Reality Check

I was so politically unaware in the late 60’s and through the 70’s.

I hadn’t heard much of anything about the folks living or dying deep in the jungles of Guyana. I didn’t know, nor did I care, about a man named Jim Jones. I didn’t realize there were people trying to make the world a much better place from racism, ageism, elitism and all other “isms.” I didn’t have any other worries besides what I was doing over the weekend, or when I could find enough time to go ride horses. As for the world around me, I just figured my parents took care of that.

Growing up in my neighborhood gave me a sense of safety and carefree living. I thought everyone lived that way. I recall signing up to sponsor a child in some place “far away” and sending money so the child could eat, go to school and have fresh running water. I hadn’t even considered the amazing fact I had sent in only about eleven dollars, and this was enough to save the child and the “bad” part of the world.

I thought that hanging with my friends, dressing in bellbottoms, putting small braids in my hair, wearing make up, riding the route with my milkman Ken Kesey, and hearing stories from him and other adults around me was enough to keep me “informed” of world events. Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Beatles, and The Moody Blues’ music wafted through the air everywhere, telling me I should be for peace and love, while raging against the government, against the war, and against most anything that came my way. I was “rebelling” and it was “cool.” All was good with the world.

Even as an adult, I was still not politically aware. My “reality” completely changed when I met Tim Carter about 12 years ago. He captured my attention when he transported me with his stories into the jungles of Vietnam, fighting alongside many of his platoon buddies, fighting a war he didn’t believe in, fighting for a country he had lost hope for. He then whisked me away to another jungle. A jungle in South America where many people died. Many good, honest, loving, hard working people. As the story went on, I was filled with more and more questions. The answer to one question only raised a hundred more. I simply could not fathom why all those people were so unhappy in the world that they would move so far away, leaving behind everything and everyone. I could not understand why that many people would follow a man to their deaths for what they believed in.

I fell deeper and deeper into the story as years went on. Tim answered all the questions that I had, at least as many as he could, but it still left a large gray area. I followed him into interviews for television shows, watching with both empathy and sympathy as the tears flowed down his exhausted face each time he had to tell the story of his wife and child dying at the hand of Jim Jones. I met others who told their stories. I went into the “Jonestown vortex” with eyes wide open, trying to hold tight to any new facts I might encounter, trying to understand, trying to answer the one question that plagued me the most: why?

I felt I was up against a brick wall when it came to obtaining more information. I had watched television shows, read so much, asked questions of Tim and others, gone through many hours of watching Tim in his interviews. I even went to the California Historical Society where I, like Tim, broke into tears from sheer shock as the handle cranked open the rows and rows of archival boxes of Jonestown records, showing us rows and rows of boxes. It was all that was left of 913 people’s lives, hopes and dreams. Able to look into only a couple of things while I was there (Tim was in the middle of an interview), I left with only a huge hole in my interest and my heart. I wanted to learn more.

Then, a few months ago, I had the opportunity to transcribe some Jonestown tapes and jumped at the chance. By listening to the voices of the people themselves, I thought, maybe, just maybe, there might be some small hint of why it all took place and why we are still in the dark as of today.   Transcribing the tapes was a great way of feeling the heartbeat of all that died in November 1978.

Deeper into the vortex I plunged. I have listened to tape after tape after tape. I have heard Jones laugh with the people of Jonestown, intimidate the individual too scared to argue back, instill fear by “informing” the group that the United States was falling apart under the threat of nuclear holocaust and capitalism. I have heard children being spanked in front of the group for deeds such as kicking their sister in the spine and abusing their own grandmother, and rightfully so. I have heard Jones chastise, yell, laugh, nurture, preach, and speak while his tongue is thick under the influence of drugs. I have heard the man drone on and on, informing his followers that he was dying and needed to rest, punctuating his monotone with cries at them to work and not sit on their behinds. I’ve heard his healings, whether real or fake. I’ve listened as Jones read the daily world news from Soviet, Eastern Bloc and Third World wire services, attempting to inform the residents with selected readings, periodically interjecting his own thoughts and feelings, creating a “reality” for his captive audience. I’ve heard him exhort the people to pay attention so they’d be prepared for exams based the information he spewed out on the PA system. These tapes have truly brought many days in Jonestown to life, the words creating their “reality” for me.

Hearing these tapes has made me realize just how chaotic Jones loved to keep things. Always a crisis, always something that was going to “get” them, always a “White Night” situation. He loved to speak on the PA system, especially towards the end, and scare folks into believing they were there to protect themselves. The world was falling apart under capitalism and Jones was around to save the day, no matter how drugged up he happened to be.

Studying the personality of Jones has been both interesting and difficult. Difficult to hear a man become so delusional, so drugged up, so paranoid, but yet be so gifted in how to live, survive and build such a beautiful place, so gifted with ideas, and true spirituality.

And such contradictions. Here he is, crying out that the Jews were led into their graves quietly, without protest. He shouts that he will never march into his grave quietly, that “they” will have to shoot him first. Then he screams at the crowd, telling them he hopes they have enough pride that they never allow that fate – lining up, waiting to be brought to their graves, without protest – to happen to them. Chills ran down my spine and my fingers completely froze on the keyboard. This tape was not recorded in Jonestown, but rather in the early days in the Redwood Valley church. What happened to that man who preached such courageous defiance? What happened to the people in attendance as the tape was recorded?

As I listen to the people of Jonestown, I am completely empathetic. They were building such a utopian society where they could raise their children free from all that was unbearable in the States, all that held them back from achieving their dreams and the dreams and wishes of their children, all the while ignoring Jones’ paranoia. It seems there was such an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and “freedom,” juxtaposed against an underlying sense of fear. Who in their right mind would want to go back to a place that was about to be bombed by nuclear weapons? Where everyone would live in concentration camps? Where blacks would be used for mind experiments with new devices that could control the person they were surgical placed in? The only “reality” they had was the news Jones chose to read. He created their “reality” so well – they feared for their lives and the lives of their loved ones so much – that not many wanted to return.

And besides, they had no way out even if they did decide to go back. They had no transportation out of the jungle. Their passports had been taken away. And – if you listened to Jones – you’d believe that government officials, Guyanese and American alike, were in his hip pocket and would stop you from returning to America.

Some say Jonestown was a government mind control experiment. Some say it was just a failure of a man driven mad by paranoia and drugs. Whatever the case may be, he once stated that the day he died, he would be one of the most hated men of the world. That might be one of the few things that he ever got right.

And isn’t he more correct in that prediction than we would like to think? He is still creating the “reality” for some – for the survivors – because the true secrets of why the man did what he did died with him in a jungle in Guyana, South America on November 18, 1978.   He created a new and enduring reality for them, one of nightmares, fear, and the heart-wrenching pain of needing to know why. Yearning to know why they survived instead of the others. Even though his body is long gone, his effects on society are still very much alive. That would truly bring about hatred for a man who still haunts their perspectives, their realities, and their lives, only this time, they are without their loved ones to help ease the pain.

At the end of his own life, then, who was Jim Jones? A true madman? A drug-addled man who knew he was dying and decided to take his followers with him? A man who had succumbed to the reality he created, believing in what he had taught the others? Maybe he was simply that paranoid. Maybe he really couldn’t bear the thought of all of them dying in the hands of someone “out to get them.”

Deeper and deeper I delve into the mysteries of Jonestown. The FBI tapes are just a sampling of what may lie ahead in searching for true answers to the question, “why?” Until then, I get sucked further and further into the Jonestown vortex, grasping at what little answers I can. I may never know the truth, but I gain the lessons and stories of those that survived that terrible day. And now, with the tapes, I also have the voices and thoughts of those in Jonestown who couldn’t escape the reality that was theirs the day evil blew into their lives. And by sending them on, I hope that others may also share in their lives and learn the invaluable lessons, laughter and love they pass forward. May God rest their souls.

(Vicki Perry may be contacted at Her collection of articles for the jonestown report appears here.)