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.
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.
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 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.
We didn’t know this at the time, but he’d set up people who would shoot into the jungle to make us feel as if we were under attack. And there were other people who were set up to run and get shot—with rubber bullets, though we didn’t know it at the time. So there you were, in the middle of the jungle. Shots were being fired, and people were surrounding you with guns.
Then a couple of women brought out these trays of cups of what they said was cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, or Flavor-Aid—whichever they had. Everybody drank it. If we didn’t drink it, we were forced to drink it. If we ran, we thought we’d be shot. At the end of it, we were wondering, Why aren’t we dead?
And then Jim would just start laughing and clapping his hands. He’d tell us it was a rehearsal and say, “Now I know I can trust you.” And then, in the weirdest way, he said, “Go home, my darlings! Sleep tight!” We weren’t really in the mood for sleeping tight at that point.
Do you think the people who died on November 18 thought at first that it was another dress rehearsal?
No, when the final time came, I think people were aware it was the real thing. It had been a very, very bad day. Congressman Ryan had come to investigate the compound and people were leaving with him. People argued with Jim, but anyone who didn’t want to commit suicide was held down and shot with needles filled with potassium cyanide. Unless you were one of the lucky ones who happened to sneak off into the jungle, you were dead. They went around with stethoscopes, and if you still had a heartbeat, you’d be shot.
Furthermore, they killed all the children first. That killed a lot of the people at heart before they actually took the Kool-Aid.
How did you figure out that you needed to escape?
By the time I got to Guyana, I knew things were getting bad. You walked into the jungle there and saw a sign that said Welcome to the Jonestown Agricultural Project. Then you saw guards with guns up above in watchtowers. And there were the beatings. I remember mentioning that I was in the mood for bacon and someone told me, “Oh, don’t talk that way! You’ll get beat!” I thought, Oh my God, I can’t even talk about food desires!
The worst beating I witnessed was when somebody was accused of being a pedophile. Jim took hold of a rubber hose and proceeded, in front of others, to beat this man’s private parts to the point where he was bleeding. I know pedophilia is horrible, too, but that was just cruel and totally abusive. There were a number of beatings like that—they were really bad.
It was a combination of that and finding out little by little what was real and what wasn’t. The turning point for me was in the jungle one day, when one of the aluminum roofs slipped off one of the cottages and made this loud bang. Jim Jones went out of his skin. He was terrified. And I thought,Wait a second—why hasn’t he been terrified all these other times when people were supposedly attacking us with guns? Now a tin roof falls and he’s scared? That’s when I realized that the guns weren’t real.
You’ve written a poem called “I Do Not Love You” in which you describe an incident where Jim Jones held you at gunpoint. Can you talk a bit about that?
He called me down to his cabin one day. He had designated me to be one of his partners, which was a dubious distinction. I had never, ever told him I loved him. Because I didn’t—I was afraid of him. He held a gun to my head and said, “Tell me you love me.” I thought, I could tell him what he wants to hear. On the other hand, he’s paranoid, so maybe I should tell him the truth. It was a flip of the quarter.
I said, “I don’t love you.” And he accepted it. You never knew, from one minute to the next, how he’d react. He told me one time, while he was close, that he would like to die while strangling me. He had hands around my neck. I thought, I hope this isn’t the moment he finally cracks.
From that point on, I minded my manners with Jim Jones. My mother was schizophrenic, and he started really reminding me of her. I was one of his many secretaries, and he had me writing all kinds of letters—letters to people in the government, letters to people who had defected. When he started dictating those rambling, 20-page letters, I realized they were the ramblings of a madman. I knew from my mother that the rational approach wasn’t going to work with him. I needed to keep his trust in me and get out the first opportunity that arrived.
How did that chance finally come?
There were a number of lawsuits going on in United States, calling on Jim Jones to come back. Jim’s lawyer, Mark Lane, had come down to Guyana and told him there was a conspiracy against him. So Jim sent Mark back to the United States to handle the lawsuits and take care of the situation.
I suggested that I go back with Mark and work as his secretary. I told them they shouldn’t hire an outside secretary who couldn’t be trusted. So Jim sent me back. I went to San Francisco and packed up my stuff—what little I had—and said I was going to the dentist. Then I got the next plane out to New York. I changed my name to Kim Jackson for the longest time, until the FBI finally found me.
What was your life like after the massacre?
I was as shocked as anyone. I was 26, and I’d spent the past seven years of my life with these people. They were beautiful and hardworking. I’ve spent my life since working as a counselor for people with disabilities, both physical and emotional. I regret being in the Temple, regret my role in it, but the only thing I can do for redemption is to live my life and serve people as long as I can. We all wore both white hats and black hats. Except Jim Jones—his hat was primarily black with maybe a little polka dot of white.
How do you feel when you hear people casually use the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid”—as in, “I drank the Kool-Aid. I love everything Lady Gaga does”?
It makes me shudder. I know it’s part of the culture now and I shouldn’t be so sensitive to it. But Jonestown was an important part of American history, and it’s been marginalized. We have to ask ourselves, why did 918 people leave this country and go with Jim Jones to Guyana? That’s a big question. Why did this group feel they’d rather live in a jungle than in San Francisco, Oakland, Atlanta, wherever they were living?
There’s a lot of disagreement over the word cult. How would you define it?
A cult is when you aren’t allowed to see your friends or family. I’m not talking about a retreat, or two weeks at a spa. I’m talking about total isolation—someone takes all your money and brings you to a place where there’s no communication, or if there is you aren’t allowed to use it. Those are the lessons I took from Jonestown, and that’s the message I think the American people should take from it. Trust your gut and don’t give up your liberties.
I was fortunate that I had an opportunity to escape and I took it. Even then, I thought Jim Jones would find me and kill me. I had to get to the point where I didn’t care if I died. I just wanted to have my own life, however short it might be. My goal, in fact, was that I wanted to live to be 30 so I could have a rich and full life. Now I have a daughter who’s 29, and I’m 60. I’ve had double what I wished for.