I went to the movies the night my world died. The Jonestown basketball team, in town scrimmaging against the Guyanese national team, had taken the day off, and we were closing our respite at a Georgetown theater, a box with no life without the audience it held. It was dismal and dank. The place looked like the time between showings was spent on keeping the film and camera intact, rather than cleaning up. We occupied a portion of the first three rows of a small balcony, decades beyond prudent repair. As I often did, I sat behind the rest of my party. It felt like being stuffed on the top shelf of a closet. The film was about hit men. The only reason I’d chosen it from our dismal selection was that it starred John Saxon, an actor known to me from my favorite Bruce Lee movie, Enter the Dragon.
I was guilty and giddy at being there. We were all a little high from doing just about the opposite of what we believed Dad would have had us do in that time of “crisis.” I felt like a pariah among outsiders. It was more than the “us against them” mentality that soiled Temple thought; I was white in a black world. We had felt foreign enough in our country of origin, let alone in the oppressed one in which we now found ourselves. I was sure that everyone thought me an ugly, racist American, but the specifics of their “hatred” were beside the point. It didn’t matter, really, where or with whom I found myself. I could always conjure a reason to feel like an outcast.
Then the music started. In Georgetown, every movie was led by a local advertisement flashed on the screen and accompanied by rousing soul music, always with a heavy dose of Marvin Gaye. “Let’s Get it On” was a huge favorite of the Guyanese. That night, Marvin transformed that place, with the help of his lively, Caribbean accompanists. They crooned and wailed, the ancient wood creaking under their gyrations. “If the spirit moves ya, let me groove ya… Let your love come dOWnnn.”
You could barely hear the artist for all the revelers that night. And it was right. It was the same vibrancy that had swept me away so many times in the stateside Temple, and it soaked me. When the music stopped and the light somehow managed to dim, I was less aware of myself than my surroundings, and I liked what I saw and felt. The wear and tear of the theater was now the fruit of celebration, not the rot of neglect. The grime that had felt like human soot, and the heat that had stifled us, were now a thousand coats of the best kind of funk and the steam and glow of raw life. I kicked away all but just enough trash to keep my feet off the stickiness, slid down in my seat, and ground my back and shoulders into its ripped smoothness.
I watched my teammates, three-dimensional shadows against the battered, nervous screen beyond. They had the manner of old friends at a midnight rendezvous on a stoop in the only neighborhood they’d ever known. Their languid familiarity showed me that they were at ease, enjoying the outside world with their inside brethren. My shoulders loosened a bit more. I was okay. We would care for each other in our rebellion.
Almost since we’d arrived in Georgetown, we’d been bucking the Temple system – if there truly was such a thing – and ignoring or blatantly countermanding orders. We were still in town only because I had represented the team in flatly refusing Dad’s direct order to return to Jonestown to avoid any incident with Congressman Ryan and the Concerned Relatives, to whom we had recently paid a visit on the heels of an order to stay as far away as possible. At the time, I didn’t think much about the reasoning behind Dad’s imploring voice, dissembled by the ham radio in Jonestown, distorted by its journey across two hundred miles of jungle and reconstructed by the radio in the Temple house in Georgetown. I figured that any plans he had for us back in Jonestown had to be worse than what we were doing. Even when Mom came on and half-heartedly asked us to listen to Dad and return to our jungle home, I responded by saying, “You don’t have to talk for him.” (I learned years later from Mike Carter, the radio operator on that end – who escaped Jonestown on a mission for my father – that I was right on the money with that one. My comment left Dad in a rage similar in appearance to a grand mal seizure. I relished that knowledge for years.)
Even though we didn’t want to be there, it had been a huge relief to hear that Congressman Ryan’s visit to Jonestown was going well. I nearly swooned in release when we heard that Ryan was pleased with what he had seen in Jonestown. After an evening of food and festivities foreign to the citizens of Jonestown – served up only to impress their unwanted guests – Ryan stepped up on the stage and said that it looked to him as if “There are a lot of people here who think this is the best thing that happened in their whole life.” After the routine roof-raising ovation that followed, he talked about how he wished his fervent audience could all vote in his district. There had been some playful banter between Ryan and Jack Beam about how that might be arranged. Then the congressman took his seat and the entertainment resumed with less anxiety and more celebration behind it.
We elatedly responded with our own good news: We had played against the Guyanese National Team with our aggressive, playground style of basketball and had lost by only ten points. We’d pawed, grabbed, bumped, and confused them with our own confusion, while going at the basket with a zeal that they seemed to both enjoy and disdain. I personally had made their best scorer miserable every time he had come near their basket. We walked away from our first game with the Guyanese Nationals feeling a little more like men.
The news was passed on to Dad. In his mind we became ten-point winners, which he announced dramatically over the loudspeaker. You could hear it over the radio as Dad pumped it up and poured it on, followed by the lusty cheers of a crowd in desperate need of their own release. They needed it to be true and Dad knew it. And the instant we heard their rejoicing, we needed it to be true. We took that into our impromptu day off and the night at the movies that followed: Our people knew we were triumphant, and the crisis of Ryan’s visit had passed.
But we were getting exhausted. Dad had pushed us all to the edge one too many times. It was time to stop playing the waiting game – waiting for the right reason, the right moment to rise against him; waiting for his key supporters to see the light; waiting for him to get too sick, too strung out to lead; waiting for him to die.
We had to do something about Dad and his leadership circle.
Soon we would retrace our three-day journey across hellish ocean, heavenly river, and dusty, tortured road. I told myself that when my new allies and I got back to Jonestown, my father’s days were numbered.
Just as I’m beginning to savor our escape, a figure familiar to my companions steps through the curtain tacked up to keep the sickly hall light from infecting the auditorium. This specter is not welcome. Its movement is wrong. It spawns a whispering at the front of our group, which climbs toward me, using every hold available. Like an anarchic game of telephone, the message makes its way upward, finally reaching me through my brother, Tim:
“We’ve been ordered to get revenge.”
I stared at the screen as if I was still watching John Saxon deliver bad lines badly. Beneath my outward calm my mind was frantic. My heart accelerated to a drunken drum roll. There was no plan, no specific instructions, but I knew that “revenge” meant “death.” In Dad’s mind, it meant murdering anyone who at anytime had crossed him without contrition, killing that would begin with the Concerned Relatives at the Pegasus Hotel—and continue as far as the zeal of the soldier would carry it. I knew for an order of such magnitude to reach us, something had to be going down, something horrible, perhaps irreversible.
Memory falters at this point, having absorbed little through the anxiety that overtook me. I know I began to “manage” the situation the way I had so many times before: feign compliance, even agreement. Gather and process information. Look for a weakness in the scheme, assess the positions of the other players, gradually build alliances while shifting the focus of the zealots and followers. Manipulate the course like a lone mutineer dragging his oar just enough to imperceptibly shift the bow on the horizon while whistling the Captain’s favorite ditty. I would play the game.
I knew that I would be taking no “revenge” that night. I sure wasn’t going to help my father kill anyone; I was going to stop him, but to do so I would have to be careful. In a situation so volatile I would have to avoid igniting any of the “Dedicated,” keep from fanning the psychosis that Dad tended so well. I pictured the people of Jonestown gathered in front of Dad for yet another deliberation on death, but this one was more real and Dad was on the precipice. I was terrified of doing anything to push him over the edge and taking my loved ones with him.
But that wasn’t the only reason I might shuffle to the discordant music played by those slaves who called themselves freedom fighters. It’s true that I did my best to lead while pretending to follow in order to pacify those conformist revolutionaries, insane in their dichotomy. But I also chose that well-worn indirect path to project and protect my image. I didn’t want to look like a traitor or – worse – a coward. I would manipulate the situation to save face as much as to save lives.
I felt like my teammates thought I should take charge. After all, I had been in the battle longer. Shouldn’t I know the enemy better?
I didn’t know shit. I never thought things would get as far as they had – that I would find myself circumventing an order of this magnitude – that I would go from trying to navigate insanity to thwarting murder. I had underestimated my father, and I was reeling.
Hell, I was looking to them. Our time together in Georgetown, away from Dad’s stifling scrutiny and influence, had so strengthened our bond of rebellion that we knew we could trust each other to resist the madness we were facing. We all crawled into our blue, lightweight van and returned to the Temple headquarters in Georgetown.
We had christened the two-story house “Lamaha Gardens” after the dirt road that ran between it and a thirty foot wide canal which meandered from the ocean to the heart of the city. The structure, like many mid- to upper-scale dwellings in the Caribbean, was built for heavy rains. The main living quarters were on the second level, above the weather. The breezeway beneath was surrounded by the garage and three small, concrete floored rooms. As was the Temple way, maximum use was made of all space. The garage was packed with storage. Two of the utility rooms had been converted to live-work spaces that were occupied by more than one person. The third room, closest to the front gate, was the Radio Room – Command Central. It housed one of three short wave radios operated by the Temple; the other two were in Jonestown and San Francisco. All communication was funneled through there.
I was nineteen years old, terrified and confused. I was trying to contain my own meltdown well enough to come up with one last scheme to undermine “Father’s” will. The daylight was fading as we huddled on the driveway for a moment, with all the trappings of a strategy session: Severe and purposeful, doing our best to look like soldiers on a mission. I could barely put two thoughts together, let alone devise a plan. We had to strip the situation down to its most basic fundamental: In order to know where to throw the wrench in Jonestown, we had to find out what was happening there.
In the radio room, Sharon Amos sat hunched over at a desk, headphones on. I assumed she was soaking up our orders, but now I wonder. It’s more likely that she was eavesdropping on evil while she sat frozen, waiting for my father to bark her next thought.
When we came in, she turned to us. We heard the same order as before, with no less horror as a rerun: “He wants us to go out and get revenge.” My ears were hammered, and my lungs nearly imploded. Using the code that had developed over hundreds of illegal radio transmissions, the Jonestown radio operator began spelling out the weapons Dad wanted us to use. When Sharon started calling out “ K…N…I…V…” I grabbed Tim and Johnny and took them outside.
I had given it the best soldierly air a panicked man-child can offer, again protecting my image and placating those on the brink. Not one of my better acting jobs, because it was not long before Debbie, Mike’s wife and one of those people of whom I was unsure, approached us. “Look, I know what you guys are doing. I’m with you, but you can’t do it like this. You’re freaking Sharon and Paula out.”
Sharon and Paula: zealot and follower. Next to finding out what was going on in Jonestown, they were my greatest concern, followed by the stateside Temple members. I didn’t know what their instructions were, or what they would do with them. I knew that Sharon would carry out her revolutionary leader’s every order feverishly, and we could expect extreme interpretation on her part. Paula was more malleable, but she was also an occasional mistress to Dad, and I didn’t know when he had last gotten to her.
Debbie was right. We’d been sloppy. Things needed to be cleaned up. We didn’t want to push Sharon and Paula over the edge and find ourselves occupied with cajoling or, even worse, restraining them.
So we went back to the radio room. I tried to sound calm yet forceful. “Let’s wait a minute. We’re not going off half-cocked. We need a plan or we won’t accomplish anything. What are we supposed to use, butter knives?” It sounded more like pleading than planning. Then, to avert any response, and in complete contradiction to what I had just said, I announced that Tim, Johnny, and I were going to the Pegasus Hotel, to find the Concerned Relatives.
I’m not sure if I intended for Sharon or Paula – or anyone else who might still be entertaining our death orders – to think we were going there to begin the killings. I know I thought I had time to stop Dad, that the “Hit Squad” was the advance, not the clean up. And I did not want to tip my hand and have Dad accelerate the madness because his chosen, “Elite Army” was turned against him. I was also covering for the part that wanted to save my own ass, that part of me that was afraid to die. More than anything I was functioning out of my need to know what in hell was going on, or, better, what was going on in hell.
I pulled Lee Ingram aside, out of Sharon’s earshot, and told him to call “The States,” our name for the San Francisco Temple, and tell them that I said not to do anything until they heard from me. Lee was the basketball team’s coach, a heavy participant in our recent irreverence, and a peaceful man, and I knew I could trust him. As we spoke just inside the door, he stood still, his black, chiseled face close to mine. I could see Sharon over his left shoulder, still pressed to her only connection with “Father,” his hold on her manifesting physically. Her hair was in disarray as if mussed by Dad’s unseen hands, reaching through that vile machine and grabbing her head, pulling her mouth down onto the microphone. I shifted my gaze to her for just a moment, and then back to Lee. His eyes never left mine. In few words, we agreed that he could not let Sharon out of his sight. She was sliding deeper than I had ever seen into a kind of sullen agitation that was unique to the devoted. Her eyes were lit and wary; her rare movements swift and efficient. As far as she was concerned, we had all we needed to know: Kill.
I had purposely let Paula overhear my conversation with Lee. She just looked at me, and her placid response told me that Dad’s spell was finally shaken. But as a precaution, I made sure that Debbie, her close friend, would keep an eye on her. I don’t remember how Debbie and I communicated this, but I know we recognized the need nearly simultaneously. We had been serving and suffering under a narcissistic Svengali long enough to develop a sixth sense for the human psyche. Paula was unstable and vulnerable, but under Debbie’s watch, she would also be safe.
The ride to the Pegasus was miserably long. We’d decided to take the Temple’s compact four-door, the kind of car owned by most Guyanese for maneuvering their narrow, chaotic roads. Our travels that night would have a bizarre quality, a sort of purposeful wandering. My insides were trembling, and a numb stupor engulfed me. Nearly everyone that mattered to me was hostage to someone whose only conditions would be about how they would die, not live. Could my father really be going through with his final exit? He was surely moving closer and faster than he ever had. I placed all I had left on a path headed wrong.
My memory of the Pegasus Hotel is hazy. Three doorless entries led directly to a large unencumbered lobby. It was designed to entice the sluggish tropical air to come in and play, to cool and refresh those that had come there to escape its oppression. Not that night. When I entered, the warmth and wetness lay heavily upon the twenty or so people scattered about the room. Just as palpable was their anxiety. It was as if I’d entered an airport where all arrivals were late, no reason given. All was in nervous, static limbo: they would have stayed there indefinitely, milling and fretting, until someone, with any information at all, could break the spell.
I spoke to Bonnie, the daughter of Reverend Burnham, a missionary who had befriended Dad when we lived in Brazil. She had dabbled in the Temple, but not for long. She expressed her concern, apparently as unaware as the other Concerned Relatives that the madness had escalated. I went through the motions, as cordially as I could, while looking past her at Tim Stoen. the man who had become the focus of my visit and Jim Jones’s hatred.
Tim was seated on a bench which ran along a wall in the hotel lobby. His left leg was lifted onto the bench in a half lotus position. He looked soft and staid, as always, in his well-chosen cotton shirt and shorts, as if he was exactly the same man I’d last seen over a year and a half ago, but he was wholly on the other side this time. If Dad could lay all his disappointment, hurt, and rage at the foot of one man, it would be this one. Tim had been a confidant, a key strategist and policy maker. He had sworn his allegiance and given his wife and child to Jim Jones. Since his defection, Tim had set about taking all those things back. The paternity dispute over the child was the perceived sword the Guyanese courts had been holding over Dad’s head, the genuine catalyst for Ryan’s visit, the principal reason we were all here.
Any time someone close to Dad turned against him, it severely jarred the grand image he’d created for himself. The only way Dad could cope with this was to make them evil. Why else would someone see inside my father and his movement and then turn away? Someone of Tim’s Temple rank would also know where the money was held and the “movement” was going. He threatened Dad on many levels, more imagined than real.
I remember his greeting as cordial and careful. His slightly mussed, graying black hair and day or two’s growth of beard did nothing to mar his polish. I have wondered since, when I was later accused of being the head of a Temple hit squad and thrown in prison for murder, if he or anyone else spoke of their close and safe encounters with me. I don’t remember much of our conversation. I remember warning him where his continued “assault” on my father could lead. He seemed shocked when I told him that my father would let everyone in Jonestown die.
I could not believe that Jim Jones’s potential for annihilation had not occurred to him before. He had for so long been an influential part of the inner circle, a strategist and an instigator. I realize now he could have made the same mistake I had. Tim may have seen so many of Dad’s games, his grandiose displays, his countless cries of wolf, that he became inured to them. He could have believed that Jim Jones’s cowardice would keep him from going too far. Just a few hours earlier, I had believed it too.
From the Pegasus Hotel we struck out for the U.S. Embassy. I was frantic, but struggled to keep my composure, aware of appearances even then. What a thorough teacher Dad was. There was also the fear that if I let one string slip out of place, it would lead to my complete unraveling. I couldn’t afford that.
I suspected that my father was entrenched. Perhaps he was even moving toward suicide, but, as was the pattern in his many rehearsals, I thought he might move slowly, looking for an out. I entertained the foolish hope that this incident would fizzle like all the rest. I wouldn’t know for weeks that the madness had moved faster than I’d ever dreamed possible, that my world, my people, all those that I didn’t know I loved were probably gone by the time I left the hotel.
The U.S. Embassy was a two-story, modern white structure surrounded by manicured tropical flora. Its well-lit grounds were the only sign of life. We walked right up the camera-surveilled, circular driveway to the front. All entrances were locked. We knocked at the front door, and someone a few feet inside asked us to identify ourselves. We did, and another voice, from deeper in the building, took charge by refusing us entry. I asked why, and the voice told us that there had been unconfirmed reports that Congressman Ryan and “others” had been shot at the Port Kaituma airstrip by what were believed to be Temple members. My mind screamed, my heart lunged against my chest. I heard the words “I know” break into the oppressive night air.
The words were mine. I did know. I had no specific knowledge of what was happening in Jonestown that evening, but, beneath all my denial and delusion, at my soul, I knew that Jim Jones’ worst was upon us.
I immediately tried to explain what I’d said, to tell them that we did know something was happening, and we were against it, that we wanted their assistance, not their lives. I needed them and everyone else on the “outside” to know that I was not a part of the craziness, even though on some level I was. But before I could say another stupid word, my brother Tim pulled me away and told me to watch my mouth. He steered us back to Lamaha Gardens, where our inane investigation had begun.
When we were within a half mile of the house, I told Mike to let us out to walk the rest of the way so that we could covertly assess the situation to avoid being detained by the authorities before we were ready. As we made our way through normal-looking streets – hell is deceptive that way – I remember looking at the sky, pleading to who-knows-what to let everything be okay. An airplane flew overhead, and I hoped aloud that Congressman Ryan was on board.
We stood in the blackness and watched the house for a short time. We saw nothing to alarm us, no unfamiliar vehicles. The car that had carried us on our worthless mission was back in the same parking spot. So we headed in. We were thirty feet from the front gate when Robin, with a small group in tow, walked quickly up to us. “Sharon killed herself and her children.”
“Where was Lee?” I got no response. I would learn later that the Georgetown police had received reports of a shooting at the Peoples Temple and headed straight for Lamaha Gardens. That was the “Peoples Temple” under their jurisdiction, not the one in Jonestown. Lee left Sharon unattended while he went to the front gate to meet them. Sharon, fearing the round-up had begun, ran to save the children from what my father had always warned would be a “life in fascism.”
I was unable to grasp what I’d just heard. This cannot be happening. I thought I had this end managed. Dad is the only threat. Mommas don’t kill their babies. Every part of me moaned. Despair joined forces with gravity to pull my guts down toward the core of the very thing that was coming apart around me.
“Where are they?” I managed to say. Robin said nothing; she just turned and began walking toward the house. I fell in behind her, glad for direction, dreading the destination. As she led us up the outdoor staircase to the sliding glass doors that served as a front entrance, numbness came to my rescue. By the time we’d crossed the hardwood floor of the large living room, my mind was that of a mule too long tethered to a blunt plow.
We continued down the only hallway. It connected all of the rooms on the second story. At the very end was the open door to the master bedroom. Just beyond, and on the right was the master bathroom. It was there that Robin stopped, disturbing my stupor. She pointed at the closed door. I hesitated, and then stepped forward.
As I reached for the handle, I could see blood seeping from beneath the door. IT’S HAPPENING! IT’S REAL! IT’S REAL! Everything slows; my vision tunnels. I watch my hand, as if it is someone else’s, take the handle and turn it. Arms that are no longer mine push on the door. It moves about fifteen inches and then stops. Mindless momentum brings my shoulder against the door. Just as I am about to plow into the room, like a bulldozer whose operator has leapt to safety, a tiny flash of white at the left rim of my narrowed field of vision locks on to my retreating mind and yanks it back to the controls. I freeze. My vision expands. As I take in its surroundings, I realize that the piece of pure, bright white is an eye.
That face. Little Martin staring at the ceiling, lips parted, his expression unbelieving, shocked. And below that dumbfounded face, the rift from which his life had poured.
I had to push his tiny body clear with the door; the thought of touching him was unbearable. Lying next to him was his sister, Christa. She was eleven, a scant year older than her brother. Everything about her seemed identical to Martin, only on a larger scale. Her expression, her wound, even her positioning, it was as if they were awestruck by something on the ceiling. Something invisible to the living. I can’t tell you anything about their arms and legs. Their similarity from their torn necks to their curly, blood-soaked hair so dominated my perception that I can remember little else. Only… as if they were lying in macabre state, as if someone had positioned them carefully, but with no effort at making them presentable, so that they would be remembered in death, rather than life. Perhaps their heads seemed so identical to me because I had never seen anything like this before.
I pushed the door farther into the room. Martin’s body, wet with his own fluids, flowed reluctantly along its edge. Against the congealing swamp of blood, the door swiveled hesitantly, seemingly as averse as I to expose what else lay in the room. It came to rest against something. In front of me was Liane, my childhood playmate.
She was lying face down. Her feet were pointed toward the door, arms pinned beneath her breast. She was next to the shower, a tiled structure just opposite the door and separated from the rest of the room by a five-foot wall. Its white floor was in stark contrast to the darkening flood surrounding it. Liane stirred. She made a choking sound and, with her arms still beneath her, began to lift her shoulders, pulling her head along with them. She raised about six inches before her strength gave out, dropping her head and upper torso with a thick splash, the sound of a child jumping into a mud puddle. “Liane?” There was no response, just a slow, unnatural sigh as she died.
I never saw Sharon. It was her body that had stopped the door from opening. At that moment, I had no more concern for her than I would a doorstop.
I never set foot in that bathroom. I couldn’t. I suppose it’s true that any attempt to arrest that horror would have been like trying to hold a swamped boat afloat as it sinks beneath you. But there was another reason I didn’t try to save Liane. I feared incrimination. And although it has been a great source of shame for me, it was a realistic enough fear given the persecution I would later face. Imagine the Guyanese authorities coming upon Jim Jones’ son, smeared with blood, his fingerprints all over the victims. What a tidy scapegoat I would have made.
I stood outside the door, my arms hanging worthlessly by my side. I tottered there for seconds that seemed like minutes. “Has anyone called the fucking police?” Someone stepped up and told me that the first person on the scene had found a blood-soaked Chuck Beikman standing among the dead. Chuck was a simple man, although some might say a simpleton. “Serf” best describes his relationship to my father. He responded to authority, especially accepted authority, like a leaf to a river, swept along with neither the will nor strength to resist. No one knew his degree of involvement in the mayhem. At the time, I didn’t care. I saw him as a victim of circumstance, overwhelmed by Sharon’s zealotry. One thing was certain. The murderer lay dead on the bathroom floor.
Chuck was one of our own. He had to be protected. We agreed that he should be kept downstairs, away from the police. It was around this time that I learned that Stephanie Jones, my nine-year-old niece through a token adoption, had been injured. She was the only other child in the house. A member of the basketball team had found her on the bathroom floor, covered in blood, some of it her own.
When I found her downstairs, she was with two women. Her little neck had three cuts across the front. Each was about an eighth of an inch deep, and ranged from two to four inches in length. The wounds were haphazard and feeble, compared to what I had just seen. I thought that might be evidence of Chuck’s confused and half-hearted attempt at compliance with Sharon’s commands during her insane “escape.”
The real damage to Stephanie was much deeper than the skin on her throat. She seemed so calm, sitting between her two caretakers. Leaning against the one on her left, head resting on the woman’s breast, she stared straight ahead, seemingly contemplative. Her young spirit must have been cleaning house furiously, sweeping brand-new demons under rugs and pushing them into closets, desperately trying to keep that young mind a livable place. But she seemed so calm.
I touched her face gently; she didn’t move, didn’t blink. The woman who cradled her looked up at me and whispered, “She’s okay.”
I knew better, of course. Stephanie would never be the same. But, though they were as vacant as Martin’s and Christa’s, her eyes glistened with life. And, despite Stephanie’s trauma, I, reeling from fear, desperate to learn the fate of those in Jonestown, dreading the arrival of the Guyanese authorities, and on the edge of shock, could feel nothing more than a glimmer of relief.
Then the men with guns came. The GDF – Guyana Defense Force – blanketed the house, and sealed off both ends of the only road leading to it. The Georgetown police moved in with them, and soon they were also crawling all over the place.
Most of my memory of the rest of that night is kaleidoscopic: flashes of officious policemen; a burly soldier climbing along the rafters of a room downstairs in a grandiose search for evidence; Temple members huddled downstairs, herded there by the soldiers, our captors; faces loom and then fade, as did my mind. Everything seems in shadow, except for the brightly-lit breezeway where we congregated, dully awaiting our fate.
I know I was interrogated; I don’t remember their questions or my answers. I know I didn’t mention Chuck. I told them that I wanted to accompany anyone they took to the police station, which they agreed to. I had to cover for Chuck and watch out for those to whom I still felt responsible. Tim, Johnny, and I asked to be taken into Jonestown. I was certain that there was hope – lives to save, escapees in need of a familiar face. But the officers told me that all that could be done was being done.
I did my best to convince the officers that they couldn’t reason with the survivors – or holdouts – as well as my brothers or I could. I told them that I knew the bush well, and could help them find anyone who might be hiding. But these weren’t the real reasons I wanted to get there as fast as someone would take me. In truth, I felt like I might be the last person who could reason with Dad.
The real reason I wanted to get back to that terrible place I’d called home was that I had to get back to my people, get close to them. I knew that more than just the four upstairs were dead or dying, but there was no way all of them would go down. I couldn’t – wouldn’t – believe it. Maybe they were in some kind of standoff. Dad might still be playing games even if things had gotten away from him. I thought of hundreds of survivors hiding in the bush, afraid of Dad and his minions, and of the “outside” forces he’d warned us against thousands of times. I was dizzy with the dark possibilities that whirlpooled my head.
All that can be done is being done. At the time, I didn’t understand that they might mean that there was no more to be done, that there was no one left to save. I don’t know to this day if they knew by that time that all was lost. I think they just thought that they would know what to do, and how best to do it. I wanted to scream at them—make them understand the mayhem that was possible, but feared letting on that I knew the level of insanity we could reach.
A few of us sought refuge in one of the downstairs rooms, directly beneath the master bathroom. We were dazed, drained. I admonished our small group not to do anything stupid. As with the call I’d told Lee to make to the stateside members before I left him with Sharon, I was trying to block my father’s murderous reach. My last words that night were, “Talk to someone if it gets to be too much.” It wasn’t long before exhaustion forced me to lie back, desperate for oblivion’s reprieve.
I remember little more of that evening at Lamaha Gardens. I’ve never learned what anyone else saw or thought. I know that outside our self-made cell the ransacking continued. I don’t know what they found. Nor do I know what they did with the bodies of Sharon and her babies. I do know they didn’t clean up the bathroom for hours, because as I sank from consciousness, I watched blood drip from the ceiling.
(Stephan Jones is a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. His other articles in this edition are Johnny Brown: Taking Care of His Own, Ankles and Assholes, and Reunion. He was also a speaker during the Griot Institute of African Studies lecture series entitled Jonestown: 35 Years Later at Bucknell University; his presentation appears on this page (scroll down the videos). His earlier writings for this website appear here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)