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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"Jonestown: Paradise Lost:" Antidote to Stanley Nelson's Cult Apologist Snake Bite

If you haven’t seen it yet, be sure not to miss this Saturday’s History Channel docudrama, “Jonestown: Paradise Lost,” a gripping look at an abominable cult’s final four days culminating in one of the most infamous mass murders on record.

Some suicides, yes—but the simple, ugly reality is that these men, women, and little children were brutally murdered, through mental and physical coercion. Consider the body discovered of the woman with nearly every joint in her body yanked apart in a desperate attempt to escape the grasp of cult thugs poisoning her.

Guyana’s Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. C. Leslie Mootoo, accompanied the teams that counted the dead hours after the massacre. He found fresh needle marks at the back of the left shoulder blades of 80-90 percent of the victims he examined. Others had been shot or strangled.

Some of you may have this to compare with the images presented, or reported by some witless film critic, in Director Stanley Nelson’s, “Jonestown: Life and Death of the People’s Temple.” This stark contrast of a film winds down, featuring some poignant music accompanying a narrative of “The Final Note,” written by a doomed cult member—either Dick Tropp or Marceline Jones--on the day of the slaughter of these 913 Americans.

“A tiny kitten sits next to me,” are some of the lines read, “Watching. A dog barks. The birds gather on the telephone wires. Let all the story of this Peoples Temple be told….” Of course, consistent with the rest of Nelson’s revisionist opus, is Mrs. Nelson’s (wife Marcia Smith, his script writer) impeccable editing OUT of some of the appalling cult ravings contained in that “Final Note,” like the following:

“….We hope that the world will someday realize the ideals of brotherhood, justice and equality that Jim Jones has lived and died for. We have all chosen to die for this cause.”

He (Tropp) or she (Mrs. Jones) was speaking on behalf of the 276 murdered children, we presume.

What’s critical about “Jonestown: Paradise Lost,, besides being well-done, is its value as a partial antidote to the horrendous cult apologist propaganda of Nelson’s film. No, it’s not a perfect film. The most egregious error is the one made by just about everyone dealing with the subject, either out of sheer ignorance or inexcusable dishonesty.

That error, of course, is the claim in the film that “At the height of his power….Jim Jones’s ‘dark’ side emerged.” Hogwash. The director presents a copy of the New West article, as if to suggest it was The First Expose of People’s Temple; we’re supposed to assume the Temple was not all that beastly until at least the mid-70’s; and that the public shouldn’t be concerned with those collaborators—the public officials, politicians, clergy, journalists—that aided and abetted Jones, unwittingly facilitating the impending November, 1978 bloodbath, should not be given their just recognition?

Marshall Kilduff, co-author of this New West article, is every bit as reprehensible as the reporter featured in the program, Tim Reiterman. While Reiterman surely deserves praise for risking his life going to Guyana, he disgraces himself with fabrications in his People’s Temple book, “Raven” debunking my father’s 1972 Examiner People’s Temple expose series--a time period in which he and Kilduff did nothing but sit on their supercilious duffs.

There’s enough sordid details in the Kilduff & Rieterman sideshow that these two—like the other upcoming exhibits this People’s Temple Hall of Shame—will be awarded a posting all to themselves. Coming soon.

Jonestown survivor Stephan Jones provided some of the most compelling impute in “Paradise Lost,” revealing the pain of having a hideously deranged father. “I knew he was sick from very early on,” said Stephen, citing how the “Marxist” Jim Jones had “demoralized, malnourished, and exhausted a population,” utilizing widespread “abuse, theft, and torturing of children.”

Another cult survivor, Vernon Gosney, related how he had gone to live in Jonestown for, among other reasons, to become “a good socialist.” Socialist. That’s the time-worn euphemism used by that breed of tyrants such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro; his fan Rev. Jones, along with ardent California supporters such as Angela Davis, used it like a mantra.

And, lamentably, this film doesn’t show Fidel, Angela, or the freighter-load of other People’s Temple cheerleaders, like famed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who assured Californians in 1977 that Jones, who was dunking children down into wells, was “doing the work of the Lord” in Guyana. Oh, yes, that’s right; Nelson, Lord of the Cult Apologists, also somehow left all this (and much more) out in his film, too.


As the docudrama shows enthralling reenacted scenes of a young Gosney plotting his escape from the Stalinist prison camp, it then takes the viewer back up to present-day, where the real-life Gosney makes this revealing statement.

“Conditions at Jonestown,” he said, “were not conducive to think clearly.” A little later on in the film, Gosney again commented on the sensation — “I wasn’t thinking clearly”--as he desperately tried to figure how to get out safely with Congressman Leo Ryan’s delegation.

Not “thinking clearly”?

Herein is the clue on how Jim Jones controlled his “flock.” It is what the cult apologists, from Rebecca Moore to John Hall and all the rest, are frantic about, because it signals the effects of the obvious:

Mind Control. Thought Reform. Brain Washing.

This is about as close as the “Paradise Lost” film comes to providing viewers something of an accurate picture of the People’s Temple, and all destructive cults, for that matter. It is a great movie for its humanity in showing, yes, these were human beings, trapped by a monster.

It would have been helpful if the producers could have had Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton discuss the landmark research in his book, “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of ‘Brainwashing’ in China.”

They might have also turned to an expert on the work of the late psychologist Margaret Singer, author of “Cults in our Midst.” Singer cited the six conditions that create an atmosphere where minds can be controlled:

• Control a person’s time and environment, leaving no time for thought
• Create a sense of powerlessness, fear, and dependency
• Manipulate rewards and punishments to suppress former social behavior
• Manipulate rewards and punishments to elicit the desired behavior
• Create a closed system of logic which makes dissenters feel as if something was wrong with them
• Keep recruits unaware about any agenda to control or change them

They could have consulted with other cult experts, such as Rick Ross or Steven Hassan, the latter whose book “Releasing the Bonds” describes the mind control model, BITE, in which a cult leader creates dependency and obedience through control over:
• Behavior
• Information
• Thought
• Emotions

Of course, none of this was discussed in the film. It’s not nearly as exciting. Nonetheless, “Jonestown: Paradise Lost” had a thousand times the integrity of Stanley Nelson’s “Jonestown: Life and Death of the People’s Temple.”

Maybe the biggest problem was Stanley’s shocking naiveté entering the portals of the Temple. He looks at it like it’s some kind of “social activist revolution” that “brought people together,” almost as if he has 60’s brain-lock. Here is what he told interviewer Susan Gerhard last October in her “SF360” web log:

“I went into it knowing so little about it,” admitted Nelson, “I didn’t know that Jim Jones was such a part of the political social establishment of the Bay Area. I didn’t understand how he was coddled and courted by politicians.”

Funny thing, too, how Nelson refused to examine that most vital part. Without all that “coddling and courting” (Jones did some of it himself, too, especially with cash payoffs to the newspapers), the road to the Jonestown Massacre would have never been built.

The next part of his statement, however, truly reveals Stan’s Alice in Wonderland perception of the story:

“In the bigger pictures: I learned why and how people would join Peoples Temple and why and how they would stay and hold on to this thing, even thought they saw it going wrong."

“They wanted to hold onto this dream,” reasons the director of this “acclaimed” film, “they held on as it led to disaster.”

Held on to it. As tightly as, say, those Temple cult killers held down and yanked out all the joints in that doomed woman’s body on November 18, 1978 in Mr. Jones’s gulag.

Stanley Nelson—the same one they’re talking about giving an Oscar nomination to tomorrow?

Keep prayin’, one and all.


Anonymous said...

please look at the jeff schnepper article in usa today and also look at a book called heavenly deceptor by nathan landau and email

Rose said...

Pretty interesting article 12:09

Diane Stranz said...

I agree that Nelson's documentary could have contained more of the damning evidence against Jones -- including statements by his son Stephan that Jones was obviously crazy, all of the time -- but I agree that no one can come away from this documentary being sympathetic to Jones.

What bothers ME, though, is this idea that somehow all of Jones' followers were innocent victims (i.e., so brainwashed that they cannot be held accountable for their OWN share of the culpability for what happened). Anyone present the first time Jones held a "White Night" should have left the organization right then and there. Jones admitted openly that he had encouraged many of the men to have sex with him, yet he proclaimed himself the only true heterosexual in the organization? That doesn't even make SENSE, yet his adult members chose to continue following him regardless. They knew Jim Jones was "off" and had a low level of personal integrity, yet he was a man with power (not just in the church, but in the larger outside world as well) such that they knowingly made "a bargain with the devil" in the hopes of getting their own inner needs met.

The willingness to make this type of 'Hobson's choice' does not speak highly of an individual's own level of personal character/integrity. There is validity to the literature which talks about the psychological and moral aberrations which make one vulnerable to being a victim, and it is critical to teach that information alongside the information on the techniques used by cult leaders to control others.

As I teach my children, we cannot control the fact that bullies, cult leaders and 'evil-doers' exist in the world; we CAN, however, greatly reduce the potential that we ourselves will be victimized, and we each bear the responsibility to protect ourselves in that way.

Anyway. Thanks for letting me comment.

Diane Stranz said...

To follow up on the comment I just left, the following book does a good job of addressing the point I was trying to make: Arthur J. Deikman, M.D., 'The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society.' Dr. Deikman is a psychiatrist, and his point is that patterns of cult behavior are much more widespread than people think: the desires that bring people to cults -- including the desire to feel secure and protected -- are universal human longings, and when people make self-destructive choices in order to obtain the type of security they are seeking, they are actually making the same type of choice which cult members make in order to stay in a cult.

The key self-destructive choices include: failing to think realistically (i.e., choosing to believe in fantasy when one should know better), suppressing healthy dissent (i.e., choosing to stay silent when one knows better); giving up personal autonomy; devaluing outsiders; and accepting authoritarianism. Didn't every executive employee at Enron make these same choices, exhibit these same behaviors? Don't many employees do this in the workplace every day?

Diane Stranz