November 19, 2008

Jonestown (Bringing It Home)

Thirty years ago this week more than 900 people killed themselves (or were killed) in Jonestown under the orders of the Reverend Jim Jones (who died along with his victims). Like most people, I guess, before I moved to the Bay Area it seemed a fairly abstract and distant event — classic Americana, an occasion for a cynical or even ironic riff on American religious and cultural delusion, a mostly-forgotten source for the phrase "drink the Kool Aid" — but around here it's hard to escape the human dimension behind the story, and the cynicism's hard to maintain in the face of the obvious and strong local connections and scars, even thirty years down the line.

Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple were intimately connected to San Francisco, the Bay Area, and California as a whole — the Peoples Temple had its headquarters in San Francisco (well within my memory you could still see it down on Geary if you knew where to look); Jim Jones himself was a larger-than-life and often-feted presence in liberal and leftist political circles here; and relatives of the dead (many of whom came from San Francisco and Oakland) are easy to find locally (my neighbourhood contains several people who had relatives who died there). Jackie Speier, now a high-profile local congresswoman, was one of the group of US congressional representatives and journalists shot by Jones's supporters at the local airstrip while attempting to leave Jonestown after a tense fact-finding mission (most of the other members of the party she was in, including local congressman Leo Ryan, were killed at the airstrip); Jones's son (who wasn't at Jonestown at the time, despite being a then-Believer) still lives in the Bay Area, grappling well (by the sounds of things) with the personal legacy of a father he apparently hated for decades afterwards. What seemed like a typically American (or more specifically Californian) weird and distant story from the distance of London or Sydney turns out to have a human dimension — imagine that.

Nine days after Jonestown, Dan White killed Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone in City Hall, sparking off another long-running thread in local history….

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