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My Name is Jim Jones
Pamela Feinsilber | February 4, 2008
Twenty-five years after an infamous San Francisco cult leader led his followers to Guyana and later ordered the largest murder-suicide in modern history, the adopted son who carries his name is...
Fourteen months before the horrific events the world has come to call Jonestown, Jimmy Jones was spending the night in the jungle, sobbing. His brother Stephan loved the dense, endless growth of trees and plants that surrounded the compound named after their father, where they lived with about 1,000 other members of their father's congregation. Some people have an affinity for a certain type of geography, and Stephan found that in the tropical woodlands of Guyana, in South America. Jimmy didn't. He hated the jungle. What was the appeal to sleeping in the bush when he had a comfortable bed back in one of the cottages? He was there, with his friend Johnny Cobb, because his father had asked them to do this. By morning, everyone he knew—his parents, his brothers and sister, his first love, Yvette—could be dead. But Jimmy, with Johnny, was a "designated survivor." His father had chosen him to live.
No one said no to Jim Jones, but for Jimmy, adopted when he was ten weeks old, it was easy to say yes. Jimmy was 16, normally a rebellious age, yet he believed in his father's vision. So did everyone he knew. It was exciting to be building a new world here in Jonestown. Stephan might see the negative side of things, but Stephan was an unhappy guy, while Jimmy was having a pretty good time. They'd always had a rivalry going, and Stephan had already learned not to criticize their dad to Jimmy, who would just tell on him. Jimmy would never dream of questioning his father. Especially now, when Jonestown was under attack.
Earlier that day, when Jim Jones called, "Alert! Alert! Alert!" over the public-address system, everyone had hurried to the big, open-sided pavilion. A group of worried relatives in California had sent a lawyer to Guyana, who was talking to the government, saying people were trapped in Jonestown. Both paranoid and manipulative, Jones exaggerated the threat; and tonight, he told his followers, their "fascist" enemy was just outside the gates. He ordered all who could to smear their faces with mud, pick up a weapon—one of the ancient guns, a knife, a pitchfork, a crossbow—and make a circle around the compound to fight the armed men awaiting them. Jones had been testing their loyalty for years: Commitment to their cause, and to Father—everyone called Jones Father—demanded nothing less than "revolutionary suicide," if it came to that. Better to die together than to be split apart.
But that evening, Jimmy and Johnny had a different task. They were given a trunk containing gold and American money and told to bury it in the jungle, then make their way home to San Francisco to tell the story of Jonestown. The boys walked around the defense perimeter saying good-bye. Then they went deep into the jungle and cried all night long, alone with the sound of the crickets, the howling baboons, the frogs and night birds.
There was no attack, of course. Jones had threatened mass suicide if the authorities disturbed him and his followers, and the lawyer went home. When Jim Jones Jr., now living happily with his own family in Pacifica, looks back on that terrifying night, he doesn't convey shame or guilt that he would have been spared. He doesn't bemoan how deluded he'd been, express rage that good people were told such a monstrous lie or sorrow that he didn't see where his father's madness would end. All he remembers is the vast joy and relief he felt when he learned that "negotiations" had averted the crisis. He was still "in the bubble" of his father's power, and the powerful dream he preached.
An African American, Jimmy believed that if he hadn't been adopted by Jim Jones, his life would likely have been one of drugs or poverty or crime. In this way, his story reflects that of his father's followers. The majority of people who joined Jones's Peoples Temple were also poor or working class and black, from deteriorating neighborhoods and broken families, their lives taken over by a man offering a better way of life.
Jones had gathered his flock with a deeply attractive message: They could create a society where everyone was equal and people took care of one another. Jonestown was to be a living example of that, a Christian, socialist Utopia. And perhaps it might have become a thriving community had it not had another purpose: to put Jones's flock beyond the reach of anyone's questions. And one more: to keep the group together, which is another way of saying to keep anyone else from leaving him. No one realized just how important that had become to the Reverend Jim Jones. His followers already attributed him with knowledge and powers beyond that of normal men. In Guyana he became their sole means of information. By coming to Jonestown, they gave up their autonomy—not just their homes and jobs and families in the Bay Area, not just their money and their passports, but the ability to think for themselves. If Father said they were being attacked, who among them could refute it?
The following year, in mid-November 1978, members of the group called Concerned Relatives came to Jonestown with Congressman Leo Ryan, of San Mateo. Jones begged to be left in peace, but when Ryan's group departed, so did a family named Parks. Convinced his grand vision would come undone if even a few people broke away, Jones sent some of his followers to kill Ryan—which they did, along with two NBC reporters, a photographer from the San Francisco Examiner, and Patricia Parks. Then Jones gathered his flock for another suicide drill. Only this time, it wasn't a drill.
They were gentle grandmothers and helpless babies, hardworking parents who wanted to spare their kids the bigotry they had known, once-troubled teens who found purpose in communal life, open-hearted boys and girls who might have grown up to be anything. It seems to need saying that each one's life had value when what we remember is a widely published photograph of anonymous bodies.
This is what people think of when they hear the word Jonestown: More than 900 men, women, and children lying side by side around an open-air pavilion, puffing up like balloons in the tropical heat after drinking from a vat of poisoned Kool-Aid.
Like a tremendous earthquake, that image sent waves of shock and horror around the world. The epicenter wasn't really Guyana, though; it was San Francisco. After gathering converts from all over the country, Jones had based his Peoples Temple in the Fillmore district. Most of those who died in Guyana—almost 70 percent of whom were African American—had been living in San Francisco.
Jimmy and a handful of others had been in Guyana's capital, Georgetown, during Ryan's visit to Jonestown. So in an odd way, he was a designated survivor after all. But just as rehearsed the year before, he lost his loved ones, including Yvette, by then his wife. To this day, Jim Jones Jr. isn't sure what he would have done had he been there with the others. Yet even with those unanswerable questions and that infamous name, he's created a life remarkable for its ordinariness: suburban husband and father, successful pharmaceuticals salesman, registered Republican, Catholic churchgoer, kids' basketball coach, well-liked neighbor and friend.
On this 25th anniversary, he is being interviewed for a documentary film, a play, and, of course, for this story. He's doing all this for his sons—to add to the more dispassionate historical record—and because he feels that, after all these years, he's come to understand something important. "We all have Jonestowns in our lives," he believes. "Take my story, look at all the ugly parts, and some of the beautiful parts, and take from it that you can come out of something and be whoever you want to be. You can accomplish whatever you want to accomplish. It's all within. You know what I mean?"
"I wasn't going to be what everybody expected me to be," he has said of his life after Jonestown, "a tweaked-out, weird person who couldn't assimilate in society. Out of the great misery that people have endured, isn't it the best tribute to those loved ones we lost to try and live a better life?"
Now 43, he is tall, good-looking, upbeat, and warm—someone people like to be around. He laughs and jests, even about Jonestown, and the inevitable Kool-Aid jokes. When he talks about loss, his demeanor is solemn, not anguished; he isn't a tortured soul, bearing a burden of guilt and remorse. "I like to remember the positive things," he says. "The positive things will make me grow. The negative things will only make me dwell on things I can't change."
You can't refute the logic, but during five long conversations, I found it difficult to comprehend his lack of emotion. The astute New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright, who wrote about Jim and his two surviving brothers ten years ago, told me, "There were moments I felt frustrated interviewing him because I wanted more affect, more feeling for what he had gone through."
And yet very, very few of us have experienced anything remotely like what happened in Jonestown. People cope with cataclysmic tragedy in different ways. Growing up with Jim Jones, bearing "the gift of his name," Jimmy learned compassion, ambition, the importance of working with others toward a better life for all. At the same time, his father taught him not to respect emotion, and Jimmy's intense gratitude to this man kept him from seeing anything he didn't want to see. After November 18, 1978, those deep-seated habits helped him to concentrate on the future and remember the good things from his past—to build a new life and avoid wallowing in despair. Strange but true, being adopted helped Jim Jones Jr. bear the burden of Jonestown.
He began life in Indiana as Larry Allen Knox, born in 1960 to a 14-year-old girl who put him in an orphanage. Ten weeks later, a white minister and his wife, Marceline, adopted him and gave him his new father's name: He would be James Warren Jones Jr.
The Joneses had already adopted a part-Native American nine-year-old, as well as three Amerasian orphans who were born in Korea. Marceline was pregnant when one of the three, Stephanie, age five, died in a car crash with several Temple members in 1959. She gave birth to a son soon afterward, and they named him Stephan. "He's homemade," Jim says with what he describes as his "little sense of macabre humor." "The rest of us are takeouts." Several years later, the family adopted a Caucasian boy Stephan's age; until then, Jimmy completed what they called their Rainbow Family.
Jim Jones, then 29, was the pastor of a Pentecostal church established four years earlier, the Peoples Temple. He was committed to both liberal ideals and a bigger ministry, and eventually he found his constituency in the kind of inner-city neighborhood Jimmy was from. Jones had studied evangelical ministers at work in tent meetings all over Indiana. By 1960, he had refined his spellbinding delivery of shout-filled sermons, fervid prayers, emotion-draining faith healings and acts of clairvoyance—all, he claimed, the work of the Holy Spirit. He was charismatic and convincing, because at times he believed in his superior powers himself. Peoples Temple was one of the first churches in the country with an interracial congregation. Its social activism was another draw: Members of the Temple gave coal or rent money to those who needed it, worked a busy soup kitchen.
In 1960, it wasn't unusual to be called a "nigger lover" for crusading against injustice, for having an integrated congregation or an African American baby. Even then, however, Jones exaggerated or completely faked attacks against him: bomb scares, broken windows, death threats. It was a way of gaining publicity and converts, but it also added to his stress and paranoia. Jones began suffering collapses, which Marceline, a nurse, knew sometimes lacked a physical cause but helped him to cover up. She was the first of many to hide his deceit and weakness from the world. In their exhaustive 1982 biography Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, Tim Reiterman (a former Examiner reporter who was in Guyana with Ryan) and John Jacobs say that Marceline had wanted to leave her husband early on. Loyalty, the stigma of divorce, and, later, Jones's threat to separate her from her children kept her in the marriage. She died with the others at Jonestown, part victim, part abettor.
By 1962, Jones's diffuse fears had coalesced around nuclear annihilation. After reading, in Esquire, about the safest places to be in the event of a nuclear attack, he moved his family to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, for two years. Temple membership dwindled while they were gone, and in 1965, Jones took the family and the remnants of his congregation, about 150 people, to rural Redwood Valley, near Ukiah, 100 miles north of San Francisco.
Jim says he had "a great childhood"—a deceptively simple phrase laden with positive thoughts, gratitude, and a preference not to dwell on his father's flaws. "I worked hard to be number one," he says. "I don't think my father loved me more than the others. I think I brought him more joy because I was always grateful for everything he did." What he remembers is tree houses, swimming pools, playing basketball with his brothers. He didn't even mind the long weekend bus trips into San Francisco, where his father preached at a temple on Geary Boulevard. He would do his homework on the bus, and one year, he says proudly, even with all that traveling, he never missed a day of school.
In the early seventies, the congregation bought 11 Greyhound buses and began taking them around the country for old-fashioned summer revival meetings, from Houston to New York and Detroit. The buses rolled through the poorer parts of town, gathering converts as they went. Sometimes Jimmy preached. When he was about 12, his dad took him to see a documentary movie called Marjoe, about the strange life of a child preacher named Marjoe Gortner. As an adult, Gortner was disillusioned and bitter, but what Jones wanted Jimmy to take away was how he'd been "able to motivate and strike excitement in the audiences," Jim says. "You want to grow up and be like your father, and here was a way I was gonna be like him, except different from my brothers."
The heart of Jimmy's sermon was the riveting tale of how his father had snatched him from death. When Jimmy was six, the family had set out to go bowling in Willits, about ten miles from their home. As their old Vista Cruiser station wagon crossed Highway 101, a car broadsided them. Jimmy had the severest injuries. He remembers being pulled from the backseat "and my father coming to comfort me, 'cause I thought I was gonna die." In the hospital, Jones told him that he did die, and that his prayers had brought his son back to life.
When he preached, Jimmy would recount this story as testimony to his father's healing powers. "If you're told something as a child, you always believe it. When you're 12, up there speaking in front of 5,000 people—I mean, I didn't have to be good, I just had to be sincere, and I was. I thought my dad had divine powers."
At the revival meetings, he was among the best at collecting offerings. "Think about it. You're going out in the black community in Houston, and you have your son come up and give a sermon, your African American son with the name Jim Jones—don't you see the draw there? But I didn't see it that way at the time." How does he feel about it now? "I feel good about it," he says, "because I believed in what Peoples Temple was trying to do."
Temple members were persuaded that a worthy end justified the means of achieving it, and the Reverend Jones was adept at coercing and intimidating people into staying with the flock. As in Indianapolis, he magnified the hostility of the outside world, conditioning his followers to feel that at any time they could be attacked by the materialistic, reactionary world. Competing for followers with militant groups like the Black Panthers, Jones began styling himself like one of their leaders, complete with armed security and personal guards.
In 1972, he moved his church and his family to San Francisco, where he bought a former Scottish rite temple next door to a Black Muslim mosque on Geary just off Fillmore. By then, Tim, the white son of a Temple member, was living with the Rainbow Family. He and Stephan were 13, Jimmy almost 12, the only children still at home. Once more, what Jim recalls is having fun: playing basketball, going to $1 matinees with his friends, working at the Temple's summer youth camp, where he met Yvette Muldrow, his first girlfriend.
Perhaps because Yvette was African American and talk of black liberation was in the air, Jimmy went next door and joined the Nation of Islam youth group. It was a short-lived foray into his roots. A few months later, his grandmother Lynetta Jones gave him a car, which he was told he couldn't accept because the Nation of Islam did not take gifts from Caucasians. That's when, Jim says with a laugh, "I realized black is only skin-deep."
While Jimmy was playing ball and going to movies, his father was courting the San Francisco power structure. Jim Jones was like a ward boss; when people were needed at demonstrations or for election work, he could deliver them by the busload. In return, he pushed for a political post, and in 1976, mayor George Moscone named him to the San Francisco Housing Authority. Jones quickly became chairman, and, packed with his supporters, the meetings became more like rallies. There were other good photo ops, too, when prominent Democrats or activists such as Moscone, then state assemblyman Willie Brown, then governor Jerry Brown, Angela Davis, and Jane Fonda visited the Temple.
A hypochondriac to begin with, Jones was already taking fistfuls of medication: painkillers, barbiturates, amphetamines, which accentuated his feelings of paranoia, his tendency to self-aggrandizement. Whether seduced by power or by a genuine belief in his vision, the members of his inner circle—all Caucasian—overlooked or hid his weaknesses, collaborated in his deceptions. And, even as he sat with Moscone or Willie Brown, Jones was preparing to move his congregation again. As early as 1974, an advance group was clearing land and building cabins on the 3,824 acres of land that Jones had leased in the far north of Guyana.
The plan was to move the congregation there slowly, with Temple headquarters remaining in San Francisco. But Jones's claims of healing the sick and raising the dead—and disturbing descriptions by former members of the regimentation, fear, and self-imposed humiliation they'd experienced—were bringing the type of publicity Jones couldn't control. In the spring and summer of 1977, New West magazine was preparing a feature article, using the stories of ten defectors to counterpoint Jones's political rise; the San Francisco Examiner was researching two long stories; and in mid-July, District Attorney Joseph Freitas began investigating Temple activities. Temple members started quietly disappearing from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Ukiah, and by September almost 1,000 people had relocated to Guyana.
When Jimmy first visited Guyana, in 1975, it made Redwood Valley look like an overbuilt metropolis. "The jungle was so thick Tarzan couldn't swing through it," he says with a laugh. On moving there with his family two years later, when he was 16, he was amazed at all the work that had been done. The early settlers had created a well-planned, sturdy compound, with 60 wooden cottages and five single-sex dormitories, two canvas-roofed school buildings, a nursery and a preschool, a huge communal kitchen and pantry, an infirmary, a laundry, a radio room, and a large, open-sided pavilion where people would gather in the evenings.
Again, Jim's memories center on having fun, with his brothers, particularly Tim, and his friends from San Francisco. Yvette, whose sister and brother-in-law had brought her into the Temple, was there, too, and the two would take long walks along the river, under an inky sky in which "you could count every star." Many Temple members complained of being underfed, but Jim says there was plenty of food: "A lot of rice, a lot of chicken—using all the parts, as you would in a native country—a lot of pork. It was food that you would eat in South America: okra, cassava, string beans. You worked hard, but you could see what you produced."
He liked the idea of "building a better world," but not the heat and the jungle, and he was glad to get away every chance he could. Jones's oldest son, Korean-born Lew, whose baby was the first child born in Jonestown, never opposed his father, but neither was he entrusted with a leadership position. Jimmy, three years younger than Lew, was part of the security team. One of his father's personal guards, he left Jonestown whenever his dad did, every three months or so: "I worked my avenues out." He never identified with the masses of colonists. "Individuals were not important; the group was more important. In my mind," he says, "I justified leaving with my father by saying I served the organization better by not being there."
His friend Johnny Cobb was also on the security team, the reason, Jim says, they were picked to go into the jungle that frightening evening in 1977. This was the first White Night. Gradually, the term came to apply less to self-defense than to suicide. Jim says his father called on his followers at least a dozen times to drink something that might contain poison. "It was a testimony of faith." As a member of the security team, he could simply slip away, sometimes to take a walk with Yvette.
Stephan and, later, Tim came to recognize the fakery and lies, the overwork, deprivation, and physical and sexual abuse, that Jones used to maintain control. (The worst form of punishment was probably the "sensory isolation box," a four-foot-high packing crate into which those in disfavor might be put for as long as a week.) "My two brothers had more clarity on that," Jim says. "I think they focused on all the negative things about my father. I believed in what he was trying to accomplish. I mean, what did Peoples Temple stand for? A multiracial community of people working to help others."
And here was an easy way to be the one Dad loved best. Jones had persuaded his flock that he needed sexual release more than other men did, and he took lovers of either sex whenever he wished. One day, Stephan thought he saw Jones with his, Stephan's, girlfriend. He made the mistake of telling Jimmy, and Jimmy told their father.
That December, Jimmy's grandmother Lynetta Jones died. She had made her way to Jonestown a few months earlier and never recovered from the trip. Jim Jones had been using drugs for years, and with his mother—perhaps the one person who might have restrained him—gone, he started taking antidepressants along with his mammoth ingestion of uppers and downers. As his health began disintegrating, so did his mental state.
Meanwhile, people were crammed into the cabins and dormitories, and the meals had deteriorated. Jimmy might have eaten well enough, but others less privileged were losing a lot of weight. It wasn't only the limited food; it was the sunup-to-sundown hard labor, maintaining the crops and the compound. And the lack of sleep: At night, Jones was constantly haranguing the colonists about their "enemies" over the public-address system.
By the fall of 1978, Jones's influence over Tim and Stephan had waned considerably, but they didn't know who they could talk to about it. Jimmy wasn't the only one who focused on the end, not the means; the vision, not the reality. As Reiterman and Jacobs wrote in Raven, "[The colonists] had given up so much to come to Jonestown that to even contemplate trouble in paradise would be incapacitating. It was far easier to blame themselves for failing to be contented amid impossible surroundings."
In their different ways, Jimmy and Lew remained loyal to the end. In September, Jones sent Jimmy to work with his dedicated agent in Georgetown, Sharon Amos, to help cultivate good relations with the government. For a time, Yvette was there, too. On October 1, Jimmy turned 18, and they married; he remembers thinking, "It doesn't get any better than this." Now pregnant, Yvette wanted to stay with him, but he sent her back to Jonestown to be with her sister. At the time, it seemed like what a committed socialist would do, putting his own happiness aside for the community.
By then, the Concerned Relatives had interested liberal U.S. representative Leo Ryan in making a "fact-finding" visit to Guyana. Two months later, he was preparing to fly there with 14 of the relatives, two lawyers, a news crew, and two of his aides (one of them now state senator Jackie Speier) when Stephan, Tim, and six others left Jonestown to join Jimmy in Georgetown. The brothers had arranged a basketball tournament with Guyana's Olympic team. The first game took place on November 13, and, completely outmatched, the Jonestown team lost by 30 points. When Ryan arrived, on the 15th, Jones ordered the group to come back. Even Stephan and Tim failed to grasp how dangerously irrational their father had become. After their miserable showing, the team members had been training as hard as they could, and, speaking for the group, Stephan refused to leave.
The Jones sons met Ryan that evening in Georgetown. Jim says they were excited he was there. "We thought, ‘This will clear up all the issues if people want to leave.' Then we could go on with what we were trying to create." Later that night, the second basketball game took place, and this time, Jimmy's team lost by 20 points. Ryan and some of his group took a tiny chartered plane to Port Kaituma, six miles by boat from Jonestown, on the 17th. That night, as Ryan's group ate dinner in the open-sided pavilion, entertained by singers and the Jonestown band, the basketball team was playing its third game in Georgetown. Jimmy was the center, and his rebounding skills helped keep the game close. Eventually, the team lost, but this time, it was by only ten points. Exhilarated, they radioed their father about the game, but his mind was somewhere else.
The next day, November 18, when most of the players were at a movie, a radio transmission came in from Jonestown. Something was going to happen, Jones told Jimmy. He had sent his "avenging angels" after Ryan's group to make sure "the persecution" didn't continue. At the airstrip, Ryan, three members of the press, including Greg Robinson of the San Francisco Examiner, and the woman leaving with her family were shot and killed. At Jonestown, the colonists again heard Jones calling, "Alert! Alert! Alert!" over the public-address system. Once they had gathered at the pavilion, he told them, "They won't leave us alone. They're now going back to tell more lies, which means more congressmen, and there's no way, no way, we can survive."
Jones taped all of his speeches, even, amazingly, this one. At first, surely many or most assumed it was another suicide drill. In Raven, there is a chilling photograph of a note written before or after one such test: "If the potion we drank had been the real thing, then it would have been the end of Dad's pain. He would not have to suffer for us anymore....We would be in peace today....There would be no more toots of the horn or talking about strategy. If it was real, of course we would have been free. We would have died the best way....Thank you Dad for the test and for not letting us suffer."
Some must have felt they had severed all lifelines to a home outside the jungle. Jim acknowledges they were "sleep-deprived, isolated, and manipulated." With armed guards surrounding them, they were ordered to drink from a vat of cyanide-laced grape Fla-Vor-Aid. Once the first died, events must have gained a nightmarish inexorability. Some went willingly, after poisoning the 275 children. Others did not. Lew Jones was one of the last to die. Walking around the camp with a gun, making sure everyone was dead, he'd been given an important job at last.
When Jones made his final call to Georgetown, he had told his sons, "We're going to see Mrs. Frazier," the code phrase meaning that all those in Jonestown were going to die. "I asked if there was another way to deal with this," says Jim, "and his response was, ‘You know your responsibility; you know your duty.'" Jones asked if the brothers had any poison or other means of killing themselves. Jimmy kept repeating, "Is this real? Is this real?"
Trying to find out what had happened at the compound was "a nightmare of nightmares." While they were running around Georgetown—to the U.S. embassy, the hotel where the relatives were staying—Sharon Amos slit the throats of her own children and then killed herself. Jim says he feels the most guilt over these deaths—that in their panicked search for information, they lost sight of a person "we knew was a real fanatic."
The next day, they heard that some 400 people had died. At that point, they just hoped the rest had fled into the bush. Jim thought of Yvette, of his mother, his brother, his sister Agnes, all the others—especially of Yvette. "You can't describe the thought of knowing you lost somebody. Then I also thought that maybe she wasn't dead. So you hold on to hope when you know hope's not there." It took them five days to find out that 914 people were gone.
How does a person recover from such epic tragedy? How do you carry on when the man responsible for it—the man you believe saved your life not once but twice, whose vision of a promised land you embraced without question—is the man who gave you a home and his name?
When he came back to San Francisco, in December, Jimmy attended as many funerals of Jonestown victims as he could. It was a small gesture of atonement, and a way of grieving without grieving for himself. "How could I grieve for myself? It was my father who caused all this."
Most of the families welcomed him, but at the reception after one funeral, a woman came out of her bedroom and put a gun to his head. Why should he live when her daughter was dead? Jimmy looked up at her and said, "Take me out of my misery." In Georgetown, Jimmy and his brothers had promised one another to stay alive, and in those first few months, he says, "when it would have been easier just to give up, easier not to carry this legacy on," that was the only thing that kept him from suicide himself.
Beyond enduring the torment of unimaginable loss, Jimmy felt he was becoming "lepertized" by an uncomprehending world, just as his father had predicted: the police watching his apartment; being paraded with other survivors in federal court. He narrowed his focus to simply rebuilding his life. He began by working for tips at Presbyterian Hospital (now California Pacific), on Buchanan Street; at night, he drove a bank courier car back and forth to Oakland. And he began calling himself James Jones: "I had so much hostility and hatred for my father, I wouldn't even claim his name."
He and Yvette had planned to attend medical school in Cuba, and Jimmy saw now that it was mostly because Yvette had wanted to go. Still, he wanted to help people; he must have found the idea of saving lives appealing, too. For two years, he worked as a night-shift orderly at Laguna Honda Hospital. Then he cut back his hours to go to respiratory-therapy school during the day. Later, he worked in the cardiac intensive-care unit at Seton and at Kaiser in San Francisco, where he eventually became assistant manager of cardiopulmonary services.
Even in those first years home, Jim attracted people with his friendliness. Looking for another "soul mate," he'd had three fiancées by the time he was 24. One was a former Temple member who hadn't gone to Jonestown; another, someone he'd known in high school; the third was the sister of Johnny Cobb's girlfriend. With them, he didn't need to share his history, and "I never let them see me sweat. I didn't cry and agonize a lot," he says. "I'm not a touchy-feely guy. My father said people's lives are based 60 percent on emotion, and I wanted to be unique, or at least try to be. If that's what everybody's like—I'm not like everybody else." The emotional connections were shallow, and all three engagements were broken.
Then he met Erin Fowler, a warm, capable blonde who worked in Kaiser's intensive-care unit for newborns. As a teenager in Redding, she had helped raise her four younger siblings, two of them adopted, after her father's death when she was 12. Sensing Erin's strength and compassion, and because it was his mother's birthday, Jim told her his story on their first date, in early 1984. He thinks she was the first woman to hear it, as they sat in his car at Ocean Beach. Erin thought everyone at Jonestown had died, and when she realized he was telling the truth, she thought, "Great, he's in a cult." Frightened and confused, she jumped out of the car and took off down the beach. Jim caught up with her and said, "I didn't mean to scare you. I didn't want you to hear it from anyone else." After Erin got back in the car, they talked some more and then went for a late dinner. They married in July 1987.
"He seemed so together and personable for someone who'd been through what he'd been through," Erin says. "That's what swept me off my feet. A lot of people with a burden like that would walk around with ten tons on their back. I don't think I realized what I was taking on at the time, but it kind of came out gradually."
Stephan and Tim were also living in the Bay Area, and Jim was close to a few others left from his past. When Jim and Erin married, at Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Francisco, Yvette's mother and stepfather, Vivian Muldrow Davis and Robert Davis, sat in the pew where his parents would have been. "Robert showed me what a husband was, how you should be responsible to your family," says Jim. In his quest for normality, that was important, and the Davises' deep spiritual beliefs helped him find solace in faith. But Jim's life got busier when he became a father, and slowly the bonds with Yvette's family frayed. He and Erin now have three sons—Robert, now fourteen; Ryan, twelve; and Ross, nine—whom they are raising Catholic. Jim isn't devout, but he likes the Catholic notion of asking for forgiveness and direction and moving on.
In the early nineties, he became director of the respiratory-therapy department at San Mateo County General Hospital. Then living in Pinole, across the bay, he and Erin split the distance between jobs and moved to Pacifica, where they live in a 1970s tract home in a quiet neighborhood of winding streets named for national parks: Everglades, Glacier, Grand Teton. A man set on living a rather unexceptional life could do worse.
As with most working couples with children, their lives were busy and full, and for a few more years, Jim had little trouble concentrating on the present. "Every once in a while, he would have a memory or see somebody who would strike something, and he would tell me about it," says Erin, "but it didn't upset him to the core." Then, in 1993, David Koresh's Branch Davidians had their standoff with federal authorities at the Ranch Apocalypse, at Waco, Texas, and feelings long submerged began to stir in Jim. Here were other children being set adrift in a country that could comprehend neither them nor their loss.
People who knew him noticed the parallels with Jonestown and worried about him. Jim kept telling friends at the hospital he was fine ("Yeah, I'm OK; why?"), but at home he started to drink, and this time he wouldn't tell Erin what was bothering him. He wasn't conscious of it himself. What got to him was when Robert, then three, heard Jonestown mentioned on the television. "There's a place that's named after us!" he told his parents. "We should go there."
After the Waco siege ended in flames in mid-April, Lawrence Wright sought out Jim, Tim, and Stephan and began writing a long article for the November 22, 1993, issue of the New Yorker—15 years after the Jonestown deaths. Stephan and Jim thought that describing the honest, passionate commitment of the people they'd known might help the world understand the 21 children from Waco. Unlike his brothers, Tim never talked about Jonestown. There, he had lost not only his Jones family but his birth mother, four siblings, his wife and daughter, and 15 other relatives. He had also endured, with Johnny Cobb, the horror of helping Guyanese authorities try to identify the dead. He had remarried, become a father, and built a successful furniture business, but his brothers felt he had never been the same. Even so, they thought he was tough enough to do the interviews, and they persuaded him to meet with Wright.
Wright found that the brothers had responded in diverse ways to their loss. The Rainbow Family's only birth son, Stephan had been consumed with guilt and anguish. He felt he should have tried, somehow, to avert the calamity in Jonestown. He had tried to find an escape in drugs, but at least he'd given vent to his emotions. The door to feeling that Tim had erected shattered once he opened it a crack with Wright. He wanted to discuss Jonestown just this once, with his wife present, and in a public place. "Ten minutes later he was crying and yelling," Wright told me. "I felt terribly honored to be given the gift of his story, but it was so...it was overwhelming. I've never really gotten over it as a reporter. I tapped into a deep well of unbearable emotion."
"Jim is the steady one," Wright wrote in the New Yorker, "the one who knows what he wants." He mentioned his friendliness and charm and his "rather unnerving dispassion." What was unnerving for Jim, though, was seeing the article in print. For years, he'd buried any negative memories or unendurable thoughts—anything that would slow him down or cause him pain as he moved forward—in a kind of mental trunk. Now the trunk was open, but he refused to look inside. Whenever he started to feel something, he poured himself a drink.
When Erin had met Jim, she was impressed by his close relationships with Stephan and Tim. "When we were 18, we were inseparable for support," Jim explains. "Nobody could fall. If someone started getting weak, they had someone to lean on." The article, however, caused a rift; all three came away with hard feelings. "All our perspectives contradicted each other," he says. Perhaps, too, Jim's lack of overt sorrow offended his brothers.
They must have needed time to heal reopened wounds, and for Jim, that took several trying years. He and Erin bought their home during that time, and after trying to adopt a biracial girl, they had their third son, Ross. But Jim's best friend in those days was a cocktail. "I became more erratic," he commented one day, sitting with Erin. "Very short-tempered. I lost focus. I've historically been a driven person; that was five years of moving nowhere."
The brothers had been tight for so long, and then, Erin says, "It was like, ‘There goes what's left of my family. I don't have a family; I don't know who my birth mother is; everybody I knew growing up is dead.'"
"‘Jim, we're your family,'" she tried to remind him. "‘You may not have those things, but you have us, and we're here. Let's try to move forward.' But you can only talk so much to someone who's lost in alcohol," she says. "My father died of complications from alcoholism. The denial and all that is real present. Until you're ready to get it off your back, you can talk all night and it's not gonna work."
Jim began to face his drinking only after another crisis, and the media was instrumental in this one, too. In 1998, on the 20th anniversary of the Jonestown deaths, Stephan and Jim returned to Guyana with a crew from ABC-TV's 20/20. It is heart-wrenching to watch Stephan on the videotape. Talking with Forrest Sawyer, he cries while remembering all those whose lives ended there. "I loved those people," he says, his voice breaking. "Some of the sweetest and most courageous people I've ever known lived in Jonestown, and I wish to God"—he can hardly get the words out—"that I had a chance...to do it again."
He sobs when he sees the land, now overgrown with tall grass and bushes, without a trace of what they'd built there. And yet Stephan, who had loved the jungle, spent his last night in Guyana sleeping out in the bush alone, and he seemed to find a measure of peace facing Jonestown again. Jim's feelings, suppressed all this time, were creeping up on him. He put off applying for a passport so long, it took someone from the State Department to get him one at the last minute, and he arrived on Stephan's last day.
On the video, the contrast between Stephan's pain and Jim's dispassion is striking when Jim, who took Erin and his sons with him, walks on the land where Jonestown had been. Asked how he feels, he replies, "I feel kind of happy." In another scene, the voice-over comments, "Jim knew just what he wanted to do" here: to locate something tangible from those still-unreal events. He knows from photographs where to find the vat that had held the poison, and we see him digging it up. "Sad but true," he tells Sawyer. "That vat is the only thing that really makes it Jonestown."
Later, he tells Sawyer he doesn't think he has had a full night's sleep since returning from Jonestown, "because of dreams, feelings, emotions that are just coming out—it's Niagara Falls with these emotions."
Once he came home from Guyana, Jim realized he was tired of "anesthetizing" himself. After 20 years of dealing with his trauma in his own way, he went into group therapy for six months. "I wanted to evaluate if I had an addiction problem," he says. "And I didn't; I had a problem with wanting to remember the past."
Going back to Guyana had shown him that positive thoughts and cocktails would not help in grappling with the questions that he had finally begun asking himself. But the trip hadn't offered any answers. Finally, he realized—he calls it an epiphany—that there were no answers.
"I can't find out the reason Jonestown happened," he says. "Do you know why Jonestown happened? I stopped asking myself why. Why did my father do this? Why was I adopted? Why was I given his name? Why did people die? Why is my life—Why? Why? Why?"
Then he pauses. "Hel-lo?" he says with his deep, rumbly laugh. "There's no more whys." Instead, he decided, yes, to look at the positives. "I had a wonderful experience in my childhood. I was given a great education. I felt loved. I felt special. I was given opportunities. Look what I can give back to my children, my community, my profession."
Some of this thinking came out of the group meetings, where, Jim says, he mostly listened. "I saw people destroying their lives by not embracing life. They think if they talk about it, they're doing something."
Hearing that, a therapist might respond that Jim has yet to confront his emotions. However, as Lawrence Wright, who has interviewed many trauma survivors, says, "his happiness and his ordinariness challenge our assumptions that it's better to explore your feelings about some awful event. I think some wounds are so profound, it really is better to leave them behind."
Jim had told Wright that when he concentrated on the good things about his father, he had fewer dreams about him. Once he decided to stop asking why, Jim forgave him. "Right or wrong, he did the best he could in raising me." He likes to say, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger."
Jim Jones is particularly busy these days. A few years ago, he left the San Mateo hospital to work in pharmaceutical sales, in part to spend more time with his boys. Today he works for Guidant Corporation, in a division that serves cardiologists with patients who have suffered heart attacks and are at risk of having another; he's a heart-failure-therapy specialist. He coaches basketball at his younger sons' school, St. Stephen's, near Stonestown, and he works with young athletes at the Boys & Girls Club in the Fillmore district ("still scheduling basketball games"), where his boys play ball twice a week.
And lately, he's been spending time with a local filmmaker and being interviewed for a Laramie Project type of play in which actor Colman Domingo will speak his words. Oddly enough, now that all the torturous questions about Jonestown and being Jim Jones's son have proven unanswerable, he's comfortable discussing them.
Even acknowledging his father's madness, he says the adults at Jonestown must take some responsibility for being there, for allowing themselves to be manipulated. He sees now that he was articulate, creative, and favored enough to make the situation work for him as others suffered. Yet he knows that he, too, might have swallowed the poison. "When you're not involved in the flow of what was going on and the intensity of Jim Jones, you're able to challenge that thought. But if I were there, there would have been the commitment to my fellow person. And thinking maybe I didn't believe enough."
He has a different set of beliefs now, and they all end in the word responsibility. It's hard for Erin and some of his friends to avoid teasing him about his Republican views. "I look at it like this," he says, preparing to quote the old GOP bromide. "If a man's hungry, the Democrats say, ‘Here's a fish.' The Republicans say, ‘I'll teach you how to catch a fish.'" If they question him, he just laughs. It's like his Catholicism: "It works for me."
"I honestly believe that a higher power has a purpose for me being here. I don't know why God has me alive," he says, "but it's my responsibility to find out."
The popular mind conflates Jonestown with its apocalyptic end. Jim equates it with Peoples Temple and its shining dream of racial harmony and mutual care: "I still believe in what Jonestown was trying to do." And in his way, he's still crusading for social change—not by creating a new world in a faraway land, but by staying in the Bay Area with Erin, as an interracial couple raising their kids in a diverse environment. "You open yourself to other people," he says, "and you pray and you hope that we live an example that is infectious or that creates energy to change other people."
Living in the present once was a means of deflecting the past. Now, raising his own children, he finds something new is occurring. Here's one example. Jim, Stephan, Tim, Johnny Cobb—all the Peoples Temple basketball players, who survived Jonestown because they were playing ball—used to practice at Hamilton rec center, at Geary and Steiner. None of them had ever gone back. But Jim's boys play basketball there.
"So now I have my kids reliving this difficult experience in San Francisco. I'm having all these positive and good memories of these places now—replacing sad memories with happy ones." He is sitting with Erin when he says this, and he turns to her. "Maybe that's why we'll never leave this area, huh? It's just a part of me."
Back in 1998, Jim asked ABC to help him find his birth mother, and a few years ago, he went back to Indianapolis. Diane and his biological father, Larry, eventually married and had three other boys, one also named Larry Allen Knox.
"My mother was a manic depressive," Jim declares calmly. "ABC wanted to film our reunion, but she said she didn't feel worthy to meet me then." They corresponded, but they never met, and two years ago she died.
At her funeral, Jim met her other sons. "One is in and out of jail; one is a forklift driver, trying to do well, but...and the third is OK as long as he's on his medication. They live in agony every day." One of his uncles told him, "I'm so sorry you went through Jonestown. And I'm so happy Jim Jones adopted you."