Surviving Jonestown

In 1978, I went to Guyana on a fact-finding mission. By the time I returned, more than 900 people died. I was almost one of them.

By Jackie Speier

Politico/November 10, 2018

I was 28, lying on a dusty airplane runway in the Guyanese jungle, and dying.

It was just a matter of time. Five bullets had ripped through me, devastating the right side of my body. Behind the wheel of an airplane, I waited for the shooting to stop and said my Act of Contrition, praying for forgiveness and waiting for the lights to go out.

Somehow, through the encroaching darkness of my final thoughts, I saw my 87-year-old Grandma Emma. All I could think was I am not going to make Grandma live through my funeral. I couldn’t bear the vision of her sitting in front of my casket. Breathing heavily, I pulled myself to my feet, stumbled to the plane’s baggage compartment and took shelter.

I’d come to Guyana as a congressional aide on a fact-finding mission. In the months leading up to the trip, my boss, Congressman Leo Ryan, had been contacted by worried constituents whose loved ones were members of a San Francisco-based religious group called the Peoples Temple, which had fled to South America for the promise of a utopian commune led by their preacher, Jim Jones. They called it Jonestown.

The night before, our delegation watched Jones’ followers perform a show at their compound. Jones himself sat onstage in a throne beneath a sign that read: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The members sang and danced and, by every appearance, were happy.

At the end of the evening, Rep. Ryan walked onstage and thanked the group. “From what I’ve seen,” he said, “there are a lot of people here who think this is the best thing that happened in their whole life.” He was interrupted by manically enthusiastic cheering. It was utter pandemonium.

As I scanned the hundreds of smiling faces, I never could have fathomed that within 24 hours, virtually every one of them would be dead.

At 16, I’m not sure I understood what a state assemblyman did, but when my parents received a solicitation from Leo Ryan’s reelection campaign in 1966, I mailed back a note: I’m in high school. I don’t have any money to donate, but I’d like to volunteer. Whatever impelled me to send in the card changed the course of my life.

Ryan did not look or behave like your typical politician. A former high school teacher, he was swept into politics by the idealism of the Kennedy era and elected mayor of South San Francisco before running for state Assembly. Charismatic and tall with salt-and-pepper hair, he commanded a room. He told you precisely what was on his mind, no matter who you were or whether or not you wanted to hear it.

After his campaign received my note, I started volunteering as a “Ryan Girl,” part of a troop of young women clad in houndstooth bobby hats, miniskirts, black tights, black turtlenecks and bright-white boots. (It was the ‘60s.) We accompanied Assemblyman Ryan to shopping centers and campaign events to pass out pamphlets and speak with voters. The outfits were a ridiculous gimmick, and the role was clearly objectifying. But at the time, none of that occurred to me; I was thrilled to be working for a candidate I believed in—one who always treated me with respect.

A year later, I applied to college, and he wrote me a letter of recommendation. During my freshman year at UC Davis, when I told him about my major, he offered encouragement: “If you really want to learn about political science, you should come and intern in my office.” I did, and over the years, worked my way up from volunteer to intern to staffer to senior aide, just as he climbed from the state Assembly to the U.S. Congress.

Then-State Assemblyman Leo J. Ryan behind the bars in a Folsom prison cell in Feb. 1970, where he spent a week living as an inmate to learn needs for reform. | AP

His suggestion that I would learn far more from first-hand experience was in step with the way he approached politics. Inquisitive by nature, he was a proponent of “experiential legislating,” preferring to go out and experience issues firsthand before he decided what to do.

In 1965, after riots shook Watts, an African-American neighborhood in Los Angeles, Ryan briefly took a job there as a substitute teacher while serving in the state Assembly, and used the experience to shape education policy. In 1970, as chairman of a committee overseeing prison reform, he assumed a pseudonym and had himself booked, strip-searched and incarcerated for 10 days at Folsom State Prison, revealing his identity only when it was time to be released. After he passed legislation improving prison conditions, the inmates showed their gratitude by giving him a chess set they had sculpted from toothpaste and toilet paper. He treasured it.

The approach continued even after he’d moved from Sacramento to Washington, D.C. In Congress, he joined a March 1978 Greenpeace mission to investigate the slaughter of baby seals in Newfoundland, Canada. As one of his top aides, I accompanied the delegation, venturing out on the ice floes where the clubbing took place. After that trip, I remember telling myself that never again would I witness such violence at such close range. I admired Ryan’s worthy missions, but questioned if I shared his bottomless capacity to bear witness.

That same year, Congressman Ryan read a newspaper article about a constituent of his named Sam Houston, whose son had been a member of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple and, in 1976, died under suspicious circumstances after having a phone conversation in which he confessed to wanting to leave the group. Sam was certain Jones had something to do with his son’s death.

In the two years since, Jones and most of his followers had left the Bay Area and moved to Jones’ commune deep in the jungle of Guyana. Of the more than 900 members of Jones’s congregation who had moved there, nearly a third were children. Among them were Sam’s teenaged granddaughters.

Sam was far from the only person concerned about Jones’ malicious influence over a loved one. A growing body of constituents known as the Concerned Relatives wrote Congressman Ryan with increasing alarm about their daughters or sons who had accompanied the charismatic demagogue to Guyana.

Ryan wanted to investigate. I knew him well enough to understand what would happen next.

Born in Crete, Indiana, in 1931, Jim Jones grew up an outcast and underdog, and was fixated on being recognized as someone greater.

A self-anointed minister, as a young man he started proselytizing outside a storefront church in Indianapolis, and by 1955, had formed the Wings of Deliverance church. Although he had no formal training as a minister and no affiliation with any organized religion, his high-octane enthusiasm and open-armed policy attracted a diverse range of followers. He preached a “social gospel,” attracting devotees while promoting a community that did not discriminate or take into account race, background, or previous circumstances. His following grew, and Jones became the leader of one of the first mixed-race churches in Indiana.

Over the next decade, Jones moved his congregation and changed its name several times before settling on “Peoples Temple” around 1964. The next year, his church relocated to Redwood Valley, a small community in northern California.

By that time, darker elements had seeped into Jones’ sermons. He spoke often of apocalypse—Jones chose Redwood Valley because he believed it was one of a few places in the country that could survive a nuclear holocaust—yet insisted the Peoples Temple would exist as a sort of heaven on Earth, with himself in the role of God. Behind his dim glasses, Jones preached love and equality while manipulating his followers—taking their property and having them sign over their paychecks and Social Security. Join me, he assured his followers, and you’ll get health care, education and a family that would never mistreat you.

It was a message that appealed to the dispossessed, which is why it made sense for the Peoples Temple to relocate to San Francisco around 1972. The tumult of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s had left masses of people searching for a greater sense of security and purpose. Though driven by the kind of underlying insecurity that so often fuels tyrants, Jones appeared to offer hope, redemption, and an idealistic new life. Should they have any doubt of his intentions, they could look to the vibrant community of believers who echoed his sentiments and treated his words as gospel.

In San Francisco, his church was lauded for its social programs, and Jones’ efforts to feed the poor and fight segregation found receptive ears with progressive politicians. Jones became active in local politics, giving money, running food programs and busing Temple members to attend rallies and get out the vote for his favored candidates. Among them were George Moscone, who the Peoples Temple played a significant role in electing mayor in 1975, and Harvey Milk, the pioneering openly gay city supervisor, who went so far as to write a letter to President Jimmy Carter extolling Jones’s work and rebutting charges that he was abusive.

Meanwhile, ex-devotees of the Peoples Temple began sharing stories about Jones’ darker side. Their accounts led to an exposé in New West Magazine planned for publication in summer 1977. The article dissected Jones’s rise, revealing his practices of manipulation, public humiliation and fake faith healings, called out the Temple’s corrupt financial structure, and included ex-members’ testimonies of sexual assault and brutal beatings by Jones or at his command. Before going to print, the editor of the magazine, who held some esteem for Jones, felt compelled to call him and read aloud the article before it went to press. While on the phone listening to the allegations that would soon be made public, Jones scribbled a note to his aides: “We leave tonight.”

Before the New West issue hit the stands, Jones and hundreds of his followers had left San Francisco for Jonestown, their promised land in Guyana.

Within a year, a few Jonestown defectors had managed to return to the Bay Area—most notably, Debbie Layton Blakey, who’d been Jones’ trusted aide and worked as the Temple’s financial secretary.

Rep. Ryan and I arranged to meet her. We listened as she offered a detailed and disturbing account of her experience. She mentioned a Bay Area couple, the Stoens, who had defected and were fighting for the return of their young son, John. Debbie said the couple had gone to court to try to compel the Guyanese government to intervene; Rev. Jones responded by telling them that if any actions were taken to remove John, the entire Jonestown population would commit suicide.

Once, Debbie continued, Jones woke up the camp in the early hours of the morning. It wasn’t unusual for Temple members to be awakened at dawn over the loudspeaker and summoned to the pavilion for one of his increasingly unhinged sermons. But this particular morning, Jones told his followers that they had to kill themselves to keep from being tortured by mercenaries who were preparing an ambush. Debbie stood in line to drink the red liquid that she was told would kill her in a matter of minutes. When the time of their supposed deaths came and went with everybody still alive, Jones announced it had just been a drill to test their loyalty. They had passed.

We compiled similar testimonies from other defectors who corroborated Debbie’s reports of physical and sexual abuse, forced labor and captivity. We heard that the church had weapons, and that Jones was paranoid and possibly on drugs. He had engineered complete authority—collecting members’ Social Security and disability checks, and determining when and how his disciples could communicate with their families. Anyone running afoul of Jonestown’s security detail was put in a labor camp and forced to clear jungle. Repeatedly, the defectors mentioned forced participation in mass-suicide rehearsals known as the “White Night trials.”

Leo Ryan wanted answers. Never one to accept second-hand information, he decided to embark on a fact-finding—and potentially life-saving—trip. He knew that Jones had considerable political clout, with close ties to Democratic leaders in San Francisco, Sacramento, and even with the State Department. Politically, there was nothing to gain—and everything to lose—by taking on Jones, and there was no telling what he’d do if confronted and challenged. None of those red flags made the congressman reconsider.

Leo Ryan assured me that there was nothing to worry about. Besides, when had a congressman ever been assassinated on foreign soil while on a congressional delegation trip?

Ryan invited members of the press and a few of the Concerned Relatives to join him. And he assigned two of his staff members to come along: Jim Schollaert and me.

I had read the articles and listened to hours of testimony. I did not feel confident this was a good idea. But I was one of very few women who held senior staff positions in Congress at the time, and I was concerned that if I gave in to my reluctance and let a male colleague go in my place, I’d be setting back women in politics.

Congressman Ryan assured me that there was nothing to worry about. He genuinely believed that he had some sort of protective shield around him, despite the fact that we weren’t traveling with any military escort or protection. Besides, when had a congressman ever been assassinated on foreign soil while on a congressional delegation trip?

Three people cram into a small airplane bench seat.
On the plane to Guyana, Nov. 18, 1978. Left-right: Jim Schollaert, Jackie Speier and Congressman Leo Ryan. | AP/San Francisco Examiner

We landed in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, on November 14, 1978.

The morning after our arrival, Congressman Ryan, Jim Schollaert and I attended a closed-door briefing by Ambassador John Burke and his staff at the U.S. Embassy. Dick Dwyer, an embassy official, showed us a slideshow of his visit to Jonestown the previous May—images in which he and Jim Jones looked unnervingly chummy; images of tables filled with food, of joyful children on a swingset, of bountiful crops and an exuberant church session. It looked staged. Chief among my concerns was how cozy Jones appeared to be with members of the embassy: How could any Jonestown resident feel safe reporting an injustice to a U.S. official who is arm in arm with Jim Jones in every image?

On November 17, we landed at the tiny airstrip at Port Kaituma. A few Temple members stood in front of a rusty dump truck waiting to shuttle us to the compound. Congressman Ryan and I were among the first shift of the delegation to climb in for the excruciatingly slow six-mile drive to the commune. Members of the press and the Concerned Relatives waited behind on the airstrip until the truck could come back for a second load.

Jones greeted us at the compound. As I shook his hand, I looked at his sideburns. One of the defectors we’d interviewed claimed that Jones dyed them black. Sure enough, I could tell he had. And then I realized that confirming one tiny detail could mean that the worst of the testimonies were true.

“Don’t know why you’re here, but we’re happy to have you,” Jones said. “You’ll see what a wonderful place it is.” He took us on a tour highlighting the most favorable aspects of the commune. We saw an impressive community with dozens of pathways, cabins, a medical center, a little school, and a large pavilion where the members congregated regularly. It was imminently clear Jonestown was a hierarchical community, with the power structure resembling some sort of plantation: the majority of the Temple members were black, while the leadership was almost exclusively white. It did not sit well with me.

A multiracial group of children surround Jim Jones, a white man with jet-black hair and dark-tinted glasses.
Jim Jones with a group of children living at Jonestown, circa 1978. | California Historical Society

At one point, Congressman Ryan interrupted our tour to make sure that the press and Concerned Relatives had been given the transportation to join us. Reassured that they were on their way, we parked ourselves at a few picnic tables in the far corner of the pavilion area. Ryan and I asked one or two Temple members at a time to come talk to us. We didn’t want a group to present a canned response or any individual to look to others for their answers. We worked quickly to locate and speak to the individuals whose families had contacted our office and had been campaigning for their return.

None of the Temple members showed any interest in receiving correspondence from home. Not a single person we spoke to expressed a desire to leave, not even those whose family members had flown all the way to Guyana. They all swore that Jonestown was the one and only place they could ever consider home. Individually, their insistence would have been hard to question. But listening to one after the other after the other say the same choreographed thing made me uneasy.

NBC news correspondent Don Harris was part of our delegation, and was well versed on the accusations against Jones. At the compound, Don wandered off to smoke a cigarette. A man followed him and slipped a folded piece of paper into his hand, then disappeared back into the crowd. Don put it in his pocket and took a few more steps before carefully unfolding it. “Vernon Gosney and Monica Bagby,” it read. “Please help us get out of Jonestown.” Soon after, Don was approached by another member, who claimed that many Temple members desperately wanted to leave but were too terrified to come forward.

Don hung back for a moment before approaching Congressman Ryan and me at the picnic table and surreptitiously passing along the note.

I felt my stomach knot. Oh my God: It’s true.

Ryan decided that we would wait until the morning and suggested we keep a low profile until then. We split up, as Jones had arranged. In a cabin with about six women from the Temple, I took a top bunk, sweating as a downpour opened up outside. I barely got a wink of sleep.

At the pavilion for breakfast, I did my best to appear unruffled. I noticed an elderly woman stuffing pieces of bacon into her pockets; the ample spread was just another showpiece. I asked to speak to Monica Bagby, one of the names on Don’s note. Monica confirmed that she wanted to leave. She had an extremely anxious demeanor, and we moved quickly as we went to her cabin to pack. Returning to the pavilion area, I sought out other anxious-looking members.

I spoke with a woman named Edith Parks, the matriarch of three generations of Temple members who wanted out. As I took down their names, I looked over at Don Harris, who was interviewing Jones. By that time, it was obvious that some of his disciples intended to leave.

As soon as it became clear that we would be bringing more than one or two defectors home with us, the communal façade cracked. Increasing numbers of people approached us. Traumatizing family rifts erupted on the spot, with mothers and fathers engaged in literal tug-of-wars over their children. My list kept growing—what started with two names was now more than 40. With Jones’s wild gaze on us, I tape-recorded affidavits of their wishes to return to the United States.

I was feet away from Jones, close enough to hear him trying to convince people to change their minds. When cameras were rolling, he spoke of how he loved them and how there would always be a place for them—but those declarations would be followed by thinly veiled mutters about treason and liars. Jones wove his way through the camp, repeating that he wasn’t upset that they wanted to leave; it was just that they were doing it in the wrong way. He was cracking.

So many people wanted to defect that we had to call Georgetown to request an extra plane. We’d have to make multiple trips in the truck. I would be in the first group; Congressman Ryan insisted that he stay behind to make certain that every person who wanted to leave made it to Port Kaituma safely.

Then, as a group of men dug the truck out of the mud, we heard a loud commotion from the pavilion. Moments later, Congressman Ryan emerged from a throng of people with a torn and bloodied shirt. While trying to keep the peace, he had been attacked with a knife. Ryan joined us for the trek—one of roughly two dozen of us crammed in the bed of the truck, with dozens of would-be defectors left behind, belongings packed, waiting to escape.

Larry Layton had gotten onto the truck with us, which struck me as a glaring red flag—he was an entrenched member of the hierarchy, one of the true believers. It made no sense that he would be trying to leave Jonestown. He had on a big yellow poncho, and his eyes were set in a sullen glare.

At Port Kaituma, while I ushered the defectors onto a plane, a large red tractor-trailer rumbled onto the airstrip. I couldn’t immediately identify the deafening sound that filled the air. Everybody bolted in different directions. Before I could even comprehend what was happening, about a dozen men leapt from the tractor, leveled their automatic weapons, and fast approached. I heard screams and the rapid pounding of gunfire. I dove beneath the plane, hiding behind the wheel as bullets thumped against the metal above me.

Suddenly, my body was crushed by a blow to my side. It felt like a Mack truck had just sped over me.

Five bullets hit me from point-blank range, piercing my right arm, leg, and back. Indescribable pain consumed me, leaving room only for a fleeting thought that I should pretend to be dead.

The chaos persisted until, abruptly, a silence fell. I have no idea how much time passed until I turned my head and opened my eyes. Bodies lay crumpled on the tarmac around me. There was no movement, but I thought the others might also be playing dead. Congressman Ryan’s body was probably 15 feet away. I was later told that he had been shot 45 times. It’s hard to know when it became obvious that he was dead, or when I realized that others weren’t pretending.

But the moment I looked down at my own body is locked in my mind. A bone shot out of my right arm, and a huge hunk of flesh had been blown off my thigh.

Twelve hours had passed as I lay, teetering on death’s precipice when a light turned on inside me: The simple fact that I knew I was dying was proof that I was, indeed, still alive. I just needed to hang on.

Almost 22 hours after the ambush, I heard the groan of a plane’s engine—finally our escape had arrived. Onboard, every bump we hit shot an arrow of pain through my body. When we touched down in Georgetown, a U.S. Air Force medevac plane was waiting. As I was transferred onto a gurney, I was conscious enough to look up and see a big, gleaming white plane with The United States of America written on the side. That was the last moment I remember with any real clarity before I surrendered my body to the medical staff.

A young woman with dark hair is covered with blankets while laying on a stretcher.
Jackie Speier manages a smile as she is wheeled on a stretcher at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, Nov. 20, 1978. | AP

Many hours before the plane came, somehow, word filtered in that after Jones had released his death squad to the airstrip, he had led more than 900 of his flock into his “White Night” of death. All of those people I had been standing beside, speaking to, sharing a cabin with. All of those children. It was impossible to cope with the pain.

There is a sickening recording of Jones coercing his followers that day. With the camp surrounded by his armed guards, he told his followers to give “the medicine”—grape FlavorAid and Kool-Aid laced with cyanide and tranquilizers—to the children and the elderly first. As I was lying seven miles away waiting for medical help, Sam Houston’s granddaughters, Patricia and Judy, 14 and 15, were murdered, along with their mother, dozens of other would-be defectors and the rest of the Peoples Temple.

Scores of syringes litter the ground around a large plastic vat.
Syringes surround one of the vats used to mix up the position drink used in the mass murder at Jonestown. | AP

When people refer to the Jonestown massacre as a “mass suicide,” I am enraged. It was nothing of the kind. Although some of Jones’s most zealous followers may have consumed the poison voluntarily, the vast majority were murdered outright and against their will. Nearly 300 children were administered the poison with no comprehension of what it meant, including a number of infants in the arms of their parents. Infants cannot commit suicide. The hundreds of elderly were told that if they attempted escape, they would be left to die prolonged deaths alone in the depths of the jungle.

The news at the time and the history lessons to follow usually fail to mention that a number of Peoples Temple members were shot, several of whom were in the field between the pavilion and the jungle, clearly trying to escape the massacre. Others, who presumably refused to “drink the Kool-Aid”—a flippant, misguided phrase I very much wish could be scrubbed from our lexicon—were injected with cyanide and other poisons. There were piles of used syringes at the scene. An eyewitness who escaped described how “people who did not cooperate were injected with poison where they sat, or were held down and injected with poison.”

When people refer to the Jonestown massacre as a “mass suicide,” I am enraged. Nearly 300 children were administered the poison, including a number of infants in the arms of their parents. Infants cannot commit suicide.

This was not a mass suicide. It was a mass murder.

I’ve shared my Guyana story countless times, but it’s still a challenge to go back and relive those days. To go back to the gunshots. To the tarmac. To the stretchers. To the volatile flight home.

My recovery continued—though that very word is not an accurate description of the aftermath of being shot. I did not recover my old self; bullets render that impossible. But I refused to spend the rest of my life as a victim of Guyana—there were too many of them.

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter
Jackie Speier is a congresswoman representing California’s 14th congressional district, which includes San Francisco and the peninsula.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.

Educational DVDs and Videos