JONESTOWN SURVIVOR Answers an Author’s Questions

JONESTOWN SURVIVOR Answers Questions from a New Author

I often get questions from people who are studying Peoples Temple and Jonestown. hey are educTators, authors, or curious students. A student writing a book aobut Peoples Temple has contacted me and asked these questions. I used to just answer questions for the individual. Now, I tend to think that others have questions about some of the same things. I have started answering the questions here in my blog. (I do not correct their grammar – I cut and paste their questions.)

1.  In "Raven," Reiterman described the onset of the siege as "bedlam," and related an anecdote in which a guard showed up in the fields and said to the workers, "We're all going to die." I found that very striking and would love to get a bigger picture of what that moment was like. Where were you when the sirens sounded? How much time passed between the initial summons to the pavilion and the entire community's arrival there? How much time passed before Jim Jones began speaking/explaining the situation, and what was it like in the pavilion prior to that–did people talk, or was it silent? Was Jim Jones waiting in the pavilion for everyone to arrive, or did he emerge after the congregation was assembled? Also, do you know if any of this was recorded or transcribed, particularly that first call to action? I've had trouble finding tapes from that span of time on the SDSU website.

Here are my memories about each of the 4-5 times we had a “siege.” I remember the alarm bells going off loudly and continuing for some time. We had been instructed to get our weapons (rakes, cutlasses, shovels, mostly farm tools) and run to a line around the center of the community. We were told to expect the army – Guyanese or other – to come out of the rainforest to take control of the community. (I am talking about physical control – I am not talking about a massacre.) There was certainly bedlam as nearly 1,000 people found the tools and got to the lines. Everyone was expected to have something in our hands. Then we stood and sat there quietly, and alertly.Jim would often speak over the loud speaker – sharing his paranoia with us. He appeared to believe that an occupying force was nearby. In reality, he often used group paranoia to unify the group against a common enemy – to get us to work harder, to stay focused, and to not get distracted by drama. That was one of his most-used strategies to stop complaints or questions. We waited for the hours or day, and then into the evening, we were released. We generally had a big meal at the end of the siege, since Jim told us there was no point in saving our food for the occupying army. We never gathered in the Pavilion first.

After the longest siege, in the Spring of 1978, someone recently told me that he thought that would be the end of the sieges. He felt that – after that one long “proof” that we were with Jim, that there would no longer be a need for that kind of “alert.”

2.  What specifically happened after Jim Jones told the congregation to surround Jonestown? Did guards lead or drive people to certain spots? How organized was it? Once everyone was assembled at the commune's borders, how spread out were you? In other words, how many people were near enough to be in interaction with you from your vantage point? Did people pair off so one could sleep and the other could keep guard? Reiterman wrote that people brought sleeping bags to their posts, and that at certain points people returned to work–how many people were permitted to go back to camp? Reiterman also wrote that people "grabbed sleep between verbal sieges"–was Jim Jones talking on the address system for much of the time? Where did children go during the siege? Were there some people assigned to take care of them while the rest of the community kept watch? Did you, at any point, question the claim that Jonestown was under attack?

I answered some of this in my first answer. In the six-day siege, we circled the community for the long haul. We brought some bedding and just stayed at our posts around the center of the community. We were within 3 feet of the next person, on each side.  I think that one of the underestimated effects of Jim’s harangues and this time gathered in a “security mode” was the total exhaustion we all felt. I actually do not remember questioning the claim. The younger children were tended to away from the circle – I don’t know the details of their care, but imagine they were in their housing. The line was not really organized into covering shifts for sleep. It was a pretty raggedy group of all ages mixed together. People were released to work in the kitchen to provide food, and to take care of the essential jobs, but not for routine work.

3.  Had any suicide drills taken place before the siege, and how often was suicide incorporated in Jim Jones's rhetoric at that point? It surprised me that he didn't (as far as I know) bring it up as an alternative when the siege began. Do you consider the siege a kind of turning point in terms of the level of terror people felt in Jonestown, or did that come earlier?

The only “suicide drill” I was ever aware of was back in San Francisco in about 1973, when Jim gave members of the Planning Committee a drink during one of our all-night meetings. After the group of 80 or so drank it, Jim told us it was poison. He had shills in the group pretend to fall off chairs and be dead. I never took that seriously because it was a crude and disorganized plan that didn’t seem real at the time. Some people did try to leave the area, but then were talked back. Jim called it a loyalty test. That was ABSOLUTELY a trial-run. He used it as a way to test to see how people reacted. In fact, several members of the Planning Committee did decide Jim was both insane and dangerous, and that it was time to leave Peoples Temple. I was never part of any other event that involved drinking anything.

4.  Also, one question that is super nit-picky and has nothing to do with the siege: did Jim Jones speak from a pulpit in Jonestown, or just from his chair?

I believe there was a podium in Jonestown that was used from time to time, but primarily, Jim sat in a chair on a raised stage in the front of the Pavilion.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,