The Jonestown Dream Quartet

by Jolene McDonald

Cognac

I first met Jim Jones near a bar. He wasn’t wearing his infamous sunglasses, but I could see them poking out of his coat pocket. We greeted each other with a hug, then he kissed me on the lips. I could smell his strong cologne, musky and sweet. His hair was black with a blue sheen like the suit he was wearing. He had a powerful presence, slightly intimidating. Still, I felt safe.

He was shorter than I had expected, maybe five eight. He carried some extra weight too, but that seemed to add to his power. He was a very good looking man. I could see why so many women were attracted to him.

The bar he guided me into was quiet, conducive to conversation. As I took a seat at a table near the doorway, he asked if I would like a drink. I said yes. I refrained from asking for Kool Aid, since I thought that would be in bad taste. Besides, he hadn’t waited for me to answer.

A moment later he brought over two glasses of brownish liquid. I took a sip. It was cognac. Jim didn’t drink his at first. He just looked at me with his deep, dark eyes. Even though people considered him a fraud, there was something genuinely spiritual about his presence. We began to talk about everyday things. He flirted with me. He said things that made me laugh. He asked questions about my life.

He had a ridiculous amount of charisma.

“I don’t think I want to refer to you as dad or father,” I interjected at one point.

“You don’t have to,” he replied evenly.

“What shall I call you?” I asked.

He paused. “Call me Jimmie.”

“I like that. You’re definitely not a James.”

“No,” he said quietly. “I’ve never been a James.”

At times he dominated the conversation, but at others, he would go quiet for no reason. He

didn’t say anything about the tragedy – he had to know it was on my mind – but I finally

asked if he ever thought of himself as a bad person. Maybe he still thinks of himself that way.

I have a reputation.” He took a sip of the cognac. “But if someone is bad with good intentions, is it accurate to say they are completely bad?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer.

“You know it’s complicated.” His eyes penetrated me. “You know that already. I don’t have to tell you how complicated it is.”

“What you did was…”

He interrupted. “Whatever you were gonna say, I know. But we’re not here to discuss that. Let’s talk about something else.”

What I was about to say – what I did say – was this: “What you did was obviously terrible, but I am not going to judge you.” I acknowledged the drug addiction that had fuelled his paranoia to such dangerous levels, the pressures that weighed down on him that no one understood or took the time to realise until it was too late. There were many bad influences all around. Underneath it all, I added, I thought he was scared and needed help.

He gave a quick smile. “Don’t forget, there were a lot of good times too,” he said. “You would’ve loved it.”

I almost forgot he was notorious. He was just Jim to me.

By the time we finished our drinks, I felt like I had known him for years. We hugged and kissed again. He was warm and cold at the same time. I couldn’t deny it. He had supernatural power that was difficult to contain, and it was pouring from him. Both light and darkness surrounded him in equal measure.

As we went our separate ways, I had a feeling I would see him again. The cognac was still strong, lingering. I didn’t know if the taste was of my drink or of Jim’s lips.

 

Red Raven, White Night

As I waited outside the extravagant looking Temple for the first time, I caught snippets of conversations describing how captivating Reverend Jim Jones was. His influence in Indiana, how he made his way to California eight years earlier with even more believers, how he was ahead of his time in the early 1950s, how he still is in 1973.

When I entered the sanctuary, I could hear Jim’s voice booming forth, overpowering, echoing. He was quoting the Bible, the Song of Solomon, talking about the hair of the raven. That word really stood out to me. Raven.

His voice climbed as he held the congregation in thrall. His black hair was as shiny as his red satin robe. His sunglasses perched on the pulpit.

He was a showman. The audience responded in kind, shouting and applauding, hands reaching towards a rock star on a stage. Their faces lit up, and they cried out their love for him. It was a church, but they were there to worship him, not God. Still, there was no denying it, he did seem God-like. He was almost on another plane of existence, the way he talked, moved and expressed himself. His eyes were piercing, as if he had seen things in another world that no one else had.

He had the ability to heal people and change lives, and he knew it. He was using what he had for the good, but I did not want to imagine how things would be if he ended up as a person with bad intentions. Something like this in the wrong hands could be dangerous. It was a strange thought to have at that moment.

He noticed me sitting near the front and gave me a smile. His blood-coloured robe was shining. As he lifted his arms, the short wide sleeves of the robe resembled wings. He looked like a red raven. I had never seen or even heard of one, but I expect it would probably be the rarest of all.

*       *       *       *      *       *      *      *

Four years later, I was with Jim in Jonestown. We all had our own duties there. Mine was to tend to his medication and other needs.

On this day in late 1977 there were visitors. Jim was showing them the tropical birds. He smiled at me from across the way near the tractors. His shirt was navy blue with short sleeves. Slightly longer hair. He had always been overweight, but his weight had increased even more since the early ’70s. His drug use had increased too, and he sometimes had bloodshot eyes, but he hadn’t lost his handsome looks.

He seemed untroubled at that moment, even though the responsibility he had for the people was wearing him down. He tried to hide it, but I knew.

The crops were not doing as well as we had expected, but I hoped the visitors would be satisfied. The weather was too hot, as usual. The kids were not fazed by it. They were playing, having fun. Everyone looked happy. I put myself in the role of the outsiders, and decided I was impressed.

The visitors toured the whole place and they said it was wonderful. Everything was satisfactory. I felt relaxed.

But when other visitors came through five months later, it was different. I was anxious. Jim’s paranoia was becoming worse. I wasn’t surprised when there was a suicide rehearsal the next night.

Jim was wearing his beret, a true revolutionary in my eyes. He handed me a gun. “If I can’t do it, “ he whispered, “will you do it for me?”

I was stunned. I could not imagine shooting him. “I don’t know. If it was a mercy killing, I would consider it.” This White Night was supposed to be a test, but I would have to think seriously about what I would do if it was a real one.

“It would be glorious to die by suicide,” Jim said calmly, “but I’d be honoured if you shot me.”

I pictured the Temple meeting from years earlier, the charisma flowing out, the adulation flowing back. Something like this in the wrong hands could be dangerous. That was what I had thought. The raven robe, blood red. I thought how much it now reminded me of the blood that would flow when he died by gunshot.

He was obsessed with suicide. He said he had thought about it since he was ten years old. He was in control of everything in life, so I am sure he would want to control his own death. No one else could do it for him. If the final White Night ever came, he would pull the trigger on himself. I was sure of it.

 

Miracles

Jim quoted the Bible while I stood by, keeping an eye on the man who was about to be resurrected. Stretched out on the floor with his face a greyish colour, he certainly looked convincing. He had been drugged secretly and made up to look dead. I really disliked participating in fake stunts like this.

I noticed the man’s eyelids flicker. My own eyes widened. The congregation would notice, too, in only a moment. I pulled Jim’s robe discreetly. “He’s waking up,” I whispered.

Jim’s nod was perceptible to no one but me. He quickly moved to the resurrection part of his speech and knelt next to the man. “Stay down here,” he whispered back. “Watch him.” The man’s hand moved. I held it still.

Jim’s voice rose, his arms rose, he cried out in a language all his own. Speaking in tongues. As if responding to the glossolalia, the man’s foot moved. Then he stretched out his arm. “It’s a miracle,” a woman shouted as he climbed to his feet, and people started to applaud. I had known deep down it would work out fine, but I was still relieved. When I glanced at Jim, he winked at me in his confident way. He knew what he was doing. He would not allow it to go wrong at such a crucial moment.

Same performance, different miracle: Jim was about to turn water into wine. He had done this many times before, and was afraid people were becoming too familiar with it. He needed a new method.

I remembered earlier that day, him moving drinking glasses around, putting the water into one, then the other. I suggested a hidden tube to let the wine flow into the glass, and the water could drain out of another tube simultaneously. He shook his head. It was too short notice to find random tubes from somewhere.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to just turn the water into wine?” I asked.

“That is what I’m trying to do.”

“But I mean, instead of faking it, it would be easier to just do it for real.” I laughed a little bit.

He leaned against the podium. “I am doing it for real. I just need a way to make it look convincing, because no one believes the real stuff. They think it looks too unbelievable for some reason. Faking it actually makes it look more believable.”

I could not help but laugh, and then Jim started laughing too, his high hyena laugh.

Now, with his crowd before him, he spoke seriously about his blood and how much power it contained. He had been bled recently, he said, and held up a glass to show the deep red. No one dared to drink it, even though they were promised all kinds of miraculous happenings if they did. Obviously I was the one to do a demonstration. He handed me the glass. I drank some of it. Some people gasped, some cheered, a few fainted. No one could see the smile he gave me. I admit it felt amazing. It was uplifting, I couldn’t deny that. And when he did finally turn water into wine that day, I wasn’t sure how he did it. And when he pulled back his sleeves to expose his stigmata, there was no one there more amazed than I.

 

Paradise

I often see Jim Jones in Jonestown as he was on the final day in 1978, wearing his red and beige outfit. Jonestown is not overgrown like it is today. It looks like it did back then, except there is no one else there. Only Jim. He always seems pleased to see me. We sometimes sit in a sheltered area, but we also spend time in the cabin. He removes his sunglasses and rubs his eyes. His tongue moves about in his mouth, like it’s trying to escape. He sips a drink from a paper cup, talking slowly and quietly. I feel relaxed in his presence, just the two of us in Jonestown. It is eerily quiet most of the time, but I am never scared. The atmosphere is just sad and morbid, which is understandable.

We talk about serious subjects, but his sense of humour is still there. So is the care and love I remember from the first time I saw him. At times he is quite emotional. It must be painful for him to talk about certain events, to explore them in any detail. But he does open up sometimes.

I ask him questions, like about his biggest regrets in life. “The fake healings,” he says quickly, as if expecting the question. “I could genuinely heal people. Why did I need to fake it?” He asks the question, but cannot answer it. Nor can I.

I look at his handsome face, think about his magnetism, picture his intelligent mind and all of his achievements before the tragedy. Then I think about his addictions, his ego, his sadistic streak, and I just stare into Jonestown, once a paradise, now desolate and deathly.

His next answer seems more considered like it has required more thought. “One of my worst fears was people leaving me, and me being alone, and yet, here I am.” A dominant, dangerous man, but also vulnerable. When his drug addiction and paranoia took over, there was no going back. There was no recovery from the illnesses, the demons and delusions over which – how ironic – he had lost all control. I think he turned into a victim of all of them, of himself. Seeing him face-to-face, seeing how alone how he was during the last moments of his life, somehow confirms it.

Before I walk away from the sheltered area and leave him sitting there alone, he tells me one more thing. His final regret, I expect him to say, are the deaths in Jonestown. But it isn’t. It’s Jonestown itself.

Maybe that is better than nothing.

Originally posted on May 31st, 2019.

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