Jon­estown: a sur­vivor re­mem­bers

Jamaica Gleaner - - NEWS PLUS - Dr Glenville Ashby is the au­thor of ‘Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to En­light­en­ment and Cre­ativ­ity’. Feedback: glenvil­ or fol­low him on Twit­ter@glenvil­leashby

ON THE evening of Novem­ber 18, 1978, United States Con­gress­man Leo Ryan was as­sas­si­nated min­utes af­ter leav­ing Jon­estown, a com­mu­nity carved in the jun­gle of Guyana. His death was re­layed to cult leader Jim Jones, who hur­riedly called a meet­ing. A cara­pace of dread de­scended over the com­mu­nity.

Jones con­vinced over 900 of his fol­low­ers that they faced im­mi­nent an­ni­hi­la­tion at the hands of the Guyana De­fense Force and the US mil­i­tary. They weighed their op­tions: be slaugh­tered or die with dig­nity. There was a tug-of -war of opin­ions. Alas, Jones reigned!

“Do you think they will let us get away with this?” Jones asked rhetor­i­cally. “They will tor­ture our ba­bies; they will tor­ture our se­niors ...”

His last recorded words are in­deli­bly haunt­ing: “We didn’t com­mit sui­cide. We com­mit­ted an act of rev­o­lu­tion­ary sui­cide, protest­ing the con­di­tions of an in­hu­mane world.”

Jon­estown (for­mally known as Peo­ple’s Tem­ple Agri­cul­tural Project formed by the Peo­ple’s Tem­ple) echoes some of the dark­est chap­ters in his­tory: The Siege of Masada (73-74 CE), which led to the mass sui­cide of Jews in the face of a Ro­man as­sault; and the Ba­li­nese peo­ple, who, in 1906, suf­fered a sim­i­lar fate when they re­fused to be cap­tured by Dutch colonis­ers.

It has been 38 years since the Jon­estown tragedy, and sur­vivor Lau­rie Efrein Ka­ha­las re­mem­bers a move­ment that de­fied the so­cio-cul­tural zeit­geist and chal­lenged the most pow­er­ful gov­ern­ment in the world while creating a pul­sat­ing, sus­tain­able com­mu­nity. But some­thing went ter­ri­bly wrong.

“The Peo­ple’s Tem­ple was an oa­sis for the dis­af­fected. The tem­ple gave us a sense of pur­pose and be­long­ing,” Ka­ha­las noted, re­fer­ring to the early days of a move­ment that gained po­lit­i­cal trac­tion in Cal­i­for­nia, USA.

“We were a fam­ily. We never wanted to leave, even to the end when Jim was gravely ill and be­com­ing more hys­ter­i­cal due to out­side pres­sure.”

Jones, she said, “was an im­mensely pow­er­ful per­son who pos­sessed amazing hu­man­i­tar­ian qual­i­ties”. He was also a healer un­re­stricted by time and space.

Ka­ha­las, who was mem­ber of the com­mu­nity’s pres­ti­gious plan­ning com­mis­sion, also han­dled heal­ing tes­ti­monies. She at­tested to “floods of let­ters from peo­ple from all over the coun­try who were mirac­u­lously cured by Jim”.


The move­ment, though, was ham­strung by what Ka­ha­las called “Jones’ bizarre sex­ual ex­ploits”. She re­called the sex­ual Lau­rie Efrien Ka­ha­las, Jon­estown sur­vivor.

ma­nip­u­la­tion and dom­i­nance of mem­bers – men and women. She at­trib­uted this twisted pat­tern to Jones’ abuse as a child. “It was clas­sic case of pro­jec­tion and de­nial,” she shared.

In­ter­est­ingly, African Amer­i­cans made up 75 per cent of the move­ment. They built Jon­estown – a self-suf­fi­cient agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity that boasted a met­al­lurgy shop, an ac­cred­ited school sys­tem, a med­i­cal fa­cil­ity, a bas­ket­ball team that com­peted at a na­tional level, and a mu­si­cal band that per­formed in Ge­orge­town.

Blacks re­sisted any at­tempt to wres­tle the com­mu­nity from them. Ac­cord­ing to Ka­ha­las, it would have been dif­fi­cult for blacks to “dis­solve back into the US”, given the so­cial cli­mate at the time. “There was a men­tal­ity in the com­mu­nity that we will never be forced back to the United States.”

But par­adise quickly lost its lus­ter. Jones was en­tan­gled in a bit­ter cus­tody bat­tle, and life was con­sumed by a grow­ing cho­rus of con­cerned rel­a­tives who ex­erted pres­sure to ac­cess the com­mu­nity. This cul­mi­nated with Con­gress­man Ryan’s calami­tous visit. Panic gripped Jon­estown.

Here, in­di­vid­u­al­ism sur­ren­dered to col­lec­tive fear and help­less­ness, and it was from within this psy­choso­cial con­text that mass sui­cide reared its head.

Prov­i­dence was on Ka­ha­las’ Jim Jones

side that day. Hers was not the dra­matic sur­vival of Les­lie Wag­ner-Wil­son, who slipped past se­cu­rity on the morn­ing of the tragedy; or the breath­tak­ing es­cape of Stan­ley Clay­ton, who hid in the woods af­ter wit­ness­ing hun­dreds of deaths. Ka­ha­las was man­ning the Tem­ple head­quar­ters in San Fran­cisco, get­ting minute-by-minute au­dio feeds of the con­gress­man’s visit un­til com­mu­ni­ca­tion mys­te­ri­ously ended. The un­think­able had be­gun.

Would Ka­ha­las have will­ingly taken her life? “I am sure I would have,” she said plainly, al­though she added that the sight of see­ing ba­bies and chil­dren writhing in agony would have been overly re­volt­ing. “I am sure I would have fainted or been im­mo­bilised by the sight of all that dy­ing.”


Ka­ha­las is hardly the apol­o­gist that some sur­vivors have charged.

“Sui­cide is ir­re­versible,” she as­serted. “In­fants and chil­dren don’t com­mit sui­cide. So, in as much as I can un­der­stand the ter­ror of that day, the out­come is in­de­fen­si­ble. Par­ents don’t have the right to take the life of their chil­dren.”

Be­fore the painful event, Ka­ha­las had a pre­mo­ni­tion, a chan­nelled epic she named Al­le­gory. “I was pre-record­ing the deaths of peo­ple I loved, peo­ple that worked by my side day by day and would later make their ex­o­dus to Jon­estown and die,” she shared.

She con­tin­ued: “I was rapt with metaphors, over­whelmed with out­pour­ings of grief. I thought my heart would burst, but how could this be a real fu­ture event? It was ter­ri­fy­ing even to con­sider.”

Jon­estown has spurred a slew of con­spir­acy the­o­ries, in­clud­ing the com­plic­ity of Jones with the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency (CIA). Jon­estown was said to be part of the agency’s MK-Ul­tra Mind Con­trol Ex­per­i­ment. The vast quan­ti­ties of drugs found on the com­pound only fu­elled sus­pi­cion. Ka­ha­las balked at such a sug­ges­tion.

In her book, Snake Dance: Un­rav­el­ing the mys­ter­ies of Jon­estown, Ka­ha­las de­tailed her ver­sion of events. She re­it­er­ated that the CIA was re­spon­si­ble for A class­room at Jon­estown.

the as­sas­si­na­tion of Con­gress­man Leo Ryan, creating a sce­nario to im­pli­cate Jones. Us­ing en­larged pho­to­graphs of the airstrip where the killing oc­curred, she iden­ti­fied the as­sas­sins, point­ing to their mil­i­tary pos­tures and the tow­er­ing stature of the point man.

“There was no one that tall at Jon­estown. Fur­ther­more, we didn’t have any mil­i­tary train­ing. Ob­vi­ously, the as­sas­sins didn’t come from Jon­estown,” she ar­gued.

Why then would the con­gress­man be tar­geted?

Ka­ha­las re­ferred to the Hughes-Ryan Act, which re­quired the CIA to re­port all covert op­er­a­tions to con­gres­sional over­sight com­mit­tees. In other words, Leo Ryan was a thorn in the side of the in­tel­li­gence agency. What bet­ter way to prover­bially kill two birds with a sin­gle stone?

“In­tel­li­gence agen­cies study your Achilles Heel,” Ka­ha­las as­serted. “They ex­ploit your weak­ness – what­ever it is. They will work to undermine you. Jim Jones was sui­ci­dal. They pushed the right but­tons.”

Ka­ha­las is now hap­pily mar­ried and is buoyed by the success of Snake Dance, one of the most in­sight­ful books on the sub­ject.

Still, for sur­vivors, Jon­estown is a psy­cho­log­i­cal al­ba­tross that is ner­vously locked away. They are ever mind­ful of its en­dur­ing power to in­flict pain when least ex­pected.

“I might ex­pe­ri­ence night­mares af­ter this in­ter­view,” Ka­ha­las said but quickly coun­ters with a sense of re­as­sur­ance. “I am okay ... I will be all right.”


At one time, Jon­estown was full of life and op­ti­mism.

Glenville Ashby


Pages from a Jon­estown guest­book.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Jamaica

© PressReader. All rights reserved.