Friday, March 22, 2013

The Star [Malaysia] The ghosts of Jonestown, by Martin Vengadesan,

November 18, 2003, The Star [Malaysia] The ghosts of Jonestown, by Martin Vengadesan,

STEPHAN Gandhi Jones is – in the eyes of the world – the son of a mass murderer. Fortunately for him, few people recognise him. But mention “Jim Jones” and “Jonestown” and many people would make theconnection.

Jones, 44, is the only biological son of Jim Jones and his wife Marceline Baldwin who founded the cult behind Jonestown. Its official name was the “People's Temple of the Disciples of Christ”.

Jim Jones was a visionary, charismatic leader preaching a seductive brand of multi-racialism, that was extremely appealing in the restive 1960s, and building a utopian-like egalitarian society.

Deborah Layton

But he apparently descended into madness and led his brainwashed followers to their deaths in a farming community in Guyana.

On Nov 18, 1978, the largest recorded mass suicide in history took place when 913 members of the People's Temple poisoned themselves and their children by drinking cyanide-laced grape juice served from a large vat. Jim Jones apparently shot himself in the head.

Stephan Jones, who was then 19, escaped death because he was out of Jonestown representing the community in a basketballtournament.

In an e-mailed interview, Jones speaks frankly of how he struggled to understand and survive the horror of his father's actions.

As a teenager, Stephan struggled under the shadow of his father, especially when he was exposed to the sexual affairs Jim Jones was conducting with certain members of the People's Temple. He even attempted suicide on a number of occasions in the early 1970s.

He, like other members who survived the cult, have spent years searching for answers to what actually happened and to understand how so many people apparently agreed to die together on the orders of their leader. He is currently working on a book concerning his experiences as the son of Jim Jones.

“There is rich ore in the tragedy of the People's Temple ... and it's grey and in that grey is every colour of the rainbow except the black and white that so many people want to paint with,” he says.

Jones is dismissive of the notion that Jonestown was a paradise. “Jonestown after Dad came to live there was far closer to a concentration camp than paradise, although I wouldn't call it either. An analogy that comes to mind is a prison run by the inmates. My understanding of concentration camps involves enemies, adversaries, a dominant, controlling group subjugating and abusing (even torturing and killing) another.

"There was certainly subjugation and abuse, and eventually killing in Jonestown, but it was an inside job, not done by an outside, separate adversary. Jonestown was populated by a wide range of personalities – from kind, selfless, and courageous to cruel, narcissistic and paranoid – but there was a pervasive sickness that none of us escaped fully. And the sickest of us rose to the top, and from there ran the show, which is what it all was mostly – a show."

If it was a show, it fooled almost everyone.

Rebecca Moore is a professor at the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University and oversees the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown website ( She is the author of the book Sympathetic Considerations of Jonestown. Moore lost both her sisters and her nephew Kimo Prokes (believed to have been fathered by Jones) in the tragedy.

Moore says in an e-mail that her sisters tried to recruit their parents and her into the Temple because they “believed in the projects they were involved in, and felt that they were changing the world.”

She visited the facilities in northern California, which were very impressive but stayed away because “I was not much of a joiner” and “did not care for Jim Jones.”

“My parents, John and Barbara Moore, visited Jonestown in May 1978. They did not find a prison camp, but rather a very hopeful and up-beat community. They were impressed with the extent of agricultural development that had occurred there, as well as with the multi-generational community that existed. There certainly was no barbed wire, or prison-like conditions.

“It was clear that people cared about the community: the walkways were lined with flowers, and people had planted fruit trees among the houses,” Moore says.

But behind that idyllic façade, darker things were going on.

Laurie Efrein Kahalas, 59, joined the People's Temple in 1970. In 1973 she became part of the group's inner circle (known as the Planning Commission). When the majority of the group moved to Jonestown, she stayed in San Francisco. When the tragedy occurred, she was forced to listen helplessly to radio reports of the killings, including the last report sent from Jonestown.

In the aftermath of the suicides, Kahalas was among the People's Temple members who voted to dissolve the church. However, she saved many documents and eventually wrote a book about her experiences (Snake Dance: Unravelling the Mysteries of Jonestown). To this day, she is responsible for maintaining the controversial which supports the view that the Jonestown tragedy was the by-product of a CIA plot.

“I was never in Jonestown personally,” explains Kahalas. “We had to leave a very small crew back in the States to continue to send supplies, keep a semblance of church services going and handle various aspects of public relations in the absence of not only the leader, but most of the group.”

It was years before Deborah Layton (top, left) realised that she had been
 brainwashed by the charismatic and seductive Jim Jones.

While a member of the Planning Commission, Kahalas was subjected to a humiliating ordeal when Jim Jones ordered her to strip naked in front of the rest of the group's inner circle. The experience scarred her to the extent that she was pleased to see Jones leave for Jonestown.

“I was offered the chance to go to Jonestown late in the fall of 1977. Jim Jones had all but driven me to a nervous breakdown, and I was given the chance to go, but I couldn't do it. Not because I did not believe the community was a beautiful, highly unique social experiment which was a godsend for so many but on instinct, I knew I had to remain in the United States.”

Jim Jones is widely believed to have staged incidents in which he dramatically healed members of his church. Unlike most other survivors, however, Kahalas is still convinced that Jones did have healing powers.

She was never particularly convinced though, by the leader's bizarre use of sex. Jones who allegedly fathered a number of children with People's Temple members, would “endure” sexual marathons with members to help “cleanse” them.

“I hated this aspect of People's Temple. I tried to fight it but Jim was furious and would accept nothing of it,” says Kahalas.

Jones' sexual activities were particularly surprising given that his wife Marceline was a cornerstone of the People's Temple. “Marceline was an extraordinary person. But Jim, I believe, marginalised her by design. She was all chopped up over his sexual involvements. Two of Jim's own kids had been included in the Planning Commission, but stopped attending the meetings as they were too painful for them. Jim damaged everyone in his own nuclear family in the rush to be egalitarian.”

But Jones' hold on his followers was such that, as Kahalas, says, they were “caught in a power beyond us and asked at every turn to just trust Jim Jones' integrity entirely.”

Indeed Jones' influence was such that no one thought it strange that the community's Guyana project be named after him.

"The community was named Jonestown on one of the early trips there. I don't recall who suggested it, but it just caught on. Everyone, at the time at least, loved Jim Jones and was thrilled to have it called Jonestown," recalls Kahalas.

But for Stephan Jones, his father was a deluded fraud.

"Dad, from the day he could walk, never really had a genuine moment that involved other people. He was always playing a part on some level. I don't buy the good man gone bad theory. I believe Dad was increasingly sick from toddlerhood till death," he says scathingly.

Yet he also believes his father was not all bad.

"I know he had real goodness about and in him. Dad had a sweetness, even a purity that he could tap into when he wanted to, but in my experience he almost always did so to get something from someone ... most especially approval at least, adulation at best. And, boy, he had charisma. God bless his broken heart."

Jones is also not one of those who believed in Jim Jones' supernatural healing powers.

"He was no miracle worker. I think he had some success early on with healing and clairvoyance, but he knew it was the faith of the people looking on and participating that got it done. So it didn't take him long to start orchestrating and manipulating faith. Healings and discernment were faked to build enough faith for real 'miracles' to take place.

"This is all speculation on my part, but I suspect it all quickly went from substance and show to a show of substance, which is where I believe Dad's favourite credo was born: 'The ends justifies the means' (which is) a very dangerous, duplicitous, arrogant, cancerous approach to getting your way ... which of course is always the right and only way to whoever has chosen it."

While a member of the Planning Commission, Kahalas was subjected to a humiliating ordeal when Jim Jones ordered her to strip naked in front of the rest of the group's inner circle. The experience scarred her to the extent that she was pleased to see Jones leave for Jonestown.

Jim Jones and his 'rainbow family' projected a benevolent and loving image of an egalitarian community which turned out to be a lie.

Deborah Layton, 50, escaped death because she fled Jonestown a few months before the tragedy occurred.

Layton, who had doubts about the safety of the community, started to plan her escape when she fell ill. Put in charge of communications while she recovered, she gave the impression to Jim Jones that there were problems in Georgetown affecting the community.

"I attribute my escape to connivance and luck. Jim decided to send me to the capital on a mission. That is the only reason that I got out of Jonestown, unlike many more deserving people entrapped there," she says via e-mail.

She joined the People's Temple as a teenager, following her brother Larry into the group. Within a short amount of time, she became a trusted lieutenant of Jones and was actually functioning as the People's Temple financial secretary at the time of her departure from Jonestown in June 1978.

It was she who filed an affidavit maintaining that Jim Jones was training his followers to commit mass suicide. Layton currently works in public relations and is a part-time lecturer (on cult membership) at Stanford University. She is the author of Seductive Poison, the story of her time with the People's Temple.

"There are many things I am not proud of. The way I treated my father who always told me to question Jim Jones. The way in which I viewed my mother Lisa when she joined ... as a threat to my ascension. There was a rubber hose beating I participated in. I was so willing to believe that every outsider was bad and that it was okay to lie, cheat, and steal from even my father."

For outsiders, it remains mind-boggling how so many people could be duped by one man, no matter how smooth-talking and persuasive, for so long and to the extent of dying for him.

Even for former followers like Layton, it took a long time for them to understand how the "brainwashing" took place.

"While escaping from Jonestown, I struggled with the belief that I was weak and couldn't live up to the ideals of People's Temple. Once back in the US, I feared for the well-being of all of my friends and my mother and went public with my allegations. Over the next few weeks, I spoke to many skeptical reporters and then, five months later, to a disbelieving State Department in Washington D.C. My shame grew as I saw myself through their eyes ... a daft, odd young woman with a preposterous story of how a thousand people's wills were being thwarted.

"It wasn't until I worked on the trading floor of an investment-banking firm in San Francisco that the seven years of indoctrination slowly began to crumble. As these 'evil capitalists', whom I had been taught to distrust and revile took me under their wing, I gradually began to realise just how deeply Jim’s thoughts had been ingrained in my thinking.

"Even now I struggle, after so many years of seeing everything in black and white, to accept the many varying shades of grey that truly exist.

"How helpless are people in the grips of a cult? It is not a question of helplessness, it is more an internal moral struggle ... how could I be right and all of my comrades be so wrong? I believe that whether it a group of five, 100, or 1,000 that there is always dissent, an inner voice that wonders, 'Can this be right?' What these groups do is to convince us that to question is selfish."

Jim Jones and his 'rainbow family' projected a benevolent and loving image of an egalitarian community which turned out to be a lie.

This AP photo of the aftermath of a mass suicide in 1978 by almost 1,000 members of the People's Temple cult who drank poisoned grape juice from this vat, shocked the world and remains just as powerful 25 years later. Jim Jones also did not brook dissent and he was a master at playing on dissenters' fears and insecurities.

Says Layton: "I knew that I wanted out. However, I also knew that people who did speak out were taken into the medical unit and kept on coma-inducing drugs to keep them silent. No mother wants her child to die and almost all these people, if given a safe chance to run away, would have done so.

"So many people, including myself, wanted to get out of Jonestown, but were afraid that they had committed such illegal acts that to escape would only mean life imprisonment for them. The cult leaders do exactly that ... force people into participating in or witnessing crimes or heinous acts (such as I did in the rubber hose incident) and then tell them that to flee means the loss of those few things that you would escape for ... family, freedom, respect in the community."

Layton points out a brainwashed person would never recognise herself to be such.

"People don't believe that they are being brainwashed. It is a very fine line between loyalty and absolute devotion. It was not until I had been working on the trading floor with a very mercurial CEO, who paid me incredibly well, that I realised that you can be entrapped even in a corporation.

"All of us have experienced not standing up for something when we thought it might affect our career. We saw it in Nazi Germany with 'Hitler’s willing executioners'. When you believe that your principles could endanger your family, we become silent accomplices."

Kahalas, however, feels one should be take responsibility for one's actions.

"It was to my salvation, not to my detriment, when within weeks of the tragedy, I looked at myself in the mirror and said, 'The press is treating us all as robots or psychopaths, and I will not be treated that way.' If we do not retain our human sensitivities then what are we? We can say 'It was all Jim Jones' fault,' but at the end of the day, we are still sovereign human beings accountable to ourselves and others."

It's been 25 years, yet all the people interviewed still feel they cannot completely let go of what happened at Jonestown. There is also a sense that they owe it to those who died not to forget.

Moore says different families of the victims responded Jonestown in different ways: shame, guilt, becoming active in anti-cult groups or in recovery groups, joining other religions.

"My response was to try to humanise the people who died in Jonestown: to give them names and faces so that the media and society could not dismiss them simply as religious fanatics and leave it at that," she says.

Kahalas, on her part, concurs and is doing it for the sake of history too.

"Those who died were by and large very decent, committed and productive people. My work is based in conscience. All I can do is to leave history the record as I knew it first-hand," she adds.

Looking back, Layton says she regrets rejecting angrily offers of help after the tragedy.

"I was adamant that I was not going to be anyone’s guinea pig. I was approached by many psychiatrists and was angrily defiant ... I didn’t need anyone’s help. Looking back on it now, had I known of anyone I could trust or knew that they were not 'practising' on me I would have, perhaps sought their help. This might have prevented me from suffering from the survivor's guilt that I have because we know the best of us did not return."

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