Teri Buford O'Shea fled Jonestown three weeks before all its inhabitants committed suicide. Here, she explains why the tragedy should be a cautionary tale for everyday people.
Teri Buford O'Shea
On November 18, 1978, Jim Jones and more than 900 members of his People's Temple committed mass suicide in the jungle of Guyana. Since that time, the event has occupied a grotesque but fringy place in American history. Jones's followers are imagined as wide-eyed innocents, swallowing his outrageous teachings along with his cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. Teri Buford O'Shea remembers things quite differently.
O'Shea was 19 years old when she joined the People's Temple in Redwood Valley, California. It was 1971, and O'Shea was homeless when a man pulled up alongside her in a van. He told her about the community where he lived -- a place, he said, where no one had to worry about food or housing. The leader was a visionary who was building a new future. O'Shea gladly took the ride. After all, she assumed, if she didn't like the People's Temple, she could always leave.
Forty years later, O'Shea is just beginning to speak openly about her seven years with Jim Jones, first in California and then at his compound in Guyana. Her memories of Jonestown are complex. Its inhabitants, she says, were warm people who worked hard to build a utopian community. Jones himself was passionately committed to civil rights -- during the 1960s, he helped integrate churches, hospitals, restaurants, and movie theaters, and he personally adopted several children of color. (His only biological child, Stephan, had the middle name Gandhi.) The majority of the followers who died with him were African-American, and one third were children.
As O'Shea tells it, Jones's idealism was a large part of what made him so lethal. He tapped into the zeitgeist of the late 1960s and 1970s, feeding on people's fears and promising to create a "rainbow family" where everyone would truly be equal. He was charismatic enough to lure hundreds of people to a South American jungle, where he cut off all their ties with the outside world.
O'Shea, who escaped just three weeks before the massacre, recently published a collection of poems and photographs called Jonestown Lullaby. I spoke to her this morning about her memories of Jim Jones, including the mass suicide rehearsals he called White Nights. She described her dawning realization that Jones was going to kill her. And she explained why Jonestown should be remembered not as an American curiosity but a cautionary tale for everyday people.
You say that you want people to remember the good parts of Jonestown. What were the good parts?
What was good about Jonestown was not Jim Jones. It was the people he attracted. They came from every walk of life, from the very well educated to the totally uneducated. Some had lots of money. Some were living off of Social Security, and some didn't even have that. It could have been you. It was me.
How did Jones manage to lure all these people in, to the point where they would follow him anywhere?
He was very charismatic and attracted people who were feeling vulnerable or disenfranchised for whatever reason. Most of them were African-American, but there were also white people, Jewish people, people of Mexican descent. There were religious Christians and communists. If you wanted religion, Jim Jones could give it to you. If you wanted socialism, he could give it to you. If you were looking for a father figure, he'd be your father. He always homed in on what you needed and managed to bring you in emotionally.
I always looked at the Temple as a utopian community that used religion to get where we were wanting to go. Other people took it as Christ's way. There's a passage in the Bible where Jesus tells people to leave their families and follow him. Jim quoted that quite a lot. He said he was Gandhi, Buddha, Lenin -- he said he was the coming back of anybody you'd ever want to come back. And we believed him.
What was your impression of Jones when you first arrived at the Temple?
The first time I met him, I was convinced he could read minds, cast spells, do all kinds of powerful things, both good and evil. I was afraid of him and stayed afraid of him for seven years.
We didn't know he was a drug addict. Drugs were anathema at the Temple; we weren't supposed to do that kind of stuff. I learned after the massacre that he drugged people on the outpost there to keep them from trying to leave, to keep them from trying to dissent, to control them in different ways, all unbeknownst to the masses.
Do you think he really believed he was doing something good for the world?
It's hard to know the mind of Jim Jones. He was a very complex, confusing character. In some ways he was a good guy. He was passionate about interracial integration. The People's Temple built schools, built housing, built a health clinic, built a kitchen, cleared fields, harvested crops. His goal was to set up this utopian community where everything would be fair and equal.
At the same time, he was very paranoid. He could not accept the fact that one person would leave him, ever. He had us all sign papers -- Jim called them compromises. They were blank sheets of paper, or typed sheets of paper that he'd cover up while we signed our name. He had something he could blackmail all of us with. One guy tried to leave and Jim said he'd use his paper against him so he'd never see his children again. So he came back. The thing was, too, that Jim would not let children off the compound. So if you were going to leave, you were leaving your child. There was no way of getting a child out of Jonestown.
And if people did defect, Jim said he'd send them things that had poison on them. At least, that's what he told us he was doing. It's really hard to tell what he was actually doing. In the long run, Jim gave in to drugs and he got himself boxed into a corner. And his paranoia got completely out of control.
What were the warning signs that things might get really dangerous?
One big warning sign was that he had revolutionary suicide practices. He called them White Nights. He did this several times, both in the United States and in Guyana.
That sounds like a pretty big warning sign. How did those work?
There were loudspeakers all over the compound, and Jim Jones's voice was on them almost 24/7. He couldn't be talking all the time, but he'd tape what he said and then play it back all day long. And the rule was that we couldn't talk when Jim Jones was talking. So on the loudspeakers, he'd suddenly call out, "White Night! White Night! Get to the to the pavilion! Run! Your lives are in danger!" Everyone would rush to the pavilion in middle of the encampment.
Then he would tell us that in the United States, African Americans were being herded into concentration camps, that there was genocide on the streets. They were coming to kill and torture us because we'd chosen what he called the socialist track. He said they were on their way.