Jonestown, 25 years later
: Twenty-five years ago today, more than 900 people were led to their deaths by an insane preacher named Jim Jones, who also ordered an attack that killed a congressman and a friend of mine, a photographer on the San Francisco Examiner named Greg Robinson. I was the Sunday news editor of the paper then; I edited the stories by reporter Tim Reiterman that led to that fact-finding trip to Guyana and the senseless tragedy that followed.
Jonestown has become the subject of Kool-Aid (though it was an off-brand) jokes and that’s understandable.
But on this day, leave the jokes behind and remember the horror of that day: Hundreds of innocent, decent people, even children, lured into a sick cult where they were induced to leave everything behind to follow their leader’s paranoia even into death.
I have so many memories of that time: The phone call that came into the city desk, to a colleague named Fran Dauth, who took the news of the attack… The horrible news about Greg, the fear about Tim, who was injured…. Taking dictation of the story of the first scenes from the camp, of the bloated bodies rotting in the sun, from my boss (then and later), Jim Willse… 35 straight hours of writing and reporting… Greg’s funeral in L.A….
And nine days later, my friends Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated in San Francisco’s City Hall…. Supervisor Diane Feinstein took charge of the city on the steps of City Hall that day… And months later, Supervisor Dan White got off easy thanks to his “Twinkie defense” and thousands of gays in San Francisco rioted….
So much changed then. I lost a helluva lot of innocence as a young adult and as a reporter, having to face so much sorrow and ugliness and evil and make it just part of work. San Francisco and California lost innocence as well. I think the California dream took a turn for the worse just then; the city and the state had to bear too much pain and too many questions.
I feared then that people would forget Jonestown, for who would want to remember?
But there are still important lessons to hold onto, about the ability of one man to lead people to evil; about the lure and tyranny of cults — religious or political; about those who corrupt God; about the need to survive. It is vital that we remember the danger of one person — minister, ayatollah, or ideologue — controlling people, the danger of one belief controlling a life.
I sometimes feel as if I’ve lived at the edges of too much tragedy, a cursed Zelig: near Jonestown, near Moscone-Milk, near AIDS, and then near the World Trade Center. It’s enough to make a sane person want to run and hide. But no, the sane person remembers.