I remember it was 1978 and I saw this magazine cover on our dining room table. And there were bodies lying on the ground and I remember asking my mom what is that? She didn’t answer my question, just flipped the cover over, said something about a bad thing happening. And I remember I kept hearing this name on the news “Jonestown” and for a while Jonestown was the news- it was inescapable- and I know I realized lots of people- including children- died- and as a kid, that resonated. I thought about it constantly. So I guess you could say I’ve been a Jonestown obsessive since I was four.
I remember I didn’t understand how parents could kill their children. I remember I didn’t understand how so many people could kill themselves. And until I read Julia’s Jonestown book, A Thousand Lives, which we discussed in the Guernica interview, I didn’t understand that most people there didn’t just “drink the Kool-Aid”- many died after months of being broken down- many were violently coerced. She talks about it in our Guernica interview, and other things- how Jim Jones staged traumatic events to bond with his congregation, and how having been at Escuela Caribe (our reform school, where her memoir Jesus Land is set) helped her and Jonestown survivors bond. Her take (again in the interview) on how Jim Jones fits in culturally is not to be missed. As is the witness she bears to racism in America- which resounded differently with her than with most whites- her adopted brother David was black.
I loved our entire conversation, but obviously the Escuela Caribe parts hit the closest home. Ever since she and I spoke, and then I transcribed it and thought about it, I’ve felt like I understand so much more about myself, about so many survivors. Some of my favorite parts are after the jump….Or read the entire interview at Guernica.
Guernica: Were there similarities between Escuela Caribe and Jonestown?
Julia Scheeres: As you know, there was no dissent allowed at Escuela Caribe. We weren’t allowed to say anything negative about the staff or program. If you complained, you were going to get in trouble. We got in trouble for looking sad, frustrated, or scared, and were told we had “attitude problems.” We were supposed to smile all the time—much like Jones wanted his people to do in Jonestown, to fool the outside world into believing they were happy there.
Students at Escuela Caribe faked conforming to the program because they were so desperate to leave. Some Jonestown residents faked agreeing with Jones’s suicide plan because they simply wanted to go to bed, and the blessed oblivion of sleep. They knew he’d keep them up all night until every last person raised their hand to vote in favor of “revolutionary suicide.”
I spent so much time at Escuela Caribe denying my true emotions and avoiding conflict that I became unsure of what my feelings really were. This is something that affects me to this day. I feel extremely uncomfortable during arguments, to the point of shutting down and not saying anything, like a turtle retracting into its shell. I can’t stand conflict.
Guernica: You reveal how Jones tapped into conspiracy theories to increase his draw with the black community, like the King Alfred plan: the idea that the federal government was planning to inter blacks in concentration camps if they got unruly.* He told them Jonestown would be a refuge where they’d be safe.
Julia Scheeres: Yes. Similarly, Escuela Caribe preyed upon parents’ fears of secular culture to recruit students. Parents could send their kids to a place where they’d be sheltered from evil secular influences—sex, drugs, alcohol, and a questioning mentality. A place where children would be forced to become good little clones of their parents.
In my view, the problem with many conservative Christian parents is that they won’t allow their children to have a different worldview from their own, and they don’t forgive normal teenage experimentation, which they consider rebellion. What better way to control your kid than by sending her to a compound on an island in the middle of the Caribbean, confiscating her money and passport, where she will be forced to comply with the program if she wants to leave?
There were several parallels between Jonestown and Escuela Caribe. Both places used isolation to control a large group of people and censored their communication with the outside world so their loved ones wouldn’t know about the rampant physical abuse and misery of the residents. Punishments were also similar: runaways had their hair cut off, kids in trouble were prohibited from speaking to anyone and forced to do back-breaking work, control through sleep and food deprivation. But I think the worst fallout, in both cases, was the living in constant fear, witnessing other residents get assaulted and worrying that you’d be next. That’s where Post Traumatic Stress Disorder comes from.
Scheeres: Towards the end, people couldn’t take the stress of living in Jonestown. They’d run off into the jungle and be dragged back, or act as though they were going insane. Perhaps some really were. He controlled troublemakers with Thorazine, a major sedative that turns people into mindless zombies. Add to the emotional strain the fact that Jones was depriving people of food and sleep. And at night, he’d show films of Nazi experiments—the children were also forced to watch—that “proved” the world was a shitty place and that they should protest such injustices by committing collective suicide. He beat them down both physically and psychologically.
You probably remember from Escuela Caribe that you become inured to feeling anything after a while. You become numb, you stop being shocked at seeing kids abused or humiliated. After being exposed to this ritual degradation, your fight or flight instinct subsides and you’re left with a sense of hopelessness.
Guernica: It starts from day one. All the rules.
Scheeres: Yes. You’re just overwhelmed. You are powerless and there is nowhere to go and no one is coming to rescue you.
*The American government interned the West Coast Japanese during World War II. My father-in-law was sent to a camp in Jerome, AR when he was four.