When I started researching Peoples Temple and Jonestown – not only for my still-in-progress novel, but also for myself – there were certain people I became obsessed with. There was Congressman Leo Ryan, who truly wanted to do the right thing for his constituents. There was Marceline Jones, a woman trapped in a bad marriage but trying to make a good life for herself and the children of Jonestown.
And then there was one man I was particularly interested in. He is seen for about a minute in the NBC news footage from Jonestown’s final weekend, and for a few seconds in Stanley Nelson’s documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. As Jackie Speier speaks slowly and deliberately to verify that several members want to go home, a young man sits with an elderly woman and a pretty girl with brown hair. When I first saw the footage, I thought, “God, he’s just a kid. What’s he doing there?” I started thinking of him as The Boy in the Blue Shirt. Soon – thanks to this website – I learned his name: Christopher Keith O’Neal. This is what else I found out about him.
He had Native American roots. Raised in Ukiah, he started seeing Brenda Parks. He couldn’t get a job because he had a medical condition. Today he would’ve had the ADA on his side. In 1978? Tough luck. Better get in the welfare line, pal. Brenda invited him to go with her to Jonestown. He arrived on April 7, 1978. Edith Roller would note in her journal that Christopher worked ten hours straight on the boat. Jim Jones referred to him as Brenda’s fiancé. He managed to blend in. He didn’t make waves, didn’t get into trouble. But he also wanted out. That’s for certain. Whatever he thought his time in the jungle with his girlfriend was going to be like, Jonestown wasn’t it. He wanted to go home.
On the NBC footage, the young man sits in silence alongside Edith Parks as Jackie Speier speaks. The two of them look exhausted, beaten down. Edith wearing her granny glasses, Christopher’s hair in his face. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was playing in the background, with Veruca Salt pleading with her daddy for a golden goose. With Brenda sitting nearby, Jackie confirms they both want to leave Jonestown on November 18, 1978. “Yeah,” Christopher says. Brenda agrees. They’re nervous, but firm. The whole exchange is over in a matter of a few seconds. As Jackie walks away, the camera pans to Patricia Parks. Several accounts of the final day hold that she was the holdout, that she wanted to stay. Instead, she decides to go with her family. That decision proves fatal, and not just because she’s the only Temple member killed at the Port Kaituma airstrip. As the camera focuses only on her, we see Jim Jones walking into the pavilion, realizing the house of cards he has built is falling apart.
Later Jones has a conference with the Parks and Bogue families, the two large groups who will leave with the congressman. Christopher stands with them, his back to the camera. He still looks anxious. As starts to rain, he puts on a dark blue windbreaker. Jones tells him, “Just know there’s always a place for you here. Always a place.” He tries to smile but it doesn’t seem sincere. Christopher thanks Jones, says he’s glad there’s a place. How much of it is genuine? How much is he performing? Is he just thinking Be cool. Don’t get nervous. We just have to get out of here.
A final image: one of the last photographs San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson takes is of Christopher getting wet in the back of the truck with the others.
It’s hard to see Christopher in the footage taken at the Port Kaituma airstrip. Accounts of the attack report that he runs into the jungle with Brenda and her little sister, Tracy, as the shots ring out. Tracy says she almost slips and falls, but Christopher catches her up, saves her life. After they are rescued, as Tracy tells the reporter what happened, we see Christopher staring into the camera with what one person calls “the thousand-yard stare.” I thought he looked pale. Stunned. Haunted.
I couldn’t find out much about him after 1978. I knew he did give an interview to an A&E documentary, but that was about it. I wanted to respect his privacy. Yet I also wanted to include a character in my novel, based upon the Boy in the Blue Shirt with the thousand-yard stare. I wanted to know more about him. How did he survive the tragedy? What did he do with his life? Did he have a family? After several false starts, I started working on the novel this spring, going on a writer’s residency in Vermont. When I returned, I asked a friend of a friend if they knew what happened to Christopher. I wasn’t prepared for the answer.
Late last year, Christopher was going through a terrible depression. His last sibling had died, and he was convinced he had some type of cancer. His family said he had night tremors because of Jonestown, and that he drank heavily, and it all got worse as each anniversary approached. A week before the thirty-sixth anniversary, the police received a call for a domestic disturbance, a call that Christopher himself apparently made from a neighbor’s phone, using a false name. When the police responded, Christopher met them outside his house, waving a knife around, making threats. They shot him several times, killing him. It was termed “suicide by cop.”
I was horrified. Oh no, I thought, not the Boy in the Blue Shirt. Of course he wasn’t a boy then, he was 57 when he died. But in my head he was still that boy with scraggly brown hair, wanting out. Why didn’t the police just use a stun gun, or shoot to wound him? Was he beyond their ability to reason with him instead of resorting to firepower? I thought about his wife, his family. Was Christopher tired of surviving? Did he just want to give up?
I think about a quote from the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Was it the past that killed him? Or was it the present that got to be too much for him? I don’t have the answers. Yet I wish I could’ve met him, to tell him I thought he was brave that day. I know his name, yet he will always be The Boy in the Blue Shirt to me. The one that survived. The one that looked so haunted yet still alive.