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The ghosts of Jonestown

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Tuesday marks the 25th anniversary of the Joenstown tragedy where almost 1,000 people, including 200 children, belonging to the People's Temple perished by the self-administered poison because their leader thought the end was nigh and ordered them to do so. MARTIN VENGADESAN, who has long been fascinated by the incident and the power of cults, interviews Jonestown survivors and next-of-kin to offer a chilling insight into how a community can self-destruct when its members lose their ability to think or act independently.

STEPHAN Gandhi Jones is – in the eyes of the world – the son of a mass murderer. Fortunately for him, few people recognise him. But mention “Jim Jones” and “Jonestown” and many people would make the connection.

Jones, 44, is the only biological son of Jim Jones and his wife Marceline Baldwin who founded the cult behind Jonestown. Its official name was the “People's Temple of the Disciples of Christ”.

Jim Jones was a visionary, charismatic leader preaching a seductive brand of multi-racialism, that was extremely appealing in the restive 1960s, and building a utopian-like egalitarian society.

But he apparently descended into madness and led his brainwashed followers to their deaths in a farming community in Guyana.

On Nov 18, 1978, the largest recorded mass suicide in history took place when 913 members of the People's Temple poisoned themselves and their children by drinking cyanide-laced grape juice served from a large vat. Jim Jones apparently shot himself in the head.

Stephan Jones, who was then 19, escaped death because he was out of Jonestown representing the community in a basketball tournament.

In an e-mailed interview, Jones speaks frankly of how he struggled to understand and survive the horror of his father's actions.

As a teenager, Stephan struggled under the shadow of his father, especially when he was exposed to the sexual affairs Jim Jones was conducting with certain members of the People's Temple. He even attempted suicide on a number of occasions in the early 1970s.

He, like other members who survived the cult, have spent years searching for answers to what actually happened and to understand how so many people apparently agreed to die together on the orders of their leader. He is currently working on a book concerning his experiences as the son of Jim Jones.

“There is rich ore in the tragedy of the People's Temple ... and it's grey and in that grey is every colour of the rainbow except the black and white that so many people want to paint with,” he says.

Jones is dismissive of the notion that Jonestown was a paradise. “Jonestown after Dad came to live there was far closer to a concentration camp than paradise, although I wouldn't call it either. An analogy that comes to mind is a prison run by the inmates. My understanding of concentration camps involves enemies, adversaries, a dominant, controlling group subjugating and abusing (even torturing and killing) another.

“There was certainly subjugation and abuse, and eventually killing in Jonestown, but it was an inside job, not done by an outside, separate adversary. Jonestown was populated by a wide range of personalities – from kind, selfless, and courageous to cruel, narcissistic and paranoid – but there was a pervasive sickness that none of us escaped fully. And the sickest of us rose to the top, and from there ran the show, which is what it all was mostly – a show.”

If it was a show, it fooled almost everyone.

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