger. In the distance, the haunting cries of the howler monkeys, like transitions in a Bach fugue, segued into the moans, shrieks and cries of mothers trying to console their convulsing children. Moments later, these sounds were interrupted by the distant crack of gunfire. Or was it thunder? Then I thought I heard voices shouting. Who could they be shooting at? Maybe I wasn’t the only one left alive. Perhaps they now were hunting down the security guards who had killed the Congressman and his retinue at the airstrip. Or maybe they were trying to flush me out—whoever They were.
Only one thing I knew with certainty. No one who had witnessed what happened could remain alive.
For caution, I dropped to the ground, seeking cover in this cultivated field of cassava shrubs. Up ahead, less than one hundred yards away, was the protective darkness of the jungle. I began snaking my way commando style along the ground on my elbows and belly, silently cursing whenever the knapsack on my back got caught in the damnable shrubs. Cassava, yuck! How I had grown to hate all the flavorless concoctions—the bread, tapioca pudding, gruel, soups and whatnot—made from the pulverized tubers and leaves of that devious plant. What irony, too, that this foodstuff that helped keep us alive also, when eaten raw, contained hydrogen cyanide, a relative of the same deadly poison Jones got everybody but me to swallow.
“We better not have any of our children left when it’s over because, I’m telling you, they’ll parachute in on us, cruelly torture our dearest ones, …” Jim Jones warned.
Stealthily I began fading into the shadows like a sylph, preparing for the unthinkable. The scene was too bizarre to be real.
“What we need to do,” the madman raved, “is let the seniors take the potion first. Like they used to do in ancient Greece. So they can step over quietly into a new existence. Remember, this is a revolutionary act, not suicide. We’re doing this to save humanity.”
What bullshit! His reasoning violated every law of logic. Yet his audience was rapt, nodding, murmuring, “Let’s get it over with.” “Right on.” “What we waiting for?” Only one lone voice of dissent among the members, which was soon drowned out by the faithful. I kept my silence, too, paralyzed by my sense of inevitability.
Incredulous, I knew now this was no bluff. Doomsday was here.
About halfway to the impenetrable fortress of trees and vegetation ahead, I heard the crackling noise again—rifle shots or thunder?—now farther off. So maybe it was not me they were after. Still wary, I rose to my feet and, crouching, tried to keep pace with my shadow that kept scampering well ahead of me at times for the cover of the jungle. Walking on the nearby road to Port Kaituma was dangerous, so I opted instead for the footpath paralleling it. Once I located the trail, I pressed onward into the darkness, illumined sporadically by sprinklings of moonlight penetrating the dense canopy of leaves stretching over the treetops. I clutched a machete in one hand, a flashlight in the other. What I needed most now was to rest, hydrate myself, and eat something. Finally, beyond exhaustion, I perched on a broken tree limb and dropped the knapsack beside me. Putting my implements aside, I swigged down the rest of the water in my canteen in one gulp, barely enough to sustain me on my trek. I then groped for the remains of the stale bread in my knapsack. My mouth was so dry that the crumbs felt like glass spicules on my tongue and stuck in my throat. Unable to spit them out or swallow them, I tossed the rest of the loaf away during my coughing fit.
A mistake. In my haste, I had parked myself on a decaying log. The scent of the food now served as a clarion call for every insect in the vicinity. Within seconds, I was besieged on all fronts: red ranger ants, mosquitoes and flies. I shot up from my treacherous perch and began blindly swatting and slapping at them with my hands. Once I began to feel their stings and bites through my sweat drenched shirt and khaki shorts, I realized the futility of my efforts. Best to press on. Maybe I could outrun these invaders.
As I trudged on, I began to hear a pitter-patting sound overhead. Soon a few cool drops of rain trickled down my face. Moments later, a torrential downpour, accompanied by growls of thunder, tore open the arboreal awning and drenched me. Visibility became impossible, even with my flashlight. Chilled and shivering, I slogged on as best I could since there was no place to take shelter. My boots now had become large suction cups on the muddy ground, making it difficult to lift my feet. Minutes later, the rain stopped as abruptly as it began, though drops kept trickling down from the leaves. Only then did I realize that the pesky insects were gone—and my failure to collect some precious water in my canteen.
By now the beaten down bushes and fallen branches made travel along the narrow footpath even more difficult in parts. A saving grace was that the heavy rain had torn rents in the umbrella of leaves above, letting beams of moonlight shine through. Slogging along the mucky path, I now had to do battle with the thorny undergrowth on either side of me. The muggy air and the stifling smell of decaying matter in the steamy jungle made it hard to breathe. As I rounded a bend, my foot caught on a hidden root. I plunged headlong into a patch of interwoven vines and brambles, entrapping me like trick straw finger holders that tightened their grip the harder I pulled. I tried with my machete to hack my way out of this tangle of clutching tentacles. As I whacked away, my mind turned again to that horrific scene of dying men and women, grabbing at me with outstretched arms and pleading for relief.
You’re freaking out, I told myself. Just as I hacked my way free from the vegetation, I had to extricate myself from these entrapping memories. Escape was all that mattered now.
Slowly and methodically, I wrested myself loose from my quasi-straitjacket. As I began to rise, I heard a noise nearby, the rustle of leaves followed by the snapping of a branch. I reached for my flashlight, but the battery was dead. By now the background static of the jungle had stilled. Only my heavy breathing was audible in the eerie silence. Danger was nearby. My eyes squinted into the graying darkness, trying to sharpen my vision. My mind raced with frightening possibilities. A jaguar could be stalking me. A deadly fer-de-lance was slithering along nearby. Jim Jones still could be alive, resurrected, as he prophesized, and was hunting me down himself. The impossibility of this notion sobered me. The splattered, bloody flecks of his brain on my arm hours ago were all too real. Finally rationality prevailed. My imagination was running amok. The noise was natural. After a heavy rain, trees keeled over, limbs dropped and leaves fell. All sorts of creatures, mostly harmless, left their shelters again in search of food. I had to collect myself. Only three more miles to go. Once in Port Kaituma, I’d find a way to get to Georgetown. Afterwards, I’d board the plane home. I would put an end to all these years of duplicity. I’d had enough. More than enough. More than any person should have to endure.
Just as I secured the shoulder straps of my knapsack and got ready to move on, two glowing eyes appeared and began coming towards me, paralyzing me in their glare. Even before I could react, a voice called out, “Don’t move or you’re dead!” When the eyes dilated further, I realized they were large flashlights, held hip high by each of the two approaching figures in uniform. In their other hand they held pistols pointed at me. As one of the men moved by me, I caught sight of his beret. The next moment I felt a dull thud on the back of my head. My knees buckled under me. Ophelia’s startled face flashed before me. Then oblivion.
I awoke to full consciousness inside a cubic room with white soundboard covering the walls. Turning over on my side, I gently fingered the sore lump on the back of my skull. Then I propped myself up on my elbow to get a better look of the room. Aside from my mattress, the bare bone furnishings consisted of a chamber pot, a table, and a chair. On the opposite wall was a four-by-six foot, one-way mirror. Beside it was a wooden door with a covered metal slot at the bottom. A bank of four bright spotlights hung from the ceiling. As far as I could tell, there no light switch. As I struggled to get to my feet, a wave of dizziness made me hesitate before straightening up. Only when I saw myself in the mirror did I fully realize I was naked. What was going on? My head ached, making it hard to think. I formed an awning with my hands above my eyebrows and tried unsuccessfully to peer inside the window. “Hello,” I shouted, and rapped on the window. No answer. I went to the door and pulled the metal handle. It was locked.
As I stood there, pondering my situation, I heard a deep, hollow voice from up above. “Good, Mister Urban, you are up. The sedation we gave you must have worn off.”
My thighs hugged each other and my shoulders hunched forward as my crisscrossed hands shot down to cover my genitals. “Who are you, where am I?” I asked, addressing the overhead microphone instead of my unseen observer watching me from behind my distorted reflection in the one-way mirror.
“Your location does not matter. For your own safety, it is better that you not know or see us.”
“Am I a p-p-prisoner?” I stammered.
“Let us say, you are our guest. We are sorry about your clothes and the accommodations, but considering what happened, we cannot take a chance. As you must know, almost one thousand of your fellow members killed themselves in Jonestown almost a week ago. Also, a number of well known people were murdered on the airstrip. A mother in Georgetown, too, slit the throats of her three children and then committed suicide. We cannot take a chance of you taking your own life. That is why you will be under constant surveillance until you finish your task.”
“Task?” I repeated, and let my arms fall to the side.
“Because of the scopolamine you may not recall our sessions with you. Your problem speaking fluently made interviews with you difficult. You were found to have many important documents in your possession, along with books of shorthand notes we had trouble deciphering. Therefore, we are requesting that you write out your report. Only you can shed light on certain matters related to Jonestown.”
The very mention of Jonestown evoked horrendous images in my mind. Ophelia’s ghastly death, too. I squeezed my eyelids shut and munched my lips together to keep from sobbing.
“We realize many of your recollections will be upsetting, but that cannot be helped,” the voice commented, responding to my distress. “Simply put, we want you to prepare a complete, thorough report for us detailing all your personal observations and conclusions from the moment you first met the Reverend Jim Jones until the time of your recent apprehension. As you may have noticed, we have provided you with a typewriter and a ream of paper. Also, on the table, to help jog your memory, you will find copies of your notebooks and documents.”
When I first came to, I wondered if I had have fallen in the hands of the Guyanese army. But the choice of words, precision of speech and slight Bostonian accent suggested the voice belonged to a well-educated American.
“How long do I have to do it?” I asked.
“As long as it takes. You will not have personal contacts with anybody during this time so you can be completely alone with your own thoughts and memories. In the meanwhile, you will be given two meals a day along with water through the slot in the door. You also can dispose of your waste from there once a day. Toilet paper will be made available for you, too. The sooner you complete the task, the sooner you can be debriefed. We urge you to be completely honest since we have ways of determining the truth. If your report does not meet with our approval, you will regret it. Please do not try to fast or harm yourself in any way. We then will have to put you in restraints and force feed you.”
Realizing I might never leave this room alive, I asked the disembodied voice, “When can I begin?”
“Now if you wish.”
Though my head ached, not so much now from the concussion but from an effort to keep the memories buried, I was eager to start. Even if my account might never see the light of day, I had to make sense out of what transpired. For once in my life, I would tell the truth, the whole truth, so help me God, though I’d be violating my vow of confidentiality. My original aim in escaping was to let the world know what happened, much as Jones asked me to do before changing his mind. My plan now would be more modest. The very act of having somebody, anybody, read my story, even if the person didn’t want the truth known, would validate it. I had to make sense of what happened. Ophelia might be dead, but she was alive inside me, and I had to explain to her why I didn’t do what I should have.
Glancing about the barren room again, I had a bizarre notion that like the protagonist in the play, No Exit, I, too, had been sentenced to an eternity in Hell in a brightly lighted cell along with several other naked, despicable people. Only in my case, my constant companions were all different versions of me. Sartre had it wrong when he had one of his characters remark, Hell is other people. True Hell was never being able to escape from one’s self.
No sooner did I insert a sheet of paper in the Olympia typewriter than ghostly images of familiar faces began appearing in my mind’s eye. My task seemed overwhelming, and I hardly knew how to start. At that moment Ophelia’s sweet face came to the fore.
Let the world know what happened, she implored. Only you know the full truth.
When I blinked my eyes, preparing to respond, Jim Jones, a younger and more dynamic version of himself, with his mountain of carefully coifed black hair, appeared, nudging Ophelia off my mental screen. Even in my own mind, he hogged the limelight. Go ahead, tell the story, I almost could hear him say, but you better make sure it meets with my approval. If it doesn’t, I’ll turn you into a slime mold on your next reincarnation. I had heard him make this threat before to others. Now, on his face, I could see the hint of a smile. Since his eyes weren’t visible through his tinted glasses, I couldn’t tell if he meant what he said or was toying with me again.
“My first contact with the Reverend Jim Jones,” I began to write, “took place on ….”.
© Arnold Ludwig, 2010
(Arnold Ludwig is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior at Brown University. He may be reached at Arnold_Ludwig@brown.edu.)