When Writing Becomes Traumatic: Reporting on the Jonestown Massacre

When Writing Becomes Traumatic: Reporting on the Jonestown Massacre

Whenever the strange phenomena occurred—a debilitating heatwave felt only by me, a terrifying apparition on my computer screen, a certainty that someone was about to attack me with a machete—I chalked them up to stress.

I had a lot to be anxious about. My book was late. My savings were nearing depletion. And I felt increasingly haunted by my project: a narrative history of the Jonestown tragedy, based on a trove of newly released FBI files and hundreds of hours of interviews with survivors.

Although the phrase “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” is now part of our cultural lexicon—a warning against blind faith in leaders and institutions—few people under 40 are aware of its grim origins. On Nov. 18, 1978, an American preacher named Jim Jones forced more than 900 members of his congregation to ingest a cyanide-laced punch at his eponymous compound in Guyana, in an act that he called “revolutionary suicide.”

After the bodies were airlifted back to the US, FBI agents arrived at the compound and collected 50,000 pieces of paper and almost a thousand audio tapes as they tried to puzzle out what went wrong. The agency quickly realized that the architects of the mass murder—Jones and a few equally deranged aides—had died alongside their victims and that there was nobody alive to prosecute for the heinous crime.

To this congregation, Jonestown had been billed a utopia based on equality and love. While most retellings focus on Jim Jones—a drug addict, depressive and megalomaniac—I was far more interested in the ordinary people who moved there to participate in a grand social experiment, only to find themselves trapped in a remote jungle by a psychopath bent on killing them.

Here I was, taking up the mantle, documenting Jim Jones’ treachery, lie by lie, and betrayal by rotten betrayal.

By the time I requested the FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act, they had moldered in an underground storage room in Washington, D.C. for three decades. The agency sent me scanned copies of the documents on three CDs, without an index. It took me an entire year just to read through them and find a way into the story. In the process, I made startling discoveries, including the fact that Jim Jones had fantasized about killing his followers long before they arrived in Guyana.

Interspersed among the shipping manifests and crop reports, there were handwritten notes from Jonestown residents. Here, a memo to Jones from the camp doctor, reporting that he’d succeeded in growing toxic bacterium, but couldn’t produce enough to kill all 1,000 Jonestown residents. There, pleas from terrified residents begging Jones to let them return to California and notes from distraught parents who didn’t know how to explain to their children that death was a “good” thing, as Jones expected them to.

Jones lied through his teeth to lure his congregation to Guyana. Families were not given private cottages, as he had promised, but were split up into separate dwellings. Residents’ passports and money were confiscated. The thin soil couldn’t produce enough food; hunger consumed residents’ thoughts and weakened their bodies and willpower.

But most shocking of all was the change in Jim Jones. He dropped the façade of caring pastor and lurched around the muddy walkways of Jonestown, by turns drunk, high, angry, or paranoid. It was only when his congregants were completely cut off from the world that Jones revealed the true motive for establishing his jungle kingdom: he wanted residents to kill themselves as a macabre statement in support of socialism.

By the time people regretted coming to Jonestown, it was too late. “If you want to go home, you can swim home,” Jones told them. “We won’t pay your fucking way home.” Meanwhile, they were forced to write letters home that touted Jonestown as a booming success.

There were many secrets lurking in the FBI files: secrets that revealed the depth of Jones’ sexual and moral depravity, the utter failure of his “model socialist cooperative,” the details of how he bullied residents toward death even as they resisted him every step of the way. He killed his followers before they could reveal the truth about Jonestown to the world. He killed them to silence them.

And now here I was, taking up the mantle, documenting Jim Jones’ treachery, lie by lie, and betrayal by rotten betrayal.

*

A year into my research, in 2008, I decided to visit Jonestown to better lay the scene for my book. It was during this trip that things began to go sideways.

The State Department’s travel advisory for Guyana was alarming: “violent crime, such as armed robbery and murder, is common.” Visiting Americans were warned “not to walk alone, travel at night, wear watches or jewelry or talk on a cell phone.” I decided to bring my husband as backup and arranged to leave our toddler with my older sister in Indiana.

I’d planned the trip using a fixer, a former military pilot who owned a hotel in the capital of Georgetown. Our flight from Miami landed at night and, as instructed by the fixer, my husband and I made our way to an unmarked white van in the parking lot. The road to the hotel was long, unlit, and deserted, and yet the driver drove like a stuntman: first gunning the motor, then slamming on the brakes, then veering onto the shoulder. There were no seatbelts, and we skidded around on the bench behind him for several minutes before I finally shouted out, “What’s going on?”

“Bandits!” he responded. Thieves lurked along the airport road, he explained, and threw logs in front of cars to forcibly stop and rob tourists. We made it safely to the hotel, where we appeared to be the only guests, but a sense of foreboding had already switched on inside of me.

I spent several days reporting in Georgetown, an impoverished city that—seen through the State Department’s travel advisory—seemed to be pulsing with latent hostility. Our white skin stood out. One afternoon, as we waited for a cab outside of the National Archives, several passengers on a passing bus thrust their hands out the windows to flip us off.

The night before we left for Jonestown, the fixer-hotel owner summoned me to his office and pulled a small photograph album from his desk. As a young military pilot, he had helped retrieve the bodies of Jonestown victims, including that of Congressman Leo Ryan, who’d traveled to Guyana to investigate rumors that residents were being held against their will.

Indeed, the Ryan delegation left Jonestown with a large group of residents, and while they waited at a jungle airstrip for the planes to arrive that would carry them to safety, Jones’s henchmen attacked, gunning down Ryan, three reporters, and a church member. The fixer’s album was filled with snapshots of the dead Americans. Their bodies lay twisted on the tarmac, drained of blood, gray-white. Ragged, torn flesh. Fixed, unseeing eyes.

The fixer wanted to rebuild Jonestown as a dark tourism destination, an aim that competed with similar plans by the Guyanese government. He wanted to rebuild the compound’s wooden structures, which had burned down long before, including the cottages and the pavilion, where residents were forced at gunpoint to drink poison. He thought it would be entertaining to play Jim Jones’s haranguing voice over loudspeakers. He wanted to know if I thought Americans would shell out $200 a night for the ghastly thrill, all meals included.

Was someone, or something, sending me threatening signals to dissuade me from publishing my book?

I didn’t answer him. I was transfixed by the gruesome photo album. The images seemed as intensely personal as a collection of private nudes. The murder victims couldn’t protest being exhibited this way, their final vulnerability collected in a stranger’s album to elicit shock and disgust in casual viewers.

For months afterward, images of these dead bodies drifted up as I fell asleep, as I rode BART, as I ate supper and watched TV and had sex and did breathing exercises to try to drive them away.

*

There are no roads to Jonestown. The compound lays 134 miles north of Georgetown, along the Venezuelan border. As in the 1970s, the only way to get there today is by air or water. Most Jonestown residents took a boat, and so did we, chartering a small speedboat that charged up jungle rivers past Amerindians in dugout canoes.

At Port Kaituma, the closest village to Jonestown and a hub for wildcat mining, we gave the police our itinerary, as instructed by the fixer for “security purposes.” The station walls were lined with “Wanted for Murder” posters detailing miner-on-miner violence. Guns are illegal in Guyana; machetes are the weapon of choice. On the way to the hotel, we walked past a large crowd of miners—machetes slung from their waistbands, sullenly drinking from cans of beer—who watched a man with his pants around his ankles stuff a roll of toilet paper down his briefs.

At 10 p.m., the electricity cut out and so did the air-conditioning. As my sweat mingled in the foam pillow with that of previous guests, I thought about the joyful anticipation of Temple members as they travelled to Jonestown. Eager to forge a society based on social justice. Eager to prove to the world that such a thing was possible. How tender their hippy sentiments seemed, how touchingly naive. I recognized most of their names and faces. Their passport photos mingled with my family photos on my hard drive, reflecting an ordinary humanity: Black, white, old, young—they looked like you and me and anyone and everyone.

A tractor in Jonestown. Photo by Julia Scheeres.

I’d been dreading the visit to Jonestown, where their bright hopes curdled into abject despair. Residents were forbidden from complaining. From saying they missed home. From mentioning the oppressive jungle heat. Jones shrewdly destroyed any sense of solidarity among them by demanding that they report “negative” comments and behavior. Troublemakers were assigned to the “Learning Crew” to dig ditches under the blazing sun; runaways sent to the “Special Care Unit,” where they were injected with Thorazine, a paralyzing sedative.

The fixer arranged for a young man with a pick-up to drive us to Jonestown, four miles down a deeply rutted mud road from Port Kaituma. The place where the compound’s 48 cottages and five dormitories once stood was now an overgrown field. The Amerindian guides I’d hired—a father and son who’d worked for the Jonestown community—macheted a path to the rusting carcasses of a flat-bed truck and a small tractor, to an earthen tunnel that was once used for storage.

A lone tree marked the location of the pavilion. We trampled high grass to get there. I’d expected to be walloped by sorrow when I arrived at the place where nearly 1,000 children, women and men were murdered. But I felt as empty as the landscape around me. I simply could not match the peaceful scene—the orange-flowering lantana bushes, the roiling cumulus clouds on the horizon, the shrill call of a hidden bird—with the misery I was trying to distill onto the page.

I was disappointed in myself. How could I make my readers care about the people of Jonestown if I, myself, was unable to muster emotion in the very spot where they took their last, terrorized, breaths?

My husband pulled a camcorder from his backpack to film my interview with the Amerindian father and son, and I had just started asking them questions, when what I can only describe as a massive wave of heat engulfed me. I swooned and doubled over. In that same moment, the camcorder seized and stopped recording.

Dizzy and nauseated, I stumbled to a log and sat down. Nobody else felt the heatwave. Just me.

Me and the device that was recording the damning story that Jim Jones had so desperately wanted to suppress. A can of warm orange juice revived me; the camcorder never recovered.

*

At some point, my deep empathy for Jones’s victims tipped into something eerie—a kind of shared, real-time, distress. Although they’d been dead for 30 years, but I was writing their story in a taut, blow-by-blow replay as the noose of Jones’s madness pulled tighter and tighter. I got pregnant and my pregnancy made me feel huge, slow, and weak. I worried about my ability to outrun danger and became hyperalert and fearful. A cellphone ring was enough to startle me. Alone in my office, I sensed movements at my periphery. In the shower stall at the gym, I was plagued by visions of a machete thrusting beneath the shower stall to hack at my legs. And so on. Foolish thoughts. I felt fear and then a backlash of shame. So stupid, I muttered to myself as I walked down the middle of a street in San Francisco to avoid “menacing” tech workers on the sidewalk.

Only reluctantly did I acknowledge these phenomena as PTSD—something I thought I’d overcome years earlier. For there were commonalities between my life and the lives of Jonestown residents, and these commonalities were becoming harder to ignore.

When I was 17, my parents sent me to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic after learning I’d had sex with a classmate. Many of the techniques Jones used to subdue his followers were employed at Escuela Caribe, including sleep and food deprivation, “attack” therapy, and hard labor. As in Jonestown, there was no solidarity among students, who were rewarded for reporting “negative” behavior; I once spent an afternoon carrying a pile of rocks up and down a hill after someone overheard me singing a secular song, Phil Collins’ “I Don’t Care Anymore.”

“Rebellious” kids were publicly hurt and humiliated—pitted against larger staff in boxing matches, spanked with a leather strap, shorn of their hair. Like Jonestown residents, we were not allowed to complain, and our letters home were censored to make our parents believe we were perfectly content. For decades I lived with the residual effects of living under chronic stress—a PTSD that manifested itself as a persistent fear of random violence. And as my research into Jonestown progressed, my fears coalesced around one person: Jim Jones.

My second daughter was born with a pelt of dark hair and big cheeks and reminded me of a Jonestown baby named Summer Simon—a girl who would never turn 3. After her birth, I had a chronic dream that I was standing in a silent line winding up a narrow staircase, my husband and toddler beside me. I recognized the stairwell from my childhood church but knew the line ended at a vat of poison. There was a small window in the stairwell and I studied it, wondering if we could boost our toddler through the opening so that she, at least, could survive. Hearing me whimper, my husband would nudge me awake.

Jim Jones almost fooled Congressman Ryan. Residents prepared for Ryan’s arrival for weeks, rehearsing answers to pointed questions, parroting the phrases “I’m perfectly happy in Jonestown” and “I never want to leave.” On the night of his visit, a variety show was staged in the pavilion and a gifted young woman sang the Earth, Wind & Fire hit “That’s the Way of the World,” backed by the Jonestown band. It was this song that played on my car radio, with increasing frequency, as I drove my kids to and from daycare. And it was accompanied by something stranger: a pressure on my lower back, as if someone were sitting behind me and pushing their knees into my seatback. I began to drive leaning forward to avoid the sensation.

At the office I rented in at a writers’ collective in San Francisco, a new shared iTunes library popped up one afternoon under the name “Laurence Shacht”—way too similar to the name of the Jonestown doctor, Lawrence Schacht. It was Dr. Schacht—an angry depressive whom Jones put through medical school and who later became Jones’ pusher—who recommended Jones use a deadly cocktail of cyanide and sedatives to kill residents. I’d found Schacht’s memo to Jones, asking to experiment on a “large pig.” When this name appeared on my computer screen, I rushed through the building knocking on doors, asking if anybody who worked there was named “Laurence Shacht.” Nobody was. I returned to my office and clicked on the shared music library; the link didn’t open and soon disappeared.

Were these warnings? Was someone, or something, sending me threatening signals to dissuade me from publishing my book? I was too ashamed to tell anyone about these bizarre occurrences, even my husband.

I dragged my feet on the last chapter, which narrates Jonestown’s violent final contractions. I’d brought the residents to life on the page as best I could and didn’t want to murder them all over again. The 44-minute “Death Tape”—the audio Jones recorded on the evening of November 18, as he urged residents to drink “the potion”—brought me to tears. Jones edited the tape on the fly, stopping and starting the recording dozens of times, trying to silence protestors. He wanted the world to believe that a thousand people placidly lined up to drink poison. But there’s screaming on the tape. There are women wailing. A child clearly shouts “No!” All the while, Jones berates his victims—“Stop the hysterics!” he commands, and “Die with a degree of dignity!” When you listen to this tape, you are listening to people being killed, in real time.

It was very late when I finished the book. I was alone in my office, in the building. I gathered my backpack and walked down the dark hallway to use the bathroom before taking BART home. Writing the last scene had left me rattled, fearful, primed. I held fast to the idea of my family on the other side of the bay, my young children sleeping in their cheery yellow room, my husband watching the Red Sox game in the living room, everyone safe.

Although I was the only person in the building, I still locked the stall door. A single fluorescent tube stuttered overhead. In the silence I became aware of the one-two pump of my heart, of my ragged breath. And then a sensation that made my body go rigid: a conviction that Jim Jones was on the other side of the stall door, standing by the sinks. Waiting. Determined to silence me, as he’d silenced the people of Jonestown.

A truck in Jonestown. Photo by Julia Scheeres

So stupid. Yet, at that moment, his nefarious presence on the other side of the stall door felt as real as the keyboard I am typing this on. How long did I sit there, ricocheting with terror? Five minutes? Fifteen? An hour? Time slows and warps when you are attuned to every noise in a three-story building, to every shift in the air around you.

The tension broke when my phone rang. I startled, then reached down to retrieve it from my backpack. It was my husband, wondering where I was. His voice was a lifeline as I unlatched the door and then kicked it open. There was nobody by the sink. Of course there wasn’t.

I howled with laughter, with relief.

“What’s so funny?” my husband asked, annoyed at my outburst.

“Nothing,” I said.

Too much had happened, none of it reasonable.

*

The next year, I sat behind a table at a booksellers’ event, signing copies of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, which had been widely, and positively, reviewed. The New York Times called it “a gripping account of how decent people can be taken in by a charismatic and crazed tyrant.” The dreams and macabre images had receded. I had more time to spend with my kids.

I watched as a scowling, gray-haired man crossed the room and approached me. He planted both of his hands on the table and leaned across it, until he was so close that I could see the greasy smudges on his glasses. “Jonestown,” he sneered loudly, drawing out the word as if it were an epithet. “What do you know about Jonestown?”

He reminded me of certain older male journalists I’d encountered throughout my career, the kind who shore up a fading sense of preeminence by lobbing petty insults and digs at other writers, especially women.

I turn pointedly away from him. Another person was striding over, a woman, smiling and holding my book.

What did I know about Jonestown? In my own peculiar way, I had lived it.

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