LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Perhaps in Indiana and California, the two homes of the Peoples Temple congregation members, the affects of the deaths in Jonestown are felt more vividly than the rest of the country.
Los Angeles Times state projects editor Tim Reiterman carries a vivid reminder of that event 25 years ago with him all the time — in his memory and in his physical scars.
Reiterman was a member of the news media who accompanied U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan to Jonestown in November 1978. Then a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, he was on the Port Kaituma airstrip when a group from Jonestown opened fire on those there.
He was shot in the left forearm and in his wrist. Hiding in the grass that lined the airstrip, he staunched the bleeding with his belt.
Reiterman still can feel the impact today.
“I think for many people, at least certain generations, Jonestown was one of those events like the Kennedy assassinations or the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a strict moment that is in some way frozen in time. People tend to recall where they were when they first heard about it,” he said. “It’s the sheer horror of it, an incomprehensibility of it.
“It leaves most people at a loss. They can’t understand how over 900 people could have died in a ritual of mass suicide and murder. They also, I think, marvel at the degree of control that (Jim) Jones seemed to have over his followers.
“As part of that, I think most people cling to some of the myths about Jonestown. One was that this was a mass suicide, where in fact, it was as much as a mass murder as it was a mass suicide, because of the degree of control that Jones exercised in a very remote place and because of the way he manipulated the events at the end, he made it seem as if there was no way out for anybody,” Reiterman said.
Adulthood echoed childhood
Reiterman covered Jones and the Peoples Temple for more than 18 months before visiting the Randolph County, Ind., native at his church’s agricultural mission in the Guyanese jungle. Reiterman’s experiences led him to write, with coauthor John Jacobs, “Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People,” which was published in 1982. To complete the book, Reiterman visited Indiana, where he visited sites associated with Jones and talked with people whose lives meshed with Jones’.
“He chose members from the Heartland. By that, I don’t just mean the Midwest, but … the people he chose were for the most part hardworking, religious, dedicated, idealistic people who wanted a better life on earth as well as in the hereafter and valued an interracial religious experience,” Reiterman said.
“A lot of people joined for the best of motives. Jones managed to conceal the dark sides of his personalities, and some of the problems that I believe he carried forward from childhood to adulthood. It tells you something that Jones felt the need to experiment with barnyard animals as part of his pattern of play as a kid. Sometimes he felt the need to lock up or otherwise control some of his playmates. What happened later in life is kind of a frightening echo what he did as a boy and a man.”
Horrible, beautiful isolation
For those in the Heartland, trying to imagine life in the rainforest of Guyana, life in a compound led by a controlling and charismatic leader, can be difficult.
“The compound itself provides a clue, at least a strong indication, of why there were such dramatically conflicting reports about what Jonestown was.
“Some people who visited it called it hell, described horrible practices of mind and body control and corporal punishment.
“Others that visited called it a paradise, heaven on earth … When you actually saw it, you were struck by its isolation.”
Reiterman remembers traveling “the narrowest of muddy, dirt roads” for six miles to get to the encampment. It took about an hour and felt like forever, he said.
“The isolation of it was … beautiful. It was free of urban ill, in theory. On the other hand, it was tantamount to a prison for those who discovered that they didn’t want to be there.
“When you saw the compound, you had to really be impressed by the labor and dedication that went into clearing this 2,700 acres — it was huge — and establishing crops and building structures … It looked really good on the surface, but it was not really viable. The soil was not really conducive for long-term planting of crops.”
What Reiterman observed was the potential benefits and the insurmountable problems.
“The biggest and seemingly insurmountable problem they had was Jim Jones himself. All their lives were in his hands,” Reiterman said.
He said most people were attracted to the Peoples Temple by the social activism and the preacher on the podium. By the time they were drawn deeply into the organization, it was difficult get out. “And some didn’t want to leave. Once you’ve given everything … it becomes emotionally difficult and Jonestown is in the middle of the jungle.
“The divining force in terms of what happened, I believe, still were Jones and the dynamics of the organization as well as from their perspective the organization was under attack,” he said. “That’s when events snowballed to hell.”
Richmond native’s investment
Reiterman remembers Richmond native Marceline Baldwin Jones, Jim Jones’ wife, mostly though the eyes of the couple’s natural son, Stephan Jones, who survived because he was at a basketball tournament in Georgetown, Guyana.
“In the grand scheme of things, I have only these impressions of her,” he said. “Of her being proud of what they were building, proud of the nursery, loving toward all of the children. Concerned, as I look back.
“Burning with worry, no doubt, about events that were starting to go out of control. There were fears that we would see some of the ugly side of what was going on in Jonestown, and not just focus on the tour that she was providing.
“Based on all I know and I observed, she was a very strong and dedicated woman with a deep sense of values. Also, one who was trapped in her own way … She had a great investment and not only that, she had her own children,” Reiterman said.
Connections carry on impact
For the people in California, like Indiana, the impact of Nov. 18, 1978, goes on.
The Peoples Temple was part of the social fabric of the region.
“It shocked people into realizing just how terrible the consequences can be of surrendering control of decisions in your life, to a large extent, to someone else, and it made people thinking about it, think what is it that drives human beings. Why they join? Why they follow? Why they want to lead? The dangers of power in the hands of somebody who’s deeply disturbed and also committed to the philosophy ‘ends justify the means.’”