Advertisement

Jonestown Lives On as a Reminder of Cults’ Dangers : Religion: After 15 years of grieving, victims’ relatives plan to erect a memorial to the hundreds who died.

Share
TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is where the followers of the Peoples Temple are gathered: a mass grave with more than 400 bodies marked only by a single tombstone.

Infants in tiny coffins are buried along with their siblings and parents, aunts and uncles, in a large pit without even a list of their names for others to remember them by.

It is as if society did its best to forget the grotesque tragedy of Jonestown, Guyana, where 913 cult members led by the Rev. Jim Jones died in a final act of mass murder and suicide 15 years ago Thursday.

Advertisement

Now, surviving family members say, the time has come to remember Jonestown and let it serve as a reminder of the danger of religious cults that prey on the vulnerable and the selfless.

To keep alive the memory of the victims, they plan to erect a granite wall that will list everyone who died at Jonestown.

Everyone except Jim Jones.

“Those were our family, our friends and neighbors,” said Los Angeles Pastor Jynona Norwood, who lost 27 relatives at Jonestown. “They were a dedicated and loving community of people who believed in and cared what they did. They need to be remembered with dignity because they were deceived by this man.”

As they have every year for the last 15 years, survivors and family members gathered at the mass grave Thursday for a simple memorial service.

But this year, with plans for the memorial wall and the fiery destruction of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, there has been a resurgence of interest in the lessons of Jonestown and a renewed willingness among survivors to discuss the horror. The 75 people who attended the service far outnumbered those of previous years.

“The sense of shame that they were part of Jonestown has kept many survivors in hiding,” said the Rev. John Moore, who lost two daughters and a grandson in Jonestown. “It has taken 15 years for people who have felt the pain most deeply to become public.”

Stephan Jones, the son of Jim Jones, attended the service, explaining, “I’m here to pay my respects.”

Also present was Patricia Ryan, the daughter of Bay Area Rep. Leo Ryan, who went to investigate Jonestown and was shot to death by Jim Jones’ followers. As president of the Cult Awareness Network, Ryan’s daughter has taken up the cause of exposing cults.

“There’s a collective American psyche that doesn’t want to admit that it happened, let alone that it could happen again,” she said. “They want to bury it.”

What happened at Jonestown was beyond imagination.

Jones, who had founded the Peoples Temple near Ukiah and later moved to San Francisco, had promised to create a utopia, where people of different races, education and skills could work together for the common good.

His social service programs for the poor and elderly won him praise. He was well-connected with some of the region’s prominent political figures, even winning appointment to the San Francisco Housing Authority.

But in the 1970s, with the Peoples Temple coming under growing scrutiny for abusing its members, Jones and many of his followers moved to an isolated settlement they had carved out of the jungle of Guyana.

In 1978, prompted by the concerns of relatives that Jones was holding people there against their will, Ryan traveled to Jonestown to see for himself and to take out anyone who wished to leave.

Ryan was about to board his plane with a handful of defectors when gunmen dispatched by Jones opened fire, killing the congressman, three newsmen and one of the defectors and wounding 11 others.

Back at the compound, Jones announced that the community would soon be under attack and put into effect a plan of mass suicide that his followers had rehearsed many times.

The children were the first to die.

Grape-flavored punch laced with cyanide was squirted into the mouths of infants and given to children to drink. As the small bodies piled up, adults drank the punch or were shot by gunmen who enforced the order of mass suicide.

Only 85 people escaped, including a few who managed to flee into the jungle. Others, like three of Jones’ sons, survived because they were not at Jonestown that day.

In the aftermath, members of the Peoples Temple were branded as kooks. Survivors, including those who had remained in California, felt ostracized and could not find work.

Some jurisdictions, including Marin County, even refused to accept the remains of Jonestown victims for burial.

Ultimately, the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland agreed to bury 406 victims whose names were known but whose bodies could not be identified. Many of those interred in the mass grave were children, for whom there were no fingerprints or dental records.

For the survivors, it is important that the victims now be remembered as good people who were drawn to Jones by the ideals that he preached and were manipulated into fulfilling his death wish.

They also want the public to understand that the Peoples Temple was just one of many cults over the centuries that have ended in self-destruction.

When the Branch Davidian compound erupted into flames in April, killing 86 cult members, it underscored for Jonestown survivors how poorly society understands the nature of religious cults.

“The sadness for me is that for all the blood that was shed and for all the lives that were lost, we don’t seem to have learned from the Jonestown massacre,” said Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-Burlingame), who as an aide to Ryan was shot five times during the airport attack.

For some relatives, the passage of time has not even begun to reduce the pain.

Fred Lewis, a retired San Francisco butcher, lost his wife, seven children, and 19 other relatives at Jonestown.

“It’s just been turmoil for 15 years,” he said. “I wake up through the night screaming and hollering.”


Advertisement