Undercover: Jonestown—Under Six, Six Feet Under (12/11/80)

On Sunday, No­vember 19th, 1978, as the news of what had happened at Jones­town was reaching the nation’s airwaves, a network announcer, visibly shaken, dropped the pose of objectivity he had been trained to maintain and referred, as if against his will, to “this awful story.” He could not have known—and until I read Kenneth Wooden‘s The Children of Jonestown (McGraw-Hill, 238 pp., illustrated, $4.95 paper), I did not know—just how awful the story really was.

Jim Jones, it is now evident, was a fiend; not merely another religious hustler, not a man with good intentions who somehow took a wrong turn, but a small-­time Hitler whose relationships with others were based in sadism and whose goal in life was the exercise of absolute power—which was understood to be the power to commit, and to cause others to commit, mass murder. Wooden’s book is the most unsparing, brutal and bitter account yet published of how Jones prepared his followers for this final solution: how, for example, he convinced parents to accede to the torture of their children (boys and girls, some of them infants, were deprived of food and sleep, beaten, locked in boxes and, on all-night bus rides, packed into luggage racks), even when the children resisted, tried to escape, tried to gain the help of relatives.

If you think you’ve heard it before, you have not: no book, and certainly not the TV movie, has collected and faced down the facts of the matter as does The Children of Jonestown. Nor is the book simply a catalog of distant horrors: Wooden personalizes the children whose lives Jones ruled, makes their lives, and thus their deaths, real. Wooden goes into particular detail about the life and death of Julie Ann Runnels, whose blind and illiterate mother “was duped into signing her daughter over to a People’s Temple guardianship.” Julie Ann, six or seven at the time, had a great-aunt, Grace Kennedy, who saw that the child was unhappy and tried to free her from the church; not only was Kennedy denied visitation rights by California Supreme Court Judge Arthur B. Broadhus, even though the woman assigned by the Temple as Julie Ann’s “guardian” did not meet foster-parent qualifications, but also, according to Mrs. Kennedy, the judge forbade her even to mention the name of Jim Jones on those few occasions when she was able to see Julie Ann.

That was a difficult point of the court order for the great-aunt to obey. When Julie came for her occasional visits, she was always depressed when it was time to return to the Temple. She told her aunt, “I want to come and stay with you and go to the school across the street.” On one occasion, she appeared in dirty rags and wearing soleless shoes. Mrs. Kennedy took her to Sears and outfitted her with shoes, socks, underwear, and a coat. She bought her an Easter basket once, but, as with other things, Julie Ann was afraid to take it back. The aunt said that when the child would return from a visit to her, “the People’s Temple people would pick her soul and beat her if she told me anything.”

Finally neither Kennedy nor Julie Ann’s father was permitted to see the girl. She died at the age of twelve, in Jonestown, spitting out poison five times until the adults holding her arms behind her back finally forced it down her throat. Almost 300 children died with her.

Jones was able to secure the cooperation and support of judges, of scores of liberal and left politicians from Jerry Brown to Jane Fonda, of officials of child-care and welfare agencies, and of government bureaucrats of all sorts because he talked a good, progressive line and because he was useful to such people. He provided money for campaigns, bodies for rallies, votes for elections and a home for “deprived” children. That the money was often falsely obtained from welfare agencies, the bodies often slaves, the votes possibly fraudulent and the children victims of terror was, and remains, of marginal interest to judges, politicians, officials and bureaucrats, though they had far more information about Jones’ crimes than has been reported.

This is a second theme of Wooden’s book: that those who share the legal, moral and political responsibility for allowing Jones to take illegal possession of children, to subject them to illegal treatment and then to illegally remove them from the United States (some children who did not want to go to Guyana were drugged and bound and then taken onto planes) have succeeded in evading that responsibility. They have been able to do so for two reasons: they are protected by the governmental inertia that leads politicians and bureaucrats to look to their own before looking anywhere else, and they are protected by a lack of outrage on the part of the public. There is no mystery about what happened at Jonestown, how it happened, or why it happened, but there is a conspiracy—as Wooden shows, a polite and respectable conspiracy of silence.

The events of Jonestown can be repeated; on a smaller, less spectacular scale, they may be taking place today under different banners. Because religious fascists are well funded and well organized, they make potent pressure groups; legislators, child-welfare officials and judges are often happy to leave them alone. Just this year, Jerry Brown signed a bill restricting investigations of churches on grounds of misuse of funds and other assets (which, in the case of Jim Jones, included children): a bill that, had it been in effect during the heyday of the People’s Temple, would have shielded Jim Jones from the scrutiny that, in any case, he never received.

The last roundup

Well, There’s Your Problem”: Cartoons by Edward Koren, (Pantheon, 112 pp., $8.95). The Muppets meet the personals column of the New York Review of Books, but save for Koren’s closing page, which features a talk-show appearance by the Grim Reaper, the personals column of the New York Re­view of Books is funnier.

The Court Years, 1939­-1975: the Autobiography of William 0. Douglas (Random House, 576 pp., illustrated, $16.95). A good deal more self-serving than Go East, Young Man, the romantic first volume of Douglas’ autobiography, definitely less convincing and painfully less readable: scattered in its narrative, inconclusive on many major incidents and rather huffy or self-consciously plain-folks in its tone. The same money would be better spent on James F. Simon‘s Independent Journey: the Life of William 0.  Douglas (Harper &Row, 503 pp., illustrated, $16.95), which begins with an interesting interview Simon conducted with Douglas shortly before Douglas’ death early this year, and then traces the story of a vain and troublesome man. Simon’s writing is lucid, if undistinguished, and his reconstruction of tricky events (such as Douglas’ last-minute stay of execution in the Rosenberg case) is comprehensive where Douglas himself is often obscure. The saint does not survive Simon’s book; the man whose contribution to the legal and moral life of this country may outstrip that of anyone born during the last hundred years survives a much closer examination than Douglas was ever willing to permit himself.

Ghost Waltz, by Ingeborg Day (Viking, 244 pp., $11.95). Day was born in Austria during the Second World War, her fa­ther was an early, deeply com­mitted member of the Nazi party and, once Hitler took over Aus­tria in 1938, of the SS. Day came to the U.S. as an exchange stu­dent in 1957 and learned some of the details of Nazi crime, which had never been mentioned to her at home or in school; when she returned to Austria, she con­fronted her parents with her new knowledge, and then left them, returning to America, where she has lived since. At that point, however, settled in the Midwest with an American husband, she discovered that along with some disquieting, shadowy implications about her parents’ past, she had also received an invisible but profound legacy of anti-Semitism, and Ghost Waltz is a memoir of her attempt to trace that legacy to its source and root it out.

This is an angry book: there is Day’s anger at her inheritance; her anger at the Jews who, by their very presence, keep that inheritance alive; and her anger at the fact that she cannot live with it. Day’s prose constructs a cool, even surface, a mirror that she breaks again and again: recapturing the appeal of Nazism in prewar Austria, giving her father an out, cheating her own discomfort in hope of a settlement, rejecting the cheat; recalling a Jewish man she once slept with who was “‘fascinated’ by my ‘background,’ who liked to hear, in bed, about my father”; constantly setting forth the political and domestic contexts of her, as it were, prenatal memories, then escaping those contexts for her present-day life in Manhattan, then integrating the two. The publisher’s jacket copy for Ghost Waltz states confidently that Day “repudiates” her legacy of anti-Semitism, which is true, and that she “dispels” it, which is probably not true—it is Day’s recognition that she cannot be precisely the woman she wishes to be, that she cannot precisely control her instinctive response to certain incidents, that gives her book its power.

Abraham Lincoln and the Union, by Oscar and Lilian Handlin (Atlantic-Little, Brown, 204 pp., $10.95). This is a pointless excuse for a book, and its puerility is nowhere more evident than in the Handlins’ decision to set Lincoln’s Second Inaugural—the greatest political speech ever given by an American—as poetry. Holy shit.

Sigmund Freud, by Ralph Steadman (Simon and Schus­ter/Touchstone, 128 pp., $7.95 paper). In which the well-known satirical artist combines a delightfully impressionistic biography with a dissertation on Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (“He had created an overstatement joke,” Steadman will say, after inventing some priceless, would-that­-it-were-true anecdote about Freud, “…similar in character to representation by the opposite“). The effect is less that of good drawings and witty, informed comment (though it is that) than of an irresistible animated cartoon: the ideas here move as fast as the pictures. And after you’ve seen the cartoon, read the comic book: the outrageous and edifying Freud for Beginners (Pantheon, 160 pp., $295 paper), with text by Rich­ard Appignanesi and art by Oscar Zarate. After you’ve read the comic book, read Moses and Monotheism, and send a copy to Jerry Falwell.

Rolling Stone, December 11, 1980

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