Tragic Truths

25 years after Jonestown deaths, couple are committed to bringing to light disaster’s complexities and shades of gray

They left California in search of a Promised Land of socialism, equality and fulfillment a utopia that they would carve out in a jungle wilderness in South America.

Instead, they found death.

On Nov. 18, 1978, the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana, better known as Jonestown, became the site of one of the worst mass deaths in the history of religious movements. Out of a population of roughly 1,000 in the wilderness near the Venezuelan border, more than 900 men, women and children died, most from a grape-flavored vat of cyanide punch.

Twenty-five years later, Rebecca Moore is on a quest to persuade us that more than anything else, these people were human. “They were more than just faceless bodies rotting in the sun,” is how she puts it.

Much more.

Two of those faces were her only sisters; Carolyn Layton was 33 and Annie Moore was 24.

Another face was her only nephew 3-year-old Jim Jon Prokes, or Kimo as he was called, who also happened to be an out-of-wedlock son of the Rev. Jim Jones, the malignant Moses who led his members to their demise.

It’s a quest that led Moore to change careers, leaving jobs in public broadcasting, community relations and teaching film and television editing to get a doctorate in religion. At 52, she is now an assistant professor in the religious studies department at San Diego State University.

She’s written five books about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, two with the help of her husband, 53-year-old freelance writer and editor Fielding McGehee III. Another book, a joint effort with other scholars, is due out early next year.

She and McGehee also publish The Jonestown Report, an annual journal featuring essays and updates from researchers and former members, and have assembled an extensive Web site called “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple.”

They’ve turned a room in their Normal Heights home into a library of Jonestown history. That material, petitioned over the years from the U.S. government, includes thousands of pages of documents and hundreds of audiotapes recorded there.

Together they are championing a cause that reminds us that life is filled with shades of gray. That pushes us beyond the popular image that Jonestown was just a bunch of brainwashed crazies who followed their cultic leader off the deep end.

“I view the job that Becky and I have to do is make this story increasingly messy, to keep on bringing out more and more information that not only ratifies and validates what your position is, but also to challenge it,” says McGehee.

“My bias,” says Moore, “is trying to present the lives, hopes and dreams for the people who were trying to create a better society. I do realize that they were flawed and that they made terrible and tragic decisions and mistakes.”

Jonestown’s awful images of sprawled bodies shocked us. But it was not the end of such images.

Among the others to come: the 1993 deaths of nearly 80 Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, after a fiery standoff with federal agents and the mass suicide of 39 members of Heaven’s Gate in Rancho Santa Fe in 1997. Then, three years ago [in] Uganda, a disgruntled doomsday sect called the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was blamed for the deaths of more than 920 people surpassing Jonestown as the worst modern-day, cult-related mass killing.

Over and over, we’ve seen that religion can sometimes go terribly wrong.

“I do condemn the deception, I do condemn the lies, and of course I condemn the final day,” says Moore of Jonestown.

“But I think condemnation is insufficient. I think that we need to look at the group within its social, political and religious context to understand why they did what they did.”

The Rev. John and Barbara Moore raised their three daughters to practice what he preached.

Pastor Moore, a United Methodist minister, pushed social justice issues from the pulpit. Mrs. Moore role-modeled them, opening the family’s home to anyone in need of help.

Rebecca Moore grew up in Northern California, the middle child who went with her parents to civil rights marches and anti-war demonstrations in the 1960s.

Her older sister, Carolyn, became a French teacher and married a conscientious objector named Larry Layton (if that name sounds familiar, it’s because Layton is serving a life sentence for his part in the airstrip ambush near Jonestown that same day in which a U.S. congressman and four other people were killed).

The couple joined Peoples Temple in Redwood Valley near Ukiah in 1968. Jones, a Disciples of Christ minister, moved his congregation there from Indiana because he read that it was one of the few places that could survive a nuclear attack in the United States.

Moore’s younger sister, Annie, joined right out of high school in 1972. “It’s the only place I have seen real true Christianity being practiced,” she wrote in a letter to her older sister.

To its most faithful members, Peoples Temple was a communal commitment in which they turned over paychecks and possessions in exchange for the promise of being taken care of in a life free of the sexism, racism, ageism and other prejudices that plagued society. To its critics, it was a cult that was growing increasingly dangerous.

But Jones’ socialist message was a popular one, attracting a growing rainbow congregation (the majority was black). Peoples Temple branched out into Los Angeles and San Francisco, which eventually became the new headquarters.

To Moore, her sisters represent the two typical types of members. Carolyn was attracted by the politics of reform; Annie wanted the religion that came with this transformation.

Both women became part of the inner circle. Annie went to school and became a nurse under the temple’s guidance. Carolyn became pregnant with Jones’ child (the leader remained married to his wife, Marceline).

Moore’s clergyman father was appalled. “Dad’s reaction was, ‘Oh great, another Elmer Gantry.'” Her mother wasn’t happy, either. But they stifled their public response.

Moore defends their decision. “My parents chose not to criticize Jim Jones or the temple, to affirm the good things they saw the temple doing so that they could remain on good terms with my sisters. That’s the choice that any family member makes when your child chooses a spouse or partner you don’t approve of, your child joins a group or movement you don’t approve of.”

The Jonestown settlement began in 1974. By the time Jones moved to Guyana three years later, he was feeling increasingly besieged. The media, along with an opposition group calling itself the Concerned Relatives, were accusing him of financial wrongdoing, physical and sexual abuse and holding people against their will.

On Nov. 17, 1978, California Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Jonestown with a contingent of relatives, journalists and other officials to check things out for himself.

When Ryan and the others departed the next day, more than a dozen members were clamoring to leave with them. After arriving at the waiting planes, the group was ambushed by a squad of Jones’ followers.

Ryan, three journalists and a defector were killed. And back in Jonestown, the final suicide drill, known as “white nights,” was beginning.

An audiotape made from that last gathering in Jonestown’s pavilion gives a chilling account of Jones’ lethal seduction. “How very much I’ve tried my best to give you the good life,” he is heard saying. “But in spite of all of my trying, a handful of our people, with their lies, have made our life impossible.”

Tim Carter, who now lives in Eugene, Ore., was among a handful of people who got out during the carnage. But before he left, he saw his wife and 15-month-old son die. “I felt myself almost leaving my body. It’s like I became a spectator,” he remembers.

From a distance, he saw his wife holding their son while another woman put a plunger of the poisonous liquid into his mouth. He says he didn’t see his wife take the poison, but she was dying by the time he got to her side. “I knelt down and I held her and I just said, ‘I love you so much.'”

To this day, he cannot answer the question of why he didn’t try to stop it. “All I can say is, I didn’t and neither did anyone else.”

How could this have happened?

“They did everything together,” says McGehee. “They lived together, they ate together, they slept together, they went to meetings together, they sang together. It was an incredibly communal experience all the way around. And when it came time to die, they died together.”

Moore doesn’t think her sisters or the others joined Peoples Temple to commit suicide. “They signed up for what they thought was a good organization that shared the values and ideals that they had. But little by little, they made compromises along the way.”

Fake healings. Abusive punishment. Suicide drills to prove their loyalty. And a manipulative, apocalyptic leader spinning out of control into drug addiction and paranoia. They accepted these compromises until, in the end, says Moore, “it wasn’t a big compromise to kill themselves.”

McGehee’s database of the casualties includes three women with San Diego roots Lydia Morgan, 30; Rose Marie McKnight, 25, and Phyllis Houston, 34.

It was both suicide and murder, says Moore. Jones and Annie Moore had gunshot wounds, and a Guyanese medical examiner reported finding injection marks on many of the bodies.

“So the question is, were the able-bodied coerced in some way?” Moore asks. “I tend to think that if so many had been unwilling, then it would have stopped or there would have been more evidence of violence.”

Moore and McGehee were heading out jogging on Sunday morning, Nov. 19, 1978, when they saw the headline in the newspaper. A congressman had been killed the day before in Guyana.

Her tears were a mixture of fear and anger. Her sister Annie had just written a letter declaring that they had uncovered a government conspiracy against them. Moore wondered if this death was connected.

The next day came the news that about 400 bodies had been found in Jonestown. “I was pretty convinced that my sisters were dead because they were the true believers,” she says. But there also was a glimmer of hope, because more than twice that many people lived in Jonestown.

She and McGehee were living in Washington, D.C. Her parents were in Reno, where her father was pastoring a church. On Tuesday, as the death toll climbed, he asked them to come home.

“My mom was in total denial, and my dad and I were a wreck,” she says. Her voice cracks and there are tears in her eyes as she remembers that as Thanksgiving Day came and went, they realized there was no hope.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, her father stepped up to the pulpit and gave an emotional sermon to a hushed church.

“During these days, we have been asked frequently, ‘How did your children become involved in Peoples Temple?’ There is no simple answer,” said Moore.

He blamed what happened on idolatry and paranoia. “The adulation and worship Jim Jones’ followers gave him was idolatrous,” he said. Their own paranoia “overwhelmed them.”

But he refused to denounce Peoples Temple completely. “Few movements in our time have been more expressive of Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment of feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, giving shelter to the homeless and visiting those in prison than Peoples Temple.”

The Rev. John and Barbara Moore are in their 80s now and live in an El Cajon retirement center. They have spent the past 25 years trying to eek out whatever good can come from such a tragedy.

“Barbara responded early on that ‘Jim Jones killed our daughters, and I will not let him destroy our lives’ and that kind of sums it up,” says Rev. Moore.

Like their daughter, they want to remember the members of Peoples Temple as human beings. They also have tried to help survivors reconcile themselves to each other and counseled other parents whose adult children are in so-called cults.

Their advice to these parents: Keep the lines of communication open and get your points across by planting subtle questions in their minds. But you need to respect their decisions even if you strongly disagree. They say they challenged their daughters’ decisions, and even confronted Jones about things they disagreed with, but they did it privately.

“We had hoped that our children would get out,” he says, sadly, “and they never did.”

Six months after the mass deaths, Moore and McGehee traveled to Jonestown. One of the things they came back with was a copy of Annie’s suicide note, which ended this way: “We died because you would not let us live in peace.”

Who is to blame for what happened in Jonestown?

Moore names Jones and the people. But she also blames outside forces, including Ryan’s visit and the antagonism of the Concerned Relatives, for helping to trigger it. Since the 1993 Branch Davidian deaths in Waco, Moore says society understands “that groups don’t operate in a vacuum.”

“Yes, Jim Jones definitely was physically and mentally ill,” she adds. “Yes, the people in Jonestown were physically isolated from the outside world. Yes, there were definitely strange things going on within the group. I certainly could never deny that. But at the same time, the members of Peoples Temple and the residents of Jonestown were responding to perceived and actual threats.”

But Janja Lalich, an expert in cultic groups, warns against shifting the blame to outsiders.

“I think Jones triggered what happened,” says Lalich, a sociologist at California State University Chico. “As a society, we have to be able to hold people accountable. Why should religious groups be sheltered from that?”

In 1990, two years after the 10th anniversary, Moore returned to school to pursue her religious studies degree.

In 1995, a teenage daughter, Hillary, died of an illness, and McGehee produced a book about her life. That launched Reivers Press, a niche industry in which he helps other parents who lost children also do books.

And then, in 1998, they began their Web site and published their first The Jonestown Report in 1999, the same year Moore came to SDSU from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

They are doing it for academics who study religious movements, for former members who want a forum to talk about what’s happened, and for history, so that in generations to come, others can see the transcripts of tapes recorded in Jonestown and the stories of those who died there.

“We get e-mails all the time from people who say, ‘I never realized how complex it was,'” says McGehee. “Those kinds of e-mails make my day.”

For her part, Moore says she is not trying to glorify what happened. “There is too much evidence to allow us to idealize it,” she says.

What she is looking for is balance. “They weren’t 100 percent good, but they weren’t 100 percent bad.”

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