Jim Jones (Nov. 25, 1998)

Didn’t know the man myself, but by the time I arrived in Mendocino County in 1970, the Rev was already a local big shot. He was throwing big ecumenical dinners with everyone from the heavy hitters of Ukiah’s John Birch Society to disco libs swearing eternal brotherhood.  

Looking back on it, I realize Jones had dispatched recruiters to Boonville to see if me and mine had any cult potential; we were after all an interracial family whose membership included Chinese, a Mexican, several Black kids, and a Native American. Jones’ advocate-snoops were probation officers, social workers and on one memorable occasion, Maria Katsaris, who died in the same living quarters with Jones at Jonestown. Miss Katsaris, en route to eventual full estrangement from her family, had kindly described her father, Steve, the Greek Orthodox impresario of Trinity School in Ukiah, as a child molester whose predations had even included her. These denunciations coincided with Katsaris’ media descriptions of his daughter as the captive of a dangerous psychopath. Charges of incest have since become routine among estranged families but they were new in the early 1970s. 

I knew one of Jones’ lieutenants pretty well. She functioned as a social worker out of Ukiah. Her name was Linda Sharon Amos. When her name shot around the globe the day of the massacre in Guyana, Linda Sharon was variously Sharon Linda or simply Sharon. Ol’ Shar was the person visitors to Guyana had to be cleared by before they could get on out to the new paradise in the jungle. On the day of the famous Koolaid party she cut the throats of her three children then slit her own at the church’s Georgetown house, alerting the outside world that something very unusual and very bad was going down.

 If Amos had been a generation younger she may have been merely another unhappy Mendo spiritual-camper, looking deep into her own linty navel at Wellspring weekends. If Shar hadn’t fallen in with the wrong crowd over there in Redwood Valley she might even have her own show on public radio KZYX by now. She was a natural, for sure.

  Linda Sharon Amos was always talking up Jones and trying to get our gang of militant atheists to drive over to Redwood Valley for a Peoples Temple service. She kept talking about how wonderful the inter-racialness of the congregation was. I thought I was way ahead of the curve on race relations, frankly, having played sports with all kinds of people as a kid, having been peacefully in the Marines with all kinds of people, the best man at my wedding having been black, having been a gofer at  CORE San Francisco, and having been an all-round cool guy since youth, ethnically speaking. think I needed any special counseling on the issue; this was one guilt-free white man, madam. At least in his own eyes. 

Everything Ms. Amos told me about Jones screamed, “Nut!” 

In her capacity as a social worker, Ms. Amos incriminated herself further with an indignant story she told me about one of the kids on her case load. It has served me ever since as a perfect example of the kind of personality deficit cults absolutely require if they are to thrive. When I heard she’d slaughtered her own daughters and then herself I wasn’t really surprised but I marvelled at her self-discipline.

“I went to visit Billy’s father in Laytonville,” she began. “He was staying in a really awful motel. I knocked on the door. He yelled at me to come in.” She paused to ask me if I knew what a sex doll was. I didn’t but I started to laugh. “It’s not funny, Mr. Anderson. I was very shocked. Mr. Smith was in bed with one of those inflatable dolls with rubber breasts and everything.”

Everything? I asked.

“I think it was totally inappropriate,” Amos continued, as I stood there trying not to laugh out loud. “Here he was, the father of this boy, lying naked in bed in the middle of the day with this... this sex  toy!” Why anyone could have walked through the door. He didn’t care!”

I commented, inappropriately of course, that we shouldn’t be judgmental about other people’s love interests, particularly the low maintenance type. Think of all the money Mr. Smith was saving, I said, not to mention the emotional strain real babes impose. Sharon Linda Amos was not amused. Cult candidates don’t think anything  is funny, least of all them.

A whole lot of people like Sharon Amos followed Jones down to Guyana and died there.

Dan McKee is a reporter for the Ukiah Daily Journal. What with Jonestown’s 20th anniversary much in the news, and the Ukiah Daily Journal, then as now, at the scene of the first part of the crime, the Journal predictably devoted a big hunk of its front page last week to commemorative speculation.  

McKee begins his piece on Jim Jones by asking three wrong questions, pursuing his errant course for a thousand words. 

Was Jones a nut, a messiah (I thought there was only one serious  candidate) or was he the work product of a CIA experiment — a grander version of the  famously failed exploding cigar intended for Castro?

How would I know? 

As at least a C student of county history, and a newly-arrived resident of Mendoland when the amphetamine-fueled pastor was manipulating local government to gather the fiscal and political head of steam which soon propelled him southward and on into his final jungle sauna, I think my opinions on Rev Jim are the equal of McKee’s and the people he quotes on the subject. 

(1) Jones, I’d say, was a hustler with the gift of gab who got seriously into speed. (“Golly, Mr. Anderson, you should see the preacher over in Redwood Valley. He can talk for eight hours without stopping!”) The Rev’s final Sunday sermon, then, and certainly his behavior leading up to it, was the all-time amphetamine-induced psychotic break. 

Bush league versions of amphetamine-driven paranoia are familiar to local law enforcement and, for that matter, many of us ordinary citizens who enjoy, shall we say, inclusive circles of friends.. Who among us hasn’t at least heard of the neighbor discovered hunkered in the corner with a gun in his hand, gibbering about the Red Army crouched behind his tv set.

 Jones’ craziness was largely chemically induced; without the speed, you couldn’t have picked him out of the crowd at a White House prayer breakfast.

(2) I think we can safely say that Jim Jones was not the messiah.

(3) There is no evidence whatsoever that Jones was an agent of our government. Jonestown is the one bad thing the CIA hasn’t done. The CIA does, however, monitor the behavior of Americans abroad when that behavior either has, or is likely to, diverge from what is blandly called, “American interests,” i.e., business. Our tax dollars had been squandered for years in Guyana trying to hold off a very smart, very popular Guyanese Marxist named Cheddi Jagan and his American-born, commie wife, Janet. The strategy was, and probably still is, to play off Guyanese of East Indian origin led by Jagan against black Guyanese led by a crook named, I think, Burnham. Naturally then, when a white American pastor who called himself a socialist and his mostly black American parishioners appeared in Georgetown, the American embassy, out of which the CIA operates there and everywhere in the world, took note. 

The great Christian socialist prudently avoided the term around people who might know what it meant — people like the Jagans’ for example. If Jagan had been running Guyana, it is unlikely that the Peoples Temple would have been waved  in. And if Mendocino County had had a functioning media at the time, Jones might have been headed off at Cloverdale. Or if local power hadn’t been in the hands of weak and stupid persons the mad man of the cloth might have been stopped in his tracks somewhere north of Squaw Rock. There are endless what ifs in this one. 

But Burnham, experienced at race demagoguery, and even better at grabbing wads of cash from whomever wanted to use Guyana for whatever purpose, was Jones’ kind of guy. Burnham was already adept at shaking down American biz and their embassy facilitators for the dough he said he needed to hold off the commies. With the arrival of this new group of oddballs, Burnham could also  solidify his credentials with Third World race politicians by welcoming a white-led, cash-lush, mostly black church fleeing the Redwood Valley Klan. 

That’s a joke, literalists. 

Jones lied about being threatened by “racists” in the Ukiah Valley, and kept on lying about the prevalence of American racism right up to the day the great emancipator murdered 800 black people, including a bunch of kids signed over to him by the ever-accommodating Mendo authorities who had given him his base of operations even though at least some of them knew he was crazy and dangerous. 

 If you’re the kind of person who thinks it’s plausible that AIDS is a government plot to exterminate black people you might also think it’s likely that 20 years ago your tax money was spent on a large-scale experiment to see how American black folks would do on a remote South American homestead run by a white dope fiend. The evidence, however, is that Jones conned and bought his way into Guyana, the race card smoothing the way from Frisco to Georgetown. Race, after all, had made Jones fairly rich and, in a uniquely NorCal way, politically influential with other key race demagogues and pseudo-liberals of the day. 

Perhaps we should pause here to salute the Democratic Party of Northern California for their edifying role in the Jonestown murders, not that Jones wasn’t a bipartisan effort from the get-go. The fact is Jones parlayed race, and the liberal votes that go with race, into cash and carry political power. A socialist, even a Christian socialist, would have yelled loud and long about the structural causes of American poverty. Not Jones. Or Dianne Feinstein, Willy Brown, Cecil Williams, or George Moscone. Jones worked them, and they worked Jones.

The Examiner, not so incidentally as things would turn out, killed stories on weird doings in Jones’ enterprise because Jones’ interracial congregation, cheered on by San Francisco’s liberal establishment, picketed the Examiner Building as Jones himself threatened to sue for libel. The Examiner caved in. Nothing but accounts of the Rev’s good works could appear in its pages. The truth came out in the now defunct California magazine.

There are some very good books on the Jones phenomena which don’t, the Ukiah Daily Journal’s reporter McKee may be disappointed to learn, include “Snake Dance,” in which a self-published loon claims she has just retrieved a memory of a visit she’d received from an “angelic presence” four years prior to the famous mass suicide, advising her to keep it all under her teeming hat until everyone was dead. McKee cites this nutso tome as if it might be on to something. I think The very best book on the unencouraging episode is Journey to Nowhere, by Shiva Naipul, the late brother of the famous novelist, V.S. Naipul.

Just as wrong as McKee about Jonestown is a Dr. Tom MacMillan of Mendocino College, itself a regular venue for a speakers’ series featuring intellectually insupportable notions of the New Age variety. Dr. Tom is also a Baptist preacher when he isn’t misinterpreting American and world lit out at Weight Room Community College. Baptists aren’t exactly famous for their immunity from the more vaporous theological lunacies, but odd ideas about our significance in the great, hurtling scheme of things — if there is a scheme — do have a way of achieving official sanction. I suppose Baptist expertise on deviant religious expression is at least as reliable as, say, Mormon expertise on the subject. 

MacMillan assures brother McKee, the reporter, that Jones’ Peoples Temple wasn’t challenged by Mendoland’s Christians here because of the then-prevalent “religious diversity” without an accompanying “religious sophistication.”

Names, Tom, names!

I think MacMillan is wrong. The socio-political-theological realities of that time made Jones possible. The local media were either bullied into silence on Jones or promoted him. Jones funded his “mission,” by siphoning off the large monthly income derived from “caring” for dependent persons. He had no trouble intimidating what passed for authority to secure for himself and his church an ever-larger flow of public dollars. 

But a quick glance at the incidence of official wrongdoing between 1968 and 1998, never mind the numerous unindictable sleazoid deals that have gone down in Mendoland in that period, translate to me that nothing has changed.  Today, Jim Jones would have to upgrade his media skills, as they say, but his personality type still thrives here, there and everywhere. 

We’d all better look out if Bill Clinton gets into crank.

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