Returning to the Jonestown Story

November 1978. I was 12 years old, and looking forward to the holiday season. My mother and I were busy preparing for a rare but much anticipated visit from my grandmother in Boston. We had moved to the Washington area shortly after the death of my father in 1970. A young history professor at the University of Massachusetts, he’d died the day after we celebrated my fourth birthday in our Boston backyard.

By now, our family had redefined the traditions of our holiday and we were happy to have our “Nana” coming. My mother and I had formed more of a sisterhood with each other. We sat down after dinner one night to watch “Sanford and Son” on TV and the news preceding it. That was when we heard the mind-numbing news that Congressman Leo J. Ryan of California along with his assistant and three other newsmen and a defector from an American religious community had been shot on a remote airstrip in the South American country of Guyana. I heard the word “Jesus!” quietly whispered from my mother’s lips. She scooted to the edge of the couch and rested her chin in her opened, cupped hands with her elbows resting firmly on her knees. As if sensing my inevitable question, although I hadn’t asked her, she whispered again, “I knew him. Shhh,” she implored me.

With bated breath, my mother waited to hear further news. With the holiday season looming in the air, the outcome of the situation called for a more positive outlook, however hopes were dashed as we heard news of his death and so many others. Because she was obviously concerned, I paid attention to the grim news report. And when we thought things could get no worse, we heard the news of 408 people found dead in a settlement called Jonestown. We were shown an aerial view of a helicopter closing in on a roofed structure – “the pavilion,” as it came to be known – with the bodies of the dead scattered around and within it.

Looking to my mother for answers, I saw tears welling up in her, eyes which told me the situation was very bleak. My mother is a very strong and more than capable woman who had been careful in the past not to let me see her cry. I knew, from that alone, that things were so terribly bad. Along with my own sensitivity a cloud of unknowing gloom settled over our house. Gone was our mirth for the holiday season. Right now in my life, I can’t recall if my grandmother even came to visit after all. I don’t remember anything we may have done. I only remember that for the following week or so, the numbers of bodies in the Jonestown settlement rose steadily from the original 408 to settle on the 913 that we know today. Whatever else may have gone on at the time, I just remember the holiday season not having quite its usual luster.

Time would go on for me and my own life had taken quite some harried turns, however I’d dusted myself off and gone on with the business of living my life. At 17, I was now a senior in an all-girls boarding school and had an impressive class schedule. 1984 was a very busy year for me, even though I wasn’t exactly the best student, I held my own in the highly academic atmosphere of a boarding school. Most of our teachers were grown up hippies who had attended most of your better liberal arts colleges. Few if any single male teachers were hired there, and no religious doctrine was enforced in our school. The school was in a small Pennsylvanian town up in the Alleghany Mountains, insulated from the world with the exception of the TV in the student lounge.

As a senior, I took a required elective Psychology class taught by a manly-looking but fairly young teacher. Her assignments usually kept our attention as she was not too many years older than her students. One day she came in with a hat containing the names of some modern day events written on pieces of paper that were folded to conceal the subject. We were told we would be given a month to turn in an in-depth report on the subject we chose. There were maybe 10 of us taking that class, so we all got interesting subjects. Each of us pulled out subjects like the Zodiac Killer, Charles Manson and the Manson family, Son of Sam, Reagan’s shooting, and so on.

I pulled “Jim Jones.”

As I collected books, magazines and newspaper articles and any other available information, I started to realize I remembered the news coverage of the situation. In the privacy of my dorm room, I was able to spread all the information I’d gathered on two twin beds. I pored over the information, faced again with the newspaper articles in The Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle and others. Bloated dead bodies from Time and Newsweek magazines were strewn on the covers in vivid color and uncompromising plain view. No effort had been taken to disguise the horror of the reality of the situation. A teenage girl, I was afraid but unable to resist the urge to touch the faces of the people pictured in the articles, and the realization dawned within me that each had been a person like me with unique histories all their own.

I did not actually start the writing of the report I had to do until the week prior to its due date. I was so consumed with reading and rereading all the material I had. I thought of the people involved with Peoples Temple and how they may have felt. I thought of Temple members left in the US and the helplessness they must have felt, of the fact that so many foster children had died there, of Jim Jones’ wife Marceline and the lifetime of humiliation her husband’s infidelities caused, of Jim Jones’ natural son and the feelings he must have about his father. So many of my nights were spent pondering the ramifications of Jim Jones’ actions. As a matter of fact, it was hard for me to focus on him but how his deeds affected the lives of so many, and not only those lives in Peoples Temple but ALL lives.

Eventually, I wrote the report and was glad to hand it in and be done with it. But the images and stories of the people stayed in my mind for years. They were unforgettable. It was hard for me to realize one man was the cause of so much grief and heartache.

Up until this point, I, like the rest of the public accepted what I heard and read in the newspapers and magazines. Jonestown had been full of gullible, unwary, accepting zombies taken in by a crafty Jim Jones. This was not in dispute in any way.

By then, luckily for me, my mother was the first black woman to hold the position of Director of the Democratic Personnel Committee in the US House of Representatives. When I graduated high school I was unsure of what I wanted to do with my life, and at that point there were a few temporary positions open that my mother had control of. She was able to place me in one that turned out to be the Finance Office of the House. There, I was given my own desk along with the responsibility of entering information of the Congressional accounts. This job turned out to be little more than glorified data entry. I complained to my mother before the year was over that it was unchallenging, boring, and quite monotonous work. She was able to transfer me to another position which I would hold for the next 12 years. Now, I was working in the House Library, the precursor of the Library of Congress.

I didn’t know it the day I transferred to that new job, but as life would have it, I had stumbled into my niche. Because of my natural love of writing, a room full of books felt like home to me. Eventually my boss took a professional interest in me, as he could see that I was quite curious about how the American law system worked. As he was obviously not used to getting such self-starting employees, he took great pride and care in teaching me the intricacies of how all these volumes of books intertwined with one another to make up our confusing law system. There were many important documents I handled every day, such as the Congressional Record, House and Senate hearings and documents, presidential documents, international treaties, the Code of Federal Regulations, and many other sets of related materials.

In the course of teaching me, he would give me hypothetical laws or law cases to look up so he could tell if I was actually understanding a natural progression or not. One of my “assignments” ended up with my finding a the House Foreign Affairs Committee entitled The Assassination of Leo J. Ryan and the Jonestown, Guyana, Tragedy. Because it sparked a vaguely familiar mental twinge, I placed the report of nearly 800 pages on my desk to peruse at a later time. Again Jonestown and Peoples Temple had crept into my consciousness.

When I had time one quiet workday, I read the volume, and all the images and stories resurfaced in my mind. Because the job afforded me Library of Congress privileges, I was able to do an exhaustive search of all things “Jonestown,” “Peoples Temple,” and “Jim Jones.”

My materials collected, I read and reread the accounts of survivors, including the two gentlemen who’d actually seen the process of carnage. I almost committed to memory the names of people who were involved in Peoples Temple. I read about the deaths of almost 300 children dead there. Books of survivors. Books of family members. Still there remained questions as to how something this monumental could be allowed to happen. I didn’t even understand my own semi-obsession with the subject. I discussed the enormity of the situation with my mother. As I read the compiled list of the dead in the House Report, I realized that some of the children there were born in the same year as I, and that others were born around my mother’s birthday and years before. Somehow that made “those” people “the” people.

The carefully constructed wall of common belief was beginning to crumble. As my research – and my bird’s eye view of how the government really works – continued over the years, I began to surmise that this was bigger than most folks were willing to realize. Along with some of my own personal experiences with life, I was beginning to feel anger that more people in the world were not using their own minds and just blindly accepting what the media and the government fed us about Jonestown. I began to see that each of the 913 dead at Jonestown had their own life, complete with their own experiences, fears, loves, beliefs. The entire package.

Some of the very basic stories fed to us were spun by people other than those involved, such as the vast difference of 408 and 913. In very few pictures did I actually see the bodies piled one on top of the other. In their zeal to report the “news,” there were far too many miscalculations and plain untruths. In the media’s view, it was far too juicy a story to be bothered with finding out the real story first and reporting the cold, hard facts of it, rather than to create a largely fictionalized view of what really happened. Unless the truth does not serve your main objective, then I suppose it’s useless.

The ramifications of a successful Jonestown were too much of an embarrassment to the US Government. It was already general knowledge that Jim Jones was a sick man. Not only did he have an addiction to drugs but the jungle environment proved too much for his physical body. Time definitely would have meant his early demise thereby freeing the Jonestown community to thrive. To the US Government, this could not be allowed to happen.

Jonestown’s success could spur on other groups of socialists to form their own sort of alternate existences, etc. The implications would have been boundless. To rethink the idea of a democracy as opposed to a socialist existence would have spat in the face of the so-called American Dream. The idea of having no poor people was too much of a direct challenge to the way of thinking that one might actually be forced to share their riches? This was no U.S. value. Why it was written into the Declaration of Independence that everyone has the right to the “pursuit of happiness”? Having to share one’s riches never was a “constitutional right.” Proof of an alternate and viable way of life could not be tolerated in a democratic society.

It makes one wonder if Leo Ryan, his staff, and the newsmen who went to the Jonestown community weren’t used by the U.S. government as pawns in a sick sort of game. The fact that 16 of 1,000 people wanted to leave Jonestown for the U.S. meant nothing. That this was too much for Jim Jones himself to handle was more than likely known to the US government. He could not have possibly been the first drug addict they had dealt with. More than likely, Jones’ reaction could have been predicted by “the powers that be.”

One can never know the true intentions of the U.S. government, because time after time the efforts of many to get postmortem papers under the Freedom of Information Act have been repeatedly blocked. Why all the secrecy? Why were so many conspirators’ ideas shunned so readily and not at least investigated? The Jonestown suicides/murders happened more than 25 years ago. If there was no mal-intent on behalf of the US government then all of those documents should have been released. However, the ruse continues. Has it not been considered that an organization that began in 1953 and endured for a quarter century could not have existed for so many years if it was completely bad. Far-fetched? Maybe. But these are the same people who can’t find the brain of their own assassinated president.

(Susan White Hicks’ complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She can be reached at