By Dennis Nichols
Someone once said that the greatest tragedy on Earth is the human mind in disarray. A psychologist Lucy Freeman, posited, “Murder is the apex of megalomania, the ultimate in control” Both could have been speaking of sociopathy, or of a man named James Warren Jones.
Today’s story is not mine. It belongs mostly to Rolling Stone (The Magazine) travel writer Tim Cahill, who visited Jonestown shortly after the November 1978 tragedy. It is in a way also everyone’s story, because we are all subject to the influence of others. A tale that has been told a thousand times, it suggests a lesson not learnt; one that may never be.
The ‘Reverend’ Jim Jones was a man, and like other men he was subject to the pull and the passion of seemingly opposing forces. Why what we call the darker forces appeared to triumph over the good ones is a question for the world’s mind-readers. Speculation is a layman’s response, and it is a tool people like me use to try and comprehend the incomprehensible.
Exactly 40 years ago, Jim Jones is said to have orchestrated the mass murder-suicide of more than 900 men, women, children, (and himself) in his eponymous commune at Port Kaituma, far from the prying eyes of locals. Nosiness is sometimes a beneficial trait.
As I said, this is mainly Tim Cahill’s story. In Georgetown at the Park Hotel, he hung out with and interviewed Miami Herald photographer Tim Chapman, and Jonestown survivors Tim Carter, Mike Prokes, and Odell Rhodes, all of whom had seen the death fest and its aftermath up close.
Amidst the abomination and the angst, Cahill’s laid-back yet obviously journalistic style and occasional wit are necessary foils reminding us that the cast of players in the drama were human. Like us.
The following are voices from Jonestown – a few excerpts from his story published in a January 1979 edition of Rolling Stone, along with some of Jim Jones’ final words
Caution – If you don’t like horror stories you may want to skip these eyewitness accounts representing maybe about five percent of Cahill’s intriguing article. You can read the entire piece at www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/in-the-valley-of-the-shadow-of-death-guyana-after-the-jonestown-massacre-242259/
Tim Chapman: “From the helicopter it looked as if there were a lot of brightly colored specks around the main building. At 300 feet the smell hit. The chopper landed on a rise, out of sight of the bodies. Other reporters tied handkerchiefs over their faces. The first body I saw was off to the side, alone. Five more steps and I saw another and another and another; hundreds of bodies. The Newsweek reporter was walking around saying, ‘I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it.’ Another guy said, ‘It’s unreal.’ Then nobody even attempted to speak anymore. It was overwhelming. Bizarre.”
“… I was battered by the smell. It hit me. Went right into my chest. I started to gag, and turned my back. Seeing it, plus the smell…Then, I found if I kept my eyes moving and let my camera be my eyes, I’d never really see it. I shot verticals and horizontals, moving to my left. And then there it was … piles upon piles of bodies. What do you call it? There’s no definition. Nothing to compare it to.”
“I moved to my left. There was a vat and then I saw Jones. As I moved toward him, I got a real bad whiff. I stepped away, almost tripped on a body, stumbled to get my balance, and as soon as I bent down, I was suddenly too close to one. There was a tremendous adrenalin shot, a fear.”
“It was really sickening at this point. The bodies were all, well, they were oozing – literally. Fluids running out of the bodies on top of bodies. Some of them had guts hanging out. They had burst in the heat. Eyeballs, intestines, bodies virtually held in by clothing …”
Tim Carter: “I heard a lot of screaming, and I went up to the pavilion, and the first thing I saw was that my wife and child were dead. I had a choice of staying there, and I left … All I can say is that it was a nightmare, a nightmare. It was the most grotesque thing I’ve ever seen. We were there two days later and I couldn’t even recognize people I’d known for six years.”
Odell Rhodes: (Craft teacher and mentor) “I really loved those kids. I watched them die – and I haven’t cried yet. It’s like I’m dead inside. Sometimes, I’m alone in my room, and I close the door and I wait to cry. Water comes to my eyes, but I can’t cry.”
Cahill continues his story at ground zero, where he and dozens of news correspondents were allowed to visit the day after the last bodies were airlifted back to the United States.
Cahill: “At 1000 feet, the jungle seemed like a vast, gently undulating sea: forty shades of green stretched as far as the eye could see. And it was literally steaming: mist rose up from the low-lying areas and from the sluggish, tea-colored rivers. It was awesome, frightening, and my guess is that every reporter on the chopper, reminded of Joseph Conrad’s descriptions of the jungle, scribbled Heart of Darkness in their notes, as I did.”
“Everything was ironic. The last bodies to be removed had been in such a state of decomposition that bits and pieces kept falling off. Guyanese workers were plowing the whole area under, using tractors that had belonged to the people, bits and pieces of whom were being plowed under.”
A sloping path led to Jones’ house. “Near a footlocker full of health foods and vitamins, I found hundreds of Valium tablets, some barbiturate-type pills and several disposable syringes, along with ampuls (sic) of synthetic morphine. Next to the drugs … was a great stack of letters addressed “to Dad.” Most were labeled “self-analysis” and began with “I feel guilty because… ” The self-analysis letters were confessions. No one admitted to being happy and well adjusted.”
“The letters were chilling, suggesting lives filled with guilt and hate, and fear. More frightening was the tone of absolute submission to Dad, a man who, by all evidence, seemed to be a hypochondriac, a drug addict and paranoid.”
Jim Jones: (As the end nears) “So be patient. Be patient. Death is I tell you, I don’t care how many screams you hear; I don’t care how many anguished cries. Death is a million times preferable to spend more days in this life. If you knew what was ahead of you – if you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight …”
Most of the rest of the Jonestown tale is well-known to Guyanese, and the world. But it is a gap-filled story, and questions remain as to how one man; one muddled mind, could so influence, cajole, bully, and finally orchestrate the deaths of hundreds of adherents.
From eyewitness and other evidence, Jim Jones had started his ‘ministry’ in the United States with the most honourable intentions of creating an egalitarian society free from racism, fascism, and religious bigotry. He won the support and admiration of influential leaders in the United States, and came to Guyana with talk of building a socialist utopia in a country whose government seemed to be in lockstep with the idea. What went wrong?
To probe and to answer that question, it may be necessary to go where no man has ever gone – into the deepest recesses of the human mind. We may get there some day. Who knows?
Speculation about the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of Jonestown lingers. For example, could there be any truth in the so-called conspiracy theory that ‘outside forces’ including the CIA were involved in some sort of mind-control experiment? Or that the ‘People’s Temple Agricultural Project’ got caught in the Cold War crossfire between the United States and the then Soviet Union?
Few Guyanese would venture into such hazy territory. I wouldn’t. The fact of what happened 40 years ago in that jungle enclave is enough grist for my mill.
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