The son who survived Jonestown

Stephan Jones hasn’t seen – nor does he plan on seeing – Jonestown: Paradise Lost, a harrowing docudrama recounting the last days of the People’s Temple in the jungles of Guyana in November 1978. He lived through it.

Jones is the son of infamous cult leader Jim Jones, the mastermind behind one of the grimmest chapters of the last century. At his command, more than 900 members of his cult drank or were forced to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. Those who didn’t die of poisoning were gunned down, including U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, who had come to Jonestown to investigate the freakish stories emanating from the compound.

The 100-minute docudrama, co-produced by Montreal-based Cineflix, airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. and at midnight on Vision TV, and it will certainly rekindle the horror of the paranoid cult-leader gone completely crackers. Stephan Jones, now 47, married, the father of three daughters and the manager of an office-equipment company in San Francisco, is one of the few surviving witnesses of Jonestown to offer testimony in this film of his father’s calculating and messianic ways.

The younger Jones, 19 at the time, can credit his survival to his basketball skills. He and a few other members of the Temple were playing against the Guyanese national team in Georgetown at the time. “I believe in destiny,” Jones says in a phone interview. “Not that I’m any more worthy than anyone else, but sometimes things play out the way they do. The tragedy, though, is that this happened and there’s no taking it back.”

Tim Reiterman, a journalist who had accompanied Congressman Ryan to Jonestown, barely survived the ambush at the airfield near the compound that took Ryan’s life. Nearly 30 years later, Reiterman, who also appears in the film, is understandably still haunted: “They called Jonestown a mass suicide, but it was really mass murder.”

Stephan Jones doesn’t disagree: “If members of the Temple had a choice, maybe 20 would have chosen to take their lives. It could happen again. There are people out there who think they have the right and the only way, and there are still people who will follow them to the end.”

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Jones concedes he went through hell and back trying to come to terms with his ordeal. “I’ve finally found a little peace.”

That peace wasn’t in place at Jonestown. “Then I was always enraged with my father, and I showed it openly,” he says.

“There were even times when we squared off in front of everybody at the Temple, with guns pointed at each other’s heads,” Jones says.

“But did I help anything? No, I really think I made it worse. I increased the fear and dread in the community. My rebellion was all about making him look wrong. There was little about standing up for the people in the community. I could no longer rationalize the sickness and the wrong of what he was doing, yet I rebelled from the safety of royalty.”

Jim Jones had two sons with other women and he had adopted six more children, but Stephan was the sole offspring with his wife, Marceline Jones.

Stephan never grieved for his father. “I felt sadness for him, even a little love and appreciation on some level. There’s no denying there was a warm heart inside a really sick being. That’s how he attracted people. Most of the accounts you hear and see about Jonestown don’t depict that. Instead, they make you wonder how anyone in the world could possibly follow this guy.”

True, and Paradise Lost doesn’t serve up much in the way of sympathy for the megalomaniac that was Jim Jones in his final days. Which may explain why Stephan Jones, while appearing in the docudrama, has absolutely no desire to see it.

“The thing about my father is that he knew what people wanted and he could get inside your head in a minute. He told people what they wanted to hear, then hooked them.” And as Stephan points out in Paradise Lost: “All it took was one thread of insanity to unravel the whole works.”

Not surprisingly, Stephan is skeptical of many religious leaders – “particularly those who get rich on the backs of others.

“I have a spiritual side. I live. I let live. But what’s most disturbing is what I’ve seen about religion hasn’t been nearly so much about a connection to God.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday March 10, 2007.
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