'The Most Horrible Night of My Life.' an Ex-Jonestown Believer on the Pull of Cults - and How His 5-Year-Old Paid the Ultimate Price
Stoen, Tim, Newsweek
An ex-Jonestown believer on the pull of cults--and how his 5-year-old paid the ultimate price.
WHEN I WENT TO JONESTOWN with my 5-year-old son, John Victor, in February 1977, I believed I was going to make the world a better place. I guess I was a super-idealist. Fed up with racism and poverty in America, I was looking to create a utopian society where people of all races and classes could create a community. I had met Jim Jones 10 years earlier when we worked for a group that gave legal advice to poor people in northern California Jones had a reputation for compassion and guts, and I wanted to use his group, the People's Temple, to promote my own view of a model society. I ultimately became Jones's lawyer and the People's Temple's business and political adviser. Of course, Jones always had some opportunism in him, but I was too ideologically blinded to see it. I paid a price for that. The price was my son's life.
Since news of the Heaven's Gate mass suicide broke, I've seen all sorts of experts on TV talking about why people join cults. There are no simple answers. These people aren't necessarily from dysfunctional families. My loving parents gave me everything in the world, and I was a successful assistant district attorney. People join cults in moments of weakness--when they're angry about something in their personal life or in the world around them. For many in our throwaway, hedonistic society, life has become empty. Anything that involves a family--which is what a cult is--can be very appealing. People want simplicity; a cult provides ready-made answers.
I learned that lesson the hard way. The five months I spent in Jonestown were wonderful. Here were people of all backgrounds--professionals and drug addicts, janitors and secretaries, blacks, whites, Native Americans--creating a new world. I did diplomatic work with the government of Guyana, along with working in the sawmill, pushing crabwood boards into a planer in the tropical sun. …