Escape to Nowhere: A firsthand account of one member’s escape from Jonestown

by Antoinette Pick-Jones

The scents of the forest overcome me. I am struck by the denseness of the trees; the jungle seems neverending. A thick layer of sweat has formed on my brow. My lungs contract and expand rapidly; I can hear my heartbeat in my ears. Bullets pop in the background. I do not look back, but let the sound of the bullets motivate my every movement, pushing me on. As I speed up my steps with the sound of six rapid gunshots, my sandals become ripped and my feet raw. I think about slowing down, but know I must continue on until I find safety. The sun threatens to set at any moment and I cannot see an end to the jungle. The sights of the jungle flash past me. Am I dreaming? Should I have stayed behind with my brothers and sisters, with Father? Pushing on is my only option. I have to continue to safety. A sound catches my ear. It is not the sound of gunshots or crying babies, but the voices of young children playing – Guyanese children! Push on Stanley, push on; freedom is shortly ahead, help for your family is on its way. As I approach the clearing in the jungle, I can see a small line of shacks and a dirt road ahead of me. I have finally made it, but am so overwhelmed with joy and sorrow and an effusion of emotions that I am speechless. As everyone comes to ask me what is wrong, I can only get vague details out. I mumble something about suicide, the Flavor Aid, Jim, the jungle, running, and gunshots. They don’t understand, they can’t believe. The Temple had been too kind to the Guyanese; they could not believe that they were all dead.

As the plane began its descent into Port Kaituma, I was overwhelmed with emotions. I had rethought this trip, but to leave the Temple would be to leave all I had left in the world, it would mean returning to the homeless shelters and the lonely existence I used to call life. I had left that part of me back in San Francisco. The others on the plane had left more behind to join the family of the Temple. They had left their homes and biological families; they had gone from married to their spouses to married to the Temple and Jim. In perspective the move to Guyana would not change my life as much as it would theirs. Despite my reservations, I was reassured by Jim’s love, by the promise of a utopian existence, a tropical paradise. We had to run from the evil ones in the media, from the nuclear holocaust that would destroy us. Ukiah was no longer safe, there were spies, Father told us that it was dangerous for any of us to stay, so we made our mass exodus to Jonestown. Suddenly the small Cessna shook as it hit the gravel landing strip, reminding me that there was no turning back.

Though the sun was setting, the sun still lit the way along the gravel roads of Guyana. The dark skinned natives waved and smiled, putting me at ease. All I could think was is this happening? What should I expect? Why was this land so unglamorous, why were these people living in metal framed shacks, why were the children without shoes? My heart wept compassion, but was ebullient with excitement for what lay at the end of this road. The trucks bounced up and down, swiftly moving past the jungle on either side of us as we rushed away from civilization. The bleak lights of the trucks suddenly lit a wood frame. At the top of the frame a sign hung. “WELCOME PEOPLES TEMPLE JONESTOWN AGRICULTURAL PROJECT” I involuntarily breathed a sigh of relief in that moment; I had finally made it to my Promised Land.

As I exited the truck, I glanced at my wrist to check my watch for the time, forgetting that all watches and calendars had been taken from us before we left headquarters, a measure to protect us from desiring our old lives, a way of making life a little bit less structured and scheduled. Though I could not find the time, my internal clock told me that it was not too late, maybe 10 p.m. When I finally looked up to see the rest of the compound, I was overwhelmed with its natural beauty. In the center of the compound was the main pavilion which was furnished with sets of loudspeakers on all corners. Scattered around this pavilion were small whitewashed cabins. Jim’s voice could be heard over the loud speakers as we moved across all parts of the compound traveling with Larry Layton from cabin to cabin, dropping each person off at their new accommodations. When we reached the far west side of the compound, Larry stopped at a cabin. “Stanley, this will be your new home.”

To my surprise the cabin was empty. The one room cabin was dingy and dark, but I could make out 13 bunk beds packed tightly together. To some this might have been a huge disappointment, but when you are used to sleeping underneath a bridge or in an alley, any bed is a blessing. While unpacking the three shirts and two pairs of shorts I owned, I packed away every fear that I had started the journey with. Suddenly, I heard a soft knock on the cabin door; it was Jynona, a friend of mine who had reached Jonestown one week earlier. I hugged her with a deep hope and admiration in my heart. We hugged for a long time. When our embrace loosened, I told her how I was so happy. “Jynona, this is paradise, Father was right, we will be safe here, this is everything I dreamed of and more!”

“Tell me about it, Stan. We really must get going though; our nightly meeting was delayed until the newcomers arrived. We must hurry; it is a sin to be late. Tell me about your trip on the way to the pavilion.”

We arrived at the pavilion. Almost 1000 of us had made taken the exodus to the Promised Land. There was Jim, sitting in a rugged wooden chair, sitting as the head of the meeting. He wore his usual glasses and looked on us with a calming peace as he finally spoke.

“Welcome my children. You have made it so long and we are all finally in our Promised Land. Your faith has been great and it has moved mountains already. I have faith in each and every one of you. You have come from far away, you have made the journey, but we must all keep the faith as we go through these tough times. Take heed, there are people who do not want us here, who do not think that we should find peace; they want to hurt us, to hurt our children, but I will not allow this to happen. Have faith my children, have faith in me.”

Shouts from the crowd came from all around me. “We have faith Jim, we believe in you.” I joined in. Jim had already saved me from sorrows and would lead me to even great triumphs. The meeting dismissed after several hours into the late night. We returned to the cabins, but Jim’s voice carried on over the loudspeakers as we slept, destroying our nightmares and turning them into sweet dreams. We were all woken quite early the next morning. I, along with most other members of the Temple, was assigned to work in the fields all day, working to produce enough crops to sustain the booming population. The work in the fields was tough, but I did not struggle with it. As we worked in the sugar cane fields, several armed guards for the Temple surrounded us. Jim had undoubtedly put them there in case our enemies tried to surprise us in while we were unassumingly at work. As the 100 degree heat beat down on me, I became dehydrated and fatigued, but lunch finally came. We were each given a bowl of mush and half a slice of bread. After lunch, work continued until sunset when we met back at the pavilion for our community dinner. Everyone received a bowl of beans and half a slice of bread, similar to lunch. After dinner, we all were given two minutes to shower our sweat-encrusted bodies before returning to the pavilion for our nightly meeting and sermon with Jim. This routine continued day after day. I was beginning to tire. I had lost control of myself in the fatigue and heat of the sun on my pounding down on my head day after day. I guess my change in demeanor was evident to others because one day while I was working in the fields, a guard told me that Father wanted me to come to his office for a special meeting. I was thrilled to be having a private talk with Father whose time was indispensable. I arrived in his office after trudging through the jungle’s winding path that opened up to the back of the pavilion.

“Stanley, my child, I have been waiting for you. Come on.”

I obeyed.

“I suppose you are wondering why I asked you to come here…”

“Yes…”

“It has been brought to my attention that you are unhappy here. I know that this is new for you, but you must have faith, you must not falter. Get control of yourself and focus on our goal of happiness and harmony. Do not be selfish. If this negative behavior continues, I will find a way to make it stop. For now, you will be attending socialism classes every day before you go to the fields. Larry Layton will wake you each morning so that you will learn self-denial and learn about our great communist faith. Do you understand?”

I was very taken back by the whole statement. How did he know that I was so unhappy when there were so many people to keep track of? What did he mean by, I had more faith than any of the others? However, I hushed myself and nodded in submission. If Father said that I was being selfish and needed these classes everyday, I did. He was all knowing.

The next morning Larry came to my cabin and woke me before the sun had risen. We made our way to the pavilion, hearing Jim’s voice over the loudspeakers nearby. There were ten people at the pavilion, some of whom I didn’t know well, but who were very well known within the Temple, including Debby Layton. Why was she here? This could not be the socialism class if such a devote lover and follower of Jim was here.

“Welcome Stanley.” Another member reached out her hand motioning for me to sit with the group. Larry started the meeting.

“Stanley will be joining us until he is, like the rest of you, reeducated in the socialist ways of our faith. Today we will read and discuss a chapter of Karl Marx’s book. Please begin by reading the first section. When we all have finished, we will discuss it. There will be a test at the end of this week, so pay close attention or you may be further punished.”

I opened my copy of Marx’s work and my heart to change. I had not been a good child of Jim’s.

Each morning I focused on these studies. Every day I focused on having a positive attitude in the fields. I purposely made my showers shorter, my food helpings smaller, and my praises for Jim in the nightly meetings louder.

One night as I lay awake in my bed listening to Jim’s words over the loudspeakers, I heard pounding on the doors. Jim’s voice was interrupted with a familiar yet unrecognizable voice blaring a command over the loudspeakers.

“Everyone to the pavilion quickly! The enemy has come! They will attack soon! They are here to finish us! Stop everything you are doing! Get to the pavilion as quickly as possible, we must act now! Hurry……”

I woke everyone in my cabin. We got on our sandals and rushed through the compound to the pavilion. Suddenly Jim’s voice came over the loudspeakers, subduing the commotion on the crowd.

“The enemy has come. They will be here to kill us and rape our children very soon. If we do not act now, we will be tortured to death. Do not let them take our lives and torment our children, teaching them to believe in their evil ways. We must show the world that we are willing to give our lives for what we believe in and not surrender to the evil forces which are coming upon us. It will be painless, just drink the juice which is passed out to you and you will go peacefully.”

The inner circle and nurse came around with glasses of juice and syringes to squirt the juice into the children’s mouths. Not one person resisted. I stumbled for a moment, second guessing the entire plan, but then realized Jim was my father, he knew what was best. After everyone had drank their juice, Jim told us that this was only a test and our lives were not in danger. He told us that we had all just passed the test of loyalty. He had to do this because there were those among us who were faltering in their faith.

“I have faith in you, my children. You have done what is right and the enemy will never be able to kill us if we are strong as one.”

As we all walked back to our cabins, I think everyone was in state of shock and disbelief. I saw Jynona as I crossed the compound.

“I am so proud of everyone for holding their ground,” she said.

“Me too. I was very scared though, I don’t think that I am ready to give my life. I am trying so hard not to waiver, but I am tired and worn,” I replied.

“Stan, you must have faith, Jim would never harm us.” We parted and I went to bed.

The next week, during one of our late night meetings, Jim began to speak of members who were losing focus and faith.

“There are those among us who are losing faith. They are allowing themselves to feel tired and worn. Do not be fooled, I will not be mocked by the dissenting attitudes and negative comments of such people.”

Jim motioned to Larry Layton and some of the other armed guards. “Please bring out the python.”

The men brought out a large python snake which was quite robust and strong.
”Now there is someone in this crowd who has not been trying hard enough to keep the faith. He has lost focus of what we are here for. He feels ‘tired and worn.’”

Everyone looked around in fear and shock.

“Stanley Obi, please stand up. I have talked to you about this before and I thought you were changing, but you continue to become more and more defiant.”

Jim began to address the rest of the Temple. “I have given him several chances, but Stanley feels like he can keep on being the stupid little boy he’s always been.”

Jim continued to attack me with criticism as I stood there without contest. He motioned for the guards to put the python around my neck. I defecated all over myself in fear. They finally took it off me and escorted me from the pavilion out to the jungle where they opened the door to a small four foot by 6 foot wooden box. They told me that I would be staying in the box until further notice. It was hot in the humid climate. There were frightening noises outside. I did not know where I was and did not understand why I was in the box. I had been trying, but Jynona must have told Jim that I was not enjoying myself and was losing faith. This punishment was by no means warranted. I was tired from all of our late night meetings, early socialism classes, and long days in the fields. That did not mean I was losing faith. After some time, I became extremely exhausted in the box, there was only one air hole and my 6 foot frame did not fit well inside of it. I thought I would die. The next day, a guard came and brought me a bowl of mush.

“This is your meal for the day. No water will be provided. Think about what you have done. Contemplate what you have done and when Jim feels you are ready, you will be allowed back into the family.” After six days, I was finally allowed back into the family and life was back to normal for the most part. Our days were long. We had our three small meals which seemed to be getting smaller in portion each week. We met every night as a group where Jim’s sermons became direr as he spoke of a group that was trying to bring all of us home. He called them the “Concerned Relatives.” With these threats, more people were being put in the box and the well as punishment. Jim’s demeanor seemed to be changing; he seemed almost paranoid and sure that the end was near. At one meeting Jim spoke of his fears.

“The Concerned Relatives have been using those who dissented against us along with Congressman Leo Ryan from California. They have secured a date and they will arrive in Guyana in four days. This is a huge setback for us; they are the greatest and evilest threat that we have had to face thus far. Preparations for their visit will begin tomorrow. They will have no reason to take anyone home with them, because this is paradise.” So we began making preparations for the visit. We painted the cabins and the signs outside of the compound. Our food was rationed as we wanted to save enough for Ryan and his entourage. We worked harder than we ever had in order to present Jonestown at its best for the group. Tensions were on an all time high, but Jim had eased his punishments as to keep spirits high in the compound. My mind was spinning as I thought about the possibility of the whole agricultural project ending. Would I want to leave with the group if I had the opportunity? Never.

The entourage came in on November 17 th. The congressman was very handsome and quite gregarious when he was talking. A group from Jones’ inner circle took him and the reporters on a tour as most of us went about our daily work. Our showers were not timed tonight, we had more than usual for our lunches and dinner was like a feast with a group of musicians for entertainment. Though Ryan and his group were dazzled by our group, the visit was marked by the note that was passed to a NBC reporter earlier in the day. The note read: ‘‘Vernon Gosney and Monica Bagby. Please help us get out of Jonestown.’’ Jones was furious, but that night, those two along with about 16 other members left. Only the congressman and his small group of assistants were allowed to stay the night in Jonestown, while the relatives and reporters went back to Georgetown. The next morning, there was great tension as the congressman’s entourage left. There were no more defections that morning. We were all happy with life and had faith in Jim. How could they leave their family? How could they betray all of us like that?

During the afternoon, we were all called to the pavilion for a meeting. We thought that we were going to be debriefed on the visit which we all thought was a success. Instead we were met by a subdued Jim who began to explicate on our threat. He claimed that he had a vision that the congressman was going to be killed and that the Temple would be blamed. He continued to say that the Guyanese government was going to attack us and kill and rape our children. This was the end. We had no choice.

“To die in revolutionary suicide is to live forever.”

There was little dissension. Christine fought hard for other solutions, but she was put down by the rest of the congregation. She suggested moving to Russia, saving the children, anything to save the children, but Jim said we had no other options, this was the end. Jones and others reminded us that we would be reincarnated into a great and influential person as a reward for going through such a revolutionary act. The children were to have the juice shot into their mouths with syringes first and then their parents were to drink the poisonous drink. We all lined up next to the pavilion and waited for the drinks.

A panic came over me. I wasn’t ready to die. This wasn’t right. I should have left yesterday. There was no escape. The loyalists were standing around with the guns and crossbows at the edges of the jungle. I had no choice. I took the glass from the nurse and inner circle. The compound was full of cries, the cries of children of babies and the silent cries of those who wanted to leave but saw no way out. We were told to go lay around the compound so that those in line would not be frightened. As I walked with Jynona to lay down, I saw two men try to escape through the jungle, but a guard shot both. In my peripheral vision, I saw an infant go from crying hysterically in his mother’s arms to dousing into a deep sleep as she rocked him for the last time. These images still haunt me today. They pushed me to leave. I pretended that I had drank the poison, and while no one was looking, I sprinted behind some of the cabins and into the jungle, someone shouted, “Stanley is trying to escape.” I heard several popping noises as a guard fired at me.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on February 28th, 2014.
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