Jonestown was more than a story for those of us on the staff of the San Francisco Examiner. It was personal. Two of our colleagues, reporter Tim Reiterman and photographer Greg Robinson, were among the band of journalists who accompanied Congressman Leo Ryan to South America and tried to leave Guyana with a small group of Peoples Temple defectors. Reiterman was wounded and Robinson murdered in the airstrip attack that ended Ryan’s life and set the stage for the mass murder/suicide back at the jungle compound.
At the time, I was a 25-year-old general assignment reporter covering news and writing feature stories for the Examiner’s East Bay bureau. The “cult wars” of the 1970s were in full swing. The previous year, I’d written some stories looking at how the Unification Church lured undergraduates at the University of California into the messianic vision of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Those stories did little to prepare me for the horror of Jonestown. It wasn’t just the personal grief and rage over the murder of a friend and colleague. It was the haunting image of idealistic mothers squirting poison down their baby’s throats, then taking their own lives – all in the name of God and progressive politics.
Three hundred and fourteen children died at Jonestown. Many of them had parents who were convinced that Jim Jones was the people’s messiah, a left-wing prophet dedicated to protecting them from an oppressive and evil American government. Their parents may have been duped, or may have chosen their own fate, but the kids had no choice but to go along on that doomed pilgrimage to the South America jungle. Many of the Jonestown children and teenagers were young African-Americans who were poor, running out of second chances, and had nowhere else to go. One of the Examiner stories I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the carnage was an investigation into how Temple insiders used county social service jobs to get troubled young people sent to Jonestown as an alternative to juvenile hall.
My need to understand what motivates people to join new religious movements was one of the main reasons I volunteered a few years later to become the religion writer at the Examiner. No one else wanted the job. More than two decades later, when I was working as the religion reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, I still had this fascination with kids in cults. A series of articles on children born and raised in the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, the Hare Krishnas and the Children of God led to a book titled Following of Bliss – How the Spiritual Ideals of Sixties Shape Our Lives Today. In the book, I argue that the “Sixties,” defined more as a state of mind than a frame of time, began with President Kennedy’s inaugural address on January 20, 1961, and ended in Guyana on November 18, 1978. Kennedy’s speech (“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”) set the stage for the idealism, religious activism and social commitment that defined the best of the Sixties. The era finally ends with the implosion of Peoples Temple, a movement that mixed religious revival, leftist politics, the fight for social justice and the “us verses them” divisiveness of the Sixties counterculture. Its leader was a charismatic, paranoid, manipulative man who used politics, sex, religion and social idealism to control people and gain power.
Jonestown, in my view, represents the death of the Sixties, but it did not end my fascination with children who grew up in religious cults. That obsession was rekindled with another murder/suicide on January 8, 2005. That’s when Ricky “Davidito” Rodriguez, a young man christened to be the prince and future prophet of the another revolutionary Christian movement, stabbed a leader of the sect, then took his own life. Like countless other children raised in the Children of God, Ricky was sexually abused by adult members following the “free love” teachings of their charismatic prophet. My latest book, Jesus Freaks – A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge, is the story of the events leading up to this murder/suicide – a story of messianic delusion, political paranoia, sexual abuse, and blind faith.
Looking back, it’s easy to see the similarities in the prophetic careers of Jim Jones and David “Moses” Berg, the founder of the Children of God/Family International. By that, I am not saying that the Family International is “another Jonestown.” We can argue all day as to whether the followers of Jim Jones or David Berg are “brainwashed” victims or sincere ideological converts. But one thing is clear as we approached the 30th anniversary of Jonestown, and that is this: the murdered children of Peoples Temple and the countless children sexually abused in the Children of God stand out as the real victims of the cult wars of the seventies, eighties and beyond.
(Don Lattin can be contacted through his website at www.donlattin.com. A paperback edition of Jesus Freaks was released by HarperCollins in September 2008.)