Remembering Jonestown

Time/November 18, 2008

No one knows more about the Jonestown massacre than journalist Tim Reiterman. He began investigating Reverend Jim Jones, the twisted leader of the Peoples Temple cult, for the San Francisco Chronicle 18 months before Jones burst on the world's stage 30 years ago. Reiterman's articles caught the attention of Congressman Leo Ryan, who was concerned about constituents who had joined the group. Reiterman was one of a handful of journalists who accompanied the Congressman on a fact-finding mission to Jonestown, Guyana. On November 18, 1978, after meeting with Jones and his followers, their small party was ambushed by Peoples Temple gunmen as they were leaving. Ryan and four others were killed; Reiterman himself was wounded. The shootings were just the beginning of the carnage. Later that day more than 900 members of the Peoples Temple died in a mass suicide ceremony, most after they lined up to drink poisoned Flavor Aid.

After recovering from his injuries, Reiterman spent the next four years researching and writing a comprehensive book about the tragedy, "Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People," which has just been reissued by Tarcher/Penguin. The 624-page book is an extraordinary act of scholarship, the definitive account of an event that continues to fascinate and mystify. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs spoke to Reiterman from San Francisco, where he is now the news editor for the Associated Press in northern California.

TIME: Was Jim Jones a bad person from the beginning, or did he grow into one?

Tim Reiterman: Good and evil coexisted in Jim Jones throughout his life. I really do believe, having gone back to his birthplace in Indiana and tracing his life, that the seeds of the madness that the world saw in November 1978 were there from his earliest years. He was somewhat neglected as a child. He was part of an unconventional family where his mother was the breadwinner and his father was a brooding man whose work life was cut short by mustard gas scarring from World War I on his lungs. Jones sought out acceptance and a sense of family through churches, but at the same time he had a tremendous need for power and control. He would conduct little church services up in the loft of a barn and lock his playmates in there; later he used a firearm to try to control his best friend. These early incidents, as well as some cruelty to animals, were harbingers for the sickness that grew in him over the years.

TIME: But throughout his whole life, Jones found followers. How?

Even as a kid, he was a really engaging speaker and character. He would go out and play minister. He would entertain people. He had a way of spinning words and a power to his voice. He drew people who were basically religious for the most part in the early years. They were hard-working people, and they were drawn initially to a rare thing in the Midwest, an integrated Christian congregation. When Jones brought his group to California, he started attracting a broader base of people, too. Not just people from the churches, especially the black churches, but also young, idealistic, many of them college-educated people, who wanted to belong to an organization that practiced what it preached and had a social and political component. He also built through the communal organizations that he set up within the Temple a sense of family. At the same time, however, he was breaking down the individual family units within the Temple, and he was getting a tighter and tighter grip on his followers, just as he locked up his playmates in a barn in Indiana. He found ways to take control of and isolate his members from their families and from the outside. One of the things that he did was press them to give up their belongings, sign over their houses in some cases, sign over custody of their children. One of the cruelest things, I thought, was that he had them sign false confessions that they had sexually molested their children-which, of course, left those members vulnerable and bound them in a perverse way to the church.

TIME: Is it true that his followers were disenfranchised people, people outside of society?

The short answer is no. The people who were attracted to the Temple did, for the most part, have one common trait. They were altruistic. They wanted to be part of something larger than themselves. So in that sense they were seekers, but in the main they were hard-working, functioning individuals who had lives that were ordinary in most senses. They had a need to join an organization where they were doing something meaningful. Keep in mind that this was in the post-civil rights and post-Vietnam eras, and a lot of young people, in particular, and older ones, too, were looking for some outlet for their desire to do things for their fellow man.

TIME: What was your impression of Jones when you interviewed him in Guyana?

He did not appear to be well. His skin appeared sallow. His eyes were almost gelatinous. His handshake seemed rather weak, and when he spoke there was a constant undercurrent of paranoia. He even seemed to put a figurative gun in the hands of us journalists, saying we don't need to shoot him, that our words have that kind of effect. He was clearly viewing himself as a martyr and it was very bothersome to realize that over 900 lives were in the hands of this man.

TIME: When you and the Congressman's group got ready to leave Jonestown, what happened?

Fifteen people stepped forward [asking to leave], including one entire family, and much of another family, and both of these families were long-time followers of Jim Jones dating back to Indiana days. The mood of Jonestown grew darker as this day went on, and late in the afternoon the clouds turned black and there was this freakish wind that just tore through the pavilion as I was talking with Jones. Then there was this torrent of rain. He basically said that the Temple was being destroyed from within, and what he meant by that was that these defectors-were going to tell the world eventually what was really going on inside Jonestown, and that the end was drawing near. So it was a very ominous moment before we even left Jonestown.

TIME: What happened when you went to your plane?

During that boarding procedure, a Temple tractor and trailer full of gunmen raced towards us. They jumped out and they started firing. That's when I was hit by gunfire as I was trying to take cover behind one of the plane wheels. Fortunately I was only hit in the arm a couple of times and was able to jump up and sprint to the jungle and take cover. When I came out a few moments later, I saw that the Congressman had been killed, that three of the newsmen had been killed-including my partner on that trip, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson-and one of the defectors also was killed.

TIME: Do you think that the 900 deaths that immediately followed were suicides, or were they murders?

I believe that this was a mass murder. First of all, there were over 200 children who could not have formed the intent to commit suicide. Second, Jim Jones had isolated his people and conditioned them through suicide rehearsals and mock sieges to accept death. Third, he orchestrated the events on that final day so that the outcome was never in doubt. He had gunmen go shoot the Congressman. Then he turned around to his followers, once he got news the Congressman was dead, and announced it. He said, now some among us have done something that's going to cause the army to come in here and nobody will be safe. Let's bring forward the potion and let's bring the children first. By having the children die first, he sealed the fate of their parents and other elders, because no one would have any reason to live. As this was all going on, the pavilion was surrounded with armed guards with guns and crossbows, so people were not going to go anywhere. Many appeared to have been injected with poison.

TIME: What happened to Jones himself?

Jim Jones was found with a single bullet wound to the head, pretty much a contact wound. I believe that he either shot himself or was shot by a close aide as he had planned.

TIME: Do you think about Jonestown now?

I think about it every day. I think about the people, the 900 people I saw who were young and old and vibrant and talented and performing on that first evening when I met them. I think about those images of their bodies in piles and final graves that have been used again and again and again. I think about what happened on the airstrip, too. I don't replay those events every day in full, but they cross my mind. When you're part of something like the events in Jonestown, they become part of you.

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