Reflections & Opinions on Jonestown

by Kelly Lavoie

(This blogpost by Kelly Lavoie was originally published on March 19, 2019, and is reprinted with permission.)

Racial Dynamics

Peoples Temple and Jim Jones touted themselves as racially progressive. They promoted racial equality in the press, and they provided services to some communities in need during their time in the United States. Jones was so proud of his “rainbow family.” But I think that he was far from an ally, even beyond the obvious murder-y reasons.

As we saw in my original post, Jones Jr. was frequently pointed to as Jones’ “black adopted son,” constantly drawing attention to his difference. He brought him onstage at church services, literally making a show of the fact that he had adopted a black child. I think that Jones’ motives here, as with his other actions, are calculated. He was clearly targeting African Americans in his recruiting. As a white man, I think he felt it would give him some sort of credibility with the black community if he had black family members. He wanted the proverbial “ghetto pass” to be able to speak to black people as if he understands their struggles, to relate to them on a personal level. In other words, he was trying to negate his white privilege.

I think that Jones saw opportunity in the conservative backlash to social progress at the time. He knew that African Americans and women were experiencing discrimination and frustration; he knew they were ready to fight it, too. He knew that the elderly faced issues related to social security and social welfare programs, which tend to be antithetical to more conservative, capitalist-friendly ideals. He carefully positioned himself as an ally in order to exploit the dispossessed at this critical time in civil rights history.

He was clever in his calculus; the loyalty he’d receive from disenfranchised groups of people would likely surpass that of people who had other resources to turn to.

Another specific example of a disturbing racial dynamic within Peoples Temple: the physical punishments. I want to point out here that this is based on my personal observations from the research material that is out there; I wasn’t there and I could be somewhat off base as to the racial makeup of these incidents. But it seems to me, when you have a congregation that is 70 percent black, with mostly white leadership (an inner-circle of around 100 members), who is typically going to be on the receiving end of those public corporal punishments? Who is typically going to be doling out those corporal punishments? I seriously doubt that someone in a leadership position would be publicly beaten regularly, and these beatings did occur regularly.

This would be disturbing and wrong regardless of the racial makeup of the congregants and leadership. However, given the historical and present injustices against black people in the United States, and given that this particular church touted itself as a progressive bastion of racial inclusion, I find the notion of mostly white leadership punishing misdeeds with public beatings carried out on a mostly black congregation deeply disturbing.Even if my suspicions are incorrect and the violence was intra-racial, the man in charge, egging it on each moment, directing people to “hit him more, maybe he needs some more,” giggling maniacally, was a white man. Named Jim Jones. (See for example, the transcripts of tapes Q 734 and Q 721, the unpublished article by Gordon Lindsay, and the New West articleInside Peoples Temple)

The fact that the inner circle was mostly white is telling in itself. In essence, we have a group of white people doing managerial, decision making tasks, who are able to directly confer with Jones, while black members are relegated to manual labor in the middle of the jungle.

This does not seem racially progressive to me.

The Letters

Various people wrote goodbye letters/suicide notes/correspondence that was later catalogued and filed away by law enforcement. Some of these letters were deeply frustrating to me. I was hesitant to post my personal opinions on them, because the internet is a public forum and I have no desire to bring emotional distress to anyone who is in any way connected to these people. However, after thinking about it, I feel my points are important enough that I can civilly discuss them here.

Most readers are familiar with the suicide note left by Annie Moore, Jones’ personal nurse. (Jones was seriously abusing prescriptions at this point; perhaps that is the “illness” she referred to in the note.)

I don’t even know where to begin here, because everything she says is so objectively untrue.

Part of me feels very uncomfortable speaking ill of the dead, but I believe that she was one of the people who participated in the murder of hundreds of people, many of them infants and children. I think it matters that people see things as they are.

She talks about how great living at Jonestown was, how much everyone loved it – so many witnesses, basically all survivors of Jonestown that I have heard from, report the exact opposite. Not enough food, 18 hour work days, erratic, disturbing behavior from increasingly drug-addled Jim Jones, punishment for even the mention of wanting to leave.

She says that they died because the world would not let them live in peace? No. They died because Jim Jones, herself, and her co-conspirators would not allow freedom of movement to their members. Remember, what prompted this was people wanting to leave with Leo Ryan. They could not deal with the notion of witnesses getting back to the U.S., where what they said about Jonestown could not be controlled.

Almost as many visitors to this site know of the other letter written on Jonestown’s last day, likely by Richard Tropp.

Again, the delusion, the lying in this note is so profoundly disturbing when contrasted with the evidence of what we know really happened. Audio tapes are full of chilling screams of children, wailing of parents, disturbed murmuring throughout a crowd. Jones shouting into his microphone, admonishing congregants to “die with dignity, don’t die with wailing.” Another person hopping on the microphone to falsely assure the crowd, “It’s not hurting them, it just tastes bitter.” No peaceful, quiet lines, hugging and kissing goodbye. Maybe he and the rest of the inner circle did so after the murder victims were all dead.

A handful of people ran into the jungle to escape. They were pursued by armed men; some of them managed to escape, such as Stanley Clayton. He pretended to be helping to search for others who had fled. Not peaceful, not romantic, not beautiful passing into peace. Murder and suffering.

But there were other letters. Consider this letter to Jones by Phyllis Chaikin, one of Jonestown’s other nurses.

Dad…The very people who resist Revolutionary Suicide because they want to save their asses would make excellent captives for the enemy …Though the strongest might kill themselves before being taken, the weakest – no matter what they might say in public meetings – would not kill themselves and would be the first to talk…We prepare the people by reading the words of strong, assertive revolutionaries of the past who took this choice over the p.a. system … We will meet in the pavilion surrounded with highly trusted security with guns. Names will be called off randomly. People will be escorted to a place of dying by a strong personality … who is loving, supported [sic] but non-sympathetic. They are accompanied by two strong security men with guns. (I don’t trust people to arrange their own death … but [it] can be arranged by outside pressure and no alternatives left open.) At the place of dying they are shot in the head and if Larry [Dr. Larry Schacht] does not believe they are definitely dead, their throat is slit with a scalpel. I would be willing to help here if it is necessary. The bodies would be thrown in a ditch. It might be advisable to blindfold the people before going to the death place in that the blood and body remains on the ground might increase the agitation.

This is the most honest note I’ve come across, probably because it wasn’t meant to be seen publicly, but rather a private communication with Jones. For a little background on the author of this letter; she and her husband, Gene, were prominent members of Jones’ inner circle.

Gene worked as his attorney, and Phyllis was a nurse. They had been involved with Jones since the early 70’s. They were some of the first people to begin work on Jonestown in 1973. They had two teenaged children, but Gene was often separated from them because Jones spoke against the “nuclear family” dynamic as counter to communal ideals (indeed, even very young children were housed in separate dwellings from their parents in Jonestown).

Gene and Tim Stoen (another lawyer in the group, with his own bizarre story and ultimate defection from Jonestown) had their work cut out for them when it came to Jones, since he was arrested for “lewd conduct toward a male police officer in a movie theatre in 1973” (culteducation.com) and had other scandals brewing due to former members talking to the press about the church.

Eventually, Gene would return to the states (he was one of the very few who was allowed to hold onto his passport). He asked for his children to be sent back as well, to no avail. This was a letter sent from Gene to Jones:

I left because I am no longer willing to live in a situation of anxiety or bi-weekly crisis … for several reasons: 1) my nerves just won’t take it any more, I’m too beat, 2) it is impossible to build anything in that sort of atmosphere because building requires lots of planning and continuity of effort and application – the continuity is destroyed by the crisis mentality, 3) because I feel that the crisis environment is to some extent created and maintained by your state of mind … I think you suffer from a lack of balance, both of perspective and behavior. I detest being lied to and manipulated. You have, over the years, done a lot of both … Even in the present situation when I asked for the children you lied to me, said you would send them out, but held off till Phyllis could get here so that you would have some basis for hanging on … I would rather be told straight out than ‘put on.’ What I do at this juncture depends to a considerable extent on what you say … You leave me very few choices. Phyllis will come in tonight and I suppose we will talk … but I think you and I now have very little to say to each other.

Not willing to leave his children alone at Jonestown, he eventually had no choice but to return. For the rest of his life, he was kept “sedated and confined to the compound ‘Extended Care Unit,’ where those labeled as ‘dissidents’ were to be ‘resocialized.’”

Phyllis was one of the people who dispensed the poison during the mass murder, while Gene was likely killed in the Extended Care Unit; the whole family’s remains are thought to be among the unclaimed dead buried in Dover, Delaware.

Back to Phyllis’ letter. She describes perfectly the manipulation and premeditation of their conspiracy to commit mass murder. A perfect summation of what happened to the victims: “I don’t trust people to arrange their own death … but [it] can be arranged by outside pressure and no alternatives left open.”

The Digital Jonestown Library (A collaborative project of Cowles Library at Drake University and the Special Collections Department of Library and Information Access at San Diego State University) archives many private letters and notes, like Phyllis’, addressing Jones, called “Dear Dad” letters (many referred to Jones as “Dad” or “Father”). Many of them are suggestions to kill the enemies of the group, including specific ways to do so. Like this one, to Jones, from Bea Orsot:

Please read No. 1 first below.
1-8-78
If it is to be done-it must be done by tomorrow, Tuesday
To: DAD
Fr: Bea Orsot
RE: Additional suggestions for strategy and present feelings

First, I’d like to say that altho [although] this is a very trying time for us, it is the moment I have been waiting for. For the first time since I’ve been here, I feel very much alive & secure in expressing my thinking publicly or otherwise & if I could exchange places with someone miles away from this dangerous scene, states or otherwise, I would not do so. I belong in the middle of this struggle.

Also, I would like to add that I do not feel good about having a selfish relationship especially at a time like this. I felt guilty about it from the start altho I don’t think my companion does as I’ve never heard him say so. Not a week goes by that I don’t say so to him with no comment & a day never goes by that I don’t think about…so because of it, I feel my debt to the cause is greater so I will be constantly be thinking of suggestions for strategy altho none of them may be worth a dam. They are:

1.) I would like to walk into the courtroom tomorrow where Tim Stoen is-Loaded with explosives wrapped around my body,

2.) Go back to the states; have Norman Ijames rent a small plane. Get some kind of bomb-fly over CIA center in Virginia – Let them have it. Let Norman parachute out if he’s not willing to go with me – then blow up plane – me in it (altho plane will already probably be shot down by enemy for us & we won’t have to worry about it) we need to get to center of this. Such action would take hold well all over the world & inspire communist & socialist countries.

OR

3.) We need to capture Tim Stone to get him to talk. Ramifications would be serious I know but no more serious than the present situation. Yet I wonder if we could use the information we got. They would come in on us in great numbers & defeat us before we could use information to our advantage —maybe not too.

OR

4.) If they come in with Tim Stoen to arrest or whatever, let some of us lay down in the road. Either they run over us or don’t get the arrest done.

5.) I will stand at front gate ready with kerosene & match ready to set myself afire. If they insist on coming in & taking our children or people. Turn the guilt around on them.

Bea Orsot, who was in Georgetown at the time of the mass murder, wrote an essay, published in 1989, that can be found in its entiretyhere. It is long, so I will include excerpts that I find to be of interest (note: she is referring to being in Georgetown, Sharon Amos slitting the throats of her children and then her own upon learning of what was to come back in Jonestown):

When all the dishes had been done and the kitchen was in order, I took a shower, dressed, and prepared myself for an evening out at the movies. I never saw the film, though, because as I waited in the living room for others to join me, someone walked in saying “God, my God, I don’t believe it!” Trying to find out what had happened wasn’t easy. People were dazed as they realized that Sharon and her children were bleeding to death in the bathroom with their throats slit.
As I watched Guyanese police carry their covered bodies past my horror-petrified face, I remember thinking that Jim would be devastated. It wasn’t until I returned to the States that I learned that Sharon had received an order from Jonestown for all to die. Then and now, I did not perceive Sharon’s act as one of insanity, or as the result of brainwashing, but as one of unmatched self-sacrificial courage, of which I am not capable.…

The traitors’ work filtered throughout the media coverage, which focused on the unproven negative sides of Peoples Temple. They misrepresented the facts about themselves, describing “beatings,” “spankings,” and so-called “torture boxes” (a legitimate means of sensory deprivation in this country), to defend their egos. The fact is, drugs were a necessary means to calm the violent, those who were angry with capitalism, and those who were determined to continue their inhumane practices of child molestation and abuse on our children. Discipline was always warranted when disrespect for our seniors was shown. And for those who disrespected and violated the human rights of people by further expanding threats to our survival, drugs were necessary to preserve the lives of human beings; disciplinary measures to equal the offense to cause the offender to feel what it was like to experience the suffering one had caused for others. How else could they learn?

I didn’t see an “elite” inner circle at work. I saw the Planning Commission comprised of people whose formal education and natural talents rightfully qualified them for responsible positions. They did not receive favors. Instead, their work requirements caused them to get less sleep than anyone else. In my mind, the situation evened out.

It’s hard to imagine that someone could look at what happened at Jonestown and continue to defend such actions after ten years to reflect upon it, although I suppose that is less so when reading Ms. Orsot’s earlier memos offering to commit suicide bombings, acts of terrorism, and self-immolation. I really don’t know how to properly comment on the apologist nature of these statements because they seem so self-evident.

  • Amos was not a hero; she slit her children’s throats due to her own political beliefs. Her children never got the chance to grow up and decide whether they agreed with those beliefs; she robbed them of that choice and their lives.
  • I do not personally agree with physical punishment no matter the situation; that is my opinion that some agree with and some don’t. What I am sure that most reading this agree with, however, is that extrajudicial public beatings as “discipline” is an inhumane practice. Locking someone in a sensory deprivation box in the 100 degree jungle at the behest of a mob is an inhumane practice. hat is not “teaching” so much as it is terrorizing. One gives respect to get true respect that is not born of fear.
  • I seriously doubt that beatings would prevent a child molester from doing so again.
  • As I’m sure Ms. Orsot knows, drugs were notonly administered to “violent” people, but to anyone who Jones or the Planning Commission decided required some time in the Extended Care Unit (i.e. for attempted defectors).

This last note is from the doctor of Jonestown, Larry Schacht.

Cyanide is one of the most rapidly acting poisons. I had some misgivings about its effectiveness but from further research I have gained more confidence in it, at least theoretically. I would like to give about two grams to a large pig to see how effective our batch is to be sure we don’t get stuck with a disaster like would occurr [occur] if we used thousands of pills to sedate the people and then the cyanide was not good enough to do the job. I also want to order antedotes [antidotes] just in case we may need to reverse the poisoning process on people. Eli Lilly Co. puts out a kit or we could buy the chemicals.

1.) Sodium nitrite

2.) Sodium thiosulfate both for Intravenous administration. We should get enough for about two hundred people.

Cyanide may take up to three hours to kill but usually is [it] is within minutes. If it had to be reversed it could be without significant damage to the central nervous system. Symptoms of cyanide poisoning are Increase of respiratory rate at first and then depression, blue color, Headache, loss of consciousness, asphyxia and seizures which precede death (often).

An article I want from S.F. [San Francisco] Naughton M. Acute cyanide poisoning. Anseth Intensive care 2:351, 1974. We could say that a child was brought in to our free medical clinic who had ingested rat poison containing cyanide and we want this article on the subject.

Sorry I said “I would like to kill Debbie Blakey” In front of Jeff C [Carey]. He was not asking or prying. I was thinking out loud and forgot that you had not informed the collective. I will be damn careful in the future.

I think all workers in Georgetown should be required to have a good political understanding and be sensitive to the world struggle. Obviously have some talents which make them valuble [valuable] in the city but with out [without] the political enlightenment they are dangerous. Information could be taken to them or they could be required to hand in five pages each two weeks about a book they are reading on communism, or the black liberation effort and you could get a good idea about where their committment [commitment] to the theoretical (and apparently essential) aspects of our movement Is and just how they relate to the cause. The more I hear and learn about the events in the world the less I tend to be Illusionary about life. Thank you for pointing out that I am holding on to life too much.

I think we should kill Debbie B. [Blakey] even though this is not pragmatic and in fact could drive suicidal people into traitorous acts just to elicit a vengeful murderous ac from the group. Leaving Peoples Temple is a form of suicide. It is suicide. I was grateful that I was included in the plan the other night as I was able to help out with Lillies [likely Lillie Mae Victor] water retention and urological disorder. I would not have minded taking the full responsibility for that therapeutic recommendation and that is one disease I feel morally responsible to cure.

I have some radio consultations I would like to get taken care of soon. I have requested to do so but apparently there has not been opportunity.

Larry Schacht

Like most of the others, this memo is chilling on its own, devoid of my commentary. I did want to note a few things, however. First, I noticed that Schacht suggests that they purchase the antidote to cyanide poison. I wondered, why only enough for 200 people? It is also crazy to hear this well spoken doctor, presumably a rational man of science, so offhandedly state his desire to kill someone for defecting. His and others’ cavalier tone about such a thing bespeaks the spectre of death and killing that hung over Jonestown long before the events of that awful night occurred. Schacht confirms this again: “The more I hear and learn about the events in the world the less I tend to be Illusionary about life. Thank you for pointing out that I am holding on to life too much.”

What is boils down to, in my view, is that Jim Jones used people. Some of them were of a “revolutionary” sort; people radically committed to their view of social justice. Some were people who had been let down by the flaws and prejudices of American society. The beleaguered were the easiest target. Eventually, he would quote Marx in saying “religion is the opiate of the people,” but, as his wife nonsensically added, he had “used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion.”

The more I glean about the people close to Jones, the more I see that Jonestown was a ticking time bomb from the start; a tragedy in the making from the moment they purchased that patch of land in the jungle.

References:

Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple

Cult Education Institute

Digital Jonestown Library

Originally posted on April 30th, 2019.

Last modified on December 30th, 2020.
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