The piece in the Oct/Nov Bookforum on Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple [“Fade to White”] is a disgrace: dishonest, exculpatory, and false. There’s no need to go past Scott Saul’s locutions on how Congressman Leo Ryan’s party (which was visiting Jonestown in Guyana to investigate reports that people were being held there against their will or without their consent) was “attacked” by Peoples Temple members and then somehow “died” to make this point: That’s what Saul is saying, rather than, “Leo Ryan and four other members of his party were murdered by Peoples Temple members,” which is what happened. Saul’s leaving the situation open is like Alexander Haig saying that the Maryknoll nuns who were raped and murdered in El Salvador were killed in a “crossfire,” implying that they were complicit in their own deaths. Saul’s equating the group of relatives of Peoples Temple members that was desperately trying to get help from compromised Democratic political leaders with Jones himself (courtesy of a plague-on-all-their-houses Shiva Naipaul) is disgusting.
Saul sniffs at the notion that Jones was a cult leader and the Peoples Temple members part of a cult. To him Jones was a progressive visionary force pushed into madness. All cult leaders are visionary; all stand against the established order. To say that is like saying they all breathe. Like Joseph Smith or David Koresh, Jim Jones was a traditional American cult leader, exercising absolute sexual dominion over all members of his cult. He was a murderous fiend. He beat children and forced their parents and other children to beat them. These were not aberrations: Jones’s accumulation of the power to commit crimes and be worshipped for them was what the Peoples Temple was for. Jones turned out thousands of phony voters for the likes of Willie Brown, George Moscone, and Harvey Milk, who rewarded him with official posts and official protection—and the kind of praise Saul quotes as if it means something. Jones left California when stories about his corruption, theft, violence, and rape were breaking, in the San Francisco Examiner, New West, and elsewhere—after years of using his political connections to have similar stories spiked—and in so doing he committed multiple acts of kidnapping of underage children of whom Temple members did not have custody. Then he killed them. The book on this is Kenneth Wooden’s 1981 The Children of Jonestown, which makes Jonathan Kozol sound like a whiner, which he isn’t.
No one who was in the Bay Area then has trouble remembering this—except perhaps those who have their own reasons for constructing false memories that tell a different story.
Greil Marcus, Berkeley, CA
Bookforum, December 2005