Religion & Culture | Jonestown: a survivor remembers
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".
BIZARRE SEXUAL EXPLOITS
The movement, though, was hamstrung by what Kahalas called "Jones' bizarre sexual exploits". She recalled the sexual 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' 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."
CIA PUSHED THE RIGHT BUTTONS
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 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."