Oprah Winfrey recently interviewed Jim Jones Jr, adopted son of Jonestown’s Reverend Jim Jones. From his adoption as the first African-American child to be adopted by a white couple in Indiana, Jim Jones Jr. was given a loving multi-racial community, prestige in said community, the best of San Francisco’s private school education, followed by sudden massive loss as his beloved father poisoned everyone that Jim Jr. loved.
The transcript of Oprah’s recent interview with Jim Jones Jr. can be read by clicking here.
A small excerpt of Jim Jr.’s description of using alcohol to hide his pain, his ultimate recovery to save himself and his new family as he integrated the past with his present, can be viewed by clicking here. One learns to appreciate the goodness, count one’s blessings without denying one’s heritage.
A few years ago, my grown daughter and I attended a film opening for “Jonestown, the Life and Death of the People’s Temple.” My grown daughter relished film clips of laughing children in Jonestown’s playground, remembering idyllic aspects of her early childhood in Maharishi’s community. This film depicted the allure, to explain how otherwise intelligent people could make such a fatal stumble. We know how they ended. The film was followed by a Q & A session with the filmmakers, Stanley Nelson & Marcia Smith, and Jim Jones Jr.
During the Q & A session, a balding man seated in front of me spoke, as if demanding from the presenters, “I’m a psychologist in Berkeley. Tell me, why do you think people would fall for such a leader? And you, Jim Jr. what have you done to help Jonestown’s survivors?”
My blood boiled at the ignorant questions proposed by this supposedly educated man.
I mentally retorted, “You’re a Berkeley psychologist, haven’t you read any thing about cults and brainwashing by the renowned late UC Berkeley Professor Margaret Singer? It’s so-called experts like you that inadvertently cause further injury to cult survivors! Didn’t we just watch the same film?” I could easily tick off the steps and methods of brainwashing / coercive persuasion clearly depicted in the film we had both just watched; I though that he should be able to identify the same.
“Furthermore,” I argued inside my head, “How dare you ask Jim Jr what he has done to help the survivors of Jonestown! He was merely a teenager, didn’t you just watch the film? He was teenager when the father he loved killed his entire community and family! Where was this kid to go? At least the other Jonestown survivors, tragic as their stories were, had their pre-Jonestown families to return to and comfort them! He survived and is standing here talking, isn’t that enough?”
To their credit, both the filmmaker and Jim Jr. calmly addressed the arrogant psychologist. The filmmakers made this film precisely because they had realized that Jonestown survivors were not insane cult followers, much to their surprise. They wanted to show that good well-intentioned people with noble values could succumb to such myths as those presented by the Reverend Jim Jones.
I raised my hand, Stanley Nelson called upon me, “My comment is to Jim Jones Jr.” we made eye contact, “I want to acknowledge you for standing here today, publicly uniting the two halves of your life – your current family and profession, while honoring the profound loss from your early years. It must have taken a lot inner turmoil for you to come forth publicly. I was also raised in a cult group and am beginning to write and speak about this. You are taking a courageous step. You will help many! Thank you!”
Jim grinned warmly, gesturing his arm toward me, “Thank you. Hey! We speak the same language!”
From the middle of the audience I chuckled awkwardly, “Well, maybe, but not all of my people died, only some of them.”
Jim’s broad smile encouraging, “It doesn’t matter. You left and created something new!”
Jim and I laughed with shared comradery across the theater. The audience silenced. We were not laughing at needless death and loss. We laughed together at Jim’s statement. “We speak the same language” recognizing shared challenges of becoming whole and helping others by sharing once-hidden past stories.
The filmmaker interrupted our awkward public jesting, “Are there other questions from the audience?”
Jim and I inherently knew the drill; our past is too awkward for polite conversation. We ceased our banter, knowing we would meet afterwards.
Our later shared conversation was warm and mutually rewarding. Jim Jr is funny, warm and open. Jim said, “Psychologists don’t know what to do with us. We don’t respond to our pasts they way they think we should.”
We agreed that in many ways our lives were opposite sides of the same coin – he lived the goodness and loved the man who most view as-if the devil incarnate. Jim Jr. was a true believer, blind to the ugliness of his father’s cult. When Jimmy was 19 years playing a basketball game in Georgetown, his father poisoned nearly everyone he loved. Jim Jr. has since stumbled then successfully created a new life, profession, maintained a long marriage, and now has grown children.
My parents chose their spiritual leader, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi giggling guru to the Beatles, whom the world views as the spiritual leader who brought Eastern spirituality and meditation to the West. I saw dysfunction, and needless damage. Intimate family and group leaders reprimanded me when I spoke up with my blasphemous opinions and concerns. Eventually I left with my children to quietly begin life anew.
Jim Jr. learned to bite his tongue when social and professional dinner conversations revolve around childhood stories. His out-of-the-box past could easily dominate any conversation. After decades of learning to fit in, stumbling, finally building a life based upon credibility and work ethic, Jim Jr now finds comfort and service by publicly sharing his insights.
Once again, I acknowledge Jim Jones Jr’s integrity to continue to speak forth publicly of his personal trials and recovery, while continuing to live a humble private personal life full of love and laughter. Such stories help others to remember that anyone can fall for a cult – and also a reminder that recovery is possible. Time heals. All can rejoice, laugh and celebrate the continuation of life!
As the philosopher Santayana wrote,
“Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it”