On the Jonestown Murder-Suicides
by Gonrad Goeringer
AANEWS from American Atheists
November 18, 1998
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the mass murders and suicides at Jonestown, Guyana, the utopian religious colony organized by followers of the late Pastor Jim Jones. The media, of course, is marking the event with the usual platitudes and "questions" supposedly meant to stimulate critical thought in the midst of the Tripp-Lewinsky tapes, or the burning question of who should be this year's MVP.
There are a few points, though, which do need to be made about the Guyana tragedy.
There are many lessons to be learned from the Guyana tragedy. Unfortunately, the same sort of manipulative and authoritarian style that was so adroitly exercised by Jones is copied widely in religious movements across the theological spectrum. The "true believer" is ever in search of a prophet or living god-man in whose hands personal decisions, and even the power over life and death, may be placed. What is frightening, though, is the prospect that in thousands of American religious groups, paler versions of Jim Jones exist. They are the preachers, cult gurus and charismatic sect leaders who crave the sort of allegiance and trust which Jones elicited from his followers.
Jonestown is also an object lesson in what happens when social or religious movements encourage the suspension of critical reasoning, autonomy, individuality and personal rights. Like any authoritarian crusade, including the secular variety, the Peoples Temple demanded blind allegiance to a charismatic leader, acceptance of a vague millenarian ideology, a belief in a Manichean "us versus them" universe, and the need for ultimate self-sacrifice and self-abnegation. There are an abundance of political and religious movements which have carried on, though, even after the jungle has reclaimed the Jonestown colony. People continue to "thirst for salvation," as well as an ultimate belief system.
Jonestown must also be cited as yet another reason to separate the church and state. Religious and political movements are often irrational or non-rational. When fused, they can comprise a toxic mix. From a constitutional perspective, there is little difference between Pastor Jones mobilizing his followers on behalf of "worthy" liberal political causes and office hopefuls, and today's religious right which seeks to fill the nation's elected posts with Christian fundamentalists. In both cases, political discourse is subsumed in religious language, and issues and candidates are judged by religious standards. Right, left, liberal, moderate or conservative, religious ideology is a poor framework for measuring the merit of any political proposal. It is disheartening to see, twenty years after Jonestown, American political hopefuls of both parties vociferously shoring up their campaigns by citing religious credentials, campaigning in churches, temples or synagogues, and embracing religious faith as a litmus test of worth to the electorate.
P.O. Box 3135
Boulder, CO 80307-3135 USA
20 Years Later: Jonestown Memorial
November 18, 1998
November 18, 1998 marks the 20-year anniversary of the mass tragedy at Jonestown, Guyana, in which 912 members of the People's Temple died after suicide orders were issued by leader Jim Jones, who they called "Dad." Those who refused to drink the cyanide-laced punch were forced to drink at gunpoint or shot. Mothers administered the poison to their babies using eye-droppers. Of the 912 dead, 276 were children.
Jones ordered the deaths after People's Temple members killed Congressman Leo Ryan, who had gone to Jonestown on a fact-finding mission. After only a day at the Jonestown compound, a member tried to stab Ryan. The injury was minor, but Ryan decided to leave and a couple dozen People's Temple members decided to leave with him. Other members followed the group to the airstrip and opened fire, killing Ryan, three journalists, and one of the departing members.
Within a few months of the mass deaths, other People's Temple members who had survived also committed suicide, with one mother slitting the throats of her three children.
A year later, ex-People's Temple members Jeanne and Al Mills and their daughter Linda, who had been speaking out about their cult experience, were shot to death in their Berkeley, CA home. They had become among the most vocal People's Temple critics and feared for their safety.
Each year, a memorial is held at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, CA where 260 People's Temple children are buried. Due to the lack of dental records, the children were never able to be identified and thus were buried together there.
In memory of the tragedies at and surrounding Jonestown, especially for the children who suffered, FACTNet presents the following informational web sites with the heartfelt hope that public awareness of the severe dangers of cults may help avert similar future devastation.
20 Years Later, Jonestown
Survivor Confronts Horrors
Chronicle Staff Writer
November 2, 1998
For a young woman of 17, flinging herself on the world after the cloistered atmosphere of an English boarding school, Peoples Temple seemed daring and exciting.
With its bell-ringing calls for social justice -- this was in the fractious 1960s and early '70s -- the little-known church near Ukiah catered to the closet revolutionary in Deborah Layton. Its leader, the Rev. Jim Jones, with his omnipresent dark glasses and his sweeping red robe, was the anchor of her newfound life and, like many Temple members, she was mesmerized by him.
Nearly 30 years later, her mother long dead in a rotting jungle outpost in Guyana, her brother doing life in a federal prison and her father so broken that he weeps at the mention of anything connected with Jones-town, Deborah Layton has, as she put it the other day, "decided it was time to come out of the cobwebbed attic."
Clearing away those cobwebs meant writing a book -- it's called "Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple." It paints a convincing picture of what it was like to spend seven years in the notorious cult, only to escape a few months before the tragedy that gave Jonestown its infamous place in history as the site of the largest mass suicide in modern times.
"I was driving across the bridge," she says when asked why, after all these years, she wanted to revisit the horrors of Jonestown. "And I thought, if I get hit by a truck, my epitaph will be, 'Jonestown survivor dies on Bay Bridge.' I wanted to leave my daughter a legacy that wasn't that simple."
Jonestown was the agricultural compound Jones' followers carved out of the Guyanese jungle, 150 miles northwest of the nation's capital, Georgetown. It was the final stop for a group that for nearly 10 years had fascinated and, in the end, horrified the Bay Area.
Twenty years ago this month, Jones and 912 of his followers committed mass suicide at the jungle compound. It was an implausible ending for the fiery preacher, who had curried favor among the fashionable elite of the Democratic Party.
Jones, who demanded that his flock call him Father, was one of the most politically powerful people in San Francisco, wined and dined by such luminaries as Rosalynn Carter, Assemblyman Willie Brown, Mayor George Moscone and Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally.
Deborah Layton is now 45, lives in an elegant house in Piedmont and takes her 12-year-old daughter to play in soccer games. Her life appears to be light-years from Peoples Temple.
"When I joined Peoples Temple, I was 17 and it was like joining the Peace Corps," she says. "I felt we were doing something that had meaning. I wanted to be part of something that was doing things for other people, and besides, Peoples Temple offered a community of friends."
She blithely ignored the warning signs -- the fake "cancer healings" and the increasingly hostile confrontations, when Jones would scream at members of his flock for faintly perceived faults or have them paddled harshly with the "board of education."
Layton became a senior insider in Jones' entourage. She was entrusted with flights to Europe and Panama to open Temple bank accounts, where Jones stashed the millions he was taking from Temple members who freely gave him their life savings, their homes and just about everything else.
"The reason I did well," Layton says now, "is that I'm a little soldier and I follow orders so well."
In the summer of 1977, after an expose of Peoples Temple in New West magazine, Jones and his followers fled to Guyana. Jones had become increasingly paranoid, convinced that the CIA, the FBI and the media were out to destroy him.
Layton and her mother arrived in Jonestown in December 1977. Her startling introduction to life there quickly allowed Layton to see the cracks in the facade.
The "Greeting Committee" promptly confiscated all their clothes and belongings and, most important, their passports. They were issued four T-shirts, four pairs of socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, four pairs of underwear and a bar of soap.
Her mother's cancer pain medications were taken away. Much later, Layton writes, she would find them "on the bookshelf in Father's house with the many other prescription drugs taken from Temple members."
Life in Jonestown became a drab and exhausting routine of dawn-to-dusk labor in the fields, replete with swarms of voracious mosquitoes that even went after the toughened soles of people's feet.
After a few weeks, Layton grew "accustomed to the unusual smells in the food and drink. I was even unaffected by the rice weevils and other strange bugs we ingested daily."
Ever on the alert for malcontents, Jones would order recalcitrant Temple members -- those who questioned his authority -- into "The Box," a stifling underground cubicle the size of a coffin.
Children had their own special punishment, Layton writes. "They would be taken to the Jonestown well in the dark of night, hung upside down by a rope around their ankles, and dunked into the water again and again while someone hidden inside the well grabbed at them to scare them."
Crimes for which children went to the well included "stealing food from the kitchen, expressing homesickness, failing a socialism exam, or even natural childish rebelliousness."
Jones had a penchant for suddenly getting on the compound loudspeaker long after everyone had gone to bed and shouting, "White Night! White Night!" -- the signal that meant an attack was imminent, an excuse for conducting a suicide drill.
Hurrying out of bed, Layton would race toward Jones "in my mud-caked boots, past the tin-roofed cabins, past the wooden outdoor showers where we're allowed our two-minute wash at the end of our 11-hour days in the field." And it wasn't an isolated incident.
"Every week we're ordered to drink some liquid," she writes, culling her memories of the "old tapes (of Jonestown recollections that) are running in my head."
"Every week we're promised death, a relief from this miserable life. I hope tonight is the last one. I'm so desperately tired. Perhaps death is better than this."
In May 1978, she was sent by Jones to Georgetown to chaperone some Temple children on a cultural exchange. She managed to contact her sister in Davis, who wired a ticket to Georgetown, where Layton and other Temple members were staying in a house the Temple owned. At the airport, Temple members who found out she was fleeing implored her not to leave. She got on the plane, leaving her mother behind.
Five months later, on the night of November 18, 1978, Jones sent a gang of gunmen to an airstrip in Port Kaituma, where Representative Leo Ryan of San Mateo and a fact-finding party that had visited Jonestown were preparing to leave. Within minutes, Ryan and four others were shot dead.
Later that night, Jones had another suicide exercise. This time, it was not a drill.
Jones died from a bullet to the brain. Layton's mother, Lisa, had died of cancer 10 days before the mass suicide. Her brother, Larry, later became the only person ever charged in connection with the airstrip massacre and, after two trials, was convicted in 1986 of conspiring to murder Ryan. He is serving a life sentence in the federal prison at Lompoc.
"If I hadn't been sent to Georgetown that day (in May)," Deborah Layton says now, "I would have died in Jonestown. I would never have left Jonestown with Congressman Ryan. In fact, I would have been on that truck, with a rifle."
Looking back on it 20 years later, she says, "I put everything in denial and locked it down. Deep inside me, I still have the demons of shame and guilt."
She looks away for a moment, then brightens and starts to talk about a visit she made to Jonestown only a few months ago, accompanied by a crew from the Arts & Entertainment network, which is making a documentary on Peoples Temple.
"I was ready to be overwhelmed by emotion," she says, "but when we got into the area, it just wasn't there. If there is such a thing as a spirit or essence of people ... well, it wasn't there."
"I thought, what a waste. What an evil thing that Jim Jones did."
Pictures of a nightmare past
by Rob Morse, Columnist
San Francisco Examiner
Nov. 18, 1998
Wall of shame
JIM JONES has come home to roost at City Hall, the temporary one in the Veterans Building. He stares from behind dark glasses from posters on the first floor, and from photographs arrayed near the Board of Supervisors' meeting room on the fourth floor.
Twenty years later, it's almost unbearable to look at these photographs of Jones and Jonestown, taken by Examiner photographer Greg Robinson on the last day of Robinson's young and promising life. The exhibition is called "Days of Darkness," and it's a darkness many still can't fathom.
The painful part isn't seeing the bodies. It's seeing Robinson's pictures of vibrant young children and older members of the Peoples Temple. It's knowing that 900 of them will die in a few hours, along with Congressman Leo Ryan and others in his delegation to Jones' dystopia in Guyana. That includes the man who took these great photographs.
"My first reaction is it's incredible to see that all these people died on the same day," said Claes Ostlund. "You can't believe that one guy can be that powerful, that he can get so many people to kill themselves."
Ostlund and his wife, Karin, love San Francisco and come here every other year from Stockholm. Like all of us, they tried to make sense of how the evil of Jim Jones could grow in the heart of San Francisco.
"It just brings it all back," said Lynne Tondorf, who works for the Department of Social Services. "Twenty years later, and it all comes back.... It's something we shouldn't forget."
Some City Hall workers can't bear to look at the photographs. They knew Jones. They knew people Jones murdered. They knew how Jones had insinuated himself into the heart of the political establishment of San Francisco, and how politicians bought his act.
"I can understand why people here wouldn't like it, having to look at that every day," said Patty Moran, pointing at Robinson's famous portrait of Jones, with glazed eyes behind shades.
Moran was a Democratic Party activist when Jones was seducing the liberal establishment. She worked for both George Moscone and Harvey Milk, who would be murdered in City Hall by disgruntled former Supervisor Dan White a week after the Jonestown horror.
Moran remembered how Peoples Temple members joined her political club. "They infiltrated all the clubs. They'd send members in blue suits and dark glasses, and turn out hundreds of members for rallies."
Moran kept looking at the photographs, sighing and saying, "Yep" and "Oh, Golly."
Some workers in city offices say they always were suspicious of the man in the leisure suit and dark glasses and his believers who would turn out for political events. But these are mostly people who weren't in elective office.
I talked to several people like this, and none wanted to be quoted. Twenty years later, Jim Jones is still a sensitive subject.
Kandace Bender, the mayor's press secretary, said one colleague at first said, "I'm not ready for this," but later came back and said it was good to have to face the reality of Jim Jones and Jonestown.
"We've had a lot of exhibits here, but very few with this power," said Bender. "For the first 48 hours I saw so many people who were actually touching the photographs."
Bender found the exhibit painful because she had worked at The Examiner, where Greg Robinson left so many friends. Even though she didn't know him, the hurt was transmitted by newsroom osmosis.
That is how I know Greg Robinson, too. Because he was a friend of friends, and I've gotten to know his work very well.
I'd only been here a year when November of 1978 struck San Francisco, and I'm still trying to understand what happened. Is there some darkness at the heart of this beautiful city, or is it just that San Francisco welcomes anyone charismatic who preaches social justice?
Never mind Jones' followers. How could such perceptive civic leaders as Willie Brown and Herb Caen be seduced by Jones?
Jim Jones wasn't just a cult leader. He made San Francisco know shame all too well.
Mayor Brown, who just returned from Europe, said he has not seen the Jonestown photo exhibition yet, but intends to. I asked him how Jones could line up so many important people in San Francisco on his side.
"He fooled me. He fooled George Moscone," said Brown. "George even appointed him to the Housing Authority."
Can another Jim Jones come along and work his way into the political establishment?
"You can't stop them," Brown said. "Nuts can succeed if they work at it. All you can do is go on with your work."
Brown, who has had bad press in the past because of his links to Jones, said he would like to see a memorial wall with the names of the Jonestown victims in Oakland's Evergreen Cemetery.
"We ought to co-sponsor something with The Examiner. We ought to create a memorial for the victims. It couldn't cost more than $30,000," Brown said.
The other memorial to the dead of Jonestown is the Greg Robinson Scholarship Fund at San Francisco State University, established by The Examiner to aid aspiring photojournalists.
If you have any doubts about the power of photojournalism, go to the fourth floor of the temporary City Hall through December 11. Even if you're just passing by, you can't miss Greg Robinson's image of Jim Jones staring from the front window.
Twenty years later, and we can still see the evil.
Twenty years later,
Jonestown remains an enigma
Associated Press Writer
November 13, 1998
San Francisco (AP) -- Twenty years ago this month, Tim Stoen was holed up in hell.
He and his wife had gone to Guyana with U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan in one last attempt to retrieve their son, who had been claimed by cult leader Jim Jones as his own.
Their hope died as they heard that Ryan and four others had been shot to death in an ambush at the Jonestown airstrip.
They knew it was only a matter of time before Jones followed through his long-threatened mass murder-suicide.
"It was really a horrific night ... knowing at any moment that our son was going to be dead. It was utterly hopeless. If anything could remind you of hell, it would be that moment, that feeling," Stoen says.
More than 900 people died after Jones ordered his followers to drink cyanide-poisoned punch. Nearly one-third were children. Among them -- John Victor Stoen, aged 6.
"The lesson for me is that every group ... has to make sure that they hold their leader to a set of standards, constantly hold that leader accountable," Stoen says.
Stoen, a former San Francisco prosecutor, had represented Jones in California and became a trusted member of the Peoples Temple.
Now in private practice in Colorado, Stoen remembers letting his enthusiasm over the good things, like seeing hard-core heroin addicts go straight, overwhelm his misgivings about the bad -- corporal punishment and thought control.
"I said, 'Look how altruistic, how socialistic the people are becoming.
Yes, Jones is heavy handed and he's idiosyncratic, but it's working.'"
Jynona Norwood was hiding out in a San Francisco suburb 20 years ago. She had gone there with her young son, Ed, afraid that Jones would sweep him off to Jonestown.
Her lesson from Jonestown: Beware of false prophets.
"I never believed that Jim ... was a minister from his heart," says Norwood. She was one of the few in her family to resist Jones' charm. Twenty-seven of her relatives, including her mother, died in Jonestown.
She believes that Jones, son of a Klansman but adopted father of a rainbow family, used interracial tolerance as a powerful recruiting tool for the poor blacks and privileged whites who flocked to his services.
"He knew that was the door in to black folks' hearts and idealistic, altruistic white people who wanted to see the end of racism."
Norwood, now a Los Angeles pastor, helps organize yearly memorial services at the mass grave in Oakland where about 400 Jonestown victims are buried.
She is trying to raise funds for a wall to memorialize the dead and warn the living.
"They deserve to be remembered," she says. "They were
our neighbors. They were our loved ones. They were our friends."
Twenty years ago, Jackie Speier was lying on a Guyana airstrip with five bullet wounds. An aide to U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, she had gone with him to investigate Jonestown.
She would go on to become a state assemblywoman and this month was elected to the state senate.
If there is a lesson in Jonestown, it's that "the menace of cults still lingers; it's as real today as it was 20 years ago," Speier recently told the San Francisco Examiner. "No one should ever be so arrogant as to believe it couldn't happen again."
Twenty years later,
Associated Press Writer
November 18, 1998
San Francisco (AP) -- Twenty years after the mass murder-suicide in Jonestown ripped open a new dimension of horror, questions linger: How did it happen? Why did it happen?
Some believe the answers to those questions may lie in more than 5,000 pages of information the government has kept secret for two decades.
"Twenty years later, it would be nice to know what went down," said J. Gordon Melton, founder and director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion.
Over the years, there have been rumors of CIA involvement. Some believe CIA agents were posing as members to gather information; others suggest the agency was conducting a mind control experiment.
In 1980, the House Select Committee on Intelligence determined that the CIA was not involved with Peoples Temple and had no advance knowledge of the mass murder-suicide.
The year before, the House Foreign Affairs Committee had concluded that Jones "suffered extreme paranoia." The committee released a 782-page report, but kept more than 5,000 other pages secret.
Without those documents, it's hard to confirm or refute the speculations that have sprung up around Jonestown, said Melton, who planned to be in Washington Wednesday to ask for the documents' release.
"The process of what went on in Jonestown is one of great concern to all of us. First of all, we'd like to not see it happen again," he said.
Calls by The Associated Press to a spokesman for the committee, now known as international relations, were not returned. George Berdes, chief consultant to the committee at the time of the investigation, told the San Francisco Chronicle the papers were classified to assure sources' confidentiality, but he thinks it is time to declassify them.
What is known about the end of Jonestown is that on Nov. 18, 1978, cult leader Jim Jones ordered more than 900 of his followers to drink cyanide-poisoned punch.
Among the dead: more than 270 children.
Only two years before, Jones had been the toast of San Francisco political circles. As the charismatic leader of the Peoples Temple, an interracial organization helped the desperate -- and voted by the thousands -- he was courted by the likes of Mayor George Moscone and Willie Brown, an assemblyman at the time. But after an August 1977 magazine article detailed ex-members' stories of beatings and forced donations, Jones had abruptly moved his flock to Jonestown, a settlement in the Guyana jungle.
In May 1978, Peoples Temple member Deborah Layton slipped out of Guyana. She went to the U.S. consulate and later the newspapers with a warning: Jones was conducting drills for a mass murder-suicide.
But there was little official government action until November 1978 when U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, who had been contacted by a number of people worried about their relatives in the Peoples Temple, decided to lead a delegation of reporters and relatives to Jonestown.
Their visit began happily enough, but the mood soured after some Jonestown residents indicated they wanted to defect. The group was ambushed as they tried to leave at a nearby airstrip. Ryan and four others were killed.
Later that night, Jones told his followers "the time has come for us to meet in another place."
As with the question of CIA involvement, different theories have been forwarded on what led to the slaughter.
Mary McCormick Maaga, author of a new book, "Hearing the Voices of Jonestown," says it's a mistake to dismiss the tragedy as the work of one man.
"If we spend the whole time demonizing Jim Jones and laying all the evil at his feet there is nothing to learn from Jonestown," she said.
She believes the Peoples Temple did some good until the leadership became obsessed with the movement's detractors. She also says Jones wasn't the only one to blame, since he lost control to his inner circle some months before the end.
Jynona Norwood, who lost 27 relatives in Jonestown, questions whether Jones was ever motivated by benevolence. "Everybody wants to paint these pretty stories about how it started off OK. I personally believe that Jim had deep hatred in his heart from Day One."
Still, like Maaga, she believes his followers had idealistic hopes.
"Those people went over there to live and build a better world," she said. "When they got over there they found that they had entered into a paradise of pain."
'We were just duped'
Associated Press Writer
November 19, 1998
Oakland, California (AP) -- Twenty years ago, 912 people died in a South American jungle in a mass murder-suicide ordered by Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones. On a quiet hillside here, survivors met to remember Jonestown.
"The Peoples Temple members were the salt of the earth. They were not crazy people. They were not bizarre people," said Jynona Norwood, who lost 27 members of her family in 1978 and has organized a memorial service like the one Wednesday every year since.
"The people of Jonestown went to Guyana to live, not to die."
Norwood, now a pastor in Los Angeles, recalled how members of her family were inspired by Jones' messages of racial harmony and social justice. She refused to join the temple, however, and went into hiding with her young son Ed, who had become an enthusiastic follower of Jones.
When reports of beatings and forced donations surfaced, Jones moved his church from San Francisco to the jungles of Guyana.
Leslie Wilson followed him.
"The people in Jonestown had a vision, had a dream," she said. "We were just duped."
Wilson described how she and eight others escaped on Nov. 18, 1978 -- hours before the suicides -- by pretending to go on a picnic.
They traveled 37 miles to the town of Matthew's Ridge, taking turns carrying Wilson's 2-year-old son strapped to their backs in a sheet. In an eerie portent of what was to come, Wilson said she dosed the toddler with Valium stirred into fruit punch to keep him calm.
While the picnickers were walking to freedom, things were spiraling toward tragedy in Jonestown.
The suicide was preceded by a visit from U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, who had arrived in Jonestown to investigate complaints from relatives that people were being held there against their will.
Some left with Ryan, but they were ambushed at a small airstrip. The congressman and four others were killed.
Sensing the deaths spelled doom for himself and his community, Jones told his followers that night: "To die in revolutionary suicide is to live forever."
They started with the babies, using syringes to squirt cyanide-laced punch into their mouths. Then the adults drank the lethal mix. Some protested. A few were able to escape into the jungle. Some were shot to death by armed guards ringing the camp.
Ed Norwood, now grown up and a pastor himself, said he has struggled with the shame of admitting he was a member of the Peoples Temple.
"As a child I sang in the choir. I was present when a 4-year-old little boy was beaten unconscious by a 9-year-old boy in view of the whole congregation," he said. "People have asked, 'Why didn't the people leave when they witnessed these alarming events?' ... I don't know. Perhaps out of fear. Maybe they feel they have nothing to go back to, that they're at the point of no return."
Jones' son, Stephan, who was away with the camp basketball team during the suicides, described his recent visit to Jonestown, now virtually obliterated by time.
"I came out of there reminded that those people had always been with me," he said. "I believe that a piece of them is with me, that I carry a piece of their souls, as does everyone here."
Always larger than life,
Leo Ryan courted danger
November 17, 1998
By the time Leo Ryan went to Jonestown, Guyana -- 20 years ago today -- most officials in the Bay Area had come to realize that the Reverend Jim Jones was a dangerous man and that the Peoples Temple was nothing like it seemed to be.
But it was Leo Ryan -- and no other public figure -- who went to Jonestown to confront Jones.
It cost him his life, but it was an act that was quintessentially Ryan -- quixotic skeptic, scholar, maverick and sometimes brooding loner who reveled in being a catalyst for the events around him.
"The focus on the tragedy is always on Jim Jones and the despicable activities he engaged in, and the fact that so many people lost their lives," said state Senator-elect Jackie Speier, who accompanied Ryan to Jonestown 20 years ago as his legal counsel and was wounded in the ambush in which Ryan was killed. "What is lost is the fact that there was one courageous legislator who did the uncommon thing, and lost his life in the process."
The path Ryan took to elective office led directly to Jonestown.
In 1961, as a history teacher at Capuchino High School in Millbrae, Ryan was a chaperone accompanying the high school's renowned marching band to Washington, where it participated in President Kennedy's inaugural parade.
Inspired by Kennedy's call to public service, Ryan returned to San Mateo County determined to run for public office.
In 1962, he ran for the state Assembly from San Mateo County. A Democrat, he won a Democratic seat by a comfortable margin of 20,000 votes.
He quickly became known as a politician who was hard to categorize, a liberal who sometimes cast unexpected votes in support of education reform, school vouchers and other issues.
"His attitude toward liberals was to keep us sullen, but not mutinous," said Robert Caughlan, Ryan's Assembly district field representative from 1968-72.
During his Assembly tenure, Ryan established a pattern that Speier calls "experiential legislating."
After the 1968 riots in Los Angeles, he posed as a substitute schoolteacher at a Watts school, to see for himself what conditions were like.
His most celebrated excursion was a 10-day stay in Folsom Prison as an inmate, while he was chairing the Assembly committee overseeing prison reform.
Critics dismissed the highly publicized adventures as headline-grabbing.
"Leo had a taste for headlines. What politician doesn't?" said Caughlan, now a Menlo Park public relations consultant. "Leo understood the importance of advancing social agendas through public education."
He won re-election to the Assembly five times before winning a tailor-made congressional seat in 1972. He was re-elected three times.
In Congress, Ryan continued his ways, going to Prince Edward Island in Newfoundland to confront fur hunters who were killing baby harp seals with hooked clubs.
Ryan's daughter, Pat, now a policy analyst for the California Health Care Association, has a poster-sized photo in her Sacramento office of her father, sprawled out on the Arctic ice, laying his body between a hunter and a seal pup.
Divorced from his wife, Peg, and living largely apart from his five children, Ryan was even more of a loner in Congress.
Speier said you could name his close friends on the fingers of both hands, and have some fingers left over.
A scholar with a master's in Elizabethan literature, Ryan was not a back-slapping member of the House fraternity.
"He was a difficult man to understand," Pat Ryan said. "He wanted to be loved and he wanted to be respected and he wanted to be different and he wanted to make a difference. He probably had a hard time letting people really get to know him as a person."
Then, in 1977, he heard from Sammy Houston, who had roomed with him on the Capuchino band trip to Washington in 1961. Houston's son, Robert, had quit the Peoples Temple and had been found dead in the East Bay under mysterious circumstances.
Sammy Houston's attempts to contact his daughter-in-law and grandchildren in Guyana had been thwarted.
Ryan began looking into the matter. He heard from constituents, family members who were worried sick that something was wrong in Jonestown.
"We had heard from defectors and from concerned relatives that there was mind control, people being held against their will, physical abuse, sexual abuse. And there were guns," Speier said.
The State Department repeatedly stonewalled Ryan's attempts to find out what was going on in Jonestown, telling him everything was fine.
Ryan decided to go to Jonestown, ostensibly in his role as chairman of a congressional subcommittee that had jurisdiction over Americans abroad.
He asked the other members of the Bay Area congressional delegation to accompany him. They all declined.
"He took on this issue when all the state and congressional legislators around him wouldn't touch it," said Speier.
"I think he was afraid," said Pat Ryan. "But he also believed that, goddammit, somebody's got to do something."
The last time Pat Ryan saw her father, she was walking him to the car outside the family's Burlingame home. He was going to Jonestown.
Pat Ryan hugged her father, and, joking nervously, said, "Don't let anybody shoot you."
"Don't worry," her father said. "I'll be fine."
"I think he believed the power of his office would protect him, and that was the case in Guyana. He also believed the press covering his trip would protect him," Pat Ryan said.
To the end, Ryan believed that it was going to turn out all right -- even after he had been attacked by a knife-wielding Peoples Temple member, Speier said.
"There was a bravado to him, no question. It was one of his strengths and one of his flaws," she said.
It may have been headline-grabbing, but it was more.
"You can take trips and go to Europe," Speier said. "You don't have to go to the jungles of Guyana."
But that was what Leo Ryan did.
"He did what he did better than anybody else," said George Corey, a Millbrae attorney and friend and political protege of Ryan's.
"He would march into the heart of hell to see it firsthand."
Messiahs and Skeptics
San Francisco Examiner editorial
November 17, 1998
The power of remembrance is strong, especially in this city, which was the home of Peoples Temple. Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of the event burned into our collective memory as "Jonestown," the mass murder of 918 souls in the jungle of South America.
The facts are well known.
Jim Jones, a self-styled messiah, ingratiated himself with the political powers in San Francisco and gained a large following. Then, abruptly he left, taking his mostly poor, mostly black flock to a remote forest outpost in Guyana. There, Jones' paranoia escalated, especially when a delegation led by U.S. Rep. Leo J. Ryan visited in November 1978. As Ryan's group prepared to leave, trouble broke out. Ultimately, five people -- including Examiner photographer Greg Robinson -- would be shot to death at an airstrip nearby, and 913 others would perish at Jonestown in a mass suicide presided over by Jones.
One unforgettable image is of clumps of bodies, face down and poisoned with potassium cyanide, bloating in the tropical sun. Another is the portrait of a madman -- the famous picture of Jones glaring behind his aviator sunglasses. A third is the crude wooden sign that hung in the pavilion at Jonestown. "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it," it said.
That is usually taken as a warning against other evil Jim Joneses who may be lurking out there. It is a fair warning, and should be heeded.
But it is not a latter-day Jones that we need to fear so much as our own gullibility, rooted in our very human desires to trust other people, to have faith in them, to create heroes, to want more from life than seems to exist and to find an exit from the pain of suffering.
Jones offered those expediencies, but he could not have succeeded had his pupils -- and his mentors -- exercised another important human quality: skepticism.
True believers don't want to buy doubt. They ride on a wave of pure positive emotion. But it is a fool's feeling.
David Koresh lured families to his own messianic household near Waco, Texas, with a brand of evangelism even more blatantly screwy than Jones'. Koresh followers surrendered their independence, and later their lives. Heaven's Gate cultists near San Diego last year suspended disbelief to, uh-huh, catch a comet.
But it is in less dramatic ways, too, that skepticism is healthy. Against zealots in politics, single-minded social reformers and blindered ideologues of all types.
It's a good thing that we turn governments out of power every few years before they are corrupted, and before they in turn corrupt us. The clash of wills represented in partisan politics isn't such a bad thing considering the alternative.
In the '70s, virtually everyone was eager to buy into Jim Jones. He could deliver votes. He championed the poor and mouthed allegiance to the First Amendment. He gave hope to abandoned souls, provided a family to the lonely.
Some people said he could perform miracles.
His only miracle was the power to mesmerize, made possible by too many people's willingness to be mesmerized.
In hindsight, Jones was as phony as the cancer "cures" he used to create adoration for himself. His audacity was mistaken for courage. Any doubts were put down as persecution.
The best antidote for the next Jim Jones to come along is adversity of viewpoints, influences, sources and references. We need to be ready for him, with our skeptical armaments in place.
The final lesson of Jonestown isn't about the evil out there. It's about building our inner strength to spot evil, fight it and dominate it. Everything depends on us.