We Temple survivors, loyalists and defectors alike, have an obligation to posterity to share our stories as we recall them. In meeting this obligation, we, like the blind men who encounter the elephant, report on incidents and offer opinions so widely divergent that the reader must sometimes wonder whether we belonged to the same Peoples Temple or knew the same Jim Jones. And, this – like it or not – is what enriches all historical inquiry and allows the regeneration of opinion and historical insight. The personal value in all this is that we hope to allow future generations to avoid our mistakes. I’m confident that, irrespective of our views and opinions, we join hands in expressing this hope. I enjoy reading the insights of my many, many dear friends and acquaintances who’ve shared this incredible and heartrending journey, and I honor their opinions and views whether or not they reflect or support my own. Let posterity decide.
And without doubt posterity will decide only after centuries. By way of example, the seemingly unending stream of biographies of Washington and Lincoln, each with its own, and often unique impression, make it clear that any such decision about the Temple experience will be a long time in coming. Moreover, unless we can say, as Churchill exclaimed, “History will be kind to me because I intend to write it,” none of us can say how it will all turn out. For all these reasons, I believe it to be highly inappropriate for any of us to cast doubt on the experiences, opinions and conclusions of our fellow members.
I write all this to let the reader know the task I’d like to undertake here is personally distasteful to me. That the individual whose conclusions and insights I deeply question is someone I consider a friend, makes it even worse.
I’ve known Laurie Efrein since she joined Peoples Temple. I have always found her to be highly intelligent, formidably articulate, and utterly sincere. I’ve read her book Snake Dance and found it, as it relates to her personal life experiences up through and including her time in Peoples Temple, to be compelling and beautifully written.
What I find objectionable – what I address here – are her articles related to the murders at the Port Kaituma Airstrip. In In Plain Sight, Laurie makes a number of shocking claims about the author of those murders and spreads a lot of ink attempting to prove that the tractor which transported the assassins was of some secret CIA production, that the manner of the attack demonstrated the professional caliber of the assassins (including the green giant she references), and that the video clip made by the dying Bob Brown is the only reliable evidence of the shootings at the Port Kaituma airport on that horrible November 18. She further supports her claim by asserting that Jim had no idea the murders were going to occur.
I leave it to others to examine Laurie’s claims about the tractor and the professionalism of the assassins. Personally, I believe the article by Chris Knight-Griffin effectively addresses and refutes Laurie’s claims about the nature of the attack itself.
However, and irrespective of whether the CIA produces its own top-secret farm tractor and engages green giants to assassinate congressman, no one has addressed Laurie’s other claims. To wit: the video’s standing as the only reliable evidence of what happened at the airstrip or Jim’s knowledge of the incident.
As a debater, Laurie is to be congratulated for having been able to focus the discussion of such an important matter on a single piece of evidence. By keeping her readers focused on what she’d like us to see in In Plain Sight, Laurie hopes to keep researchers’ attention away from other important sources of information about that event. I wouldn’t care so much but for the fact that in keeping our attention on the one card she wants to play, she demeans, perhaps unintentionally, all Temple survivors. Here’s why:
First, Mr. Brown’s grainy video is decidedly not the “sole credible” evidence of what happened in the attack. There were several individuals who found themselves at the wrong end of the weapons of the Temple gunman and lived to tell about it. Former Temple member Jim Cobb, Ryan aide Jackie Speier, and reporter Tim Reiterman – to name just three – were all in the primary area of attack and fortuitously survived to tell their story. Each of these individuals clearly identified the attackers as Temple members. While Ms. Speier had only two days’ experience with the residents of Jonestown, it was an intense period and she can be trusted to have identified individuals whom she did in fact see. Now a respected United States Congresswoman, with a long history of distinguished service to our State, she cannot with any seriousness be described as a CIA stooge. Congressman Ryan was highly skeptical of the CIA, and her colleague Joseph Holsinger testified famously before a congressional committee about his belief that the CIA had an MK-ULTRA project in Guyana.
Jim Cobb, who lost nearly all his immediate family in the massacre in Jonestown and was most certainly a direct subject of the attack as the only ex-Temple member in the congressman’s party, owes his survival to his quick wit and superb athletic conditioning. For the record, Jim courageously went to Jonestown to visit his family who’d been in Jonestown for several months. Jim can easily recount the names of the individuals on the tractor trailer – because as a former Temple member, he knew them!
Raven, Tim Reiterman’s excellent documentary account of Peoples Temple, makes it clear the gunmen were from Jonestown.
None of these highly credible individuals has expressed any doubt about the identification of the shooters.
Like any one in pursuit of a hoped-for conclusion, Laurie completely discounts or ignores their experiences without ever having extended the basic courtesy of discussing these matters with them. At the very least she owes us all a “credible” explanation of why these eyewitnesses are so badly mistaken, and why she, who was not there and has never interviewed any of these individuals, is correct. Just as important, she owes us an explanation as to why she’s failed to interview them.
Second, Laurie has cleverly drawn our attention away from the second plane at the airstrip that day. When the tractor drove up with the assassins to shoot the congressman, reporters and Temple defectors, a second plane at the other end of the airport was in the initial phase of take-off. As gunfire erupted on the airstrip, a long-time Temple member and supposed Temple defector in the second craft pulled out a revolver and began firing. Clearly, this was part of a coordinated attack. Even Laurie would blush to claim that this individual was in cahoots with the CIA. So, why would he have done this were he not acting under direct instructions of Jim Jones?
Third, all those who survived these attacks have no doubt whatsoever, given Jim’s mad pronouncements leading up to the congressman’s visit, that the attack was a Temple effort, plain and simple. Laurie gives not one bit of attention to their opinions and the overall context of the event. Tim Carter, a high-ranking Temple staff member in the thick of the tragedy and a former US Marine, who saw combat in Vietnam, and who saw the gunmen return on the tractor-trailer, similarly believed the individuals (all of whom were independently identified by those at the airstrip) returning had carried out the murder, if only because he saw on them, the look of “combat stress” he’d seen so often in Southeast Asia after similar actions.
Fourth, her contention that Jim was unaware of the event because of his statement that “someone is going to shoot down the plane. I don’t know anything about it” is absurd on its face. Indeed his denial in itself is the only evidence one needs to show that he was clearly aware of what was going to happen. Laurie’s argument here seems to be that Jim wouldn’t have lied about such an important matter. I disagree. Here is a man who lied about everything of importance. Moreover, he had every reason to lie, considering that if he’d admitted his foreknowledge, the members would’ve realized he was nothing better than an assassin and had involved them unwittingly in a horrible crime. Drug addled though he may have been, he obviously appreciated that such information would have left many, if not all, of my family and friends who died that day feeling betrayed. With such knowledge, they would not have willingly killed themselves for him!
What’s more, as Laurie well knows, given the authoritarian nature of the organization, it would have been unthinkable for any of the Temple gunmen to have entered upon such murderous activity without instruction from Jim Jones.
Another troubling aspect of Laurie’s argument excusing Jim from any foreknowledge of the event is her own experience in the Temple. Laurie was treated shabbily and dismissively almost from the moment of her arrival. Worse yet, on one occasion, as she reveals with understandable pain in Snake Dance, Jim subjected her to horrifying and unforgivable public embarrassment. I was a marginal observer of the incident in the Planning Commission that night in Los Angeles, and to this day, I am ashamed that I did nothing to object to her savage treatment. Just as shameful, out of fear of possible consequences to me, I failed to offer her the slightest solace afterward. Indeed, until recently, I did not even apologize for my inaction. While I do not doubt her sincerity in treating Jim’s comment about the airplane as gospel truth, I am astonished she of all people under any circumstance would accord any comment he might make with the slightest respect. He certainly would never have returned that favor!
Finally, while Laurie’s experiences are hers to report as she wishes, I strongly object to her insulting dismissal of the clear and convincing testimony of so many others who’d given so much of themselves to the “cause of Peoples Temple.”